LOCATION: Israel and the Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip); Jordan; Lebanon; Syria
POPULATION: 4.5 million
RELIGION: Islam; Christianity; Druze
Palestine is the historical name for the region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The land was first inhabited as long ago as 9000 BC . The Hebrews (ancestors of today's Jews) settled in Palestine in 1900 BC and had formed the kingdom of Israel, ruled by King David, by 1000 BC . Palestine was then taken over by a series of foreign powers. The Arabs took control of the area during the Islamic expansion of the seventh century AD . It is from these Arabs that modern-day Palestinians are descended.
Palestine was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire from AD 1516 until the empire was defeated in World War I (1914–18). During the war period, both Arabs and Jews were made promises by the British concerning the future fate of Palestine. The British controlled Palestine from 1920 to 1948. In 1947, the United Nations (UN) divided Palestine into two states, one Jewish, and the other Arab. When the independent state of Israel was declared on May 15, 1948, the Arab forces of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Transjordan advanced into Palestine. After the ensuing war in 1949, the West Bank came under Jordanian rule, the Gaza Strip came under Egyptian rule, and the remainder of Palestine came under Israeli rule. Many, but not all, Palestinian Arabs fled abroad during this time. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed in Jerusalem. Yasser Arafat became the head of the PLO in 1969.
In a June 1967 war, Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Also in that year, Israel annexed East Jerusalem. The West Bank and Gaza Strip have since been called the Occupied Territories. Most of the residents there are Palestinian Arabs. December 1987 marked the beginning of the Intifada—an ongoing popular uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israeli government and the PLO signed the Declaration of Principles (DOP) in September 1993, resolving that Israeli troops would leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip areas. In 1994, limited Palestinian self-rule was established in Jericho and the Gaza Strip. Fighting continues over the question of a fully independent Palestinian homeland.
There are more than 4.5 million Palestinians in the world. About 2 million of them live in Israel and the Occupied Territories—the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most of the rest live in neighboring Arab countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The UN lists 2 million Palestinian refugees. During the war years of 1947–49, between 700,000 and 800,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes. When Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, another 300,000 Palestinians became refugees (and 150,000 who were already refugees were forced to move again).
Palestinians speak Arabic. "Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are As-salam alaykum (Peace be with you), with the reply of wa 'alaykum as salam (and to you peace). Ma'assalama means "goodbye," with the literal translation being "go with peace." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is 'Afwan. "Yes" is na'am, and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad, ithnayn, thalatha, arba'a, khamsa, sita, sab'a, thamanya, tis'a, and 'ashara.
Common names for boys are Ahmad, Shukri, Ismàil, and Ibrahim. Muhammad is a very common Muslim name. Hanna is a very common Christian name. Ìsa (Jesus) is used by both Muslims and Christians. Common names for girls are Samia, Sawsan, Maysoon, Muna, and Fatima. On rare occasions girls are given politically significant names such as Al-Quds (Jerusalem).
Palestinians believe in jinns— evil spirits who can take on the shapes of natural forms and cause trouble.
A famous fictional character is Juha. School children read about Juha's exploits in fables that teach lessons. For example, in one story Juha buries a treasure in the ground and tries to remember its whereabouts by remembering the clouds that hover over it. Naturally, he loses his treasure because clouds move about and disappear.
Many Muslim stories cherished by Palestinians are similar to those in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The stories of Noah and the Ark and Adam and Eve are important to both Muslim and Christian Palestinians. Palestinians take pride in the true story of the capture of Jerusalem by Arab Muslims in the seventh century.
Most Palestinians—75 percent—are Muslim (followers of Islam), the majority belonging to the Sunni sect. In the seventh century AD , the prophet Muhammad received his revelations from Allah, the one true God (according to Islam). Within just a few years of Muhammad's death in AD 632, Islam had spread through the entire Middle East, gaining converts at a rapid rate.
Mecca is the spiritual center of Islam. All prayers are said facing Mecca. Each Muslim is expected, and greatly desires, to make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime.
About 17 percent of Palestinians are Christian, and some 8 percent are Druze. Both Christians and Muslims have holy sites in Palestine that are visited by pilgrims from around the world.
Islam uses a lunar calendar, so Muslim holidays occur on a different date of the Gregorian (Western) calendar each year. The major Muslim holidays are 'Eid al-Fitr , the end of Ramadan (a three-day festival); 'Eid al-Adha, a feast at the end of the hajj (the pilgrimage month to Mecca); the First of Muharram, the Muslim New Year; and the prophet Muhammad's birthday.
The two major holidays, 'Eid al-Fitr and 'Eid al-Adha , are celebrated by visiting close friends and relatives throughout the day. At least one family member, usually the mother, remains home to greet guests, and the rest of the family travels from home to home, delivering holiday greetings. Children are usually showered with money from most of the adults they encounter. At every home, pastries called Kàk al-Id are served. These are made of flour and butter and are stuffed with either walnuts, cinnamon, and sugar, or with dates. After baking, they are sprinkled with powdered sugar. During the three-day 'Eid celebration, everyone eats lots of kàk.
