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Palestinian Identity

Dialogue no. 5, October 2006, between Nadim Rouhana and Salim Tamari

Rouhana: What Palestinian identity is, or what it is to be Palestinian, is one of those very hard questions. Part of the identity of any group is a sense of community, of belonging to the group itself and identifying with its goals and aspirations. Of course there are also cultural components and history that come with identity. There is a sense of continuity with the past, present and future.

In the case of oppressed groups, once a group’s history is disrupted and once there is a deep collective sense of injustice, identity becomes even more important. I doubt that people in Sweden are obsessed with their identity as much as, for example, the Jewish people or the Palestinians. And I think oppressed groups deal with the issue of identity because we feel that if our identity is at risk, so is our very existence.

Certainly, as Palestinians, our existence as a group was denied for a long time, and until now we’re not sure that we will achieve as Palestinians the actualization of identity in the form of a Palestinian state.

So because of that sense of denial, that deep sense of injustice, and the disruption of history that happened to the Palestinians as a result of the enormous crime of having their land taken over by another group--a group that claimed Palestinians never were a people and that it was never their land--I think we are justifiably obsessed with our identity. And our identity for us is to try to affirm our collective existence and the justice of our cause. Different groups differ on how to do that, but essentially it is to materialize a national existence, whether that is in the form of a national state or another kind of political existence.

First, it’s this affirmation of our existence, and exploring what really happened in our history, and from there trying to define a collective future.

Tamari: The most interesting feature of Palestinian identity is the way it redefined itself and shifted perspective over the last 100 years in a rather substantial manner. It started at the beginning of the 20th century as part of a broader Ottoman multi-national citizenship. After WWI, it reasserted itself as part of a greater Syrian or Shami identity, and then with the coming of the British Mandate, you have Palestinians beginning to think of themselves as part of a separate entity from the rest of their Arab-Syrian hinterland.

And then, in the 1950s and 1960s, especially after the 1948 Nakbah, Palestinians began to see themselves as part of an Arab national grouping with a particular distinctiveness to that Arabness. And here I am talking particularly about Palestinians in exile, because Palestinians who remained in Israel had a different experience. But the defeat of the Arab regimes in 1967 was also a defeat for the nationalist dimension of Arab identity, and Palestinians went back to thinking of themselves as a separate community within the Arab nation.

The most recent reformulation of this identity is the confessional one, starting with the Iranian revolution and the rise of Islam as an ideology. So within 100 years, even less, you have five different nuances in which Palestinian identity has defined itself. Here I am talking about the bulk of the Palestinians. We have important variations in the Galilee, for people who stayed in Israel, for people who remained under Jordanian rule in the West Bank and for people in Gaza who had a different sense of separateness.

I think if we want to summarize or look for a general theme that ties Palestinian identity over all of these periods, it is the tension between the local and the supra-regional. That is, all Palestinians, in the same manner as other people in the Middle East, had intensely local village-based or urban-based identities, which we can call communitarian or urban, which could be southern Palestinian, Galilean, Nablus or Jerusalem-based, but always intertwined with a broader supra-regional one, in which they identify themselves as Arabs, as Muslims or as Shamis and so on. This is the tension that remained constant throughout this period.

Rouhana: At some point Palestinians have to get together and think about what is common and what is different. There is no question that Palestinians inside Israel, or Palestinians under occupation or Palestinians in exile have different ways of actualizing and expressing their identity.

The Palestinians inside Israel are a group whose land was taken and where a foreign state was established on their land. That state not only told them “you’re not part of us”, but also said, “you are not part of the land, and this homeland is not yours.”

Basically the message was that, “you are nothing. You happen to be the inhabitants of this land, but the owners of this land are the Jewish people who came back to claim it, and you are here by chance.”

Until 1948, Palestinians inside Israel were part and parcel of the Palestinian experience and the Palestinian dynamics of occupation and of resisting both the colonialist power and the Zionist movement. After 1948, something major happened. We have to think about this group of people in 1948, about 150,000 people, really the remnants, the periphery of the Palestinian people. They are the poorest, the peasants, a group without the educated, without leadership, and without even one urban center.

I think there is no other experience in the world of a group that for 60 years has been developing without a center. There is no city for them, there is no political center and there is no center of modernity, civilization or knowledge, except for the centers that were imposed on them by the people who took their land.

