Alternative names: (in Israel: Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Israelis)
Location: Israel (including occupied East Jerusalem), Occupied Territories (West Bank of River Jordan, Gaza Strip on Mediterranean coast), Jordan (East Bank), Lebanon, Syria, other Middle Eastern countries
Population: Total 4.9 million; Israel 700,000, East Jerusalem 122,000, West Bank 890,000, Gaza Strip 500,000, Jordan 1.2 million, Lebanon 360,000, Syria 250,000, other Middle Eastern countries 720,000, elsewhere 350,000
Religion: Muslim (85%) mainly Sunni, small Shi’a and Druze communities; Christian (10%) Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, some Roman Catholic and Protestant
Language: Arabic, Hebrew

The Palestinians are the descendants of the earliest recorded residents of Palestine who intermarried with later conquerors. Among these were the Philistines, the Jews and the Arabs who conquered Palestine and Syria in the seventh century AD. From 1516 until 1917 the region was administered by Ottoman Turkey and it then came under British rule which lasted until 1948. Since that time the Palestinians have been turned from a dominant majority to a stateless minority group living under many different administrations — Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese, in UN refugee camps and elsewhere. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has continued for over 40 years and no solution which is acceptable to both sides appears to be in sight.

Palestinian society is composed of different religious and social communities. The vast majority of Muslim Palestinians traditionally lived in rural areas whereas over half of the Christian group was urban. As in the surrounding countries, leadership was divided between the notable Muslim families and the religious hierarchies of the various faiths and sects. Nomads and semi-nomads formed 5-10% of the population at the end of the nineteenth century and there was also a pre-Zionist Jewish community which by 1881 made up approximately 6% of the total population of Palestine. During most of the Ottoman period Palestine was not a single administrative unit but part of Syria. As late as World War I there was no real concept of “Palestinian”, and the first “Palestinian” utterances came about only as a result of increasing Jewish immigration which had begun in the late nineteenth century but which by 1914 had become a major political issue.

The beginnings of Jewish settlement

The Jews who settled in Palestine after 1881 had little in common with the old established Jewish communities. They were a people inspired by Jewish nationalism to flee the pogroms of eastern Europe and settle in Eretz Israel, the kingdom of Zion and land of their ancestors. As these new immigrants arrived they began buying land and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was formed with the purpose of facilitating land purchase. The JNF stipulated that all land purchased by the Fund would remain inalienably Jewish and that only Jews could work on it.

The British, who captured Palestine in 1917 and ruled by League of Nations mandate from 1922, actively encouraged the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. The government stressed, however, that no action should be taken which might jeopardize the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in the area. The creation of a national homeland was clearly the goal of Zionists and a stipulation that a Jewish agency should assist the British authorities to develop Palestine economically further weakened the position of the Palestinian population.

Palestinian chances of moderating the effect of Jewish settlement were forfeited when both Muslim and Christian Arabs boycotted elections for a legislative council in 1923 on the grounds that British mandatory rule legitimized Zionism in Palestine. Increasingly severe attacks on Jewish settlements were taking place and the British government decided to limit Jewish immigration; however, vacillation on the part of the British resulted in the revolt of 1936 in which British troops took 18 months to suppress the attempt by Palestinian peasants to drive both the British and the Jewish settlers from their land. In 1937 a partition of Palestine was proposed by the British and when this was rejected by the Palestinians a government White Paper proposed the restriction of Jewish immigrants to 75,000 over five years. The proposal did not go far enough for the Palestinians and it was a bitter blow to the Jews in view of what was now happening in Europe.

The Arab-Israeli War of 1948

Following the events of World War II Britain referred the Palestinian question to the United Nations. The near-extermination of European Jewry had driven survivors to a desperate search for refuge in Palestine. Palestinians were now faced with world opinion which favoured the notion of a Jewish homeland, an organized Jewish defence force which the British had helped to train during the 1936 rebellion, and a weakened fighting capacity as a result of their defeat during the same rebellion. The United Nations decided to partition Palestine, awarding 54% of the land area to the proposed Jewish state. Within that state Arabs would constitute 50.5% of the population and own three times the land area owned by the Jews; in the proposed Arab state Arabs would make up 98.7% of the population and in the proposed international zone around Jerusalem, 51.4%. The Palestine Arabs rejected the UN plan on the grounds that it violated the principle of self-determination set out in the United Nations Charter. British relations with the Jews and the Arabs were steadily worsening. Jewish terrorist activity was increasing and official Jewry was dismayed by the British recognition of the related mandatory territory of Transjordan as an independent sovereign state in May 1946.

