("This week's obsession: racism, colonialism, nationalism and related insanities"
) and Hobson's Choice ("Zionism and US Policy"
) have each recently written about how the Israelis and the Palestinians have found themselves locked into inflexible national narratives. angel80
, after tracing the origins of the Zionist immigrations to Ottoman Palestine in central Europe, concludes that as a Zionist national narrative was created that sought to restore an impossibly distant (and arguably, irrelevant) homeland, Palestinians came to define themselves in opposition to an unstoppable foreign invasion of their lands.
Zionist nationalism had come to be defined by ethnic expansionism based on stories from a distant past and Palestinian nationalism was just beginning. Palestinian nationalism seems to be defined by a series of 'don't haves' that create yearnings just as powerful as the Zionist narratives. Palestinians are the leftovers from the old Middle Eastern empires who don't have a nation state, who don't have the land or the homes that they used to have, who don't have the rights of citizens (or even ordinary human beings nowadays). The struggle against Israel is the only founding myth that the Palestinians have. It's interesting that Israelis often define Palestinians by what they were - Arab subjects of the former British Mandate - who are therefore really Jordanians now. Between 1949 and 1967, many of the original inhabitants of the West Bank might have gone along with that, but they were a minority of the Palestinian Arabs. Such a definition simply denies any attachment the majority might have felt towards their lost homeland - an attachment which is no doubt increased by having lost it. In any case the last 40 years of occupation have put paid to that. No one can seriously doubt that a Palestinian nation exists today.
Palestinian nationalism is also in many ways a mirror of Israeli nationalism. During British rule, although the majority of Arabs remained rural, many were also urban, living and working in cities like Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa. Palestinians were noted for being more educated and secular than Arabs in neighbouring countries. In the 1980s, when the secular socialists lost their grip on power in Israel and the Likud (led by former terrorists Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir) gave more play to religious extremism within the country, the Palestinian resistance also began to turn away from secularism. I could be stretching things a bit too far here, because there was also another religious extremism on the rise in the 1980s after the Iranian revolution. But what the Iranians and Hezbollah have in common is a national state towards which their fundamentalist ambitions are directed. In both these cases Israel's existence is a convenient device by which they can promote their national ambitions. For Hamas, on the other hand, Israel is the very raison d'etre. Without the struggle there is no nation.
Hobson's Choice's James MacLean, in the meantime, also traces the origins of Zionism to the persecution of Jews in central Europe, observing that the exceptional marginalization of Jews in their European homelands after the Holocaust left Zionists with no choice but to accept a position as a Western march against the non-West. Israel might enjoy an exceptionally privileged position, true, but it has no choice but to accept this position given the regional climate and the fact of Palestinian dispossession.
The Israelis are stuck in an eternal war with their neighbors, internationally isolated, and reviled. People blame them for a situation that is so obviously out of their hands that they naturally develop a complex. Israelis have a huge fleet of F-16's because they have been stuck with being janissaries of the [Trans European Project]. That was never a job they wanted, but it was required of them. One could take the example of this poor fellow, who was faced with destitution or re-enlistment in the military, and say he is a winner because he has access to an M-16A3. I suppose I could rattle off all manner of other cool stuff he gets, such as access to the VA system of health care ("The 2nd largest US department, by budget!") or a chance to ride around in an M-2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, or the opportunity to abuse Iraqis with impunity. But he doesn't see it that way, and neither do I.
[. . .]
I'm not sure why my POV is so freakish. Why would a leftist find it so hard to accept that the Jewish population of Israel is being exploited by opportunistic white gentile Americans? That a small, politically invulnerable elite has managed to hijack the fears and vulnerabilities of an historically persecuted group, and throw them against a 3rd world population? Arm them to do the job, and make them even more dependent on the metropole? Why, on this one subject, must the left invariably switch polarities and absolve the West of responsibility?
MacLean goes on to conclude that "[t]he Israelis can be likened unto the slave armies of the 12th-16th century Middle East or East Asia: yes, those armies were well-equipped too, and sometimes they staged coups in the countries they controlled. But they remained slaves and soldiers; a peaceful, secure life was denied to them." One might conclude that Palestinians play much the same role in the Middle East, forming shock troops against Israel and an unpopular proletariat.
Why the expansion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Lebanon? Lebanon, founded as a refugee for the Maronites and other Christians of the central coastal Levant, has never been strong enough to resist foreign interference. One can talk of Israel's interest in acquiring the waters of the Litani River
and even in annexing south Lebanon
. One can as easily talk of the unpopular Palestinian refugee minority and the ephemeral PLO quasi-state
of 1975-1982. The fact remains that Israelis and Palestinians, necessarily trapped in their ideologies of perpetual confrontation, have enough interests in a relatively weak Lebanon to be willing to transgress its border. The Palestinians were
, at least; the actually existing Palestinians, whether one talks about the stateless Palestinian refugees of Lebanon
or of the Palestinians in the occupied territories who have shown themselves signally unable to respond to an increasingly dominant Israel in ways that don't involve suicide bombing, no longer have the capacity.
This brings us to Hezbollah
, founded in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to resist the occupation of the south, has proven its willingness to ally itself for tactical purposes with the Palestinians against Israel. This hostility isn't unsurprising, since, as Thomas Friedman described in his From Beirut to Jerusalem
, managed to alienate a Shi'ite population that had initially welcomed their liberation from the PLO. The willingness of external powers--Iran most notably, but also Syria--to support Hezbollah certainly didn't help. Lebanon, for its part, lacked the ability to effectively control quasi-state Hezbollah or to do anything to Israel; excluding the Palestinians from the Lebanese body politic is all that the Lebanese state can do. Not that the Israeli state's tactics seem to be that effective, but there you go.
Here's to hoping that, once in effect, the ceasefire
will hold. I'm terribly worried by all of the seemingly normal people
who have said, in the course of the past month, that their neighbours have to "burn right now" if they themselves are to survive. If there's one thing that people in the Levant don't seem to understand very well apart from the fact that it's not nice to offer up unwilling other people as fiery sacrifices, it's the pleasantly and surprisingly self-serving nature of empathy for the other. Then again, that's not all that surprising, since radical breaks--the sort of radical breaks that can overcome victim mentalities, patterns of subordination to wider alliances, and generally destructive breakdowns--aren't fun things to try out. Things could change, see, and we've too much invested in the way things are to risk making everything new.