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ETHNONYM: Filastinyoun


Identification. Palestinians inhabit an area east of the Mediterranean Sea and south of Lebanon. The Jordan River, Lakes Huleh and Tiberias, and the Dead Sea separate Palestine from Jordan. Palestinian territory stretches as far south as the Gulf of ʿAqaba. Palestinians refer to their land as "Filastin," the name of an Aegean population (Philistines) who inhabited coastal Palestine before the Israelites. Christians refer to Palestine as "the Holy Land." Today Palestine is divided among Israel and the Palestine National Authority. Palestinian territory falls into two major geographic zones: the coastal area, and the northern extension of the Great Rift Valley.


Palestine is located between 30° and 33° N and 34° and 36° E. Its total land area is 27,128 square kilometers, divided between Israel and the two towns (Gaza and Jericho) administered by the Palestine National Authority. The total area under direct Palestinian control since 1993 is 135 square kilometers. Palestine lies at the southern tip of the fertile eastern Mediterranean region, and almost half of its total area is arid or semiarid. Only parts of the narrow coastal plain, the Jordan Valley, and the Galilee region in the north receive adequate rainfall. Palestine, on the whole, enjoys typical Mediterranean weather. The Great Rift Valley, or the Jordan Valley, has a semitropical climate. The main city in the Jordan valley, Jericho, is the lowest spot on earth250 meters below sea level. The arid and semiarid areas to the south enjoy a desertlike dry and hot climate.

Demography. Between 5.8 million and 6 million Palestinians live in Israel, on the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip, and dispersed all over the world. As of 1989, there were 900,000 living in the West Bank, 550,000 to 770,000 in the Gaza Strip, and 800,000 in Israel proper. East Jerusalem, annexed to Israel since 1967, is the home of 155,000 Palestinians. Those living under the Palestine National Authority since 1993 number 775,000 in Gaza and 20,000 in Jericho. There are also 1.7 million Palestinians living in Jordan, 350,000 in Lebanon, 225,000 in Syria, 70,000 in Iraq, 60,000 in Egypt, 25,000 in Libya, and 250,000 in Saudi Arabia. Until the Gulf War, there were 400,000 in Kuwait. There are other, smaller Palestinian communities in the Persian Gulf area, amounting to 113,543 people. It is estimated that 104,856 Palestinians live in the United States and another 140,000 around the globe. The highest ratio people to land is in Gaza, where there are 3,577 people per square kilometer. Many Palestinians live as refugees in camps: 248,000 in the Gaza Strip, 100,000 on the West Bank, 187,000 in Jordan, 143,300 in Lebanon, and 67,000 in Syria. Palestinians speak Arabic, but most are bilingual, their second language depending on their place of residence.

Linguistic Affiliation. Arabic is a member of the Hamito-Semitic Family of languages. Modern Arabic is a South Semitic language. Palestinians speak a distinct dialect of Arabic but write classical Arabic, like the rest of the Arab world.

History and Cultural Relations

The Palestinians are a racial amalgam of the indigenous pre-Israelite population and later groups that settled in Palestine. Even though the Canaanite and Philistine city-states were defeated by the Israelites under King David in 1,000 b.c., their populations were not exterminated. The Muslim Arab conquest of a.d. 638 did not result in a large transfusion of Arabs, but the local inhabitants' culture became increasingly Arabized, and large numbers converted to Islam. The Peninsular Arab conquerors took great interest in Palestine because of the Prophet Mohammed's association with Jerusalem: his nocturnal journey there in a.d. 621 and his ascension to heaven from the spot where the Jewish Temple once stood bestowed a holy status on the city. When Muslims conquered Jerusalem, Caliph Omar came to receive the keys to the city from the Byzantine patriarch, Sophronius, and issued the Pledge of Omar: he vowed to protect the holy sites and freedom of worship of all religious communities. During the Umayyad dynasty (a.d. 661-750), Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān built a magnificent mosque (691-692) over the ruins of Solomon's Temple to commemorate Mohammed's ascension to heaven. Known as the Dome of the Rock, it is the oldest example of early Islamic architecture in the world. The Western Wall (the Wailing Wall), which is the only remaining portion of Solomon's Temple, was consecrated as a Muslim charitable trust in later years on the grounds that Mohammed tethered his steed, al-Buraq, at the wall. In view of its holy status, Jerusalem was never made into an Arab capital. Muslims also permitted the return of Jews to Jerusalem, from which they had been barred since the Roman period. Under the ʿAbbasīd Emperor, Harun al-Rashīd (786-809), the number of hostels for European pilgrims increased. Jerusalem's religious status attracted foreign invaders, including the Christian Crusaders, who took over the city in 1099. Frankish invaders established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, which lasted until 1187. Disputes between the Arabized eastern Christians, who coexisted peacefully with Muslims, and the European Crusaders cemented a lasting bond between Palestine's two religious communities. During the Latin Kingdom, the Dome of the Rock was converted into a Christian site known as Templum Domini. Jerusalem was liberated by Saladin (Salāh al-Dīn) the Ayyūbid sultan of Egypt and Syria in 1187. Muslim families were restored as the guardians of the holy sites, and Jews were permitted to return in large numbers. The Crusaders repossessed the city from 1229 to 1244. The Egyptian Mamlūk dynasty liberated the city again, but in 1516 Jerusalem and Palestine fell to the Ottoman Turks. Under their rule, Palestine was divided into districts and attached to the province of Syria. In the nineteenth century European Jews began to settle in Ottoman-controlled Palestine. Jewish efforts to purchase the Wailing Wall and large areas of land with the help of foreign consuls were met with stiff resistance. With the financial support of European banking families, Jews fleeing Russian pogroms during the second half of the nineteenth century were able to establish collective farms. There was also significant Arab economic development. Following the Crimean War (1854-1856), Gaza emerged as a major grain-producing area. Cotton production expanded during the 1860s. Palestinians also became successful citrus growers, producing 33 million oranges in 1873. Jewish colonists who settled at Petach Tikva, near Jaffa, were exporting 15 percent of Palestine's total orange crop by 1913. Arab economic activity expanded around Nablus, an area specializing in olive oil and soap production. Jewish purchase of Arab land had a detrimental effect on Palestinian prosperity. Once bought, land became the perpetual property of Jews, and Arab laborers were thrown off. The land problem continued to bedevil Arab-Jewish relations after Britain took over Palestine. British interest in Palestine was the result of the strategic significance of the Suez Canal. During World War I, the British concluded several secret agreements regarding the future of Ottoman-held territories. One of these agreements, the Balfour Declaration, granted Jews the right to establish a national homeland in Palestine. In 1920, when the British acquired control over Palestine as a mandate under the League of Nations, they made the Balfour Declaration official policy, which was at variance with their responsibility under the mandate: to prepare the native population for eventual independence and majority rule. As a result, Palestinian demographics changed drastically. According to the 1922 census, the total population of Palestine was 752,000, of whom 660,000 were Arabs and 84,000 were Jews. The Arab population included 71,000 indigenous Christians who shared most of the sociocultural traits of the Muslim Palestinian population. By the end of World War II, the Palestinian population grew to two million. By 1946, there were 1,269,000 Arabs, as opposed to 608,000 Jews. Around 70,000 of the Jews were unauthorized immigrants who entered Palestine in the immediate postwar period. Throughout the mandate era (1920-1948), Arab despair over Jewish immigration fostered a policy of noncooperation with the mandate government. A proposed constitution offered in 1922 by the high commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, was rejected by both Muslim and Christian Palestinians. The only body that continued to represent the Palestinians was the Supreme Muslim Council, which supervised the Islamic charitable trusts and the court system. The appointed head of this institution, Amin Husseini, was the highest religious authority and emerged as the sole leader of the Palestinian community. He became the head of the Arab Higher Committee, representing both Christians and Muslims, following the 1936 Arab Revolt. The first major outbreak of Arab-Jewish violence was a result of attempts by Revisionist Zionists, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, to expand Jewish rights over the Wailing Wall. This violence was investigated by British parliamentary commissions, which concluded that unrestricted Zionist immigration and land purchases led to the impoverishment and anger of the Palestinian peasantry. A general Arab strike and uprising in 1936 led the British to convene the Peel Commission, the first such commission to recommend the partitioning of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. The Peel Commission allotted 20 percent of the most fertile land to the Jews, and 80 percent to the Arabs. The Commission also recommended the internationalization of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Both the Higher Arab Committee and Arab governments rejected this plan. By 1942, Zionist lobbying efforts shifted from Britain to the United States. A Zionist conference in 1942, which was held at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, called openly for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine, and efforts were made to obtain the endorsement of major U.S. political parties and members of Congress. The Nazi Holocaust against European Jews succeeded in winning powerful world leaders, including U.S. president Truman, over to the cause of Israeli statehood. Once the British Government made the decision in 1947 to end its mandate over Palestine, the latter became the responsibility of the United Nations. A special eleven-member committee, known as UNSCOP, was organized to make recommendations to the General Assembly regarding the future of Palestine. These recommendations were made in the form of majority (8 votes) and minority (3 votes) reports. The majority report, which was adopted by the General Assembly on 29 November 1947, stipulated that Palestine be partitioned into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with Jerusalem and Bethlehem brought under a UN regime as a corpus separatum. Both the United States and the Soviet Union voted for General Assembly Resolution 181, the majority plan. Palestinians were outraged over the decision by an outside agency to give away half of their land without consulting them. Arab states in the United Nations did not oppose the Vatican-sponsored resolution on Jerusalem. During the following year, a U.S. State Department report by George F. Kennan predicted that the partition resolution could not be enforced without war. Clashes between Jewish armed forces and Palestinian and other Arab armies quickly followed. Jewish forces moved not only to consolidate their UN lands but to acquire additional areas in the Galilee and Negev areas. The UN partition plan granted one-third of the populationnamely, the Jewish communityone-half of the total land area of Palestine. The Jewish community at the time owned 20 percent of all cultivable areas, amounting to 6 percent of the total land area of Palestine. At the end of this conflict, the Egyptian army remained in control of the Gaza Strip and the Jordanian Arab Legion maintained control over eastern Palestine and eastern Jerusalem. The Arab states signed separate armistice agreements with newly founded Israel. Soon thereafter, Trans-jordan changed its name to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, naming the area east of the Jordan River the "East Bank" and the area west of the river the "West Bank." The 19471948 Arab-Jewish War produced one of the Middle East's major refugee problems. Palestinians who fled their homes or were driven out by Jewish forces numbered between 500,000 and 750,000 people. Some placed the percentage of Palestinians who became refugees at 80 percent of the total Arab population. Between 125,000 and 150,000 of the Palestinian peasantry retained their homes but lost their agricultural lands. The state of Israel continuously rejected UN resolutions calling for the return of the refugees or providing them with financial compensation. The only Arab country that granted citizenship rights to the Palestinians was Jordan. The rest of the Arab countries declined to extend citizenship rights for fear of jeopardizing the refugees1 right of return. The League of Arab States created a seat for Palestine, which was occupied by the Gaza-based government of All Palestine until 1957. The Gaza government was a rump Palestinian authority that was directed by Amin Husseini's deputy, Ahmad Hilmi Abd al-Baqi; it existed under the watchful eye of the Egyptian military governor. By 1964, a new Palestinian authoritythe Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Ahmad Shuqairywas created at the behest of President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Conflicts with the Egyptians forced Shuqairy's resignation in 1968. Another PLO emerged during that year and was soon headed by Yasser Arafat, the leader of Fatah, a militant underground organization. The new PLO rejected the need to rely on Arab governments and promoted the principle of the armed struggle. After a brief stay in Jordan, armed conflict with the Jordanian army drove the PLO to Lebanon, where it established itself inside Palestinian refugee camps. The launching of attacks against Israel from Lebanon's southern borders eventually resulted in a massive retaliation by the Israeli Defense Forces in 1982. The PLO was forced to evacuate its militias out of Lebanon under U.S. protection and relocate to Tunisia. The Israeli invasion of Beirut during the latter days of that war resulted in a Lebanese-led massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatilla camps. The PLO's rehabilitation by the world community was a slow process, which began in 1974. During that year, the Arab summit meeting at Rabat, Morocco, recognized the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. Also in 1974, the United Nations confirmed this designation by granting the PLO observer status. The United Nations also recognized the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, a gesture of enormous symbolic significance because it was the United Nations that divided the Palestinian homeland in the first place. The outbreak of the intifada (uprising) in 1987, in the West Bank and Gaza, provided the PLO with another opportunity to integrate itself with the international community. The PLO declared itself a state and sought recognition by the Uniited States. This was granted upon the PLO's unilateral recognition of Israel and of Security Council Resolution 242. Following the Gulf War in 1991, the PLO agreed to participate in a U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference. During these talks, a secret channel to the Israelis was opened with the mediation of the Norwegian government. In 1993 Israel and the PLO signed a "declaration of principles" that provided a framework for settling all issues pertaining to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and granted the newly created Palestine National Authority autonomous rule over Gaza and Jericho. Negotiations over the future of the rest of the West Bank, as well as that of Jerusalem, were to follow.


Until the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Palestinian coastline was dotted with Arab villages. The Galilee area in the north was also heavily settled. The Bedouin (nomadic) population was concentrated in the Negev Desert area. After the division of Palestine into Israel and the West Bank, the coastal area became heavily Jewish. The Jordan Valley was less settled than the Mediterranean coast. After Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israeli settlements were built on Palestinian lands, using up to 50 percent of these territories. Around 125,000 Israeli settlers began to live within the Arab area. Under international law, these settlements are considered illegal and may be dismantled as the price of a lasting peace settlement. There are also ancient cities in Palestine: Jerusalem (built by the Jebusites), Jericho (the oldest city in the world), Bethlehem, Beershiba, Gaza, and Nablus (ancient Samaria). Most of these urban centers have an old city surrounded by walls and modern suburbs in the nearby hills. Typical village dwellings are built of local building material, stone in the hills and mud and straw in the villages. Jerusalem's old city and ancient walls are built exclusively of Jerusalem limestone. Wood, which has always been in short supply, is rarely used.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Until the creation of Israel and the dispersal of the Palestinians, 60 percent of the population was engaged in agricultural activities and food processing. Village crafts included the rich and ancient tradition of embroidery. Mother-of-pearl and olive-wood artifacts were common in the cities. After 1948, Palestinians who became refugees subsisted on daily rations supplied by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Skilled and educated refugees became professional and white-collar workers in the Persian Gulf oil countries.

Industrial Arts. Along with food processing and tourist-related arts and crafts, Palestinians were engaged in oil refining, a British-run industry, in Haifa. After 1948, Palestinians lost access to this industry and turned to phosphate mining in the Dead Sea area. There was also a thriving glass industry in Hebron.

Trade. Before 1948, Palestinians exported citrus fruits to Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. Fruits, vegetables, hand soap, and olive oil were the mainstay of trade with Arab markets after the West Bank was taken over by Jordan. Since 1967, this area has become a captive market for Israeli goods.

Division of Labor. Palestinian village women and Bedouin women always participated in agricultural work. In towns and cities, women have been increasingly integrated in gender-specific occupations such as teaching, nursing, and clerical positions. Palestinian women are also employed as teachers in the Persian Gulf area. Since 1967, many West Bank women have been proletarianized and work as migratory laborers within Israel proper, employed in food processing and the garment industry. Women have also become heads of households as a result of the imprisonment or exiling of Palestinian men.

Land Tenure. Until the British period, there were three types of landholding: public lands (miri ), privately owned land (mulk ), and state and private lands cultivated by peasants as communal lands (musha ). The cultivation of land by the peasants of an entire village was abolished by the British in the 1940s in order to facilitate the purchase and sale of land held by individuals. Jewish efforts to buy land were facilitated by the existence of absentee landlords in the Galilee region, such as the Lebanese Sursuq family. After 1967, public lands previously considered the property of the Ottoman, British, and Jordanian governments were transferred to Israeli settlers.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basic unit in society is the family, with the village unit quite often being an extended family. Political upheaval over a long period of time strengthened the traditional family structure. Kin groups, as exemplified by the family or the clan (hamula ), survived despite increased mobility and urbanization. Entire families and clans from the same village relocated together to the same refugee camps after 1948. Descent, as in all Muslim societies, is traced patrilineally.

Kinship Terminology. Palestinians follow the Sudanese kinship terminology commonly found in patrilineal societies such as those in North Africa. Kinship terms referring to the mother's side of the family are distinguished from those referring to the father's side of the family.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Palestinians are, generally speaking, monogamous, although polygyny is sanctioned by Islam. Marriages are normally determined by families, but, increasingly, individual choice is accepted. Statistics for the 1931 census indicate that early marriages were rare. The average age of marriage within the Muslim community was 20 years for women and 25 for men. Until around the mid-twentieth century, the preferred match, in both the Christian and Muslim communities, was between first cousins.

Domestic Unit. Postmarital residence is patrilocal. A woman returns to her natal unit only in the event of divorce or widowhood. The authority of the male head of the family is exercised over matters of marital, educational, and occupational choice despite frequent geographic separation of members of the nuclear family. Grandparents and unmarried aunts and uncles frequently share the domestic unit. Women rarely establish independent places of residence.

Inheritance. Muslim law regulates division of the estate and does not ignore female members of the family. Land is divided equally among surviving males, but females inherit half of the male's share because they are not expected to support the family. Among the indigenous Christian population, inheritance customs are not regulated by church law and often mirror Muslim customs.

Socialization. Children are socialized by various generations within the household, commonly along gender lines. The socialization of Palestinian children encourages a commitment to education and to family solidarity.

Sociopolitical Organization

Palestinians inhabiting the West Bank are under Israeli rule, but in Gaza and Jericho they live under the Palestine National Authority. In Jordan, where they constitute 60 to 70 percent of the population, they are full citizens. In other Arab countries, Palestinians are resident aliens, carrying temporary UN travel document. Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem are still Jordanian nationals. In Gaza they are stateless, and within Israel they are citizens of the Jewish state.

Social Organization. Before 1948, Palestinians were divided along class lines determined by private wealth. In the Christian community, class differentiation accorded more to educational level than to wealth. The Muslim and Christian communities were always allied in the national struggle. The Palestinian diaspora after 1948 had a great leveling impact. The massive loss of land weakened the landowning class. Education is highly valued as a movable form of wealth and the determinant of status. Today there is a large professional class that prospered as a result of employment in the Persian Gulf countries.

Political Organization. In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians have been living under Israeli military rule since 1967. Those living in Arab Jerusalem, annexed to Israel in 1967, are allowed to participate in municipal elections but are barred from national elections. Because Jerusalem's Arabs are Jordanian citizens, they do not enjoy Israeli civil liberties. The Israelis permitted one round of municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza in 1976, but since then most town councils have been headed by Israeli military officers. The Islamic religious institutions of Jerusalem and the West Bank, which are linked to Jordan, are still under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Muslim Council. Within Israel proper, Palestinians are full citizens, but they suffer from frequent land confiscations and exclusion from military service and from higher political office. The PLO, on the other hand, functions as a nonterritorial state, with a parliament in exile, an executive committee, and militia units.

Social Control. Social control is exercised by the family, females being subjected to greater restrictions than males. In some refugee camps, social control was dictated by the PLO, which attempted to influence the patterns of female education and female morality.

Conflict. Palestinians suffer from harsh military rule in the West Bank and from constant police surveillance in Arab countries. Clashes with the Israeli military and with Israeli settlers are frequent. The mythology of the popular uprising of 1987, the intifada, still exercises a powerful influence on the popular imagination.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Muslims make up two-thirds of the population. The majority are Sunni, but there is also a small Druze community. Christians are almost one-third of the population. The largest denomination is Greek Orthodox, followed by the Greek Melkite Catholic, the Roman Catholic, the Episcopal, and the Lutheran. Muslim-Christian harmony was always the norm. The rise of militant Islamic groups like Hamas is a new phenomenon among people who have a powerful ecumenical tradition.

Religious Practitioners. Palestinian Muslims view themselves as guardians of the Muslim holy sites, especially the Dome of the Rock, considered the third holiest in Islam. Christian Palestinians maintain a similar view of their role as guardians of the holiest places of Christendom, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity.

Arts. Palestinian arts center around village group dances, such as dabka. Village music is performed on traditional instruments such as the flute (nay ), drums (tabla ), and the lute (oud). Since the rise of the PLO, Palestinian music and song have for the most part reflected patriotic themes. Art flourished after 1948, with several artists depicting the Palestinian refugee experience. The PLO has fostered political poster art and holds exhibits in many parts of the world.

Medicine. Modern medical facilities are badly lacking in the West Bank and Gaza. Most medical institutions are supported by Arab donations from outside and private donations from within the country.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals are conducted by the family and the entire neighborhood. Long periods of mourning are observed by the Muslim and Christian communities. Cerneteries are public lands. Both communities believe strongly in an afterlife. Muslims, who believe Jerusalem will be the site of the Day of Judgment, consider burial there to be greatly desirable.


Abu-Lughod, Ibrahim, ed. (1971). The Transformation of Palestine. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

Beatty, Ilene (1971). "The Land of Canaan." In From Haven to Conquest, edited by Walid Khalidi, 3-19. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies.

Boullata, Isa (1989). "Modern Palestinian Literature." In Palestine and the Palestinians: A Handbook, 72-76. Toronto: Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation of Canada.

Graham-Brown, Sarah (1980). Palestinians and Their Society, 1880-1946. London: Quartet Books.

Khalidi, Walid (1984). Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876-1948. Washington, D.C., Institute for Palestine Studies.

Nassar, Jamal, and Roger Heacock, eds. (1990). Intifada: Palestine at the Crossroads. New York: Praeger.

Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation of Canada (1989). Palestine and the Palestinians: A Handbook. Toronto: Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation of Canada.

Polk, William R., David M. Stamler, and Edmund Asfour (1957). Backdrop to Tragedy: The Struggle for Palestine. Boston: Beacon Press.

Said, Edward (1980). The Question of Palesane. New York: Vintage.

Smith, Charles D. (1988). Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Talhami, Ghada (1986). "From Palestinian Nationhood to Palestinian Nationalism." Arab Studies Quarterly 8:346-357.

Talhami, Ghada (1994). "The History of Jerusalem: A Muslim Perspective." In The Spiritual Significance of Jerusalem for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, edited by Hans Ucko, 21-31. Geneva: World Council of Churches.


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a people who consider themselves descendants of the canaanites, and other peoples who have settled in palestine since ancient times.

The name Palestinian applies in contemporary times to Muslim and Christian Arabs who inhabited Palestine as a consolidated community until the creation of Israel in May 1948, an event that shattered the community and dispersed about 726,000 Palestinians throughout the Middle East, primarily to Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

In 2004 the total number of Palestinians was estimated at 8.9 million. Approximately 88 percent are Muslims, and the other 12 percent are Christians. Until the initiation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the summer of 1994, the largest concentration of Palestinians lived under Israeli occupation. In 2004 approximately 2.1 million lived in the West Bank, 200,000 in East Jerusalem, and 1.33 million in the Gaza Strip. Approximately 1.3 million lived in pre-1967 Israel as Palestinian citizens of the Jewish state. Other Palestinians lived in other Arab countries, especially Jordan, which had approximately 3 million.

Late Ottoman Period

The politics and culture of the Palestinians from the latter part of the nineteenth century until after the signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on 13 September 1993 can be divided into five stages. In the first stage, from 1876 to 1917, the Palestinians shared a common cultural heritage shaped primarily by the values of the Arab and Muslim empires that had ruled the country with few interruptions from 638 c.e. to 1917. Palestinian society in this stage consisted of three major classes: peasants (fallahin), commercial bourgeoisie, and urban notables or patricians. The patricians were the ruling class, and their influence ran deep in the countryside and in Palestinian cities and towns.

In 1897 the Basel program of the first Zionist Congress strongly affected the Palestinians. The program fixed the Zionist goal: "To create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine, secured by public law." This ushered in the first phase of a protracted struggle between indigenous Palestinians and Jewish immigrants. Opposition to Zionism was the focus of Palestinian political activities, as well as of Palestinian historiography and other forms of writing.

British Rule

The second stage, from 1917 to 1948, was inaugurated with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. By the autumn of 1918 Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq were under British control. This development made Palestine increasingly vulnerable to Zionist colonizationfirst, by isolating the country from its wider Arab environment and second, by giving the British a free hand in implementing the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917, in which the British promised to support a Jewish National Home in Palestine. With the Balfour Declaration, the stage was set for a long struggle between the Palestinians and the Zionist immigrants. The Palestinians, who constituted approximately 90 percent of Palestine's population by the end of World War I, saw in the Zionists a potential threat to their national existence.

In strategic terms, the Palestinian-Zionist struggle was over the status quo. The Palestinians wanted to preserve the status quo, through political and diplomatic efforts between 1917 and 1936 and through armed rebellion during the Palestine Arab Revolt of 1936 to 1939. In contrast, the Zionists sought to change the status quo through mass immigration and land acquisition. The Jewish population in Palestine rose from 9.7 percent in 1919 to 35.1 percent in 1946, and Jewish-owned land increased from 2.04 percent of the total area of Palestine in 1919 to 7 percent in 1946. Meanwhile, British policy in the military sphere was aimed at disarming the Palestinians and arming the Jews. Thus, by 1947 the overall power equation was decisively in favor of the Zionists.

Palestinian society was also affected by three other factors: Zionist settlement activity, British colonial policies, and the expansion of Palestine's economy. While dominant members of urban notable families continued to control the politics of the country, other social forces were at play. The expansion of trade and the growth of coastal cities and towns enhanced the position of the middle class. Artisans and craftsmen, as well as people engaged in the finance, construction, and service sectors, also benefited from the expansion of trade. However, the peasants, who constituted almost two-thirds of Palestinian society, did not benefit from these economic developments. Their condition worsened in great part because of Zionist settlement and the lack of capital. Although Jewish agricultural settlers had adequate land, the indigenous Palestinian peasantry lacked the space necessary for its growing population. The October 1930 report of Sir John Hope-Simpson acknowledged this problem, noting that there was not room for a substantial number of Jewish settlers on the land.

The depressed state of the peasantry, together with other developments, had produced rebellion within Palestinian society by the mid-1930s. The most notable development was the escalating rate of Jewish immigration. The influx of Jewish immigrants had two major consequences: It produced panic and desperation among the Palestinians, reinforcing their fears of Jewish domination in the future; and it radicalized the Palestinians and convinced them that the British were unwilling or incapable of following an evenhanded policy. Against this background, a revolt erupted in May 1936 and continued unabated until the summer of 1939, with only a short lull between November 1936 and January 1937 while the Peel Commission toured Palestine to ascertain the causes of the revolt.

With the publication of the Peel Commission Report in July 1937, the rebellion exploded again in opposition to the commission's recommendation calling for a tripartite partition: a Jewish state; a Palestinian state to be incorporated by Transjordan; and a British mandate over other areas. There was a Palestinian consensus against partition because the proposed Jewish state would cover about 33 percent of the total area of the country at a time when Jewish ownership of land was roughly 5.6 percent, and because a large portion of Palestinian villages, and a high percentage of Palestinians, would fall inside the Jewish state. The British responded to the Palestinian revolt with the full force of their military power. In terms of the cost in human lives, the revolt was a national calamity for the Palestinians: More than 3,075 were killed, 110 hanged, and 6,000 jailed in 1939 alone. At the same time, the British organized, trained, and armed special Jewish forces, creating in the process a Jewish military infrastructure that gave a decisive edge to the Jewish forces ten years later during the ArabIsrael War of 1948.

When the British realized that partition was not practicable, as indicated by the Woodhead Commission report of November 1938, they convened the unsuccessful London Conference in February and March 1939 to resolve the issue of the future status of Palestine. To break the deadlock, Malcolm MacDonald, colonial secretary of state, issued a white paper on 17 May 1939. Although the white paper fell short of meeting long-standing Palestinian demands, it introduced a number of important modifications concerning immigration and the application of the Balfour Declaration.

British implementation of the white paper proved difficult, partly because of Palestinian and Zionist opposition and partly because of the burdens of World War II. In these circumstances, by the 1940s the British were unable to handle the effects of the Balfour Declaration. The military and political structures of a Jewish national home were already in place in Palestine, in great part because of Britain's generosity. In almost every respect these structures were superior to those of the Palestinians.

Against this background, the United Nations (UN) divided Palestine into Jewish and Arab states in November 1947. The Palestinians rejected partition primarily because the UN proposed to give the Jews 55 percent of Palestine when Jewish ownership in November 1947 did not exceed 7 percent of the country's land. By contrast, the Jews found it in their interest to accept partition. Thus, the door for armed conflict in Palestine was wide open. A civil war between Jews and Palestinians followed the partition resolution. After the British left Palestine in May 1948, war, interspersed with cease-fires, continued until July 1949.

Units of armies and volunteers from neighboring Arab countries came to the aid of the Palestinians, who were losing the civil war and fleeing in large numbers. However, the Arab intervention was to no avail. The Jewish immigrant population was militarily superior to all the Arab soldiers combined. The Jews were also superior in terms of leadership, organization, and institutional links to the Western powers. In the end, the Zionists prevailed. Israel seized 77 percent of Palestine; about 726,000 Palestinians became refugees, many of them forcefully expelled by the Jewish forces while others fled out of fear. The Palestinians call this event al-Nakba, or the catastrophe.

The politics of the national struggle left a deep imprint on the intellectual life of the Palestinians, as is clearly illustrated in Palestinian historiography, art, and literature. There were literary and artistic works written in the romantic tradition, such as those by Khalil Baydas, Khalil al-Sakakini, and Muhammad Isʿaf al-Nashashibi, that focus on the social responsibility of men of letters and the relationship between culture and civilization. Other works, written in the realist tradition, reflect the philosophies of Ibn Khaldoun, Hegel, Marx, and Darwin.

From al-Nakba to the 1967 War

The third stage, which lasted from 1948 to 1967, was characterized by formal armistice agreements between a number of Arab statesEgypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordanand Israel; the disarray among Arab states unsuccessfully attempting to achieve Arab unity; the impact of Cold War politics on the Middle East; the eclipsing of Palestinian nationalism by Arab nationalism; and Israel's refusal to accept any responsibility for what had befallen the Palestinians in 1948. Uprooted, dispersed, and with no state of their own, diaspora Palestinians (60% of the Palestinian population in 1948) came under the guardianship of the host Arab countries in which they lived. Another 30 percent lived in the West Bank and Gaza, and the remaining 10 percent lived in Israel. As a whole, the lives of Palestinians during this stage were marked by national dispersion, occupation, job insecurity, uncertain residency, discrimination, and political repression.

The post-1948 situation had serious consequences. First, it made the Palestinians totally dependent on the Arab states. Second, geographical dispersal made it difficult for the Palestinians to work together within one organizational framework. Thus, some Palestinians identified with the Arab National Movement, others with the Arab Baʿth Party or the Muslim Brotherhood; others acquired senior positions in the bureaucracies of Arab governments, particularly the Jordanian government, or formed independent Palestinian movements that advocated armed struggle against Israel. Life in the diaspora radicalized certain Palestinian groups that embarked on armed struggle against Israel in the mid-1960s in the hope of triggering an ArabIsrael war.

