2017 will undoubtedly be a critical year for Palestine. We are standing at the crossroads of many different possibilities that could have serious implications for the future of the area. Positive or negative, disastrous or beneficial, the people between the river and the sea wait in anticipation to see which direction the future will take them. However, I can’t help but feel that the adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is appropriate here. No matter how many times people insist that we are on the cusp of a new era in the “conflict”, the same old arguments and myths animating much of the debate on Palestine since the beginning of the 20th century remain remarkably persistent.
For those familiar with Palestinian activism, or have studied Palestine academically, these arguments and slogans have become clichés and inside jokes. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you’ve also had your fair share of encounters with classics such as:
“Israel made the desert bloom”
“There was never a state called Palestine”
Or my favorite:
“A land without a people, for a people without a land.”
This last one I find especially entertaining, as it clashes so terribly with other Israeli talking points. In the end it amounts to something similar to “We are under existential threat from the people who don’t exist..
One such frequently recurring theme when discussing the historic narratives of both peoples, is the question of “who was there first?”. The implication being, whoever was there first deserves ownership of the land. I have lost count of how many times I have encountered the argument that “The Jewish people have been in Palestine before the Muslims/Arabs,” or a variation thereof. This has always struck me as an interesting example of how people learn just enough history to support their world view, separating it completely from any historical context or the larger picture of the region.
Since this question is so widespread, and since I see it answered in different, and in my opinion, unhelpful ways, I would like to open up the topic for wider discussion.
The argument is simple to follow: Palestinians today are mostly Arabs. The Arabs came to the Levant with the Muslim conquest of the region. Therefore, Arabs -and as an extension Palestinians- have only been in Palestine and the Levant since the seventh century AD.
There are a couple of glaring problems with this line of thought. First of all, there is a clear conflation of Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians. None of these are interchangeable. Arabs have had a long history in the Levant before the advent of Islam. For example, The Nabataean kingdom ruled over Jordan, southern Palestine and Sinai a whole millennium before Muslims ever set foot in the area. Another example would be the Ghassanid kingdom, which was a Christian Arab kingdom that extended over vast areas of the region. As a matter of fact, many prominent Christian families in Palestine today, such as Maalouf, Haddad and Khoury, can trace back their lineage to the Ghassanid kingdom.
The second problem with this is that there is a misunderstanding of the process that is the Arabization of the Middle East and North Africa. Once again, we must view the Islamization of newly conquered lands and their Arabization as two distinct phenomena. The Islamization process began instantly, albeit slowly. Persia, for example took over 2 centuries to become a majority Muslim province. The Levant, much longer. The Arabization of conquered provinces though, began later than their Islamization. The beginning of this process can be traced back to the Marwanid dynasty of the Ummayad Caliphate. Until that point, each province was ruled mostly with its own language, laws and currency. The process of the Arabization of the state united all these under Arabic speaking officials, and made it law that the language of state and of commerce would become Arabic. Thus, it became advantageous to claim this identity, as many government positions and trade deals were offered only to Muslim Arabs.
So although the vast majority of the population of these lands were not ethnically Arab, they came to identify as such over a millennium, for various reasons*. Nowhere is this clearer than in Egypt. In the last century, Egypt has served as the hub for Pan-Arabist nationalism and ideology. However, recent studies show that only 17% of Egyptian DNA is actually comprised of Arab DNA. A similar process was seen in Lebanon, where 44% of Lebanese DNA is of Arab origins. This is important to understand, because in contrast to European colonialism of the new world, where the native population was mostly eradicated to make place for the invaders, the process in MENA is one of the conquered peoples mixing with and coming to identify as their conquerors without being physically removed, if not as Arabs, then as Muslims.
Following from this, the Palestinian Arabs of today did not suddenly appear from the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century to settle in Palestine, but are the same indigenous peoples living there who changed how they identified over time**. This includes the descendants of every group that has ever called Palestine their home. When regions change rulers, they don’t normally change populations. Throughout history, peoples have often changed how they identified politically. The Sardinians eventually became Italians, Prussians became Germans. We must separate the political nationalist identity of people from their personhood as human beings, as nationalism is a relatively modern concept, especially in the Middle East.
So what does this all mean for our argument?
Although the argument has many ahistorical assumptions and claims, which I have tried to correct, it is not these which form its greatest weakness. The whole argument is a trap. The basic implication of this line of argumentation is as follows:
If the Jewish people were in Palestine before the Arabs, then the land belongs to them. Therefore the creation of Israel is justified.
From my experience, whenever this argument is used, the automatic response of Palestinians is to say that their ancestors were there first. These ancestors being the Canaanites. The idea that Palestinians are the descendants of only one particular group in a region with mass migrations and dozens of different empires and peoples is not only ahistorical, but this line of thought indirectly legitimizes the original argument they are fighting against.
Because it implies that the only reason Israel’s creation is unjustified is because their Palestinian ancestors were there first. It implies that the problem with the argument lies in the details, not that the argument as a whole is absolute nonsense and shouldn’t be entertained, it should be utterly rejected.
The ethnic cleansing, massacres and colonialism needed to establish Israel can never be justified, regardless of who was there first. It’s a moot point. Even if we follow the argument that Palestinians have only been there for 1300 years, does this suddenly legitimize the expulsion of hundreds of thousands? Of course not. There is no possible scenario where it is excusable to perpetrate war crimes against a people. Human rights apply to people universally, regardless of whether they have lived in an area for a year or ten thousand years.
If we reject the “we were there first” argument, and not treat it as a legitimizing factor for Israel’s creation, then we can focus on the real history, without any ideological agendas. We could trace how our pasts intersected throughout the centuries. After all, there is indeed Jewish history in Palestine. This history forms a part of the Palestinian past and heritage, just like every other group, kingdom or empire that settled there does. We must stop viewing Palestinian and Jewish histories as competing, mutually exclusive entities.
These positions can be maintained while simultaneously rejecting Zionism and the Nakba.
This ideologically driven impulse to imagine our ancestors as some closed, well defined, unchanging heterogeneous group having exclusive ownership over the land has nothing to do with the actual history of the area, and everything to do with modern notions of ethnic nationalism and statehood.
So, in the end, who was there first?
If you’re still asking this within the context of the Palestinian question, then I’m afraid to say you’re asking the wrong question. It doesn’t matter. Human rights don’t have an expiration date.
*The Arabization of the new Muslim provinces and the Arabization push accompanying the surge of pan-Arab nationalism in the 20th century are two different phenomena. Regardless, I found it important to clarify that such a process was not free of coercion in one way or another. Especially in the latter case, Arabization included the repression of natives who defined themselves differently. Prominent examples being our Amazigh, Kurdish and Nubian brothers and sisters. It should be understood that I condemn all such actions.
**Naturally, no region is a closed container. Trade, immigration, invasion and intermarriage all played a role in creating the current build up of Palestinian society. There were many additions to the people of the land over the millennia. However, the fact remains that there was never a process where Arab or Muslim conquerors completely replaced the native population living there, only added to them.