A much upvoted comment to a recent question (+19 at the moment of writing) claims that:

[...] it is very frequent that pro-Israel people downplay the existence of a local population. That's hardly that anecdotal [...]

(I cut out the parts that are not relevant here.) 

Q: Are there public surveys to support or disprove this assertion? More specifically: a) surveys of public opinion in Israel, and b) surveys of Israeli supporters elsewhere. If there are data on this being a common stereotype among critics of Israel, it could be of interest as well.

The dispute about the size and sparsity of the population in Palestine prior to Zionist migration has been a matter of some debate. Although early Zionist slogan declared "Land without people for people without land", it was early on understood (by Zionists, Palestinian elites, Ottoman authorities, and later by the British) that there was a local population, opposed to immigration (see the references.) The Israeli politicians and educators never denied the existence of the Palestinians, although in the first decades of Israel's existence they used to cast doubt on the existence of a separate Palestinian national identity vs. them being a part of the larger Arab people (see, e.g., Golda Meir's famous claim There was no such thing as Palestinians), and promoted not very credible explanations of the Palestinian exodus in 1948.

These issues have become largely mute after the opening of the Israeli archives and the research therein by the Israeli revisionist historians - the basis of the Israeli school textbooks for decades by now. Indeed, nowadays such claims are limited to the extreme right-wing.

In the west the controversy was ignited three decades ago by Joan Peters' book From Time Immemorial, which claimed that significant part of the Palestine Arab population in the decades prior to 1948 were recent arrivals - attracted by the economic growth that followed Zionist immigration. Young Norman Finkelstein has made a name by his rebuttal of the Peters' book findings, soon after its publication. It is not clear whether Peters' book ever had much following, or whether Israeli supporters denying Palestinians existence is a straw man created by Finkelstein and his followers (he has since then evolved into one of the most extreme critics of Israel.)

Zionist views:
Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel
Ze'ev Jabotinsky Iron Wall

Pan-Arab views:
George Antonius, The Arab Awakening

Palestinian views:
Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood

Israeli Revisionist historians:
Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World
Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001


When the PLO was founded in 1964, the existence of the Palestinian people as a coherent entity, indeed the very idea of “Palestine,” ap- peared to be in a grave, and perhaps in a terminal, state. It was so grave that even five years later, a serious politician like Golda Meir could say with a straight face to a reputable publication that the Palestinian people did not exist, and that paper could publish her words without the slightest qualm. The Palestinian people truly appeared in the mid-1960s to be facing an existential crisis of daunting proportions, and to be in serious danger of disappearing from the political sphere, just as their country had disappeared from the map, and indeed from public discourse. At this stage, nearly the only exception to this slow disappearing act could be found at the United Nations, where “the Question of Palestine” stubbornly kept appearing on the annual agenda of the General Assembly.

  • It is worth adding that state, nation and actual physical population are distinct things. One may well acknowledge physical existence of the Palestinian people, without acknowledging their national identity. Historically, there have been many diametrically opposite attempts at doing so: claiming that Palestinians are but a part of a larger Arab nation (here Golda Meir concurs with Nasser and Hafiz Al-Assad), claiming that they are merely parts of other nations (Jordanians, Egyptians, Syrians - as was the view of the Arab nations that invaded Palestine in 1948), or even suggesting that they are more than a single nation - splitting them by clan allegiance, nomadic vs. sedentary lifestyle, religion, etc. See Wikipedia article
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    This is a more interesting and nuanced issue than I thought when I posted said comment. It's hard to quickly find matches for my claim from Israeli sources and will need some research. Which which take some time. Or even, gasp, me admitting I was wrong. And, yes, I will apologize if so. However, please note that my comment - while quickly scribbled down in annoyance for what I considered to be a pushy question, used the word downplay. Not the word deny. That's an important distinction in this context. It would be nice if you didn't put words in my mouth I did not use. Commented Apr 29 at 15:38
  • This is probably not a clear enough question because 'downplay' is relative and somewhat subjective. Searching for that topic found "Netanyahu downplays Arab citizens, saying Israel is the state ‘of the Jewish people ... alone’" (L.A. Times) in the first page of hits. Basing a Q on a not too clear comment isn't terribly useful, even if people upvoted that cmt. Commented Apr 29 at 23:56
  • One can certainly downplay the importance numerically or downplay it in terms of political organization etc. One (now deleted) answer pointed e.g. to the British Mandate, which indeed downplayed non-Jews in the sense of mentioning them only as other "non-Jewish communities in Palestine", while Wikipedia says that the Muslims were more numerous. Commented Apr 30 at 0:19
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    @thegodsfromengineering Basing a Q on a not too clear comment isn't terribly useful, even if people upvoted that cmt. - it's not about bashing - merely a motivation for examining a certain pervasive belief. I refrained from citing who made the comment (as per SE policies).
    – Morisco
    Commented Apr 30 at 8:14
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    @thegodsfromengineering regarding Balfour declaration and the British mandate - they explicitly acknowledge the existence of the local population. As I have already pointed to another person - state, nation and actual physical population are different things. One could both argue that Palestinian Arabs are a only a part of a larger Arab nation (pan-Arabism) or that they are more than one nation(split by clan allegiance, nomadic/sedentary lifestyle, ethnic origin, geographic proximity to Egypt/Syria/Lebanon/Jordan, etc.) - both views deny their nationhood, without denying their existence.
    – Morisco
    Commented Apr 30 at 8:24

2 Answers 2


Hard to answer the Q as such because I think there are no polls on this, or at least none that are easy to find. But it's certainly within the Overton Window for the mainstream press in Israel to claim that most Arabs/Palestinians are relatively recent arrivals or descendants thereof, meaning in the past 200 years max, e.g. this blog piece in the Jerusalem Post, which ends with

According to the 2015 World Almanac, the current “Palestinian” population, including Israeli Arabs, and Arab residents of Gaza, Golan, Judea and Samaria totals 10,523,715 people. 453,000 descendants of indigenous Muslim residents constitute only 4.3% of the current “Palestinian” population. Therefore the other 95.7% of present-day “Palestinians” are clearly those Arabs and their descendants who migrated to Israel between 1831 and 2015.

That piece (together with Joan Peters' 1984 book) is also positively referenced in a 2022 Times of Israel blog. Neither piece contains any (Finkelstein-type) rebuttals. So the idea is [still] more popular over there than you seem to think.

Anyhow, the word 'downplayed' should probably be interpreted in this sense, rather than a claim of terra nullius.

(FWTW, Wikipedia documents some other controversies relating to blogging on Israeli MSM sites, which are indeed subject to less editorial oversight, but I disagree with a comment that these are equivalent to comments on Stack Exchange--extremist bloggers did get at least one newspaper [ToI] to apologize for such content appearing on their domain--"On 1 August 2014, an article entitled "When Genocide is Permissible" and recommending the obliteration of the entire population of Gaza Strip was published on the blogs by a regular contributor. The article was later deleted. Opinion editor Miriam Herschlag said that the article did not conform to their editorial guidelines and the contributor had been discontinued.")

But some answers here asserting that such claims are uncommon in Israeli textbooks are probably correct in the sense that e.g. these acknowledge the Arab population without discussing its origins much. At least in the early grades, for which I found some excerpts:

As early as third grade, one textbook chooses to describe Jaffa as "an Arab port city"—an accurate depiction of the environs during Jewish immigration [aliyah] to pre-1948 Palestine—rather than the mixed Jewish/Arab city of present-day Israel. Another third-grade textbook affirms that Arabs comprised the majority of Ottoman Palestine's inhabitants and provides historical details about their lifestyle.

Alas foreign 'roundups' of textbook focus far more on what they say about the post-1948 events than more ancient history, so there's not a lot for me quote from that 200-page (hah) roundup that's relevant to this Q. One thing that appears certain is that the Jewish immigration is mentioned a lot more in textbooks than the Arab one... with one exception (in that roundup); there's one textbook that says:

History, Grades 11–12, The Return to Zion: Aliyah, Settlement, and Independence, Dvora Giladi and Tehila Hertz, Har Bracha (Permit: 4432), 2016, pp. 438‒39.

The Romans called Israel 'Palestine,' in order to undermine the connection of the people of Israel to their land. The Arabs of the Mandatory Land of Israel, many of whom immigrated to Israel after the people of Israel began to return to their land, adopted this name, to harm the Jewish people who established the State of Israel in its homeland.

(FWTW aside: there are polls about whether the State of Israel should encourage Arab emigration; such polls predate Oct 7 by at least a decade. Pollsters seem generally far more interested in what actions people consider desirable in the future, than asking a lot of details about the past.)

