Friday, November 13, 2009

A Distinct Palestinian Entity?

I have only just now come across this article by Louis Fishman:

The 1911 Haram al-Sharif Incident: Palestinian Notables Versus the Ottoman Administration in The Journal of Palestine Studies, 2005, Vol 34; Part 3; Issue 135, pages 6-22.

and the article, as per the abstract:

...details the unfolding of a crisis in late Ottoman Palestine where a countrywide mobilization, led by the notables, was triggered by the discovery of secret excavations directly under the Dome of the Rock by a British exploration team with the complicity of some Ottoman officials. All social classes, educated and non-educated, Christians and Muslims, were galvanized by the perceived violation of the Haram al-Sharif, a fact the author sees as indicative of the emergence of a distinct Palestinian (as opposed to Arab or Ottoman) identity. In addition to demonstrating the importance of the Haram and Jerusalem to Palestinians of all religions, the incident also highlights certain elements that are not absent from the present situation: the population's deep mistrust of the West and its fears of Zionist-Western collusion and threats to religious integrity.

It is an excerpt from his Ph.D. dissertation, supervised by Rashid Khalidi: Palestine revisited: Reassessing the Jewish and Arab national movements, 1908--1914, The University of Chicago, 2007.

His main point is, undoubtedy, there there was "the emergence of a distinct Palestinian (as opposed to Arab or Ottoman) identity" although I appreciated more the historical telling (I can't use the term 'narrative' anymore in this context) of the events of Parker's Folly which is a jolly good tale.

He does emphasize that about at the time of the specific incident (which has been well covered, for example see Neil Asher Silberman, In Search of Solomon's Lost Treasures, in the Biblical Archaeological Review July/August 1980, pp.31-33; in Naomi Shepherd's The Zealous Intruders: The Western Rediscovery of Palestine in 1987; in a Nexus magazine issue in 2006 and at web sites such as here),

"Palestine's Arab inhabitants began to define themselves as 'Palestinian'".
Of course, one could say that if someone is in a country called X, then it evolves quite naturally to refer to oneself as X-ian, no? The problem, though, is did the Arabs think of the country as Palestine, as an intrinsically Arab country, as a distinct geographic entity called Palestine or did they just use that name because that's how people, not themselves specifically, referred to the territory?

Well, that really is a - or the - problem because while Fishman quotes documents in Arabic as describing Palestine (and I presume the word is Filastin) as a "dear land" (bilad aziza) and as a "beloved land" (biladna al-mahbuba) as if that is something special as designating "Palestine" as a country, and that one of the main newspapers in Arabic at the time was call Filastin, he nevertheless has to point out, in footnote 3, that administratively, the territory was under two administrative jurisdictions and that

"Palestine was not seen at the time as a separate entity; rather, it was part of bilad al-Sham, or Greater Syria...[that] had no national or political connotation".

May we ask: was "Palestine" truly a political connotation, seared into local Arab consciousness, as he would seem to imply?

More to the crux of the matter, why would a supposedly separate Arab national unit refer to themselves by a non-Arabic name, Filastin? Their nationalism is so poor, so shalow that they cannot find or have an actual Arab-language name for this supposed "country" of theirs?

Moreover, did the term "Palestine" actually mean a separate and distinct national entity or simply a geographical region? Did not Arabs of the area, into the 1920s, refer to themselves as "Southern Syrians", in terms of nationality?

Consider this, as Daniel Pipes explains: "the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (published in 1911) explains that Palestine "may be said generally to denote the southern third of the province of Syria." And it continues there: "Three months later, Faysal wrote General Edmund Allenby that Palestine 'is an inseperable [sic] part of Syria'. Faysal was hardly alone in this view. His rival Shukri Ghanim, an advocate of French rule in Syria, declared Palestine "incontestably the Southern portion of our country." Two General Syrian Congresses identified Palestine by name as an integral part of Syria. The first called for "no separation of the southern part of Syria, known as Palestine;" the second unanimously proclaimed "the complete and unconditional independence of our country Syria, including Palestine, within its natural boundaries."

And as regards newspapers, in 'Palestine' the head of a local political group, "the Arab Club, Kamil al-Budayri, co-edited from September 1919 the newspaper Suriya al-Janubiya ("Southern Syria") which advocated Palestine's incorporation into Greater Syria". And more: "Musa Kazim al-Husayni, Head of the Jerusalem Town Council (in effect, mayor) told a Zionist interlocutor in October 1919: "We demand no separation from Syria." The slogan heard everywhere in 1918-19 was "Unity, Unity, From the Taurus [Mountains in Turkey] to Rafah [in Gaza], Unity, Unity."

The whole article contains much material which would cast doubt on Fishman's seemingly meager evidence.

And as for the element of the notables, the leading families leading a mjor protest based on "Palestinian identity", it seems they regressed fairly quickly during the Mandate period instead of deepening that identity. For example: The Arab historian George Antonius delineated Palestine in 1939 as part of "the whole of the country of the name [Syria] which is now split up into mandated territories..." (11 - George Antonius, The Arab Awakening. The Story of the Arab National Movement (Philadelphia, New York, Toronto: J.B. Lippincott, 1939), p. 15, n.1; also see Mandel, Arabs and Zionism, pp. 151-153.)

The very pro-Pal. Israelis, Kimmerling and Migdal, wrote: "In January, 1919, the leading Palestinian families organized a Palestinian Arab conference under the auspices of the Jaffa and Jerusalem Muslim-Christian Associations. Despite some sentiment for Palestinian autonomy under British guidance, including that of Jerusalem's Arif al-Dajani, who presided over the proceedings, a consensus emerged to support Faysal's ambition [to be king of greater Syria]. Zionism was strongly rejected; Palestine would remain an Arab country as part of a federated, Faysal-led Syria...At the Third Arab Congress, held in Haifa in December, 1920, they [Palestinian notables] revived the plan that Arif al-Dajani and some of the other older notables had proposed in the country-wide conference of January, 1919. That plan had stressed the autonomy of the Palestinian Arabs and their unique circumstances."

This would mean that Fishman's theory is, well, lacking in historical basis, at least for the period he is writing about.

Either, he is wrong, or his definition of 'emergence' is premature or he was trying to please his supervisor/mentor, Prof. Khalidi, one of the most outspoke and prolific of the "Palestinian identity" academics, along with Masalha whom I have dealt with here.

Gee, scholarship these days, or recent days.


If the archaeological aspect interests you, maybe this will add to your reading pleasure.

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