This disruption from any Arab city and any Arab center left this group to develop in a sort of vacuum, The only connection Palestinians in Israel had was to centers that are alien to them and are full of ideological meaning that is the very negation of their existence.

For Palestinians in Israel, one thing we are starting to talk about now is this absence of center. We are not a group of immigrants. This is our land, we are a national group, but a national group that did not grow up and did not develop in interaction with a city that tells you what is the most recent thing in fashion for example, to the most recent trends in arts and knowledge and culture and so on. We don’t have that. We have that in the Jewish cities, but if we want to be connected to them then we become distorted, and if we are not connected to them then we are impoverished. So we are either distorted or we are impoverished.

So what we see is a group of people that is now only just beginning to realize what happened to them. As Salim was saying, Palestinian identity was a little submerged in the Arab identity in the 1950s and 1960s. But even after the emergence of Palestinians asserting their Palestinian identity after the 1967 war and the rise of the PLO, it took longer in Israel for that identity to emerge. Yet it emerged, and it became strong and substantiated.

But then people began asking themselves what does it really mean to be a Palestinian? What does it mean to be a Palestinian when the Palestinian leadership aims for the Palestinian project to be established on that part of Palestine that covers the West Bank and Gaza? What does it mean to be Palestinian in Israel then? What is it that is Palestinian in us when we feel we are Palestinians? For Palestinians in Israel, it’s certainly different than the experience of exile, where the main component of identity was the attachment to Palestine and that desire to return. In the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian experience was shaped by the resistance against the occupation and the struggle to establish a Palestinian state there.

So there are differences in the historical experience of each group and they manifest themselves in what each one is trying to achieve. But what’s in common is this deep sense of injustice, this connection to the traumatic experience of 1948 that, the further away you get from it, the more criminal it feels. To the next generation it is becoming more obvious how criminal it was for a group of settlers to come from other parts of the world and tell you, “this is our land not yours”, and with a project for taking it over by force. That force has been employed from the very first minute and until now, and with everything that’s been done, that sense of injustice, of denial, of the need for affirmation and rectifying history is common among all Palestinian groups.

Tamari: The question of what it means to be Palestinian if the national project is centered on the West Bank and Gaza is a very important question, and I think most of us are trying to absorb the meaning of this identity question in light of the collapse of the national project. The question is what is common to Palestinians, since what we have discussed is a variety of experience, and it’s very important to see the commonality between what happened among the Palestinians in Israel and what happened to Palestinians in exile.

In both cases, their cultural identity was challenged: in Israel by the claims of the Jewish state and in the diaspora by either attempts to assimilate them in the host countries, or reject them as a residual minority. So this challenge to their identity makes it terser and more assertive.

The exception to this of course is the West Bank, even compared to Gaza. The West Bank is unique in that people stayed on their land, the number of refugees who came to the West Bank continued to be a smaller proportion to the population, and even though Jordanian citizenship was imposed on them or internalized by them, they never felt challenged in terms of their relationship to the land. So you don’t have this national identity assertiveness by the people of the mountainous region of central Palestine, which we call the West Bank. You see it in Jordan, you see it especially in Lebanon, Syria, and of course in the European and the American exile. And you see it most clearly enunciated among Israeli Arabs, because that’s where, as Nadim has eloquently demonstrated, it was most challenged.

What is common to all of these varieties of experience is that there was an attempt to redeem the lost heritage of pre-1948 Palestine and create a national identity that will have a specific relationship to the diaspora on the one hand and to the Palestinians in Israel on the other hand. If that fails, if the political project started by the PLO fails, then we have to rethink our national strategy. Here we could go in either direction: either we could fragment and observe the reassertion of regional identity and local identity, or we could have a struggle for, in the case of Israeli Arabs, true citizenship--that Israel becomes a state for all its people--and in the case of the West Bank and Gaza, a rethinking of the whole idea of two states.

Since the binational project is very hypothetical and has little chance of practical success, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are in deeper trouble, if you like, because the loss of the national project means that they have to redefine their relationship not only to Israel but to the Arab countries. Here is where the Islamic solution acquires relevance. It gives people an ideological dimension to identity that transcends the political disintegration of the national project. But since the Islamic project itself does not have a practical realistic translation of what the national solution to the Palestinian problem means, I think we are going to be in a state of limbo for the next ten or fifteen years because of this lack of synchrony between the new Islamic project and a national program of salvation.

Rouhana: I think Salim is right in saying that these three different experiences can become fragmented, or, in the face of the possible failure of the national project, they have to do something else and then we’ll see what that something else is.