The Christian holiday of Easter is also moveable, being calculated on a lunar basis. It always occurs sometime during March or early April. Other Christian holidays are: the Day of the Ascension (May 15); the Feast of the Assumption (August 15); and Christmas and Boxing Day (December 25 and 26). New Year's Day (January 1) is a secular (nonreligious) holiday, not a Christian holiday, and many Muslims also celebrate this day.
In 1977, an International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (November 29) was declared as a political observance. Some politically significant events are observed each year by a general strike and demonstrations. Two examples are November 2, in protest over the 1917 Balfour Declaration (in which the British government promoted the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine); and May 15, in protest over the declaration of the state of Israel.
Male children are circumcised and the family holds a great feast to celebrate the occasion. Marriage is another important rite of passage. A simple wedding is followed by a huge feast and celebration attended by family and friends who bring gifts. Childbirth is considered an important function of marriage. The Islamic religion favors having children, and, in addition, Palestinians feel that reproduction is an important nationalist (patriotic) duty.
When two Palestinians greet one another they usually shake hands. It is also common for two women to kiss one another on the cheeks in greeting.
Palestinians are known for their hospitality. Neighbors have very friendly relations and look out for one another's interests. Because Palestinians tend to stay in one house or apartment for their entire lives, neighbors establish lifelong relationships.
Palestinian society is very conservative by Western standards. Dating, as it is understood in the West, is not tolerated. If a man and woman are interested in one another, it is customary for the man to first declare his intentions to the woman's family. Dating to socialize or get to know one another is not allowed; the intent must be marriage. However, it is becoming more common for a couple to court before approaching the woman's family.
Palestinians live in a variety of conditions—from refugee camps to comfortable, middle-class (or even wealthy) homes in modern towns and cities. Traditional villages have one-story houses made of white stone, with a kitchen, a room for bathing, a liwan (sitting room) for receiving guests, and a few small rooms for sleeping. Houses are often surrounded by small gardens separated from the street by a high wall (called a sur ) with a gate. Wealthier families have indoor plumbing and electricity. Other families get their water from local wells and cook on small charcoal stoves.
Refugee camps set up by the UN Relief Workers Agency provide small, cement-block huts with corrugated metal roofs and doors. Some do not have running water or electricity.
The family is the central unit of Palestinian society. Traditional village life used to be regulated by the hamula —a male-dominated extended family system, or clan-based operation. The hamula is disappearing as ancestral clan-controlled lands are taken away or lost. Nevertheless, families continue to be very important.
Arranged marriages are still the norm in some places. Marriage by individual choice is becoming common in other areas, however. This is the case especially as more males and females meet in universities, which are all coeducational. Child-marriage and polygamy (multiple spouses) still occur, although not in great numbers.
Palestinians have one of the highest birth rates in the world. Children are taught to use good manners and to respect their elders. Women are expected to fulfill the traditional role of homemaker. They are beginning to break out of these roles, however. Under Israeli occupation, many men were arrested by the military government for political activities hostile to the state of Israel. Women were forced to fill in for men held in prison. Women thus assumed jobs and became heads of households. Having attained prominent social and professional roles, many women now insist on equality of the sexes.
Palestinians of the older generation still wear traditional clothing. Men wear a long loose robe called a jallabiyeh and the common Arab headscarf, or kaffiyeh, held in place with a twisted band called an ogaal. Women wear a long black peasant dress (known as a thob ) with an embroidered bodice, and a shawl over the head and shoulders.
Most younger Palestinians wear Western-style clothing, with traditional head-scarves covering the hair for young women. Religiosity has increased during the years of the Intifada (or "uprising"), beginning in 1987. This has been reflected in an increase in religious attire, known as sharì a clothing or jilbab, for young women. This is a long jacketlike dress that covers the entire body. A scarf is worn on the head to cover the hair.
Palestinians eat typical Middle Eastern food, such as falafel (deep-fried chickpea balls or patties), hummus (ground chickpeas with garlic, lemon juice), tahini (a sesame paste), lamb, chicken, rice, nuts, and eggplant. A favorite Palestinian candy is halvah, a sweet nougat made of sesame seeds and honey. For eating meals, some rural Palestinians sit on mats or cushions around a cloth laid on the floor and scoop up their food with pieces of pita bread, called khubz. They drink lots of strong black Turkish coffee. A recipe for khubz follows.
Dissolve yeast in half a cup of warm water. Cover and let sit until yeast ferments, about 10 minutes. Stir 3 cups of flour, salt, dissolved yeast, and remaining 2 cups of water in a large bread bowl or mixing bowl. Add remaining 2 to 3 cups of flour in small portions, kneading well with the hands after each addition. Keep adding flour until the dough holds together well and stops sticking to your hands. Knead very well on a lightly floured surface for 8 to 10 minutes. The dough should be smooth and elastic. Return the dough to the mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Wrap the entire bowl, including the bottom, in a blanket or heavy towel, and allow dough to rise until doubled in size, about 2 to 3 hours.
