Rejecting the Existence of Palestinians

Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian identity cannot be taken away from Gazans

The Christian Science Monitor somehow allowed Dashiell Shapiro to publish an opinion piece and, in doing so, paid homage to Golda Meir and the supposedly deceased Israeli meme that there are no Palestinian people. One would think that today, the Palestinian people would no longer need to be subjected the denial of their existence. The last politician of any real relevance that was able to resist the reality of the Palestinian people was Golda Meir who looked the occupation in the face and proudly insisted that “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” With the two state solution still dancing in the minds of American politicians like Terry Kiser at “Weekend at Bernie’s,” it would seem evident that there is such a thing as Palestinians and, particularly after two intifadas, such a thing as Palestinian nationalism. By offering to transfer Gaza and its Palestinian population to Egyptian control, Shapiro is singlehandedly altering the identities of the Palestinians in Gaza, stripping them bare of their collective histories and identities in an effort to resurrect a racist attitude that has no place in any modern discussion.

Shlomo Ben-Ami was an Israeli negotiator at Camp David and is an avid Zionist, as he states in the introduction of his book – Scars of War, Wounds of Peace. Yet, even the one-time Zionist negotiator for Israel was able to identify the existence of a Palestinian people and Palestinian nationalism long before the establishment of the Israeli state:

The message of the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs as a clash between competing, exclusivist nationalisms, not just a banal dispute with indigenous fellahin who could be easily bought off and evicted, that has started to penetrate the Zionist discourse in the wake of the 1929 riots became now an unequivocal reality for most, if not all, the leaders of the Yishuv… They understood, just as their Arab counterparts did, the irreconcilable nature of the contradiction between the objectives of the two national movements vying for control of Palestine.

Like Golda Meir, Shapiro is implying a two-fold accusation: there has never been a Palestinian nation and there has never been a Palestinian people. While it is certainly true that Palestinian nationalism did not appear until later, the name Palestine was first used by Herodotus in the 5th century BC, and later by Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the Byzantines, and by the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, the people that lived in this region of the Empires that, one after another, colonized Palestine were called Palestinians. Thus, to say that there has never been a Palestinian people is to ignore over 2000 years of history. Secondly, the idea of nation-states was still being perfected in the 1920’s with many future states fighting against the fist of colonialism. Colonies, including Palestine, may not have been classified as the modern concept of a nation-state, but this does not give others the right to define the indigenous people of the area.

Unfortunately, in his opinion piece, Shapiro attempts this exact folly. By suggesting that the post-revolution Egypt take control of Gaza (“self-rule could be allowed”) Shapiro is trying to define what it means to be Palestinian in a simple and simplistic two-page op-ed piece. By ruthlessly penning such an article, Shapiro has reduced the Palestinian identity to a colonial practice in top-down diplomacy, cruelly ripping away the identity of  1.6 million people. Like the European colonialists that traded African territories like children with baseball cards, caring little for the demographic realities on the ground, creating new countries and territories while dividing families and villages from thousands of miles away, Shapiro has proudly declared that reality be damned; Palestinians and Palestinian nationalism are false concepts that can be moved around, altered and destroyed.

Not only has Shapiro attempted to reduce the meaning of the Palestinian identification, he has half-heartedly and single-handed tried to redefine the boundaries of Palestine. Forget Hamas and forget Fatah, forget the conflict between Israel and Palestine. There is a land called Palestine that cannot be divided anymore. Simply because of the land of Palestine was split physically in 1948 by the creation Israel and politically in 2006 by the Fatah/Hamas divide certainly does not give Shapiro the right to redefine the borders. On a practical level, Shapiro is echoing Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s calls for population transfer, an act illegal under international law. Yet pushing for the annexation of Gaza – and the dismemberment of what is left of Palestine – is crossing the boundaries of theoretical and psychological destruction, trying to create a second Nakbah for Palestinians in which their identities – not land, possessions and families, like the first Nakbah – are ripped away.

