Republican White House hopeful Newt Gingrich has stirred controversy by calling the Palestinians an "invented" people who could have chosen to live elsewhere.
The former House of Representatives speaker, who is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential race, made the remarks in an interview with the US Jewish Channel broadcaster released on Friday.
Asked whether he considers himself a Zionist, he answered: "I believe that the Jewish people have the right to a state … Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire" until the early 20th century,
"I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab
"And they had a chance to go many places, and for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and it’s tragic."
Most historians mark the start of Palestinian Arab nationalist sentiment in 1834, when Arab residents of the Palestinian region revolted against Ottoman rule.
Israel, founded amid the 1948 Arab-Israel war, took shape along the lines of a 1947 UN plan for ethnic partition of the
then-British ruled territory of Palestine which Arabs rejected.
More than 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their lands by Zionist armed groups in 1948, in an episode Palestinians refer to as the Nakba or "catastrophe".
Gingrich’s comments drew a swift rebuke from a spokesman for the American Task Force on Palestine, Hussein Ibish, who said: "There was no Israel and no such thing as an "Israeli people" before 1948.
"So the idea that Palestinians are ‘an invented people’ while Israelis somehow are not is historically indefensible and inaccurate.
"Such statements seem to merely reflect deep historical ignorance and an irrational hostility towards Palestinian identity and nationalism."
Sabri Saidam, adviser to the Palestinian president, told Al Jazeera, "This is a manifestation of extreme racism and this is a reflection of where America stands sad, when Palestinians don’t get their rights…this is sad and America should respond with a firm reaction to such comments that, if let go, more of which will come our way,"
"Let me ask Newt Gingrich if he would ever entertain the thought of addressing Indian Americans by saying that they never existed, that they were the invention of a separate nation, would that be tolerated?"
"Let’s also reverse the statement; let’s put ourselves in "the shoe of Jews who are listening now. Would they ever accept such statements being made about them?"
Saidam said, "I think it’s time that America rejects such statements and closes the door to such horrendous and unacceptable statements."
Gingrich also sharply criticised US President Barack Obama’s approach to Middle East diplomacy, saying that it was "so out of touch with reality that it would be like taking your child to the zoo and explaining that a lion was a bunny rabbit."
He said Obama’s effort to treat the Palestinians the same as the Israelis is actually "favouring the terrorists".
"If I’m even-handed between a civilian democracy that obeys the rule of law and a group of terrorists that are firing missiles every day, that’s not even-handed, that’s favouring the terrorists," he said.
He also said the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, share an "enormous desire to destroy Israel".
The Palestinian Authority, which rules the occupied West Bank, formally recognises Israel’s right to exist.
President Mahmoud Abbas has long forsworn violence against Israel as a means to secure an independent state, pinning his hopes first on negotiations and more recently on a unilateral bid for statehood via the UN.
Gingrich, along with other Republican candidates, are seeking to attract Jewish in the US support by vowing to bolster Washington’s ties with Israel if elected.
He declared his world view was "pretty close" to that of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and vowed to take "a much more tougher-minded, and much more honest approach to the Middle East" if elected.
(Agencies via Al Jazeera)