Last week, I invited Arabs to come out of their trenches and explore the no-man's-land of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Now it's the turn of the Israelis.
In my article last week, I explored the neglected backwoods of the history of Zionism to try to build understanding and to challenge some of the misperceptions widely held by Arabs. The ensuing heated debate – which I followed closely – was both inspiring and depressing.
Many of the posters applauded my modest attempt to promote mutual understanding and I thank everyone who joined the effort to carry “candles lighting a way through darkness”, as one reader put it. In the midst of these admirable efforts to find common ground, a pitched battle ensued in which both sides' partisans engaged in an ugly ideological exchange of fire for the moral high ground – which wound up instead in the unforgiving valley of demonisation.
Now it's time to turn to the Palestinian story and the parts of it that are overlooked or distorted. The aspirations of Jews to establish their own homeland are understandable when set against the backdrop of persecution, pogroms and the Holocaust. But, sadly, the indigenous Palestinian population has never featured very highly – except as an obstacle – in Zionist calculations or those of the great powers.
The British occupiers generously offered “a national home for the Jewish people” that wasn't theirs to give. The Zionist movement managed to buy up around 7% of the land, largely thanks to so-called ‘land reforms' introduced by the Ottomans in the mid-19th century to enable the Sultan to profit from Palestine's lucrative output of grain, cotton and Jaffa oranges which were becoming all the rage in Europe. This effectively re-feudalised Palestinian land and concentrated land ownership. In fact, some 250 families owned half the arable land in Palestine.
The early trickle of “pioneer” Zionists was easily absorbed into Palestine's intricate multi-confessional and multi-ethnic fabric. This encompassed Muslims of every hue, most of the major and minor Christian churches, Orthodox Jewish pilgrims from Russia, the ancient Samaritans, as well as “Arabs”, Armenians, Bedouins, Turkmen, Sudanese, etc.
These pioneers lived largely at peace with their Palestinian neighbours and locals often worked on their kibbutzim. I met one such trailblazer who was part of the so-called third wave and he recalled fondly how well his kibbutz got on with the local population and how they worked the land together.
Nevertheless, the early pioneers believed they had a “civilising” mission to play. Perhaps they were inspired to hold this view based on Theodor Herzl's observation in Der Judenstaat that: “We should there [in Palestine] form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism.”
However, it is arrogant to assume that Palestinian society was backward and unable to modernise of its own accord. In fact, Palestine, particularly in the urban areas, had a highly evolved culture and society, and indigenous economic and industrial development efforts were in full swing, partly inspired by Muhammad Ali's earlier modernisation efforts and the “Egyptian renaissance” going on next door. Its press was also one of the freest in the region.
Jewish immigrants learned a lot from the indigenous Palestinians, borrowing freely from their agricultural practices, cuisine, music and words, both colloquial and classical. The revival and modernisation of Hebrew owes a lot to the highly developed Arabic grammarian tradition.
The relatively benign relationship between Zionists and Palestinians began to change with the rise of European fascism in the 1930s and the arrival of a more strident breed of Zionists who were determined to speed up the colonisation of Palestine. In addition, the British and the Zionists failed to consult the local population and were deaf to their protests, leading to numerous riots and uprisings against this fait accompli. This process went into hyperdrive in the wake of World War II, despite the Balfour Declaration‘s insistence that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
What had been a quiet and tranquil backwater was about to be transformed into one of the bitterest conflict zones in the world. The 1947 partition came about in the early days of the UN when it was a US- and western-dominated instrument of the post-war new world order.
Today, 60 years on, many Israelis criticise the Palestinians for not accepting the partition – and perhaps in retrospect they would have been better off had they acquiesced. However, at the time, they saw it as hugely unjust. The UN plan left the indigenous population with only 45% of the land, while the Jews – who only made up 8% of the population in 1914 and about a third in 1947 – got the rest. Most of Palestine's arable land, its lucrative orange groves, its industrial base and commercial centres would fall inside Israel.
Before Israelis rush to condemn the Palestinian rejection, they should ask themselves whether they would accept a forced partition along the 1947 lines today to resolve the never-ending conflict and would Israel go to war if the outside world decided to impose such an arrangement, even though the Palestinians living in Israel and under Israeli control outnumber the Jews living in mandate Palestine 60 years ago?
