Do Palestinians Really Exist?
Palestine. My late father, Abdul Musa Obeidallah, was born there in the 1930s. When I say Palestine, that’s not a political statement. It’s just a statement of fact. When he was born, there was no state of Israel. There was no Hamas. No PLO. There were just people of different faiths living together on the same small piece of land called Palestine.
And to be honest, but for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I doubt you would’ve heard much about Palestinians. My father, like the seven generations of Obeidallahs born before him in his sleepy farming town of Battir, didn’t harbor grand dreams or bold plans. They lived a simple life of growing fruits, vegetables, and lots of olive trees. (Palestinians love olives!) Their biggest battles weren’t with other people, but with the elements.
Most of my Palestinian ancestors lived and died within a few miles of where they were born. That would likely have been my father’s path as well. But as we are all keenly aware, fate had far different plans.
I share this story because I think that lost in the current Gaza conflict is the story of the Palestinians as a people. Instead, they’ve been continually defined as being the “bad” part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They’ve been broadly labeled as terrorists or seen as acceptable losses. Some Israeli leaders have alleged Palestinians don’t exist, or called them “cockroaches,” “crocodiles,” or a “cancer.”
As you might imagine, being Palestinian is unique. When you tell someone you’re of Palestinian heritage, it’s not just an ethnicity, it’s a conversation starter. In fact, just saying the word Palestine inflames some. People will tell me to my face that there has never been a Palestine and there are no such thing as Palestinians. To them, I guess Palestinians are simply holograms.
When I ask these people what the land where Israel is now located was called before 1948, they tend to stammer or offer some convoluted response. The answer is simply Palestine. Not a big deal, really.
Indeed, the United Nations debate in 1947 over the creation of the state of Israel was described in terms of the “question of Palestine.” The U.N. even explained in its official summary that “It is recognized that Palestine is the common country of both indigenous Arabs and Jews, that both these peoples have had an historic association with it,” adding that “Palestinian citizens, as well as Arabs and Jews who, not holding Palestinian citizenship, reside in Palestine.” It’s hard to hold legal citizenship of a place that doesn’t exist.
Nowadays, few disagree there is a Palestinian people. After all, there are more than 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel alone. Of course, that didn’t stop Newt Gingrich from commenting during his failed 2012 run for president that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Here, I thought for years my father had been a cook, but apparently he was an inventor. If Gingrich—who was simply parroting his then-benefactor Sheldon Adelson’s views—had engaged in the most basic of research, he would have found that most historians mark the beginning of the Palestinian Arab nationalist movement as happening in 1824, when the Arabs there rebelled against Ottoman rule.
The Palestinians, along with Israelis, have been through a lot, to say the least, since 1948, when Israel was created and the boundaries of Palestine were revised by way of UN Resolution 181. That moment immediately changed the destiny of countless Palestinians who until then had been living a humble life.
As most know, a war immediately erupted, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being driven from their home or fleeing. Ironically, this war was waged by the surrounding Arab nations—Egypt, Jordan, etc.—which claimed they were doing it for the Palestinian people. But when Palestinian refugees sought to move into these Arab countries after the war, they often were met with horrible discrimination. In some instances, they would not be able to obtain government benefits, were not hired because of their ethnicity, or worse, were fired from a job because a citizen of that country wanted it.
To this day, many are relegated to overcrowded refugee camps, which still exist in the occupied territories as well as in Lebanon and Jordan, which is home to 22 refugee camps and millions of registered refugees per the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). I’ve visited some of these refugee camps in the West Bank, and the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon. The Palestinians there don’t live in tents, as we see with the more recent Syrian refugee crisis. It’s more akin to overcrowded ghettos where dreams are deferred on a daily basis.
That’s the life of millions of Palestinians. They have survived upon the “kindness of strangers.” You see, there’s nothing that truly links Arabs across the region. Moroccans don’t have much in common with those in Dubai. Egyptians view themselves as leaders of the Arab world, while many in Lebanon, which is relatively close to Egypt in terms of kilometers, see themselves as more European than Arab. But sympathy for the Palestinians, on varying levels, is one issue that unites them.
My forebears didn’t flee their homes in Battir during the 1948 war. Since then, they have been under Jordanian rule and then Israeli after the 1967 war. They have endured intifadas and an often cruel military occupation. My grandmother’s land outside Bethlehem was even confiscated by Israeli settlers, who made it part of a Jewish-only settlement. Not because she did anything wrong but simply because she was the wrong religion.
In the 1950s, my father, along with many other Palestinians, immigrated to America in search of a better life. I’ve often wondered what would’ve become of me if I had been born in the West Bank instead of New Jersey. Would I have been able to go to college and law school? Would I have a job? Would I even be alive?
When I think back to growing up in New Jersey, I realize it was a far different time for Palestinians than today. Then we were generally unknown, almost exotic. Sure, the PLO was starting to grab headlines with its deplorable terrorist attacks, but the overwhelmingly negative images we currently see associated with Palestinians had not yet taken hold.
In fact, when I was about 9 years old in the late 1970s, my teacher asked about the ethnicity of each student so she could pin it on a map of the world. When she came to me, she was stumped—she didn’t know much about Palestinians, and of course she couldn’t find it on the map since it wasn’t there. Thankfully for her I’m also half Sicilian, and she found that easily, since most of my classmates were Italian.
Later that night, I relayed that story to my father and asked him: “Where is Palestine?” He paused for a moment as he gathered his thoughts. He then touched his heart and head and responded: “In here.”
I wonder what my response will be if I have children and one day they ask: “Where is Palestine?” Will I be able to take out a map and simply point it out, like most people do when they are asked about their heritage? Or will my only option be mimicking my late father’s answer? What’s most painful to me is not that those are my two options but that I feel powerless to change which answer I will be able to offer.