Note: this is not a question about whether a Palestinian state ought to be established. Yes or no to this question is not relevant to that one

Did Palestinians form a distinct ethnically/culturally/linguistically homogeneous group in pre-Mandate period?

UNRWA uses a definition of Palestinian that is essentially based on the British Mandate (for Paletsine) borders:

Palestinian refugees are citizens of Mandatory Palestine, and their descendants, who fled or were expelled from their country over the course of the 1947–1949 Palestine war (1948 Palestinian expulsion and flight) and the Six-Day War (1967 Palestinian exodus). Most Palestinian refugees live in or near 68 Palestinian refugee camps across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In 2019 more than 5.6 million Palestinian refugees were registered with the United Nations.

This suggests that the Palestinian identity was mostly formed by the Mandate and in response to the expulsion from the Mandatory territory after the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948. This also has a strange consequences that those who were living on the Egyptian or Jordanian side of the border are qualified as Egyptians, Jordanians, etc., regardless of the closeness of their kinship with the Palestinians.

However, the borders of the Mandatory Palestine were somewhat arbitrary (and largely based on previous Egyptian Border during the Ottoman period):

According to the personal documents of the British colonel Wilfed A. Jennings Bramley, who influenced the negotiations, the border mainly served British military interests—it furthered the Ottomans as much as possible from the Suez Canal, and gave Britain complete control over both Red Sea gulfs—Suez and Aqaba, including the Straits of Tiran. At the time, the Aqaba branch of the Hejaz railway had not been built, and the Ottomans therefore had no simple access to the Red Sea. The British were also interested in making the border as short and patrollable as possible, and did not take into account the needs of the local residents in the negotiations. It was defined as an "administrative separating line" for diplomatic reasons, allowing the Ottoman Empire to hold to its nominal sovereignty over Egypt.

It seems possible that ethnic and/or cultural groups, tribes or families were divided by these borders, and I am trying to understand it in more quantitative terms.

While the Jordan river and Sinai are natural boundaries, neither is particularly impenetrable to prevent active communication. E.g., this map suggests continuity between Gaza and Sinai: enter image description here

Clarification: the question is specifically about the distinction between the Palestinians from their neighbors across the borders, notably Jordanians and Egyptians. Are these historically distinct groups or do they form a continuum, somewhat arbitrarily split by the borders agreed upon by Ottomans/British/Egyptian/Jordanian/Israeli governments?

Another relevant map - distribution of Arabic dialects: enter image description here
enter image description here
In southern Israel Levantine Arabic seems to coexist with Eastern Egyptian Bedawi, characteristic of Sinai peninsula. This likely reflects the division between the nomadic (Bedouin) and the peasant (Fellahin) populations. There is certainly continuity of the Levantine Arabic in modern Palestine into Lebanon, and Bedawi into Egypt, but both are distinct from other Egyptian dialects and the Najdi, Hijazi and other dialects of the Arab peninsula.

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    Palestinian Nationalism cites different authors that trace the start of a "Palestinina identity" back to everything between the 17th century and 1920. I don't think there can be an answer everybody agrees on. Maybe it is better to ask which groups promoted Palestinian ethnicity at which time?
    – ccprog
    Jan 29 at 17:46
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    Still the same caution applies: the answer could be "the lands where the 1834 Arab revolt took place", "the land the Zionists migrated into", "the land of the Mandate" and "nonsense, all Arabs form one nation", according to who you ask.
    – ccprog
    Jan 29 at 18:23
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    @ccprog my understanding is that, e.g., Hashemites are distinct from Palestinians - even in the dialect of Arabic. Does the border between them coincide with the Jordan river?
    – Roger V.
    Jan 29 at 18:45
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    Voting to close as opinion based. Identities are fluid and contextual and it's not clear by what objective standard could this be answered... Unsurprisingly both answers so far are rants without any sources.
    – Brian Z
    Jan 30 at 0:29
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    Absent a definition, I concur that the question is unanswerable. The appropriate definition is either politically informed, or else is based on what question you're asking (the two aren't that different). I believe this is a self referential question, equivalent to, "Can we identify a group of people who then share an identity?"
    – MCW
    Jan 30 at 1:42

3 Answers 3


On one level, there is a trivial answer to this question. No, there was no Palestinian ethnic identity of major significance prior to the British Mandate. But it's important to emphasize that all of the modern national identities of the Arab world formed in the context of resistance to colonization.

Under the Ottomans, on the one hand there were highly local identities distinguishing settled villages, nomadic groups and religions. On there other hand there was general pan-Arab nationalism developing as the Ottoman empire declined, but mainly flourishing after.

It seems possible that ethnic and/or cultural groups, tribes or families were divided by these borders, and I am trying to understand it in more quantitative terms.

This is where the question is completely unanswerable. For pan-Arab nationalists, the frequently-changing borders of the European powers attempted to divide millions of people who belonged to a single cultural community spanning several modern countries (roughly from the western Sinai Desert across the Jordan River and north in to Syria). On the other hand, these borders would have had little if any significance in people's daily lives prior to the mass displacement of 1948.

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    a single cultural community Wouldn't this mean the answer to OP's title question is "No"?
    – user103496
    Feb 1 at 3:59
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    For the headline question, correct. But for the sub question on the quantitative impact of how pre-1948 borders divided the existing cultural community it's not as simple.
    – Brian Z
    Feb 1 at 12:35
  • @user103496 if people lived in a region for hundreds of years, they likely have familial, cultural and linguistic similarities - regardless of whether they identify themselves as "Palestinians/Texans/whatever". These typically do not align with the imposed state borders. Arabs are of course just about as homogeneous a group as Europeans or Slavs.
    – Roger V.
    Feb 5 at 6:32

until 1970s "Palestinian" meant a "Jew living in Eretz Yisroel"

"Palestinian Identity" was invented by the KGB (as reported by General Ion Mihai Pacepa) in 1960-ies and implemented by Arafat thereafter (as he said himself: "I created the Palestinian people"). The simple fact that PLO was created in 1964, before the 6 day war, and did not ever mention creation of Palestinian state on Egypt- and Jordan-occupied territories, is an ample evidence. At least until 1980 the Soviet propaganda didn't even use the word "Palestinian", they said "Arab people of Palestine".

Another indication that dating "Palestinian Identity" to pre-WW2 times is wrong is that the British had both a "Palestinian Brigade" (for Jews) and an "Arab Legion" (for Arabs).

Wikipedia "Sources"

Please note that the Wikipedia articles on the subject are heavily biased on the subject.

Here are the kinds of sources quoted by Wikipedia: English-language articles talk about a brutally murdered peaceful innocent youth, while Arabic-language sources praise him for "always talking about martyrdom" and "throwing rocks at passing Israeli vehicles".

See "bias detection below" and use basic logic and the irrefutable facts in the two paragraphs above.

@pieter-geerkens: The notion that Wikipedia can be "fixed", in opposition to the editors with claims on a topic, is risible

  1. all edits that do not support the Antisemitic narrative are rejected outright
  2. it is impossible to fix an article created explicitly to promote a political narrative without a complete re-write.

Whatever we call them, had the population within British mandate borders been linguistically/culturally/ethnically distinct from that in Egypt or Jordan?

The answer is "Yes" and "No".

Yes, Arabs in Palestine and Syria and Egypt and Iraq were (and are) distinct from Jews, Circassians, Armenians, Kurds, Copts, Druze and Bedouins in Palestine and Syria and Egypt and Iraq.

And, No, Arabs in Palestine and Syria and Egypt and Iraq were no more distinct from each other than Americans in California, Texas and Massachusetts. Tiny dialectical differences notwithstanding, they spoke the same language and followed the same religion.

Look up "pan-arabism", but be aware that the article is heavily biased towards justifying the modern narrative ("we are now at war with Eurasia, thus we have always been at war with Eurasia" - 1984).

Bias Detection: How do you know the "truth" if all your sources are biased?

Having grown up in the USSR, I had to learn this unique skill of "critical reading/listening/thinking". The fundamental rule is looking for "chinks in the armor". There are some undeniable historical facts (at least as long as paper books are still available - it is much easier to edit history in Wikipedia than on paper!) and when you see a claim that contradicts the known history, you know that the claim in definitely false in that specific part, which means that the related parts are dubious too.

This is why I started with the two undeniable facts that contradict the Palestinian narrative. Basically, you must disregard all claims that contradict the known history: that throughout the last two millennia there always were people called Jews who had an undeniable connection to the land called Palestine, and there were never people called "Palestinians" (except for the late 19th century, when on Zionist congresses Jews from Poland were called "Poles", Jews from Russia were called "Russians" and Jews from Palestine were called "Palestinians").

