Formation of Palestinian Identity

Palestinians have been divided and systematically fragmented since the Nakba (disaster) of 1948 which tore them from their homes and dispersed them across the world. There are those living within Israel who are separated from those living in the West Bank, and both are cut off from those in Gaza; Palestinians living in refugee camps throughout the Arab world and those in the global Diaspora.

Currently, there is an estimated 9.3-10 million Palestinians worldwide and despite the geographical boundaries, Palestinian identity remains strong for the very same reason it was formed; to resist and unite against occupation.


The dynamics of Palestinian Identity

Palestinian identity has always been at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict not only because it inextricably links Palestinians with their homeland but because it is also a means of resistance. It is a constant reminder of what was taken away from the Palestinians and a symbol of the ongoing battle with Israel for their right of existence. While many people relate the Palestinian struggle to those living in the West Bank and Gaza, those living within Israel face an equally difficult battle for their Palestinian identity.

As Nadim Nashif, the director of Baladna (Our Homeland in Arabic) an organization which works to foster Palestinian identity in youth living in Israel, remarks: “Particularly for those living in Israel, expressing Palestinian identity is a form of resistance to the Israeli occupation. It is a way to say ‘No’ to the injustice and the discrimination that they face. When you feel threatened and are not treated as an equal but a second-class citizen, identity becomes something that you carry with you and try to protect.”

Around the 19th century, Palestinian identity was being carefully articulated under the Ottoman Empire around religion, notions of Arabism and Palestine as a homeland. These loyalties were carefully balanced with a sense of allegiance to family as society was organized around small agricultural units as well as around a regional commitment to wider Arab nationalism. This unity was subsequently strengthened by the colonial occupation of the British Mandate from 1920-1948 as well as the powerful Zionist movement which began to displace the Palestinians through Jewish mass migration.

The formative stages of the Palestinian identity occurred under colonial rule and threat of occupation and were reflected in the need to unite the entire Palestinian nation against a common threat. As Nashif explains; “When you have a big conflict, the small issues suddenly don’t seem important. I mean there are obviously natural tensions between Muslim and Christian Palestinians but as there is a national conflict, religious divisions are less significant.”



‘Arab Israeli’ identity was to disconnect Palestinians from their Palestinian identity. © Arwa Aburawa

A Motivated Palestinian-Free Identity

This unity and strength of the Palestinian identity, however, seems to pose a risk to the Israeli state. You only have to look at the way with which the Israeli government suppressed the celebrations of Jerusalem as Capital of Arab Culture 2009. They see that the expression of Palestinian identity and pride as a direct threat.

Furthermore, Nashif points to the attempts by the Israeli government to weaken the Palestinian identity by issuing an alternative ‘Arab Israeli’ IDs. “Since the 1950’s, Israel has tried to create the terminology of Arab Israelis which we think is incorrect mainly because we are Palestinians. The main idea behind forcing the ‘Arab Israeli’ identity was to disconnect Palestinians from their Palestinian identity and to say that these are just Arabs who are also Israelis.”

It was very clear from the beginning that the Israeli state wanted to proliferate this notion of Arab Israeli’s, especially among the Palestinian youths living in Israel. Through the Israeli Ministry of Education they created a curriculum which did not mention Palestine or even the word Palestinians.

As Nashif states, “In the 1948 war there were at least two stories; there is the Zionist discourse and also the Palestinian discourse- basically we (Palestinians living in Israel) learnt the Zionist discourse. Anything related to Palestinian literature or poets such as Mahmoud Darwish is not allowed in the curriculum and any Arab history is from the Middle Ages.”

“On the other hand,” Nashif adds, “everything related to the Jewish people is obligatory in our schools, ranging from literature, religion, the Zionist movement. I think it’s good to learn about Jewish people, the problem starts when you only learn about the majority and you hardly learn anything about yourself.” Baladna, the youth organization, works to combat this bias by providing informal education about Palestinian history and providing an open environment to discuss issues of identity that these young Palestinians face in their daily lives.

Barriers of Occupation

Acknowledging Palestine or Palestinians is clearly problematic for the Israeli State. How could Israel refer to Palestine and claim to have formed the Israeli State in a ‘land with no people for a people with no land?’ at the same time. Nashif explains that the Israeli government simply reacted by suppressing the Palestinian identity of those who remained in the ’48 territories: “The pressure is not to say that you are an Arab but to say that you are an Israeli Arab in way which is new and is disconnected from the Palestinian identity. All of us still define ourselves as Arabs, this is nothing controversial but the point of the Arab Israeli identity is to impose a newly created identity which is more politically convenient for the government.”

Although the Israeli occupation has placed numerous barriers (sometimes in the shape of very solid walls) in the path of Palestinian unity, Rashid Khalidi the Palestinian historian states that “a strong sense of (Palestinian) identity developed in spite of, and in some cases because of, the obstacles it faced.”

Everyday at a checkpoint, land border or airport a Palestinians are irrevocably reminded of their identity; not as Arabs, a Muslims or a Christians but as a Palestinian under Israeli occupation. “The occupation makes you stick with your identity” reiterates Nashif. “Even if you are a person who doesn’t want to mess with politics or doesn’t identify themselves as Palestinian and you want to feel Israeli; when you go to the airport you face the same discrimination and profiling, undressing and other humiliating scenes and then of course you think again.”

It seems that the quintessential Palestinian experience of anxiety at modern barriers, where identities are checked and verified, consolidates that the Palestinians are in fact a united people. As Khalidi writes, “What happens to Palestinians at these crossing points brings home to them how much they share in common as people.”


Rashid Khalidi. Palestinian Identity; The construction of modern national consciousness. (New York, Columbia University Press, 1997).

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