Against a background of inter-Arab rivalries and escalating ArabIsrael tensions, the Arab League created the PLO in 1964. The PLO's leadership was entrusted to Ahmad Shuqayri, a diaspora Palestinian of upper-class origin. In theory, the PLO was to work for the liberation of Palestine, but in practice it provided cover for Arab inaction toward Israel. The PLO charter of 1964 called for the total liberation of Palestine. Arab unity, rather than armed struggle or revolution, was posited as the instrument of liberation. Palestinian authors such as Abd alLatif Tibawi, Fadwa Tuqan, and Fawaz Turki gave expression to this goal. Many of them romanticized this goal by infusing it with the sentiment of the Palestinian concept of return. History books, novels, and collections of poems and pictures of Palestine poured forth during this period to express the pain of exile and the overpowering desire to return.

Literary and political themes were expressed by poets such as Mahmud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, and Tawfiq Zayyad and literary critics such as Salim Jubran, Ihsan Abbas, and Afif Salim. Palestinian and Islamic historiography was produced by Arif alArif, Muhammad Izzat Darwaza, and Akram Zuʿaytir. Stories of great Arab travelers were written by Iskandar al-Khuri al-Baytjali and Nicola Ziyada.

Reemergence of the Palestinian National Movement

The fourth stage of contemporary Palestinian history, from 1967 to the present, began with the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967, a development that resulted in the displacement of more than 300,000 Palestinian refugees who fled the West Bank and the Golan area. Approximately 120,000 of these people were second-time refugees who had lived in refugee camps under Jordanian or Syrian jurisdiction. The ArabIsrael War of 1967 also resulted in the placement of the West Bank and Gaza under the jurisdiction of the Israeli military government. During its occupation of these territories, Israel undertook settlement and other activities that had a devastating impact on the Palestinians, including the formal annexation of East Jerusalem and the doubling of its surface area; the settlement of more than 120,000 Israelis in the Palestinian sector of the city; the confiscation of more than 55 percent of the West Bank and more than 40 percent of the Gaza Strip; and the deportation of some Palestinians from both areas.

Soon after the 1967 war, the Palestinians arose as an independent political force. They asserted the primacy of Palestinian nationalism and expressed themselves in the idiom of revolution and armed struggle. The PLO charter, revised in 1968 to give expression to this new trend, called for the liberation of all of Palestine, emphasizing that armed struggle was the only way. Aware at the time that the problem of Israeli Jews must be addressed, the PLO articulated the idea of a secular democratic state anchored on nonsectarian principles of coexistence among the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim citizens of a liberated Palestine. In terms of political organizing, the Palestinians used Jordan as their early base of operations against Israel. In an attempt to attract international attention, radical Palestinian groups resorted to acts of violence, including the hijacking of civilian airliners and the murder of members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in September 1972.

The unprecedented coincidence between the radicalization of the Palestinians and the emergence of pragmatism and a preference for a diplomatic settlement with Israel on the part of key Arab states led to tensions between revolutionary Palestinians and the new Arab political order. The Jordanian Civil War (19701971) epitomized the incongruence between the romanticism of revolutionary Palestinians and the pragmatism of the leaders of Arab states. The Palestinian guerrillas were defeated in Jordan, but they moved to Lebanon, where they reemerged as a strong political force in a country deeply divided by sectarian as well as socioeconomic differences. Their presence in Lebanon served as a catalyst for the civil war that was triggered in April 1975. After the ArabIsrael War of October 1973, a new Palestinian consensus emerged with respect to a diplomatic settlement with Israel. This consensus was reflected in the PLO's political programs of June 1974 and March 1977. Both programs implicitly called for peace with Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Momentous events affected the Palestinians between 1982 and 1990. In June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon. Thousands of Palestinians were killed, maimed, or taken prisoner by the Israeli invading force. After nearly three months of fighting, the PLO evacuated Lebanon under the protection of a multinational force and set up its new headquarters in Tunisia. While the PLO, led by Yasir Arafat, was trying to recover from the devastating impact of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the situation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza continued to deteriorate under the impact of massive Jewish settlements and the policies of the Likud government, which took power in Israel in 1977. The Palestinian response to this situation was the Intifada (uprising), which erupted in December 1987. The Intifada put the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians in the limelight after several years of neglect by Arab governments whose energies were focused on the Iran-Iraq War.

The Struggle for a State

The intifada also catapulted the priorities of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians to the top of the PLO agenda. Before that, the PLO catered primarily to the preferences of diaspora Palestinians. This led to the further crystallization of the pragmatic trend that had begun to emerge in the previous phase. The intifada forced the PLO to move definitively toward the peaceful pursuit of a state in the West Bank and Gaza, where the overriding priority of the Palestinians living in those territories was to end Israeli occupation. This was the crux of the PLO's political program of November 1988, when the Palestine National Council accepted the UN land for peace Resolution 242 and recognized the State of Israel. Politically and intellectually, this phase witnessed the greater salience of religious activism with the emergence of the Islamic Jihad in 1986 and the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS) in January 1988.

Despite their political difficulties, the Palestinians participated in the Arab national debate over cultural and sociopolitical issues. Hisham Sharabi wrote on Arab intellectuals and their interaction with Western culture. Using anthropological and sociological concepts, he also analyzed patterns of authority in contemporary Arab society. Edward Said, a scholar-critic, wrote on Western literature and authored books and articles on the Palestine question and other Middle Eastern topics. Walid Khalidi wrote on the Palestinians in Palestine before their diaspora. Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinians' national poet, wrote poems about the Palestine struggle and criticized PLO and Arab leaders. Palestinian women such as Fadwa Tuqan, Sahar Khalifa, and Salma al-Khadra al-Jayyusi used poetry and other genres to express the cause of women's rights in the Arab world. Other women, including Hanan Ashrawi, participated in politics and wrote on social and cultural topics.

Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait in August 1990 set in motion a chain of political developments that led to the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO and the signing of the historic Declaration of Principles in September 1993 by PLO chairman Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The PLO's support for Saddam Hussein was to a significant degree responsible for the shattering of the Palestinian community in Kuwait, which totaled approximately 350,000 people working as teachers, civil servants, and industrialists. However, the tragic results of the Gulf Crisis provided a propitious occasion for resolving the cause of the Palestinians. The launching of the Madrid peace process in 1991 opened the way for the Israel-PLO accord of September 1993. This accord was followed by other agreements to implement Palestinian self-rule, including the Taba Accords of September 1995. The Oslo Accord (1993) resulted in the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and major West Bank towns and the establishment of the Palestinian Legislative Council. With the Palestinians exercising control over some areas of the West Bank and Gaza, the realization of Palestinian self-determination seemed possible.

Yet, Palestinian hope for self-determination was dashed by a number of setbacks. One of the architects of Oslo, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated in 1995. The foundation for peace that he and Arafat built was undermined by the policies of a new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, an opponent of the Oslo process, who refused to implement troop withdrawal and continued settlement activity, especially at Har Homa/Jamal Abu Ghunaym in East Jerusalem. By the time the more pragmatic Ehud Barak took over the premiership in Israel, most Palestinians had lost hope in the Oslo peace process. During the decade of the negotiations of the 1990s, confiscation of Palestinian land continued and the number of Jewish settlers doubled in the area in which the Palestinians hoped to establish a state. In addition, their economic conditions worsened. They were humiliated at checkpoints and their lives were disrupted by curfews and blockades. Finally, when the Camp David summit meeting in July 2000 failed, and Ariel Sharon provocatively visited al-Haram al-Sharif with 1,000 Israeli armed police on 28 September 2000, on the following day they initiated a second intifada, or uprising, that many considered to be their war of liberation.

Instead, it proved to be a costly rebellion. Palestinian militants attacked military and civilian Israeli targets. The violence helped to bring to power a hard-line Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. Sharon, an enemy of Oslo, destroyed a large part of the PA's security system, administrative offices, and economic infrastructure. He placed Arafat under house arrest, assassinated Palestinian militants, and continued his confiscation of Palestinian lands for Jewish settlements. As a result of the suicide bombings by Palestinian radicals against Israeli civilians (which Arafat tolerated despite his promises in 1988 and 1993 to fight terrorism) international support for the Palestinian struggle for a state diminished, especially after 11 September 2001, when the United States and its allies declared war on "international terrorism." By early 2004 some 3,000 Palestinians, including about 500 children, and about 900 Israelis had lost their lives. More than half of those killed on both sides were civilians.

