Monday, November 19, 2007

Life at the tip

When I visited Jerusalem this summer, like previous times in the last 20 years and like many tourists before me, I had the usual encounter (you always have at least one) with a Palestinian offering his services as a tour guide in the Old City. His name was Hamid. He showed me around the Zion Gate area, including the grave of Oskar Schindler, who is buried nondescriptly in the Old City's main Roman Catholic cemetery. Hamid then offered to drive me to see Bethlehem, which I hadn't seen since the late 80s, when I was younger and it was safer. I declined. He said he was from Ramallah and a man without a country, which is true. The Israeli security "fence" and checkpoints have made it hard for Palestinians living in the West Bank to work in Israel, and the flow of workers from Gaza has stopped altogether. The only thing worse than being exploited by the Capitalist Man is, I guess, not being exploited by the Capitalist Man.

This got me to wondering about the whole issue and why the Palestinians, of all the large number of refugees the last century has produced, still live in political limbo. After all, next year will be 60 years since Israel's war of independence, which produced the first and larger wave of these refugees; while this year is 40 years since the Six Day War, which produced a smaller but still significant wave. The 1990s Oslo "peace process" was supposed to lead to a semi-state, run by Arafat and his Fatah organization (the core of the PLO), and then to real political independence. But the events of the last 15 years has produced nothing of the sort. Instead, whatever there were of state-like functions in the West Bank and Gaza were weak and rotten with corruption. With the triumph of Hamas in Gaza and its impending victory in the West Bank, even the pretense of a state has disappeared. These places are now satellites of Iran, if they have any political orientation at all. Recent proposals by its mayor to redivide Jerusalem provoked bitter complaints from the Arabs of East Jerusalem, who simply don't want to live in a Hamas- or Fatah-ruled statelet. They saw the future, and it didn't work.

Palestinianism: What it is, and isn't. The Arabs of Palestine are not a people by the usual criteria (language, religion, geography) and "Palestinianism" is not a form of nationalism. Palestinian terror against Israelis and Jews is not resistance in the service of nationalism - it's pseudo-nationalism in the service of terror. The Palestinian Arabs have been used as a proxy army, in classic Middle Eastern fashion, for much of the last century. The goal of this proxy army has always been destroying Israel, not making a state for the Palestinians to rule themselves. Individual Palestinians occasionally wake up and understand this, especially if they're Christian or better educated.*

Almost everything about this conflict and Palestinian political behavior, otherwise a mystery, becomes understandable once you see this. Palestinians are in the conflict, but it's not about them. The rise of non-Palestinian proxies for use against Israel - the Lebanese Hizbollah especially - demonstrates this fact in a different way. The Palestinians "never pass up an opportunity to pass up an opportunity" because opportunities of that type are not what they're looking for. Neither are they looking for a constructive politics of the nation-building type. Arafat was not a Washington, a Garibaldi, a De Valera, or a Ben Gurion - that is, "father of his country." It would be best to think of him as a glorified bandit who managed to extort many billions of dollars for himself and his organization (the PLO, or Fatah) from Arab governments and later Israeli and Western governments. Of course, the PLO's replacements, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are openly theocratic and oriented to pan-Islam. The PLO was indifferent to nationalism; the theocrats are actively hostile.

The scandal of the refugee camps. On top of this is the six-decade disgrace of the Palestinian refugee camps, which continue to exist only because Arab governments and the UN want them to. Even in cases where Palestinian Arab refugees could or could have returned to the villages they fled from during 1948-49 and 1967 Arab-Israeli fighting, Arab governments won't let them. They're not supposed to; that would spoil their role. Instead, in the 1950s, the Arab League extorted from the UN a special refugee agency (UNRWA) just for the Palestinian Arabs, separate from the regular UN refugee organization (UNHCR). No Arab government (with one exception) allows Palestinians to become citizens. These governments typically allow only Muslims as citizens in any case. (The Gulf kingdoms further restrict citizenship to members of the majority tribe.)

