No “Palestinian Arab people” existed at the start of 1920, but, by December, it took shape in a form recognizably similar to today’s.
Until the late nineteenth century, residents living in the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean identified themselves primarily in terms of religion: Muslims felt far stronger bonds with remote co-religionists than with nearby Christians and Jews. Living in that area did not imply any sense of common political purpose.
Then came the ideology of nationalism from Europe; its ideal of a government that embodies the spirit of its people was alien but appealing to Middle Easterners. How to apply this ideal, though? Who constitutes a nation and where must the boundaries be? These questions stimulated huge debates.
Some said the residents of the Levant are a nation; others said Eastern Arabic speakers; or all Arabic speakers; or all Muslims.
But no one suggested “Palestinians,” and for good reason. Palestine, then a secular way of saying Eretz Yisrael or Terra Sancta, embodied a purely Jewish and Christian concept, one utterly foreign to Muslims, even repugnant to them.
This distaste was confirmed in April 1920, when the British occupying force carved out a “Palestine.” Muslims reacted very suspiciously, rightly seeing this designation as a victory for Zionism. Less accurately, they worried about it signaling a revival in the Crusader impulse. No prominent Muslim voices endorsed the delineation of Palestine in 1920; all protested it.
Instead, Muslims west of the Jordan directed their allegiance to Damascus, where the great-great-uncle of Jordan’s King Abdullah II was then ruling; they identified themselves as Southern Syrians.
Interestingly, no one advocated this affiliation more emphatically than a young man named Amin Husseini. In July 1920, however, the French overthrew this Hashemite king, in the process killing the notion of a Southern Syria.
Isolated by the events of April and July, the Muslims of Palestine made the best of a bad situation. One prominent Jerusalemite commented, just days following the fall of the Hashemite kingdom: “after the recent events in Damascus, we have to effect a complete change in our plans here. Southern Syria no longer exists. We must defend Palestine.”
Following this advice, the leadership in December 1920 adopted the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state. Within a few years, this effort was led by Husseini.
Other identities – Syrian, Arab, and Muslim – continued to compete for decades afterward with the Palestinian one, but the latter has by now mostly swept the others aside and reigns nearly supreme.
The writer is director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum