Two peoples' experience of displacement

An handout picture provided by the Israeli Goverment Press Office on 4 May 2008 shows Arabs fleeing with just the possessions they are able to carry as they make their way toward Lebanon from villages in the Galilee during Israel's 1948 War of Independence
A handout picture provided by the Israeli Government Press Office on 4 May 2008 shows Arabs fleeing with just the possessions they can carry as they make their way toward Lebanon from villages in the Galilee during Israel's 1948 War of Independence (image: ELDAN DAVID/EPA/dpa)

The Israel-Palestine conflict is multilayered and very complex. The greatest problem is that both sides have reason to believe the other wants to destroy them

Commentary by Hans Dembowski

Israel was founded with a UN mandate in 1948. The background was the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. The idea that Jews needed a state of their own to feel safe was widely accepted. 

The UN had also foreseen a separate sovereign Palestinian state, but the despots of neighbouring Arab countries did not want that to happen. They thought they could get rid of Israel immediately, but they lost the war they started on the occasion of Israel's independence. As a result, Israel conquered additional territory.

The conflict was bizarrely asymmetrical from the very beginning. Things would probably have been different had there been something like a Palestinian nation in the 1940s. There wasn't. As a matter of fact, many Arab countries still lack the kind of nationhood that means people share a sense of identity obliging them to mutual respect and solidarity.  

The background is that Arab borders were arbitrarily drawn at the end of the Ottoman empire. Society was basically feudal, with city-dwelling absentee landlords exploiting illiterate peasants. It thus wasn't unusual for Palestinian farmers to work for landlords who lived far away, in –say – Damascus.  

Feudal mentality and absentee landlords

Before Israel's independence, such absentee landlords had sold land to Jews, with the result that some Arab farmers lost their livelihoods. The new Jewish owners and their families did the farm work themselves. Moreover, Bedouin communities added a sense of anarchy because they did not stay in one place. 

The Jews who settled in Palestine and created Israel, by contrast, had a strong sense of nationhood, solidarity and mutual support. Socialist ideas from Europe were very common. Men and women were literate. People appreciated formal education. At the same time, the Jewish community had a strong culture of public debate, which provided space for expressing dissent in a context of solidarity. 

Post-Ottoman Arab countries, in comparison, were rather rigidly authoritarian and hierarchical. One important reason why Israel's army triumphed in 1948 was that its soldiers were defending their nation, whereas Arab soldiers were really only serving their leaders.

While pan-Arab agitation did little to help Palestinians, it did lead to Jews being persecuted from Iraq in the east to Morocco in the west. As a result Jewish communities largely disappeared from Arab countries. 

It is estimated that some 800,000 people were forced to flee, and their obvious destination was Israel. Their expulsion from Arab countries obviously did not alleviate the Palestinians' suffering. The latter paid a heavy price for the Arab defeat in 1948, when 700,000 or so were displaced. Their descendants still speak of the “Nakba”, which means catastrophe. Others were displaced in later wars which Israel again won. 

Most of their descendants are still refugees who lack citizenship of any state. The West Bank and Gaza have been occupied territories since 1967. Israeli settlements are spreading in the former area, and enjoy the protection of formal security forces. Their infrastructure is far better than that of the neighbouring Palestinian villages. The Israeli government has publicly announced its intention to annex large areas. Serious grievances thus persist.

Israel indeed has a history of displacing Arabs. What is less well known and gets lost in anti-Israeli agitation, however, is that about 50 % of Israel's population originally comes from the MENA region. Like the survivors of the Nazi genocide, the Jews that fled Arab countries also have a history of violent displacement. 

As peoples, both Israelis and Palestinians share the experience of discrimination, oppression and forced migration. As the Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Harari has pointed out, both sides have empirical reasons to believe the other wants to destroy them. Accordingly, peacebuilding is extremely difficult.

No real pan-Arab solidarity

From the 1970s on, the governments of neighbouring Arab countries more or less abandoned the Palestinian cause. Unsurprisingly, they did not have a good track record of taking care of their own people either. The problem is that strongmen anywhere tend to defend their power, suppress any opposition and surround themselves with cronies. Those in North Africa and the Middle East are no different. 

