The Palestinians Need to Have an Identity Crisis

Nothing seems to unite or define the Palestinian people other than hatred of Israel

Palestinians prepare incendiary device to be attached to kite before trying to fly it over border fence with Israel / Getty
July 19, 2019

In a recent interview, Israel's prime minister explained why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persists. "The reason we can't get peace," said Benjamin Netanyahu, "is because nobody goes to the heart of the problem, which is the persistent Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish state in any borders." Netanyahu is correct: Palestinian leaders refuse to accept Jews' right to self-determination. Mahmoud Abbas, for example, has said numerous times that the Palestinians will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state. In other words, the president of the Palestinian Authority, or P.A., explicitly rejects the foundation of a two-state solution: two states for two peoples, one Arab and one Jewish. Perhaps that is why the Palestinians have, for decades, repeatedly rejected offers of statehood, including remarkably generous Israeli proposals. Also consider how Palestinian law forbids the selling of land to Jews and how the P.A. allocates hundreds of millions of dollars of its annual budget to pay terrorists and their families for attacking Israelis. The Palestinians seem to care more about hurting Israel than helping themselves. Peace is simply not possible if one side is so uncompromising.

Netanyahu was wrong in one respect, however, or at least imprecise. Palestinian intransigence is not the "heart" of the problem. The deeper problem is Palestinian hatred toward Israel and, yes, toward Jews. That hatred drives the intransigence, which in turn perpetuates the conflict. The hard truth is this visceral hatred is an integral part—in fact, the core—of the Palestinians' collective identity. And here we must acknowledge, and then confront, some difficult realities, which, if people continue to overlook them, will ensure the conflict never ends.

The Palestinians, wrote the Israeli columnist Dror Eydar, do not have a "positive nucleus of 'Palestinian nationality' that distinguishes them from the rest of the Arabs of the Middle East." This statement is certainly controversial, but still true. Try to think of something—anything—unique that unites or defines a Palestinian nation. The one unifying force that connects Palestinians as a people is opposition to Israel. Indeed, Palestinian national identity is based on rejecting Jewish sovereignty and seeking Israel's demise, rather than positive attributes of the Palestinian people. "It's not that [the Palestinians] want a state," argued Eydar, "but rather that they don't want [Israelis] to have one, regardless of size or territory."

One can trace the development of this identity through recent history. Before 1948, when the modern state of Israel was established, there were no Palestinians, at least as we understand the term today. Jewish residents in Mandatory Palestine, the name of the land under British administration, were called "Palestinians." In 1936, for example, a Jewish violinist founded the Palestine Orchestra, which became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1948. The Arabs living in Palestine, meanwhile, were called, well, Arabs. That is why, in 1947, the United Nations recommended the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Mandatory Palestine, not a Palestinian one. No one called the Arabs living in Palestine at the time the Palestinian people, including the residents themselves, nor did anyone define them as a unique nation. In fact, many of the Arabs were migrants, or descendants of migrants, who came from the surrounding Arab countries from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century.

During the period of British administration, Arabs across the Middle East saw themselves as part of one nationality. The Palestinian Arabs, however, lived in the ancient Jewish homeland, where many Jews moved in the 1920s and 1930s. But then, from 1936 to 1939, the Arabs revolted against the British for allowing Jews into the land. As a result, London issued the White Paper of 1939, which significantly cut Jewish immigration to Palestine for the first five years and then made it contingent on Arab consent—in other words, ending it altogether. So as Hitler's genocidal plan took shape in Europe, Jews there were no longer able to flee to their holy land.

Eight years later, the Palestinian Arabs boycotted the committee empowered by the United Nations General Assembly to make recommendations about the future government of Mandatory Palestine, rejecting both a plan to partition the territory into two states (one Arab and one Jewish) and a single, binational state. The Arabs then rejected the U.N.'s formal partition plan before, the following year, several Arab armies tried (and failed) to destroy the nascent Jewish state of Israel.

During Israel's war of independence, many Arabs fled to Gaza and the West Bank. Yet Arab leaders, and even the Palestinian Arabs themselves, did not seriously seek to create a Palestinian state from 1949 to 1967, during which Jordan controlled the West Bank and Egypt occupied Gaza. That was the best time to establish an independent Palestine, but no one tried, because Palestinian nationalism did not really exist. (Egypt did create an "All-Palestine Government," but it was short-lived and for geopolitical reasons, a façade for Egyptian control. More important, no one thought of the government as an expression of Palestinian nationalism.) Nonetheless, Palestinian Arabs still launched numerous terrorist attacks against Israel during this time and worked with Arab governments to destroy the Jewish state.

Still, the Palestinians only called the land disputed after Israel gained control of Gaza and the West Bank following the Six-Day War in 1967. And only in 1964, when the Palestine Liberation Organization was established, did the world begin to refer widely to a group of Arabs as "Palestinians"— a term that, after the war three years later, began to apply to people living in Gaza and the West Bank. And yet, even in the aftermath of Israel's victory, United Nations Resolution 242 referred only to "refugees," not even "Arab refugees"—as had been the term for those who left Israel—let alone Palestinian refugees. Again, a Palestinian people with a distinct nationality seeking an independent state was a foreign concept. Since the mid to late 1960s, however, the Palestinians have tried to form a national identity, all the while waging war against Israel through terrorism, intifadas, and now, delegitimization in the public sphere.

A Palestinian people exists today, but that people, that nation, emerged historically as an opposition movement against Israel, offering no vision other than destroying Israel and, only after several years, replacing Israel with its own state. Moreover, creating a sovereign state was always secondary to opposing Israel. That sentiment has dominated Palestinian identity, which did not exist until a few decades ago. But it was forming for the decades before then, only distinguishable from the surrounding Arabs in the Middle East because of a unique, personalized hate for the Jews living in Palestine. Just look at Palestinian society today. Put aside Gaza, which endures post-apocalyptic conditions under the suffocating rule of Hamas, an Islamist terrorist organization. Focus instead on the supposedly moderate, more responsible Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, where streets, mosques, stadiums, and even summer camps are named after terrorists who murdered Israelis. Such butchers are glorified in every direction, revealing how Palestinians have chosen to build their identity. There is nothing distinctly Palestinian other than a unique form of resistance against Israel—resistance steeped in hate.

The Palestinians need to have an identity crisis, to look inward and question who they are and what Palestinian nationality really entails. They should feel insecure about creating a national identity whose only clear pillar is blindly opposing Israel. After all, what good do they have to show for it? Yes, there are countless Palestinians who are kind, wonderful, talented, and deserve to live in dignity. And yes, the Palestinians should one day have their own, independent state, existing next to Israel in peace. But that will never happen if the collective identity that unifies and defines the Palestinians under a national banner is really about the "evils" of Israel and not about the Palestinians themselves. How can Palestinians create a stable, prosperous society when they focus their attention almost exclusively on Israel?

The Palestinian plight is a psychological problem more than anything else. Only when the Palestinians seek to build up their own society rather than tear down Israel’s will there be peace. That means asking a tough question: What makes a Palestinian a Palestinian? Not as individuals, but as a people, the Palestinians have only one answer right now, and that answer offers no solutions, just bitterness and violence, if not corrosive apathy.