There were unexpected benefits arising from the al-Aqsa Intifada. Some reforms, such as financial accountability, were welcomed by the Palestinian public when they were instituted in the PA areas. The office of prime minister was established in 2003 in an effort to share power outside of President Arafat's narrow circle. The United States announced in a diplomatic initiative, Road Map, tosupport the creation of a democratic, sovereign state of Palestine within three years. Despite the violence and destruction, both the Palestinian and Israeli publics continued to support a two-state solution, and they seemed closer to resolving the final status issues than ever before. In early 2004 Palestinian realization of a state of Palestine was awaiting the right circumstances and leadership to make it happen.

see also aqsa intifada, al; arabisrael war (1948); arabisrael war (1967); arabisrael war (1973); arafat, yasir; arif, arif al-; balfour declaration (1917); darwaza, muhammad izzat; darwish, mahmud; gaza (city); hamas; haram al-sharif; intifada (19871991); islamic jihad; israel: overview; jordanian civil war (19701971); khalidi, walid; lebanese civil war (1958); london (roundtable) conference (1939); madrid conference (1991); nakba, al(19481949); oslo accord (1993); palestine; palestine arab revolt (19361939); palestine liberation organization (plo); peel commission report (1937); sakakini, khalil al-; shuqayri, ahmad; taba negotiations (1995, 2001); tuqan, fadwa; turki, fawaz; united nations conciliation commission for palestine (unccp); united nations relief and works agency for palestine refugees in the near east (unrwa); united nations special committee on palestine, 1947 (unscop); west bank; white papers on palestine; woodhead commission (1938); zionism.


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Khalidi, Rashid. Palestinian Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998

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Kimmerling, Baruch, and Migdal, Joel S. The Palestinian People: A History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

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Mattar, Philip. The Mufti of Jerusalem: Al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni and the Palestine National Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Miller, Aaron David. The PLO: The Politics of Survival. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1983.

Muslih, Muhammad. The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Muslih, Muhammad. Toward Coexistence: An Analysis of the Resolutions of the Palestine National Council. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1990.

Peretz, Don. Palestinians, Refugees, and the Middle East Peace Process. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1993.

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Tessler, Mark. A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

muhammad muslih
updated by philip mattar

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PRONUNCIATION: pal-uh-STIN-ee-uhns

LOCATION: Israel and the Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip); Jordan; Lebanon; Syria

POPULATION: 4.5 million


RELIGION: Islam; Christianity; Druze


Palestine is the historical name for the region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The land was first inhabited as long ago as 9000 bc. The Hebrews (ancestors of today's Jews) settled in Palestine in 1900 bc and had formed the kingdom of Israel, ruled by King David, by 1000 bc. Palestine was then taken over by a series of foreign powers. The Arabs took control of the area during the Islamic expansion of the seventh century ad. It is from these Arabs that modern-day Palestinians are descended.

Palestine was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire from ad 1516 until the empire was defeated in World War I (191418). During the war period, both Arabs and Jews were made promises by the British concerning the future fate of Palestine. The British controlled Palestine from 1920 to 1948. In 1947, the United Nations (UN) divided Palestine into two states, one Jewish, and the other Arab. When the independent state of Israel was declared on May 15, 1948, the Arab forces of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Transjordan advanced into Palestine. After the ensuing war in 1949, the West Bank came under Jordanian rule, the Gaza Strip came under Egyptian rule, and the remainder of Palestine came under Israeli rule. Many, but not all, Palestinian Arabs fled abroad during this time. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed in Jerusalem. Yasser Arafat became the head of the PLO in 1969.

In a June 1967 war, Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Also in that year, Israel annexed East Jerusalem. The West Bank and Gaza Strip have since been called the Occupied Territories. Most of the residents there are Palestinian Arabs. December 1987 marked the beginning of the Intifadaan ongoing popular uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israeli government and the PLO signed the Declaration of Principles (DOP) in September 1993, resolving that Israeli troops would leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip areas. In 1994, limited Palestinian self-rule was established in Jericho and the Gaza Strip. Fighting continues over the question of a fully independent Palestinian homeland.


There are more than 4.5 million Palestinians in the world. About 2 million of them live in Israel and the Occupied Territoriesthe West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most of the rest live in neighboring Arab countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The UN lists 2 million Palestinian refugees. During the war years of 194749, between 700,000 and 800,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes. When Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, another 300,000 Palestinians became refugees (and 150,000 who were already refugees were forced to move again).


Palestinians speak Arabic. "Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are As-salam alaykum (Peace be with you), with the reply of wa 'alaykum as salam (and to you peace). Ma'assalama means "goodbye," with the literal translation being "go with peace." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is 'Afwan. "Yes" is na'am, and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad, ithnayn, thalatha, arba'a, khamsa, sita, sab'a, thamanya, tis'a, and 'ashara.

Common names for boys are Ahmad, Shukri, Ismàil, and Ibrahim. Muhammad is a very common Muslim name. Hanna is a very common Christian name. Ìsa (Jesus) is used by both Muslims and Christians. Common names for girls are Samia, Sawsan, Maysoon, Muna, and Fatima. On rare occasions girls are given politically significant names such as Al-Quds (Jerusalem).


Palestinians believe in jinns evil spirits who can take on the shapes of natural forms and cause trouble.

A famous fictional character is Juha. School children read about Juha's exploits in fables that teach lessons. For example, in one story Juha buries a treasure in the ground and tries to remember its whereabouts by remembering the clouds that hover over it. Naturally, he loses his treasure because clouds move about and disappear.

Many Muslim stories cherished by Palestinians are similar to those in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The stories of Noah and the Ark and Adam and Eve are important to both Muslim and Christian Palestinians. Palestinians take pride in the true story of the capture of Jerusalem by Arab Muslims in the seventh century.


Most Palestinians75 percentare Muslim (followers of Islam), the majority belonging to the Sunni sect. In the seventh century ad, the prophet Muhammad received his revelations from Allah, the one true God (according to Islam). Within just a few years of Muhammad's death in ad 632, Islam had spread through the entire Middle East, gaining converts at a rapid rate.

Mecca is the spiritual center of Islam. All prayers are said facing Mecca. Each Muslim is expected, and greatly desires, to make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime.

About 17 percent of Palestinians are Christian, and some 8 percent are Druze. Both Christians and Muslims have holy sites in Palestine that are visited by pilgrims from around the world.


Islam uses a lunar calendar, so Muslim holidays occur on a different date of the Gregorian (Western) calendar each year. The major Muslim holidays are 'Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan (a three-day festival); 'Eid al-Adha, a feast at the end of the hajj (the pilgrimage month to Mecca); the First of Muharram, the Muslim New Year; and the prophet Muhammad's birthday.

The two major holidays, 'Eid al-Fitr and 'Eid al-Adha, are celebrated by visiting close friends and relatives throughout the day. At least one family member, usually the mother, remains home to greet guests, and the rest of the family travels from home to home, delivering holiday greetings. Children are usually showered with money from most of the adults they encounter. At every home, pastries called Kàk al-Id are served. These are made of flour and butter and are stuffed with either walnuts, cinnamon, and sugar, or with dates. After baking, they are sprinkled with powdered sugar. During the three-day 'Eid celebration, everyone eats lots of kàk.

The Christian holiday of Easter is also moveable, being calculated on a lunar basis. It always occurs sometime during March or early April. Other Christian holidays are: the Day of the Ascension (May 15); the Feast of the Assumption (August 15); and Christmas and Boxing Day (December 25 and 26). New Year's Day (January 1) is a secular (nonreligious) holiday, not a Christian holiday, and many Muslims also celebrate this day.

In 1977, an International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (November 29) was declared as a political observance. Some politically significant events are observed each year by a general strike and demonstrations. Two examples are November 2, in protest over the 1917 Balfour Declaration (in which the British government promoted the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine); and May 15, in protest over the declaration of the state of Israel.


