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Friends and Enemies

The democratic principles underlying AI’s report in the face of so much mutual hostility are obviously desirable in themselves, but I believe they are also pertinent to peace-making. Not only any Israelis, but leaders in Jordan, as well as Palestinians—families with property and independent intellectuals in the West Bank and Gaza—will want to endorse liberal-democratic institutions, hoping that open elections and impartial judges enforcing civil rights will provide stability for any future settlement. But the principles of democratic life also seem essential as criteria by which Palestinian and Israeli leaders will have to negotiate that settlement. They will have to agree on a partition, and to do so on the assumption that the land and the city of Jerusalem are resources to be used by separate societies. Each group will want to maintain its own majority state but will also have to guarantee within its borders the civil liberties of the other’s national minority. Loose talk about “mutual recognition” and “self-determination” can obscure the fact that, to live with each other, Israelis and Palestinians will also have to be tolerant of each other.

Which is why The Palestinians seems to me a further disappointment. For all of Dimbleby’s professed sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians, he never sees them as complex people capable of divided feelings or unexpected thoughts; the only question seriously posed by the book and its photographs is whether one is for or against the PLO cause. Dimbleby’s most obvious moral simplification is his failure to condemn PLO terror. He does not even try to compare it with that of the Irgun’s former commander, Menachem Begin, whom he dismisses as “terrorism’s philosopher”; that Begin’s old slogans sound close to the statements he quotes by Tamari escapes him. The Palestinians celebrates PLO militarism: twenty-two large photographs in the book are of boys and young men in uniform or brandishing weapons; the newborn are called “babies for Fatah.” By contrast, there are just two pictures of girls and young women in groups—they stand “in silent anticipation” at the edge of a political meeting where “fighters” are seated, or else they are shown wailing over graves.

Dimbleby criticizes the Western nations for closing their doors on Jewish refugees from Hitler; he attacks the Israelis, with justice, for their failure to confront the misery of the Palestinians and to offer to resettle or compensate those in camps. Nowhere, however, does he examine the record of Palestinians or of any Arabs with regard to Jewish refugees, whether before the Final Solution or after. Was, for example, the Evian Conference at which the Western powers refused to raise their Jewish immigration quotas more discreditable than the Cairo Inter-Parliamentary Congress—also held during the fall of 1938, just after Evian—at which Arab leaders friendly to Haj-Amin appealed to Britain to close Palestine completely? Are the material claims of 800,000 Jewish refugees from Islamic countries after 1948 to be disregarded just because these people have not been kept in camps?

Dimbleby’s most ingenuous argument is advanced, paradoxically, to excuse the terror of the PLO not against Israelis but against other Palestinians. When Ali Salim, the leader of the Palestinians resisting both Falangist attacks and the Syrian siege in Beirut, became out-spokenly critical of Arafat’s leadership during those bloody days, the PLO chairman had him executed. Far from being friendly to Israel, Salim thought Arafat too soft, too enmeshed in diplomacy. But Dimbleby defends his execution: “He [Arafat] must preserve his position in the quasi-democratic institution which he leads and ensure that his freedom of tactical manoeuvre is not unduly restricted by minds that are not as free of naïveté as is his own.”

That one of Britain’s “most prominent journalists” could become so cynical about civil liberty seems relevant to his fascination for what he sees as the Palestinian way of life before it was contaminated by the Zionist “invasion”: he admires powerful men who stick to the land, trust in their fathers, breathe clean air. He seems drawn to their “common code of honour…up-held by the ritual of revenge.” This enthusiasm for an idealized virile past prevents Dimbleby from discussing the questions about the history of Arabs and Zionists which Palestinians will have to ask if they look beyond the catastrophic version of history that was put to Dimbleby by PLO spokesmen. To what extent were Zionists responsible for modernizing Palestine—for cities, secularism, technological advance, and egalitarianism? And is the catastrophe of Palestinian history partly the continuing failure of their own intellectuals and political leaders to face these changes constructively? Dimbleby may regret that Zionism was ever invented, but he cannot expect Palestinians who view themselves only as victims to “work out their joint salvation” with Israelis.

