Israel-bashers are fond of using this quote as proof of early Zionist mendacity, ignoring the 400,000 Arabs that lived in Palestine at the beginning of modern Zionism. To an extent they are right - certainly there were people there - but the slogan was more accurate than they claim.
Firstly, while there were people there, they weren't "a people" - Arabs at the time identified with the Arab people as a whole, or often as a part of southern Syria, but Palestinian Arab nationalism did not appear until after the phrase was coined, in no small part as a direct reaction to Zionism itself.
Secondly, it is hard to claim that the land was anything but sparsely populated, considering that today some ten million people manage to fit in that same space. In other words, the claim that pre-state Zionism was displacing the existing Arab population is simply a lie, as the aim of Zionism was to build and grow in places where no one was living.
And thirdly, it is patently obvious that the Jews were a people without a land, except for those bigots who deny Jewish peoplehood to begin with.
For all the outrage that the slogan causes in Arab circles for being immoral and inflammatory, though, it was used by the Arab League delegate to the UN yesterday trying to give it a PalArab twist:
YAHYA A. MAHMASSANI, Permanent Observer for the League of Arab States, reading out a message from the Secretary-General of the League, Amre Moussa, stressed the Committee’s vital role. The International Day of Solidarity coincided with the ninetieth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which had paved the way for the expansionist Zionist policy, thereby creating a land without people and people without a land -– the source of the conflict that lasted to the current day.The bigotry and hypocrisy of the Arab states is neatly on display here:
* He dismisses millions of Jews living in Israel nowadays as being effectively nonexistent, invisibly living in a "land without people." Similarly, he denies the fact of Jewish peoplehood.
* He dates the beginnings of the Palestinian Arab refugee problem as 1917, not 1948, showing that in the Arab League's opinion it is the very existence of Jewish national aspiration that is the problem, not the establishment of the State nor the flight of the original refugees.
* He defines the "source" of the conflict to 1917, ignoring that the Arab violence against Jews predated Balfour and that practically all of the attacks would be one-way for decades after that. In other words, in his mind the existence of Jews in Palestine was inherently provocative to the extent that the poor Arabs, who seem to exist without free will, had no choice but to start massacring them.
And, without intending to,
* He subconsciously admits that there were no Palestinian Arab people existing before 1917.
In this case of Arabs attempting to turn the tables on Zionists by using their language, it only proves their own hypocrisy and bigotry.