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What Is Palestine?

By David Solway


The talented Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes in his memoir I Saw Ramallah that “it is not enough to register the fault of others…we too have our faults; our share of shortsightedness…But this truth does not absolve the enemy of his original crime.” Typically, Barghouti never stops to look into the nature of that “original crime” lest he discover that his own people and their advocates are at its very source and are the real reason why he found himself a refugee after the 1967 war, for which he has never forgiven the Israelis. A lyrical style and a sensitive mind do not invariably lead to clarity, insight, knowledge and moral honesty.

Barghouti systematically omits the underlying causes for the various losses and disasters he continually bemoans. His explications stop abruptly at a certain point—the point at which it would be necessary for him to be candid and to go back to sources. But in truncating the historical sequence and dropping critical links from the chain of events, he leaves the impression that the Israelis were rank invaders, responsible for his sufferings and those of his people, rather than providing the context which would enable us to see that it was the Arabs, time and again, who were the invaders and Israel which acted in self-defence.

The declared Arab intention to obliterate the state of Israel, the closing of international waterways to Israeli shipping and the massing of armies on its southern, northern and eastern borders which triggered the Six Day War, are, we are meant to believe, issues of marginal importance and do not count in the balance of Barghouti’s personal resentment. Note, too, that the Palestinian fault is only “shortsightedness.”

Most observers have been completely taken in, not only by British legerdemain during the Mandate period and United Nations jugglery, but by chauvinistic Arab propaganda like Barghouti’s. The Palestinian narrative has also been promoted by the ignorance or duplicity of Western intellectuals, which helped fertilize the Palestinian identity in order to counter the historical thrust of Zionism, accomplishing its purpose by a cynical rewriting of history.

To take a “distinguished” example. Ivy-league intellectual and current leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Michael Ignatieff, is simply mistaken when he writes in The Lesser Evil that the Palestinians “have an equal history of continuous occupation and the same right over the same land. There is nothing about the Palestinian or the Israeli claim that gives one a moral privilege over the other.” This, as we will see, is abject nonsense, an instance of the usual binning technique of equivalent merits, founded in inexcusable ignorance or willful inattention.

No one denies that indigenous Arabs have long dwelt in the region. But the fact that the ancestors of a significant number of those now claiming the “right of return” arrived from the surrounding Arab countries during the British dispensation is rarely admitted. In line with the British policy of the time, the 1931 census classified these Arab newcomers to Palestine, notably Western Palestine, as part of “the natural population,” which they manifestly were not. Nor does Ignatieff seem cognizant of the documentary ledger, for example, Albert M. Hyamson’s comprehensive and indispensable edition of The British Consulate in Jerusalem in Relation to the Jews in Palestine, 1838-1914, housed in many university libraries.

There we can read the report filed by British Consul James Finn which established that the Muslim census of Jerusalem in 1858 barely exceeded 25% of the civic population. The Jewish population of the city was approximately double that. An 1839 dispatch by the British Consulate in Jerusalem indicated that Sephardic Jews were “numerous” on the ground. Other memoranda affirm that Hebrew was a living language among the people and that, despite wholesale slaughters and expulsions over the generations, Jews had maintained a permanent presence in the Holy Land—a presence which, be it said, antedates that of the Arabs by several thousand years. (The name “Israel” is first mentioned on the Merneptah stele of 1207 B.C.E., now in the Cairo museum, which suggests that Israel must have existed as far back as the Egyptian New Kingdom and even earlier.) Like so many of the scholarly tribe, Ignatieff did not do his homework.

Moreover, in a “fact-finding” visit to the Middle East, Ignatieff, like numberless others, fell for the Palestinian line that the Camp David negotiations would have led to a Bantustan-type territory. This is now known to be an apocryphal claim, which should have been evident to anyone who took the trouble to follow the proceedings. The same fabrication was retailed in Noam Chomsky’s 2003 publication Middle East Illusions, which claimed that Ehud Barak’s Camp David proposal entailed the cantonization of the disputed territories. But PA minister Faisal Husseini himself acknowledged, in the Lebanese Al-Safir newspaper for March 21, 2001, that Barak had agreed to a wholesale withdrawal from all of Gaza and 97% of the Territories in toto.

Indeed, as Mitchell Bard points out in a review of Jimmy Carter’s disreputable Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, following the Israeli pullout from Gaza and its relinquishing of most of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, “the truth is the entire territorial dispute with the Palestinians, assuming they were ever to accept the existence of Israel, boils down to about 6% of the West Bank,” in proximity to the Green Line (italics mine). It is also interesting to remark that the Israeli proposal to retain this sliver of territory for defensive purposes in exchange for an equivalent percentage of Israeli land has been rejected by the Palestinian Authority.

But the question continues to be begged. We know there is a Palestinian Authority but it is far from clear whether there is anything like an authoritative Palestine. Certainly, there was nothing among the fellahin and the absentee landlords, the distant effendi, resembling a sense of national cohesion and entitlement. There was neither a mystical nor political feeling of nationhood, of belonging to an existential totality called Palestine. Some academics have suggested that there may exist traces among the fellahin of a non-Islamic, that is, a Neolithic or Canaanite/Philistine ancestry, but such ethnological distinctions remain evanescent. Middle Eastern scholarship has determined that the Philistines were an Indo-European, not a Semitic people. In any event, the Palestinian sense of belonging to a larger social classification would scarcely have transcended the family, clan or phratry.

Palestinian ideologues are constantly asserting claims of priority, but if we accept the principle of historical antecedence, the earliest extant people who settled on the land are the Israelites. The Seven Nations mentioned in Deuteronomy 7:1—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—have all vanished from the stage of history. The only Arab claim—and one which has not been made—that might have even a shred of historical validity involves a temporal capillary to the tribe of Nabatean Arabs who settled in the hills around Petra during the first century C.E. and produced a governor of Damascus during the time of St. Paul.

But on the biblical time scale this was a community of late arrivals, surviving mainly on brigandage, who were either absorbed, dispersed or Romanized, and quietly faded from the annals of the Holy Land. Many were eventually converted to Christianity. There was no “national feeling” stirring among these groups, strung along the caravan routes half a millennium before the Arab invasion of the seventh century, that could be later used to justify national entitlement.

Further, as the Reverend James Parkes has pointed out in Whose Land: A History of the Peoples of Palestine, “from the Arab conquest until the British Mandate, Palestine was a portion of some larger unit, whether Arab, Mamluk, or Turkish; and its people were never conscious of themselves as a national unit.” There was, he reiterates, “no such thing historically as a ‘Palestinian Arab,’ and there was no feeling of unity among ‘the Arabs’ of this newly defined area” until modern times. The fact is that “the Balfour Declaration for the first time established a unit called Palestine on the political map” while recognizing “that there existed already a historic Jewish right.”

It is not the Palestinian claim to statehood that is the only problem but the Palestinian projection of a spurious history on which that claim is predicated, whose ultimate purpose is to delegitimize Israel’s right to existence on what remains of its specific, mandated territory. To muddy the waters even further, for many Palestinians the two-state solution is only a temporary stop on their own road map to a single-state destination incorporating what is now Israel, justified by the lie of an immemorial, Palestinian settlement on the land.

But whatever form the “Palestinian entity” may take—indeed, the idea of a “single state” in any shape or form may be nothing but a chimera as what we call “Palestine” has already fragmented into two clashing statelets in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank—it would be a largely chaotic and notional polity, a “state” that derives its international legitimacy more from worthless paper ratifications and map parchment than from juridical authority, operational viability or historical authenticity.

Whether it is a straight-up lie or a persistent misconception, the cannonade of disinformation is unrelenting. Samir Rihani, Senior Research Fellow at the Liverpool University School of Politics, writing in Palestine 4 online, takes it as theophany that Israel is Palestinian: “One would have thought that the creation of a Jewish state on land which has been home to the Palestinians for centuries would have raised a few eyebrows…” Once again, a bogus assumption has been transmogrified into a non-deniable verity and practically no one bats an eyelid, never mind raising an eyebrow.

We hear the same tired refrain in Western intellectual and political circles. Claire Rayner, president of the British Humanist Association, writing in the Independent for April 21, 2002, dismisses the idea of a homeland for the Jewish people as a “load of crap.” British MP George Galloway, a supporter of the anti-Israeli boycott movement, in his relentless pibroch against the Jewish state compares the Palestinians to the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. The apt historical analogy would rather identify them with the Persian hordes attempting to swarm the pass.

