Every week, it seems, brings another backward step for Palestine. President Mahmoud Abbas’s failure to convene the Palestinian Legislative Assembly, due to a Hamas boycott, may lead inexorably to the final breakdown of the political structures created under the Oslo Accords. Sadly, this is only the latest chapter in the Palestinians’ tragic history of failed attempts to create a nation-state.
Palestinians see their history as one of struggle against Zionism and Israel. But the reality is more complicated, and marked by repeated failures to create a coherent body politic, even when historical opportunities beckoned.
Perhaps the first failure occurred in the 1920’s, when the British Mandatory government in Palestine encouraged the two national communities – Jewish and Arab – to establish communal institutions of self-government to look after education, welfare, housing, and local administration.
The Jews – then less than 20% of British Palestine’s population – set up what became known as the National Committee (Va’ad Leumi), based on an elected body, the Representative Assembly of Palestinian Jews. Regular elections to this Assembly took place, sometimes with more than a dozen parties competing.
This autonomous institution became the forerunner of the political structure of the nascent Jewish state, and its leaders – David Ben-Gurion among them – emerged as Israel’s future political elite. Israel succeeded as a nation, with a vibrant and sometimes obstreperous parliamentary life, precisely because its leaders used this opportunity.
The Palestinians, however, never created similar embryonic state structures: an Arab Higher Committee was established, made up of regional and tribal notables, but no elections ever took place. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini (later an ally of Nazi Germany), became its chairman, but it never succeeded in creating a generally accepted national leadership or in providing the Arab community the panoply of educational and welfare services offered to the Jewish community by its elected institutions.
The second failure occurred during the Arab Revolt against British rule in Palestine in 1936-1939, which was accompanied by massive terror attacks against Jewish civilians. The revolt itself was brutally suppressed by the British army, but not before a split within the Palestinian community resulted in two armed militias – one based on the Husseini clan, the other on the more moderate Nashashibis – that turned viciously on each other. More Palestinians were killed by contending militias than by the British army or the Jewish self-defense forces.
The third failure – even more tragic – occurred in 1947-48, when Palestinian Arabs rejected the United Nations partition plan, which envisaged separate Arab and Jewish states after the departure of the British. While Jews accepted this compromise, the Palestinian Arabs, supported by the Arab League countries, rejected it and went to war against the emerging State of Israel.
The Palestinian Arab defeat in this endeavor, and the resulting refugee problem, is a defining moment for Palestinians. But what sometimes gets lost in this narrative is that, while practically all sectors of Palestinian Arab society rejected the UN plan, Palestinians were unable to devise coherent political institutions and a unified military command with which to confront the much smaller Jewish community. By contrast, the besieged Jewish community, under David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish self-defense force (the Hagannah) was able to mobilize, through its democratic institutions and with only marginal dissent, the resources needed for a successful military campaign.
Indeed, many Palestinian political leaders absconded to Beirut or Cairo once violence broke out. The Husseini clan set up its militia in the Jerusalem area. Near Tel Aviv, in adjoining Jaffa, a competing militia under Hassan Salameh, took control. In the north of the country, a Syrian-based militia, under Fawzi al-Kaukji, attacked Jewish villages. The more moderate Haifa Arabs tried, not very successfully, to stay out of the fray.
Disunity made the Arab defeat almost inevitable. Moreover, the scars of the 1930’s virtual civil war have still not healed: mutual suspicion and memories of internecine massacres vitiated cooperation and trust.
The last failure occurred when the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO set up the autonomous Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat. Instead of creating the infrastructure of the future Palestinian state, with various functions slowly transferred from the Israeli army to the Palestinian Authority, Arafat created a mukhabarat (security services) state, as in Egypt, Syria, and (until Saddam Hussein’s fall) in Iraq.
Arafat and his Fatah-based supporters established almost a dozen competing security services – sometimes indistinguishable from clan-based militias – which consumed more than 60% the Palestinian Authority’s budget, at the expense of education, housing, welfare, and refugee rehabilitation. Into this vacuum burst Hamas, with its network of schools, welfare services, community centers, and support organizations. The Hamas takeover of Gaza was but the latest step in this development.
It is easy to blame the current Palestinian crisis on individuals – be it Arafat or Abbas. It is even easier to blame the Israeli occupation or American policies. To be sure, there is a lot of blame to go around. But all national movements – the Greek as well as the Polish, the Jewish as well as the Kurdish – begin in adversity.
The Palestinians have a difficult history – one of internal disunity and murderous internecine conflict – to overcome. They now stand again at a crossroads, and whether they will be able to transcend their tragic heritage depends on them. No one can help them if they cannot come up with a coherent, consensual, and reasonably united leadership – what Abbas himself calls “one law, one authority, one gun.”