Palestinian nationalism

The Palestinian people’s place in history, and the history of Palestinian nationalism, are poorly understood by the American public.

Some Americans, by virtue of ignorance, have even gone so far as to claim that Palestinians either didn’t exist or that, if they did, they had no real desire for self-determination, no sense of collective identity, no nationalist movement.

To supply some basic documentation, below is a sampling on the subject. All text in italics is a direct citation. References are listed at the bottom of the page.

From Benny Morris:

“The growing sense of a distinct community was expressed and reinforced by the appearance in Jaffa in 1911 of a daily newspaper named Filastin. And in the decade before World War I the term “Palestine”–not used in any political or administrative sense for centuries by the Ottoman Empire–came into common usage among educated Palestinian Arabs. The following two decades would witness the emergence of a full-fledged, separate Palestinian-Arab national movement.” (Morris, 1999, 34.)


WWI-era nationalism

From Marshall Hodgson:

“In the War of 1914, Britain in its Egyptian bastion was aligned against the Ottoman empire….

“Many Arabs in the Ottoman Provinces had become dubious of their future in a Turkist state such as the Young Turks were making of the Ottoman empire since the revolution of 1908.… echoes among the educated Muslims, especially in Syria, who were developing something of the same sense of Arab greatness…that had appeared in Egypt.

“[…] In the face of Young Turk repression of any such discussion, activists had formed secret societies, within the army as well as outside it, aimed at Arab independence. The war gave them an opportunity: in 1916 they persuaded the sharîf of Mecca, head of an Arab family who ruled the Holy Cities as agents of the sultan but had their own independent following there, to ally himself with the British, upon a British promise of Arab independence, and to proclaim an Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the Hijaz. […]

“The revolting Arabs of the Hijaz gave important help to the British thrust into Syria in 1917-18 and were allowed to occupy Damascus, where the sharif’s son Faysal was subsequently proclaimed king. […] Everywhere the end of the wartime sacrifices and restrictions was felt as the dawn of a new era of liberation. In western Europe, the mood carried great expectations of democracy and liberty, and something of the mood carried over to many Arabs. But meanwhile, the British government had more conservative plans. […]

“The revelation of the plans for dividing up the loot, which had been kept diplomatically secret, shocked not only the Arabs but also the Americans, who had been persuaded to enter the war on the Anglo-French side under the impression that their victory would mean a triumph for democracy and that enduring peace would be established on the basis of the self-determination of peoples. The Americans were satisfied, however, when at the peace conference at Paris the Concert of Europe was replaced, as a means of ordering international affairs, with the League of Nations, which any supposedly independent non-European government could join on the same basis as the European governments; and when the spheres of influence in conquered lands were proclaimed to be temporary means of tutelage, under mandate from the League of Nations. […]

“Many Americans supposed that mankind could be sorted out into so many “nations” which, if not yet ready to govern themselves, need only be given a period of benevolent tutelage under some “advanced” power till they could enter into the Western international system as equal members. […]

“Many Arabs had hoped for American support. […] The Syrian population, particularly that of Palestine, had made clear to an American mission of inquiry that they cared neither for British nor for French rule and especially that they did not care to have any part of Syria turned into a Jewish state in which the Arab population would find themselves foreigners.”  Hodgson, 1974, 277-279.


British promise to Hussein of Mecca

From Avi Shlaim:

“British imperialism in the middle East during the First World War was … intricate. In 1915 Britain promised Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, that it would support an independent Arab kingdom under his rule in return for his mounting an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally in the war. The promise was contained in a letter dated 24 October 1915 from Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, to the Sharif of Mecca in what later became known as the McMahon-Hussein correspondence. […]

“In 1916 Britain reached a secret agreement with France to divide the Middle East into spheres of influence in the event of an Allied victory. Under the terms of the Sykes-Picot agreement, Palestine was to be placed under international control. In 1917 Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, promising to support the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.” (Avi Shlaim, 2009, 3-4.)

British declarations supporting Arab nationalism

From Avi Shlaim:

“When news of the [Balfour] Declaration reached [King] Hussein [of Mecca] he was greatly disturbed by it an asked Britain to clarify its meaning. Whitehall met this request with the dispatch of Commander D.G. Hogarth, one of the heads of the Arab Bureau in Cairo, who arrived in Jedda in the first week of January 1918 for a series of interviews with King Hussein.”

“Hogarth’s Message,” as it came to be known, reaffirmed the Entente’s determination that “the Arab race shall be given full opportunity of once again forming a nation in the world.” So far as Palestine was concerned, Britain was “determined that no people shall be subject to another.” Britain noted and supported the aspiration of the Jews to return to Palestine but only in so far as this was compatible with “the freedom of the existing population, both economic and political.” (Avi Shlaim, 2009, 6.)

