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While there are various older or different definitions of the term "Palestinian" (discussed in a section of Definitions of Palestine), the overwhelming majority of uses of the term today are in reference to the people, mainly Arabs, whose ancestors inhabited Palestine before 1918. The PLO Charter defines Palestinians as Arabs who had inhabited Palestine before 1947, Jews who had inhabited Palestine before what it describes as "the beginning of the Zionist invasion", and their descendants through the male line.

Under the British mandate period from 1918 to 1948, the term "Palestinian" usually referred to anyone living in Palestine: Arab, Jew or other. Since the creation of Israel and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, this usage of the term has practically ceased. While some may exclude Israeli Arabs from today's definition "Palestinians", others (including most Palestinians) consider them to be Palestinians. Thus the term over the centuries has shifted from ethnic to regional and again to an ethnic description.

The Palestinians are a group of mainly Arabic speakers who regard themselves as a distinct branch of the Arabic-speaking peoples, with family origin in Palestine being the defining characteristic. As such, the designation is independent of nationality and religion (though the vast majority are Muslim). While most Palestinians define themselves as Arabs, some Palestinian intellectuals prefer to emphasize their continuity with the previous population of the area, and see themselves as Canaanite rather than Arab (cf. Abu-Sahlieh). The great majority of Palestinians are the descendants of Arabic speakers resident in Palestine during the period before the creation of Israel, although the term can include certain non-Arab groups. They include most of the Arab minority in Israel. Another distinguishing characteristic of the Palestinians is their dialect; rural Palestinians, almost uniquely among Arabic speakers, pronounce the letter qaaf as k (Arabic kaaf), although Bedouin and most urban families do not.


Palestinian demographics

While the largest single population of Palestinians is found in the lands which constituted British Mandate of Palestine, over half of Palestinians live elsewhere as refugees and emigrants. In the absence of actual censuses, counting large populations is very difficult. However, the world-wide distribution of Palestinians in 2001, according to estimates collated by the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, were as follows.

Country or Region Population
West Bank and Gaza Strip 3,299,000
Israel 1,013,000
Jordan 2,598,000
Lebanon 388,000
Syria 395,000
Saudi Arabia 287,000
Gulf states 152,000
Egypt 58,000
Other Arab states 113,000
The Americas 216,000
Other countries 275,000
TOTAL 8,794,000

Thus 49% of Palestinians live in the former British Mandate bounds of Palestine - 37.5% in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and 11.5% in the boundaries of Israel - while 51.0% live elsewhere.

In Jordan today, there is no official census data about how many of the inhabitants of Jordan are Palestinians; estimates range from 50% to 80%. Some political researchers attribute this to the Jordanian policy of not further widening the gap between the two main population groups in Jordan: its original Bedouin population that holds most of the administrative posts and the Palestinians who are predominant in the economy.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics announced on October 20, 2004 that the number of Palestinians worldwide at the end of 2003 is 9.6 million, an increase of 800,000 since 2001. [1]


See Palestinian refugees for more detail.

4,082,300 Palestinians are registered as refugees with UNRWA; this number includes the descendants of refugees from the 1948 war, but excludes those who have emigrated to areas outside of the UNRWA's remit. Thus, if the estimates above are correct, 46% of all Palestinians are registered refugees.


The British census of 1922 counted 752,048 in the British Mandate of Palestine, comprising 589,177 Muslims, 83,790 Jews, 71,464 Christians and 7,617 persons belonging to other groups. If we exclude the Jewish population (although at the time a significant proportion of them would have been considered Palestinian), this implies 88% Muslim, 11% Christian, and 1% other. However, the British censuses are believed by some to have significantly undercounted the Bedouin.

Currently, no reliable data is available for the worldwide Palestinian population; Bernard Sabella of Bethlehem University estimates it as 6% Christian[2]. However, within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, the Palestinian population is 97% Muslim and 3% Christian; there are also about 300 Samaritans and a few thousand Jews from the Neturei Karta group who consider themselves Palestinian. Within Israel, 68% of the non-Jewish population is Muslim, 9% Christian, 7% Druze, and 15% "other".

The ancestry of the Palestinians

It is still a matter of some debate to what extent Arabs replaced previous populations in the Middle East, and to what extent those populations merely adopted the Arabic language. However, the prevailing view of historians is that most of the population remained the same; the significant number of loanwords from earlier languages (Aramaic in the Fertile Crescent, Coptic in Egypt, Berber in the Maghreb), the retention of earlier cultural customs (especially well-documented for Egypt among the fellahin , but notably including sizable Christian communities throughout the area), and the relatively small population of Arabia all point to a continuity with the earlier population. The medieval North African sociologist Ibn Khaldun strongly argued for continuity, considering the Arabization of these populations to be a result of their imitating their rulers. Interestingly, in his time, the word "Arab" referred only to Bedouin and their direct descendants, and was not applied to city dwellers and farmers even if they had come to speak Arabic.

The Palestinian Bedouin, however, are much more securely known to be Arab by ancestry as well as by culture; their distinctively conservative dialects and pronunciation of qaaf as gaaf group them with other Bedouin across the Arab world and confirm their separate history. Their arrival in the Negev predates Islam by a considerable period; specifically Arabic onomastic elements began to appear in Edomite inscriptions starting in the 6th century BC, and are nearly universal in the inscriptions of the Nabataeans, who arrived there in the 4th-3rd centuries BC[3]. A few Bedouin are found as far north as Galilee; however, these seem to be much later arrivals (although Sargon II settled Arabs in Samaria as early as 720 BC.)

As genetic techniques have advanced, it has become possible to look directly into the question of the ancestry of the Palestinians. In recent years, many genetic surveys have suggested that Jews and Palestinians (and in some cases other Levantines) are genetically closer to each other than either is to the Arabs of Arabia or to Europeans [4] [5] [6] [7]. (this collection contains more links to genetic studies of Jewish and middle eastern populations.) These studies look at the prevalence of specific inherited genetic differences (polymorphism) among populations, which then allow the relatedness of these populations to be determined, and their ancestry to be traced back (see population genetics). These differences can be the cause of genetic disease or be completely neutral (see Single nucleotide polymorphism) ; they can be inherited maternally (mitochondrial DNA), paternally (Y chromosome), or as a mixture from both parents ; the results obtained may vary from polymorphism to polymorphism. One study [8]on congenital deafness identified an allele only found in Palestinian and Ashkenazi communities, suggesting a common origin ; an investigation [9] of a Y-chromosome polymorphism found Lebanese, Palestinian, and Sephardic populations to be particularly closely related ; a third study [10], looking at Human leukocyte antigen differences among a broad range of populations, found Palestinians to be particularly closely related to Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Jews, as well as Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean populations. (The latter study by Antonio Arnaiz-Villena has been the subject of intense controversy, it was retracted by the journal and removed from its website, leading to further controversy; the main accusations made were that the authors used their scientific findings to justify making one-sided political proclamations in the paper; that the retraction followed lobbyist pressure because the results contradicted certain political beliefs; some suggested that the broad scientific interpretation was based on too narrow data [11], whereas others support the scientific content as valid - for more information on the controversy : [12], [13], [14], [15].) If this close relatedness is true, it would confirm both Jews' and Palestinians' historical claims, suggesting a common Northwest Semitic ancestry. However, the results are complex, much work remains to be carried out, and partial results can be interpreted to suit diverse political agendas.

One point in which the two populations appear to contrast is in the proportion of sub-Saharan African genes which have entered their gene pools. One study found that Middle Eastern Arabs (specifically Palestinians, Jordanians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Bedouin), unlike other Middle Eastern populations (specifically Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, and Near Eastern Jews), had what appears to be a substantial gene flow from sub-Saharan Africa (amounting to 10-15% of lineages) within the past three millennia, possibly due to the slave trade[16].

The origins of Palestinian identity

Palestine (Filasteen فلسطين) has been the Arabic name of the region since the earliest medieval Arab geographers (adopted from the then-current Greek term Παλαιστινη (in Latinised form: Palaestina), first used by Herodotus, itself derived ultimately from the name of the Philistines), and "Palestinian" (Filasteeni فلسطسيني) was always a common nisba adopted by natives of the region, starting as early as the first century after the Hijra (eg `Abdallah b. Muhayriz al-Jumahi al-Filastini[17], an ascetic who died in the early 700's.) However, the Palestinians, like most Arab nationalities, have come to view themselves as primarily Palestinians (rather than as primarily Arabs, or Syrians, or denizens of a particular town) mostly in the past century. Whereas European and to a lesser extent Ottoman colonialism was the main spur in forming national identities and borders elsewhere, the main force in reaction to which Palestinian nationalism developed was Zionism. One of the earliest Palestinian newspapers, Filastin founded in Jaffa in 1911 by Issa al-Issa, addressed its readers as "Palestinians"[18].

Formation of the Palestinian nationality

Until the 19th century, most modern Arab national groups, including Palestine, had no distinct national identities per se, but it is difficult to determine how regional loyalties may have felt to Palestine's inhabitants over the course of hundreds of years, including periods that predate the rise of the contemporary nation-state. There were well-known regions — including Palestine, or Filasteen فلسطين, which was considered to be the southern region of the Levant, ash-Sham الشام - but there was no sense that a person should owe a particular loyalty to his region rather than to his religion or ethnic group, or in the case of a Bedouin his tribe. However, starting in the 19th century, the European concept of nationalism crept in, in many varieties; some pushed the idea of a Syrian or Fertile Crescent state, some pushed the idea of a pan-Arab state, while some pushed for smaller states such as Lebanon.