Similarly, American-based Palestinian human rights activist Susan Abulhawa, in an article for the Paris journal Libèration on March 18, 2008, asserts that Israel was established on “the ancient land of Palestine,” even though there was no such thing except in the fevered imagination of the ideological zealot. There is not a single allusion to “Palestine” in the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles. That she claims in the same article that “Jesus was Palestinian” should go some way, in any sane intellectual climate, to moderating the reception of her thesis.

Which does not seem to be the case. In their debunking study of the teaching of Middle Eastern history in American schools, The Trouble with Textbooks, Gary Tobin and Dennis Ybarra point out that many textbooks tend “to project the word ‘Palestine’ well backward into history when its use is inaccurate and anachronistic.” The term “Palaestina,” cognate with “Philistinia,” was the name given by the Romans to the area after quashing the Bar Kokhba revolt of 135 C.E. This has not prevented McGraw-Hill’s Traditions and Encounters, a particularly egregious text, from having Abraham migrate “to Palestine about 1850 B.C.E.,” or Holt’s World History: The Human Journey from mapping the coastal region circa 1450 B.C.E. as “Palestine.” The intention is plainly to “discredit the historical roots of Jews in the land of Israel” while positing a time-shrouded and wholly meretricious connection between modern-day Palestinians and the Holy Land.

Abulhawa’s canard concerning the identity of Jesus is also workshopped in these manuals. Tobin and Ybarra enumerate many instances which advance the thesis that Jesus was Palestinian. In particular, The World (Pearson/Scott Foresman) includes a true or false question meant to be answered “true”: “Christianity was started by a young Palestinian named Jesus?” These are only a few representative samples of growing mainstream opinion: I have barely skimmed a roiling surface.

But the argument for Palestine, despite its earnest and sympathetic prosecution, is vitiated by a profound irony that nobody wants to acknowledge. There is a strong element of fraud in the ubiquitous preoccupation with the Palestinian cause. Despite the overwrought rhetoric, the Arabs (and their Western backers) really do not care about Palestine and never did. Their real goal is the extirpation of Israel. This should be glaringly obvious when we consider both the Arab and Western response—a better formulation might be lack of response—to the Iranian menace to visit nuclear annihilation upon Israel. For if Israel should be destroyed in a nuclear attack, Gaza, the West Bank and over one million Israeli-Arabs would also be annihilated. Physical destruction, radiation poisoning and total economic collapse would expunge Palestinian Arabs as effectively as it would Israeli Jews.

Strangely enough, we do not hear a word about this. In so compactified a region, the effect of nuclear ordnance launched against Israel would not be confined to its Jewish population. Nearly five million Arabs throughout the territory would share an identical doom. Poof! no more Palestine. The al-Aqsa Mosque would disintegrate as surely as the Holy Temple. Hamas and Fatah would be unified in death. The Holy Land would be a wasteland and its surviving inhabitants, whether Muslim or Jew, equally dispossessed. Yet this inevitable consequence is never considered and certainly never mentioned whenever Ayatollah Rafsanjani or President Ahmadinejad issue their chilling calls to nuclear holocaust—indisputable proof that the real agenda in play is not to liberate Palestine but to liquidate Israel.

Even the Palestinians themselves do not seem to have caught on, either because what we are dealing with is a veritable suicide culture that can tolerate its own extinction or, to put it bluntly, with a people too stupefied by hatred and fanaticism to realize that, under these circumstances, their very existence is no less at risk than Israel’s. The fact remains that they have been sold out by their Arab brothers and Western enablers who are perfectly indifferent to the devastation Palestinians would suffer should Iran follow through on its threat to unleash nuclear havoc on Israel.

The conclusion is inescapable. In failing to recognize or care about the fate of the Palestinians under such apocalyptic conditions, it becomes evident that the noisy and righteous concern with Palestinian welfare in Israel and Palestinian statehood in Gaza and/or the West Bank is merely a covert operation to ensure the disappearance of the Jewish state, whether violently, politically or demographically. In the final analysis, so long as Israel can be rendered desolate, the Palestinians can go hang.

What, then, is Palestine? Palestine is a national fiction. And what is its purpose? One way or another, the national fiction of Palestine is intended to eliminate the national reality of Israel.



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