Profile Source: Middle East Resources
Introduction / History
According to tradition, true Arabs are descendants of Abraham and his son Ishmael. Prior to the 20th century, the word "Arab" was designated to the Bedouin/tribal-based society of the Arabian Desert. Other Arabs are ethnic groups that have existed in their lands of origin for millennia. Arabs are not a singular people; origins are complex and intermingled with many peoples and genealogical lines. This is especially true for Israel. For 900 years, the region was subject to successive waves of invaders, each of which left some mark on its people and landscape. This can be attributed to its strategic location at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, as well as its unique religious status as a 'Holy Land' to the three religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Today, many Arabs, especially Palestinians, look back at the Arab inhabitants of Israel, West Bank and Gaza over the last millennium and hold them to be an indigenous Palestinian nation. Indeed, over the last thousand years the population of what is today Israel, the West Bank and Gaza had an Arab majority, with smaller groups of Bedouins, Druze, Jews, Turks, Kurds, Moroccans, Nigerians and others. Despite that fact, many historians disagree with the Arab standpoint, regarding it as a historical anachronism, because little historical evidence can be found which would support the Arab view of Palestine as a nation and/or the Palestinians as a united people prior to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It was only with the rise of Arab nationalism in its current form during the first half of the 20th century that this perception began to change. Before the rise of nationalism, most Arabic speakers identified themselves as members of a particular family or tribe; as residents of a village, town, or region; as Muslims, Christians, or Jews; or as subjects of large political entities, such as the Ottoman Empire. The 'milet system' was developed under the Ottomans, in which the different religious subgroups were given a certain amount of self-rule and in many countries of the Levant, this system is still in effect today.
The term Palestine originates with the Philistines, who inhabited the southern coast of the region in Biblical times. It fell into disuse with the disappearance of the Philistines in 1000 B.C., but was reintroduced by the Romans following the Second Jewish Revolt ("Great Revolt") of Bar Kohba during 132-135 AD in the province of Judea. Historically, there was a clear distinction between 'Philistine' and Judean territories; however, the Romans adopted the name 'Philistine' for the province in an effort to erase any memories of the Judean rebels they defeated. Similarly, Jerusalem, Israel's historic capital, was renamed Aelia Capitolina.
In 1917, the British captured the region from the Ottoman Empire and called it Palestine, after the long-standing Roman name for the area. This came at a time of renewed interest in the country among the European powers, Arab nationalists, and Jewish Zionists, who sought to reestablish their ancient homeland there. Competition between the latter two groups came to a head immediately after World War II, when Zionist claims gained greater urgency after the murder of almost six million Jews in the Holocaust. The Zionists demanded an independent homeland to absorb the Jewish refugees from Europe; the local Arab population, by now called Palestinians, argued that they played no role in the Holocaust, so the refugee problem should not be resolved at their expense.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition what remained of the British Mandate of Palestine into two states: one Jewish, and one Arab. The Palestinian Arabs rejected the proposal as well as the surrounding Arab states, it was accepted by the Jews. On May 14, 1948, the Jewish population declared its independence by declaring the establishment of the State of Israel. The armies of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria promptly invaded Israel. Large numbers of Palestinian Arabs fled during the fighting, while others were expelled from their homes in what is called in Arabic the 'Naqba', or "Tragedy." Israel managed to maintain its independence and expand its borders. What remained of the territories allotted to the Arab state in Palestine was occupied by Jordan (the West Bank) and Egypt (the Gaza Strip) from 1948 to 1967, when Israel occupied those areas in the Six Day War. Since that time, the Palestinians have struggled to assert their own independence. To date, efforts to resolve the conflict have ended in deadlock, and Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, are engaged in a bloody conflict.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir claimed: "There was no such thing as Palestinians... It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist." While obviously inconsiderate of the Arab nationalism, which had had a long history prior to Israel's establishment, the statement was not meant to imply the absence of Arabs in Palestine before 1948, but rather that the inhabitants lacked a single national agenda. Many Palestinians take great exception to any such view. They interpret such views to mean that Israelis deny the existence of various Arab peoples in the land before 1948. While the historical situation is often argued about, there is no party in the Middle East conflict that would deny the existence of a de facto Palestinian nation today - which, many believe, is entitled to a state.
Today, there are Arab Palestinians worldwide. The majority live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (WBGS). Others consider themselves refugees and live in more than 24 countries (mainly the Middle East, Europe, North and South America).