The anomaly of Jordan. The one exception to the inability of Palestinians to become citizens in Arab countries is Jordan, Israel's next-door neighbor, ruler of the West Bank from 1949 until 1967 and still claiming it until 1988. When the Arab governments rejected the UN partition of western (cisjordanian) Palestine in 1947, they rejected a potential Arab state in western Palestine - the same entity under discussion today as a "Palestinian state." Lost in the confusion was the fact that "Palestine" is a geographic, not an ethnic or national, term and that it covered areas both east and west of the Jordan River. Carved out of eastern (transjordanian) Palestine, the kingdom of Jordan was created by Britain in 1922 as a consolation prize for the Hashemite dynasty after it was kicked out of Mecca and Medina by the ibn Sa'ud family. The ruling Hashemite family are Arabian Beduin, and the kingdom today remains about half Bedu. The other half are "Palestinian" - that is, Arabs (some Christian, most Muslim) living in towns and villages. Rather than converting the new Jordanian kingdom into "the" Palestinian Arab state (which it manifestly was already), British colonial and foreign affairs officials repeatedly and stupidly encouraged the growth of extremist, rejectionist leaders and groups in Arab Palestine - above all, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, collaborator with Hitler, and reputedly Arafat's maternal uncle - and then reacted with bafflement when such groups and leaders instigated riots and pogroms against Jews, even in places like Jerusalem and Hebron, where they had been living since antiquity.** When the Arab-Jewish conflict over Palestine sharpened into its current form in the 1930s, the British Peel Commission recommended partition of western Palestine into Jewish and Arab parts, with the Arab part awarded to these rejectionist leaders - who didn't want it anyway. These "divide-and-rule" policies of encouraging the wrong people were a central part of what was wrong with colonialism.

While the Peel Commission's 1937 partition lived on in the UN's 1947 partition and the more recent "Palestinian state" idea and seems reasonable on the surface, it evades the big question of the Arab world's lack of democracy. Awarding political sovereignty means "awarding to whom?" and in the Arab world, that means authoritarian monarchy, brutish usurper dictatorship (think Saddam), or no one (think semi-anarchy, like Iraq and Gaza). In the case of western Palestine, it's always meant "radical, rejectionist groups and people" - like al-Husseini, Arafat, the PLO, and now Hamas and Iran. At the heart of their radicalism is a blend of rejection of outside rule (anticolonialism), rejection of outside influences (once anti-Western, now again anti-infidel), and oppression of national and religious minorities (such as the Egyptian Copts, the Kurds, Jews, black Sudanese Christians and Muslims, etc.). Since the latter sometimes had European powers and later the United States as protectors and champions, resentment of these minorities and of infidel outsiders became intertwined, both viewed as threats to Islamic supremacy.

Defeating the rejectionists. Progress toward conflict resolution in the Middle East has historically been possible only when rejectionist forces are weakened, discredited, knocked out, or "turned." Modern Middle East history demonstrates this principle without exception: local progress toward peace in Palestine is enabled when radical forces in the larger region are defeated: 1974-79 (Sadat) and 1988-1994 (end of the Cold War, Iraqi defeat in the Gulf War, followed by Oslo and the Israel-Jordan peace). These regional rejectionist forces are the ones who use the Palestinians (and now the Lebanese Shi'ites) as proxies, and they are the "root cause" of the conflict. The Palestinian conflict is the tail, not the dog; the ultimate effect, not the cause. The Palestinians are important in the Middle East to the extent they're useful as tools to these forces. Torrents of fallacies, big lies, and clichés to the contrary can't change this fact. The end of this month (November 29th) is the 60th anniversary of the UN resolution partitioning western Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, which the Arab states then rejected. Clearing away some of the charter myths of the modern Middle East is an important step toward regional peace.

The main rejectionist force today is Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hizbollah. Defeating Iran, isolating it, "turning" it, or some combination of the three is now the key. Anyone serious about peace in the region needs to recognize this. Thinking otherwise is to reverse cause and effect and misidentify the prime movers of the Middle East's regional conflicts. There is no ground-up politics in the Middle East; it's all "sponsored proxyship" inspired, funded, and armed by bigger players. It's essential again to get over the idea that radical groups in the Middle East represent the mythical "Arab street" or any bottom-up politics. All Middle Eastern politics is top-down; factions become powerful when they're someone's proxy, organized, funded, and armed as such.†

The next steps can include abolishing UNRWA and merging its functions back into the main UN refugee agency, together with pressuring Arab governments to drop discriminatory measures against Palestinian Arabs (although that still leaves the problem of Palestinian Christians).