Hussein of Mecca’s position on Jewish immigration

From Avi Shlaim:

“Hussein, moreover, has  “great respect for the Jews,” whom he sees as people of the book. He does not oppose the settlement of Jews in Palestine, and even welcomes it for religious and humanitarian grounds. But he is “emphatically opposed to a Zionist takeover of the country. Hogarth gave him a solemn pledge that Britain would respect no only the economic but also the political freedom of the Arab population. When Britain subsequently refused to recognize Arab independence in Palestine, Hussein felt betrayed and accused Britain of breach of faith.” (Avi Shlaim, 2009, 7.)


King-Crane Commission

From Noam Chomsky:

The opposition of the indigenous population [of 1919 Palestine] to the Zionist project was never a secret. President Wilson’s King-Crane Commission reported in 1919 that “the Zionists looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine” and estimated that the latter–“nearly nine-tenths of the whole–are emphatically against the entire Zionist programme.” The Commission warned that to subject them to this program “would be a gross violation of the principle [of self-determination], and of the people’s rights, though it kept within the forms of law.” . . . The Commission, while expressing “a deep sense of sympathy for the Jewish cause,” recommended limitation of Jewish immigration and abandonment of the goal of a Jewish state.” (Chomsky, 1983, 91.)

Lord Balfour

“The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant and the policy of the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the independent nation of Palestine than in that of the independent nation of Syria. For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American [King-Crane] Commission has been going through the form of asking what they are. The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” (Cited in Chomsky, 1983, 90; Shlaim, 11.)

Lord Curzon

Curzon, a member of the War Cabinet, was keenly aware of the conflict the British were creating by declaring any support of Zionist aspirations of statehood in Syrian territory:

“what is to become of the people of the country [of Palestine]? … [The Arabs] and their forefathers have occupied the country for the best part of 1,5000 years, and they won the soil… They profess the Mohammedan faith. They will not be content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants or to act merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the latter.” (Cited in Shlaim, 12.)


Ze’ev Jabotinsky

They [the Palestinian natives] look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie. Palestine will remain for the Palestinians not a borderland, but their birthplace, the center and basis of their own national existence. (Morris, 1999, 36.)


Ze’ev Jabotinsky:

The Arab … is culturally backward, but his instinctive patriotism is just as pure and noble as our own; it cannot be bought, it can only be curbed by … force majeure. (Morris, 1999, 108.)

Morris summarizes further: “Unlike his compatriots on the left, Jabotinsky had no problem in recognizing that Zionism had a legitimate rival in the Palestinian-Arab nationalist movement. Hence the Jews would have to settle and spread throughout Palestine, and eventually dominate the country, by force.” (Morris, 1999, 108.)


Sir John Chancellor (High Commissioner of Mandate)

“The facts of the situation are that in the dire straits of the war, the British Government made promises to the Arabs and promises to the Jews which are inconsistent with one another and are incapable of fulfillment.” Shlaim, 18.


From Benny Morris:

“From the other side of the fence, the changes in Palestine – demographic, political, economic, and geographic – looked threatening indeed. By 1929 the Arabs understood that the disproportionate growth of the Yishuv, nurtured and sustained by Mandatory government measures, promised to turn them into a minority in their own land. Nonviolent political protest was proving ineffective…”


PAE, Declaration to the Noble Arab Nation:

By 1931, the natives of Palestine had concluded that the British were not going to support them strongly in their aspirations for democratic self-determination:

“We must give up the idea of relying on the British Government to safeguard our national and economic existence, because this Government is weak in the face of the forces of World Jewry…. Let us seek help from ourselves and the Arab and Islamic World….” Morris, 1999, 122.


Palestinian concerns about Jewish immigration

“The fundamental contradiction between Arab nationalist aspirations and Britain’s 1917 undertakings to the Jews continued to render the Mandate inoperable. The influx of German Jews to Palestine following the Nazi rise to power in 1933 provoked deep anxieties among the Arabs. In 1936 the Arab Higher Committee declared a general strike with the aim of halting Jewish immigration, banning the sale of land to Jews, and establishing an independent government.” Shlaim, 2009, 19.


Peel Commission

“Under the stress of the World War the British Government made promises to Arabs and Jews in order to obtain their support. On the strength of those promises both parties formed certain expectations…. There is no common ground between them…. This conflict was inherent in the situation from the outset…. We cannot – in Palestine as it is now – both concede the Arab claim of self-government and secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home….” Shlaim, 19.



