With all of the constant news coverage about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet with confusing non-parallelism like “talks between Israel and the Palestinians” (why don’t they say Israel and Palestine?), a lot of people sincerely wonder, “Does a country called Palestine exist?” Like most things in the Middle East, the answer is not straightforward. Right now, officially speaking there is no country called Palestine that is internationally recognized. The Palestinians are Arab people who originated in the area that is now called Israel, as well as the Westbank and the Gaza Strip. These three areas, Israel, the Westbank, and the Gaza Strip collectively form what the Palestinian people call Palestine and identify with as their homeland.
Until 1917, the area of Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire ruled from Istanbul, and Palestine was not a separate country. Palestine did have its own local customs and local dialects of Arabic, distinct from other Arabic areas, but at that time Palestine was thought of more as part of “Greater Syria” rather than as a distinct and separate country. That all changed in 1917.
In 1917, after the British and French seized control of the Middle East from the Ottoman Empire, they carved up the region into states–countries that had previously not existed, certainly not with these arbitrary boundaries. Rather than a general provincial area, Palestine now became a country administered by Britain, including the area of present day Jordan, as well as Israel and the Westbank and Gaza. This new country of Palestine was later split into “Jordan” and “Palestine”.
The British had agreed to the creation of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine, allowing Jewish immigration and settlement. Under the pressure of British occupation and Jewish colonial immigration, a stronger and more distinct Palestinian national identity formed. This Palestinian national identity grew dramatically after Al Nakba, the catastrophic war of 1948 that saw the majority of Palestinian Arabs become refugees and lose their homes. Their homes would be subsequently taken over by Jewish immigrants, and the Arabic names of their villages would be converted into similar-sounding Hebrew equivalents. The formerly British administered state of Palestine vanished and in its place Israel was created. The Westbank was taken over by Jordan, and the Gaza Strip was taken over by Egypt.
The majority of Palestinians continue to live as refugees, viewing Israel’s creation as illegitimate and refer to Israel as “Occupied Palestine”. Through the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians gained some autonomy over some land in the Westbank and Gaza Strip. But the Israeli occupation still limits their freedom of movement, their control of seaports and airspace, controls their supply of water and electricity, controls their telephone service, and inhibits their ability to build a sound economy through repeated border closures and roadblocks. Israel can seal the Palestinian autonomous areas shut whenever it likes, citing security concerns.
So Palestine is a country, since it has a unique culture and national identity connected to a specific land. It has its own flag, its own national anthem, and inside the Westbank and Gaza and its own limited government. But it is an occupied country, and the Palestinians have not yet achieved their independance and freedom in their own state. They are the indigenous people of the land of Palestine, so if the immigrant nation of Israel is considered a legitimate country then there is absolutely no moral or legal basis to deny that Palestine is also a legitimate country.
Is Palestine a country? Yes, it deserves to be, and yes it will be.