Male children are circumcised and the family holds a great feast to celebrate the occasion. Marriage is another important rite of passage. A simple wedding is followed by a huge feast and celebration attended by family and friends who bring gifts. Childbirth is considered an important function of marriage. The Islamic religion favors having children, and, in addition, Palestinians feel that reproduction is an important nationalist (patriotic) duty.


When two Palestinians greet one another they usually shake hands. It is also common for two women to kiss one another on the cheeks in greeting.

Palestinians are known for their hospitality. Neighbors have very friendly relations and look out for one another's interests. Because Palestinians tend to stay in one house or apartment for their entire lives, neighbors establish lifelong relationships.

Palestinian society is very conservative by Western standards. Dating, as it is understood in the West, is not tolerated. If a man and woman are interested in one another, it is customary for the man to first declare his intentions to the woman's family. Dating to socialize or get to know one another is not allowed; the intent must be marriage. However, it is becoming more common for a couple to court before approaching the woman's family.


Palestinians live in a variety of conditionsfrom refugee camps to comfortable, middle-class (or even wealthy) homes in modern towns and cities. Traditional villages have one-story houses made of white stone, with a kitchen, a room for bathing, a liwan (sitting room) for receiving guests, and a few small rooms for sleeping. Houses are often surrounded by small gardens separated from the street by a high wall (called a sur ) with a gate. Wealthier families have indoor plumbing and electricity. Other families get their water from local wells and cook on small charcoal stoves.

Refugee camps set up by the UN Relief Workers Agency provide small, cement-block huts with corrugated metal roofs and doors. Some do not have running water or electricity.


The family is the central unit of Palestinian society. Traditional village life used to be regulated by the hamula a male-dominated extended family system, or clan-based operation. The hamula is disappearing as ancestral clan-controlled lands are taken away or lost. Nevertheless, families continue to be very important.

Arranged marriages are still the norm in some places. Marriage by individual choice is becoming common in other areas, however. This is the case especially as more males and females meet in universities, which are all coeducational. Child-marriage and polygamy (multiple spouses) still occur, although not in great numbers.

Palestinians have one of the highest birth rates in the world. Children are taught to use good manners and to respect their elders. Women are expected to fulfill the traditional role of homemaker. They are beginning to break out of these roles, however. Under Israeli occupation, many men were arrested by the military government for political activities hostile to the state of Israel. Women were forced to fill in for men held in prison. Women thus assumed jobs and became heads of households. Having attained prominent social and professional roles, many women now insist on equality of the sexes.


Palestinians of the older generation still wear traditional clothing. Men wear a long loose robe called a jallabiyeh and the common Arab headscarf, or kaffiyeh, held in place with a twisted band called an ogaal. Women wear a long black peasant dress (known as a thob ) with an embroidered bodice, and a shawl over the head and shoulders.

Most younger Palestinians wear Western-style clothing, with traditional head-scarves covering the hair for young women. Religiosity has increased during the years of the Intifada (or "uprising"), beginning in 1987. This has been reflected in an increase in religious attire, known as sharì a clothing or jilbab, for young women. This is a long jacketlike dress that covers the entire body. A scarf is worn on the head to cover the hair.


Palestinians eat typical Middle Eastern food, such as falafel (deep-fried chickpea balls or patties), hummus (ground chickpeas with garlic, lemon juice), tahini (a sesame paste), lamb, chicken, rice, nuts, and eggplant. A favorite Palestinian candy is halvah, a sweet nougat made of sesame seeds and honey. For eating meals, some rural Palestinians sit on mats or cushions around a cloth laid on the floor and scoop up their food with pieces of pita bread, called khubz. They drink lots of strong black Turkish coffee. A recipe for khubz follows.


(Pita Bread)


  • 2 teaspoons dry yeast
  • 2½ cups warm water
  • 5 to 6 cups whole wheat flour
  • or 3 cups whole wheat and 2 to 3 cups white flour
  • or 5 to 6 cups white flour
  • 1 tablespoon salt


Dissolve yeast in half a cup of warm water. Cover and let sit until yeast ferments, about 10 minutes. Stir 3 cups of flour, salt, dissolved yeast, and remaining 2 cups of water in a large bread bowl or mixing bowl. Add remaining 2 to 3 cups of flour in small portions, kneading well with the hands after each addition. Keep adding flour until the dough holds together well and stops sticking to your hands. Knead very well on a lightly floured surface for 8 to 10 minutes. The dough should be smooth and elastic. Return the dough to the mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Wrap the entire bowl, including the bottom, in a blanket or heavy towel, and allow dough to rise until doubled in size, about 2 to 3 hours.

On a lightly floured surface, cut the dough into 8 balls. Cover the balls and let rest for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400°F. While the oven is heating, use a rolling pin to flatten each ball of dough into a circle about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) thick and 8 to 9 inches (20 to 25 centimeters) in diameter.

Beginning with the first loaf you rolled, set each loaf directly on the oven rack. You can bake two loaves at a time, one on each rack. When the loaves begin to brown, turn them so that they brown evenly on both sides (about 3 minutes per side). (If you find it difficult to drop the dough directly onto the oven shelf, use a pizza pan or a pizza stone to put the loaf on.)

As each loaf comes out of the oven, wrap it in a clean cloth or towel to keep it soft until the baking process is complete. After the loaves have cooled, store in plastic bags.

Other Palestinian favorites are zucchini and grape leaves, both stuffed with a rice-and-meat mixture. Palestinians also enjoy olive oil and preserved olives, which are harvested in the summer and are eaten year-round. Almonds, plums, apples, cherries, and lemons are enjoyed in many households fresh off the trees in family gardens. Pork is prohibited in the Muslim religion, as is alcohol. Many Palestinians are Christian, however, so alcoholic beverages are served in some restaurants and sold in some stores, generally in urban centers.


Education is highly valued, and families compare the grades of their children. The highest achievers are noted in newspapers. Palestinian children attend schools similar to those in the West. Children begin school in kindergarten and attend elementary, preparatory, and high school. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) runs schools for refugee children. The majority of Palestinian children attend free public schools. All girls, whether in UNRWA, public, or private schools, wear uniforms. Boys dress as they wish within limits reflecting the social norms. Palestinians have the highest percentage of university graduates in the Arab world.

The average literacy (ability to read and write) rate for Palestinians is 70 percent.


Traditional Palestinian dancing is separated by sex. Men dance in a semicircle with their arms around each other or holding hands as they perform the dabka. Dancers circle the dance floor following the instructions of a designated leader. Women also perform the dabka, and in professional performances men and women do dance the dabka together.

Contemporary Palestinian writers include historian and essayist Edward Said, a Palestinian-American. A famous Palestinian poet and short-story writer is Ghassan Kanafani. His poetry and stories, like much Palestinian literature, feature themes of protest against the Israeli occupation and memories of times predating the occupation. Other famous Palestinians include the poet Mahmoud Darwish; Sabri Jiryis, a radio personality and writer; and the painter Jammana al-Husseni.


It is difficult for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories to find work. Unemployment is a serious problem among the many refugees. When they do find jobs, they are often paid low wages. Many Palestinians from Gaza, and some from the West Bank, cross over into Israel for employment. In Israel, they hold low-wage jobs as restaurant waiters, street cleaners, construction workers, and dishwashers. Since the signing of the DOP (September 1993), the borders between Israel and the Palestinians have often been closed. This causes extreme hardship for the Palestinians who once relied on Israel for jobs.

Under Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, discussions were underway to develop an industrial complex along the borders to solve the unemployment problem. Under the new government led by Benjamin Netanyahu (1996), it is not yet clear if this goal will be pursued.


Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have little time or space for organized sports activities. However, soccer is popular and is played in schools and during free time in the many fields of the West Bank. There has been little attention given to organized, professional sporting events.


Informal, streetside games of soccer are popular among Palestinians. They also enjoy listening to poetry and music, and playing the very popular Middle Eastern version of backgammon. Men smoke the narghila, or water-pipe (like a hookah ) at corner cafés and coffeehouses. Only men go to coffeehouses, where they socialize, make business deals, and play cards and back-gammon.

Children play hopscotch, jump rope, and play marbles on the sidewalks.

Palestinians watch television programs broadcast from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and sometimes Syria. One of the favorite television characters is Ghawar al-Tosheh, a Syrian comedic character who often criticizes government policies in his storylines. On Fridays, the noon prayer is broadcast on television for Muslims.


Some Palestinians are skilled in the art of calligraphy (decorative lettering). They sketch verses from the Koran (the sacred text of Islam) in beautiful designs. Other artists draw pictures of political protest, mostly against the occupation. One popular pastime is to memorize and recite verses of the Koran. Children begin this practice at an early age, and it continues through adulthood. Women often sit on their front porches knitting for their families, or cross-stitching or embroidering the bodices for their traditional dresses. They also cross-stitch items for craft shows, such as wall decorations or Koranic verses. Other crafts include making jewelry boxes, crosses, scenes of the Last Supper, camels, mosques, and other items made of olive wood or ivory.


The main social problem for Palestinians is the decades-long war with Israel over rights to the Palestinian homeland. Palestinians are people without a country. At best they live as displaced persons, and at worst as refugees in crowded camps. Younger generations of Palestinians have never known a time when their people were at peace. They grow up with a consciousness shaped by conflict and violence. The PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and the Israeli government signed the Declaration of Principles in 1993, and limited Palestinian self-rule began in 1994. However, the agreement is opposed by extremists on both sides, and the peace that exists is very shaky. The Palestinian fight for an independent homeland, whose tempo increased with the Intifada begun in December 1987, continues. The casualties are enormous, and the problemsphysical, social, psychological, and spiritualcaused by the continual unrest are too numerous to count.


Ganeri, Anita. Why We Left: I Remember Palestine. Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1995.

Melrod, George, ed. Insight Guides: Israel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Peoples of the World: The Middle East and North Africa, 1st ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.

Stannard, Dorothy, ed. Insight Guides: Jordan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.


ArabNet. Palestine. [Online] Available, 1998.

Embassy of Israel, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available, 1998.

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Historically, the term Palestinian has been associated with the inhabitants of the south of ancient Syria west of the Jordan River between Lebanon and Sinai. The name Palestinian is related to the Philistines, an Indo-European group that invaded the southern coast of ancient Syria from the sea in the fourteenth century BCE. The Palestinians, however, are descendants of the Canaanites, a Semitic group that migrated from the Arabian Peninsula between 3000 and 2500 BCE and settled the coastal areas of Palestine. The Arabic language and Islamic religion spread among the Palestinians with the Arab migrations from the Arabian Peninsula between 630 and 650 CE. Throughout four hundred years of Muslim Ottoman rule, Palestinians maintained an Arab identity and included Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Palestinian population was composed of a Muslim Sunni majority and minority populations of Christians (10 percent) and Jews (less than 5 percent).

After World War I (19141918), the Palestinians were provisionally recognized as independent under a British mandate that was supposed to provide advice and maintain their status quo until self-rule. The British, however, began to resettle European Jews in Palestine as a way of supporting the Zionist solution to the Jewish question created by the anti-Semitism of Europe. The increase in the European Jewish population from 4.8 percent in 1882 to 28 percent in 1936 created economic hardships for the indigenous population because the lands purchased were in the arable, coastal, and urban centers of Palestine. Moreover, the uneven economic policies of the British that favored the Jewish sector increased Palestinian unemployment, rural outmigrations, landlessness, and thus a cheap labor force. Palestinian discontent culminated in a general strike and protests between 1936 and 1939, which were brutally suppressed by the British army and the Jewish militia.

Palestinian lives have been shaped since mid-twentieth century by two main events, their repercussions, and the attempted solutions: Al Nakba (Arabic for the catastrophe) of 1948, which marked Palestinian dispossession and exile coinciding with the establishment of the Israeli state; and Al Naksa (Arabic for the tragedy) of 1967, which marked the beginning of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Al Nakba caused the exodus of 750,000 Palestinians from the land on which the state of Israel was established into the nearby Arab countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; and Al Naksa created an additional 350,000 refugees who fled to Jordan, of whom 15,000 were allowed to return. The indigenous Palestinian population that remained on the land under Israeli control was put under military rule until 1966 and was later incorporated into Israeli society as a minority with citizenship but not equality.

After 1948 Palestinian society emerged divided between the West Bank, a kidney-shaped area of approximately 2,270 square miles whose population doubled with the arrival of refugees, and the Gaza Strip, a tiny strip of land of approximately 140 square miles absorbing a refugee population that outnumbered its inhabitants. Between 1948 and 1967, the Palestinians in the West Bank, annexed then by Jordan, could get Jordanian passports listing their citizenship as Jordanian, while the Palestinians in Gaza, under Egyptian rule, were given Egyptian travel documents listing their nationality as undetermined.

The Palestinians in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were united after 1967 through their status as occupied subjects sharing a history under Israeli occupation while struggling against its oppressive conditions. The contention included a guerrilla resistance in the first couple of years of occupation in the refugee camps of Gaza. It was suppressed when the camps were subjected to martial law. Sporadic protests took place in the 1970s and 1980s, a mass uprising took place in 1987, and a second uprising began in 2000.

Under occupation, all aspects of Palestinian life were subject to the Israeli military authorities approval, from economic activity to the right of movement, and monitored through a hierarchically ordered color-coded identity card systemto be carried at all timesdifferentiating Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem (blue), the West Bank (orange), and the Gaza Strip (red). The Palestinians of East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war while remaining integral to the West Bank, were assigned the status of residents, situating them hierarchically above occupied subjects but lower than citizens. Nonetheless, the mid-1990s uncovered their shaky status when the Israeli government demanded that East Jerusalemites prove that the center of their activities continued to revolve around the city if they wanted to keep their residency rights. The residency status of close to two thousand East Jerusalemites was revoked.

The Palestinian economy, underdeveloped on the eve of the 1967 war, deteriorated under the Israeli occupation policies of control of mobility of Palestinian labor and commodities and confiscation of land for building and expanding Israeli Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. By 1993, a survey of living conditions found that Palestinian households in the territories are mostly dependent on wage labor. Moreover, Palestinians preferred to work in Israel because of higher wages even as they are paid less than the average wages of the Jewish workers. Under a general exit system in 1967, Palestinians could cross the border to work as day laborers but were not allowed to stay after sunset. Thus, Palestinian chances for making a living in the territories largely have depended on Israeli border policies since 1967.

Peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis to end the occupation started in 1993 yet coincided with Israel closing its border and imposing a permit policy restricting Palestinian movement with repercussions for Palestinian livelihood. Although the peace process brought a Palestinian National Authority to Gaza and Jericho and redeployed the Israeli military from main Palestinian towns, it did not end Israeli control. Israel retained 59 percent of the West Bank lands and 20 percent of the Gaza Strip, and maintained security control over most of the West Bank. In the years following the arrival of the Palestinian Authority to the territories in 1994, Palestinians faced more mobility restrictionsbetween Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, within the West Bank. Additionally, the construction of a wall between the West Bank and Israel has had significant consequences for Palestinian social life.

SEE ALSO Arab League, The; Arab-Israeli War of 1967; Intifada, The; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Muslims; Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); Palestinian Authority; Palestinian Diaspora; Peace Process; Suicide Bombers


Farsoun, Samih, and Christina E. Zacharia. 1997. Palestine and the Palestinians. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Heiberg, Marianne, and Geir Ovensen, eds. 1993. Palestinian Society in Gaza, West Bank, and Arab Jerusalem: A Survey of Living Conditions. Oslo, Norway: FAFO.

McDowall, David. 1998. The Palestinians: The Road to Nationhood. London: Minority Rights Group International.

Roy, Sara. 2001. The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of DeDevelopment, 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestinian Studies.

Mary Hovsepian

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