The fact of the matter is that since the early signs of the failure of Oslo, you had people talking about a binational state. Of course, the binational state is a far-fetched dream, there is no question about that, it’s a project for the next 10, 20, perhaps even 50 years and perhaps it has to go through stages of apartheid and so on. But it’s not accidental that people who talked about binationalism are people like myself, Palestinians from inside Israel, or Palestinians in exile.

Most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza wanted to give the fullest chance for the national project to succeed. Now there’s some kind of realization that the national project might not work out. Israel is not allowing the national project to work out. But even if the national project worked, Israel will not give up--actually it will accentuate--its Jewish identity, and while perhaps the success of the national project will be a solution for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, perhaps even for part of the Palestinians in exile, it wouldn’t be a solution for the Palestinians in Israel.

All three groups are in real crisis. Palestinians in Israel are in real crisis, because they see that the Jewish identity of the state is so obsessive, so part and parcel of the consensus, that it would be extremely hard to change it. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are in crisis because the national project is facing a deadlock. Palestinians in exile, well, we know their story.

So I think it’s clear that all three groups have to sit together to think about alternatives, and one alternative is binationalism. But I agree with Salim that binationalism is such a big project to think about that it’s easier for people to go to the identities that are now dominant and are holding the flag of resistance, and this is the Islamic identity.

Now the advantage of the Islamic identity is that it can accept being in limbo for a long time. It is cross-border--people can feel this identity in Nablus and in Haifa, and in a Palestinian camp in Lebanon or in Jordan--and it can wait because it’s a long-term project: “God is on our side, and it’s only a matter of time until we win.” Unless Palestinian secularists can take seriously a project of binationalism or something close to binationalism--and here the room for creativity is enormous--articulate it and work toward it, I think the option that we have, the viable option, is the Islamic identity.

Tamari: In some respects, the Islamic identity is a negation of national identity, but in a broader dimension it’s a transcendence. The lesson that many Islamists will have to learn, as they have done in Iran for example, is that at one point Islamic identity cannot operate in a lack of synchrony with a certain degree of national or regional identity. Many Islamists are learning, and certainly in Hamas you notice this, to establish some kind of synchrony between being patriotic, being national while at the same time asserting their Islamic identity at the cultural level.

Where Islamic identity actually is problematic is with the politics of citizenship. The alternative to the demise of the Palestinian national project is a struggle for human rights and citizenship in the host countries, but it’s taking a very diverse dimension. In Israel, for example, it always comes into conflict with the idea of a Jewish national state. Attempts to create an Israeli state of all its citizens would undermine Zionism as it has defined itself. If such a state were established, it would create possibilities for people in the occupied territories and not only in Israel.

In the Arab countries, a struggle for rights within a perspective of citizenship will lead to integration in the manner that Jordan has been aspiring to. The Jordanian option is actually an interesting one, because in Jordan you have the most successful model for Palestinian exiles becoming part of a national state--although it was not always easy--while at the same time maintaining features of their historical patrimony.

In Lebanon and Syria and in other Arab states, it does not work out because these states, behind different kinds of national rhetoric, have rejected the integration of Palestinians within their boundaries. In Lebanon, because of the confessional formula; in Syria because Baathist doctrine assumes, at least ideologically, an overarching Arab identity; and in all cases it has taken the form of asserting the right of return for Palestinians.

Now this assertion, although in principle moral, in practice has been an attempt to deny Palestinians their civic rights in their host countries. So we have to find a formula in which the struggle for democratic rights and citizenship will go along with an Islamic ideology on the one hand and Arab nationalist ideology on the other.

What that means for Palestinians is that in the long run the centrality of Palestine for the Palestinians will become even more important. As European Palestinians, American Palestinians and Palestinians in the Arab countries struggle for their civic rights, the only option for Palestinians in Palestine, whether they are in the West Bank, in Gaza or in Israel, will be to create a formula where their national identity, their national aspirations, can be translated into day-to-day politics. In Israel it means a state of all its citizens, in the West Bank and Gaza it will continue to mean for the foreseeable future the struggle for statehood. How this will reconcile itself with Israel’s continued attempts to deny that sovereignty is too early to know.

