The myth of "Palestinian" Nationalism and
the reality of Arabic-Islamic Nationalism
The "refugees" were not leaving their homeland,
rather the were just migrating to another part of the larger Arab state.
A glaring, and tragic, illustration of the
Arabs' loose territorial affinities was provided by a largely disregarded
aspect of the "refugee" problem. After all has been said of the pressures
that were exerted and the panic that was induced by their leaders in 1948,
something uncanny remains in the picture of a community, rural as well
as urban, not under any physical pressure -- even, as in Haifa, asked to
remain -- nevertheless removing itself, men, women, and children leaving
home and farm and business, leaving village and town, to go into a self-imposed
exile. The ease of it, its smoothness, is remarkable.
There was no steadfast refusal to leave,
as would be encountered in most of the world, certainly from farmers, from
people attached to their soil. They went into exile in cold blood, even
before there was any fighting. And expecting fighting, they left their
fate in the hands of foreign soldiers. It was not a question of evacuating
non-combatants; here everybody left, including some 95 percent of the men
of military age. A pregnant description of this phenomenon is contained
in the London Times of June 7, 1948, in a dispatch from its correspondent
in Amman. "Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan and even Iraq were filled with fugitives
from Palestine, many of them young men of military age still carrying arms--
The cafes and hotel lobbies continued to be filled with young effendis
whose idea was that though something must be done it should be done by
somebody else. Some of them had spent a week or so at the front and on
the strength of this they felt entitled to return to less dangerous climes."
Were they all cowards? Were they all stupid?
They were neither. They did not, indeed, think long; they decided quickly.
It was not difficult to decide-because they did not see the invaders from
the Arab states as foreign soldiers, nor their own destination as an exile.
They considered the move as being to another part of the Arab world, to
another place where Arabic was spoken, to a place where they would find
their own people, often their own relatives. To move from Acre to Beirut,
from Akir to Nablus, was like an American moving from Cincinnati to Detroit
or from Trenton to Boston. In all fairness, it must be added that not all
the Arabs went into exile. Some 100,000 declined to move. Their presumed
hatred of Jews and their sense of belonging to a large Arab people and
territory apparently did not outweigh their love for their homes. These
are the Arabs who, despite inevitable early difficulties, prospered and
multiplied in Israel, numbering by 1967 (together with returnees permitted
by the Israeli government) some 350,000 souls, with the highest birthrate
in the world.
The phenomenon of exodus was given a new
dimension in 1967. When the Six Day War was over, without any pressures
or promises from any side, when there was not even the hint or rumour of
a threat to the safety of life or property, some 200,000 Arabs in Judea
and Samaria packed their belongings and crossed the Jordan. Day after day,
the caravans of trucks and buses and private cars drove down to the approaches
to the river. Because the Allenby Bridge was still a collapsed mass of
iron and masonry, the crossing had to be improvised. The long queues waited
patiently for their turn to cross. Scores of local and foreign newspaper
correspondents, photographers, and a sprinkling of unofficial visitors
mingled and talked with them while they waited. Three weeks after the war,
I was able to visit the area. I watched the progress of the evacuees to
the bridge. I asked a well-dressed young man where he came from and why
he was leaving. He explained that, as an employee of the Jordanian government
stationed at Bethlehem, he had been instructed to report to Amman. Once
across the river, the Arabs were interviewed by foreign newspapermen. There
everyone who told his story claimed to have been driven out by the Jews.
Between 1949 and 1967, when Jordan ruled the
West Bank, 400,000 Arabs left for other parts of the "Arab world." - yet
these too are called "refugees".
No less significantly, between 1949 and 1967,
when the Jordanian Arab king ruled peacefully in Judea and Samaria, some
400,000 Arabs packed their belongings and left for other parts of the "Arab
world." Today, large numbers of Palestinian Arabs are living and working
as ordinary citizens in Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya,
and especially prosperous Kuwait. All these countries are home to them.
There are, of course, cultural differences; even the spoken language has
its local idiosyncrasies as does the English of London, Yorkshire, or Scotland,
or the American in New York, Connecticut, or Texas.
