JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinian officials reacted furiously on Saturday to Newt Gingrich's assertion that they are an "invented" people, accusing the Republican presidential hopeful of incitement and staging a "cheap stunt" to court the Jewish vote.
Gingrich's remarks struck at the heart of Palestinian sensitivities about the righteousness of their struggle for an independent state and put him at odds not only with the international community but with all but an extremist fringe in Israel. Mainstream Israelis, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, support the idea of an independent Palestine alongside Israel as part of a final peace agreement.
In footage released Friday, the former House speaker told the Jewish Channel, a U.S. cable TV network, that the Palestinians were an "invented people."
"Remember, there was no Palestine as a state — (it was) part of the Ottoman Empire. I think we have an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and historically part of the Arab community and they had the chance to go many places," Gingrich said according to a video excerpt posted online.
Gingrich sought to clarify his position later Saturday, saying in Iowa that he supports a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, including a Palestinian state.
In a statement, Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said that "to understand what is being proposed and negotiated you have to understand decades of complex history — which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing."
Those latest comments appeared unlikely to calm the uproar among Palestinian officials.
The Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, demanded that Gingrich "review history."
"From the beginning, our people have been determined to stay on their land," Fayyad said in comments reported by the Palestinian news agency Wafa. "This, certainly, is denying historical truths."
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, accused Gingrich of incitement. "Mark my words ... these statements of Gingrich's will be the ammunitions and weapons of the bin Ladens and the extremists for a long, long time," Erekat told CNN.
The Palestinians have never had an independent state of their own. The region was ruled by the Ottomans for several centuries, and when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, the British took control of the area. It was known as the British Mandate for Palestine, and Muslims, Christians and Jews living there were all referred to as Palestinians.
After the Arabs rejected an international plan calling for the establishment of Jewish and Arab states, part of the land became the state of Israel. During the 1948 war surrounding the Jewish state's creation, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced to flee their homes.
Just as Israeli identity was forged after a long nationalist struggle staged by Zionist Jews for a state of their own, the identity of Palestinian Arabs was also hewn by their own decades-long struggle over the same land.
This mass uprooting of the Palestinian Arabs following Israel's creation, known to Palestinians as their "nakba," or catastrophe, became a cornerstone of their nationalist movement, led by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Many Palestinian refugees ended up in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Hundreds of thousands who reached neighboring Arab lands were never fully integrated into their new host countries and live in refugee camps to this day, also helping to solidify their separate national identity.
The PLO, led by the late Yasser Arafat, was founded in the 1960s with the aim of eliminating Israel's very existence. But over the decades, it entered peace talks with Israel and today is committed to establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Israel has gone through a similar transformation. While Israel's then-Prime Minister Golda Meir famously proclaimed in 1967 that "there is no such thing as a Palestinian people," few Israelis hold that view anymore.
Shortly after taking office in 2009, Netanyahu endorsed the establishment of a Palestinian state, abandoning his Likud Party's traditional opposition to the idea. More moderate Israeli leaders have sought a peace deal with the Palestinians for the past two decades.
Both Democratic and Republican administrations in the U.S. also have endorsed Palestinian statehood.
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, a top official in the PLO, said that Gingrich was seeking a "cheap way" to win Jewish and pro-Israel voters in next year's election.
Carl Levin, a Democratic senator from Michigan, said "Gingrich's cynical efforts to attract attention to himself with divisive and destructive statements will not help his presidential ambitions since they are aimed at putting the peace between Israel and the Palestinians that Americans yearn for even further out of reach than it is today."
The presidential hopeful, Levin said, "offered no solutions — just a can of gasoline and a match."
Some Israeli politicians on the margins of the Israeli consensus welcomed Gingrich's stance. Danny Danon, deputy speaker of Israel's parliament, and a minority voice among his hawkish Likud party, said Gingrich "understands very well the reality we live in in the Middle East" and said his statement on the Palestinians is shared by "most of the Jewish people, not just in Israel."
Israeli historian Tom Segev, however, said the argument about the existence of the Palestinian people is a thing of the past.
"There is no intelligent person today who argues about the existence of the Palestinian people," Segev said.
"Nations are created gradually. I don't think the Palestinians are less of a nation than the Americans," he added.