For the past four months I stopped thinking and reading about Palestine. Not the Internet, not newspapers, not anything, not even Annapolis, whose grim meaninglessness most of us took for granted. For as long as I can remember, probably beginning in my undergraduate years, I developed a coping mechanism: when the Palestinians faced particularly dark moments in their history, I withdrew from thinking, speaking, and writing about the issue. Far away and safe from the unspeakable oppression that daily confronts Palestinians, and the unchanging political and historical conditions that are unremittingly leading to their dispossession, I afford myself the selfish luxury of avoidance. This would go on for many months until something would trigger my emotional and mental re-involvement.
I used to believe that my pessimistic outlook was personal, both learned and inherited. But now I think it’s also something to do with the Palestinian character, shaped by a century of continuing trauma. This attitude, I realize, or believe, was absorbed directly by watching events go from bad to worse, and indirectly from an ever-present, unresolved collective tragedy, hovering over my parents and passed on to me, inducing a steady state of anxiety.
But of course the issue doesn’t go away because it’s not some abstract thing, but involves the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. It’s impossible to disengage, perhaps in the same way that Jews, who’ve experienced episodic anti-Semitic discrimination, repression and violence, throughout their diasporic history, cannot completely ignore, or detach, themselves from Western attitudes towards them and from the state of Israel. There’s always a sense that something could go wrong, and something usually does, combined with an enduring sense of empathetic helplessness, considerably heightened when the Palestinians are at the receiving end of Israeli cruelty, which is more often than not. I of course have no right to fall in and out of hope, not when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children are incessantly, remorselessly brutalized.
Five years ago I was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I was supposed to be gone within a year or two. So I quit teaching college, went on a natural therapy, and eliminated the cancer, silently watching, during my battle with the disease over several years, Palestine’s obvious, inexorable trajectory. I resolved that, if given a second chance, I would complete a couple of research projects, one of which is a book on the sociopolitical relationship between Islam, the state and society.
As I completed the first two chapters dealing with historical sociology, and wrote about the influences of Arabic, Christian, and Jewish influences on Islamic civilization, my mood alternated between sadness and outrage regarding the Palestinian Christians, the community from which I hail. And this is saying a lot for a secular humanist who hardly paid specific attention to the Arab Christians. This longstanding, mostly pre-Arab community which traces its lineage and heritage to the Semites of antiquity, including Hebrew and Aramaic speaking Canaanites, is on the verge of disappearing, from a high of 15 percent of the population during the mandate to perhaps 1 percent now. What an unspeakable loss of this rich, complex, intelligent, liberal, secular community, caught between systematic Israeli policies to extinguish its presence and influence in the Holy Land through various means—redolent of Israelite extermination of Canaanites—and the discomfort and pressure of a prevailing atmosphere of Muslim conservatism, which has filled the vacuum caused by the dismal failure and corruption of a secular national movement. Their story, though unique and urgent, is a also a microcosm of the Palestinian calamity.
In writing this book, I was struck with the immediate, tangible realization, which one only understands intellectually and historically, that, in fact, peoples can, and repeatedly have disappeared, that is, lost their cultural and ethnic and national presence and connection to their land and that, as before, little will be done to stop this process.
Certainly not by the Western world which would rather make amends for the holocaust at the expense of sacrificing the Palestinians, much less the Holy Land’s Christians, though the two, the holocaust and Palestinian suffering are not mutually exclusive or morally and politically connected; not by the United States, whose politics have become captive to domestic lobbies and that seems unable to extricate itself from its global provincialism and adventures; not by the Arab political elites, who since the rise of Islam itself have really not been able to shed their tribally-originated culture of factionalism, rivalries, personal aggrandizement, regime survival, and violent ambitions for power at the expense of cooperation and cultivation of the public interest, including a chronic inability to assume a principled position on the Palestinians; not by the Arab publics, preoccupied as they are with their own struggles for democracy and jobs and social security in the context of external interference, threats of force, and invasions; not by the frighteningly utopic, sometimes fanatically obsessed variety of Islamists in the Arab world whose programs are mostly retrogressive and culturally defensive; not by the Palestinian leadership, which has repeatedly failed and disappointed its people who’ve sacrificed so much and are doing their best merely to exist; not by Western activists, of the secular or religious, pacifist variety, who at some level are uncomfortable with the (presumed emotional?) Palestinian political voice and are forever busy straddling the innocuous middle ground between Jewish suffering and needs and Palestinian suffering and needs; not by American Jewish liberals or activists on behalf of the Palestinians, whose commendable support for political balance, fairness, and Palestinian rights is canceled by their refusal or inability to countenance the exclusivist program, racism and violence of their Israeli coreligionists; and not by Israeli liberals, most of whom are determined to pretend that the current fiasco will lead to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, nor Israeli activists who, preferring the safety of pragmatic political analysis in their fervent desire to keep the two societies separated, are emotionally and psychologically reluctant to credit the perennial impasse to unchanging Zionist ideological orientations—however reassuring this denial might be to them and to many of us who read them.
