The Arab world is in turmoil. Several countries (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Somalia) have practically ceased to exist, as governments lost control of large swathes of their territory. Others (like Kurdistan, the ‘Islamic State’, the Hizb’ullah-controlled South Lebanon and the Al-Shaba’ab-controlled Southern Somalia) exist in practice, whether they are recognised or not. Throughout the rest of the Arab Middle East, dictators hang on by the skin of their teeth, using brutal force, bribery or both to prevent similar conflicts (which are boiling under the surface), from erupting. Or, rather, to postpone their inevitable eruption.
Under the nose of an uncomprehending West, borders are re-drawn; populations are displaced by the million; world-changing ideologies vie for allegiance and support. Nobody knows what ‘new order’ will emerge from the chaos; but one thing is clear: the old order has passed from the world. Yet Western politicians and media (and, under their malignant influence, much of the Western public) continue to haplessly peddle the same old concepts, as if nothing had happened. They continue to talk about ‘Iraq’, ‘Syria’, etc., as if those were real countries, rather than colonial contraptions temporarily held together by brutal dictators and now descended into a patchwork of warring fiefs.
But nowhere is that ignorance (aggravated by sheer stupidity and – at least in some cases – obvious malevolence) as strident as in Europe’s attempts at ‘intervention’ in the Arab-Israeli conflict. No matter that that conflict – even considering this summer’s Gaza altercation and the recent terrorist attacks in Jerusalem – is by far less acute and less costly in comparison with the ones mentioned above; no matter that countless similar attempts at ‘intervention’ have only succeeded in making things worse. No matter what, a bunch of European politicians (whose ‘knowledge’ of the history, culture and politics of the Middle East comes – at best – from watching news bulletins, reading a couple of books and spending a couple of days on some carefully choreographed tour of ‘the Occupied Palestinian Territories’) have decided that this is the perfect time to… recognise Palestine. Now, that’s logical! Given that it is so obvious that ‘Libya’, ‘Syria’ and ‘Iraq’ (add pretty soon ‘Jordan’ and perhaps Saudi Arabia and others) are fundamentally Western inventions turned by local despots into feudal-style fiefs, surely it is now time to recognise yet another made-up ‘country’ – this time boasting not one dictatorial regime, but two!! And since arbitrary lines drawn on Middle Eastern maps boast such brilliant track records, it is surely sooo rational to base the recognition of ‘Palestine’ on ‘the 1967 borders’ – i.e. (for those interested in facts, not spin) on the front line held by Jordanian troops on a random day in 1949!
Don’t get me wrong: I fully support a ‘two state solution’; or rather an agreed, negotiated territorial partition resulting in a recognised and secure border between the Jewish State and the Arab World. And if the latter wishes to establish, on its side of that border, a country called the Arab State of Palestine, then so be it.
What I reject with contempt, however, (besides ‘recognitions’ bestowed on as yet non-existent countries with arbitrary borders) is the foolish attempt to frame the solution within what activists have come to refer to as ‘historic Palestine’ – a.k.a. ‘from the (Jordan) River to the (Mediterranean) Sea’.
In passing, let me remark that in the English language ‘historic’ means momentous, important or famous. The word those activists may wish to use is ‘historical’. But I am less concerned with misuse of ‘historic’ and more with ignorance of history.
The problem is that ‘historical Palestine from the River to the Sea’ actually has a very short and rather artificial history: it has only existed during the quarter of century of British Mandate. Never before, in 3 millennia of known human history, has the River Jordan been a political border, or even a de-facto ethnic boundary.
An acquaintance once told me: “As a soldier, my father served for a while in the British Mandate of Palestine. It was called ‘Mandate of Palestine’, not ‘Mandate of Israel’. This means that it belongs to the Palestinians, doesn’t it?”
Ludicrous as it is, this kind of ignorant judgement is quite widespread. My acquaintance is just one of many Westerners who simply don’t know that, prior to the 1950s, the Arabs inhabiting that territory did not call themselves ‘Palestinians’; that before 1948 the term ‘Palestinian’ (on the rare occasions when it was used as a noun) was much more likely to refer to a Jew, not an Arab; and that the name ‘Palestine’ applied to the British Mandate did not stem from its 20th Century inhabitants, but rather from Greek invaders gone for three millennia.
Let me make myself clear: I believe that it is the right of every individual human being to determine his or her identity – and call it anything s/he likes. There are only two issues with that: whether or not that right is freely exercised; and whether or not it clashes with somebody else’s right. In the latter case, an accommodation needs to be found. When Yugoslavia split into nation states, one of those newly independent states claimed the name ‘Macedonia’. But that led to a conflict with Greece, for whom the name belonged to a different historical entity – one that was Hellenic, not Slavic. To accommodate both claims, the country was ultimately admitted to the UN under the rather convoluted name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia…
But let’s go back to the Palestinian Arabs. The unspoken assumption (even amongst those Westerners who know that the name is relatively recent) is that these people simply chose that name; one day, they just decided to call themselves ‘Palestinians’. That assumption is, however, based on little more than anecdotal – and heavily politicised – evidence. In reality, such choice is anything but obvious; for starters, since they never experienced democracy, the ‘Palestinians’ had so far no real opportunity to freely debate and decide whether they really agree with that name – bestowed upon them by external ‘advisers’ and internal tyrants.
