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Unifying diaspora: Palestinian youth reassert their national identity

A new survey demonstrates that Palestinians teens across the world (including in Israel and the occupied territories) have strong ties to their national identity, despite the fact that most of them have never set foot in their homeland. 

By Amjad Alqasis

Palestinians protest against negotiations between the PLO and Israel in January of 2012. (photo: flickr/Activestills)

We came to this country which was already populated by [Palestinian] Arabs, and we are establishing a Hebrew, that is, a Jewish State here. Jewish villages were built in the place of [Palestinian] Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these [Palestinian] Arab villages, and I do not blame you, because these geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the [Palestinian] Arab villages are not there either. Nahalal arose in the place of Mahalul; Gevat in the place of Jibta; Sarid in the place of Haneifa and Kefar Yehoshua in the place of Tel Shaman. There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former [Palestinian] Arab population..[1]

-Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, 1969

In Israel’s process of colonizing Palestine, the indigenous population has been divided into three main categories: Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territory; Palestinians residing on the Israeli side of the 1949 Armistice Line; and the millions living in forced exile. The map of Palestine depicts the classic colonial principle of ‘divide and rule’ – political and social divisions based on fragmented geography.

The 1948 Nakba was the central fissure that tore apart the social fabric of Palestinian society by cutting off relationships between Palestinians on either side of the Green Line. Israel has maintained this strategy since. Most importantly, Israel erased the term ‘Palestinian’ and for instance labels the Palestinian citizens of Israel as ‘Israeli-Arabs’ in order to disconnect them from their own history and ownership of the land, and to reinforce their position as sub-citizens within Israeli society. Israel went even a step further by compartmentalizing that community into Arab Christians, Arab Muslims, Druze and Bedouins. Fragmentation was applied to the territory occupied in 1967 by categorizing the population according to identity cards that restrict life and movement within the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

In enforcement of the ongoing displacement since the Nakba, Israel marked Palestinian refugees who attempted to return as ‘infiltrators’ and deported them at sight.[2] In whole, Palestinian society was partitioned into categories and sub-categories with corresponding political and legal limitations for each group.[3] According to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, the ultimate aim was to weaken and eventually erase Palestinian affiliation or belonging to their heritage and land in order to “do everything to ensure they [the Palestinian refugees] never do return.”[4] His reasoning was that in time – based on Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, “[t]he old will die and the young will forget.”[5]

But Ben-Gurion’s vision did not materialize. On the contrary, despite all Israeli efforts to divide and erase Palestinian society, the Palestinian people have not abandoned their rights and continue to steadfastly confront Israel’s expulsion policies. BADIL’s 2012 Survey of Palestinian Youth focusing on identity and social ties clearly indicates that the third and fourth generation of Palestinian refugees did not “forget” their attachment to Palestine. The survey was conducted in the seven areas where the majority of Palestinians reside: Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It was conducted among Palestinian youth aged between 15 and 19 years and examines two main issues: that of self-identification (identity) and the importance of social ties compared among Palestinian communities living in the seven geographical areas.

The survey’s findings demonstrate that the vast majority of the respondents consider themselves Palestinians. Between 55 to 70 percent of the respondents in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon regard themselves as Palestinians. The significance of this majority can only be understood bearing in mind that these communities were born in forced exile and have never set foot in Palestine – denied by Israel. Even though living under the most direct Israeli colonial and ideological rule for the past 65 years, 45 percent of Palestinian citizens of Israel regard themselves as Palestinians and only 12 percent as ‘Israeli-Arabs’ as categorized and propagandized by the Israeli state for the past 65 years.[6]

On the question of social ties, the majority of Palestinian respondents from all seven geographical areas expressed the opinion that it is either “important” or “very important” to establish and foster social ties with other Palestinian communities. The research results depict patterns of unified Palestinian identity and fate in spite of Israel’s attempts to irreparably damage the social fabric through geopolitical fragmentation. Furthermore, the survey demonstrates that Palestinian youth in separated geographies hold similar viewpoints to identity and national community. Importantly, the survey “affirms that the question of Palestinian national identity is not merely a question of citizenship, travel documents or privileges, but a much wider concept concerning the key principles of liberation, freedom and [self-determination].”[7]

These principles are common to the various Palestinian communities and, thus, should be reflected by the Palestinian leadership and international community when confronting the Palestinian reality of apartheid, military occupation and colonization. A long-lasting and just solution to the conflict can only be found when taking into consideration the Palestinian people as a whole and, most importantly, by emphasizing the millions of Palestinian refugees’ inalienable right of return.

Amjad Alqasis is a human rights lawyer, legal researcher and the legal advocacy program coordinator of BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.

A version of this article originally appeared in “Towards a Prognosis: Diagnosing Fragmentation and Problems of Representation in Palestinian Politics“, the Spring 2013 issue of al-Majdal published by the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. Follow BADIL on Facebook and Twitter.


