The “Palestine Question” has been with us for sixty years. During this time it has become a running sore, its solution appearing ever more distant. Whether the events sixty years ago that created this question solved the previously perennial “Jewish Question” is once again open to debate. This is the case after many years when the apparent triumph of Zionism stilled doubts and drowned out the protests of those who argued that what purported to be the solution to one problem had created an entirely different one.
It is considered by some to be a slur on Israel and Zionism, and indeed even tantamount to anti-Semitism, to suggest that these events sixty years ago should be the subject of anything but unmitigated joy. Commemoration, or even analysis, of what Palestinians call their national catastrophe, al-Nakba–the expulsion, flight and loss of their homes by a majority of their people sixty years ago–is thus considered not in terms of this seminal event’s meaning to at least 8 million Palestinians today (some estimates are over 10 million) but only because it is directly related to the founding of Israel. Palestinians presumably do not have the right to recall, much less mourn, their national disaster if this would rain on the parade of celebrating Zionists everywhere. The fact that the 1948 war that created Israel also created the largest refugee problem in the Middle East (until the US occupation of Iraq turned 4 million people into refugees) must therefore be swept under the rug. Also disregarded is the obvious fact that it would have been impossible to create a Jewish state in a land nearly two-thirds of whose population was Arab without some form of ethnic cleansing.
It is ironic and tragic that the resolution, if indeed it was a resolution, of a Jewish question should have created a Palestine question. It is even more ironic that the former should have been resolved not where it arose in its most acute form, in the West, or at the West’s expense, but rather in Palestine, and to the detriment of Palestine’s people. This was in large part the result of the efforts of a West stricken by a (fully justified) sense of guilt for centuries of suffering inflicted on European Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, a West that compounded its sins by helping to inflict further suffering, this time on Palestinians. It is also tragic that beyond the harm that was done to the Palestinians by the growth of Zionism and the establishment of Israel, these same developments should have led to the uprooting of the world’s oldest and most secure Jewish communities, which had found in the Arab lands a tolerance that, albeit imperfect, was nonexistent in the often genocidal, Jew-hating Christian West.
A few things seem clear sixty years after 1948. One is that if the Jewish question has lost its saliency, perhaps more as a consequence of the enormity of the atrocities of the Nazis than for any other reason, the creation of Israel has raised different questions and problems for its supporters and others. To the extent that Zionism has succeeded in winning acceptance of its assertion that all Jews are part of a national body whose nation-state is Israel, it has linked the status and circumstances of Jews everywhere not only to the fate of that state but to every facet of that state’s policies and actions. Insofar as some of those policies and actions may be unacceptable, their very existence must be denied or elided, and reality bent to suit the tender sensibilities of supporters of Israel: for example, the rank discrimination against the 1.4 million Arab citizens of Israel who are not part of the Jewish ethnicity in whose name and for whose interests the state was created and exists; or the collective punishment inflicted on the 1.5 million people of the Gaza Strip imprisoned for months on end; or the systematic torture and humiliation inflicted on the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have passed through the Israeli prison system. We see the results of this bending of reality in the travesty that passes for news coverage of Israel and Palestine in the American media.
Where reality cannot be bent and such violations of basic human rights and dignity cannot be denied or elided, they are justified as necessary for the “security” of the Jewish state. This argument carries weight after centuries of profound Jewish insecurities, but it masks the fact that these oppressive and unjust policies and actions sow resentment that guarantees Israel’s eternal insecurity. Even worse, some of Israel’s supporters in the United States and elsewhere apparently feel obliged to become general partisans of discrimination and racial profiling, or collective punishment, or torture, or imprisonment without due process, or all of the above. Thus, if the Jewish question is resolved through the establishment by force of a Jewish state in what was an Arab land, then the maintenance of this state in the face of the natural, understandable resentment of those harmed in the process involves its supporters not only in justifying the unjustifiable in Israel and Palestine but by logical extension also in justifying it in the United States, in Guantánamo, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a sad result not only for those who have sought a remedy for an age-old problem but also for those dismayed at the new problems this solution has created and the ripple effect of this solution far from Israel or Palestine.
Another thing has become clearer and clearer over these sixty years: a just resolution of the Palestine question will be far from simple, if it is indeed possible at all; and if it is ever to be resolved, this will depend in large measure on the Palestinians themselves, whose current status is perhaps as desperate as it has been since 1948. Such a resolution will not be simple, because the now universally applauded two-state solution faces the juggernaut of Israel’s actions in the occupied territories over more than forty years, actions that have been expressly designed to make its realization in any meaningful form impossible. This is true whether those actions involve the unending process of the meticulously planned and state-supported colonization and effective annexation of slice after slice of the West Bank, the isolation of Arab East Jerusalem from its hinterland in the West Bank, the systematic confinement of more than 2 million Palestinians living there in smaller and smaller and ever more hermetically sealed cantons, or the cancerous growth of what might be called an Israeli prison-industrial complex. This military, security, state and private apparatus controls most of the important decisions in the lives of the nearly 4 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who are about to enter their forty-second year of military occupation, and it has harbored a Palestinian prison population of about 10,000 since 2000.
In principle this juggernaut is, of course, not unstoppable. There is, however, no sign that its momentum has slowed in the past seventeen years (since the Madrid conference) of the cruelly misnamed “peace process,” let alone recognition of its vast power, or a willingness to confront and reverse it, on the part of most Israeli, American or other decision-makers. The deceitful, feeble silence of US policy under three administrations about this juggernaut, and the mass media’s attitude that the emperor’s clothes look just splendid, would be nauseating if one was not already accustomed to this sort of feckless, insouciant irresponsibility on the part of Washington, and of the American media’s complicity with it.
While the two-state solution is thus deeply flawed–if it has not become unrealizable–there are also flaws in the alternatives, grouped under the rubric of the one-state solution. How can most Israelis and Palestinians be persuaded to forgo their aspirations for a state of their own, and to overcome their dislike of each other such that they can contemplate living together in one state, whether binational, federal, cantonal or unitary? How would it be possible to reverse the ideological triumph of Zionism, which convinced Israelis and others that the main lesson of the Holocaust is that there must be a Jewish state (while in the same breath they are told that this state will have to fight for its existence against an environment rendered permanently hostile by the conditions of its establishment and maintenance)? How would it be possible to reverse the process whereby all Palestinian political formations of any consequence have gradually become wedded to the idea that the establishment of a Palestinian state in 22 percent of historic Palestine–via the reversal of forty-one years of Israeli occupation practices carried out with the acquiescence of the United States and that render the creation of such a state virtually impossible–would be an acceptable solution to the question of Palestine? This was true first of Fatah, and then of more radical Palestinian groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and is now true even of Hamas.
Moving toward a two-state, or a one-state, solution or toward any other resolution of the Palestine question–that is, getting the Palestinians out of the parlous state they are currently in–is dependent on a reversal in the dynamic of the Palestinian polity. For several years, this has been spiraling downward, and it now seems to be nearly in free-fall. Only when the Palestinians were united, when they had some sense of what their national strategy was, and when they chose tactics appropriate to that strategy, did they have any success at all, minimal though it has been, over the past forty-one years, the past sixty years–indeed, over the past ninety years. The Palestinians were most emphatically not united around a clear strategy and appropriate tactics during the British Mandate until 1948 or during the two decades afterward, nor have they been for the past decade or so, both periods that have been disastrous for them. Even during the era from the heyday of the PLO in the late 1960s through the first intifada of 1987-91, when the Palestinians gained broad international legitimacy and sympathy, and grudging recognition from Israel, this unity and strategic clarity were flawed in many ways.
In particular, Palestinians lacked clarity about the moral, legal and political disadvantages in the use of violence against an Israeli polity able to mobilize in defense of its actions, however unspeakable, the most powerful tropes of victimhood in modern Western culture. This confusion among some Palestinians exists although farsighted thinkers like Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmad understood decades ago that nonviolent resistance was integral to Palestinian success; although the greatest successes of the Palestinians were won by the unarmed popular protests of the first intifada; and despite widespread (but underreported) peaceful joint Palestinian-Israeli protest movements against Israel’s illegal wall inside the West Bank. Many Palestinians understandably cling to the legitimate right of any people under occupation to resist their oppressors. They see only the extensive, continuous violence directed by Israel against the Palestinians, much of it structural and integral to the maintenance of the occupation. They cannot understand that because of Israel’s cloak of permanent victimhood, its massive violence remains either invisible or justified in the West, while every Israeli casualty seems to be mourned there with infinite sadness and is taken as another sign of the inherent barbarity of the Palestinians.
Today we are witness to the spectacle of two feeble and clueless Palestinian political movements, both lacking strategic vision and bereft of the selfless patriotism that would lead them to bury their petty differences, fighting like two cocks on a garbage heap, as the Arabic expression has it. They do so although overwhelming majorities of Palestinians have consistently demanded that they compromise with each other in the interest of national unity. The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority has abandoned any idea of popular mobilization, any last shred of an ethos of service to the people, any sense of the vital importance of national unity if even minimal Palestinian objectives are to be achieved, any respect for the democratic process that brought its rivals in Hamas into power in January 2006, and any sense of the danger of hitching the Palestinians to the bankrupt policies of a lame-duck American President who heads the most pro-Israeli Administration in US history.
The blindness of Hamas is as bad: neither able to fight nor to negotiate effectively, neither able to compromise with Fatah nor to govern on its own, and no more able to break free of the clutches of its external backers than is Fatah vis-à-vis its own foreign backers, Hamas has lurched from disaster to disaster since its unexpected victory in the 2006 elections. Undermined by the refusal of the United States and Israel even to attempt to negotiate with a Hamas-dominated government, last summer it made the fatal mistake of taking over the Gaza Strip in response to preparations for a US-supported coup by Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan. Hamas reached a low point in April, when a poll showed that it enjoyed the support of less than 18 percent of Palestinians (versus 32 percent for Fatah, whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas, however, is even more unpopular than Ismail Haniya of Hamas: 11.7 percent to 13.3 percent). The ideological bankruptcy and the degree of popular rejection of both of the formations that dominate Palestinian politics are illustrated by the fact that together they enjoy the support of barely 50 percent of Palestinians.
If there is to be a resolution of the Palestine problem, it depends on the Palestinians’ understanding the massive disadvantages they labor under in fighting a struggle for liberation against the heirs of the victims of the Holocaust, in the growing shadow of worldwide Islamophobia. It depends on their unity and on their adopting the appropriate strategy and tactics for this difficult task, in mobilizing the powerful moral force of their cause and the remarkable strengths of Palestinians under occupation and in the diaspora who have withstood extreme pressures but have neither submitted nor despaired. These strengths must be deployed not just for a defensive steadfastness but for a positive goal of liberation, peace and justice, one that can change the terms of the conflict and the way it is understood, and win over enough of their opponents and enough of the outside world to change the unfavorable balance of forces that today keeps them scattered, dispersed, confined and imprisoned sixty years after the destruction of Arab Palestine.