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In Palestine, a Dream Deferred | The Nation

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In Palestine, a Dream Deferred

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Why did the Palestinians fail to achieve statehood before 1948, and what impact did their defeat have on their national prospects thereafter? This is the main question that Khalidi tackles in The Iron Cage, a work of forceful historical analysis written in a spirit of self-examination. If the Palestinians take center stage in this critical survey of their leadership, it's not because Khalidi is "blaming the victims." Rather, he is holding them "accountable for their actions and decisions," as he puts it. Ridiculing Palestinian leadership has long been a veritable pastime in the West, from Abba Eban's oft-quoted line "The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" to the myth that Arafat consigned his people to continuing occupation by rejecting Ehud Barak's "generous offer" at Camp David. Khalidi, in contrast, never loses sight of the fact that the Palestinians had few good choices, and that the odds against their struggle for self-determination may have been insurmountable. Those odds are well suggested by a remark made in 1919 by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, author of the 1917 Balfour Declaration supporting a Jewish "national home" in Palestine: "Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far greater import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land." Since then, denial of Palestinian national aspirations has been a constant of Western and Zionist policy in the region, and Khalidi emphasizes its crucial significance. He minces no words appraising the US record: "In practice the United States is, and for over sixty years has been, one of the most determined opponents of Palestinian self-determination and independence."

About the Author

Bashir Abu-Manneh
Bashir Abu-Manneh teaches English at Barnard College.

As Khalidi underscores, it is these British and American commitments to Zionism that are centrally responsible for continuing Palestinian statelessness and dispossession. It has long been argued that Palestinians--alone among Arab nations--failed to establish their independence because of their internal weaknesses: the petty quarrels and betrayals of their elites, their lack of social development, even an absence of genuine national consciousness. In fact, Khalidi shows, Palestinian society compared favorably, economically and socially, to other Arab societies that had emerged from Ottoman rule. Indeed, it "was manifestly as advanced as any other society in the region, and considerably more so than several."

Palestine's history diverged from its neighbors' because of the external interest that no other territory in the Arab world attracted: Zionism's desire to create a Jewish state and Britain's sponsorship of its settler-colonial project. Indeed, without Britain no Jewish state would have been possible. Britain did everything in its power to nurture Jewish state institutions and to prevent Palestinian ones from taking shape, creating, in Khalidi's words, "a kind of iron cage for the Palestinians, from which they never succeeded in escaping." Fundamental inequalities of policy defined British imperialism in Palestine. For most of the Mandate period, Britain facilitated and supported Jewish immigration from Europe against the wishes of the Palestinian majority. Although the British and the Zionist movement came to blows over the 1939 White Paper limiting Jewish immigration and land purchase, Britain's colonial policies ultimately led to Zionist control of most of Palestine in 1948, when Jews still constituted only a third of its population and owned around 6 percent of its land.

But why, Khalidi asks, were the British able to achieve their objectives against the obvious desires of Palestine's Arab majority? At times, his answer skirts dangerously close to circularity--the Palestinians didn't achieve statehood because they failed to build state structures that would contest the British Mandate. But what accounts for this failure? Khalidi's answer is tough-minded and unsparing. Rather than establish "alternative sources of legitimacy" and fight the Mandate, the notables who led Palestinian society were all too trusting of the British as intermediaries, with whom they engaged in "ineffectual beseeching." Thus did they deprive themselves of political leverage to substantially affect, much less reverse, the British policy of supporting the creation of a Jewish national home. If Palestinian leaders were co-opted and contained by the Mandate's iron cage, Khalidi suggests, it was in part because they lacked any real willingness to move against British imperialism until it was far too late. (The Palestinian elite's tendency to entrust their people's fate to imperial powers would re-emerge during the Oslo period.)

Even more than this dependence on the Mandatory system, what set the Palestinian leadership apart from other Arab nationalist elites was its specifically religious character. These were, in fact, intertwined, as Khalidi demonstrates in a striking discussion of the role played by Haj Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Palestine. The British created his office--raising his stature in order to help them administer the Mandate--and invested it with powers that no mufti had ever enjoyed in the history of Islamic religious institutions. This put the Palestinian national movement at a severe disadvantage: "Lacking effective vehicles for building toward statehood, either pre-existing, provided by the British, or developed by the Palestinians themselves, the Arab population of Palestine was instead granted a religious leadership, authorized, encouraged, legitimated, subsidized, and always in the end controlled by the British."

It was only in the early 1930s, with the rise of the Hizb al-Istiqlal al-Arabi (the Arab Independence Party), that Palestinians turned to mass resistance to the Zionist project and its British patrons. In contrast to the mufti and other Palestinian leaders who denounced the British in speeches while quietly cooperating with them behind the scenes, Istiqlal advocated Palestinian independence and Arab unity and denounced cooperation with the Mandate authorities. Istiqlal quickly aroused opposition from the British, the Zionist movement and from the mufti, who would tolerate no challenges to his charismatic leadership. (As Khalidi ruefully observes, "The Palestinians were to suffer again many decades later from this damaging conflation of the national cause with the personality of an overweening leader in the twilight era of Yasser 'Arafat's dominance of the Palestinian national movement.") Under the weight of these pressures, the party disintegrated within two years of its founding. Yet its brief existence indicated a growing middle-class disenchantment with elite capitulation and a rising mood of popular militancy, particularly with regard to the deepening plight of Palestinian peasants and their increasing dispossession by Zionists. And in identifying the British as the main enemy of Palestinian national aspirations, Istiqlalists laid the groundwork for the armed struggle led by Sheikh Iz al-Din al-Qassam and for the general strike and violent rebellion of 1936-39.

For Khalidi "the crushing of the 1936-39 revolt largely determined the outcome of the 1948 war...for the Palestinians." He is aware that the anticolonial mobilization may well have been doomed to defeat, pointing out that no such revolt was successful in the interwar years and that Britain deployed more than 20,000 troops and the Royal Air Force against the Arab rebellion. But the revolt led the British to issue the White Paper, a small and ambiguous concession that the mufti rejected. Thus, writes Khalidi, the leadership "failed to take advantage of the momentary weakness of the British position or to win any political gains from the sacrifices that had been made by the rebels." Although the odds were stacked against them, he insists, "the Palestinians did have choices, and some of them may have been less bad than others," including mass organization, non-cooperation with the British and tactical concessions.

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