The growing political and cultural rift between the Arabs of the Gaza Strip and those residing in Judea and Samaria has stirred debate about the possibility of establishing two separate political entities and the future of Palestinian nationalism in general. Yet perhaps we should be asking whether there ever really was a Palestinian "nation"?
In many places in the world, arbitrary borders set by colonialist powers define a "nation" that do not exist in practice. Is there such thing as a Sudanese "nation" or Iraqi "nation"? Or are we talking about a collection of tribes, groups, and even nations possessing vastly different ways of life, religions, and values that has been gathered together by chance and who are paying a bloody price for this to this very day?
The borders of British Mandatory Palestine too were set, just like the case with its neighbors, on the basis of colonial interests. In many areas, the border was drawn in a rather random manner. Had it been performed a little differently, would the Arabs of Marjayoun in southern Lebanon become Palestinian? Would the Arabs of Tarshiha in the Galilee be Lebanese? Are residents of Trans-Jordan, which was initially part of Mandatory Palestine and a few years later became the Kingdom of Jordan, Palestinian or Jordanian?
During the less than 30 years of the existence of this Mandate, from which the Palestinians draw their name, no significant indications were to be found of a united national identity of their own. The leader of Mandate Arabs was the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who viewed himself as a pan-Arabic leader, imposed his rule through the persecution and assassination of his rivals, and headed a loose alliance of clans, tribes, and local interests that were mostly united by hatred towards the Jews, and to a lesser extent towards the British.
Illusion of national identity
Hence, in the bloody clashes of 1936-1939, where the Arabs seemingly fought the British (and of course massacred the Jews,) more people were killed in intra-Arab violence than at the hands of the British. Similarly, in 1947-1949, the Arabs fought against the establishment of the Jewish state in a disorganized and separate manner, in various locations, such as the Jerusalem mountains, the Galilee, Jaffa, and so forth.
Following the Mandate's end, it is even more difficult to find a united national activity or perception, aside from the hatred of Israel. Under Egyptian rule in Gaza and Jordanian rule in Judea and Samaria, there were neither substantial cultural development attempts nor national activity or a demand for the establishment of a state in those areas. The only objective that aroused support and stirred activity – and saw the establishment of Fatah and PLO to that end - was the establishment of an Arab country in place of Israel.
After 1967, the unification under Israeli rule created an illusion of national identity. Yet the characteristics of Arafat's leadership replicated those of the Mufti – one-man rule focused on hostility to Israel, and based on regional and clan calculations alongside the persecution and assassination of rivals.
Arafat's death and Israel's withdrawal from Arab population centers revealed that forced unification and hostility towards Israel are apparently the only characteristics of the Palestinian "nation." Perhaps when a state existing within superficial borders has been in place for a long period of time, there is a point in maintaining it without genuine national identity. Yet Mandatory Palestine ceased to exist about 60 years ago and hatred towards Israel is no substitute for national identity.
This conclusion should prompt us to ask new questions regarding the conflict's essence, ways of addressing it, and possible objectives.
Dr Haivry is a fellow at the Shalem Center's Institute for Philosophy, Politics, and Religion