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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 of Israel."

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 world.

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 rule.

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" (p. 187).

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 American imperialism.

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 the 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.

1. Peter Young, The Israeli Campaign, 1967 (London, 1967), p. 32

2. Yehoshafat 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. 215-216.

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.

5. Published in Hebrew translation in Behind the Curtain (Tel Aviv, 1954).

6. F. A. Sayegh, Understanding of the Arab Mind (Washington, 1953), P. 28.

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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Source: "Battleground: Fact & Fantasy in Palestine" by Samuel Katz, 
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"Battleground" is one of the best written and most informative histories of the Arab-Israeli conflict. ... I advise everyone to read it. - Congressman Jack Kemp

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Copyright © 1973, 1977, 1978, 1985 by Samuel Katz.
All rights reserved.  Reprinted by Permission.
Portions Copyright © 2001 Joseph Katz