What's a Palestinian?

Uncovering Cultural Complexities

The Palestinian flag flies after being raised by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a ceremony outside the United Nations during the 70th session of the U. N. General Assembly in New York, September 30, 2015. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Last week, on his return from a tour of the Holy Land, former Governor of Arkansas and Republican presidential nomination candidate Mike Huckabee said to The Washington Post that “there’s really no such thing as the Palestinians.”

“The idea that they have a long history, dating back hundreds or thousands of years, is not true,” Huckabee continued, citing one of the tour’s speakers, Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein.

Huckabee’s comments are far from the first on the issue from a United States politician. “There was no Palestine as a state,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told the Jewish Channel when running for president in 2011. “It was part of the Ottoman Empire. I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs.”

It is not often that American presidential candidates make public pronouncements about the historical origins of national identities, but the Palestinian identity is a unique case. It has long been the source of much controversy and mystery, begging the question of when the Arabic speakers of Palestine first began calling themselves Palestinians.


Based on hundreds of manuscripts, Islamic court records, books, magazines, and newspapers from the Ottoman period (1516–1918), it seems that the first Arab to use the term “Palestinian” was Farid Georges Kassab, a Beirut-based Orthodox Christian who espoused hostility toward the Orthodox clerical establishment but sympathy for Zionism. Kassab’s 1909 book Palestine, Hellenism, and Clericalism focused on the status of Greek Orthodox Christianity in Palestine, but noted in passing that “the Orthodox Palestinian Ottomans call themselves Arabs, and are in fact Arabs,” despite describing the Arabic speakers of Palestine as Palestinians throughout the rest of the book.

The term “Palestinian” soon caught on: In 1910, an anonymous contributor to the Haifa-based paper al-Nafir praised an Egyptian writer for acknowledging that Palestinians had made significant literary contributions to the bourgeoning intellectual atmosphere of the age, but criticized him for failing to mention the Palestinians by name. In 1911, the Orthodox

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