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In Palestine, a Dream Deferred | The Nation

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In Palestine, a Dream Deferred

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Khalidi rightly underscores the issue of leadership, which plays an important, at times decisive, role in the success or failure of political movements. But why does it always come back to haunt the Palestinians? The self-interest of the elite and their propensity to cooperate with the British are part of what needs to be explained. Was there something about the conditions of Palestinian life under the Mandate that accounts for the persistently bad choices of the leadership? Or were there more deep-seated social causes?

About the Author

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

Palestinian writer and PFLP leader Ghassan Kanafani made a powerful case for the latter in his 1972 study on the 1936-39 revolt. According to Kanafani, the nature of the Zionist colonial project forced Palestinian society to undergo "an extremely violent transformation from an Arab agricultural society into a Jewish industrial one." This, combined with British colonial policy, produced a weak Palestinian bourgeoisie and a weak industrial working class and labor movement, neither of which could mount an effective challenge to the Palestinian elite's political hegemony. As a result, the resistance to Zionism was led by the peasantry--dispossessed, nationally disorganized, geographically dispersed and ultimately powerless. As Mona Younis writes in her excellent Liberation and Democratization: The South African and Palestinian National Movements: "Indeed, while peasant and migrant workers could wreak havoc through rioting, they lacked leverage with which to force either the British or the Zionists into aborting their colonization designs."

Crushed by the British and the Zionist movement, and unable either to reorganize or to gain support from Arab governments that were more concerned with maintaining friendly relations with the British than with defending Palestinian national rights, the mass rebellion of 1936-39 ultimately degenerated into incoherence and infighting. The road to the 1948 catastrophe was open. The Palestinians might have compensated for their lack of leverage with a more coherent anticolonial nationalism that combined principled mass mobilization of peasants and workers with violent insurrection. The Palestine Communist Party might have led such a struggle, as did other Communist parties in underdeveloped countries like China and Vietnam. However, the predominantly Jewish PCP was too weak among Palestinians to challenge the leadership of the notables. And when Stalin decided that partition was the best solution to the Palestine question, the party adhered to the new line.

The Palestinian defeat in 1948 dramatically altered the political landscape, resulting in the expulsion of more than half the Arab population and the creation of Israel on the ruins of most of historical Palestine. This left the Palestinians stateless and dispersed, and with even less leverage to recover their lands and achieve their independence. Palestinians in exile faced the challenge of transforming Israel from outside its borders, while those still in Israel were placed under Israeli military rule until 1966. From 1948 through the mid-1960s, Khalidi argues, Palestinians "paid scant attention to the problem of what form of state was appropriate for Palestine" and

generally did little more than project the imagined past into the future.... In thus attempting to turn back the clock, Palestinians once again appear to have given little serious thought to the nature of the relationship between them and Israeli Jews who would remain in such a projected Palestinian Arab state, just as during the Mandate period, there was no appreciation of Zionism as anything more than a colonial movement that had dispossessed the Palestinians. Clearly, the fact that Zionism had also functioned as a national movement, and had founded a national state, Israel, was still not something that the traumatized Palestinians could bring themselves to accept, since these things had happened at their expense.

What difference such an "appreciation" of Zionism as both a colonial and a national movement would have made, when it was obviously bent on displacing Palestinians and expropriating their country, is not made clear. Indeed, Khalidi shows that an accommodation with Zionism was never a real option precisely because of its exclusivism and unwavering rejection of the Palestinian right of national self-determination. While it may be true that Palestinians between 1948 and 1967 lacked sufficient realism in their understanding of Israel, much more evidence than the Palestinian National Charter of 1964 is needed to substantiate such a strong claim. It certainly doesn't ring true of those Palestinians who suddenly found themselves a besieged minority in a Jewish state, or of exiled Palestinians like Kanafani, whose novella Men in the Sun (1963) offered a powerful critique of Palestinian nostalgia for the world they'd lost.

It is important to recognize, nevertheless, that a qualitative shift in Palestinian political history did occur with the emergence of Fatah and the PLO from the mid-1960s onward--a story that has been told in exhaustive detail by Yezid Sayigh in his study Armed Struggle and the Search for State. For Sayigh and most historians of the Palestinian national movement, the PLO has served in effect as a state in exile, seeking a territory to rule. Pointing to the Palestinian Authority's abject failure to achieve even the semblance of independence and sovereignty, Khalidi suggests that "this entire teleology, and the narrative about the PLO that is based on it, is very much open to question." He finds too much "clear evidence that it was not seriously preparing to build the Palestinian state that had been its formal objective for several decades," including contradictions between rhetoric and practice, armed struggle and diplomacy. Again and again, Khalidi attributes the PLO's failure to its lack of preparation. While he accepts the notion that the PLO was bureaucratized and that it had become "more and more of a quasi-state and less and less of a national liberation movement," he argues that this process never deepened into "regularization and organization on a legal basis of the organs of the PLO, their democratization, and their preparation for a move into the occupied territories."

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