‘Palestine’ is not an Arabic term; it is Greek. The ancient Hellenes (and, following them, the Romans) used it – some would say in proto-colonialist fashion – to denote the general area whose shores had begun to be colonised by a Hellenic tribe called the Philistines (P’lishtim in Hebrew, Palastu in Accadian, Peleset in ancient Egyptian – hence the name ‘Palaistinē’ bestowed by Greeks on the entire region). Since by-and-large Europe saw itself as the great-grandchild of ancient Greek and Roman culture, the name remained somewhat in use there; but it was very rarely employed in the Middle East before being once again imported from the West.
This is hardly a unique phenomenon: in fact, it is the rule, rather than the exception. The name ‘Egypt’ is also of Greek origin. It is still used by Westerners – but not by the Arab inhabitants, who call their country something entirely different: Masr – an old Semitic (rather than Hellenic) term. ‘Syria’ is also of Greek (or perhaps Trojan) origin. The ancient name of ‘Iraq has been revived by that area’s inhabitants, and has now been adopted, willy-nilly, also by the West; yet that territory was once known as the ‘British Mandate of Mesopotamia’. As for ‘Jordan’ (from the River Jordan) and ‘Lebanon’ (from the Lebanon Mountains), these are Western names for Western-made countries; or rather – for countries drawn on the map to serve the interests of Western colonialists, and later those of local despots. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is named after the ruling dynasty – the ibn Sa’uds. The United Arab ‘Emirates’ (i.e. Princedoms)… well, they’re just called ‘Arab’.
The ‘internal’ conflicts raging in ‘Iraq’ and ‘Syria’ (and before that in ‘Libya’, ‘Lebanon’, etc.) should dispel once and for all the blind, West-centric assumption that the Arab Middle East is populated by Western-style nations endowed with Western-style national identities and national aspirations. Local dictators might strive to manufacture such ‘national’ identities; they often succeed in ‘selling’ them to naïve Westerners; but such temporary figments are held together by iron fists, not by the sense of natural solidarity. In the Arab Middle East, identity most often means clan, tribe, linguistic group and faith, not ‘nation’ in the Western sense. It is only ideologies centred on those identities (such as pan-Arabism and Islamism) that have ever enjoyed anything approaching ‘popular support’.
That is not to say that Western-style nations might not emerge one day in the Arab world. But it is foolish to believe that – if and when they do – they’ll be identical to those invented by Western colonialists and adopted by power-hungry local despots. True identities are not created by lines drawn on colonial maps; nor can they be imparted by presidential decree. The process of nations-forming is complex; and who – other than the Arabs themselves – is to say what those nations will ultimately look like – who will be included and who will be excluded from each of those identities??
Insofar as it exists, the ‘Palestinian identity’ is a political reaction to Zionism; it means hardly more than ‘not a Jew’. Some will argue that most national identities (including the Jewish one) are formed in this way: by exclusion of ‘the other’, rather than by inclusion of the akin. That may well be true; but, again, that nation-forming process is long and complex. National identities are forged through centuries (rather than decades) of relatively insular habitation within a defined territorial entity.
Westerners may – in their blissful ignorance – bestow ‘Palestinian’ identity, just like they attempted to do with the ‘Iraqi’, ‘Syrian’ and ‘Afghan’ ones. But the human beings subject to that decree will remain keenly aware of ‘internal’ differences and ‘external’ kinships. Both distinctions and affinities stem from fundamental allegiances of clan, tribe, language and faith. At least for a very long time to come, most ‘Palestinians’ will continue to differentiate internally between Muslim and Christian, Bedouin and Levantine (the former is of course a difference of faith; the latter ethnic and linguistic); they will continue to see themselves as an integral part of the Islamic Ummah and/or of a broader Arab culture. Of course, such differences and affiliations will not easily be revealed (and certainly not to hapless Westerners!) while they run contrary to the ‘official narrative’ promoted by the despot-in-charge. After all, as long as Assad ruled supreme, what Syrian citizen would have declared himself within Western earshot as anything but a most earnest and patriotic ‘Syrian’? Both differences and affiliations only become visible when/where they can be expressed in relative safety.
In democratic Israel, for instance, ‘Palestinians’ are generally exempt from service in the army. But some volunteer for it; and they ‘happen’ to be overwhelmingly Christian or Bedouin…
Between 1949 and 1967, West Bank ‘Palestinians’ were full-fledged Jordanian citizens. They accepted Jordanian identity cards, applied for Jordanian passports, served in the Jordanian Parliament and as Jordanian government ministers. There was no ‘intifada’ and no complaints against encroachment by Jordanian ‘settlers’.