The "Palestinian" movement and the "Palestinian"
nation were still, in 1972, no more than a myth. The Arabs of Palestine,
like all the other Arabs, have been taught to see as their territory the
vast expanse between the Persian Gulf on the east and the African Atlantic
coast on the west. To the north it borders on Turkey; to the south its
Asian boundary is where the Arab peninsula meets the Indian Ocean, and
its African frontiers are marked by a line running through the heart of
the continent, beginning with the northern border of Uganda to the east
and ending with the northern border of Senegal to the west. The existence
of a non-Arab state in the centre of "his" territory is offensive to the
Arab, who has been taught to see it as incomprehensible except in terms
of a rampant imperialism. That is the emotional foundation of the Arabs'
attitude. Israel's existence is therefore out of the question; the new
state must disappear. The status and future of the Arabs living in Palestine
is essentially a secondary matter, to be settled later, or fought over,
among the Arabs themselves. For the time being, the resources of the Arab
world must be concentrated on camouflaging the reason for Israel's liquidation
as a solution to a human problem--the problem of "homeless" Palestinians.
The Egyptian journal Al-Musswar in December 1968 admitted frankly: "'The
expulsion of our brothers from their homes should not cause us any anxiety,
especially as they were driven into Arab countries.... The masses of the
Palestinian people are only the advanceguard of the Arab nation . . . a
plan for rousing world opinion in stages, as it would not be able to understand
or accept a war by a hundred million Arabs against a small state."
What quarrel with Israel has Kuwait on the
Persian Gulf, or Sudan in the heart of Africa, or Morocco on the Atlantic
Coast? What quarrel, indeed, have Egypt, Syria, and Iraq?
Such is the core of the confrontation between
Israel and the Arab people. It stares out, moreover, beyond the sleight
of hand of Arab propaganda. The campaign against Israel is conducted, after
all, by the whole Arab world. Every one of the Arab states is involved
and makes its greater or lesser contribution. At the least, each state
co-operates in the economic boycott, in the diplomatic offensive, in the
propaganda campaign. What quarrel with Israel has Kuwait on the Persian
Gulf, or Sudan in the heart of Africa, or Morocco on the Atlantic Coast?
What quarrel, indeed, have Egypt, Syria, and Iraq?
The Arab states are, furthermore, divided
among themselves on a number of important problems. The interests of the
oil-bearing states conflict with those that have no oil, the rich with
the poor, the puritanical Moslem states with the more permissive. Needless
to say, the Arab governments, like other governments, are not altruistic.
A glance at their ruling classes suggests that, in the matter of concern
for others, the Arabs are below rather than above average. They are model
members in a world where the rule, perhaps inevitable, is for every nation
to look out for itself and to pursue its own selfish interest. It is not
to help the Palestine Arabs that the Arab states pursue their militant
purpose toward Israel.
"If the Arabs could agree on nothing else,"
wrote one of their great friends, a British officer who served in the Jordanian
Arab Legion, "they could at least agree that Israel as a State must be
extinguished. Israel delenda est."1 Such has
been the theme ever since the Arab leaders began to see the Arab Empire
as a tangible aim. In May 1946, when the Jewish state was still only a
"threat," a meeting at Inshass in Egypt of leaders of the Arab states declared:
"The problem of Palestine is not the problem only of the Arabs of Palestine,
but of all the Arabs."
Since the Jewish state was established,
Arab political and ideological literature has been filled with a mass of
semantic variations on the theme.
"When Palestine is injured," said Abdel
Nasser in 1953, "each one of us is injured in his feelings and in his homeland."
Eight years later, the outlook had not
changed. "The Palestine problem," said Nasser in 1961, "has never been
the problem of the Palestinians alone. The whole Arab nation is involved."
At its conference in October 1966, the Syrian ruling Ba’ath Party went
to the heart of the Arab purpose: "The existence of Israel in the heart
of the Arab homeland constitutes the main base dividing the eastern part
from the western part of the Arab nation."2
"The meaning of Arab unity is the liquidation
of Israel." - Egyptian Prime Minister, 1965
Nasser stated it more pointedly on February
2, 1965, at the Festival of Unity: "The meaning of Arab unity is the liquidation
The conflict, then, shorn of legend and
fiction, is between the "Arab nation," which possesses eighteen states
embracing an area of thirteen million square kilometres, and the Jewish
people, claiming the right to its single historic homeland, whose territory
even today after the Six Day War, constitutes less than 1 percent of the
territories ruled and dominated by the Arabs.
That is the moral issue in the clash between
Arabs and Jews. On the one hand is the hunger of the Jewish people for
national independence and physical security in its homeland, a land it
has brought back to life. On the other hand is the huge, unsentimental
appetite of the Arab people for the unbroken continuity of a vast empire
and for the unique status of a nation which, itself dominating minority
populations of millions, arrogantly and violently refuses to accept that
status for one small segment of its people.
The ambitions of British imperialists,
aiming at their own domination of the Fertile Crescent through Arab puppet
states, first aroused the idea of a reborn empire in Arab minds as a serious
and practical political proposition. Their aid and patient support established
the nucleus of the modem Arab Empire. After they had conceived and established
the Arab League in 1945, the British tended and nurtured it for years thereafter.
They first envisaged Palestine as a full partner in that empire, its Jewish
population being given minority status as envisaged in the British government's
White Paper of 1939. No less important, the British persuaded the Arabs
that this plan was feasible. They looked forward to a tangible reward for
their friendship. Later, however, the strategic attractions and commercial
opportunities of the Arab states drew the attention of other nations, and
Britain had to content herself with only a part of the Arabs' favours.
This change flowed from a development which
even the most powerful Arab imagination had not conceived. It was precisely
in this period that new, unprecedentedly large discoveries of oil were
made in the soil of a number of the Arab states. Their economic importance
and potential increased overnight. Tremendous impact was now added to their
relations in the international area, and especially with the great powers,
who are the chief exploiters of the oil. The Arabs became a power in the
For many hundreds of years, the Arab states
had played no part in world affairs.
For many hundreds of years, the Arab states
had played no part in world affairs. (Few of them had played any part even
in the conduct of their own affairs.) Outside the sheikhdoms of Arabia
itself, which pursued the slow tempo of life in the wide spaces and played
out their desert rivalries, there simply were no Arab affairs. Nor was
there any hunger or striving for their revival. The Arabs warmed themselves
and were contented with memories of past glory. Characteristically, they
tended to magnify that glory; their imagination expanded the 120 years
of the purely Arab Empire in the seventh and eighth centuries and fused
them with the following three centuries of an empire ruled by Moslems,
who spoke and wrote Arabic but, like Saladin, were not Arabs and became
Arabs only in the nostalgic retrospection of later centuries. Nevertheless,
the Arabs have genuine memories of glory, of military achievements that
were the wonder of their age, of the wide sowing of their language and
their faith over vast areas of the earth, of the glittering imperial splendour
of Damascus and Baghdad, of a cultural contribution that enriched and dazzled
medieval European scholarship.
For a thousand years they lived on that
glory. In a prolonged and continuous stagnation, they ceased not only to
rule, but also to achieve, to create, to build, to strive. Far from reviving
past glories, they sank into a lethargy that brought them into the twentieth
century as one of the most backward, most immobile of peoples. Students
of Arabic history and culture, especially those well-disposed to the Arabs,
cite the characteristics responsible for that lethargy. "the Arab is preoccupied
with his past," writes the Arab sociologist Sania Hamady. "The pleasant
memories of its glory serve as a refuge from the painful reality of the
present" (p. 217).
The roots of this condition are deep. As
the scholars point out, lethargy and stagnation are conditioned by Islamic
principles of predestination and fatalism. Nor are there reasonable prospects
of a change. "It is not an exaggeration to say that after so many centuries
of immobility the process of agriculture, industry, exchange and learning
had become little more than automatic, and had resulted in a species of
atrophy that rendered those engaged in them all but incapable of changing
their methods or outlook in the slightest degree... It is incapacity rather
than unwillingness to learn that characterises Arab society."3
The Arab leaders who themselves enjoyed a
modem education have been conscious of the stagnation of their society.
The Arab leaders who themselves enjoyed a
modem education may have been conscious of the stagnation and backwardness
of their society. They were nevertheless not equipped, they were indeed
helpless, to effect any of the apparently revolutionary changes that alone
might raise their people to the cultural and technical levels of our age.
Yet now, suddenly, they found themselves
with little effort possessed of independence, controlling states with enormous
resources and vast territories important in global strategy, ruling over
millions of non-Arab minorities. Now, too, they were courted by the great
powers of the world. By a little effort of their imagination they saw themselves
bridging the black gap of the centuries, winning the recognition of the
previously supercilious Western world. Suddenly they could see themselves
accepted, with no further cultural effort, as instant full partners in
the complex culture of the twentieth-century world, just as they had shared
in the building of its foundations during the Middle Ages.4
The power of the Arabs' imagination is
such that they soon forgot that there had been a gap at all. They soon
saw unfolding behind them one continuous stretch of centuries of glory
and of Arab life dominant throughout the whole area conquered by the ancient
Arabic Empire in Asia and Africa. The facts of history between the eighth
and the twentieth centuries ceased to exist; and the prospect they induced
themselves to see was a direct continuation of what had existed 1000. years
ago and more.