Although most ordinary Arabs felt enormous and genuine solidarity for the Palestinian cause, many of the Arab leaders who launched the 1948 war had their own selfish designs. For instance, King Abdullah I – who was actually from the Hejaz in Arabia – had expansionist dreams for his Hashemite dynasty after it was muscled out of Arabia by the Al Saud clan. He dreamed of sitting on the throne of a “Greater Syria”.
The 1948 war was an indelible moment in the Palestinian, Israeli and Arab psyches. For Israelis, it marked the birth of their nation so soon after the collective trauma of the Holocaust and the coming of age of the tough new Jews who would not go off to face their fate “like lambs to the slaughter”.
For Palestinians, it marked the death of their nation – the Nakba (“catastrophe”) – and their physical dispossession. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote in his famous poem, Passport:
Stripped of a name, an identity
On a soil I nourished with my own hands!
Job's cry fills the sky:
Don't make me an example twice!
For the wider region, the Palestinians became a symbol because the Nakba marked the first visible defeat for the dream of Arab independence and cast into stark relief the extent of Arab weakness. In fact, Zionism was the rallying call of the pan-Arabism adopted by the secular Arab regimes of the 1950s and 1960s. “Pan-Arabism can in many senses be read as a response to the idea championed by Zionism of an ethnically pure state for the Jews in the midst of the Arab region,” Andrew Hammond writes in Popular Culture in the Arab World.
In addition, many Arabs see in the Palestinians an expression of their own oppression at the hands of corrupt elites who took over control from the colonial powers without empowering their people.
In a moving account of her childhood in pre-partition Palestine, Palestinian academic and author Ghada Karmi writes: “I was born in Jerusalem when the country was still called Palestine. I remember a happy, settled existence with my parents, my sister and my brother … We expected to grow old in our country and some day to be buried in its soil.”
It was not to be so, although her family was the last in her street to flee in 1948 and her mother had only packed a few summer clothes for them in the expectation that they would soon return once the violence died down. But they were never able to go back.
Instead, Karmi's family wound up in London, where she grew up in Golders Green. There, she found herself being denied the existence she and her family had left behind. “The terrible losses we had incurred were trivialised and dismissed as if we had been impostors, had owned nothing in that country, perhaps had never even been there, until I found myself doubting my own memories and experience.”
It is one of the great ironies of history that the people who suffered centuries of exile should bring the same upon their “cousins” and then construct a narrative that refuses the Palestinians the right even to grieve their loss – as if the keys many Palestinian families treasure as their most valuable possession are to non-existent doors in an imaginary land.
This denial has toned down in recent times, but even today one hears from ardent Zionists and their supporters dismissals that claim “Palestine” never existed as a nation and that the idea of a Palestinian people is a modern innovation.
But just because the Palestinians lived under the yoke of the Ottoman and British empires does not mean that they had no sense of national identity, as the pre-partition international press amply demonstrates. My own native Egypt was under foreign rule for some 2,300 years, yet few would dare suggest that the Egyptians do not constitute a nation.
Before the Palestinian exodus, Palestinian national aspirations were fairly straightforward: self-determination for all the people who lived on the land, free of foreign domination and interference. Some saw this in the context of a broader union of all the Arabised Canaanite peoples (ahl el-sham, in Arabic). The most idealistic wanted Palestine to be part of the utopian Arab ummah, a voluntary political union of all Arabic-speaking peoples which would make the region strong and be able to withstand the winds of imperialism. But this glossed over the fact that the Arab world is united by language but divided by almost everything else.
Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi argues in Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness that the modern national identity of Palestinians has its roots in nationalist discourses that emerged among the peoples of the Ottoman empire in the late 19th century. Khalidi acknowledges that the challenges posed by Zionism played a role in shaping this identity, but that “it is a serious mistake to suggest that Palestinian identity emerged mainly as a response to Zionism”.
This has changed over the past six decades, as Palestinian identity lost its geographic anchor and Palestinian nationalism began defining itself in terms of how it relates to Zionism.
After six decades of dispossession, the lot of Palestinians is growing increasingly to resemble the historical lot of the Jews: a people without a homeland dependent on the whims and largesse of their host countries – distrusted, feared, respected and pitied, all at once. This homelessness has become a great motivator for success, with the Palestinian diaspora among the most successful minority groups in the world. Perhaps it is time for Israel-Palestine to become the tolerant and inclusive home for both these long-suffering peoples.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 7 September 2007.