Few Palestinians have assimilated to their host countries. This might be due to the fact that most Arab nations forbade Palestinian Arabs from becoming citizens. Palestinians feel a strong sense of identity with their Palestinian heritage and homeland; those in the Diaspora often have family in Israel/WBGS and feel deeply connected to their home country and people. Palestinians are working for their political and national rights in Israel and the West Bank as well as in the Diaspora.
What are Their Lives Like?
The Palestinians are well known for their ongoing conflict with Israel, which receives large media coverage and is mostly within the context of war and destruction. The international media portrays Palestinians as either warmongers or weak victims while, in fact, Palestinian success stories and achievements are accomplished in practically all sectors: Seldomly does the press talk about Palestinian artists like Reem Kelani, a multitalented Palestinian, raised in Kuwait, who is singing traditional Palestinian songs, as well as Jazz and Blues. Kelani pursues a singing career, although she has received a doctorate in Coastal Marine Biology.
Palestinians are generally pleasant, generous and friendly. They are traditionally hospitable and prepare elaborate dinners for their guests, regardless of their economical position. Palestinians practice their traditional dances on any occasion, usually at weddings; poetry and music play a major part in their lives. The women are very skilled in the traditional Palestinian embroidery and create beautiful traditional patterns. Food is another important aspect of Palestinian culture and the dishes usually consist of rice, chicken and vegetables, cooked in different forms.
Many Palestinians are married to foreign women, who often come to live with their husbands in the West Bank and/or Gaza. Since the beginning of the uprising in September 2000, Gazans have not been allowed to travel to the West Bank. Even the foreign women married to Palestinians, who have residency in Gaza, have now found themselves confined to the tiny, impoverished territory They feel trapped, like they are living in a prison. They want to visit friends and relatives back home, but foreign passport-holders are not getting permission to cross into Israeli territory to fly out. It is believed that there are hundreds of foreign women subject to the same restrictions as their husbands and the Palestinians.
What are Their Beliefs?
Palestinians are predominantly adherents of Sunni Islam with a minority Christian community. The Holy Land, birthplace of Jesus Christ and the land from where Christianity spread over the entire world, is also the birthplace of the Palestinian Church. The Acts of the Apostles state that the first Christians in Jerusalem were Jews, and historians believe that even after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Christianity in the Holy Land kept its Jewish flavor. But the Jewish revolt of Bar-Kokhba in 135 changed all this; Rome showed no mercy to the Jews and obliterated Jerusalem. As a result, the Christian Jewish community effectively disappeared. The conversion of Constantine in 313 gave rise to a new Christian presence in the Holy Land and over the next three centuries, the Holy Land witnessed an influx of Christians from various parts of the Roman empire. Christians became the majority and famous theologians made the Holy Land their home. St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, was one of these.
In AD 640, Muslim Arabs invaded the Holy Land and took Jerusalem. What followed was the gradual decline of the Church in the Holy Land, as Muslim overlords reduced Christians to servitude. The various Christian sects survived (Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Nestorians, Syrian Orthodox, Armenians, Copts), and many of their people adopted Arabic as their primary language. Christians from Arabia also joined their brethren in the Holy Land, and the "Palestinian" Arab Christian population began to assume a distinct identity. The Crusader kingdom of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries rose and fell, but Eastern Christians continued to call the Holy Land home in spite of the return of Muslim power.
Over the next 600 years, the heavy taxes and persecution exacted by Muslim sultans impoverished Christian communities. By the nineteenth century, the Christian population in the Holy Land numbered only 15,000. These numbers actually rose over the course of the century, as Ottoman military power declined and European nations exerted pressure on the Turks to "liberalize" their rule. At the same time, Western Protestants began sending missionaries to the Holy Land. Since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, massive numbers of Palestinian Christians have left the Holy Land, due to Israeli occupation and the dismal state of the economy in Palestinian towns. Today, Christians make up a small percentage of the WBGS Palestinian population, in comparison to 17% of the population around 1900.
What are Their Needs?
Palestinian economy has greatly suffered due to the political instability in WBGS. In 2001 and even more severely in 2002, Israeli military measures in Palestinian Authority areas have resulted in the destruction of capital plant and administrative structure, widespread business closures, a sharp drop in GDP and an unemployment rate of 50% in WBGS. Unemployment has hit large families the hardest. Where fathers and older brothers were the only breadwinners in the family, the loss of income means hardship for the whole family, and many live below the poverty line.