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9/11 and Reconstructing Palestinian Identity

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 20.02.2009:

By Ahmed Masoud

Since 1948, when the state of Israel was created in Palestine, Palestinians throughout the world have faced many challenges in affirming their identity in their countries of residence. The events of 9/11 and the global “war on terror” that started immediately afterwards complicated the situation even further. This article aims to highlight the effect of 9/11 on Palestinian resistance and the way diaspora Palestinians responded to it.

The creation of the Palestinian national movement, as seen in the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was promoted in the West as a violent movement that sought the destruction of Israel. It could be argued that the construction of modern Palestinian identity started with the rise of the first Intifada in 1987. With images of civilians throwing stones at a powerful occupying army, the meaning of the word Palestinian became closely associated with resistance and freedom fighting. This brought not only sympathy to the Palestinian cause but also admiration amongst many revolutionaries and ordinary people across the world. The last ten years of the last century became the golden decade in the recognition of Palestinian identity. Palestinians finally received worldwide recognition for their right to build a state, especially after the Oslo Agreement and the creation of the Palestinian Authority, as well as the global understanding that a two-state solution was the only way to establish peace in the region. The first Intifada, therefore, strengthened Palestinian identity not only in the Palestinian territories but throughout the world. The image of the kaffiyeh was seen as a symbol of the freedom fighter and a bridge to Palestine for those living outside. This was particularly true in the West where wearing the kaffiyeh became an essential everyday fashion accessory. By wearing it, Palestinians wanted to emphasise their belonging to and support for their people’s struggle.

However, this romantic image of the freedom fighter wearing the kaffiyeh completely changed at the turn of the twenty-first century; it came to be associated with a more aggressive, anti-hero image. There were two main reasons for this change. First and most important, the events of 9/11 not only altered the political map of the modern world but also established a connection between the Palestinian cause and Muslim extremism. This was more emphasised after Bin Laden’s justification of the attacks – they came partially in reaction to Israeli aggression toward Palestinians and American support of such activities. Second, since the start of the “war on terror,” Israel has explicitly adopted US terminology, which describes Palestinian resistance as a form of terrorism. Whereas before 9/11 Palestinian freedom fighters were described in the Israeli media as “mukharibeen” or vandals, Israel began to use the word “terrorists” immediately after the US administration used it to refer to those responsible for the attacks of 9/11. Using such language put the Second Intifada on the global map of terrorism, and with the continuation of suicide attacks as part of the resistance strategy, the world willingly chose to confuse Palestinian resistance with global terrorism. This connection shook the confidence of Palestinians living in the West and threatened their sense of pride in their Palestinian identity – which, only a few years before 9/11, cherished resistance. With more Al-Qaeda attacks on European cities such as Madrid and London, it became easier for Israel to bombard the media with images of its civilians being killed by Palestinian militants. By 2004, diaspora Palestinians and Muslims were completely confused, especially after the introduction of anti-terrorism acts in some European countries, which did not allow any room for differentiation.

Within these constant confrontations between governments and Muslim organisations, Palestinians found that their issues were confused and mixed into Western misconceptions of Islam and terrorism. Many Palestinians stopped wearing the kaffiyeh in order to avoid being stared at suspiciously in the streets and on buses, and many girls took their headscarves off in order to avoid any aggression from local fanatic groups. Many viewed the Palestinian struggle as George Orwell’s “negative nationalism,” which is based on the destruction of the other rather than the building of statehood. There was also international criticism, fuelled by Israeli war propaganda, of the way Yasser Arafat handled the peace negotiations of Camp David II in 2000, under the Clinton administration. The leadership was criticised for failing to provide its own vision of what future Palestinian nationalism should be.

“Palestinian leaders have generally failed to provide a model of what a Palestinian state could look like. Instead, they have depended on others to sketch their future. The Road Map proposed by the U.S. State Department in 2003, and the Saudi plan endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 and 2007, were both accepted passively by Palestinian leaders, but the leadership has failed to offer proposals of its own.”

