A deserted people: The decline of the Palestinian national movement

The problem of the Palestinians is [due to] their unrealistic goals

PALESTINIANS CELEBRATE Nakba Day at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate in 2014 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
PALESTINIANS CELEBRATE Nakba Day at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate in 2014
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The border between Israel and Gaza was recently again on fire, yet the world yawns with indifference. Apart from Turkey and South Africa, no state had even withdrawn its ambassador from Tel Aviv. Despite the occupation, the Jewish state is far from being internationally isolated.
But instead of elaborating on the reasons for the relative success of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy, I would like to focus on the underlying strategic reasons for a parallel process: the failure of the Palestinian national movement. Since 1948, the Palestinians failed to achieve all of their important goals: Israel was not destroyed, the Palestinian refugees were not granted the right to return to their former homes and an independent Palestinian state was not established in any part of historic Palestine.
This failure is not a matter of strategy. Since their military defeat in 1948, the Palestinians have tried many strategies, violent and non-violent: cross-border infiltration and airplane hijackings, suicide bombings and knifings, guerrilla warfare and mass protests, stone-throwing and strikes, soft power, media campaigns, lawfare and UN diplomacy. Their two latest non-violent strategies – bilateral negotiations with Israel and the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) – have also failed to make a difference. Today, the Palestinians are divided and weaker than ever. Even the elites in the Arab world have gradually lost interest in their plight.
Some observers argue that the gross power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians might explain the failure of Palestinian struggle tactics, but that is also incorrect. In the Vietnam War, the NLF (Vietcong) and its North Vietnamese allies were much weaker than the United States of America, and yet they forced the US to abandon the war.
The problem of the Palestinians is rather with their unrealistic goals. The goal of the Communists in Vietnam was to coerce the United States to abandon its South Vietnamese allies. That was realizable, because military presence in Vietnam was not considered existential by most Americans.
The Palestinians, by contrast, demand territories with utmost strategic importance, half of the country’s capital city and the right of refugees and generations of their descendants to “return” – a move deemed suicidal by most Israeli Jews. Because the price of these demands is considered so high by Israel, no pain the Palestinians inflict can force the Jewish State to pay it. In other words, even effective strategies of coercion are doomed to fail if one’s demands are unrealistic.
Why didn’t the Palestinians address the mismatch between the scale of their demands – for example the “right of return” – and the weakness of their position? The answer lies in long-term historical developments and patterns deeply ingrained in the Palestinian national movement. As historian Benny Morris writes, many, if not most Palestinians, have seen the Nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1948 not only as a military defeat but also as a moral outrage that could not last. The occupation of their ancestral land and the expulsion of its inhabitants was seen as so morally repugnant – so offensive to the dignity of the Arabs and Muslims that surely somebody must interfere: the Arab world, The Soviet bloc, the United Nations or the international community at large.
These expectations were reinforced by subsequent developments. During the Cold War, the Palestinian problem became a binding glue for large segments of the Third World, even outside of the Arab and Muslim realms. Countries as remote as China and India saw Israel as a repugnant symbol of Western imperialism, and the cause of Palestine was heralded by liberation movements worldwide, from Indonesia to South Africa.
Famously, former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela said that the freedom of Palestine is a prerequisite for true liberation in his country. The popularity of the Palestinian issue gave them an important asset: an almost automatic majority in the United Nations. However, that asset was also a liability. International support was too weak to coerce Israel, but strong enough to give the Palestinians an illusion of eventual victory.
This illusion removed all incentives for realistic thinking. If a realist fights alone, then his demands must be in accordance with his actual power to coerce. But if one expects salvation from the deus ex machina of the international community, then it is possible to indulge in moralistic dreams. “The Palestinian Narrative,” based on a sense of moral outrage, passiveness and “legitimate rights” is the stumbling block underlying the failure of their struggle from 1948 to this very day.
The writer is a military historian from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.