Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Birth of Palestinian Nationalism

Back after hiatus...and I must comment on Newt Gingrich's assertion that the Palestinians are an invented people.

Let's start with the obvious. All ethnic, national and religious identity is "invented" by people as a means of collective organization and to create a sense of inclusiveness. Nations and peoples are forged usually by an aspiration or common belief or by the will of a powerful leader. Charlemagne essentially created the "Franks" in the same way that a group of exiled British revolutionaries created "Americans." In this regard, Newt Gingrich's statement, while true, is rather meaningless. The context, of his statement, is far more interesting. Gingrich, a man with no insignificant knowledge of history, gave a mere glimpse into what he really means when he made that statement. Indeed, in the wave of denouncements and reactions, very few people have taken the time to look at what Palestinians are the history of their nationalism. The story is quite interesting, and when understood, gives Gingrich's comments greater context.

From 1517 to around 1917, the territory of "Palestine" was ruled by Turkey, first by the Ottomans until 1909 and then by the CUP until the end of World War I. There was a large swathe of territory that was predominantly Arab that was ruled over with varied strictness from Istanbul. During World War I, the British sought out aid against the Turks and sought out the most powerful Arab leader they could find, the Sharif of Mecca. Through months of diplomacy and negotiation, the British, French and Arabs came to some agreements under which the Sharif would raise a revolt against the Turks in exchange for the independence (and presumptive control) of a newly formed Arabian state. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement (which was famously leaked to the world press by the new Bolshevik government), there proved to be significant disagreements over the territory of that state, as France laid claim to certain Syrian and Lebanese territories while Britain wanted control and influence over Iraq and other territory, notably between Acre and Haifa. In the end, the revolt took place but proved to essentially be a failure and the Sharif was given an independent state in Hejaz in modern Saudi Arabia. He lost that kingdom within 8 years, when an up and coming power from the Nejd region, Ibn Saud, took over his kingdom and in 1932 formed a new state called Saudi Arabia.

The Sharif was not given a large unified Arab Kingdom as he was promised, but his sons, Faisal and Abdullah, received control over certain territories allotted to Britain after World War I. Faisal became King of Iraq and Abdullah the King of Transjordan. And it is at this moment that things got interesting. Faisal and Abdullah were Hashemites from Hejaz, not Arabs from the local tribes and elites that had been governors in the environs of Damasacus and Jerusalem. The creation of Transjordan posed an immediate threat to the power of the heretofore Jerusalem-centered Arab power structure, notably bringing the Hashemite dynasty into conflict with the al-Husseini family, who were the Grand Muftis of Jerusalem.  When the question of what to do with the Jews and Arabs west of the Jordan (in modern Israel, Gaza, Judea and Samaria) arose, Abdullah inserted himself into the discussion by seeking to incorporate any Arab lands west of the Jordan into his territory. What followed is arguably the birth of Palestinian nationalism, as Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, organized anti-British and anti-Jewish opposition west of the Jordan and sought to establish himself as the political head of the Arabs. Husseini failed in to accomplish the majority of his goals because he was categorically opposed to any compromise with either the Jews, the British or the Hashemites, and he eventually fled while being hunted by the British, but not before planting the seed of nationalism into the Arab population west of the Jordan.

The Arabs of the British Mandate were, of course, overtaken by larger forces in 1948, as the larger Egyptian, Syrian and Transjordanian forces converged on Israel and choked off what would become Palestinian nationalism by seizing Arab territory granted to Palestine in the Partition Plan and dealing heavy handedly with Palestinian nationalist attempts until 1974, when Palestinian Nationalism became a newly adopted tactic to attack Israel after the Arab failures in 1967 and 1973.

This history, infrequently discussed, raises a number of interesting points. First, it is evident that Palestinian nationalism, at least the form that we have now, arose from the al-Husseini line of leaders who refused to have the Arabs of the former British Mandate represented by a Hashemite king. The central tenet of their nationalism was that Jordan was not the home of the Arabs of the British Mandate. But why is that? Aside from religious ties to Jerusalem, there is nothing to suggest that Jordan's inadequacy was anything more than a political conflict. Obviously, there is the issue that Jordan did not encompass all of the land on which Arabs in the British Mandate lived, but large scale population transfers were not uncommon in that era of nation building (notably in India and Pakistan). The origin of Palestinian nationalism is, at its essence, the product of a political conflict between the Hashemites and Arab elites in Jerusalem unwilling to live under Hashemite rule. At that time, Palestinian nationalism did not reflect a perceived ethnic or religious difference between the Arabs east of the Jordan and west of the Jordan that was beyond the tribal and clan differences that had been in place for centuries.

Based on this understanding, the next questions we must ask are what are the goals of Palestinian Nationalism? What territory does the movement claim and what kind of state would it create? In many ways, it is hard to know because Palestinians have never had their own state but the movement can be most easily characterized by what it opposes: Hashemite rule over the local Arab populations in Jordan and Palestine, and strong Sunni religious identity and, of course, Jewish sovereignty in Palestine and especially over Jerusalem. These three prongs have created a great number of enemies for the Palestinians, among them the Israelis, the Jordanian monarchy and various Christian groups, especially the Phalangists of Lebanon, the often forgotten actors in the Lebanese Civil War.

