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Palestine: The Search for a New Golden Age

The sons of Arab Palestine, who until the British Mandate were loyal to Damascus, Beirut, or Jerusalem, instead of being unified by any national administration, failed to form a national leadership and to define common objectives. Even the Arab Higher Committee, the leading Arab organization claiming to represent all the Arabs of Palestine, did not go beyond mere flowery rhetoric.

Let us also note that the members of this Committee left Palestine as soon as the war began; the historian Aref El-Aref mentions that Ahmad Hilma Pasha—who was later appointed as the first and last premier of the Palestine government in Gaza and was not originally a Palestinian, but was born in Sidon, Lebanon—was the only member of the Committee who remained in Jerusalem.5 The other feudalists of the Arab Higher Committee and its leader Haj Amin Al-Husseini found a refuge in the Arab states with which they felt a bond.

We must not forget that the Zionist movement was certainly a pioneering movement with popular roots and loyal leadership. Zionist leaders from Herzl to David Ben-Gurion tried to win the backing and sympathy of the Pope, the German Kaiser, the Turkish Sultan, and the British King as well as the leaders of Russia, the United States, and France. They did get help in varying degrees from most of these sources, and the Zionists always tried to make this help serve their cause and advance their plans. The Zionist leaders did not refuse any aid that was offered to them; on the contrary, they accepted it and then sought more. Arab leaders, in contrast, persisted in requesting everything in one go, making the Arab position look rigid and causing it much harm. This enabled the Jewish leaders to convince the Christian West, which was already suffering from a bad conscience after the Nazi war crimes, that they were moderates searching for a shelter for the victims of Europe, as was indeed one of their aims.

Thus the Arab leaders became agents for Arab states that were both large and sparsely populated. But the Zionist leaders, who had come from various nations, were able to take advantage of the political moment and persuade Stalin’s Russia, the leading state of the communist bloc, to support their claims in 1947-48 for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, just as they had also succeeded in persuading Harry Truman to support them.

III

Refugees and Returnees

The leaders of the Palestinian Arabs succeeded in convincing the leaders of the adjacent Arab states to participate in the Palestinian War against Israel in 1948-49—after more than half the Palestinian Arabs had become refugees. The Palestinian Arabs believed in the promises made by the Arab states to fight Israel and prevent her from declaring independence. They started fighting the semiorganized Jewish forces soon after the partition resolution, but the inexperienced, disorganized Arabs did not stand much chance against their disciplined Jewish opponents. Thus principal towns (such as Jaffa, Haifa, Beisan, and Safad) fell prior to the termination of the Mandate, and refugees started filling the churches, mosques, and schools of the adjacent Arab states. But the Palestinian Arabs had not yet lost hope.

In fact, most of them trusted Arab promises of liberation, making it easier for them to leave their homes without any resistance.6 Similarly, Arab stories about Jewish barbarism and power, which were much exaggerated, had their effect in increasing the flow of refugees. The Arab armies arrived with old-fashioned weapons, their cooperation limited to pronouncements and speeches, and their military training limited to festivals or exercises in outmoded warfare. This put the nails in the coffins of Arab hope. Musa Alami, the well-known Arab lawyer, who tried in the summer of 1948 to examine the extent of the Palestinian catastrophe and understand what had happened, tells how the late Shukri Quwatli, President of Syria, assured him that Syria was in possession of an atom bomb which was enough “to solve the problem and eliminate the Israeli State.” When Alami inquired how the Syrians got the bomb, Quwatli answered that a Damascus ironsmith with golden hands had manufactured it.7

The Palestinian Arabs realized that they had been twice deceived, first, in depending on Arab armies and leaders and, second, in believing that these allies were powerful enough to decide the case in their interest. But this awareness came too late; for the Egyptians, Jordanians, Iraqis, and Syrians, although much weaker than the Jews, were still able to confiscate all weapons from the armed Palestinians, thus removing all their political options.8 Emir Abdullah of Trans-Jordan, backed by Britain, annexed what was left of Arab Palestine to his kingdom. The Egyptians, traditional antagonists of the Hashemites, even established a “Palestinian Government” in the area of Gaza, which they had captured.

Abdullah succeeded in convincing some Palestinian leaders who were living under his rule to call for a Palestinian-Jordanian Unity, as the Egyptians had done in calling some dozens of Gaza leaders to establish an “All-Palestine Government.” But Abdullah paid with his life for usurping the West Bank, although his “Unity” lasted from April, 1950, until the June War in 1967. The Egyptians, partly as a result of King Abdullah’s stubbornness, failed to establish the new independent Palestinian state in Gaza. In 1952, when the Prime Minister of Gaza, Ahmad Hilmi Pasha, died, its budget was annulled, and the Egyptians, who had created the state, did not allow it to exist in Gaza, or even to issue its special stamps.

In this manner the Palestinians were scattered after the 1948-49 war. Some became Jordanians, others became refugees in Arab lands, while some remained in their homes and towns in the area that became part of Israel. The world thought the case was thus solved, or was about to be, but the absolutist monarchical regime in Jordan, which was totally dependent on foreign aid and on mercenary professional soldiers of nomad background, could not absorb the Palestinians, who were more advanced economically and culturally than the Jordanian Bedouins. The Palestinians were not convinced that they were citizens, in spite of the fact that they were offered Jordanian citizenship, for the discrimination and persecution against them by the Jordanians were too obvious. For example, the population of Arab Jerusalem did not increase between the years 1948 and 1967. In the same period Amman’s population doubled ten times. The fate of Jenin and Hebron, on the West Bank, was similar to that of Jerusalem, whereas on the East Bank Irbid and Salt shared the progress of Amman.

In spite of the huge cultural gap between Palestine and Trans-Jordan, the command of the army and its dominant units, the posts of prime minister and most influential ministries were all restricted to the less sophisticated Jordanians. Both houses of Parliament were supposedly elected equally by Trans-Jordanians and Palestinians, but individual freedoms were always uncertain, and the King could dissolve both houses at his pleasure: the Jordanian king has the absolute right (although most of his people do not recognize it) to establish governments and dissolve them, to call for new elections and to ignore their results.9

At the same time, the refugees in Jordan and other Arab countries were fed slogans and empty words. The United Nations promised them “the free choice” of repatriation or compensation, but in fact supplied them with some flour, oil, and secondhand clothing.10 The Arab host countries coined “liberation” slogans while at the same time exploiting the refugees as an auxiliary cheap labor force. The Arab League, which at one time served as the hope of the Palestinians, declared its refusal “to liquidate the Palestinian case through refugee rehabilitation.” And so the refugees lingered on for over twenty years in camps, while the Arab leaders feasted on their calamity.

And what about the Palestinian Arabs who became Israelis? About 150,000 Palestinian Arabs stayed in Israel, most of them villagers lacking leadership and an elite. The treatment by the Israeli authorities of their Arab citizens was never encouraging, but the years of relative tranquillity allowed the Israeli Arabs to progress and develop their society. Still, they were never able to reach full cultural, economic, or political integration with the Jewish citizens of Israel.11 In this connection, it may be useful to remember that Israel is not a secular state but primarily a Jewish state,12 although it promises full equality to non-Jewish citizens. Moreover, the belligerency and tension that have dominated Israel’s relations with her neighboring countries have made a warm coexistence impossible between the Israeli state and its Arab citizens.

We find, then, that none of the groups that had previously formed the Palestinian Arab people found a workable solution to their problems. It was natural for all the Palestinian groups to attempt to set up political movements to solve these problems. The first such movement was started, after the establishment of the new state, by some refugees who tried to negotiate with Israel, but failed because the Israelis decided they had “nothing to negotiate with those who have no right and authorization to declare war or sign a peace agreement.” A second attempt took place in the 1950s at the American University of Beirut, where the Arab Nationalist Movement was established to bring together a “total Arab Unity.”

Naturally, the Palestinians took the initiative because they felt they were deprived of their rights and hoped that Arab unity might enable them to regain them. Nasser’s regime in Egypt followed suit in calling for Arab unity, and found that Palestinians all over the Arab East were volunteering to serve under their banner, for the same reason.

The Israeli-British-French campaign against Egypt in 1956 and the Egyptian political victory were a launching point for Arab unity and for Palestinians who pinned their hopes on it. But the failure of the Syrian-Egyptian union in 1961 and the indulgence in private was and personal interests on the part of the “revolutionary regimes” in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, and Algeria caused the Palestinians to seek an independent path.

IV

Warriors

In 1964 President Nasser was able, for the first time, to force the Arab League states to accept the existence of a single group—the Palestine Liberation Organization—to represent the militant Palestinians. This act of Nasser’s posed a challenge to his rivals in the Syrian Ba’ath party; in effect, Nasser had raised the price of admission into the community of Arab nationalism. In response, the Syrians decided to back a small group of Palestinians who were willing to seriously escalate action against Israel by making armed raids across its borders and against civilian and military targets inside the country.

The reasons for this go back to the founding of the Ba’ath party, which was a pioneer of Arab unity when it was established in the early 1940s. With others, the Ba’ath succeeded in creating a miracle, or at least an event without historical precedent: they compelled Shukri Al Quwatli, the Syrian President, to fly to Egypt with a large delegation urging Nasser to accept unity with Syria. Obviously, such a union could only make Syria an annex to Egypt; while it continued, four to five million Syrians were necessarily dominated by more than thirty million Egyptians.

  1. 5

    Aref El-Aref, The Catastrophe (in Arabic), p. 44.

  2. 6

    Ibid., p. 75.

  3. 7

    G. Furlong, Palestine Is My Country (London, 1969).

  4. 8

    Aref El-Aref, The Catastrophe, p. 175.

  5. 9

    Forty-two different governments served in Jordan between April, 1950, and December, 1970.

  6. 10

    UN General Assembly resolutions 194 (111) of December 11, 1948, to that of December, 1970.

  7. 11

    More than 10 percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs, but only 2 percent of public employees and university students are Arabs.

  8. 12

    See the Israel Declaration of Independence, the Law of Return, and the Law of Nationality (1952).

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