Chapter 3


This paper will not dwell long or in detail on the issue of Palestinian national consciousness, since that subject alone would justify an extensive study in its own right. However, to evaluate Palestine's potential for viability, it is necessary to determine whether a Palestinian national consciousness exists.

National consciousness and identification with a nation-state is a relatively new phenomenon among the Arab peoples. From the time of the Islamic conquest of greater Syria--an area that incorporated not just what is today Syria and Lebanon, but Jordan, Israel and the occupied territories as well--the Arabs who colonized the region and overwhelmingly dominated the other ethnic groups in the area regarded themselves as merely part of the much greater Arab nation, whose territory at one time stretched from North Africa to the frontiers of Persia and Asia Minor. There was some sense of regionalism, to be sure--i.e., a person might be from the Damascus region, or the Jordan valley, or the Lebanon, with language dialects and domestic customs differing somewhat from those of other regions. The Ottoman Empire fostered this tendency by establishing provincial bureaucracies to manage local governmental affairs. Yet a person's identity continued primarily to rest first with family and clan, next with Islam and finally with one's fellow Arabs as a race.

Individual Arab nationalism seems to have begun to develop towards the end of the 19th and into the early days of the 20th Centuries. The Arab revolt during World War I, together with the West's arcane dealings and frequently broken promises, whetted Arab appetites for nations of their own. One major study concludes that Palestinian nationalism had its genesis here, but became further defined by the influx of Jewish immigrants and the founding of the State of Israel. 1

Three main factors seem to have played a role in solidifying Palestinian consciousness: Israeli conquest, expulsion, and handling of the Palestinians under its control; refusal of surrounding Arab lands to assimilate Palestinian refugees; and Palestinian refusal to be assimilated--maintaining steadfastly their sense of being wronged and the desire to return to their ancestral homes.

However it came to be, Palestinian national consciousness, and with it a well-defined nationalism, is a reality today. Milton Viorst portrays the refugee camps in the territories and surrounding countries as being a major focus of Palestinian community spirit. They are "rich in Palestinian social relations," and are "important to the refugees' feelings that their fate has not been settled." 2

In the territories, this increasing national identity is represented by "the total mobilization of West Bank villages alongside the cities and refugee camps," which have been "in the forefront of resistance during the intifada. . . defin[ing] it as a truly national endeavor." 3

Actions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were important in achieving this national consciousness. After much of the PLO's military capability was destroyed in Lebanon in 1982, it set about promoting as an alternative the mass political organizations for women, students, and youth that had developed during the 1970s. According to one analyst, "It was this shift. . .[that] tipped the balance and mobilized the majority of West Bank and Gaza Communities into conscious participation in the nationalist political effort." 4

Indeed, the very fact that the Palestinian population all but universally supports the PLO and its statist agenda--underscored yet further by its 1988 Palestinian "Declaration of Independence"--as the only legitimate representative of the Palestininan people, strongly supports the notion that a mature national consciousness exists among Palestinians. In fact, as Emile Sahliyeh notes: "As the PLO grew in power, Palestinian national consciousness replaced Arab nationalism as the ideological focus for the West Bank urban elite." 5

Today, displaying the Palestinian national flag--or even its colors--has become a sign of bravery and defiance among the Palestinians in the occupied territories, made even more symbolic by Israeli attempts to stamp out the practice. In the refugee camps national consciousness is promoted through folk art, embroidery, songs, and dancing. The several thousand teachers in refugee schools are "a permanent lobby on behalf of Palestinian nationhood. . .They communicate their nationalism in the classroom, . . . arousing students who for the most part have already been heavily politicized at home." 6

Palestinian womens' and professional organization in Egypt and elsewhere deliberately promoted Palestinian consciousness and political awareness. 7  In the so-called "Palestinian Diaspora," identity as Palestinians has been maintained and reinforced by reconstituting family and village structure in areas with large percentages of Palestinians, and by regular pilgrimages to the West Bank or Gaza when possible, which "reinforce[s] the sense of identification with the larger family, and by extension, Palestine." 8

Though national consciousness cannot be measured, its presence can be observed and confirmed. Whatever its origins, however recent its emergence, or whatever one thinks of it, there can be little doubt that Palestinian national consciousness exists, and that it has given birth to a determined nationalist movement.


  1. Muhammad Y. Muslih, The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), ix-x.
  2. Milton Viorst, Reaching for the Olive Branch: UNRWA and Peace in the Middle East, (Washington, DC: The Middle East Institute, 1989), 52.
  3. Mouin Rabbini, reviewing A Season of Stones: Living in a Palestinian Village, in The Journal of Palestine Studies, 22, no. 1 (Autumn 1992): 111.
  4. Helena Cobban, "The PLO and the Intifada," in The Intifada: Its Impact on Israel, the Arab World, and the Superpowers, ed. Robert O. Freedman, (Miami: Florida International University Press), 83.
  5. Emile Sahliyeh, In Search of Leadership
  6. Viorst, 90.
  7. Laurie Brand, Palestinians in the Arab World: Institution Building and Search for State, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 96.
  8. Brand, 117.

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