Arab population of Palestine sat by while
Jewish resistance led to the end of British rule
Now, at last, the time had come for the assertion
of a "Palestinian" Arab entity. The Arabs could theoretically have joined
the Jews in a classic war of liberation from a foreign ruler and established
a claim to partnership in the ensuing independence. Or, more credibly,
the British having already promised them in fact independence which the
Jewish resistance was endangering, they might have rushed in to help the
British in crushing the Zionists. In fact, faced with the two alternatives,
they chose a third: They did nothing. The Arab population of Palestine
sat by while the Jewish resistance movement brought about the end of British
96% of local Arabs of military age sat by
and did not fight while the neighboring Arab countries invaded Israel.
When the United Nations General Assembly decided
on November 29, 1947, to recommend the partition of Palestine and the establishment
of two states, the Arabs did launch a countrywide attack on the Jews. But
this, too, was carried out only with considerable aid from the British
who maintained their presence in the country for another six months. Clearly,
also, the attacking Arabs were a minority of the people, while the majority
remained passive or evacuated in order to leave the field to the invading
Arab states, who promised to drive the Jews into the sea. The Palestine
Arabs were truly a people of non-combatants; they contributed very little
manpower to the ensuing full-scale war that was supposed to be a life-and-death
struggle for them. The British statistics gave the Arabs a population of
1,200,000 in western Palestine. Even if, as is likely, this figure is an
exaggeration, there must still, at a highly conservative estimate, have
been 100,000 men of military age. The report of the Iraqi Government Commission,
which subsequently inquired into the cause of the defeat,5
established that the total number of Palestinian Arabs who took part in
the war was 4,000. The Jews, altogether some 650,000, lost one-and-a-half
times that number.
This confrontation of figures (%4 of Palestinian
Arabs of millitary age fought, while almost 10% of the entire Jewish population
died). is symbolic of the affinity to Eretz Israel of the Jewish people
and of the real Arab relationship to the country. The Arabs of Palestine
were under no physical compulsion when their vast majority deliberately
left their homes unguarded and exposed and moved off across the Jordan
or into Syria or Lebanon or to those parts of Western Palestine that fell
under the control of the Arab invaders. The Jews--most of them the first
and second generation of the organised return to their ancestral country-stood
and fought and died for every inch of the land. This stark confrontation
of affinities has its deep roots in the history of the land and the people.
There was a further reason for the Arabs'
confidence: They were convinced of their superiority over the Jews as a
fighting nation. Had not the Arabs conquered half the world? True, that
had happened 1,300 years earlier since which time they had distinguished
themselves at best in minor in-fighting among rival Bedouin tribes and
in the Laurentian tactic of arriving after the battle to claim the victory.
They had no difficulty, however, in projecting their seventh-century martial
excellence as an abiding fact in the twentieth. Whoever reads the predictions
of the Arabs in 1956, after they had suffered one defeat, and their even
more bloodcurdling predictions of victory and destruction in May 1967,
after they had suffered two defeats, will recognise the uninhibited, unlimited,
early certainty of the Arab states in May 1948 that they were about to
win a stunning, historic victory, and that within a few weeks, or even
days, Jewish hopes would be in ruins and Palestine would be inexorably
enfolded in the embrace of the reborn Arab Empire.
1948 has entered Arab history as the year
of the catastrophe. The Arab states were saved from complete rout by political
considerations: the submission by the novitiate Israeli government to British
and United States pressures. Thus, Transjordan remained in possession of
most of the area allotted in the United Nations resolution to the Arab
states (Samaria, Judea, and eastern Jerusalem), while Egypt occupied the
Gaza district. Israel, however, was not only not obliterated, she improved
substantially upon the collapsible borders of the UN resolution of 1947
and emerged from the conflict with the high prestige of courage and resource
in the face of overwhelming odds. Moreover, some 400,000 Arab residents
of the area lost their homes.
Soon the shock and the shame of loosing to
Israel gave way to the search for scapegoats and for excuses.
Soon the shock and the shame gave way to the
search for scapegoats and for excuses. "The Arab," notes an Arab writer,
"is reluctant to assume responsibility for his personal or national misfortunes,
and he is inclined to put the entire blame upon the shoulders of others.
