Sep 04 2009

Palestinian Nationalism

Published by at 10:32 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

by Daoud Kuttab

Palestinian nationalism has been a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, one cannot underestimate the important role it played in pulling together the Arab people of Palestine under a unified and clear national goal. But at a time when major countries in the world downplay nationalism in favour of regionalism, it appears chauvinistic and narrow-minded and has caused entire generations to sacrifice themselves in its name.

Palestinian nationalism has its roots in the early 20thcentury, when it was widely viewed as a form of Arab nationalism. Reeling from 400 years of regressive Ottoman rule, Palestinians identified with the Arab goal of liberation from the Ottomans and their backwardness. Hence, it was not uncommon during World War I for Arab nationalists to ally themselves with the British who were fighting the Ottomans.

At the time they believed in the promises made in the McMahon-Hussein exchanges about support for Arab independence if the Ottomans were defeated. But the British had also made an alternative secret promise to the Jewish community, later expressed in the Balfour Declaration favouring a Jewish state in Palestine.

The discovery of these contradictory promises coupled with the results of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 – which divided the Middle East into spheres of influence between France and Great Britain – did little to dampen Arab nationalism. Nowhere was Arab nationalism more clearly focused on than in Palestine. Falastin Arabia (Palestine is Arab) was perhaps the most repeated slogan chanted by Arab nationalists all over the region.

In the 1930s, Arabs living in Palestine expressed their nationalism by opposing Jewish emigration and the sale of Arab lands to the Jewish Agency (whose unyielding principle was to secure land in Palestine for Jews). Palestinian nationalism, therefore, became pro falahin (farmers) and anti landowner. The tarboush (landowners head dress) was replaced by the farmers’ keffiya.

In 1948 the Palestinian nakbah (catastrophe) brought with it a new set of images. The refugee tent and later the key, symbolising the right of return, became Palestinian nationalism’s most prominent symbols.

Yet because Palestinians looked to the Arab world for their salvation, Arab nationalism was still stronger amongst Palestinians than a more localised Palestinian form of nationalism. All this changed after 1967. The loss of the rest of Palestine and the quick emergence of the PLO’s armed struggle introduced a more limited nationalism that rejected victimhood in favour of pride in the fedayyin (armed guerillas). The armed struggle received a major boost following the battle in the Jordanian village of Karameh on the east bank of the Jordan in which Jordanians and Fateh fighters fought back an Israeli incursion.

While the armed struggle in the 1970s was the PLO’s raison d’etre, Palestinian nationalism inside the occupied territories faced a more fundamental challenge. Attempts by Israelis to deny Palestinian nationalism, most famously expressed by former Prime Minister Golda Meir who questioned the existence of the Palestinians as a national group, gave rise to a grass roots campaign to bring back Palestinian national symbols and give them expression through music, the visual arts and theatre.

In the 1980s Palestinian nationalism was expressed through grass roots movements, student unions, national municipalities and medical committees as well as private colleges and universities. These groups, who were responsible for the first Palestinian intifada, rejected the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza while at the same time encouraged the PLO to recognise Israel within a two state solution.

The failure of the intifada to produce the coveted state helped propel a sector of Palestinian society (initially supported by Israel because of their anti PLO rhetoric) who advocated religious Islamic ideology rather than the secular PLO version of Palestinian nationalism.

While Islamic ideology and the goals of the Palestinian nationalists had much in common, they differed dramatically on the definition of the nature of the conflict with Israel and in specifying the type of state to which Palestinians should aspire. Whereas secular nationalists believed in an inclusive state where different ideologies can exist within it, the Islamists were happy to use democratic mechanisms to obtain power only to deny the rights of others to continue to exist under their exclusive ideology.

The 21st century has seen a major deterioration in Arab nationalism. Major pan-Arab movements have been disgraced or have proven ineffective. Individual personal cults and dictatorships have caused this retraction; whether it was Egypt’s Jamal Abdel Nasser or Syria’s Assad regime or Saddam Hussein’s Baathists, no Arab nationalist ideology or leader has survived. Pan Arabism is being replaced by a more individualistic approach whereby each country puts itself first.

Many Palestinians feel that the retraction of Arab nationalism is helpful in that it downsized Palestinian nationalist expectations and forced Palestinian leaders to negotiate along a more moderate platform. On the other hand, this loss of Arab nationalism has so injured Palestinian aspirations that it has left them exposed to continued Israeli assaults and the absence of any serious international support. The world community, in this group’s view, was no longer deterred by Arab nationalist military or economic power, affording international leaders the option of paying lip service to the Palestinian cause and a peace process rather than reaching real peace.


* Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. His email is This article is part of a series on nationalism and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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