Were the Palestinians demanding national rights and an independent state before the 1967 war?


Like most parts of the Arab world, national consciousness in Palestine grew in the context of demographic changes and shifts in colonial control. During the 400 years of Ottoman Turkish control, Palestine was an identifiable region within the larger empire, but linked closely with what was then known as Greater Syria. With World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine became part of the British Empire. But even before that, beginning in the 1880s, the increasing influx of European Jewish settlers brought about a new national identity—a distinctly Palestinian consciousness—among the Muslims and Christians who were the overwhelming majority of Palestinian society. There was widespread unease, and sporadic organizing campaigns, against the influx of Zionist European settlers, who were viewed as a threat to indigenous land ownership. But nation-states did not yet exist in the Arab world.

When the French and British divided up the Arab world as they took over from the defeated Ottoman empire, Palestine was demarcated with specific borders, and turned over to Great Britain to rule as a Mandate territory under the approval of the League of Nations. It was in that period that national rights and the demand for independence emerged among Palestinians. As more European settlers arrived, and the British made contradictory promises to the Arabs on one side and the Zionist leaders on the other, conflict escalated. Palestinian Arabs challenged the right of the new occupants to their land, and the legitimacy of the British overlords in protecting the immigrants; the Zionist settlers, similarly, saw the indigenous Arabs (they denied for decades that there was an identifiable Palestinian people) as an impediment to full settlement of the land, and resisted the British for placing any restrictions on the numbers of immigrants allowed in to Palestine.

That conflict, and the armed clashes that accompanied it, eventually led to the British decision that Palestine was ungovernable, and to turn Mandate authority over to the new United Nations. When the UN voted to partition Palestine in 1947, opposition came from the Arab states, but the only survey taken of Palestinian opinion to determine what they themselves wanted was ignored in the international debate. The Palestinians were given no voice. For many years popular sentiment among Palestinians reflected the call to reverse partition—to create a democratic and secular state for all its citizens in all of Israel and Palestine together.

The period after the 1967 War, when Israel occupied the last remnants of Palestine, corresponded with the rise of the PLO as a popular guerrilla organization. (It had originally been created by Arab governments in 1964.) The initial strategic approach of the PLO was the call for national rights in the context of a democratic secular state. By the mid-1970s, debate was underway within the organization about recognizing Israel and shifting to a two-state approach. In January 1976 the PLO, with support from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the Soviet Union, introduced a resolution calling for a two-state solution. The U.S. vetoed the resolution.

In 1988 at the height of the first intifada the PLO's parliament-in-exile, the Palestine National Council voted to accept a two-state strategy while declaring Palestine an independent state.