Narrator: Ian McKellen
The Palestinian identity goes back, not to antiquity, but precisely to 1920. No “Palestinian Arab people” existed at the start of 1920 but by December it took shape in a form recognizably similar to today’s.
This distaste was confirmed in April 1920, when the British occupying force carved out a “Palestine.” Moslems reacted very suspiciously, rightly seeing this designation as a victory for Zionism. Less accurately, they worried about it signaling a revival in the Crusader impulse. No prominent Moslem voices endorsed the delineation of Palestine in 1920; all protested it. Instead, Moslems west of the Jordan directed their allegiance to Damascus, where the great-great-uncle of Jordan’s King Abdullah II was then ruling; they identified themselves as Southern Syrians. Interestingly, no one advocated this affiliation more emphatically than a young man named Amin el-Husseini. In July 1920, however, the French overthrew this Hashemite king, in the process killing the notion of a Southern Syria. Isolated by the events of April and July, the Moslems of Palestine made the best of a bad situation. One prominent Jerusalemite commented, just days following the fall of the Hashemite kingdom: “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.”
Following this advice, the leadership in December 1920 adopted the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state. Within a few years, this effort was led by el- Husseini.
The Sultan of Turkey conquered Palestine for his Ottoman Empire in 1517. For the next four hundred years, the Turks ruled Palestine as part of an administrative area called Greater Syria – which was to become the countries of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon in the twentieth century. Although Palestine was not a precisely defined geographic area until that time, the people of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Gaza and Nablus and the peasants in the surrounding countryside used the term Filastin or Palestine to describe their land.
On July 2, 1919, the General Syrian Congress, meeting in Damascus, unanimously condemned the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration, and the plans of the Zionists. They put a pointed question to the Great Powers: The Congress denounced the mandate system. It demanded that Greater Syria become one united and independent nation. As the resolutions became known, people demonstrated throughout Syria, Palestine and Lebanon in support of the Congress.
In the meantime, the King-Crane Commission had arrived in Jaffa. It consisted of only the two American representatives; France, Britain and Italy had backed out. The Commission spent six weeks in Syria and Palestine, interviewing delegations and reading petitions. King and Crane recommended an American mandate with two important provisions. First: The unity of Syria (Palestine, Syria and Lebanon) ought to be preserved in accordance with the earnest petition of the great majority of the people of Syria. A 1920 editorial in a Palestinian newspaper predicted the bloody era of the British mandate. It said: Palestine is Arab – its Muslims are Arab – its Christians are Arab – and its Jewish citizens are Arab too. Palestine will never by quiet if it is separated from Syria and made a national home for Zionism.
Arabs call 1920 Am Al Nakba, the Year of Catastrophe. Greater Syria was artificially divided into Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and placed under French or British occupation. The occupying troops met strong resistance. French troops mowed down Syrians defending Damascus and imposed a harsh military dictatorship on Syria. In Iraq, armed rebellion challenged the British mandate.