The nationhood storm in a teacup

Validity of Palestinian claims to statehood are not affected one iota by external definitions.

Newt Gingrich 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Newt Gingrich 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The international brouhaha following Newt Gingrich’s inconsequential remarks about the Palestinians being an invented people illustrates how much of the political debate occupying intelligent opinion makers worldwide is about trivial matters that divert our attention from the fundamental issues. In fact, Gingrich’s definition of Palestinian nationhood is of such minor import that no-one would have raised an eyebrow had it not been eagerly pounced on by eminent opinion makers.
After all, the validity of Palestinian claims to statehood are not affected one iota by defining Palestinians either as an ancient established nation, a newly created nation, an invented nation or part of the great Arab nation.
Looking at the matter in more depth laymen may well ask what the nuanced differences are between a nation, a nation-state, a country, a even a tribe and a clan as well as the concepts of citizenship and nationality. In attempting to deal with these questions, I express a layman’s view which may, of course, differ from that of of political scientists.
We generally attach the same meaning to the words nation, nation-state and country but there are differences. Strictly speaking, the members of the League of Nations were not individual nations but states and it would have been more appropriate to call that organization a “League of States.”
Similarly, the members of the United Nations are states, not nations.
The subject can be confusing. Are the Zulus a nation or a tribe or both?
There are obviously many more nations than the 196 recognized independent countries in the world, of whom all but three are members of the UN. The outsiders are the independent papal state (the Vatican), Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and Taiwan, which was replaced as a member in 1971 by mainland China on the grounds that it claims Taiwan as a Chinese province.
To confound the confusion there are territories and colonies that are sometimes erroneously considered as countries. For example, Northern Ireland is not an independent country even though it has a devolved legislature in the form of an Assembly responsible for making laws.
Nor is England a country. Northern Ireland and England together with Wales and Scotland are constituent parts of the United Kingdom (UK).
Associated with the UK, but not constitutionally part of it, are three independently administered Crown Dependencies: Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. The UK also has fourteen overseas territories which include Bermuda, Gibraltar and the Falklands.
As laymen, we tend to think that each government represents a nation-state comprising a single people sharing a common ethnic, cultural, and linguistic background.
But this is an unrealistic view since many states are multinational. South Africa for example, refers to itself as the Rainbow Nation, encapsulating the multi-culturalism and unity of many different nations and tribes in contrast to the former strict division of whites and blacks.
The Palestinians are far from being the only stateless people. A report compiled by the UNHCR reveals that there were some 6.6 million stateless persons in 2008. Stateless peoples include Tibet, Chechnya, the Basques and 20 million Kurds who have inhabited a region of Asia for over 4,000 years.
The Encyclopedia of the Stateless Nations: Ethnic and National Groups Around the World provides up-to-date information on over 300 national groups including some virtually unknown groups that are currently making news together with those it claims will produce future headlines, controversies, and conflicts.
Conversely there are states without a nation, like Kuwait and Malta.
The important concepts of nationality and citizenship can also be confusing.
The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” The governments of states determine the criteria for determining who are eligible to be their nationals and/or citizens and their rights and duties.
Having considered some of the implications of the definition of nationhood, let’s for a moment examine how they apply to what Gingrich actually said, namely: “Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. We have invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab people.”
Unlike the reaction to Gingrich’s statement, almost identical factual statements by prominent Arabs have been accepted as unremarkable. I refer for example to statements by Zuheir Mohsen, leader of the as-Sa’iqa faction of the PLO and Azmi Bishara, who said on Israel’s Channel 2 TV, “There is no Palestinian nation. It’s a colonial invention.”
Gingrich’s statement is supported by the Encyclopedia Britannica, which states that Palestine became a distinct political entity for the first time in centuries only in 1922 when the League of Nations approved the British mandate incorporating the Balfour Declaration that stressed the Jewish historical connection with Palestine. The essence of the matter is that Jews, Christians and Arabs who lived in the British mandated territory were all regarded as Palestinians, not by virtue of nationhood, but by virtue of living in what was then designated as British-mandated Palestine.
Knee-jerk reactions merely to score debating points are unhelpful, to say the least, when commenting on the Palestinian bid for statehood. This critical matter must be evaluated on its merits based on facts rather than on ill-considered opinions. To quote the late Bertrand Russell during an extensive interview on the BBC, “When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think will have beneficial social effects if it were believed. Look only and solely at what are the facts."