Israel and the Palestinians: Might a different perspective help?

Zionism did not impose itself upon an indigenous people who’d been there for centuries; it was one of two simultaneous immigrations

Palestinian protest (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian protest
(photo credit: REUTERS)
PART I: Maybe not so crazy?
There are 10 million things I’ll never understand about Israel. One million because I came here late in life and missed all the formative experiences. Nine million because nobody will ever tell me. The past here is far more pervasive and far more opaque than in America. Still, after seven years in residence, I can’t avoid reaching a few conclusions, based mostly upon my sensibility as a historian and an occasionally keen grasp of the obvious.
This column and next deal with how I’ve come to understand some of the rarely discussed complexities of the Israeli/ Palestinian tragedy.
I share them for what they might be worth: a set of propositions, beginning with a forgotten historical fact.
According to British statistics, between 1923 and 1943, the non-Jewish population of Palestine doubled.
Who were they? What were they coming for?
The answer is as striking as it is banal. They came because they wanted a better, safer life. All kinds of people came. Some left Egypt because of food shortages. Others, many of them educated and prosperous, chose not to live in the now-Christian successor states of the defunct Ottoman Empire, and in other parts of the Balkans. Some just had to get out of wherever they were.
Palestine was a good deal. By the standards of the region, the British administration was honest and efficient, and in many ways pro-Arab, especially at the higher social and economic strata.
Plus, you could make money in Palestine. Opportunities were uneven, but available. Rapid population growth inevitably drove up the real-estate market. Zionist land purchases did their share. Bubbles are great while they last, and what with all the new infrastructure and services that the Jews were creating, life could be okay.
In short, Zionism did not simply impose itself upon an indigenous people who’d been there for centuries. Zionism was one of two simultaneous immigrations, and of the two, the far more politicized and aggressive. Still, it might have been possible to create a peaceful society (did the longtime residents welcome their new Muslim brethren?) if only...
The growth of Palestinian nationalism and pan-Arabism are beyond the scope of this column and far beyond my minimal knowledge of the subject, but two facts scream out.
First, the Zionists essentially ignored the Palestinians. People don’t like to be ignored, and resent those who ignore them. Zionism was eminently resentable.
Second, the Palestinians had no leadership whom the Zionists could choose to engage. Local effendis were often not much more than absentees. More brutally, the grand mufti’s clan and hired thugs killed and intimidated real and potential rivals by the thousands. Beneath the Pax Britannia and even without Zionism, Palestine was an Arab society in disarray.
The grand mufti did not seek peaceful coexistence with either Zionism or his own people. Nor was such the objective of the surrounding Arab states. In this situation, extremism of various kinds, from a violent new Arab nationalism to the old antisemitic fury, could flourish. There were no possible alternatives on offer from either the British or the Jews.
So what did the Palestinians, both the long-time residents and the newcomers, want politically?
Impossible to tell. From then until today, the Palestinian people have been unable to speak out as people, as human beings living their lives. Those who posed as their leaders and protectors were, for reasons of their own, far more radical than those they claimed to lead and protect. So between their oppression, Zionist indifference and the tragic course of events, radicalization of the population was inevitable.
Radicalization of at least some of the population. As for the rest, perhaps, radicalization was a mile wide and an inch deep.
Was that the way it was, and continues to be? I can’t tell. But the possibility shouldn’t be excluded.
We needn’t linger on the events leading to the UN partition resolution of 1947 and the immediate rejection, by the mufti and the Arab League, of any solution that created a Palestinian state. Egypt, Syria and Transjordan didn’t want to liberate Palestine. They wanted to carve it up amongst themselves. Is that what the Palestinian people wanted for themselves?
I doubt it. But I do know this. When Israel came into existence, both by international law and according to the practice of nations, Israel could have declared every remaining Palestinian an enemy alien, subject to expulsion or worse. Instead, Israel declared them citizens.
It was not now, and has never been, a full citizenship. Non-Jewish Israeli citizens lived under martial law for 10 years and remain subject to seemingly endless restrictions and petty oppressions. But the fact of Israel’s willingness to grant citizenship to enemies in the forlorn hope, perhaps, that they would not always be enemies...
Still possible?
Yes. If.
Hag sameah.
Next: The Palestinian state that cannot be; the Palestinian state that might.