[1] Moshe Dyan, March 19, 1969, speech at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, cited in Haaretz, April 4, 1969.

[2] See 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law and Israeli military orders 1649 and 1650.

[3] See for more information: BADIL, Israel’s Discriminatory Laws, Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights Occasional Bulletin No. 26 (2012).

[4] David Ben-Gurion, 1948, from his diary 18 July 1948, cited in Michael Bar Zohar, The Armed Prophet, 1967, p. 157.

[5] David Ben-Gurion, 1948, from his diary 18 July 1948, cited in Karma Nabulsi, The great catastrophe, The Guardian, Friday 12 May 2006.

[6] BADIL, One People United: A Deterritorialized Palestinian Identity – BADIL Survey of Palestinian Youth on Identity and Social Ties – 2012, BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights (2012).

[7] Ibid.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. XYZ

      (1) Note how the term “Palestinian” is inserted into Moshe Dayan’s statement. Of course the concept of “Palestinian people” was new at the time and not well-known to Israelis because Dayan, like his whole generation, lived in the pre-state period when the Palestinians rejected the term.
      It is interesting how the writer feels he has to prove that there is a Palestinian national identity, apparently he feels that people don’t regard that as self-evident.

      (2) Note how the writer egregiously leaves ignores the Jewish population when he talks about “the indigenous population”.

      (3) Regarding the feeling of national identity of the Palestinians, there was a report in media right after Oslo that there was an attempt to create a “Palestine National Fund” parallel to the Jewish National Fund, but it closed down after a short while because no one would donate to it, because the Palestinian potential donors didn’t want the money going to people outside their clan.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        “It is interesting how the writer feels he has to prove that there is a Palestinian national identity, apparently he feels that people don’t regard that as self-evident.”

        I like how you accuse the writer of being defensive about the concept of a Palestinian national identity, while in the same breath insinuate that such an identity is artificial.

        “Note how the writer egregiously leaves ignores the Jewish population when he talks about “the indigenous population”.”

        It’s a sad but true fact that prior to around 1880 (the first wave of Jewish European immigration) the vast majority of the indigenous population of Palestine was in fact Arab. Only after 1880 did the Jewish population begin to become statistically significant. In 1947, the Jewish population was outnumbered 3 to 1. In 1948, that ratio was magically reversed.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >…statistically insignificant.

          Lovely.

          On the same basis one might claim that 2000 killed Palestinian children are statistically insignificant – mere 0.2% of about one million (1 000 000) of Palestinian minors.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron Gross

      Interesting article. I wonder, though: If a “long-lasting and just solution to the conflict can only be found when taking into consideration the Palestinian people as a whole,” does that mean that Palestinians outside of Palestine should effectively have veto power over an agreement? In other words, if the Palestinian diaspora doesn’t support a particular agreement, would that agreement be unjust?

      Also, Palestine is a Muslim wakf, not just the land of Palestinians. Should non-Palestinian Muslims be taken into consideration as well? Could an agreement opposed by most of the Muslim world still be just?

      Finally, a couple minor points about the survey. According to Figure 2.1.1 in the survey cited, 12 percent of Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel in that age group identify as Arab-Israeli, not Israeli-Arab as the author wrote here. This correction actually supports the author’s argument.

      Also, the number given here as identifying as Palestinian seems to exclude those who identify as Palestinian-Israeli. It’s not clear why the author did that. Isn’t Palestinian-Israeli identity included under Palestinian identity?

      Reply to Comment
    3. jjj

      Once again, a delusional article, implying a just solution would be the return of all Palestinians to Palestine, and the rejection, or the supression of Israel altogether, as if it should vanish and its (Jewish) people transported elsewhere.
      It discusses the situation as if the 1948 should immediately be undone, ignoring its causes, roots, and consequences.

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      It seems to me the survey results prove the opposite of what the writer is claiming. If I understood this correctly, less than half of the Israeli Arabs identify themselves as Palestinians, and in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon something over half identify as such, but not an overwhelming majority.
      National identity is more than just a feeling of mutual culture or having a joint celebration when a particular singer wins “Arab Idol”. A good example is when there is an economic crisis in Alabama, taxpayers in New York are willing to have their tax money go to Alabama to help the people there. It is not the same in Germany where there is resentment at having to baii out Greece so the EU does NOT creat a joint national identity. The fact that the Palestinians have two separate, hostile regimes in power (FATAH-West Bank and HAMAS-Gaza) and they are incapable of working for the common goal of confronting Israel and in fact work to undermine each other brings into question of how much Palestinian national sentiment is really present there.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aaron Gross

        According to the author less than half the Arabs citizens of Israel surveyed identified as Palestinians, but he seems to have incorrectly represented the survey. In fact, a majority identified that way, if you include “Palestinian-Israeli.” Even accepting his own classification, though, a plurality identify as Palestinian. Check out Figure 2.1.1.

