Palestinian nationalism

Palestinian nationalism

Palestinian nationalism is a nationalist ideology which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state in all or part of the former British Mandate of Palestine.

Early history

The growing weakness of the Ottoman Empire in the last years of the 19th century and the years prior to the World War I was accompanied by an increasing sense of Arab identity in the Empire's Arab provinces, most notably Syria, then considered to include both Palestine and Lebanon. This development is often seen as connected to the wider reformist trend known as "al-Nahda" (sometimes called "the Arab renaissance"), which in the late 19th century brought about a redefinition of Arab cultural and political identities.

While Arab nationalism, at least in an early form, and Syrian nationalism were the dominant tendencies along with continuing loyalty to the Ottoman state, Palestinian politics was marked by certain specificities, largely due to Zionism (the ideology advocating the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine). Zionist ambitions were increasingly identified as a threat by Palestinian leaders, while cases of purchase of lands by Zionist settlers and the subsequent eviction of Palestinian peasants aggravated the issue. This anti-Zionist trend became linked to anti-British resistance (such as in the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine), to form a nationalist movement quite particular and separate from the pan-Arab trend that was gaining strength in the Arab world, and would later be headed by Nasser, Ben Bella and other anticolonial leaders.

The milestones: 1936, 1948, 1967, 1987

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the flight of the majority of the Christian and Muslim Palestinians from what became that state's territory (the Nakba), radically changed the face of Palestinian politics. The common experience of the Palestinian refugees and the loss of the homeland strengthened Palestinian particularism, while not precluding pan-Arab loyalties. The resultant Palestinian national movement was based on three main demands: Israel's abolishment (at least as a Zionist, i.e. particularly Jewish, state) independence in a Palestinian state, and implementation of the refugees' Right of Return to all of pre-1948 Palestine. Initially reliant on the efforts of neighbouring Arab states, from the end of the 1950s Palestinians began to see these goals as something they would have to accomplish themselves; this belief skyrocketed after the humiliating defeat suffered by the Arab states against Israel in the June 1967 Six-day War, which also brought the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip - the remainder of what had been the British Palestine mandate - under Israeli rule.

This particularly Palestinian nationalist movement was spearheaded by Fatah, or the "Palestinian Liberation Movement," established by Yasser Arafat and others in 1959. After 1967, a plethora of other Palestinian guerrilla organisations arose, recruitment skyrocketed, and these "Fedayeen" movements also gained support from Egypt and Syria as a means of indirect warfare. In 1968 Palestinian guerrilla fighters inflicted heavy casualties on Israel forces attacking their positions in Jordan at the Battle of Karameh; this was depicted by the fedayeen organizations as an unprecedented victory, contrasting with the defeats suffered by the Arab states, and further heightened the allure of the guerrilla movements. This sudden rush of Palestinian political mobilization led to the militants gaining control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO, originally established by the Arab League in 1964), which had until then been mainly under Egyptian influence.

Later, the First Intifada (1987-93) would prove another watershed in Palestinian nationalism, as it brought the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza to the forefront of the struggle. The demands of these populations were somewhat differing from those of the Palestinian diaspora, which had constituted the main base of the PLO until then, in that they were primarily interested in independence, rather than refugee return. The resulting 1993 Oslo Agreement cemented the belief in a two-state solution in the mainstream Palestinian movement, as opposed to the PLO's original goal, a one-state solution which entailed the destruction of Israel and its replacement with a secular, democratic Palestinian state. The idea had first been seriously discussed in the 1970s, and gradually become the unofficial negotiating stance of the PLO leadership under Arafat, but it had still remained a taboo subject for most, until Arafat officially recognized Israel in 1988, under strong pressure from the USA. However, the belief in the ultimate necessity of Israel's destruction and/or its Zionist foundation (i.e. its existence as specifically Jewish state) is still advocated by many, such as the religiously motivated Hamas movement, although no longer by the PLO leadership.

The First Intifada also reorganized Palestinian political life, as Islamist movements such as Hamas were capable of taking on a larger role in events on the ground, due to the PLO's strength being mainly outside the Palestinian Territories, and also due to the increasing moderation of the PLO (as described above), which was unpopular with hardliners. The religious trend and increasing Islamization of Palestinian nationalism was further strengthened with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, labeled the al-Aqsa Intifada after the holy mosque in Jerusalem

Competing national, political and religious loyalties


However, many groups within the PLO held more of a pan-Arab view than Fatah, and Fatah itself has never clearly renounced Arab nationalism in favour of a strictly Palestinian nationalist ideology. Still, the PLO has with few exceptions remained fully committed to the cause of Palestine, with even its most fervently pan-Arabist members justifying this by claiming that the Palestinian struggle must be the spearhead of a wider, pan-Arab movement. This was true, for example, in the case of the Marxist PFLP, which not only viewed the "Palestinian revolution" as the first step to Arab unity, but also as inseparable from a global anti-Imperialist struggle.


In a later repetition of these developments, the pan-Islamic sentiments embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious movements, would similarly provoke conflict with Palestinian nationalism. About 90% of Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, and while never absent from the rhetoric and thinking of the secularist PLO factions, Islamic political doctrines, or Islamism, never fully entered the Palestinian movement until the 1980s.

By early Islamic thinkers, nationalism had been viewed as an ungodly ideology, substituting "the nation" for God as an object of worship and reverence. The struggle for Palestine was viewed exclusively through a religious prism, as a struggle to retrieve Muslim land and the holy places of Jerusalem. However, later developments, not least as a result of Muslim sympathy with the Palestinian struggle, led to many Islamic movements accepting nationalism as a legitimate ideology. In the case of Hamas - the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood - Palestinian nationalism has almost completely fused with the ideologically pan-Islamic sentiments originally held by the Islamists.

See also

* Views of Palestinian statehood
* Arab revolt
* Arab nationalism
* Pan-Arabism
* History of Palestine
* Grand Mufti of Jerusalem
* Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni
* Musa al-Husayni
* Palestine Liberation Organization
* Israel

Further reading

* Rashid Khalidi, "Palestinian identity. The construction of modern national consciousness". Columbia University Press, USA, 1997. (ISBN 0-231-10515-0)

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