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The term "Palestinian" has other usages, for which see definitions of Palestinian.

The Palestinian flag, adopted in 1948, is the widely recognized modern symbol of the Palestinian people.
Total population: 9,395,000
Significant populations in: See Demographics
Language: Arabic, specifically Palestinian Arabic
Religion: Islam, Christianity, others
Related ethnic groups: Arabs

The Palestinians are a mainly Arabic-speaking people with family origins mainly in Palestine. The Palestinian population is largely Sunni Muslim, with Christian, Druze, Jewish, and other minorities. The 1968 Palestinian National Covenant defines Palestinians as Arabs who had inhabited Palestine before 1947, Jews who had inhabited Palestine before the beginning of the modern Zionist immigrations, and their descendants through the male line. Most Jews in the region, however, do not define themselves as Palestinian. According to the current draft of the Palestinian constitution, which would take effect should the Palestinian Authority be replaced by an independent state: "Palestinian citizenship shall be organized by law without prejudicing the right of anyone who acquired it before 15 May 1948 in accordance with the law or the right of the Palestinian who was resident in Palestine before that date. This right is transmitted from fathers and mothers to their children. The right endures unless it is given up voluntarily." [1]

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

While most Palestinians define themselves as Arabs, their ancestry is most probably a combination of many tribes that inhabited the region over many centuries. According to one study:

The Palestinians do not have a common ethnic origin or a common religion. What joins them together is simply the fact that they and their ancestors have lived in the land of Palestine from as far back as any of them can record. In their veins run the blood of the ancient Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders and Turks ... It must be fully conceded that the Palestinians are a very mixed group of people ... each group of Palestinians traces its ancestry over differing lengths of time. [2]

One distinguishing characteristic of Palestinians is their dialect; almost uniquely among Arabic speakers, Palestinians (with the exception of Beduins), pronounce the letter qaaf as k (Arabic kaaf), while Jordanians and non-Palestinian Arabs usually pronounce it as "g".


Palestinian demographics

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

Country or Region Population
West Bank and Gaza Strip 3,700,000
Israel (see note below) 1,213,000
Jordan 2,598,000
Lebanon 388,000
Syria 395,000
Saudi Arabia 287,000
Gulf states 152,000
Egypt 58,000
Other Arab states 113,000
The Americas 216,000
Other countries 275,000
TOTAL 9,395,000
  • Note: The Palestinian population in East Jerusalem, numbering around 200,000, may have been counted as part of "West Bank and Gaza Strip" as well as "Israel", thus creating a duplication.

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

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics announced on October 20, 2004 that the number of Palestinians worldwide at the end of 2003 is 9.6 million, an increase of 800,000 since 2001. [3]


See Palestinian refugees for more detail.

4,255,120 Palestinians are registered as refugees with UNRWA; this number includes the descendants of refugees from the 1948 war, but excludes those who have emigrated to areas outside of the UNRWA's remit [4]. Thus, if the estimates above are correct, almost half of all Palestinians are registered refugees.


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

Currently, no reliable data is available for the worldwide Palestinian population; Bernard Sabella of Bethlehem University estimates it as 6% Christian[5]. However, within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, the Palestinian population is 97% Muslim and 3% Christian; there are also about 300 Samaritans and a few thousand Jews from the Neturei Karta group who consider themselves Palestinian. Within Israel, 68% of the non-Jewish population is Muslim, 9% Christian, 7% Druze, and 15% "other".

The ancestry of the Palestinians

Palestinians claim to have a mixed ancestry. Arabs, Crusaders, Romans, Jews, and other people have all settled in the region and intermarried [6][7]. Many of their descendants converted to Christianity and later to Islam, and spoke different languages depending on the lingua franca of the time. For the most part, the Arabization of the Palestinians began in Umayyad times. Increasing conversions to Islam among the local population, together with the immigration of Arabs from Arabia and inland Syria, led to the replacement of Aramaic by Arabic as the area's dominant language. Among the cultural survivals from pre-Arab times are the significant Palestinian Christian community (and smaller Jewish and Samaritan ones) as well as Aramaic loanwords in the local dialect. Palestinians, like most other Arabic speakers, thus combine pre-Arab and Arab ancestry; the precise mixture is a matter of debate, on which genetic evidence (see below) has begun to shed some light, apparently confirming Ibn Khaldun's widely accepted argument that most Arabic speakers descend mainly from acculturated non-Arabs.

