The displaced Arabs have suffered needlessly and continue to suffer—-not because the Jews stole their land but because their own leaders stole their future.
In January 1976, Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel, wrote a letter to the New York Times.1
The purpose of the letter was to set things straight. She had been quoted as saying, “There are no Palestinians,” as if to dismiss the very existence of this group. As a result, for years, Meir had been accused of turning a blind eye to the suffering of Arabs displaced from their homes in Israel. I was one of many who were taken in by this false charge.
In her letter to the Times, Meir explained that she had repeatedly expressed her sympathy for the Arab refugees. Her actual words were, “There is no Palestinian people. There are Palestinian refugees.” Meir was simply reflecting what Arab leaders at the time were saying about who they were.
Today commentators, politicians, government officials and historians all speak in terms of Palestinians and Israelis, as if the two terms are mutually exclusive. In her letter, Meir reminds her readers that the term “Palestinian” didn’t always mean what it means today.
What are the origins of the word Palestinian? The Romans invented the term. In the second century of this millennium, once they had defeated the troublesome and rebellious Jews of Judah, Samaria and the Galilee, they sought to put an end to Jewish sovereignty. They did this by massacring a large number of the Jews of Jerusalem and ejecting the remaining survivors from the city. Part of their plan to erase a Jewish presence from the region was to rename the area Syria Palaestina.2
For almost the next two millennia, the Jews of the region were the Jews of Palestine.
When Jews from Europe began their return to the region in 1891, they came to an area called Palestine. As the Jews built their economic, social and government institutions, they continued to be called the Jews of Palestine. Thus, the major Jewish newspaper was the Palestine Post (later to become the Jerusalem Post). The Anglo Palestine Company was the forerunner of today’s Israeli Bank Leumi, founded in 1902 to promote Jewish economic development in Palestine.3
A Jewish soccer club competed under the name the Palestine League from 1928 to 1948.4 There was the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization, a Jewish organization that represented Zionist interests in Palestine until 1921. Later the Jews created the Palestine Zionist Executive, which the British crown recognized as the Jewish Agency called for in the British Mandate.5
Arabs Reject Palestinian Identity
For their part, the Arabs of Palestine opposed the application of a Palestinian identity to themselves. When Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini published a pro-Arab newspaper in Palestine, he called it the Southern Syria Journal.6
In her letter, Meir noted that Arab nationalists rejected the application of the term Palestinian to Arabs living in what is today Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan. They argued that Arab Palestine was an ancient province of southern Syria. It had been so since Roman times.
In 1946 the United States and Britain formed the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry to investigate conditions in Mandatory Palestine with an eye toward resolving the Jewish-Arab conflict. In testimony to the Committee, Arab historian Philip K. Hiti argued that “there is no such thing as Palestine in history.”7 During the 1947 UN debate on the partition of Palestine, various Arab academic and political leaders objected to the partition on the basis that it would violate Syrian sovereignty because Palestine was a southern province of Syria. According to these leaders Western powers had no right to separate Arabs from their Arab Syrian state.8 In 1956 an Arab official from the region told the United Nations Security Council, “It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but southern Syria.”9
Despite this history, today’s usage is firmly set: Palestinians are Arabs who live or who are from areas that formerly comprised British Mandatory Palestine (the area encompassed today by Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan). And Jewish Palestinians have become Israelis.
This terminology confuses reality. In the first five decades of the twentieth century, until 1948, many thousands of Arabs moved to Palestine from surrounding Arab countries in order to take advantage of Jewish economic development and land reclamation. This has led to an anomaly: an Arab from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan or Egypt who came to Palestine in 1945 is, in today’s parlance, a Palestinian. But a Jew whose forebears first arrived in the area half a century earlier is not a Palestinian.
I have a Jewish friend who was born in Palestine just before the establishment of the state of Israel. His birth certificate says, correctly, that he was born in Palestine. But current discourse denies him a Palestinian identity.
The New Arab Palestinians
In 1947 the United Nations General Assembly approved a Partition Plan that created, in the words of the official UN document, a Jewish state and an Arab (not Palestinian) state. The newly born state of Israel managed to survive invasion by five of its Arab neighbors. But the shock and shame of being defeated by a group of Jews, who were outnumbered by Arabs five-to-one, was too great for the Arab countries to bear. They immediately launched a low-intensity terrorist war against Israel, a war that continues until today.
In 1964, that war turned a page when Yasir Arafat created a terrorist organization which would become the leader of an armed struggle with the goal of restoring Arab sovereignty to Palestine by ridding it of Jews. The new Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was the beginning of the Arab Palestinian identity that now monopolizes all discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In its formative years, the PLO talked only about liberating Israel from the Jews. But in 1968 the PLO revised its charter to include a new claim of “Palestinian” sovereignty over all of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. (Previously the PLO had reserved the term Palestine only to Israel in its pre-1967 borders.)
