by Hind Khoury
The Ongoing Dilemma
The Palestinian people have been struggling for a whole century to confront the denial of their rights in their homeland. In 1988, the Palestinian leadership represented by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) made a compromise to establish a sovereign Palestinian state only on the lands occupied by Israel in 1967, giving up the Palestinian lands occupied by Israel in 1948. The Palestinian leadership had hoped that with this major compromise it would secure peace and stability and a decent life for future generations of Palestinians.
The suffering of and the denial of basic rights to Palestinians started long before 1967. Since 1948, the Palestinian people have been trying hard to overcome the catastrophe and trauma that befell them when three-quarters of the Palestinian people were ousted from their homeland through the Zionist movement-organized Plan Dalet, and since then, Palestinians have had to find refuge in neighboring countries and around the world.
Throughout this painful modern history, Palestinians have never failed to understand that their national identity is pluralistic and not based on religion. The indigenous people of the land were generally pious believers, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, and lived in mutual respect and recognition. As a matter of fact, Articlesi 5, 6, 7 of the PLO Charter of 1965ii clearly recognized the plurality and diversity of Palestinians.
However, Zionism based Jewish national identity on religion and referred to the Bible as its constitution. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised a homeland for the Jews and denied the right of self-determination to the Palestinians (Christians and Muslims). It was in the aftermath of the war of 1967 and the occupation of Israel of the remaining part of historic Palestine that religious fundamentalism became more apparent.
This fundamentalism created a much more exclusive Zionist narrative that denied the other and justified a creeping and expansive settlement project, especially in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In this context, Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, have suffered not only flagrant violations of their basic rights but also an outright de-legitimizing of their existence on their land.
The Turning Point of the 1967 War
Palestinian teenagers growing up in the ’60s had a strong sense of identity based on the Palestinian national collective memory of a people that was unjustly uprooted from its native land, traumatized and painfully suffered “the Nakba” of 1948. Palestinians equally identified as Arabs with a deep sense of Arab Nationalism, and felt comfortable and proud as either Muslims or Christians. This complex identity was clear, enriching and empowering and especially meaningful and promising for the Palestinians who lost almost everything time and again.
Since 1967, however, a slow transformation of identity has been creeping up on the Palestinians. Israel increasingly justified its expansionism and settlement project based on biblical divine rights on one hand, while on the other, the demise of Arab nationalism was slowly being replaced with religious identification in the Muslim and Arab world, including among Palestinians.
Long gone is any trace of the earlier discourse among some thinkers and leaders preceding the establishment of the State of Israel, who then considered the Palestinian people as their next of kiniii. Instead, the common discourse has become increasingly that of denial and exclusion, justifying the consistent violation of the rights of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim.
Consequently, the geographical dispossession and cultural appropriation have become deeply anchored in Israeli policies towards Palestinians while any legitimate Palestinian resistance to this reality has been labeled as terrorism. These painful developments suffered by Palestinians throughout a century of struggle have had an important impact on both their identity and narrative. Most often, placed on the defensive, Palestinians have reacted to such threats by confirming precedence, prominence or simply providing a competing narrative.
In Israel, a number of important revisionist and post-Zionist historians, such as Ilan Pappe and Shlomo Sand delved deeply into archives to shed light on the true history of the country without the obsession with biblical history. In addition, Palestinians scholars like Rashid Khalidi, Nur Masalha and Edward Said provided valuable writings and research to expose the history of the Palestinian people as the people of the land. However, it is perhaps Palestinian theologians who present the most convincing arguments regarding Palestinian history and identity. These theologians provide a breakthrough on the matter because of their strong loyalties to both the Bible as part of their Christian faith and to their threatened Palestinian national narrative and identity.
Now and Then: Stripped of Their Geography, Will Palestinians Be Stripped of Their History?
In his address to the Washington Report Conference last year and at the Kairos Palestineiv conference last December, the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy offered a few explanations on how the ongoing illegal occupation that started in 1967, and how the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians are sustained and can be sustained for many more decades.
Levy clearly noted that the Israeli discourse has widely promoted a narrative that revolves around key tropes such as Jews being the “Chosen People” and having rights above international law, the history of European anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust, and blaming the Palestinians for blocking any progress in negotiations and, worse, dehumanizing Palestinians and ensuring they were identified with global terrorism.
These tropes are actively used to vehemently pursue the cultural appropriation of the whole Palestinian heritage in its plurality as exclusively Jewish. Many cultural sites are being threatened, if not already appropriated, as Jewish cultural sites denied to Muslims and Christians. Israel justifies its action to fully control the land based on what is referred to as “the promise of Abraham” and selectively using the Bible to support a modern nation-state.