From Chomsky:

“In an internal discussion, he noted that “in our political argument abroad, we minimize Arab opposition to us,” but he urged, “let us not ignore the truth among ourselves.” The truth was that “politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves. . . The country is theirs, because they inhabit it, whereas we want to come here and settle down, and in their view we want to take away from them their country, while we are still outside.” The revolt “is an active resistance by the Palestinians to what they regard as a usurpation of their homeland by the Jews. . . Behind the terrorism is a movement, which though primitive is not devoid of idealism and self-sacrifice.” (Chomsky, 1983, 91-2. Citing Ben-Gurion 1938 speech quoted in Flapan, Zionism and the Palestinians, 141-2.)

British repressed Palestinian nationalism

“In November 1938 Major General Bernard Montgomery arrived in Palestine. His task was to crush the [Palestinian] revolt. […] He gave his men simple orders on how to handle the rebels: kill them. This is what his men did; in the process they broke the backbone of the Arab national movement. When the struggle for Palestine entered its most crucial phase, in the aftermath of the Second World war, the Jews were ready to do battle whereas the Arabs were still licking their wounds.” Shlaim, 20.


From Edward Said:

“The principal Palestinian cities–Nablus, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Acre, Jaffa, Jericho, Ramallah, Hebron, and Haifa–were built in the main by Palestinian Arabs. […] There were also a respectable Palestinian intellectual and professional class, the beginnings of small industry, and a highly developed national consciousness. Modern Palestinian social, economic, and cultural life was organized around the same issues of independence and anti colonialism prevalent in the region […].” Said, 1979, 12.


Population Figures


Total population is 457,000, of which there were around 15,000 Jews, or 3%. (Morris, 4.)


Nearly 700,000 total, of which less than 60,000 Jews. That means less than 8% of the population is Jewish.

The [British] census […] makes the 1914 population at “689,272 persons, of whom no more (and perhaps less) than 60,000 were Jews.” [Said, 1979, 17.]


“there are 700,000 Arabs and 60,000 Jews.” (Morris, 1999, 107.)


“The Jews had constituted less than one-tenth of Palestine’s population in 1919….” (Morris, 1999, 107.)

Balfour, in memorandum (to the British Cabinet?) in August:

The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant [the Anglo-French Declaration of 1918 promising the Arabs of former Ottoman colonies that as a reward for supporting the Allies they could have their independence] is even more flagrant in the case of the independent nation of Palestine than in that of the independent nation of Syria. For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country […] The four great powers are committed to Zionism, [which is] of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion that is right. [Said, 1979, 17.]


*Jewish immigrants: 1800. (Morris, 1999, 107.)


*Jewish immigrants: 8,000/year. (Morris, 1999, 107.)


there are 730,000 Arabs and 85,000 Jews. (Morris, 1999, 107.)

*Jewish immigrants: 8,000. (Morris, 1999, 107.)


*Jewish immigrants: 14,000. (Morris, 1999, 107.)


*Jewish immigrants: 34,000. (Morris, 1999, 107.)


*Jewish immigrants: 14,000. (Morris, 1999, 107.)


there are 880,000 Arabs and 175,000 Jews. 82% Arab, 18% Jewish population. (Said, 1979, 11; Morris, 1999, 122.)

 “The Jews had constituted less than one-tenth of Palestine’s population in 1919; by 1931 they represented one-fifth, and their relative demographic weight was to grow even more dramatically during the following decade.” (Morris, 1999, 107.)


Total population is 1,367,000, of which 384,000 Jews (doubled in 5 years). (Said, 1979, 11.)


There are one million Arabs (70%) and 460,000 Jews. (Morris, 1999, 122.)


Total population is nearly two million, of which 600,000 Jews (more than doubled in ten years). (Said, 1979, 11.)


“The Palestinian Arabs enjoyed a roughly 2-to-1 population advantage–1.2 or 1.3 million to 650,000 Jews.” RV, 1999, 92.


Moshe Dayan

We came to their country which was already populated by Arabs, and we are establishing a Hebrew, that is a Jewish state here. […] Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you, because these geography books no longer exist; not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. […] There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population. [Ha’aretz, April 4, 1969.] Said, 1979, 14.


Israel Shahak

[The nearly four hundred villages were] destroyed completely, with their houses, garden-walls, and even cemeteries and tombstones, so that literally a stone does not remain standing, and visitors are passing and being told that ‘it was all a desert. [Davis, Uri and Mezvinsky, Norton, ed., Documents from Israel, 1967-1973. Readings for a critique of Zionism. 1975] Said, 1979, 14.

Works cited

Hodgson, Marshall. The Venture of Islam: Gunpowder Empires and modern times. Vol. 3. 1974c.

Said, Edward. The Question of Palestine. 1979.

Chomsky, Noam. Fateful Triangle. The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians. 1983 (1999).

Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A history of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. 1999.

Shlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall.

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