‘Palestinians don’t exist’: Smotrich only repeats what Zionists have always said

Joseph Massad

Middle East Eye  /  March 24, 2023

Zionists’ denial that the Palestinians exist is meant to spare Israelis from feeling guilty for colonizing them.

Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a descendant of colonists who hail from the Ukrainian town of Smotrich, declared last week in Paris that there is “no such thing as Palestinians because there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people”. His remarks were met with roaring applause.

Calling the Palestinians an “invented people”, Smotrich asserted that it was, in fact, he and his family who are the “real Palestinians”.

This has always been a fashionable claim by Israeli officials and their American Jewish supporters.

Among current Israeli leaders, Smotrich is hardly alone in making this claim. In 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a descendant of Polish colonists who changed their names from Mileikowsky to “Netanyahu”, tweeted: “There’s no connection between the ancient Philistines & the modern Palestinians, whose ancestors came from the Arabian Peninsula to the Land of Israel thousands of years later.”

Netanyahu has more recently asserted that when European Jews began their colonization project in Palestine, the country was “empty for all intents and purposes”.

‘A land without a people’

Lest anyone think that this is a specialty of the Israeli right, it was the leftist and Ukrainian colonist Golda Meir (née Mabovitch), Israel’s socialist Labor Party prime minister, who told the London Sunday Times in June 1969 that “There were no such thing as Palestinians.” She clarified that “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 away from them. They did not exist.”

But where did these Ukrainian and Polish Jewish colonists learn to make such assertions? The short answer is: from British Protestant Zionists.

In 1843, the Church of Scotland evangelical clergyman, Alexander Keith, who believed in the “restoration” of the European Jews to Palestine, wrote in one of his popular evangelical books that the Jews were “a people without a country; even as their own land, as subsequently to be shown, is in a great measure a country without a people”.

Keith had visited Palestine in 1839 and in 1844. His phrase was taken up by many an English or American Protestant Zionist for the rest of the 19th century until it was picked up by the Jewish Zionist movement in the 20th as its mobilizing slogan.

It was Israel Zangwill, an Englishman, who in 1901 became the first Jewish Zionist to propagate the slogan that Palestine was “a country without a people…for a people without a country”. Later, after admitting that there indeed lived a people in Palestine, he supported the “transfer” of the Palestinian Arabs outside their country to make room for the colonizing Jews.

As for the Palestinians, to prove their lack of nationness, Zionist ideologue Nahum Sokolow quoted the British Protestant Zionist Sir B Arnold who, in 1903, wrote a column addressing Jewish readers: “You have a country, the inheritance of your fathers”, adding that “Palestine has a thin population”. Arnold concluded that “no nation can claim the name of Palestine. A chaotic mixture of tribes and tongues; remnants of migrations from north and south…” 

The head of the Zionist Organization, Chaim Weizmann, would repeat Zangwill’s Protestant Zionist formulation in 1914 when he stated that “there is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country”.

The antisemitic and evangelical Protestant Zionist British foreign minister, Arthur Balfour, followed suit in his infamous November 1917 Declaration when he cursorily referred to the hundreds of thousands of indigenous Palestinians as the “existing non-Jewish communities” whose “civil and religious rights” were not to be infringed upon, but who clearly had no national rights whatsoever.

At the time, Jewish colonists constituted about 9 percent of Palestine’s population, numbering about 50,000 colonists living among an indigenous Palestinian population of Muslims and Christians of more than half a million.

No matter, Balfour later insisted without remorse that the Palestinians were no more than residents of the land he had promised to European Jews: “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”.

Denying that the Palestinians were a nation, Weizmann fulminated in 1929 that the Palestinians themselves could not “be considered as owning the country in the sense in which the inhabitants of Iraq or of Egypt possess their respective countries”. To grant them self-determination or self-government or a “Legislative Assembly…would be to assign the country to its present inhabitants,” and to cancel “in an underhand manner” the Balfour Declaration’s commitment to a Jewish national home in Palestine.

The denial of the nationness of the Palestinians would persist, however, until the late 1970s. Golda Meir’s 1969 denial that the Palestinian people existed was negated by the Likud Party Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s recognition that the Palestinians did exist a decade later. The first time Israel officially accepted the existence of a Palestinian people, or more precisely “Palestinian peoples”, that it did not subsume under the category “the Arab people”, was in the Camp David Accords in 1978.