        One important thing to remember is that these were Arab teenagers, not Arabs from all age groups.

        Reply to Comment
    5. sh

      Cohesive national identities are also forged by suffering as we well know. We decided to make those who lived in this land suffer just like most of the places we were scattered in over the centuries made us suffer and one of the most ubiquitous features we bolstered our collective identity with was singing; “next year in Jerusalem” at every collective event – later often with the suffix “rebuilt” – is one of the best-known cases in point. The people who were living here when we lost patience with the Messiah and decided to build our state without waiting for redemption have suffered by our hand just for the sin of living here for approaching a century now. For the longest time we ignored the songs that they were singing and now, suddenly, XYZ, Trespasser and their jolly fellow-travellers have noticed them just enough to dismiss them. How long will it still take for them to understand that knowing how to administer punishment based on techniques that made you suffer in the past, does for your victim more or less what it did for you? The more fragmented they become, the more experiences they share (thanks in particular to todays electronic media we can share them too) wherever they happen to live, the stronger their determination becomes. Face the music, guys!

      Reply to Comment
    6. XYZ

      Having a common enemy is not enough of a basis to build a national identity. If it was, the EU would have been formed centuries ago because all Europeans shared a strong dislike of the Jews.
      You havve given us the usual “victimization/grievances” narrative of the Palestinians. I might remind you that the Jewish national civic infrastructure here was built up under British occupation. The British offered the Arabs to set up a parallel Arab Agency to the Jewish Agency which was the government-in-waiting for the Zionist project. The Arabs refused because they didn’t want to pay taxes to it. Thus, they blew their first chance to set up a national infrastructure. AFter Oslo, another opportunity was given, they again blew it, and then again after the withdrawal from Gaza. They only have to look in the mmirror to see the reason they have made no headway in improving the political, social, and economic situation.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Kolumn9

      Cohesive national identities are forged through the politicized institutionalization of a historical narrative of which suffering may optionally play a part. There may be a historical narrative widely politicized by various Palestinian institutions but it is a very shallow one based on the experiences of 1948 and the hate of Israel. It has a very hard time dealing with the differences in the experiences of the Palestinians in the territories versus the experiences of the diaspora in Lebanon versus the diaspora in Jordan versus the diaspora in Europe versus the claimed diaspora in Israel. It is like the Zionist narrative in some ways that has a hard time dealing with the experiences of the Jews in the US/Canada but without the religious undertones that Zionism uses. If you ask American Jews if they are Jews they will answer yes. If you ask them if they support Israel you are likely to get most saying yes. If you ask them if they are Zionists you will get diverse answers. In the case of this survey of the Palestinians they were given pretty much no room for clarity about what it means to be ‘Palestinian’. Does it mean that their grandfather came from what they consider Palestine? Does it mean they support the Palestinian national movement? Does it mean they are willing to go fight? Send money? Does it mean they want to go to the place their grandfather is from which they never saw?

      There are repeated claims that the diaspora Palestinians are ‘reasserting’ their national identity as if it is a wide-scale event, but I just don’t see that happening. There appears to be minimal organic organized activity in the Palestinian diaspora. The more fragmented the Palestinians have become the less they actually have in common and this trend seems likely to continue. In addition, the entire structure of wataniya Arab nationalism on which Palestinian nationalism currently rests is not faring well these days. The Palestinians do not have a separate religion. Nor do they have a separate language. Other than UNRWA (where it operates) what is there to keep the Palestinians united despite the extremely diverse conditions they live in?

      Certainly the internet allows a process of papering over these divisions. Palestinians, like many other people in the diaspora, can connect, bond over old stories, find people from the same villages as their grandparents. They can share a basic approach to their historical narrative. So, the internet allows the creation of a superficial symbolic unity that doesn’t translate terribly well to a political platform or political activity. There appears to be no self-sustaining movement, no financial backbone, no serious positive objectives, no universal leadership, no centralized structures. All that they can agree on is that they are ‘Palestinian’ and that Israel is the enemy and even there they can’t agree on a unified course of action. There is no good reason to believe that any of these things will change and as far as the Palestinians are concerned all these things have gotten worse over the past 30 years.

      Reply to Comment
    8. a random Palestinian

      Of course Palestinian youth, third generation refugees, feel ‘Palestinian’. But please, let’s talk about where to take the issue from here. As someone who hopes one day for a world without borders, I think Palestinians in the OPT should call for equal national and civil rights as those afforded to Israelis, and Palestinians in exile should do the same in the autocratic host countries that they live in. It won’t be easy in either case but it’s the only way forward. It is not only Israel that practices discrimination, but also the surrounding Arab countries. The difference being that Israel practices it towards its indigenous population while the Arab countries practice apartheid towards refugees.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Palestinian Arabs with family names such as “al-Mitzri” or “al-Andalusi” is about as indigenous to Palestine as they were to Andalus or Egypt.

