Martin Peretz, editor in chief of the New Republic, has raised the question of whether the Palestinian Arabs are a distinct people and nation, and for this he is being denounced in certain quarters. The resulting fury has created a smokescreen around a question that deserves examination in an atmosphere of respect and restraint. Are the Palestinian Arabs a distinct people apart from other Arabs?
The founder of Arab Palestine, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was appointed as mufti of Jerusalem and as the head of the Arab Higher Committee by the British in the Palestine Mandate in 1921. Before the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the region, named Palestine by the British, had for more than four centuries been a part of the Ottoman province of Syria. Husseini was a pan-Arabist who viewed the region first as part of Syria and later as part of the Ummah, or the Arab motherland. Husseini spent the World War II years in Berlin where, after meeting with Hitler, he was regarded by the Nazis as the exiled head of a future Nazi-Arab state to be situated in the Middle East after the victory of the Third Reich. The Nazis were stopped at the gates of Palestine by British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery in the battle of El Alamein in 1942.
Before 1948, the term “Palestinian” was used to describe Jews and was used interchangeably with the term Zionist. The Arab residents of Palestine, most of whom emigrated there alongside the Jewish emigration, and who did so in order to take advantage of the increased economic opportunities that accompanied the Jewish immigration, considered themselves to be either part of the emerging Jewish state or as part of a greater Arab state.
As mufti of Jerusalem, Husseini played an instrumental role in raising the profile of Jerusalem as a site important to Islam. He raised funds in Arab and Islamic countries to gold-plate the Dome of the Mosque, known today as the Dome of the Rock, by claiming that there was a Jewish conspiracy to blow it up. The main holy sites of Islam are Mecca and Medina, and the few references to Jerusalem and Israel in the Quran actually call for the creation of a Jewish state.
In 1919 Emir Faisal, as head of the Arab delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, recognized Jewish sovereignty in Palestine when he signed the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement. In 1922, British Minister Winston Churchill divided the British Mandate of Palestine along the Jordan River into East Palestine, or Trans-Jordan, and West Palestine or Cis-Jordan. Trans-Jordan, which would be recognized by the U.N. as the Kingdom of Jordan in 1947, was to be exclusively Arab Palestine while Cis-Jordan, or Palestine, would likewise be recognized as Israel by the U.N. in 1947.
After the 1948 Israel War of Independence and until the 1967 Six-Day War, the region west of the Jordan River that was occupied by the Kingdom of Jordan was known as West Jordan and the Arabs living there were Jordanian citizens. Ahmad Shukairi, founder of the PLO, stated in 1969 that “Jordan is Palestine, and Palestine is Jordan.” PLO member Abu Iyad recounted in his memoir, “Palestinian without a Motherland,” that he and other PLO members had been advised by the North Vietnamese to develop the “two-state” idea in 1973. The North Vietnamese advised Iyad to “stop talking about annihilating Israel and instead turn your terror war into a struggle for human rights. Then you will have the American people eating out of your hand.” The Soviet-sponsored PLO continued its war against Israel both through terrorism and through promoting the diplomatic artifice that has become known as the “two-state solution.” The movement for Palestinian-Arab sovereignty west of the Jordan River was always and remains nothing more than a vanguard movement seeking the eventual destruction of the state of Israel.