Israel still refers to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, when in reality, in the period of Jewish political existence, in the Iron Age, 1,000 years before Christianity began, what came to be known by the Romans as Palestine and Transjordan included a few other princedoms. One of them is Adom, where Herod the Great came from.
Most Israeli political leaders explicitly deny Palestinians their very existence. Palestinians cannot overcome the shock of what then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir infamously said in 1969: “There was no such thing as a Palestinian. It was not as though there were a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist."
Her views reflected a common view of the Middle East and of public discourse of the time. And it is rather strange when we see it voiced by the Israeli government officials of late and often vehemently supported by Christian Zionists and Western political leaders.
Plural Palestinians: The People of the Land
In his book Faith in the Face of Empire, the Palestinian theologian Dr. Mitri Raheb argues that the way the Christian West chose to read the history of the region, mainly through the Bible, ignored the history of the people of the land. Up to present time, and after more than a century of archaeology that exposes a more realistic history of the region, biblical history seeks to blur and deny the Palestinian identity that is deeply rooted in the whole history of the land.
Raheb explains that biblical history starts with Abraham and ends about the time of Jesus. Biblical scholars applied their research to the history of Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans and their implications on Palestine. The history they expose normally ends with the Second Jewish Revolt in the middle of the second century AD. Interest in Palestine and Palestinians ends there disconnecting the history of the land with the people who live there in continuum.
The same applies to church history, which is taught as world history or Western history. It touches on Palestine only with reference to the early church and moves on to Constantine and the Byzantine Empire, to the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, the eras of scholasticism and the Reformation and on to mission history, concluding with contemporary history. Except for the first couple of centuries and perhaps the period of the Crusades, Palestine does not seem to be relevant.
Moving on to secular modern history, the same disconnect applies. All scholarly work on the Israeli Palestinian conflict, which is particularly extensive, starts in the 19th century and especially with the beginning of the Zionist movement. This abundant availability of scholarly work on the conflict and massive publications on the matter were undertaken in historic isolation from the depth of the history of this land evolving over millennia. This is another historic disconnect which can only contribute to false political analysis and for which Palestinians are paying a high price.
Raheb explains how, by consequence, Palestinians today find themselves stuck between the sacred historiography with little political relevance for their lives and their needs in the 21st century, and the secular historiographies that stand alone without the normative ties to preceding history. Both are studied as separate disciplines, for no one wishes to mix biblical studies with modern questions arising from the current conflict, and no secular historian is ready to be challenged by what is perceived as a religious discourse.
In Palestine, as elsewhere, as empires come and go, the people of the land continued to go about their normal life, especially in the Palestinian countryside. When deportation and exile were enforced, it applied to a small percentage of the people, while most remained.
Raheb goes on to explain that in a process of recurring empires, people’s identity changed as they adapted to new realities. In Palestine, they changed language from Aramaic to Greek to Arabic. Their identity also adapted and they became the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Philistine, the Israelite, the Judean/Samaritan, to Hashmonian, to Jewish, to Byzantine, to Arab, to Ottoman and to Palestinian, just to mention a few. The name of the country also changed from Canaan to Philistia, to Israel, to Samaria and Judea to Palestine. The people changed religion, too, from Baal to Yahweh. Later many became Christians and, over the years, especially due to heavy taxation, many converted to Islam.
As the people of the land survived armies and empires, they went about their daily lives without too much notice of the occupiers. Over the years they were joined by soldiers and settlers who remained. In many cases, pilgrims visiting the Holy Land chose to stay behind as well. This is the real story of who the broader Palestinian people are.
It should be evident that the reading of the history of this country can only make sense with the inclusion of the people of the land in their plurality. It is not possible that in the 21st century religion is still being misused to justify political projects. Neither can historians continue to subject scholarly research to geopolitical dynamics that are actively used to determine the destiny of this land and the region.
iArticle 5: The Palestinian personality is a permanent and genuine characteristic that does not disappear. It is transferred from fathers to sons.
Article 6: The Palestinians are those Arab citizens who were living normally in Palestine up to 1947, whether they remained or were expelled. Every child who was born to a Palestinian Arab father after this date, whether in Palestine or outside, is a Palestinian.
Article 7: Jews of Palestinian origin are considered Palestinians if they are willing to live peacefully and loyally in Palestine.
iiiBer Borochov, quoted in Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish (London:verso, 2009), 184 People
ivA Christian Palestinian movement, born out of the Kairos Document, which advocates for ending the Israeli occupation and achieving a just solution to the conflict http:// www.kairospalestine.ps/