It is this same leadership, however, that brought confidence in the Palestinian identity back to diaspora Palestinians. The death of the most prominent Palestinian leader of the twentieth century, Yasser Arafat, at the end of 2004, brought back many memories of the Palestinian national movement. During commemoration events of Arafat’s life, people started to identify more with his views and the way he handled the national cause. There was anger towards the lack of respect that Arab governments, particularly Egypt, showed to Arafat. A new self-pride was injected into the blood of those who were in Europe and America at the time and who were grateful for the hospitality of France for Arafat’s funeral. Many saw the way the French treated Arafat as a model of respect that other countries should follow. Such an opportunity was too precious to be misrepresented to Western audiences and had to be different from the way Palestinians had previously celebrated their identity. In order to regain sympathy for the Palestinian national struggle, the focus needed to be placed on a number of issues.

First, Palestinians started to bring the historical narrative of the conflict into most discussions and discourse. The rise of the acclaimed academic, Ilan Pappe, helped give more credibility to this campaign. Pappe is an Israeli historian who used to teach at Haifa University. He currently teaches at Exeter University in the United Kingdom. His book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine contributed to a broader understanding of the Palestinian national struggle. His Israeli identity and prestigious academic background exposed the issue to new audiences.

“It is a history that is usually told through one of two master narratives: Zionist or Palestinian. The visibility of the one over the other depends on the political balance of power. Hence, in the West more is known of the Israeli narrative, and much less of the one postulated by the weaker party, the Palestinians.”

Second, breaking the link between Muslim extremism and the Palestinian cause became very important in preserving Palestinian identity in a post-9/11 world. To do this, Palestinians focused their attention on highlighting the structure of their society back home, which consisted of different religions. After 2004, many of the events held by Palestinians in the West included some reference to Christianity and Judaism. This became easier after the establishment of some sympathetic Jewish European organisations, such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians (UK).

Third, concentrating on Palestinian culture was perhaps the most effective way of separating the Palestinian national project from the inflicted stereotype of Muslim extremism. Culture is perhaps one of the most important elements in the constitution of national identity. Nationalism is “an ideology of the nation, not the state. It places the nation at the centre of its concerns, and its description of the world and its prescriptions for collective action are concerned only with the nation and its members … nationalism is a cultural doctrine or, more accurately, a political ideology with a cultural doctrine at its centre.” By presenting the leading Palestinian cultural figures, Palestinians were more able to provide a picture that was different from that of the Western media. Literature was used to advocate for Palestinian identity. Quotes from Mahmoud Darwish were used to describe the continuing Intifada. As well as affirming identity and national pride, the exhibition of Palestinian culture in the West constituted a bridge to home. It became the Palestinian connection with the homeland and a way for Palestinians to reminisce about the past.

The Second Intifada did not garner broad understanding in the West as the media focussed more on the “terror” of the suicide bomber rather than the root causes of resistance in Palestine. Between 2004 and 2007, however, diaspora Palestinians managed to gain support and sympathy for their national cause by bringing history, culture, and differentiation into the dialogue of defending their identity as Palestinians. The concept of cultural resistance is one that gained an understanding.

The outbreak of violence between Hamas and Fatah, which ended up with the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, once again shook the confidence of Palestinians abroad. Like their fellow countrymen inside the Palestinian territories, Palestinians abroad became divided and more party-connected. This, in addition to the negative representation in Western media, once again threatened the confidence of Palestinians in their own identity. This time, the shock came from within Palestinians society itself, which led to consequences much worse than before. Many found themselves justifying the conflict between Hamas and Fatah instead of advocating for their people’s right to statehood. This damaged the Palestinian spirit.

It is ironic to think that violence is what brought Palestinians together a year later. This time it is a different kind of violence: the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip beginning on 27 December 2008, and the massacres perpetrated there. During this attack, the Palestinian diaspora focused on its national rather than party identity and united in order to protest and appeal to their respective governments to intervene in order to stop Israel’s aggression. It appears that there will be a high price to pay in order for Palestinians to achieve their hopes of national independence. It is the sacrifice of their countrymen that will bring recognition, unity, and the establishment of an independent state to Palestinians.

Ahmed Masoud is a Palestinian researcher and writer currently finishing his PhD in comparative literature at Goldsmiths College – University of London, U.K. Ahmed grew up in the Gaza Strip and moved to the U.K. in 2002 where he has undertaken several research assignments and positions. He has just finished writing his first novel, Gaza Days, which will be sent for publication soon. Selected chapters can be found on his website He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

February 2009

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