On a lightly floured surface, cut the dough into 8 balls. Cover the balls and let rest for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400°F. While the oven is heating, use a rolling pin to flatten each ball of dough into a circle about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) thick and 8 to 9 inches (20 to 25 centimeters) in diameter.
Beginning with the first loaf you rolled, set each loaf directly on the oven rack. You can bake two loaves at a time, one on each rack. When the loaves begin to brown, turn them so that they brown evenly on both sides (about 3 minutes per side). (If you find it difficult to drop the dough directly onto the oven shelf, use a pizza pan or a pizza stone to put the loaf on.)
As each loaf comes out of the oven, wrap it in a clean cloth or towel to keep it soft until the baking process is complete. After the loaves have cooled, store in plastic bags.
Other Palestinian favorites are zucchini and grape leaves, both stuffed with a rice-and-meat mixture. Palestinians also enjoy olive oil and preserved olives, which are harvested in the summer and are eaten year-round. Almonds, plums, apples, cherries, and lemons are enjoyed in many households fresh off the trees in family gardens. Pork is prohibited in the Muslim religion, as is alcohol. Many Palestinians are Christian, however, so alcoholic beverages are served in some restaurants and sold in some stores, generally in urban centers.
Education is highly valued, and families compare the grades of their children. The highest achievers are noted in newspapers. Palestinian children attend schools similar to those in the West. Children begin school in kindergarten and attend elementary, preparatory, and high school. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) runs schools for refugee children. The majority of Palestinian children attend free public schools. All girls, whether in UNRWA, public, or private schools, wear uniforms. Boys dress as they wish within limits reflecting the social norms. Palestinians have the highest percentage of university graduates in the Arab world.
The average literacy (ability to read and write) rate for Palestinians is 70 percent.
Traditional Palestinian dancing is separated by sex. Men dance in a semicircle with their arms around each other or holding hands as they perform the dabka. Dancers circle the dance floor following the instructions of a designated leader. Women also perform the dabka , and in professional performances men and women do dance the dabka together.
Contemporary Palestinian writers include historian and essayist Edward Said, a Palestinian-American. A famous Palestinian poet and short-story writer is Ghassan Kanafani. His poetry and stories, like much Palestinian literature, feature themes of protest against the Israeli occupation and memories of times predating the occupation. Other famous Palestinians include the poet Mahmoud Darwish; Sabri Jiryis, a radio personality and writer; and the painter Jammana al-Husseni.
It is difficult for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories to find work. Unemployment is a serious problem among the many refugees. When they do find jobs, they are often paid low wages. Many Palestinians from Gaza, and some from the West Bank, cross over into Israel for employment. In Israel, they hold low-wage jobs as restaurant waiters, street cleaners, construction workers, and dishwashers. Since the signing of the DOP (September 1993), the borders between Israel and the Palestinians have often been closed. This causes extreme hardship for the Palestinians who once relied on Israel for jobs.
Under Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, discussions were underway to develop an industrial complex along the borders to solve the unemployment problem. Under the new government led by Benjamin Netanyahu (1996), it is not yet clear if this goal will be pursued.
Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have little time or space for organized sports activities. However, soccer is popular and is played in schools and during free time in the many fields of the West Bank. There has been little attention given to organized, professional sporting events.
Informal, streetside games of soccer are popular among Palestinians. They also enjoy listening to poetry and music, and playing the very popular Middle Eastern version of backgammon. Men smoke the narghila, or water-pipe (like a hookah ) at corner cafés and coffeehouses. Only men go to coffeehouses, where they socialize, make business deals, and play cards and back-gammon.
Children play hopscotch, jump rope, and play marbles on the sidewalks.
Palestinians watch television programs broadcast from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and sometimes Syria. One of the favorite television characters is Ghawar al-Tosheh, a Syrian comedic character who often criticizes government policies in his storylines. On Fridays, the noon prayer is broadcast on television for Muslims.
Some Palestinians are skilled in the art of calligraphy (decorative lettering). They sketch verses from the Koran (the sacred text of Islam) in beautiful designs. Other artists draw pictures of political protest, mostly against the occupation. One popular pastime is to memorize and recite verses of the Koran. Children begin this practice at an early age, and it continues through adulthood. Women often sit on their front porches knitting for their families, or cross-stitching or embroidering the bodices for their traditional dresses. They also cross-stitch items for craft shows, such as wall decorations or Koranic verses. Other crafts include making jewelry boxes, crosses, scenes of the Last Supper, camels, mosques, and other items made of olive wood or ivory.
The main social problem for Palestinians is the decades-long war with Israel over rights to the Palestinian homeland. Palestinians are people without a country. At best they live as displaced persons, and at worst as refugees in crowded camps. Younger generations of Palestinians have never known a time when their people were at peace. They grow up with a consciousness shaped by conflict and violence. The PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and the Israeli government signed the Declaration of Principles in 1993, and limited Palestinian self-rule began in 1994. However, the agreement is opposed by extremists on both sides, and the peace that exists is very shaky. The Palestinian fight for an independent homeland, whose tempo increased with the Intifada begun in December 1987, continues. The casualties are enormous, and the problems—physical, social, psychological, and spiritual—caused by the continual unrest are too numerous to count.
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