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Historically, the term “Palestinian” has been associated with the inhabitants of the south of ancient Syria west of the Jordan River between Lebanon and Sinai. The name “Palestinian” is related to the “Philistines,” an IndoEuropean group that invaded the southern coast of ancient Syria from the sea in the fourteenth century BCE. The Palestinians, however, are descendants of the Canaanites, a Semitic group that migrated from the Arabian Peninsula between 3000 and 2500 BCE and settled the coastal areas of Palestine. The Arabic language and Islamic religion spread among the Palestinians with the Arab migrations from the Arabian Peninsula between 630 and 650 CE. Throughout four hundred years of Muslim Ottoman rule, Palestinians maintained an Arab identity and included Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Palestinian population was composed of a Muslim Sunni majority and minority populations of Christians (10 percent) and Jews (less than 5 percent).
After World War I (1914–1918), the Palestinians were provisionally recognized as independent under a British mandate that was supposed to provide advice and maintain their status quo until self-rule. The British, however, began to resettle European Jews in Palestine as a way of supporting the Zionist solution to the Jewish question created by the anti-Semitism of Europe. The increase in the European Jewish population from 4.8 percent in 1882 to 28 percent in 1936 created economic hardships for the indigenous population because the lands purchased were in the arable, coastal, and urban centers of Palestine. Moreover, the uneven economic policies of the British that favored the Jewish sector increased Palestinian unemployment, rural outmigrations, landlessness, and thus a cheap labor force. Palestinian discontent culminated in a general strike and protests between 1936 and 1939, which were brutally suppressed by the British army and the Jewish militia.
Palestinian lives have been shaped since mid-twentieth century by two main events, their repercussions, and the attempted solutions: Al Nakba (Arabic for “the catastrophe”) of 1948, which marked Palestinian dispossession and exile coinciding with the establishment of the Israeli state; and Al Naksa (Arabic for “the tragedy”) of 1967, which marked the beginning of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Al Nakba caused the exodus of 750,000 Palestinians from the land on which the state of Israel was established into the nearby Arab countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; and Al Naksa created an additional 350,000 refugees who fled to Jordan, of whom 15,000 were allowed to return. The indigenous Palestinian population that remained on the land under Israeli control was put under military rule until 1966 and was later incorporated into Israeli society as a minority with citizenship but not equality.
After 1948 Palestinian society emerged divided between the West Bank, a kidney-shaped area of approximately 2,270 square miles whose population doubled with the arrival of refugees, and the Gaza Strip, a tiny strip of land of approximately 140 square miles absorbing a refugee population that outnumbered its inhabitants. Between 1948 and 1967, the Palestinians in the West Bank, annexed then by Jordan, could get Jordanian passports listing their citizenship as Jordanian, while the Palestinians in Gaza, under Egyptian rule, were given Egyptian travel documents listing their nationality as undetermined.
The Palestinians in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were united after 1967 through their status as occupied subjects sharing a history under Israeli occupation while struggling against its oppressive conditions. The contention included a guerrilla resistance in the first couple of years of occupation in the refugee camps of Gaza. It was suppressed when the camps were subjected to martial law. Sporadic protests took place in the 1970s and 1980s, a mass uprising took place in 1987, and a second uprising began in 2000.
Under occupation, all aspects of Palestinian life were subject to the Israeli military authorities’ approval, from economic activity to the right of movement, and monitored through a hierarchically ordered color-coded identity card system—to be carried at all times—differentiating Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem (blue), the West Bank (orange), and the Gaza Strip (red). The Palestinians of East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war while remaining integral to the West Bank, were assigned the status of residents, situating them hierarchically above occupied subjects but lower than citizens. Nonetheless, the mid-1990s uncovered their shaky status when the Israeli government demanded that East Jerusalemites prove that the center of their activities continued to revolve around the city if they wanted to keep their residency rights. The residency status of close to two thousand East Jerusalemites was revoked.
The Palestinian economy, underdeveloped on the eve of the 1967 war, deteriorated under the Israeli occupation policies of control of mobility of Palestinian labor and commodities and confiscation of land for building and expanding Israeli Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. By 1993, a survey of living conditions found that Palestinian households in the territories are mostly dependent on wage labor. Moreover, Palestinians preferred to work in Israel because of higher wages even as they are paid less than the average wages of the Jewish workers. Under a general exit system in 1967, Palestinians could cross the border to work as day laborers but were not allowed to stay after sunset. Thus, Palestinian chances for making a living in the territories largely have depended on Israeli border policies since 1967.
Peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis to end the occupation started in 1993 yet coincided with Israel closing its border and imposing a permit policy restricting Palestinian movement with repercussions for Palestinian livelihood. Although the peace process brought a Palestinian National Authority to Gaza and Jericho and redeployed the Israeli military from main Palestinian towns, it did not end Israeli control. Israel retained 59 percent of the West Bank lands and 20 percent of the Gaza Strip, and maintained security control over most of the West Bank. In the years following the arrival of the Palestinian Authority to the territories in 1994, Palestinians faced more mobility restrictions— between Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, within the West Bank. Additionally, the construction of a wall between the West Bank and Israel has had significant consequences for Palestinian social life.
- Farsoun, Samih, and Christina Zacharia. 1997. Palestine and the Palestinians. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Heiberg, Marianne, and Geir Ovensen, 1993. Palestinian Society in Gaza, West Bank, and Arab Jerusalem: A Survey of Living Conditions. Oslo, Norway: FAFO.
- McDowall, D 1998. The Palestinians: The Road to Nationhood. London: Minority Rights Group International.
- Roy, S 2001. The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development, 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestinian Studies.
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