When I said that my skill was "unique" I was, of course, joking. Start with DeBunking pro-Palestinian arguments and you will develop these skills too!

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    @sds Fair enough. But "Palestinian citizenship" for Arabs in 1925 contradicts your sentence "until 1970-ies "Palestinian" meant a "Jew living in Eretz Yisroel"" (the very beginning of your answer).
    – Jan
    Jan 31 at 15:26
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    @sds maybe if you are working with a different definition of "A means B". British authorities clearly used "Palestinians" as a synonym for "inhabitants of Palestine" (about 75% or so of whom were Muslim in 1925).
    – Jan
    Jan 31 at 16:55
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    @sds 1936 source in Arabic from Jaffa which has "Palestine Arabs" both in English and Arabic(in the تمساح الصهيونية لعرب فلسطين caption)
    – Jan
    Jan 31 at 18:36
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    @sds Looks to me like a distinct Palestinian group of Arabs right there. In any case İ still think that first sentence needs further clarification. My current understanding from this discussion is that it should be something like "Golda Meir said that there were no Palestinians, so I believe (without further sources) that Arabs in Palestine used 'Palestine Arabs' when referring to themselves and 'Palestinians' when referring to Jews"?
    – Jan
    Jan 31 at 19:41
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    I suggest using fewer big bold letters (they suggest an attempt to cover up a lack of credibility and substance with shouting).
    – user103496
    Feb 1 at 3:57

The issue regarding Palestinian "national identity" is historically and demographically complex. Its complexity is due to a lengthy history which dates back to the Early Middle Ages with the arrival of the Arab Muslims, as well as to the Early Christian period.

When Arabian Islam arrived in Palestine during the mid-latter part of the 600's AD/CE, Palestine, at the time, was a majority Christian country. The languages that were widely spoken throughout much of Palestine during the mid-latter 600's, included, Greek, Armenian, as well as various Semitic languages, such as Aramaic and Syriac.

There was also a small Judeo-Samaritan population who lived in Palestine during this time-(this refers to a very small Jewish community who were not expelled from the region of Samaria after the First and Second Revolts against the Romans. The Judeo-Samaritan community had continued to live in Palestine through the centuries).

A Palestinian....in the early-mid 7th century-(ethnographically speaking), would have been a Christian of Greek, Armenian or Syrian ethnic descent-(there may have also included, Lebanese and Egyptian Christians). There were no Arabian Muslims in Palestine during the early-mid 7th century. However, by the mid-late 600's, with the arrival of Arabian Muslims into Palestine-(both from Arabia proper and from an increasingly Islamized Syria), the centuries old Christian population-(once under the imperial rule of The Byzantine Empire), were conquered and largely (and involuntarily) converted to Islam...this also included, a widespread (and involuntary) conversion to the Arabic language, thereby replacing the various aforementioned regional languages. (There may have also been a small number of Judeo-Samaritans who were forcibly Islamized and Arabized during the Arabian conquest of Palestine 1300 plus years ago).

Since the mid-latter part of the 7th century, the Palestinian Arab population have been largely Islamic in their religious self-identification, though Christianity-(namely, Byzantine Rite Christianity), did survive in Muslim Palestine through the centuries and into the present-day-(though only remaining at 1%).

Overall, the ethnic composition of today's Palestinian population, are largely Arab and Syrian, though there are still remnants of the earlier Greek, Armenian, Lebanese and Egyptian populations which contributes to the historical and demographic longevity of Palestine.

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    – Community Bot
    Jan 29 at 23:29
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    There is a 1300 year gap in your narrative.
    – ccprog
    Jan 30 at 2:55
  • Exactly where is there a 1300 year gap in my narrative?...please elaborate. Thank you.
    – Alex
    Jan 30 at 4:50
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    Yes...that's what I said with regard to "Hebrew descent." Here is the quotation...."There was also a small Judeo-Samaritan population who lived in Palestine during this time"-(referring) to the 600's AD/CE), ("this refers to a very small Jewish community who were not expelled from the region of Samaria after the First and Second Revolts against the Romans. The Judeo-Samaritan community had continued to live in Palestine through the centuries").
    – Alex
    Jan 30 at 20:55
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    There were two more Jewish revolts after the Second one, so the impression that the Jewish population was insignificant at the time of the Arab conquest might need some qualification
    – Jan
    Feb 1 at 3:47

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