Some have said that there was no Palestinian people before 1948, or even 1967. Under the Ottoman Empire, the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River spanned a number of administrative districts. Yet while there was no political unit called Palestine, the term had ancient roots. Writings of the people of the region testify to the sense that they held a unique place within the Arab world. Commercial, social, and cultural relations linked them to the rest of Greater Syria. Ethnic identity created feelings of an inextricable bond to other Arabic-speaking countries. A commitment to Islam fortified most people’s political allegiance to the Ottoman state. A minority in Ottoman Syria came to support Arab independence against the Young Turks’ imposition of Turkish nationalism. In the void created by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the call for an independent Greater Syria became the dominant ideology. Nevertheless, European powers carved Arab lands into nation-states at the end of World War I and placed them under colonial trusteeships called “Mandates.” In each country, people formed movements to fight for national independence.
The Palestinian national movement was the local manifestation of this Arab nationalist awakening. Its trajectory, however, was set apart due to its confrontation with another people’s claims to the same land. The Zionist movement, gaining strength after Theodor Herzl’s publication of The Jewish State, came to focus on the ancient Kingdom of Israel as the home for a modern Jewish state. On the eve of the first wave of Zionist-inspired immigration in 1882, the traditional, religious Jewish community in Palestine numbered about 24,000, or 5 percent of the population of 500,000. By the conclusion of the second wave in 1914, their number had grown to 85,000. Though most Arabs were unaffected by this development, some peasants and urban merchants felt their interests threatened. This led to written protestations against Jewish immigration and land purchases, and even a few violent clashes, as early as the 1880s and 1890s. Opposition to Zionism became more political and profuse with the lifting of press censorship in 1908. Newspapers warned that Zionism would render Arabs strangers in the land that they considered to be their patrimony. Palestine’s Arabs increasingly referred to themselves as “Palestinians” in that context. Feelings of alarm regarding Zionism intensified in 1917, when the Balfour Declaration announced that the British government “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” For the approximately 90 percent of the population that was Muslim or Christian Arab, this policy not only prejudiced their civil and religious rights. It also precluded their own political right to a national home.