In the early 1990s, the Government of Israel took what remains as the single greatest risk for peace and security since the State’s independence in 1948. The gamble failed miserably. Israelis – and Jews around the world – continue to pay the price—perhaps most spectacularly in the rise of the international BDS movement specifically, and more broadly, in the rebirth of a virulent, open Jew hatred of a kind not seen since the decade leading to the Holocaust.
The risk was Israel’s willingness to abide by a lie. It happened in September 1993, when Israel acknowledged the existence of a “Palestinian people” in the Oslo Accords. Any attempt to understand why so many people slander Israel as an occupying power and an apartheid state uniquely suited for economic boycotts and diplomatic sanctions must begin by looking at that lie and its implications.
Israeli acknowledgment notwithstanding, there has never been, is not now, and – hopefully, for those concerned with peace, human rights, justice and truth – never will be a distinct “Palestinian people.” The people known today as “Palestinians” are simply Arabs—mostly Sunni Muslims—who lived, or whose ancestors lived, in the portion of the British Mandate for Palestine west of the Jordan River during a brief period in the 1940s. In no other sense were they distinct from their neighbors whom the mandatory powers chose to label Lebanese, Jordanians, or Syrians.
As the Lebanese Civil War that raged for nearly two decades, the collapse of post-Saddam Iraq, and the bloodletting currently underway in Syria demonstrate, none of these assigned nationalisms ever took hold. Moreover, contemporaneous surveys conducted by the British during the Mandatory period showed that the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims in pre-1948 Palestine were newcomers with no historic attachment at all to the land, migrant workers and recent immigrants from dozens of regions from Morocco to Bosnia to India, speaking dozens of languages, who came to provide manpower for the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate and to benefit from the economic flowering of the Jewish people’s return to its homeland. To the extent that a new “Palestinian” nation can be said to have emerged, even in weak form, there is no reason to believe that it has become deeper as a matter of identity than has membership in the Iraqi or Syrian nations. The internal dynamics of the people who call themselves “Palestinians” mirror those of the people living in the regions still labeled Syria and Iraq. Even less – as until the “Palestinian” fiction was useful, these same Arabs when self-identified as linked to a nation, considered themselves Egyptian or Syrian or Saudi or Algerian, etc., not “Palestinian.”
Today, even as they claim a new identity, a civil war between Hamas and Fatah cuts these Arabs in half. Hamas, as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, rejects the very notion of a national identity in favor of an Islamic one; even in that, it faces competition from various other Islamist groups. Fatah is notoriously riven with factionalism, and its corruption is legendary. Were the nascent “Palestine” to become yet another Arab state in search of a nation, it would devolve into immediate anarchy as warlords, militias, and Islamists all turned against each other. The conclusion is inescapable. Regardless of designations that the state system may assign, Arabs throughout western Asia continue to identify strongly with their sect or tribe while feeling little or no kinship with those that the international community deems their countrymen.
In the case of “Palestine,” the designation is particularly galling because the definitions of both the people and the state emerged from what they were not rather than what they were. During the early twentieth century, when emerging Pan-Arabism competed with tribalism for hearts and minds throughout the Arab world, the new notion of a “Palestinian” arose to define the residents of the historic Jewish homeland in which Jews hoped to build a Jewish state. “Palestine,” of course, was defined as precisely coterminous with that Jewish homeland; when the Zionists dropped their legitimate historical and legal claims to the East Bank, so too did the “Palestinians.” Indeed, before the Jewish state declared its name to be Israel, it was the national and public institutions of the Jews – bank, post office, newspaper, tourism office, etc. – that used the label “Palestine.” The flag of pre-Israel Palestine featured a Jewish star on a field of blue and white. There was no equivalent Arab identity. Arab “Palestinianism” thus arose precisely to counter Zionism and to defeat the cause of Jewish self-determination in the ancient Jewish homeland. As such, the movement was founded as a classic anti-Jewish hate movement, and so it remains.
Throughout its first few decades, “Palestinianism” was comfortable in that role. Its most prominent leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, allied himself happily with Hitler and the Nazis—enjoying the warm embrace of the world’s largest and most powerful anti-Jewish hate group, and collaborating on plans to export the genocidal Final Solution to the Middle East.
Twenty years and three Arab/Israeli wars later, however, the situation had changed—at least from the all-important public relations perspective. While elite Western opinion of the 1960s and 70s deemed anti-Jewish hate groups unacceptable, it welcomed movements of indigenous self-determination. Yasser Arafat, with significant Soviet assistance, recast “Palestinianism” as a nationalist movement—but he did not restructure it as a nationalist movement.