Even before the end of Ottoman administration, Palestine, rather than the Ottoman Empire, was considered by many Palestinians to be their country. On 25 July 1913, for instance, the Palestinian newspaper al-Karmel wrote: "This team possessed tremendous power; not to ignore that Palestine, their country, was part of the Ottoman Empire."[19] The idea of a specifically Palestinian state, however, was at first rejected by most Palestinians; the First Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations (in Jerusalem, February 1919), which met for the purpose of selecting a Palestinian Arab representative for the Paris Peace Conference, adopted the following resolution: "We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic and geographical bonds." (Yehoshua Porath, Palestinian Arab National Movement: From Riots to Rebellion: 1929-1939, vol. 2, London: Frank Cass and Co., Ltd., 1977, pp. 81-82.) However, particularly after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the French conquest of Syria, the notion took on greater appeal; in 1920, for instance, the formerly pan-Syrianist mayor of Jerusalem, Musa Qasim Pasha al-Husayni , said "Now, after the recent events in Damascus, we have to effect a complete change in our plans here. Southern Syria no longer exists. We must defend Palestine". Similarly, the Second Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations (December 1920), passed a resolution calling for an independent Palestine; they then wrote a long letter to the League of Nations about "Palestine, land of Miracles and the supernatural, and the cradle of religions", demanding, amongst other things, that a "National Government be created which shall be responsible to a Parliament elected by the Palestinian People, who existed in Palestine before the war."

Conflict between Palestinian nationalists and various types of pan-Arabists continued during the British Mandate, but the latter became increasingly marginalised. By 1937, only one of the many Arab political parties in Palestine (the Istiqlal party) promoted political absorption into a greater Arab nation as its main agenda.

The idea of an independent nationality for Palestinian Arabs was greatly boosted by the 1967 Six Day War; instead of being ruled by different Arab states encouraging them to think of themselves as Jordanians or Egyptians, they were now ruled by a state with no desire to make them think of themselves as Israelis, and an active interest in discouraging them from regarding themselves as Egyptians, Jordanians or Syrians. Moreover, the natives of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip now shared many interests and problems in common with each other that they did not share with the neighboring countries.

Because of the gradualness of the creation of an Palestinian national identity (as opposed to a regional one) - and, many allege, for reasons of political convenience - many Israelis did not accept the existence of an independent Palestinian people, as in Golda Meir's statement: "There are no Palestinians," (see History of Palestine). Today the existence of a unique Palestinian nationality/identity is generally recognized even by most Israelis ([20], [21]).

In the period shortly after the State of Israel came into existence, many Arabs, including some Palestinians - in particular, supporters of pan-Arabism or pan-Syrianism - insisted that Palestinians were not distinct from other Arabs of the region. Zuhair Mohsen, leader in the seventies of the Syrian-funded Baathist group as-Saiqa and simultaneous head of the Military Department of the PLO, expressed the pan-Syrianist position of his main funders in an interview with the Dutch daily Trouw on March 1977: "There is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. It is for political reasons only that we carefully emphasize our Palestinian identity, because it is in the national interest of the Arabs to encourage the existence of Palestinians against Zionism, the establishment of a Palestinian state is a new expedient to continue the fight against Zionism and for Arab unity... For tactical reasons, Jordan, which has defined borders, cannot claim Haifa or Jaffa; but a Palestinian can claim Haifa, Jaffa, Beersheba and Jerusalem." After his annexation of the West Bank, King Abdullah I of Jordan forbade the use of the term Palestine in Jordanian official documents, for fear of encouraging separatism among the Palestinians. However, both pan-Arabism and pan-Syrianism have massively declined in popularity, and most Arabs now believe that Palestinians have a distinctive identity.

Palestinians' political representatives

The Arab summit meeting in Algiers in June 1988 stated that the PLO is the "only legitimate representation of the Palestinian people". However, Israel, and to a lesser extent the United States and parts of Europe, preferred to deal with what it regarded as more moderate Palestinian groups for a long period of time.

The Palestinian National Authority governs large sections of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It considers itself, and has often been considered by Israel, to be the primary political representative of the Palestinian people. In recent years, its authority has in practice been challenged by groups such as Hamas; however, most such groups continue to recognize its legitimacy in principle.

Following the December 2004 death of long-time Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas was elected as Palestinian Authority Chairman.

See also

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