As recently as 2008, a poll conducted by a West Bank University revealed that more than 1 in 4 Palestinian Arabs living in West Bank and Gaza supported a union with Jordan. Given the lack of open political debate, the relentless ‘Palestinian’ nationalist propaganda and the fact that officially the ‘Jordanian option’ is not even on the table, that level of support is amazingly high.
And it’s not just the Jordanian option: in the not-so-remote past, various ‘Palestinian’ currents of opinion professed affiliation to a broader ‘Greater Syria’ (a territorial entity approximately similar to that described by the Western concept of Levant and – far more importantly – by the traditional Arab term Al-Sham). I seriously doubt that anyone would want to join Syria now; but who knows what entity will ultimately arise from the ashes of that country?
Once the thick layer of Western ignorance and presumption is peeled off, why would anyone pre-judge what national identity (if any) people will develop for themselves, when allowed true freedom of choice?? Perhaps a narrow ‘Palestinian’ identity will indeed emerge; perhaps a broader ‘Palestinian/Jordanian’, ‘Al-Shamian’ or even pan-Arab one. The name they’ll adopt for that identity will no doubt reflect its breadth. If that name will be ‘Palestinian’, Israeli Jews might protest, just like the Greeks did in the case of ‘Macedonia’. They may claim that they are just as entitled to call themselves ‘Palestinians’; or they might just shrug the fact off as unimportant. Who knows?
So, given that the Arabs themselves have never expressed their free choice, why are European politicians in such a hurry to recognise Palestine? No, they have not developed a sudden and altruistic interest in Palestinian Arabs; who-knows-how-many thousands of the latter have only recently been butchered in Syria, without the issue attracting their attention. No, European ‘statesmen’ are propelled by a ‘healthy’ dose of good-ol’ anti-Jewish prejudice combined with narrow, ignoble political interest.
As proof of the former, I submit the following quote from a debate in the British House of Commons:
Andrew Bridgen, MP (Conservative, North West Leicestershire): “…the political system of the world’s superpower and our great ally the United States is very susceptible to well-funded powerful lobbying groups and the power of the Jewish lobby in America…”
As for the latter, I will illustrate it using… another quote (albeit an older one) from the British House of Commons. In 1950, Great Britain recognised… no, not Palestine! British political interests were different then – so the recognition was of Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank. Here is the relevant part of that parliamentary session:
Mr. Kenneth Younger (Labour, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs): “His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom have been officially informed by the Government of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan of the union of the Kingdom of Jordan and of that part of Palestine under Jordan occupation and control. The Jordan Government, in this communication, have stated that an Act providing for this union was unanimously adopted on 24th April by the Jordan Assembly, which is composed of representatives of both these territories, and received the Royal Assent on the same day. His Majesty’s Government have decided to accord formal recognition to this union. They take this opportunity of declaring that they regard the provisions of the Anglo-Jordan Treaty of Alliance of 1948 as applicable to all the territory included in the union.
This action is subject to explanation on two points. The first of these points relates to the frontier between this territory and Israel. This frontier has not yet been finally determined. The existing boundary is the line laid down in the Armistice Agreement signed between Israel and Jordan on 3rd April, 1949, and is subject to any modification which may be agreed upon by the two States under the terms of that Agreement, or of any final settlement which may replace it. Until, therefore, the frontier between Israel and Jordan is determined by a final settlement between them His Majesty’s Government regard the territory to which the Anglo-Jordan Treaty is applicable as being bounded by the Armistice Line, or any modification of it which may be agreed upon by the two parties.
The second point relates to Jerusalem. The part of Palestine which is now united to the Kingdom of Jordan includes a portion of the area defined in the Resolution on the internationalisation of Jerusalem adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 9th December, 1949. His Majesty’s Government wish to state that, pending a final determination of the status of this area, they are unable to recognise Jordan sovereignty over any part of it. They do, however, recognise that Jordan exercises de facto authority in the part occupied by her. They consider, therefore, that the Anglo-Jordan Treaty applies to this part, unless or until the United Nations shall have established effective authority there.”
So when did the House of Commons make a pathetic gaffe: when it recognised the independent State of Palestine, or when it recognised the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Jordan over the same territory?? When it determined that the “frontier has not yet been finally determined”, because “the line laid down in the Armistice Agreement signed between Israel and Jordan on 3rd April, 1949 […] is subject to any modification which may be agreed upon by the two States”, or when it talks about ‘the 1967 borders’?? For whatever it’s worth, my answer is ‘both times’.
The clash between Arabs and Jews will no doubt be resolved one day – like all struggles that plague mankind. But when it is, it will not be thanks to, but in spite of the various ‘do-gooders’ who meddle in a conflict thousands of miles away from their cosy armchairs.