Rouhana: Historically, of course, the Palestinian and Zionist identities are interrelated. A Palestinian identity first emerged around the turn of the last century, as happened in other parts of the Middle East and under the emergence of nationalism and so on. As it happens, it was also around the time that the Zionist movement began implementing the project of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Now the clash between Zionism and the Palestinians contributed to the assertiveness of Palestinian identity.

Palestinian identity would have emerged anyway in the process of having a national state and liberating Palestine from the British mandate, just like Syrian and Lebanese identities did. But the trouble with Zionism was this additional component that with the success of the Zionist project and the establishment of an exclusive Jewish state in this part of Palestine, necessarily to the exclusion of Palestinian independence, it accentuated Palestinian identity in a way.

One way of expressing the problem of the two-state solution is this: what two states are we talking about? Is it a Palestinian state and an Israeli state, or a Palestinian state and a Jewish state? If it is a Palestinian state and a Jewish state, then a Jewish state does not provide a solution to the whole Palestinian problem, only a solution for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza under occupation, and a partial solution for people in exile to return to that part of Palestine.

A Jewish state by definition is problematic: it does not allow for human dignity and equality for a large part of the Palestinian people. It is a minority, yes, but in Israel there are more than one million Palestinians.

So the two identities are interrelated. They were interrelated from the very beginning, Zionism didn’t allow for the existence of Palestinian identity. Zionism as an ideology started with the negation of Palestinian identity, and the whole Zionist project is based on the claim that there is no Palestine.

Now, Palestinians did not give serious thought to the place of Jewish collective existence in Palestine. I think we agree on one thing, we agree that a Jewish state is exclusive, is in effect-- that is if one looks at the effect of its legal system and policies--racist, and can’t provide equality. But we really did not give serious thought to what kind of national existence there should be for those who came and became part of this land, and who now have been here for generations, and I think it’s a failure on our part. Binationalism is one way of thinking about it, and there are other ways of thinking about it. There is the Democratic Front [for the Liberation of Palestine, DFLP], and the Popular Front [for the Liberation of Palestine, PFLP] and the idea of a secular state that was one time an idea for resolving the issue. But I don’t think that the idea of a secular state or a binational state was presented in a serious enough manner that takes into account the other group that has established a genuine national existence here.

I think we all deny Zionism’s legitimacy, and rightfully so, because Zionism is in effect--that is at least in terms of the outcome of its practices--racist, and we cannot accept it and legitimize it. But at the same time, we cannot afford to neglect thinking about what form of a national existence we want for both Palestinians and Israeli Jews in this land. And whatever national existence we want, we have to be able also to articulate a vision for the other group that at least some people in that group can start to identify, accept and interact with. We have to do so because our identities and national existence are interrelated.

Tamari: I think there’s no question that Zionism and the Israeli state contributed to the assertiveness of the Palestinian identity since it was denied its national ambitions. To the extent that the Israeli state, or the Zionist state, can make historical compromises as to its own territorial limit, then the Palestinian national movement, certainly in the post 1975-80 period has learned to live with this project, not in a very welcoming way, but certainly in an accommodating way.

To the extent that the Zionist movement denies the effective rights of Palestinians in parts of this land, the Zionist state will contribute to its own delegitimization. Ultimately, Israel may achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the whole world, but if it doesn’t achieve it in the eyes of the Palestinians it undermines its own raison-d’etre.

Many Israelis understand this, but they have not drawn the right conclusions from it. They thought that with the Oslo formula they had gotten rid of the problem by throwing some bones to the Palestinians. But bones will not do. If the Palestinian state is not going to be viable, then Palestinians will think in one of three directions; either they will call for binationalism, which is a nightmare for the Israelis, or at least the Zionists; they will call for the relaunching of the Arab national project, greater Syria, Nasserism and so on, which on the cultural level anyway, is still alive and kicking; or they will assert themselves in a broader Islamist or Islamic dimension.

In all of these cases, if the Israelis do not resolve their understanding of the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause in its struggle for historical Palestinian rights, they undermine their own legitimacy.

Nadim Rouhana is director of Mada al-Carmel, the Arab Center for Applied Social Research, and a lecturer in the sociology department of Tel Aviv University. He is the author of Palestinian Citizens in an Ethnic Jewish State: Identities in Conflict (Yale, 1997).

Salim Tamari is the editor of the Jerusalem Quarterly and director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies. His most recent works are The Mountain Against the Sea: Studies in the Conflictual Modernity of Palestine, and Year of the Locust: The Demise of Ottoman Identity in Palestine (December 2006).