While Arab countries suffered stagnation, Israel became a prospering and dynamic economy. Of course, direct foreign investment, particularly from the United States, helped, but the institutional landscape mattered too. It was missing in the Arab world, which as a whole did not lack funding. Indeed, the region might look different today, had the oil monarchies of the Gulf invested more in Arab development rather than entrenching their absolutist power and exploiting natural resources to the benefit of their own families. The full truth is that pan-Arab rhetoric served despots' authoritarian needs yet did not lead to tangible pan-Arab solidarity.

The rise – and divisiveness – of political Islam

Frustration with authoritarian leaders eventually led to pan-Arab ideology becoming largely irrelevant, while Islamist groups became more influential from the late 1970s on. Again, however, it was not really about pan-Muslim solidarity. There are three different brands of political Islam that vehemently disagree with one another. The Wahhabis, the Muslim Brothers and Iran's theocracy share little common ground. The consequences have been dreadfully bloody in some places, especially Syria.

In Palestine, however, the shared history of displacement and oppression fostered a sense of Palestinian nationhood. To alleviate the people's suffering, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) decided to stop the armed struggle and make peace with Israel. Hamas, which has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, disagreed and opted for violent subversion. Today, things look worse for the Palestinians than ever before. 

Hamas' Islamist ideology has led to deadly terrorism. This outfit opposes peace and wants to eliminate Israel. For this cause, it is willing to sacrifice thousands of Palestinian lives.

Western observers, however, tend to neglect the fact that right-wing extremists in Israel have a history of making peace impossible too. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, was murdered by an Israeli, not an Arab. Violence perpetrated by Israeli settlers on the West Bank keeps feeding Palestinians' Nakba narrative, which revolves around displacement.   

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have spelled out in detailed reports why they accuse Israel of apartheid. While one need not necessarily agree with the term, such criticism should not be dismissed as mere anti-Semitism. The reports deal with Israeli state action and are not concerned with Judaism as a faith or as an ethnic identity.  

Palestinians are still politically divided. There has been deadly violence between the PLO and Hamas in the past. It also matters, that people live in very different socio-political conditions in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and Israel itself. All four areas have sizeable Palestinian populations.

Israel's Palestinian citizens

It is ironic, to put it mildly, that for decades Palestinians with Israeli citizenship were the Arab community with the most civil liberties in the world. While Arab Israelis do face discrimination and have reason to feel they are only second-class citizens compared to Jews, they are represented in Parliament, enjoy freedom of speech, are free to organise and hold assemblies. Before the Arab Spring, Palestinian Israelis had more civil rights than had been granted in any Arab country. With Tunisia's regime becoming increasingly authoritarian, that may be the case again today. 

Palestinians in East Jerusalem were never granted citizenship after Israel annexed that part of the city, breaching international law. They only have permanent residency rights, and they forfeit this if they spend too much time outside Jerusalem. Israel's planning system discriminates against Palestinians no matter where in the four different jurisdictions they live.

The bizarre thing, however, is that Hamas and Netanyahu both have long relied on their "violent coexistence". Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a history of making the PLO look weak and corrupt while maintaining an awkward cooperation with Hamas. His hardline militarism has thrived on occasional skirmishes with the hostile militia, but apart from such skirmishes, he has done nothing to weaken Hamas. His overarching goal has been to remain able to tell Western allies that he has no partner for making peace. 

Left to themselves, Israel and Palestine are unlikely to make peace. Mutual resentment runs deep. Both sides have suffered brutal violence in the past. There is precious little trust. The implication is that peace will certainly depend on international mediation. Given that the multilateral system is increasingly polarised and was never strong enough to ensure the global governance we need, this would seem hard to accomplish. Without peace, however, deadly violence will continue to haunt both Israelis and Palestinians. 

Hans Dembowski

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Hans Dembowski is editor-in-chief of D+C.