        Reply to Comment
    9. Bill Inaz

      “These principles…should be reflected…when confronting the Palestinian reality of…military occupation…”

      The use of the term occupation is interesting. The young of course use it because it’s all they’ve heard. But those that were of age in 67 should remember fully that it was not the Israelis that pushed all their chips into the middle of the table and went ‘all in’. Blame Nasser or others if you want, but, when the chips are taken, they belong to the upper hand. The area is not “occupied territory” it is ‘lost territory’.

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        I was not only of age in 1967, I was living here (Israel) and remember fully what happened not only during it but also the run-up to it. When the war was over, my ignorant assumption was that the land conquered would eventually be returned in exchange for a comprehensive peace agreement that would evidently include mutual access to all the holy sites. I use the word ignorant because at the time I did not understand the difference between the Arab sectors affected by that war, nor did I fully understand the history and circumstances of the Arab population living in Israel or its connection to those living in Jordan and in refugee camps all over the Arab world.

        And I call it occupied territory. I will continue to do so until we have relinquished it.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Ignorance. That’s the word.

          You was ignorant to believe that a “comprehensive peace agreement” with Arabs could be signed – despite the fact that such agreement was on table less than 20 years before, and you remain ignorant until today, still believing that there are some Arabs who would sign a “comprehensive peace agreement” and would keep to it.

          Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          The offer you mention was made right after the conclusion of the 6-Day War. Everyone in Israel assumed that would be the deal….1967 for 1948 This showed a gross misunderstanding of the Arab side. The response of the Arab side was the infamous “3 Noes of Khartoum” just 2 months later.

          Your insistence on calling the West Bank “occupied territories” is common for your generation that remembrs the period before 1967, in which the West Bank is viewed as “extra”. Younger Isralis have no memory of this period and Ariel and the rest is part of Israel as they know it.

          Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            At the time of the 6-Day war in Israel it was believed that the Arab countries would inevitably evolve the way they thought Israel had evolved which was in the direction of strengthened nationalist sentiment and secularization of the society which would make the Arabs more amenable to an ultimate peace agreement. The major defeat the Arabs suffered in both the 6-Day War and Yom Kippur (please don’t tell me they “won” the Yom Kippur War simply because they got in the first blow….if you do then you would have to say the Germans won World War I and the Germans and Japanese won World War II) oonvinced them that is was simply too costly to try to defeat Israel using conventional military methods, leading Sadat to making the peace agreement in order to save his regime. Thus, arose the belief in the “peace process”.

            Reply to Comment
          • sh

            XYZ, neither 67 nor 73 were fought against the Palestinians. What idiotic comparisons are you making? And your waffle about Sadat has NOTHING to do with peace with the Palestinians either. He wanted the Sinai back and got it thanks to what happened in 73. First you claim that peace with the Palestinians was on offer at Khartoum and then you say that belief in the peace process began after Sadat? Get a grip.

            Reply to Comment
          • sh

            Devious XYZ.

            Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, LIbya, Tunisia, Algeria and Syria were at Khartoum. The Heads of State of the first eight of those listed signed the Khartoum Declaration. Palestine didn’t have a head of state because it did not and still does not have a state. A representative of the PLO was present however and could have signed it only he didn’t because the PLO disagreed with it.

            Obviously, the peace has to be made with the Palestinians. Note, just in case you forgot, that the “Arab side” has not been much kinder to the Palestinians than we have and self-interest rules. When a couple of countries signed peace deals with Israel subsequently, they didn’t ask for Palestinian permission either.

            World history is full of examples of young people who do not remember but have to put up with geographical changes. Some countries only went back to their people 300 plus years later. Obviously history books that teach real rather than imagined history are helpful.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Peace can’t be made with “Palestinians” because “Palestinians” does not exist or ever had existed.

            Peace must be made with Palestinian Arabs, who are “an inseparable part of the Arab Nation.” meaning that peace could only be made with the WHOLE “Arab Nation”

            p.s. Palestinian Arabs did not have a state and still have no state because they refused to have a state in 1919, 1948, 2000, 2002 and 2008.

            Reply to Comment
          • Eilon

            I think we must IGNORE what the PLO and their constituents say or don’t say. The fakestinians never existed and never will. Like the people of Narnia, Alice’s Oz or Tolkien’s Middle Earth they have been fabricated by hatred antisemitism. The answer is to develop and build in Yesha. One we have increased the population from 350,000 to 500,000 the whole thing will be finished.

            Reply to Comment
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