While in part 1 we looked at the geostrategic problems of Israel, in the case of the Palestinians the story begins with the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the Middle East from 1517 to 1918, when World War I ended. The Ottomans divided the Middle East into provinces, one of which was Syria. Under the Ottomans, the Syria province encompassed what is today Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Constantinople (Istanbul), the Ottoman seat, sided with the Germans in World War I. As a result, after the war the victorious British and French dismantled the Ottoman Empire, and the province of Syria came under British and French rule. Under a secret wartime French-British deal, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, the province was divided on a line running from Mount Hermon due west to the sea. The area to the north was placed under French control; the area to the south was placed under British control.
The French region was further subdivided. The French had been allied with the Maronite Christians during a civil war that raged in the region in the 1860s. Paris owed them a debt, so it turned the predominantly Maronite region of Syria into a separate state, naming it Lebanon after the dominant topographical characteristic of the region, Mount Lebanon. As a state, Lebanon had no prior reality, nor even a unified ethno-sectarian identity; its main unifying feature was that demographically, it was dominated by French allies.
The British region also was divided. The Hashemites, who ruled the western Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula, had supported the British, rising up against the Ottomans.
In return, the British had promised to make them rulers of some sort of Arabian Empire after the war. But in addition to the Hashemites, London was also allied with the French and with other tribes against the Ottomans, and thus could not make the Hashemites the unquestioned rulers of all of Arabia (the Peninsula as well as the Levant). Furthermore, the Sauds in 1900 had launched the reconquest of Arabia from Kuwait, and had gained control over the eastern and central parts of the peninsula. By the mid-1920s, the Hashemites lost control over the peninsula to the Sauds, paving the way for the eventual creation of Saudi Arabia.
But by then the British had moved the Hashemites to an area in the northern part of the peninsula, on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. Centered around the town of Amman, they named this protectorate carved from Syria “Trans-Jordan,” as in “the other side of the Jordan River,” since it lacked any other obvious identity. After the British withdrew in 1948, Trans-Jordan became contemporary Jordan. The Hashemites also had been given another kingdom, Iraq, in 1921, which they lost to a coup by Nasserist military officers in 1958.
West of the Jordan River and south of Mount Hermon was a region that had been an administrative district of Syria under the Ottomans. It had been called “Philistia” for the most part, undoubtedly after the Philistines whose Goliath had fought David thousands of years before. Names here have history. The term Filistine eventually came to be known as Palestine, a name derived from ancient Greek — and that is what the British named the region, whose capital was Jerusalem.
Significantly, while the people of this area were referred to as Palestinians, a demand for a Palestinian state was virtually nonexistent in 1918. The European concept of national identity at this time was still very new to the Arab region of the Ottoman Empire. There were clear distinctions in the region, however. Arabs were not Turks. Muslims were not Christians, nor were they Jews. Within the Arab world there were religious, tribal and regional conflicts. For example, there were tensions between the Hashemites from the Arabian Peninsula and the Arabs settled in Trans-Jordan, but these were not defined as tensions between the country of Jordan and the country of Palestine. They were very old and very real, but were not thought of in national terms.
European Jews had been moving into this region under Ottoman rule since the 1880s, joining relatively small Jewish communities that had existed there (and in most other Arab regions) for centuries. The movement was part of the Zionist movement, which — motivated by European definitions of nationalism — sought to create a Jewish state in the region. The Jews came in small numbers, settling on land purchased for them by funds raised by Jews in Europe. Usually, this land was bought from absentee landlords in Cairo and elsewhere who had gained ownership of the land under the Ottomans. The landlords sold the land out from under the feet of Arab tenants, dispossessing them. From the Jewish point of view, this was a legitimate acquisition of land. From the tenants’ point of view, this was a direct assault on their livelihood and eviction from land their families had farmed for generations. And so it began first as real estate transactions, winding up as partition, dispossession and conflict after World War II and the massive influx of Jews after the Holocaust.
As other Arab regions became nation-states in the European sense of the word, their views of the region developed. Those who adopted the Syrian identity, for example, saw Palestine as an integral part of Syria, much as they saw Lebanon and Jordan. They saw the Sykes-Picot agreement as a violation of Syrian territorial integrity, and opposed the existence of an independent Jewish state for the same reason they opposed Lebanese or Jordanian independence. Elements of Pan-Arab nationalism and Islamic identity informed this Syrian view, but they were not the key factors behind it. Rather, the key factor was the view that Palestine was a province of the sovereign entity known as Syria, and those we call Palestinians today were simply Syrians. The Syrians have always been uncomfortable with the concept of Palestinian statehood — though not with the destruction of Israel — and actually invaded Lebanon in the 1970s to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah.
The Jordanian view of the Palestinians was even more uncomfortable. The Hashemites were very different from the region’s original inhabitants. After the partition of the British-administered Palestine in 1948, Jordan took control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But there were deep tensions with the Palestinians, and the Hashemites saw Israel as a guarantor of Jordanian security against the Palestinians. They never intended an independent Palestinian state (they could have granted it independence between 1948 and 1967), and in September 1970, they fought a bloody war against the Palestinians, forcing the PLO out of Jordan and into Lebanon. The Jordanians remain very fearful that the last vestige of the Hashemite monarchy could collapse under the weight of Palestinians in the kingdom and in the West Bank, paving the way for a Palestinian takeover of Jordan.
The Egyptians also have been uncomfortable with the Palestinians. Under the monarchy prior to the rise of Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1952, Egypt was hostile to Israel’s creation. But when the Egyptian army drove into what is now called Gaza in 1948, Cairo saw Gaza as an extension of the Sinai Peninsula — as it saw the Negev Desert. It viewed the region as an extension of Egypt, not as a distinct state.
Nasser’s position was even more radical. He had a vision of a single, united Arab republic, both secular and socialist, and thought of Palestine not as an independent state but as part of this United Arab Republic (which actually was founded as a federation of Egypt and Syria from 1958 to 1961). Yasser Arafat was in part a creation of Nasser’s secular socialist championing of Arab nationalism. The liberation of Palestine from Israel was central to Arab nationalism, though this did not necessarily imply an independent Palestinian republic.
Arafat’s role in defining the Palestinians in the mind of Arab countries also must be understood. Nasser was hostile to the conservative monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. He intended to overthrow them, knowing that incorporating them was essential to a united Arab regime. These regimes in return saw Arafat, the PLO and the Palestinian movement generally as a direct threat.
Palestinian nationalism represented a challenge to the Arab world as well: to Syrian nationalism, to Jordanian nationalism, to Nasser’s vision of a United Arab Republic, to Saudi Arabia’s sense of security. If Arafat was the father of Palestinian nationalism, then his enemies were not only the Israelis, but also the Syrians, the Jordanians, the Saudis and — in the end — the Egyptians as well.