The Palestinian Bedouin, however, are much more securely known to be Arab by ancestry as well as by culture; their distinctively conservative dialects and pronunciation of qaaf as gaaf group them with other Bedouin across the Arab world and confirm their separate history. Arabic onomastic elements began to appear in Edomite inscriptions starting in the 6th century BC, and are nearly universal in the inscriptions of the Nabataeans, who arrived there in the 4th-3rd centuries BC[8]. It has thus been suggested that the present day Bedouins of the region may have their origins as early as this period. A few Bedouin are found as far north as Galilee; however, these seem to be much later arrivals, rather than descendants of the Arabs that Sargon II settled in Samaria in 720 BC.

As genetic techniques have advanced, it has become possible to look directly into the question of the ancestry of the Palestinians. In recent years, many genetic surveys have suggested that Jews and Palestinians (and in some cases other Levantines) are genetically closer to each other than either is to the Arabs of Arabia or to Europeans [9] [10] [11] [12]. (this collection contains more links to genetic studies of Jewish and middle eastern populations.) These studies look at the prevalence of specific inherited genetic differences (polymorphism) among populations, which then allow the relatedness of these populations to be determined, and their ancestry to be traced back (see population genetics). These differences can be the cause of genetic disease or be completely neutral (see Single nucleotide polymorphism) ; they can be inherited maternally (mitochondrial DNA), paternally (Y chromosome), or as a mixture from both parents ; the results obtained may vary from polymorphism to polymorphism. One study [13]on congenital deafness identified an allele only found in Palestinian and Ashkenazi communities, suggesting a common origin ; an investigation [14] of a Y-chromosome polymorphism found Lebanese, Palestinian, and Sephardic populations to be particularly closely related ; a third study [15], looking at Human leukocyte antigen differences among a broad range of populations, found Palestinians to be particularly closely related to Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Jews, as well as Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean populations. (The latter study by Antonio Arnaiz-Villena has been the subject of intense controversy, it was retracted by the journal and removed from its website, leading to further controversy; the main accusations made were that the authors used their scientific findings to justify making one-sided political proclamations in the paper; that the retraction followed lobbyist pressure because the results contradicted certain political beliefs; some suggested that the broad scientific interpretation was based on too narrow data [16], whereas others support the scientific content as valid - for more information on the controversy : [17], [18], [19], [20].) If this close relatedness is true, it would confirm both Jews' and Palestinians' historical claims, suggesting a common Northwest Semitic ancestry. However, the results are complex, much work remains to be carried out, and partial results can be interpreted to suit diverse political agendas.

One point in which the two populations appear to contrast is in the proportion of sub-Saharan African genes which have entered their gene pools. One study found that Middle Eastern Arabs (specifically Palestinians, Jordanians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Bedouin), unlike other Middle Eastern populations (specifically Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, and Near Eastern Jews), had what appears to be a substantial gene flow from sub-Saharan Africa (amounting to 10-15% of lineages) within the past three millennia, possibly due to the slave trade[21].

The origins of Palestinian identity

A map of Palestine as described by the medieval Arab geographers, with the junds of Jordan and Filistin highlighted in grey
A map of Palestine as described by the medieval Arab geographers, with the junds of Jordan and Filistin highlighted in grey

Palestine (Filasteen فلسطين) has been the Arabic name of the region since the earliest medieval Arab geographers (adopted from the then-current Greek term Παλαιστινη (in Latinised form: Palaestina), first used by Herodotus, itself derived ultimately from the name of the Philistines), and "Palestinian" (Filasteeni فلسطسيني) was always a common nisba adopted by natives of the region, starting as early as the first century after the Hijra (eg `Abdallah b. Muhayriz al-Jumahi al-Filastini[22], an ascetic who died in the early 700's.) However, the Palestinians, like most Arab nationalities, have come to view themselves as primarily Palestinians (rather than as primarily Arabs, or Syrians, or denizens of a particular town) mostly in the past century. Whereas European colonialism and to a lesser extent Turkish nationalism in the Ottoman Empire was the main spur in forming national identities and borders elsewhere, the main force in reaction to which Palestinian nationalism developed was Zionism. One of the earliest Palestinian newspapers, Filastin founded in Jaffa in 1911 by Issa al-Issa, addressed its readers as "Palestinians"[23].

Formation of the Palestinian nationality

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

Even before the end of Ottoman administration, Palestine, rather than the Ottoman Empire, was considered by some Palestinians to be their country. On 25 July 1913, for instance, the Palestinian newspaper al-Karmel wrote: "This team possessed tremendous power; not to ignore that Palestine, their country, was part of the Ottoman Empire."[24] The idea of a specifically Palestinian state, however, was at first rejected by most Palestinians; the First Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations (in Jerusalem, February 1919), which met for the purpose of selecting a Palestinian Arab representative for the Paris Peace Conference, adopted the following resolution: "We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic and geographical bonds." (Yehoshua Porath, Palestinian Arab National Movement: From Riots to Rebellion: 1929-1939, vol. 2, London: Frank Cass and Co., Ltd., 1977, pp. 81-82.) However, particularly after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the French conquest of Syria, the notion took on greater appeal; in 1920, for instance, the formerly pan-Syrianist mayor of Jerusalem, Musa Qasim Pasha al-Husayni, said "Now, after the recent events in Damascus, we have to effect a complete change in our plans here. Southern Syria no longer exists. We must defend Palestine". Similarly, the Second Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations (December 1920), passed a resolution calling for an independent Palestine; they then wrote a long letter to the League of Nations about "Palestine, land of Miracles and the supernatural, and the cradle of religions", demanding, amongst other things, that a "National Government be created which shall be responsible to a Parliament elected by the Palestinian People, who existed in Palestine before the war."

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

Originally the normal headgear of Palestinian peasants, the keffiyeh, worn here by Yasser Arafat, first came to symbolize Palestinian nationalism during the British Mandate period.
Originally the normal headgear of Palestinian peasants, the keffiyeh, worn here by Yasser Arafat, first came to symbolize Palestinian nationalism during the British Mandate period.

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

Because of the gradualness of the creation of an Palestinian national identity (as opposed to a regional one) - and, many allege, for reasons of political convenience - many Israelis did not accept the existence of an independent Palestinian people, as in Golda Meir's statement: "There was no such thing as Palestinians. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country from them. They did not exist." (Sunday Times, 15 June, 1969) (see History of Palestine). Today the existence of a unique Palestinian nationality/identity is generally recognized even by most Israelis ([25]).

During the few decades after the State of Israel came into existence, Palestinian expressions of pan-Arabism could be heard from time to time but usually under outside influence. This was especially true in Syria under the influence of the Baath party. For example, Zuhayr Muhsin, the leader of the Syrian-funded as-Sa'iqa Palestinian faction and its representative on the PLO Executive Committee, told a Dutch newspaper in 1977 that "There is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. It is for political reasons only that we carefully emphasize our Palestinian identity." Such opinions also existed in Jordan, where government policy was to de-emphasize the difference between Palestinians and Jordanians for domestic reasons. However, most in the Palestinian organizations saw the struggle as either Palestinian-nationist or Islamic in nature and these themes predominate even more today.

Palestinians' political representatives

Coat of arms of the PNA
Coat of arms of the PNA

The Arab summit meeting in Rabat, Morocco in October 1974 stated that the PLO is the "sole legitimate representation of the Palestinian people". However, Israel, and to a lesser extent the United States and parts of Europe, preferred to deal with what it regarded as more moderate Palestinian groups for a long period of time.

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

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

See also

External links

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