The British withdrawal from Palestine in 1948 was marked by fighting between Jews and Palestinians. By the time Arab armies had crossed into Palestine on May 15 the Haganah or Jewish forces had captured sizeable parts of Palestine which had been allocated to the proposed Arab state. As they advanced a number of atrocities occurred, notably at Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, where 254 villagers died. Fear of similar atrocities caused some 725,000 Arabs to abandon their homes and flee to neighbouring countries where they were settled in refugee camps which soon acquired an air of permanency.

In 1948 Transjordanian forces crossed into Palestine and were soon in control of most of Arab Palestine. Egypt, fearing Transjordanian ambitions in the area, established a Government of All-Palestine based in Gaza but with authority in Egyptian-occupied southern Palestine. By the end of the year Israeli forces had driven southward across the Negev desert to Eilat and separated Hebron from Gaza, gaining control of most of southern Palestine. The Egyptian army maintained a hold over the narrow costal strip of Gaza on the Mediterranean and 190,000 Palestinian refugees swamped the resident population of 80,000 in an area only 45 kilometres long by six to ten kilometres wide. By 1949, when an armistice was agreed, Jewish forces were in control of 73% of Palestine.

The wars of 1956 and 1967

In April 1950 the West Bank region was formally incorporated into the “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan” which had been created from Transjordan in 1946. The population of Jordan almost trebled to 1,280,000, of whom more than half-a-million were refugees either in West Bank or East Bank. Although the great increase in territory and population increased the power of the Kingdom of Jordan it also destabilized it and from 1948 until 1967 the Jordanian government suppressed Palestinian nationalist expression which consequently began to manifest itself in the refugee camps.

In the course of its 1956 campaign against Egypt, Israel invaded and occupied the Gaza Strip. Its withdrawal under US pressure the following year was seen as a victory for President Nasser and for Arab nationalism. The Gazan economy began to flourish as a result both of the opening of Eastern European markets to citrus production and its new status as a tax-free port, which encouraged Egyptian holiday-makers to visit the region.

In 1967 the Arab armies were routed by Israeli forces which seized large areas including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Thousands of Palestinians fled their villages or refugee camps and 355,000 crossed the River Jordan into the East Bank where they were housed in emergency camps in Jordan and Syria. These temporary camps, like those erected in 1948, soon took on a permanence never intended. Whereas before 1967 some Palestinians had been living under Arab — if not Palestinian — rule, after that date all Palestine was subject to Israeli rule. The Labour government of Israel accepted Security Council Resolution 242 which states that acquisition of territory by war is inadmissible, but later stressed that in its interpretation “withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories of recent conflict” did not mean all those territories, indeed Israel had already annexed East Jerusalem.

The growth of Palestinian resistance movements

Of the various Palestinian resistance groups the following have been the most influential: (i) Fatah: The largest single group, led by Yasir Arafat, it stresses that political disagreement should be subordinate to the question of the return of refugees. Fatah is an umbrella organization which is able to withstand much internal disagreement and it has survived the split of 1983; (ii) Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO): Formed in 1964 as a result of a move within the Arab League, the PLO was seen as a means of “organizing the Palestinian people and enabling them to play their role in the liberation of their country and their self-determination”. The growth of Fatah after the 1967 war led to the movement gaining control of the Executive Committee of the PLO and the election of Arafat as its chairman; (iii) Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP): Established by George Habash, the PFLP is the most extreme branch of Palestinian resistance. It advocates revolutionary violence and has only intermittently held a seat on the PLO executive committee because of disagreements with Fatah. The PFLP was responsible for the hijacking of international aircraft between 1968 and 1972 and the killing of 27 people at Lod airport in 1972, after which it renounced the use of terrorist tactics; (iv) Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP): A left-wing breakaway group of the PFLP under the leadership of Naif Hawatmeh. Formed in 1969, the DFLP was the first group to publicly accept the right of Jews to their own state but has as its ultimate objective the formation of a popular democratic state of all inhabitants of Palestine; and (v) Fatah Revolutionary Council (Black June Organization), led by Abu Nidal, is based in Syria and is not part of the PLO. Its members left Fatah in 1976 when it became more moderate, and it was responsible for the deaths of PLO representatives in London, Kuwait and Paris and probably for the Rome and Vienna airport terrorist attacks in 1985. It also claimed responsibility for the attempted assassination of the Israeli Ambassador in London which triggered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Other resistance groups include the Syrian-backed National Alliance which includes As Saiqa, PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC), and Palestine Popular Struggle Front (PPSF): and the Iraqi-backed Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) and Arab Liberation Front (ALF).

In countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, made vulnerable by the presence of thousands of Palestinian refugees or by internal political instability, the presence of large numbers of fedayeen, as the resistance groups are known, affected relations between the Palestinians and the host government. In Jordan the tensions erupted in 1970-71 into a battle in which Jordanian troops drove the fedayeen from the country with the loss of about 3,000 Palestinian lives, military and civilian. In Lebanon the dominant Maronite community felt itself increasingly threatened by the support given the PLO by the poorer sectors of society such as the Shi’ite villagers of southern Lebanon and the large Sunni and Shi’ite population of the Beirut slums. When, following the 1969 Cairo Agreement, the state ceded control of the Palestinian refugee camps to the PLO and sanctioned PLO operations against Israel, progress towards civil war was rapidly accelerated.

Following the events of 1970-71 the majority of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories switched allegiance from Jordan to the PLO. The Arab League’s decision in 1974 to recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians was very popular amongst the Palestinians; however this optimism was shortlived as the right-wing Likud government was elected in Israel in 1977. The new government had as its aim the total integration of the territories into Israel’s economy. In 1975 the US and Israel reached a formal agreement to the effect that there would be no US recognition of or negotiation with the PLO until it recognized Israel’s right to exist and accepted Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. In 1977 the peace initiative by Anwar Sadat led to the Camp David Agreement between Israel and Egypt, an agreement hailed in the West but denounced by all Arab states since it rejected the Palestinian claim to self-determination in favour of an autonomy plan for the West Bank and Gaza. Camp David in effect also freed Israel to invade Lebanon in 1982 in pursuit of the PLO.

In March 1978 an attack by Fatah commandos on Israel’s coastal road resulted in the deaths of 37 civilians and caused Israel to invade Lebanon in an attempt to drive the PLO out of southern Lebanon. Israeli troops withdrew as a result of US pressure and a United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was sent into the country to prevent border violations.

(For Israel, Syria and the PLO in Lebanon see under Lebanon.)

By mid-1984 the Palestine movement had divided into three factions: those who remained loyal to the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, the Syrian-backed groups which demanded his removal from office, and the Democratic Alliance (comprising the DFLP, the Palestine Communist Party and the PLF) which called for greater democracy within the PLO but did not wish to see Syria dominate the organization. This split into factions appeared permanent until the Syrian-sponsored attacks on the Lebanese refugee camps at the end of 1986 forced the groups to unite and face the threat together. The reunited PLO still faces major problems such as the need for a permanent base.

The refugees

The position of the 2,100,000 Palestinian refugees remains precarious. They have no political rights and the enormous strain placed on the host nations has meant that they are not a welcome addition to the population. In Lebanon the refugees constitute one tenth of the total population and in West Bank and East Bank they make up almost half. The problem of cramped living conditions has been compounded by the cultural differences between the Palestinians and the native population, especially in Lebanon with its large Christian element, and in Jordan with its Beduin-dominated culture.

In 1950, two years after the first wave of evacuation, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was formed. Its first task was to provide food for the refugees and to assist in the building of semi-permanent shelters. UNRWA also played a part in the control of major communicable diseases and provided the refugees with schooling for thousands of children (360,000 in 1985) and with vocational and teacher training for a limited number of adults; its mandate does not include development, however, and as a result the Palestinians have not taken charge of their own affairs but have remained heavily dependent on welfare. The UNRWA has not been given responsibility for the legal or physical protection of refugees either and host governments have the power to withhold travel documents.