This is not a question of Palestinians as individuals or families. Political identity is a collective question, with a collective answer. It's not clear what could serve as a political identity for the Palestinians, or even if one is possible. Confusion here is due to misuse of "national" language: the PLO as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" - but is there such a people, and is the PLO "representative" in any meaningful sense? It was created as a proxy instrument by Egypt and Syria in 1964. Egypt has since abandoned the cause, and Syria has moved on to Hizbollah. Fatah is certainly incapable of functioning as a government - it was never set up or intended to be such.

The Arabs of Palestine have been used for eight decades as the tip of someone else's spear, held by successive rejectionist states and groups in the Middle East. They're organized as a proxy army and a form of "human shield" politics. These conditions are the root of the sick nihilism that has been normalized among Palestinians. No one is born that way; they have to be brainwashed into it. And they have been, as a part of being used as someone else's tools of violence.

POSTSCRIPT: In the last 30+ years, the Western media has turned away from its once forthright pro-Israel stance toward the fake "noble savage" claptrap of the New Left, with disastrous effect on journalistic standards. Occasionally, the "open secrets" of postmodern journalism in the Middle East come into sharp focus. One such recent case was the al-Dura trial in France, an example of the pervasive irrationality of contemporary journalism and the ease with which it can turn into a postmodern blood libel, a deadly mix of propaganda and ignorance. PajamasMedia covered it extensively; plus don't miss this essay by Melanie Phillips.

ANOTHER POSTSCRIPT: This posting was inspired, in part, by Haim Harari's wonderful book, a fine analysis, on this and other topics, done by someone who still believes in progress and truth - liberal in the correct, older, and almost forgotten meaning. Thinking like this is often called "conservative" nowadays, but only because the right word has been usurped by the wrong people.

Earlier I mentioned Amos Oz's novel-like autobiography of growing up in Jerusalem in the 1930s and 1940s. Many regard it as his best book. People have asked me, if Edward Said was a fraud, are there real Palestinian authors worth reading? Indeed there are, for example: Sari Nusseibeh and Anton Shammas, one Muslim, the other Christian. Agree with them or not, they are actual Palestinians.

All four books are enhanced by another, Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul, a memoir of the novelist's youth in the former capital of a once-great empire.
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* Until recently, there was a large overlap between the two groups, and Palestinian Christians have always had strong incentives, both "push" and "pull," to just get up and leave. (OTOH, Arab Christians played a disproportionate role in secular Arab nationalism, having the most to gain from it - and having the most to lose from the Islamic revival.) As the conflict has moved back toward a Muslim-Jewish religious struggle and Arab Christians have felt increasing pressure from Muslims to subordinate themselves or convert, the "push" reasons have gotten stronger. The main "pull" is the fact that Palestinian Christians have always had an easier time integrating into Western societies.

And apologies to Antonio Prohías! :)

** Thereby demonstrating that the crux of the conflict is one of political sovereignty, not just Jewish presence. After spending the war in Berlin and trying to recruit Bosnian Muslims for the SS, al-Husseini was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in absentia by the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal. After the war, he fled to Syria and later died in Lebanon. He was also a probable participant in the successful 1951 assassination plot against King Adbullah of Jordan.

Because they share common enemies, the ruling Jordanian Hashemites and the Israeli government secretly cooperated for many decades (long before the formal peace between the two countries) to defeat what I have called here "rejectionist" forces threatening both of them. The most famous instance was the Israeli offer to help the late King Hussein stop the attempted PLO coup in 1970 ("Black September"), which set off a brief civil war in Jordan and led to the PLO's forced removal to southern Lebanon.

† A different example, with more direct impact on Americans, is the multifaceted al-Qa'eda network, germinated by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It might seem strange that governments technically friendly to the United States and other Western countries would sponsor such dangerous organizations, but they're useful to countries - like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - that lack political legitimacy and promote religious radicalism as a substitute for nationalism. Not that they fit traditional Islamic criteria of legitimacy either: they're not successors of Muhammad. The simplest way to satisfy that is to be one of Muhammad's descendants - which the monarchs of Jordan, Morocco, and the smaller Gulf states are, but not the rulers of Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. They're usurpers by traditional Islamic standards and, at the same time, fail to meet modern criteria for democratic legitimacy.

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