  • There's also a US prof F.M. Gottheil who published a couple of pieces on this that might qualify as new research in the same vein (around ~20 rather than ~40 years ago like Peter), but Gottheil's pieces don't seem popularly referenced in Israel[i press]. Commented Apr 30 at 5:28
  • Gottheil is reviewed in wikipedia article linked in the Q. Overall, you seem to dimply believe the claim. Perhaps in the past it was z mainstream right-wing view - but it still remains to show that it was the case, and it would be still short of the majority.
    – Morisco
    Commented Apr 30 at 5:43
  • @FourLegsGoodTwoLegsBad: You have many links in your Q. Anyway, I thought you liked press roundups. Commented Apr 30 at 5:58
  • Your quote clearly states that there was in fact indigenous Muslim population, and doesn't come even close to answering the OP's question about surveys and statistics. You bashed me for exactly that. Worth noting, that you're not relying on a Jerusalem Post article as you claimed (a very reputable publication), but on a blog published on their website. Basically, you're quoting some rando. How's that for not answering the question?
    – littleadv
    Commented Apr 30 at 6:15
  • @littleadv: "OP's question about surveys and statistics." Well, I surveyed the press a bit, and I quoted a roundup of textbooks. The OP's title is a 'how common' a [certain type] of claim is. Absent any polls on this particular question, this is probably as good as it gets. Commented Apr 30 at 7:29

"it is very frequent that pro-Israel people downplay the existence of a local population" --- Are there public surveys to support or disprove this assertion?

I do not know of any such polls, and it would be strange to have such polls, since the existence of a local population is so well-known that it would be asking the obvious. High-schools in Israel have a mandatory history class, where pupils learn about the lives of Jews under the Ottoman rule (before and after Zionism) and under the British Mandate, and their relationships with their Arab neighbors, for good and for worse. For example, we learn about Zionists buying lands from Arabs (such as in Netanya), as well as riots made by Arabs (such as the 1929 Hebron massacre). Of course, this implies that there were Arabs here.

Maybe the source of confusion is Golda Meir's quote, that you mention in your question: "There was no such thing as Palestinians". But I think you misunderstand this quote. You should read the following quotes in the same Wikipedia page:

"What was all of this area before the First World War when Britain got the Mandate over Palestine? What was Palestine, then? Palestine was then the area between the Mediterranean and the Iraqian border. East and West Bank was Palestine. I am a Palestinian, from 1921 and 1948, I carried a Palestinian passport. There was no such thing in this area as Jews, and Arabs, and Palestinians. There were Jews and Arabs."

The intention is clear: she says that, in the past, "Palestine" was just the name of a geographical region. Every person living in this region, whether Jew or Arab, was called "Palestinian". There was no separate "Palestinian nation". There were Arabs living here, but they were just like the Arabs living everywhere else in the Middle East; they were not a separate nation.

EDIT: when exactly the Arabs came here is a different question. It is studied in depth in this book by Rivka Shpak-Lissak.

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    Of course, if Golda Meir, born in Kiev, calls herself a Palestinian and says that means everyone was just as native to the area as each other, yes, that must be true. Note that my was, deliberately, using the word "population", not nation. Kinda hard to be a nation while you're colonized by Turks, then Brits. Yet, all these arguments always come back to talk about nationhood, as if that trumps, well, living there. How about the other neighbors? None of them in the same straits as Palestinians? I thought Iraq was a manufactured nation as well. Anyone tell them they cant have a state? Commented Apr 30 at 7:04
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica historically, there was a Jewish state (kingdom) in Israel, but there was never a Palestinian-Arab state. Of course, the Palestinian-Arabs can claim that they want a state, but they cannot use history as an argument. Commented Apr 30 at 7:31
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica nation-state is a social construct, which emerged in the XIX-th century. Until then ethnic, geographic, linguistic and other affinities mattered little - one obeyed to the one's king. Likewise, All of Arabia was promised by British to Hussein of Mecca, but later split among his sons, while Saud of Najd conquered Mecca and created his own state - nothing of this have to do with national self-determination. Saudis/Egyptians/Palestinians national identity developed fully after the borders were forced on them, and not the other way round [contd]
    – Morisco
    Commented Apr 30 at 10:06
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica [contd] Now, one could argue that modern Israeli identity is also a recent one, and has no continuity with the ancient kings of Israel - this is what Khalidi does. Ironically, most people nowadays still think of nationhood in ethno-nationalistic terms, as if the Nazis example haven't taught them anything.
    – Morisco
    Commented Apr 30 at 10:10
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica another point: Palestinians did resent Jewish immigration - just like today right-wing opposes immigrants. But as far as their national aspirations went before 1948, they wanted to be a part of greater Syria or even a single Arab kingdom. And Arabs states hadn't talked about Palestinian state until 1967, when they realized that their armies are no match to Israel, and began instrumentalizing Palestinian plight for their political purposes.
    – Morisco
    Commented Apr 30 at 10:20

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