In the early 1970s, the PLO was largely funded and trained by the Soviets. Arafat’s Soviet handlers helped him to craft the narrative that supports the Palestinian war against the Jews that continues until today:
…by the early 1970s, the PLO had joined the ranks of other socialist anti-colonial “liberation” movements, both in its culture and in its politics; and had reframed its terror war as a “people’s war” ………..Arafat gradually saw the wisdom of jettisoning his fulminations about “throwing the Jews into the sea,” and in its place he developed the images of the “illegal occupation” and “Palestinian national self-determination,” both of which lent his terrorism the mantle of legitimate people’s resistance. Of course, there was one ingredient missing in this imaginative reconfiguration of the struggle: There had never been a “Palestinian people” or a “Palestinian nation,” or a sovereign state known as “Palestine.”10
An essential piece of this invented narrative was the re-writing of history, and specifically the erasure of over 3,000 years of Jewish history. The deception continues to this day. Palestinian Authority leaders today deny any Jewish connection to the land. According to them there was never a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount, and ancient Jewish holy sites such as the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb, never existed.
At the same time that the PLO’s new narrative created a “Palestinian” people that never before had existed, they presented a revised history. According to the PLO, the Palestinian people have lived since time immemorial in their Palestinian homeland. The Zionists, colonial invaders, stole this ancestral land. Therefore, the “Palestinians,” backed by international law and universal justice, are right to reclaim their stolen lands and national identity. So great was the Zionist theft, they argued, that terrorism is a justifiable means to a just end.
But even if Arab followers were taken in by this invented history, PLO leaders were well aware of its fictive nature. For example, in a 1977 interview, Zahir Muhse’in, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, commented,
The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct “Palestinian people” to oppose Zionism.11
In order to perpetuate their war against the Jews, the Arab countries (with the exception of Jordan) have refused to resettle Arabs who were displaced by the war that ensued after the Arab invasions of the fledgling state of Israel. The displaced Arabs have suffered needlessly and continue to suffer—-not because the Jews stole their land but because their own leaders stole their future. They await justice.12
But justice will never arrive based on a false historical narrative that supports violence and intolerance.
- Meir, G. On the Palestinians. New York Times, January 14, 1976.
- Some scholars dispute this commonly held notion that the Roman motivation was to erase Jewish history from this region. See: Timeline of the Name “Palestine”, Wikipedia. Retrieved January 15, 2018 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_name_%22Palestine%22#cite_note-FOOTNOTEJacobson200144-45-26
- Bank Leumi, Wikipedia. Retrieved January 15, 2018 from:
- Palestine League. Wikipedia. Retrieved January 15, 2018 from:
- Morris, B. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict 1881-2001. Vintage Books: New York, 2001, p. 89.
- Ben-Tekoa, S. Haj Amin al-Husseini Was No Nationalist. Jerusalem Post. November 2, 2015.
Retrieved January 15, 2018 from: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Haj-Amin-al-Husseini-was-no-Palestinian-nationalist-431828
In this article Ben-Tekoa explains that the traditional Arab name for the area that became the British Mandate of Palestine was Bilad-al-Sham (Damascus, Syria territory). As the French and British were drawing a demarcation line between today’s Syria and Israel, Palestinian leader al-Husseini demanded that the line be erased so as not to separate today’s Palestine from Syria.
- Meir, G. On the Palestinians.
- Meir-Levi, D. History Upside Down: The Roots of Palestinian Fascism and the Myth of Israeli Aggression. Encounter Books, New York, 2007, p. 32.
- Meir, G. On the Palestinians.
- Meir-Levi, p. 31.
- Meir-Levi, p. 34.
- On the other hand, Arabs who remained in Israel after Israel’s victory in the 1948-1949 Arab invasion cannot claim victimhood. Today they have the highest standard of living and the greatest level of freedom in the Arab world. Beyond Israel proper, the Arab economy of the West Bank and Gaza experienced rapid economic growth under Israeli rule. And on a range of measures, the health status of Arabs living under Israeli control has improved dramatically.
See: Stone, D. An Evidence-Based Analysis of the Nature and Impact of Israeli Public Health Policies Practices in the West Bank and Gaza. Fathom Journal. Retrieved January 16, 2018 from:
Note: This paper is undated. However, the author’s conclusions are likely up-to-date because the most recent references cited are 2014. The author’s Abstract follows:
The incendiary claim that Israel has deliberately damaged the health of the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is not evidence-based, argues Dr. David Stone. In fact, the opposite is true: the health of the Palestinians has improved steadily since 1967. Stone maps a cluster of changes – in demography, crude death rates, life expectancy, infant mortality, as well as maternal, perinatal, under-five mortality, immunisation coverage, nutrition and infant growth patterns, primary and secondary health care, and the Israeli influence on ‘the causes of the causes’ of ill health (housing, water, education, employment) – to show that Israeli policies have brought about measurable improvements in Palestinian health and welfare. This was achieved, in the face of formidable obstacles, by a variety of means including an outstanding child immunization programme, the launching of need-responsive innovations in primary care (crucially including maternal and child health services), a large hospital development programme, collaborative modes of working with Palestinian professionals, UNRWA and NGOs, and – arguably even more important – providing high quality training for doctors, nurses and other health providers in Israeli institutions thereby bringing modern standards to anaesthesia, renal dialysis, cardiac surgery and many other critically important fields.