The Arab is fascinated with criticism--of the foreigner, of fellow-countrymen,
of leaders, of followers, always of 'the other,' seldom of oneself."6
There is a cultural reason for this habit. Hamadi explains: "As a result
of his determinist orientation, the Arab finds a good excuse to relegate
his responsibility to external forces. He attributes the ills of his society,
his mistakes and failures, either to fate, to the devil or to imperialism"
Thus, as time went by, the material aid
and the diplomatic support and military co-operation which their British
allies had given the Arabs in the war of 1948 and the loaded American neutrality-which
together nearly insured the Arabs' objective of annihilation -- were translated
through Arabic literature into a Zionist invasion aided by British and
Some such far-reaching explanation of their
failure was necessary to the Arabs for another important historical reason.
It was unacceptable that the brave, the resourceful, the chivalrous, the
lionhearted Arabs (of the seventh century) should be defeated by, of all
peoples, the Jews-the lowly, the contemptible, whom they, the Arabs, had
long since condemned to death. The Arabs knew the Jews in Palestine historically
as a minority oppressed, or at least discriminated against, since the seventh
century. The Jews under Moslem rule were second-class citizens. Social
regulations and prohibitions singled them out. They were subject to special
taxes. They were, of course, not alone-all non- Moslems were so treated.
But in the eyes of the Moslems, the Jews in Palestine lived always in the
image of a defeated people, in the daily shadow of their defeat in 70 and
135 C.E. The Christians, inferior though they were, had in their background
a world of states, of power. The Jews had nothing; they were outcasts over
large areas of the Christian world as well. Even when the Arab was himself
ill-treated or humiliated in Moslem non-Arab society, he saw the Jew as
one grade below him. The confrontation with the Jews in British- controlled
Palestine had no doubt amended this attitude, yet now to be defeated in
the open battlefield, at such an historic moment and in such favourable
circumstances, by the Jews-that was an overwhelming blow to Arab pride
The State of Israel, as the instrument of
the Arabs' defeat and dishonour, became the focus of their frustrations.
The State of Israel, as the instrument of
the Arabs' defeat and what they described as their dishonour, thus became
the focus of all their frustrations, of all their hatreds, and of a hunger
for vengeance which, by force of a combination of circumstances, grew fiercer
and deeper with time. Honour and pride could be restored only by the disappearance
of Israel. Again, then, Israel delenda est.
The continuing enhancement of the Arabs'
international stature only increased the frustration. This, after all,
was the era of colonial disengagement. The Dutch, the Belgian, the French,
and the British Empires were disintegrating. Asia and Africa became a checkerboard
of independent states, most of them established with little or no struggle.
One Arabic-speaking country after another became independent. From seven
states at the United Nations in 1948, the Arabs grew to a bloc of eighteen
by 1972. The Arab states, though their average illiteracy rate is among
highest in the world, have perhaps more influence at the United Nations
any other group of nations.
The years have, moreover, seen a steep
increase in oil wealth. While normally a people labours for years to achieve
minor improvements in the national income and the standard of living, some
of the Arab states have overnight joined the richest countries in the world
in terms of per capita wealth. The ease with which their wealth and influence-and
in most cases their political independence-were accomplished led them all
the more to think of 1949 as an unhappy accident for which the "imperialists"
were responsible. When the time came, they decided, the Israelis could
be beaten and with ease "driven into the sea."
A great new force helped to bolster Arab
hopes of victory and annihilation. The Soviet Union, by its steady stream
of arms to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, and by unstinting political support,
replaced Britain as the big brother of Arabism.
Young, The Israeli Campaign, 1967 (London, 1967), p. 32
Harkabi, Arab Attitudes toward Israel (Tel Aviv, 1972), p. 93; Fatah in
Arab Strategy (Tel Aviv, 1969), p. 30, quoting Anabtawi, Palestinian Documents,
II, p. 481.
3. H. A.
R. Gibb and H. Bowen, Islamic Society and the West (London, 1950), pp.
4. An amusing
illustration of the full circle of Arab fantasy and sense of values is
the picturesque claim of the Arab writer Mahmoud Rousa: "The Arabs invented
the wheel, on which modern civilisation is built and now they supply the
oil which turns the wheel." Palestine and the Internationalisation of Jerusalem
(Baghdad, 1965), p. 2.
in Hebrew translation in Behind the Curtain (Tel Aviv, 1954).
6. F. A.
Sayegh, Understanding of the Arab Mind (Washington, 1953), P. 28.
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