Of course, since Palestinian nationalism arose from a political conflict and not an ethnic or religious one, it is difficult to tell who are the current Palestinians and what defines them. Indeed, because most Palestinians did not create an identity but instead had it foisted upon them by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, it is much easier to tell who Palestinian leaders are than who Palestinian people are. However, at this point in the game, there are certainly at least some people who identify as Palestinian and so must be considered.

The question, of course, is how to counterbalance Palestinian and Jewish nationalism because that is the source of the conflict. Tracing back to their origins in the 1920s, Palestinian leadership has been violent, uncompromising and has made enemies of most of its neighbors. Palestinians assassinated King Abdullah in 1957 and tried to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy in 1970, while instigating a civil was in Lebanon. Palestinian nationalists, for all of their current backhanded posturing, largely still insist on displacing all Jews currently living in "Palestine." While not discussing it openly at this point, the PLO (now calling itself Fatah) also sees itself as the legitimate rulers of Jordan, displacing the "foreign" and British-imposed Hashemite monarchy. All attempts to negotiate any significant compromise with this nationalist movement have failed. More ironically, the Palestinians seek support for their struggle by pointing to historical correspondence between the Sharif of Mecca and the British, even though the Sharif's plan was to create a pan-Arab empire that would have given Palestine no autonomy. It is even more ironic that the current Palestinians seeks support for their cause from correspondence written by the patriarch of the Hashemite family they now resent and despise.

Which brings us back to Newt Gingrich's comment. What he should have said is not "Palestinians are an invented people" but "The circumstances of the creation of the Palestinians show that they are unwilling to make peace and should not be given their own state." Palestinians have largely boxed the world into a narrow group of solutions that all center on rejecting the notion of Jordan as a Palestinian homeland. Yet, looking back at post-World War I understandings, it is clear that the British created two states for two peoples, Jordan for the Arabs and Israel for the Jews. The resolute unwillingness of Arab leaders in Jerusalem to accept an Arab state ruled by the Hashemites and their resort to force and terrorism to drive that point home to the British led the British government to cede them an additional 45% of the land west of the Jordan. But even that was not enough. If any lesson can be taken, it is that the Palestinian leaders who imposed the Palestinian national identity on the Arabs west of the Jordan made critical errors for the well being of the average "Palestinian" by so steadfastly fighting the Jordanians and rejecting the 1947 Partition plan. And as much as Mahmoud Abbas wants to recognize that error now, it is too late for him or anyone else to gloss over the true nature of Palestinian nationalism and its origin.


David said...

Great article.

I'm not sure I can agree, though, that the circumstances of the creation of Palestinian national identity mean they shouldn't have a state -- doesn't that imply that they can't change the content of the identity? But you hit the nail on the head in describing the three prongs that seem to define Palestinian identity both at its creation and now -- the ideology of each prong as currently formulated makes the entire purpose of the nation the obliteration of Israel. This is nowhere better expressed than in the Hamas charter. No state should ever be acknowledged as legitimate if its express and ideological purpose is to identify and exterminate a religious, racial, sexual, ethnic or similar class of people. It's ludicrous, and is awful that people refuse to acknowledge that the very ideology of Palestinian identity has a lot more to do with hating Israel than it has to do with any unique sense of self.

At the same time, I wonder now if the formulation of Palestinian identity might actually be hope. If Palestinians can disconnect themselves from the rest of the Arab world (which sits on the sidelines fostering discontent and criticizing Israel to divert attention from their own atrocities and to shore up domestic support) based on a new, unique sense of Palestinian identity, it might be able to undermine the authority of terrorists like Al Qaeda and Arab states to act in their name.

Regardless, say what you will about Newt, every once in a while he says something that's really refreshing. It's somewhat frustrating that the reaction to his comments (at least that I've seen) has generally been knee-jerk... those who already agree say they agree, and those who disagree refuse to actually interrogate their assumptions.

JabotinskyJr said...

I'm not sure it means they CAN'T change the content of their identity, but it means that barring a radical departure from their historical leadership structure, that they won't change. Palestinian leadership has imposed an identity on the people that they are different from Jordanians, Syrians and Arab Lebanese. And, as part of a political desire to keep "Palestinians" as a separate ethnic identity and maintain the refugee problem, those neighbors have bought into that identity difference. At this point, it is really too late in the game for the Palestinians to change the basis for the national existence because their nationalism has become so entrenched due to their own, other Arab and Israeli action.

The problem of identity politics in the Arab world is complicated by the fact that the Islamic power structures have historically focused on pan-Arabist unification ideas. People like Saladin, Sharif Hussein bin Ali and Nasser all sought to create a unified Arab state to counter Turkish and Persian influence. Within the Arab world, nationalism is viewed as a means to achieve empowerment. Maybe this has changed more recently because the Arab Spring has forced regimes to look inward more, but I would not be surprised if another pan-Arabist ruler tries to raise the mantle, even if that idea is couched in more religious terms with a rise in theocratic governments after the Arab Spring.

If nothing else, Palestinian nationalism, like Jewish nationalism, represents an except rather than the rule when compared to other nationalist movements and is worth re-examining if only for that reason.

David said...

That's a great point. Regardless of the legitimacy of Palestinian national identity, it certainly represents a unique data point and it's not appropriate to blindly assume it's analogous to other nationalist movements. I think that's one of the most fundamental mistakes in the characterization of Israel as a colonial or imperial power.