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Wednesday, July 28, 1999

Who is a Palestinian?

By DAVID NEWMAN, The Jerusalem Post


(July 28) - What's in a name? A great deal, it seems. In a recent column on this page, I used the term "Palestinian residents of Israel" to describe those Israeli citizens who are Arabs. The copy editor changed it, explaining that the paper did not refer to Arabs who lived within the Green Line as "Palestinians" but as "Israeli Arabs." By this definition, the latter group is not part of the Palestinian people.

Tell that to Hadash MK Hashem Mahameed, the first Arab to be appointed to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and who proudly defines himself as a Palestinian, not an Israeli Arab, nor as an Arab citizen of Israel.

There is no longer any question surrounding the use of the term "Palestine" or "Palestinians," although only 10 years ago, this was an unacceptable term in Israeli political discourse.

It took the intifada for most Israelis to finally accept the fact that the Palestinians are a people, no different from the mosaic of peoples that make up the rest of the world. We have also come to accept that, sooner or later, there will be a separate Palestinian state which is likely to be called Palestine.

We so easily forget that prior to the partition of this small country in 1948, there was a single political and social entity under British administration which included all of the Arab and Jewish residents of this area from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Jordan Valley in the east. All of them, Arabs and Jews, were known as Palestinians.

When the State of Israel was established, Palestinian Jews, together with the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who came to the country, immediately took on a new national identity - that of Israelis, a name which had been decided upon by David Ben-Gurion almost at the very last moment before he read the Declaration of Independence.

The emergence of a separate Palestinian national identity took another 40 years, spurred on particularly by the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six Day War.

Despite all the historical arguments and polemics aimed at showing that there was, or was not, a separate Palestinian Arab identity prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, and/or that the Palestinian identity was an artificial construction of the past few decades, the fact remains that a separate Palestinian identity has emerged.

And as with all national groups which have emerged over the course of history, their right to be called a nation is not rooted in whether they existed hundreds of years ago or not. The simple fact that they constitute a group, numbering several million, who have shared beliefs, with common cultural and territorial ties, at any given point in history, is sufficient to legitimize their claims to independence and statehood - although whether they actually achieve statehood or not is another matter altogether.

It should not be particularly surprising that the younger Arab residents of Israel increasingly identify themselves as Palestinians. They are better educated than their parents, more sure of their right to express themselves, and increasingly feel their second-class status as compared to their Jewish neighbors.

As the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza move forward in their quest for statehood, it is quite logical that the Arab residents of Israel should seek to identify with them, much the same way as Jews throughout the world identify with the Jewish state.

This does not mean that they automatically seek to secede from the State of Israel and become part of the new Palestinian state. Indeed, most surveys show quite the opposite; that while they increasingly identify as Palestinians, the majority prefer to remain Israeli citizens.

Rather than see them as a fifth column, representing the interests of Israel's enemies, the new government would do well to understand that it is precisely through their "Palestinianism" that they can build the bridges linking Israel and a future Palestine.

After 50 years of conflict, we should have learned that we can no more deny others self-determination than others were able to deny our own.

This is totally unrelated to these Arabs' citizenship and country of residence. It doesn't take a fool to look a few years down the road and see a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, while Palestinian residents of Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, who may identify with the new state, will remain citizens of the countries within which they reside.

"When a Jew, in America or in South Africa, talks to his Jewish companions about 'our' government, he means the government of Israel."

- David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister

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