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Different people use the word Palestinians to mean different things. Some refer only to Arabs whose origins are in the region historically known as Palestine (also called the Land of Israel or the Holy Land), others refer to all residents of this area. This term may vary according to political preference.

The Arab Palestinians comprise the Arab residents of the West Bank and the Gaza strip and the Palestinian refugees who live in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, as well as those who emigrated to other countries. Many thorny questions have been raised about nearly every aspect of Palestinians, especially their nationalistic strivings (see Palestinian territories, Palestinian homeland, Proposals for a Palestinian state). There is also considerable controversy over whether the Palestinians comprise a distinct ethnic group (compare Bedouins or Kurds).

Table of contents

Difficulty of defining the term

The Arab minority in Israel is often not meant when referring to Palestinians, since these people hold Israeli citizenship, however some of them may view themselves as Palestinians. The original Jewish inhabitants of Palestine who were considered Palestinian before the creation of Israel hold Israeli citizenship now and rarely speak of themselves as Palestinians.

Moreover, Jordan is not generally considered a "Palestinian" state.

Thus Palestinians comprise the residents of the West Bank and the Gaza strip and the Palestinian diaspora, the today 8 million refugees whose one part lives still in refugee camps in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, and the rest are spread all over the world.

Due to the events of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the creation of the state of Israel, and the several waves of Palestinian refugees, the definition and status of Palestine are both in dispute; thus, the term "Palestinian" is used in different senses, often depending on and reflecting the political views of the speaker.

At one point European writers used the term "Palestinian" when referring to Jews. In the period shortly after the State of Israel came into existence, Arabs generally denied the existence of Palestinians who were distinct from other Arabs of the region. After his annexation of the West Bank, King Abdullah[?] of Jordan forbade the use of the term Palestine in Jordanian official documents. In Jordan today, there are still no official census data about how many of the inhabitants of Jordan are Palestinians. 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.

Over time, however, the term Palestinian came to refer more and more often to Arabs who at one time lived in the former British Mandate of Palestine. The rest of the article deals with the definition of this term. A few Israelis refuse to accept the term Palestinian in general, in the past until today (cmp. Golda Meir's statement: "There are no Palestinians", see History of Palestine for some interpretations, [1] (http://www.geocities.com/enough_net/right-exist), [2] (http://www.rosenblit.com/Palestine.htm)).

Israeli make efforts to point out the Arab ethnicity of Palestinian Arabs. The debate about the definition of a Palestinian is not a purely academic one, but may serve political and strategical purposes, f.e. reducing the number of Palestinian refugees or refuting Palestinian aspirations of statehood. Prominent Muslim intellectuals like Tariq Ali accuse Israel of following a deliberate policy of destroying the Palestinian identity. Others accuse Arafat[?] of fomenting Palestinian nationalism.

JSource, the Virtual Library defines Palestinians as: "Although anyone with roots in the land that is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza is technically a Palestinian, the term is now more commonly used to refer to Arabs with such roots. [...] Most of the world's Palestinian population is concentrated in Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jordan, although many Palestinians live in Lebanon, Syria and other Arab countries." This definition is the one most widely used in American and European popular media and newspapers. JSource Virtual Library definition of Palestinian (http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/gloss#p)

Ways the the term has been defined

  • any person currently residing in the region historically known as Palestine, regardless of ethnicity or religion
  • an Arab resident of the region, i.e., "Palestinian Arab" as distinct from say a "Palestinian Jew"
  • the residents of the West Bank and the Gaza strip and the millions of refugees still in refugee camps in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt and the rest is spread all over the world.
  • a person who aspires to be a citizen of any of the various proposed Palestinian states, where Jordan is not such a state
  • a person under the administrative control of the Palestinian Authority
  • anyone who calls himself a "Palestinian"

Usage of the term Palestinian usually generally depends on one's views of Palestine, the Palestinian homeland, the Arab-Israeli conflict and related issues.

Palestinians as Residents in the region

What may seem the simplest or most objective definition of Palestinian is any person currently residing in the region historically known as Palestine, regardless of ethnicity or religion. This works well for geographers and historians, but fails for several political reasons.

There have indeed been Jewish residents of Palestine, and some people were even issued passports listing their nationality as Palestinian. However, very few people today accept the concept of a Jewish Palestinian and would prefer to use the term Palestinian to exclude Palestinian Jews.

Less objection has been raised to other non-Muslim residents of Palestine being called "Palestinians", and as they are a tiny minority it's not much of an issue

Palestinians as Arab residents

Most articles discussing events in the Middle East use Palestinian exclusively for Arab residents of the region formerly known as Palestine. This definition suffers from vagueness, e.g., is often not clear whether citizens of Jordan should be labelled "Palestinians" by virtue of their ethnicity as Arabs and residence in the region.

Israeli Arabs are sometimes considered "Palestinians"; their Israeli citizenship refers to political status, and not to ethnic origin.

Palestinians as Aspiring citizens

Another definition of Palestinian is of people who aspire to be citizens of an as-yet unrecognized "Palestinian state", however defined. This definition gives rise to several issues.

Those opposed to the creation of a new Palestinian state hold that there exists already a Palestinian state, i.e. Jordan. As such, people in this camp hold that if Arabs want to become citizens of a Palestinian nation, they should immigrate to Jordan. A small number of Israeli extremists hold that Palestinians in Israel should be transferred to Jordan and nationalized as Jordanian citizens. This point of view is rejected by the vast majority of Israelis. Jordan is opposed to both points of view for a number of reasons. One such reason is pressure from other Islamic and Arab countries. Another reason is that it is a poor country with spare water supplies.

Transfer of population is generally considered a moot issue by both the Arab world and the nations of the world at large. Arabs who identify as Palestinians have made clear that they will refuse to move to Jordan. They want their own state in all of the West Bank, all of Gaza, and in most or all of Jerusalem. A large percent of Palestinian Arabs demand that their state include all of pre-1967 Israel.

In March 31, 1977 PLO executive committee member Zahir Muhsein said:

"The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians[?], Palestinians, Syrians[?] and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct 'Palestinian people' to oppose Zionism. "For tactical reasons, Jordan, which is a sovereign state with defined borders, cannot raise claims to Haifa and Jaffa. While as a Palestinian, I can undoubtedly demand Haifa, Jaffa, Beer-Sheva and Jerusalem. However, the moment we reclaim our right to all of Palestine, we will not wait even a minute to unite Palestine and Jordan."

It may be relevant to note that "all of Palestine" in this context often refers to all the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea; see textbooks of Palestinian schools or official documents of the PLO.

Palestinians and Palestinian Authority

Some define a Palestinian as a person subject to the administrative control of the Palestinian Authority. This definition fails to satisfy, mainly because it leaves out too many people.

There are many Arab refugees in Jordan who are not permanently settled there. They want to be citizens of a Palestinian state, yet as mentioned above they have not been able to fulfill that aspiration by becoming Jordanian citizens. This is either because of the refusal of Jordan to nationalize them or because the aspirants themselves don't consider Jordan a "Palestinian state".


What looks like the simplest definition of all is to ask people if they consider themselves to be "Palestinians" and if they say yes, that's what they are.

See: Palestinian exodus, British Mandate of Palestine

See also: Palestine, PLO, Hamas, Arab-Israeli conflict

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