The new study of Palestinian politics before World War II by the American scholar Ann Lesch raises just these questions, but for the purpose of showing how Palestinians failed to organize opposition to the Zionists. Lesch has little sympathy for Zionist goals, but her research will be no comfort to advocates of the PLO who ignore how Palestinians themselves helped to frustrate the emergence of an effective national movement in the 1930s.

Lesch gives much attention to the class divisions among Palestinians which thwarted their efforts to speak with one national voice. In fact, the very idea of a Palestinian nation must have seemed fanciful, even subversive to most of the leading Palestinian families in the cities—notably the hamulas, or clans, of the Khaladis, Nashashibis, and Husseinis—who felt secure enough in the Ottoman Empire to serve in its diplomatic corps and central administration. With Ottoman backing, they also controlled their own municipalities, religious institutions, and schools. Lesch could have added that the urban notables, or áyan, had also abused their power to carry out the Ottoman Land Law of 1858, registering large stretches of miri land—land that is state controlled but farmed by peasants—under their own names.4 Such corrupt practices, which were tolerated by the Ottoman authorities, increased their power as rich absentee landlords.

Lesch’s arguments thus put in a new light the long-standing claims of Palestinians that the Turks oppressed them. But similar reservations seem warranted even with regard to the more common charge that they were betrayed by the British. This view has been accepted among supporters of the Palestinian cause since George Antonius published his influential Arab Awakening in 1938. It is true, as the Palestinians claim, that the British secretly annexed Palestine to its empire, although the territory had been promised by McMahon to Emir Hussein, the Hashemite Sherif of Mecca. But Antonius himself argued that, as late as 1920, no specifically Palestinian nationalism had taken shape except in the imaginations of some intellectuals and Christians who were inspired by their teachers in missionary schools before and during World War I. After the war the Palestinian notables were faced with a prospect of Hashemite rule from Damascus, guaranteed by British arms, or the Mandate. No one asked the fellaheen what they preferred.

In fact many of the elite families in Palestine were highly educated and resented the prospect of being ruled by a Bedouin whom they regarded as a desert king; this was Hussein’s son, Feisal, who in 1919 had already made a deal with Weizmann along lines more favorable to the Zionists than those envisioned by Balfour’s declaration. No wonder some urban families, such as the Husseinis, turned to the Syrian nationalists in Damascus who soon forced Feisal to repudiate his cooperation with the Zionists. Other families, such as the Nashashibis, seemed positively drawn to the Mandate.

Lesch shows that this was a time of great political confusion and that the Palestinians and British each, with some cause, saw themselves as betrayed by the other. In fact, all the important Palestinian families turned against the Mandate when its power could not be used for their own private purposes, and the Husseinis were no exception. The pro-Zionist High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, went beyond traditional rules in order to appoint the anti-Zionist leader Haj-Amin al-Husseini as mufti of Jerusalem just after Arab disturbances there in 1920. But in 1922 Haj-Amin, unlike the Nashashibis and others, rejected British proposals for a legislative council in which Jews would have been in the minority, although Weizmann had accepted them. The mufti claimed that by accepting he would only confirm the same illegitimate Mandate authority that had appointed him in 1921.

Nevertheless Lesch demonstrates that the politics of Palestinian nationalism were mainly frustrated by the rivalries among the powerful Palestinian clans, who stirred up peasant fears of Zionism—which was, to most fellahin, the major threat to their proprietary rights in land. Dimbleby, who seems so impressed by the peasants’ style of life before the arrival of the Jews, would find from Lesch’s book that by 1930 the average fellah owed Arab bankers from the leading families a sum roughly equal to an entire year’s revenues, often at a usurious rate of interest—as much as 30 percent. Just such indebtedness led to the many foreclosures that made land available for sale to Zionists. 5 The largest single land purchase by the Jewish National Fund—the one for the Valley of Jezrael in 1920 which, in uprooting over twenty Arab villages, helped touch off the Jaffa riots of 1921—had been concluded only because the Sursoq family in Beirut had been eager to rid itself of insolvent tenants. The great hamulas sincerely opposed Zionism’s atheism, socialist rhetoric, and exclusivist farming of land. They increasingly tried to organize opposition to the Mandate on that account. But it was the British who organized new, easy credit for fellahin during the 1930s.

