Written by: Michael Kravshik.
This post is part of a six part series answering the question “Who are the Palestinians?” I recommend checking out the introduction post (click here) for background information on the series, a timeline, and sources. I also recommend reading the series in order for context.
The evolution of the inhabitants of Palestine in Part 2 brings us to the mid-1800s. At this time, the twilight of the Ottoman Empire was only just beginning and the Empire still maintained at least nominal control over most of the Middle East.
The various Caliphates had battled and pushed back the Byzantine Empire for almost a millennium, but it was the Ottomans – the final and longest lasting Caliphate – who decisively destroyed the Byzantines. In 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II led the attack that finally broke through the walls of Constantinople (the Byzantine capital), making it his own capital and renaming it Istanbul. The largest building in the world for over 1,000 years, the Hagia Sophia, built by Emperor Justinian in 532, was converted from a Church into a Mosque. The Ottoman Empire had already conquered much of the Middle East, but with this success they became the undisputed rulers of the entire region.
The Ottomans ruled their extensive domains using a unique method, the “millet system”. Under this system, the hierarchy of authority was based on religious association rather than geography or ethnicity. Communities of Jews, Christians, or Muslims were ruled by their local community leaders with less interference from central authorities than in the European empires. The central government maintained the highest level of authority, but by and large allowed millet rulers relative autonomy. The key requirement to retain this autonomy was, quite expectedly, remaining loyal to the sultan.
Until the end of the 1800s, the various peoples of Palestine had no general sentiment of nationality or nationalism. Brotherhood, or any feeling of belonging wider than that of one’s village, tribe, clan, or confederation of clans, simply did not exist. Patriotism for the Empire itself was also lacking. To the subjects of the sultan, the Ottoman Empire itself was nameless, usually called simply “the realm of the sultan.” The slew of clans, tribes, and villages frequently waged war on one another, something to which the Ottoman authorities acquiesced and, in some ways, even tacitly supported; after all, such a situation made it impossible for significant power to be consolidated under any rule other than their own. At times the sultan would even contract out his own forces as mercenaries to warring sheikhs to ensure that the status quo persisted. This environment led to many ‘cults of personality’—groups of people who were loyal to a charismatic leader but, upon that leaders death, would go back to fighting one another. The legacy of this style of rule has reverberated throughout the former domains of the empire since its fall, and has been a major factor in many contemporary issues plaguing the Middle East.
That being said, Egypt had always been an exception. Due to its extensive history, the people of Egypt had a much stronger sense of nationalism, of being ‘Egyptian.’ At this time, Egypt was a semi-autonomous region of the Ottoman Empire and was under the rule of a man named Muhammad Ali. In earlier years, Ali had helped the Ottomans oust the French, the region’s previous occupiers (during Napoleon’s rule). The dynasty Ali founded was to be in constant struggle against the Ottoman authorities for autonomy, sometimes even leading to full-scale war between them.
In 1831, Muhammad Ali’s son, a man known commonly as Ibrahim Pasha – Pasha being the word for general in Turkish – invaded the region of ‘Syria’ (which included Palestine at that time). Ibrahim Pasha had a very different way of running the region than the Ottomans. He increased rights for Christian and Jewish minorities and developed local education. In fact, this improved the situation for minorities to such an extent that it led to a sort of ‘proto-Zionism,’ with the number of Jews in Palestine doubling between the years of 1834-1840. Ibrahim was also intent on increasing government control in the region. To do this, Ibrahim followed the example of Western empires, who managed their colonies in a much more lucrative manner than the Ottomans. Ibrahim centralized the tax system and instituted the conscription of locals to his armies. The Bedouins, who had been charging travellers and merchants road tolls and protection fees, were forbidden from this lucrative practice, making roadways safer for economic activity and travel. Ibrahim even attempted to settle the Bedouin in towns and villages like the rest of the population, a foreign concept to these nomadic people. Unfortunately for the Pasha, these changes were the exact policies that pushed most of his Muslim subjects to band against him. That the state should have primacy over the affairs of its subjects, subjects who were all ‘equal,’ did not mesh with the very rigid sense of hierarchy that characterized Palestinian society.
For the first time, many of the disparate groups living in Palestine had something to unite against. In 1834, rural Sheikhs (elders), urban nobles, mountain fellaheen, Bedouins, and even religious figures from Jerusalem came together in Nablus to revolt against Ibrahim’s rule. They managed to take over much of the countryside and after a siege, took Jerusalem itself. Ibrahim, being a cunning general, managed to crush this revolt fairly quickly. He brought in reinforcements from Egypt, but also successfully laboured to break apart the alliance of rebelling parties. He offered special privileges, government postings, and amnesty to tribes or clans that would turn against the revolt—promises that managed to win the graces of even the Abu Ghush (an especially powerful clan). Although the revolt ended in failure, it served to build ties of unity within the inhabitants of Palestine, ties that became a forerunner to the nationalist movement. Unfortunately, the unsuccessful revolt also illustrated the movement’s chronic weakness of disunity, something that has consistently plagued its efforts.
In 1841, Ibrahim was forced through political pressure (mainly from the Austrians and the British) to return Syria to the Ottomans. When this occurred, most of the changes instituted by Ibrahim were lost. Those with the best access to education remained predominantly Christians, who benefitted greatly from the many schools that had been opened and run by Western Christian missionaries in the region. In fact, it was in these very schools that the concept of ‘Arab nationalism’ was originated. The concept grew chiefly in opposition to the Ottoman Empire and due to discontent with its rule. At this stage it was mainly an urban movement ascribed to by educated Arabs, a small minority. Additionally, the Arabs, previously unaccustomed to any large unit of identification, did not see this movement in terms of the nations of the modern Middle East (many of which did not yet exist). It was a pan-Arab nationalist movement, covering the entire Arab world (an imprecise label at best), which Palestinian Arabs took part in.
With support only from an educated and mainly Christian segment of the population, the movement had not yet taken hold. Of course, how could it without the support of the majority of the population? The movement needed Muslim (especially fellaheen) support to be powerful, something it was soon to achieve. Although made up of numerous and disparate groups, the Muslim community shared two very important characteristics: a common language and a common religion. These two facets ultimately helped to shape the fledgling Arab nationalist movement as it grew in popularity.
Part 4 will begin in the mid-1800s with renewed Ottoman rule. It will discuss the general environment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Palestine that led to the development of the pan-Arab nationalist movement and the foundations of a definitively more focused Palestinian national identity.
Table of Contents
This is a short description of the history of Palestine. What can you add?
Special thanks to Margaux Carter and Dorothy Charach for their editing advice