Mapping the Middle East: Palestine?

Assyrian Empire

My recent post on Israel and Hamas has prompted commentary–quite a bit of it ahistorical. Among the ahistorical claims is that Palestinians somehow possess a greater claim to lands in the region than Jews. It's ahistorical first of all because soverign nation states are largely a late 18th/early 19th century invention. Any people's claim to sovereignty by some sort of "ancient" claim is at best sentiment, and at worst an attempt to mask expansionist dreams in what E. J. Hobsbawm called "invented tradition."

The idea of a nation state is old, but the reality emerged out of revolutions such as those that convulsed the American colonies and France in the late 18th century, and which led to the creation of unified Germany and Italy in the 19th. Prior to then people lived in city-states, kingdoms, empires, principalities and such, but not in nation states. The idea of drawing lines on a map and labeling those living within that dotted enclosure a "people" or a "nationality" is, at root, a fiction to which most of the earth's peoples have acceded over the past two hundred plus years.

Enter the idea of a Palestinian nation. One hears that Palestinians lived in the Middle East before the Jews. That's dodgy history and even worse anthropology. We toss around terms such as "Arab," "Palestinian," and "Jew" as if they are races rather than cultural and religious preferences or simply the movement of armies. DNA evidence shows that 72% of all Israelis and 82% of all Palestinians are ancestrally related–that is to say that the entire region is a hodgepodge of older peoples whose cultures are now extinct (Phoenicians, Moabites, Canaanites, etc.), who mingled with newer cultural traditions: Muslim, Christian, and Jew. Indeed, some anthropologists argue that there is, biologically speaking, no such thing as a "Palestinian."

It's for certain that there was no such thing as Palestinian nationalism until the 20th century. It emerged as an analog to Zionism and has no less legitimacy, but no more either. Check out Wikipedia's entry on ancient Palestine. Pay close attention to the maps–especially what's not there. With the exception of a loose confederation known as Palestina in the 5th century AD, there has been no kingdom, empire, or other political entity known as Palestine. There had been two Jewish  kingdoms (Israel and Judea) in the area long before "Palestina."

Palestine historically referenced only a region. Those who today claim any "historical" right to region are deluded. If there is a Palestinian "race," its ancestors were Assyrians, Egyptians, Macedonians, Romans, the peoples of various caliphates, Crusaders, and Ottoman Turks–not autonomous Palestinians.  They were also pagans, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Muslims.

Here's a map of the region before World War One. From 1516 to 1917, "Palestine" was simply a far-flung province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Turks fought with Germany and Austria-Hungary during World War One–the losing side.

 Enter the great nationalist map-drawers: England and France. The Middle East was a (word play intended) turkey to be carved after the war. Notice below that lines have been cavalierly drawn. These had little to do with ethnic groups, tribes, or historical affinity; they were a deal between the winning powers. The next map shows the region in 1930. See any state called "Palestine?" Nope. It's a "mandate," a word meaning that Britain administered the region by right of conquest. 

Of course, the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Vichy (Nazi) France) tried to do the same thing during World War II. The Brits retained nominal control during the war, but had the 1942 Battle of El Alamein gone the other way, Germans would have controlled the area. The war signaled the end of Europe's age of imperialism and its subjects learned a few things from their years of domination, including the concept of nationalism

Look at the map of the region in 1947 and you'll see that new "nations" have emerged–that is, new fictions of dotted lines enclosing various peoples. Palestine isn't one of them, nor is an autonomous Israel; they are part of "Syria."

In 1948, the United Nations–in response to the Holocaust, but also to centuries of vicious anti-Antisemitism–acknowledged lines on a map and declared it "Israel." They drew some others and called it "Palestine," but those claiming to be Palestinian didn't accept the first set of lines and repudiated the second. Various newly created Arab nations declared war on Israel and were surprised when Israel defeated them.

Here's what the region looked like in 1949, after the peace treaty. I call your attention to the fact that Egypt occupied Gaza and Jordan claimed the West Bank (aka/Palestine). This is where we've been since 1949, with various wars–none preemptively launched by Israel–shifting the lines here and there quite a few times.

The entire debate over the "right" to this land or that is political, not historical. We talk about "nations" because that's how we think at this moment in time. We also think that boundary disputes are supposed to be adjudicated by bodies such as the United Nations, the body that declared Israel's existence and its right to exist. It has also upheld the idea of an independent Palestine, a situation that has yet to occur because those living there accept neither Israel's right to exist or any of the lines drawn on maps. This is the rule of the jungle, not law. It ought to invite the label pariah, not victim. 

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