Unraveling Palestine: Understanding Its Location and the Palestinian Identity

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On Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas launched an attack on Israeli communities outside of Gaza, killing 1,200 civilians and soldiers and taking about 240 people hostage. In response, Israel has killed more than 16,000 Palestinians, as of this writing. A Hamas spokesperson told Al Jazeera that the attack was in response to "all the atrocities the Palestinians have faced over the decades," and that the international community needed to "stop atrocities in Gaza, against Palestinian people, [and] our holy sites like Al-Aqsa. All these things are the reason behind starting this battle." Given the complex history and confusion often surrounding the topic of Palestine, we've answered a few basic questions below. As always, we appreciate our readers' participation and feedback.

The Palestinian Territories, located in the Levant region of the Middle East, consist of the West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem, and have historically included present-day Israel. Before Israel's statehood, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Palestinians lived across the region for generations.

Prior to 1948, Palestine was held under a British mandate after the U.K. seized the region from the Ottoman Empire during World War I and issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, promising to establish "a national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine. Throughout the British Mandate, which officially lasted from 1920 to 1948, Jewish immigration to Palestine surged as the brutality of the Holocaust forced Jews across Europe to seek refuge. Palestinian Arab leaders as well as the local population became increasingly opposed to this influx of immigration, resulting in back-and-forth violence that intensified in the lead-up to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

The U.N. attempted to quell the mounting unrest by approving a partition plan, one that would have given more than half of Palestine – including some of the most valuable agricultural land and the majority of the coastline connecting the land to the rest of the Mediterranean – to the Jewish population, who made up less than a third of the total population at the time. The surrounding Arab states rejected this proposal.

Between 1947 and 1949, armed Zionist militias forcibly claimed the homes, land, and possessions of approximately 750,000 Palestinians in an event known in Arabic as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”  Israel declared itself an independent state on May 14, 1948, and the U.S. became the first nation to officially recognize Israel the same day. At this point, British troops withdrew and the mandate was officially ended.

Following the Nakba, Palestinians across present-day Israel were made refugees, with many seeking safety in the West Bank and Gaza. However, many more fled beyond historic Palestine and into neighboring Arab countries, such as Jordan, Syria, Egypt and beyond. Today, approximately 7 million Palestinians live across the diaspora outside of historic Palestine.

From the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 through the early 1970s, approximately 900,000 Jews were expelled from or fled Muslim-majority countries across North Africa and the Middle East, with about 72% eventually settling in Israel.

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The West Bank, surrounded by present-day Israel and bordering Jordan, is home to nearly 3 million Palestinians. They live alongside the more than 700,000 Israelis who have broken international law – as per the Fourth Geneva Convention – by settling in the West Bank.

Gaza, a narrow strip of land on the Mediterranean coast, is one of the most densely populated areas of the world with nearly 2.2 million inhabitants, almost half of whom are children. About 78% of the Gazan population are refugees or descendants of refugees.

While the majority of nations today recognize Israel as a legitimate state, others continue to refer to the entirety of historic Palestine as “Palestine,” and not Israel. As of 2012, Palestine has a non-member observer state status in the U.N.; it is only one of two states with such status along with the Vatican City. While non-member observer states are able to speak at General Assembly meetings, they are not able to vote on resolutions.

Palestinians are a diverse and complex group indigenous to the land of Palestine; a community that carries with it a rich legacy of cultural, linguistic, and symbolic identity. Palestinian national identity has been shaped in many ways by Israeli occupation.

Palestinian mother and child, 1920. Photo by Khalil Raad. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

The majority of Palestinians are Muslim, although a significant Christian minority exists alongside other religious minorities.

Within present-day Israel, at least 20% of the population identifies as Palestinian or Arab, the majority of whose families were not killed or forced to flee their homes in 1948. While these citizens of Israel maintain the right to vote, Palestinians within Israel have long expressed that their existence is one of second-class citizenship within a web of systemic discrimination.


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Updated on Dec. 11, 2023, with more details of conflicts between Arabs and Jews leading up to Israel's declaration of independence.