Palestinians in the Arab world

Although Palestinians have found refuge or employment in every Arab country since 1948 their relationship has often been ambiguous. Palestinians in general have higher educational standards and are more politically aware, a fact which is of concern to repressive Arab governments. In Lebanon Palestinians represented at one stage about 10% of the population, but they have faced discrimination in employment, social security and freedom of movement. The lives of the refugees in Lebanon improved immensely as a result of PLO control of the camps but this alienated many Lebanese, and during the civil war the Christians and later the Shi’ites turned against Palestinians in the “battle of the camps”.

There are over half a million Palestinians in the Gulf States, probably half of whom are in Kuwait. Most are employed on an individual basis; they provide skilled labour power and their remittances have supported both families and the Palestinian struggle. But many governments suspect them and with the oil crisis, employment and earnings have fallen. In Jordan on the East Bank there are 1.2 million Palestinians. Although they consider themselves as Palestinian and fraternize among themselves, they are recorded as Jordanians.

Palestinian Israelis

After the 1949 armistice Israel began a process of transferring most Arab land into Jewish control. The 1950 Law of Absentees legitimized the transfer of land from those who had been forced out of the Jewish state and also from those who had been displaced internally. This resulted in the loss of 40% of land to Israel under the absentee property policy. Thousands of acres of agricultural land and thousands of houses, businesses and shops were offered to newly arrived Jewish settlers. More land was lost by the Arabs when Arab citizens were required to furnish certificates of ownership issued by the British mandatory authority. The British had withdrawn from the region without completing the issue of the certificates and Israel was able to declare as State land most of the remaining Arab-held lands. Israeli expropriation of Arab lands has continued since the mid-1970s and Palestinian Arabs retain only one third of their land holdings, although their population has increased fourfold since 1948. Israel has also taken control of the water resources of the Occupied Territories. Water allocation for Arabs and Jews differs considerably, with an estimated per capita domestic consumption for Arabs of 35 cubic metres yearly in towns, and 15 cubic metres in villages, as opposed to 90 cubic metres for Israelis.

Israeli-subsidized agricultural produce is freely marketed in the Occupied Territories but there is no comparable reciprocal arrangement for Palestinian produce. Gaza’s thriving market in citrus fruits has declined as a result of Israeli restrictions which forbade the planting of new trees except by permit, although permits were often extremely hard to obtain. Gaza had originally sold produce to Western Europe but after 1967 Israel blocked this competition with its own market and Gaza now relies on a small amount of trade with Eastern Europe and a declining amount of trade with the Arab world — although a new 1986 trade agreement with EC countries may change this.

The great increase in the Palestinian population of Israel has meant that Palestinian Israelis have rapidly changed from peasantry into a rural proletariat dependent on the Israeli economy. Few industries are sited in Arab areas and fewer still are owned by Arabs. The industries which existed before 1948 were concentrated in Haifa, Jaffa and Acre but the loss of these territories to Israel left the Arab community without any industry of its own. Many Arab villagers cannot find work locally but are not free to live elsewhere, partly because so much housing is held by the JNF and may not be occupied by non-Jews; consequently they commute to work, which is often over 50 kilometres from their homes. Palestinian Israelis are less poor than in 1948 and their standard of living is probably higher than that enjoyed in neighbouring states but it is nevertheless significantly lower than that of the Jews, probably about 40% lower, and on average Palestinians receive about half the wages of Jewish Israelis.

Of the 112 Arab towns and villages in Israel only two have central sewage systems whilst all Jewish population centres of over 5,000 people have a central sewage system. Seventy-two per cent of Arabs are living in overcrowded conditions compared with 22% of Jews, according to a recent survey, and on average Arab households are twice as densely populated as Jewish ones. Most health facilities are situated in towns but the Arab population is 70% rural. Per capita health expenditure in the West Bank is only 8% of that inside Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza there are six doctors per 10,000 people compared with 29 per 10,000 in Israel.

The Ministry of Education, in common with almost all other Israeli ministries, deals with Arab affairs separately in a different department where they are dealt with by a Jewish rather than an Arab director. Arab children follow a separate curriculum and Arab schools lack classrooms, trained teachers and textbooks. There is a 50% drop-out rate for children up to the age of 14 and only one-third of children complete secondary school. The only colleges and universities in the West Bank and Gaza are private institutions and all have suffered official harassment in some form or another. Substandard education has impeded the growth of an Israeli Arab intelligentsia and ensured that Israeli Arabs are concentrated in the unskilled sector as agricultural workers, miners and construction workers.

The Intifada

The Intifada or “uprising” began spontaneously on 7 December 1987 in the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip, and rapidly spread throughout the Occupied Territories and within Israel. It was a protest against Israeli occupation and from the start involved large numbers of young people, including school children, but gained support from a broad cross-section of the Palestinian population. Strike action was used together with boycotts and a campaign to force Arab policemen and tax collectors to quit their posts. School children boycotted their classes, which were then closed by the Israelis; it was only after pressure by the US that schools again opened in the Occupied Territories in mid-1989. Although there were Israeli allegations of a shadowy conspiratorial Palestinian leadership, attempts to crush this leadership have failed and most Palestinian actions, although often spontaneous, have followed a regular pattern. Israeli forces responded with considerable force, often described by observers as excessive, against protestors. After a year the death toll had reached at least 320 (Palestinian sources say over 400) with thousands injured or imprisoned for either short or longer periods, among them young children. By the end of May 1989 the number of deaths had topped 600. In August 1989 the Israeli government doubled the period of detention without trial to one year. Army sources stated that 4,215 Palestinians had been held in administrative detention since the Intifada had commenced although unofficial Israeli sources placed the figure at over 5,000.

In August 1988 King Hussein of Jordan announced that Jordan was abandoning its claims to the West Bank, dissolving the joint Jordanian-Palestinian parliament set up in 1950, and would begin to dismantle the legal and administrative links between the two areas. In effect this was a recognition of Palestinian claims to a separate state and a renunciation of Jordanian hegemony over Palestinians although some observers noted that Palestinians on the West Bank still needed the financial and political support of Jordan (which had paid salaries to West Bank officials and issued West Bank Palestinians with Jordanian passports). Fears that the Intifada might spread beyond Israel into Jordan may have been a factor in the King’s decision to let the PLO go ahead and search for its own diplomatic solution.

On November 14, 1988 the Palestine National Council (PNC), meeting in Algiers, issued a Palestinian Declaration of Independence and declared the creation of a Palestinian state, with a Palestinian identity but without a recognized territory, borders or government. After much debate the PNC also voted to renounce terrorism and to accept UN Resolution 242, implicitly recognizing the right of the state of Israel to exist, thus expressing on the Palestinian side a willingness to negotiate with Israel. Israel however rejected the initiative and has acted to block further initiatives by the new state, including an attempt (with the USA) to prevent Yasir Arafat from speaking before the UN in New York. In the event Arafat did address the General Assembly at a special session held in Geneva. The new state gained rapid recognition from third-world countries — within three days 22 countries had announced diplomatic relations. In April 1989 Arafat was elected the provisional President of the new Palestinian state.

The future for the Palestinians

At the present time the future remains bleak for the Palestinians. Although there have been projects aimed at increasing self-sufficiency there have been many more which have had the effect of reinforcing dependency on international aid. But demographic factors appear to be working for the Palestinians — by 2010 Jews will be outnumbered by the total number of resident Palestinian Arabs in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The demand for political and civil rights is bound to become more insistent and it is extremely unlikely that Palestinians will settle for anything short of self-determination.

World Powers stress the need for peace in the Middle East but continue to pour arms into the region. The appearance of Yasir Arafat at the United Nations in 1988 and the PLO’s acceptance of Israel’s right to exist mark a major step forward, but Israel has once again rejected the Palestinians’ demand for an independent territory, and the situation appears to have reached an impasse.

(See also Beduin of Israel; Druzes of Israel and the Golan Heights)