Lesch also describes the illiteracy of the Palestinian peasants, their primitive technology, and their religious authoritarianism in order to explain why they could not prevail on their own elites and British diplomats to block Jewish immigration and land purchases. That the Palestinians during the 1930s lacked a large, confident, and literate middle class—such as now exists in the West Bank—helps to explain not only the ineffectiveness of Palestinian opposition to the Mandate, but also, ironically, the small number of Palestinians who might have settled for partition in 1938, or when Ben-Gurion offered it in 1946.

Lesch is reluctant to endorse the principle of partition, even in retrospect. She certainly does not approve of the plan of 1937 which would have given the Jews a mini-state—no Jerusalem, no Negev, no western Galilee—and the Palestinians the Hashemite rule they had been denied in 1919. This plan called also for a large Arab minority in the Jewish sector, and there was some British talk about transferring Arabs elsewhere so as to accommodate the Jews expected from Germany and Poland. Were these sufficient reasons for the Palestinians to mount a revolt in order to scuttle the proposals of the British Peel Commission for partition? Lesch seems to think so; but she also shows that whenever compromises were proposed, right up to 1948, the Palestinian national movement came under the domination of fanatic traditionalist groups wholly opposed to all dealings with the Zionists—the Istaqlal organization, for example, and the Husseinis. These silenced, at times violently, the more moderate voices, including members of the Nashashibi clan and some of the merchants of Haifa, who were cautiously advocating negotiations.

Like Dimbleby and the PLO fighters, Lesch considers the Histadrut, the Zionist labor organization, discriminatory and seems to approve of the Palestinians’ defiant attitudes toward it. She is right that the Labor Zionist leaders exploited the vulnerable Arab political economy to establish a foothold in the land. Except for those who joined small Zionist groups like the one called Brit Shalom during the Thirties, they showed little enthusiasm for contact with Arab intellectuals. But Palestinians could not have overcome their difficulties by defeating the Histadrut. On the contrary, because of Labor Zionism’s “movement for Jewish laboring” which kept Jewish industries and collectives from hiring landless Arabs, both groups avoided a colonialist pattern in which Jewish employers would have been seen as exploiting Arab labor.

Certainly the growing numbers of peasants who were becoming part of an Arab proletariat resented Zionist unions for keeping them out of jobs. But Lesch has the advantages of writing in retrospect, as Jewish leaders once had those of foresight. A more liberal Histadrut would have established a society where Jewish settlers found themselves trying to dominate a hostile mass of Arab workers. A pale copy of such colonialism now exists on the West Bank and is a major source of tension. Ben-Gurion, it must be said, was not as much concerned with avoiding colonialist labor relations with the Arabs as with keeping Jews working in Hebrew collectives. But his socialist-Zionist policy nevertheless preserved an Arab economy largely distinct from the Jewish, and the possibility of partitioning the land between two states. It also encouraged the growth of the very class of Palestinian merchants, industrialists, and intellectuals who gradually built up Palestinian nationalism.

Lesch’s closely argued history of the failures of Palestinian nationalism raises the question of how moderate and progressive people in Lebanon or the West Bank can now change that history in spite of the strident position of the PLO leadership, and in the face of the Israeli occupation. Dimbleby deals perfunctorily with the position of Palestinians who seek social progress while coexisting with Israel; he writes instead of Fatah’s modest attempts to establish schools, factories, and hospitals in Lebanon. But such influential Palestinian intellectuals as Whalid Khalidi, now Professor of Political Studies at American University in Beirut, have argued forcefully and openly that political compromise will be indispensable. Khalidi has already advocated what Dimbleby will not: that the PLO recognize Israel and negotiate for a virtually demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. Khalidi now seems an isolated figure. If peace does become a serious possibility how many Palestinians will know what to do with it?

(This is the first of two articles on recent books on the Palestinians.)

  1. 4

    See Y. Porath’s succinct discussion in The Emergence of the Palestinian Arab National Movement (Frank Cass, London, 1974, and International Scholarly Book Service, Forest Grove, Ore.), p. 11.

  2. 5

    See Said B. Himadeh, ed., The Economic Organization of Palestine (American Press, Beirut, 1938), pp. 496-497. Also, Lesch, p. 69.

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