The Accords called for “autonomy” of the West Bank and Gaza as a realization of what the agreement referred to as “the legitimate right of the Palestinian peoples and their just requirements. In this way, the Palestinians will participate in the determination of their own future”, although the rest of the Accords would refer to the “inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza” rather than to the Palestinian “peoples”.

But Israeli officials continued to equivocate on the issue. In 1984, an unknown minor American Jewish journalist published a propaganda book titled From Time Immemorial, based on doctored evidence claiming that the Palestinians indeed did not exist and that they had migrated to Palestine after European Jews began to colonize it, attracted as they allegedly were by Jewish colonial capital and available jobs. Even though major pro-Zionist American Jewish academics praised the book, it would be soon exposed as based on fabricated evidence and propaganda.

Finally, it was in the 1993 Oslo Accords, in response to PLO chairman Yasser’s Arafat’s recognition of “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security” that the Israelis recognized the existence of the Palestinian people, but only inadvertently.

As part of the agreement, the Israelis “decided to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with the PLO within the Middle East peace process”, but decidedly not outside it, in which case that contingent recognition would not hold. This was, in fact, a retreat from Israeli recognition that the Palestinians had a “legitimate right”, which Israel recognized at Camp David.

But recognizing the existence of the Palestinians and even of the PLO after 1993 did not commit Israel to recognize any rights that the former might claim, which is why, once Netanyahu ended the so-called “peace process” in 2014, he no longer needed to even speak with the Palestinian Authority, which was born of the Oslo Accords as a substitute for the PLO.

Delusions of indigeneity

As far as official Zionism and Israel have been concerned in the last 125 years, there may exist a people that strangely and erroneously refers to itself as a “Palestinian people” in a self-deluded manner, but they have no claims on Palestine or Israel, and indeed outside of their own delusions, they do not exist.

However, what the stubborn official Zionist and Israeli denial is ultimately asserting is that Zionist colonizing Jews would have been nothing less than savage criminals if they had indeed colonized the country of the Palestinians, but as the Palestinians did not exist, the colonizing Jews need not feel guilty, ever.

A few Zionist leaders, however, would admit that the Palestinians had claims to their homeland, but that the Zionists would make sure to deprive them of it, and that in doing so they felt no guilt.

The Ukrainian Jewish leader of the Revisionist Zionists, Vladimir Jabotinsky, for example, acknowledged the indigeneity of the Palestinians early on, whom he likened to the Sioux Indians of the United States. He was appalled at the hypocrisy of the Labor Zionists:

“To imagine, as our Arabophiles do, that [the Palestinians] will voluntarily consent to the realization of Zionism, in return for the moral and material conveniences which the Jewish colonist brings with him, is a childish notion, which has at bottom a kind of contempt for the Arab people; it means that they despise the Arab race, which they regard as a corrupt mob that can be bought and sold, and are willing to give up their fatherland for a good railway system…There is no justification for such a belief. It may be that some individual Arabs take bribes. But that does not mean that the Arab people of Palestine as a whole will sell that fervent patriotism that they guard so jealously, and which even the Papuans will never sell. Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized.”

Jabotinsky was not alone in clearly understanding what the Zionists were doing. So was the Polish Jewish leader of the colonists, David Ben Gurion (né Grun), who, with a clear conscience, also declared:

“Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: We have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?”

As for the biblical myths and grand delusions that afflict many European Jewish Zionists and their Protestant Zionist teachers, that they are the ones who originate in Palestine rather than in Europe, and not the indigenous Palestinians, these fictions remain the cornerstone of the “values” Israel is said to share with Christian Europe, and the very Christian United States.

It is these Jewish colonists and their descendants whom the Palestinian people are told that they must accept as their rightful occupiers and colonizers, and that if they resist them, the United States through its local viceroy, US Security Coordinator Lieutenant General Michael Fenzel, will undertake and sponsor their repression by a mercenary force of PA security, trained and funded by the Americans and their Jordanian and Egyptian allies.

In response to the latest declaration by Smotrich, the US held a meeting a few days ago in the former Israeli settler-colony of Sharm al-Sheikh, and issued directives to the Egyptians, Jordanians, and the Palestinian Authority, on how to best assist Israel to end Palestinian resistance once and for all.

If the Palestinian people do not exist, the Americans and the Israelis surmise, why should Palestinian resistance?

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York; he is the author Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism