(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

In their preface, the authors immediately reject both the common claim by Palestinians that their history as a “singular people” reaches back to ancient times and the Israeli denial of any such entity before it was created by Zionist successes. Instead, a “self-identified Palestinian people” evolved only in the last two centuries, as a result of European economic and political pressures and of Jewish settlement.

The authors stress, first, grass-roots changes in population distribution; second, the relations between town and country, hill and plain, secular and religious, Christian and Muslim, diaspora and Palestine-based, while ignoring claims of an essential Palestinian character; third, “capitalism’s insidious penetration of the Ottoman Empire” long before the rise of Zionism; and fourth, the central importance of the Palestinians, with the Jews given a supporting role. The concept of a Palestinian society owes much to the pressure exerted on it by Zionism, a fact recognized by Palestinians. Zionists, however, have not acknowledged the effects on them of their engagement with the Palestinians, for “perhaps doing so would involve too painful an encounter with Zionism’s political counterpart—what we might call ‘Palestinism’: the belief that the Arab population originating in the area of the Palestine mandate is distinct from other Arab groups, with a right to its own nation-state in that territory.”

Palestine is made up of the West Bank, the desert of the southern Negev, the narrow coastal strip that includes Gaza, Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre, and the beautiful valleys and hills of the north. The story of Palestine’s people is the history of the peasants, who, with the large landowners, have enabled the emergence of a self-conscious society over the last two centuries. At the center of this history are three revolts: the unsuccessful attempt in 1834 to thwart the Egyptian rulers’ move to transform peasant society; the uprising in 1936-1939 against imperial Britain’s dominance; and theIntifada (“shaking off”) beginning in 1987 that sought fruitlessly to achieve political independence.

The 1834 outbreak began in May, ended in August with a brutal Egyptian victory, and was followed by broad changes in the peasants’ lives. Subsistence farming succumbed to the high prices landowners enjoyed in selling their oranges, cotton, and other crops to European markets. The Egyptians had ruled Palestine only by Ottoman consent, and when the Ottomans returned in 1840 they instituted reforms that demanded titles of ownership for land, a policy that inevitably benefited the notables who quickly took over large tracts and left the peasants powerless. The initial wave of Jewish immigration into Palestine occurred in 1882, and as more Jewish immigrants arrived they changed the peasants’ lives by buying the best land from absentee landlords. The influx of Russian Jews just before World War I included the core of the future Israeli leadership.

In the nineteenth century, inland towns such as Nablus, with their important families, declined in importance, while Haifa and Jaffa, bustling port cities, grew with innovations and vigorous trade. By the late 1920’s, however, the economy had slowed, and Zionist labor policies forced Arab laborers into low-skilled jobs. Although family-oriented urban migrants retained their devotion to a myth of an idyllic rural life, their clumping together in cities encouraged social organizations and a growing intelligentsia that fostered a nascent Palestinian identity. Following the Great War, material culture bloomed under the British mandate, but the hill country peasants remained on the margins of this prosperity, forcing restless and unemployed young men and the urban poor into a revolutionary coalition that harassed Jewish settlers until the British quelled the rebels in 1935.

When the Jerusalem elite assumed more power after the 1834 revolt, Christians and Jews benefited, but the number of Muslims in administrative offices grew. Although the Ottomans prevented any one family from gaining dominance, the powerful clans of the Khalidis, the Alamis, and the Nashashibis earned experience that would help them later as advocates of Palestinian Arab nationalism. By the nineteenth century’s end, the Jerusalem notables felt themselves at the center of events, began calling themselves Palestinians, and in 1891 sought to prevent Jews from buying land in Palestine. They were stunned, however, by Britain’s facilitation of Jewish land acquisitions and by the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British government announced its support for a Jewish homeland.

At the Third Arab Congress in 1920, the...

(The entire section is 1914 words.)