Arafat’s rebranding proved persuasive. By the time of the Oslo Accords, much of the world took the “Palestinian” lie for granted. The idea that any or all of the twenty-plus governments of the Sunni Arab world might bear responsibility for its own people, much as Israel assumed responsibility for the Jews forcibly ejected from centuries-old communities across the Middle East, seemed unachievable. By the early 1990s, it was hardly unreasonable for forces in Israel’s government to believe that Israel would have to deal with the increasingly violent Arabs living in its midst—and that Arafat’s PLO could employ brutal techniques unavailable to the IDF. Israel endured the lie of a distinct “Palestinian” people, invited the PLO into the Israeli heartland, and began the Israeli withdrawal from large parts of day-to-day Arab life beyond the Green Line. This high-risk – and excruciatingly short-sighted – strategy thus helped reinforce the widespread confusion that mislabels Israel’s liberation of the indigenously (and legally, in accordance with the 1920 San Remo Resolution, the terms of which are still binding under international law) Jewish heartland that Jordan had occupied illegally between 1948 and 1967 as an Israeli “occupation.”
In fact, this foundational lie underpins an elaborate edifice that is simultaneously divorced from reality and devastating to both sides. If the “Palestinians” are indeed a unique indigenous yet stateless people, the burden of proof falls upon those insisting that Israel is not occupying their state—and that those who fight that occupation are something other than freedom fighters. Furthermore, given that Arab and Jewish residents of the disputed territories live in separate villages subject to different legal systems, accusations of segregation—if not apartheid—are easily manipulated for mass consumption. Finally, it becomes clear why traditional pro-Israel demographics like American Jews and Evangelical Christians are becoming increasingly uneasy and critical, and unclear why a movement of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions targeting a segregationist occupying power is outrageous.
While Israel’s defenders certainly have enough facts at their disposal to win tactical victories, their efforts will continue to run headfirst into the foundational lie. At the end of the day, if the “Palestinians” are a people distinct from any of the other Arabs, and if their homeland is indeed coterminous with the lands that Israel currently controls, Israel cannot win. It is a zero-sum game. The attacks, slanders, and diplomatic setbacks will continue to ratchet ever upward—fully inverting the stated purpose of the Oslo accords. Rabin’s gamble has failed miserably. His acceptance of the foundational lie of “Palestine” has cost thousands of lives, heightened Israel’s diplomatic challenges, increased global anti-Semitism, and done nothing to inculcate responsible behavior among the Arabs.
But the evil of “Palestinianism” does not end there. As corrosive as this fiction is to Jewish rights and to the standing of Israel in the world, the Arabs who have been saddled with the “Palestinian” lie suffer even more. Political, military and security threats notwithstanding, Israeli citizens – Jew and Arab alike – enjoy life in a thriving country, leading technology on all fronts, with freedoms and rights enjoyed by few the world over (and nowhere in the region). Israel consistently is listed as one of the “happiest” countries around the world. Famous for its urbanity, culture and lifestyle, Tel Aviv is second in the world as the posting of choice for US diplomats with clout – only Paris is more sought after. “Palestinian” Arabs, on the other hand, dwell in eternal misery, created to remain refugees, a manipulated dispossessed, with generation after generation raised in a fetid miasma of resentment and hate and vendetta. “Palestinians” are not only an anti-Semitic hate group; they are, by their own behavior and admission, a suicidal death cult. “We love death like our enemies love life,” “Palestinians” infamously boast. As impossible as such a mentality may seem to us, from wars waged via suicide bombers and human shields to textbooks and children’s television extolling genocide and martyrdom, “Palestinians” demonstrate their fidelity to this terrible, tragic ethos. This is what they were created to be; they have nothing else.
It is far past time to reassert the truth. “Palestinianism” combines the inner workings of a hate group with the outer trappings of a nationalist movement. “Palestinians” raise their children to hate Jews and to glory in those who kill Jews. “Palestinian” society, from top to bottom, allocates greater resources to ensuring that their people despise Jews than to encouraging those same people to help themselves. No version of “Palestinian” nationhood allows for the existence of a Jewish state anywhere in the Jewish homeland. “Palestinianism” on the ground today remains faithful to its raison d’être: far, far more concerned with destroying Israel than with building “Palestine,” a movement and identity in which hatred of the reviled other is far more important than love of self.
There can be no “two state solution” because there is no stateless nation in waiting; there are only Arabs living in the historic Jewish homeland.
If the region is ever to know stability, if those on both sides – Arab and Jew – who yearn for normalization and acceptance are ever to achieve it, if Israel has any desire to survive, let alone to be accepted as anything other than a pariah, all dialogue must first dispense with the foundational lie of a distinct “Palestinian” nation.
Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon