A Fresh Perspective: A critique of Palestinian nationalism

What exactly is the right to self determination that nations enjoy? Must it take form in an official state, or can it be actualized via other means such as political autonomy?

A protester with her face painted in the colors of the Palestinian flag chants during a pro-Gaza demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in London (photo credit: REUTERS)
A protester with her face painted in the colors of the Palestinian flag chants during a pro-Gaza demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in London
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One of the strongest arguments of the Zionist Left is based on the very principles that lie at the foundation of Zionist nationalism and the right to self-determination.
The Zionist Left argues that Zionism doesn’t just allow for the creation of a Palestinian state, it mandates it.
How so? If Zionism is based on the universal belief in the righteousness of nationalism and in the right to self-determination of all nations, including the Jewish nation, how can a true Zionist be opposed to this same right when it comes to the Palestinian people? This argument is quite convincing, especially to all those who seek in Zionism some universal values that transcend the traditional Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel.
However, this argument is also based on some flawed assumptions that need to be deconstructed.
Are the Palestinians really a nation?
Historically, the idea of a Palestinian nation is very new.
For some time, Palestine was merely a geographical area – not a national identity. There were Palestinian Arabs, Palestinian Beduin and Palestinian Jews. These terms simply referred to Arabs, Beduin or Jews living in the geographical region of Palestine.
James L. Gelvin writes in his book The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War: “Palestinian nationalism emerged during the inter-war period, in response to Zionist immigration and settlement.” In fact, Jerusalem mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who had ties to Nazi Germany, purposely developed the feeling of Palestinian nationalism.
As historian Bernard Lewis postulates: “The rewriting of the past is usually undertaken to achieve specific political aims.”
One argument is that the history of Palestinian nationalism is not very important; if Palestinian nationalism exists today, then that is what matters.
This would be true if we did not have modern evidence of Palestinians not identifying as a separate nation, but rather seeing themselves as part of the Arab nation and specifically denying any real Palestinian nationalism.
Indeed, on March 31, 1977, Dutch newspaper Trouw published an interview with PLO executive committee member Zahir Muhsein, in which he said: “The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the State of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality, today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct ‘Palestinian people’ to oppose Zionism.”
Even the Palestinian National Charter starts with this article: “Article 1 – The Palestinian people are an integral part of the Arab nation.”
Moreover, Balad Party founder Azmi Bishara, an Israeli Arab, stated in an interview: “Well, I don’t think there is a Palestinian nation at all; I think there is an Arab nation. I always thought so, and I have not changed my mind.”
Are all nations entitled to a state?
Even if we were to take as a basic assumption that the Palestinian nation was real, and if we were to give every group of people the right to spontaneously declare themselves a nation, does this mean that all nations have a right to a state? To answer this, we should first look at the context in which this question is being asked, among numerous groups with a much more convincing claim to nationhood which are nevertheless deprived of their right to a state. The Kurds are the clearest example of this.
Still, while this context clearly begs the question as to why the world is so obsessed with the claims of Palestinians for statehood, an injustice performed against a third party does not justify an injustice performed against a group of people.
However, here one must ask: What exactly is the right to self-determination that nations enjoy? Must it take form in an official state, or can it be actualized via other means such as political autonomy? Today, the Palestinians choose their own leaders.
They have their own parliament, government and police force. They do not have control over immigration, and they do not have an army. Borders and the military are what differentiates them from a regular state, and the reasons why Israel refuses to grant the Palestinians control over their borders and military is totally justified. Granting them these things would endanger Israel’s very existence.
Can Palestinians really claim that their basic right to self-determination is being hindered when they are already ruling themselves? Does self-determination take precedence over all other rights? Any rights discourse always comes down to a balance between the rights of the different parties.
Therefore, even if we were to falsely assume that Palestinian nationalism was real, and even if we were to falsely assume that Palestinian nationalism meant a right to a full Palestinian state, we would still have to balance these rights with the other side’s claims.
Israel has very strong claims to the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria. These claims are on many levels: a strong legal case, based on international law as defined in the British Mandate, which convincingly and beyond any reasonable doubt defined Israel as meant for a Jewish state; a strong historical case dating back several millennia that shows the striking connection of the Jewish people to these areas, which were the beacon of Jewish civilization; and a clear security argument that justifies limiting the rights of its sworn enemies, which call for its destruction.
All of these claims together must be balanced with the claims of the Palestinians for self-determination.
In such a scenario, is it not justified to say these claims will be exercised not through a state but through an autonomous government, in the way they exercise it today? Should we support all types of nationalism? What is the essence of Palestinian nationalism? Finally, in order to properly assess this crucial question, we must take a step back and ask: What does Palestinian nationalism stand for? Are we to support any type of nationalism, even if it stands for negative things? Jewish nationalism stands for the Jewish values of loving your neighbor as yourself, love for your land, and believing in building a nation which will become a light unto the nations. American nationalism stands for freedom. French nationalism stands for liberty, equality and brotherhood.
What does Palestinian nationalism stand for? In order to understand this, we need to ask: What makes Palestinian nationalism unique compared to the brother sense of Arab nationalism? This uniqueness is Palestinian nationalism’s essence.
A deep look at Palestinian nationalism quickly shows that it stands for one thing – the denial of Jewish nationalism. One small example: If we look at the national holidays of the Palestinian people, we find two main ones. The Nakba is the day where Palestinians mourn the establishment of the State of Israel, and the Naksa is the day where Palestinians mourn the liberation of Jerusalem by Israel.
In other words, supporting Palestinian nationalism as an idea is opposing Jewish nationalism.
It is opposing Israel’s right to exist. Palestinian nationalism is not a movement worth supporting – it should be opposed.
The bottom line: Comparing Jewish nationalism to Palestinian nationalism is wrong
When left-wing Zionists compare Jewish nationalism to Palestinian nationalism, they are comparing things which cannot be compared.
Jewish nationalism is thousands of years old, older than most other forms of nationalism, and it is based on positive values of love: for one’s nation, for one’s land and for a better world.
Palestinian nationalism is a recent invention.
It is not even clear if it exists today, based on the declarations of the Palestinians themselves. It is also a movement based on negative values: denying the right of others to exist.
The comparison between the movements is nothing less than a cynical blasphemy.
If to the Zionist Left, Zionism is not more valuable than Palestinian nationalism, then one must start asking himself how much left-wing Zionists truly value Zionism. ■
The writer is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to the Knesset’s coalition chairman; he previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and the Hebrew University’s master’s program in public policy.