Truth is truth, decency is decency, though it’s not clear if there’s a limit to the indecency and hypocrisy heaped on the Palestinians. There is probably a smaller gap between historically distant and current practices than most of us would like to believe.
Much writing has gone into the two state-one state debate, including my own of last spring in these pages. Though I pleaded for a two state solution, it was a conscious exercise in intellectual futility intended to highlight the fact that there will neither be a one or a two state solution. What perhaps a couple of years ago seemed like a fresh (though historically recycled) paradigm for Palestine-Israel, the one state solution is a massive fantasy, not because its political analysis and moral assumptions are necessarily wrong, but because these assumptions necessarily ascribe rational motives and behavior to Zionism.
Unconstrained, unchecked power neither recognizes nor relates to pragmatic compromise, even when these are in its long-term interests. I’ve repeatedly argued over the years that the central obstacle to a settlement is ideological—a Zionist form of obdurate ethno-religious nationalism—not practical politics and policies that can be changed with activism and political mobilization; and that Zionism has no intention of coexisting with the Palestinians by finally recognizing their equal legitimacy and peoplehood.
Though I believe that a reformed, truly liberal Zionism can have an Israeli state and coexist with the Palestinians, instead it chooses to anchor itself in national absolutes. Its intentions clearly flow from its actions, and that is the single-minded dispossession of the Palestinians from the land. Coming from the complexity of the Jewish experience, it is foolishly determined to establish permanently the Jewish presence in all of historic Palestine for all of historical time by making sure that no other group would inhabit the land and potentially challenge its national and cultural dominance and identity. Its vision and practice in this modern world is as illiberal and retrograde as any such state could hope for.
If this were not bad enough, the Abbas leadership and its supporters are morally bankrupt, mesmerized by the fantasy that the promise of money and territorial fiefdom will come their way to maintain their power and privileges, as long as they dance the dance. Not that I care for Islamist government, confused ideology, and social agenda for Palestinian society, but it’s unbelievably, stunningly clear that the “nationalists” under Abbas have put their interests above those of national unity and their own people. There is no difference between them and any Arab state. They are an accomplice to Palestine’s disintegration, overseeing its potential disappearance, as well as to the medieval Israeli siege and attacks on the long-suffering people of Gaza, designed as they are to bolster Abbas et al. Abbas knows—what Palestinian doesn’t?—Zionist motives and goals, but he persists with the game, under threat of being turned into an instant international pariah, and of Zionist logic: “We stole your house and offer to return a room. If you don’t accept, don’t blame us if you get nothing.”
Some predicted the collapse of the Palestinian Authority this year, but the reality is that the PA doesn’t exist in any meaningful, tangible terms, nor are the occupied Palestinians in a healthy political, social, and material position to change it. Change will come, but slowly and generationally as the Palestinians build a semblance of popular, civil and social infrastructure, assuredly torn to shreds by the Israelis, and most likely without whimper, unless the Palestinians erupt into civil war, as, in the current context of extreme pressure, despair, confusion, and political polarization, they still might do.
We should hardly be talking about this or that state. Though targeted sanctions, divestment, and boycott, that is, activism by global civil society, seem the only way out, they must contend with the entrenched power of the nation-state, the unceasing pressure of the United States and Israel’s supporters to counteract these efforts at every institutional level of global civil society, and largely uninterested, materially-bound Western publics. Not for some time will the global political and economic configuration shift to cause pressures towards a fair and equitable solution in Palestine-Israel. Nor will global civil society change government policies any time soon, not least because the Palestine problem seems hopelessly complex and intractable and within which is injected the factor of Jewish suffering—even though, again, a just and equitable solution in Palestine and an end to Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Israeli occupation are not related to or contingent upon the issue of past Jewish suffering but in fact positively enhance Jewish needs and concerns.
As has been true for decades, a fundamental solution to this dismal state of affairs is Palestinian political and national unity, including a consensual program and position, rooted in a democratic popular base and civil society, and the liberal democratization of Arab states and societies, which presumably will lead to actual, effective Arab cooperation in the pursuit of peace and a fair solution to the Palestine problem. But these will not happen anytime soon.
We are heading towards the potential political extinction of the Palestinians as a people, and most likely towards growing extremism in the region that may lead to yet more destructive wars. Not that the Palestinians can be made to disappear in the full sweep of the camera; rather, the Israeli policy of permanent dissolution and gradual social and political genocide is a prelude to an opportune time for expelling a maximum number of them, which is certainly possible within the context of an Arab-Israeli war or other type conflagration generated from the outside. The probability that Israel will implement its program without effective sanction or opposition is as good as its ongoing evisceration of Gaza.
Issa Khalaf, author of Politics in Palestine, holds a Ph.D. in political science and Middle East studies from Oxford University.