Fortunately, the extremism espoused by Shapiro in his article is one shared by few outside of Palestine and no one within it. Despite the political and geographical divide between Gaza and the West Bank, there is a strong sense of national unity that incorporates both territories. Removing Gaza from the Palestinian question is simply not possible. Despite being under the military control of Egypt from 1948 to 1967, Gaza is part of Palestine and full of Palestinians who have a sense of Palestinian nationalism that has only grown stronger with the intensification of the Israeli occupation.

Despite finding many advantages (for Israel) of handing control of Gaza to Egypt, Shapiro barely mentions the resistance the would be felt in the West Bank, Israel, Gaza and the entire Arab world, caused by the hubristic redefinition of borders in such a colonial fashion. The move would be wholly rejected from Ramallah to Gaza and from Cairo to Riyadh. Considering the nationalist sentiment that has been flowing throughout the region in recent months, exploding in revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, one would think that Shapiro would be more respectful of the power of Arab nationalism and identity.

Shapiro’s unforgivably orientalist position reflects an author who is profoundly out of touch with the reality of Middle East. Palestine and Palestinians are a reality that cannot be simply erased by a flick of some diplomatic pen. To think otherwise is to adopt an antiquated, colonialist approach to Palestine that should be relegated to the waste bin of history.

Photo from Faime

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4 thoughts on “Rejecting the Existence of Palestinians

  1. As to whether or not the Palestinian people exist, does it strike anyone that the silence from both Egypt and Hamas about the whole issue of Palestine is becoming a bit embarrassing? Some Egyptian officials of the old regime, including the foreign minister I think, have claimed that the Rafah border crossing is “open,” implying that Egypt bears no guilt for trapping Gazans in their ghetto. Otherwise, Cairo appears to be pretending that, well, the Palestinian people do not exist. All the talk about whether or not Cairo will abrogate its treaty with Tel Aviv seems, no doubt intentionally, to miss the point: the issue is not war between Egypt and Israel but the specific treatment of Palestinians.

    And Cairo could do a huge amount by announcing that the Rafah crossing would be open 24/7 and that Palestinian passports issued by Hamas would be accepted for international travel and by inviting NGOs to support Gaza via Rafah.

    Now the generals may hesitate to do that, but why is Hamas being so cautious? Is anything happening behind the scenes? Is Hamas getting a little too comfortable? Is there Arabic media commentary on this?

    1. While Mubarak’s regime was certainly silent on the Israeli siege on Gaza, Hamas was not. From a Palestinian perspective, it is of course preferable for a 24/7 type border. Yet I imagine that there is some political considerations to make here – as in don’t push the new government too quickly. I have no doubt that the new gov’t will open Rafah eventually, though I highly doubt that it will be an immediate decision that would lead to any type of harsh encounter with Israel

      Slightly off topic, from a Palestinian perspective, the debate on the possible abrogation of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty is missing the point. But from an Egyptian or Israeli point of view, that concern is right on target.

  2. Chris:

    I wrote the CSM piece you are responding to. I appreciate your response and actually agree with several of your points. I don’t think you are accurately characterizing my argument, however. In no way was I arguing for a forcible transfer of Gazans to Egypt or for obliterating their Palestinian identity. In fact, if you had quoted from other sections of the piece you would see that I argued that Gazans would be more likely to consent to Egyptian control if they had allies in a new Egyptian government, and that Egyptian involvement and backing could help Gazans in terms of pursuing the right of return. Mubarak was not an honest broker between Hamas and Israel, and in fact he contributed to the humanitarian problems in Gaza. A new Egyptian government with a significant Muslim Brotherhood presence might be able to function as an honest broker, in a way that Gazans would actually welcome. Simply because there would be benefits to Israel does not necessarily mean there would not be (even greater) benefits to Gazans. I was trying to propose a “win-win”, not a colonialist population transfer.

    1. Dashiell,

      I realize that you probably did not want to offer a solution like population transfer or one that includes the forced destruction of someone’s identity. But your article completely misses the point. Palestinians in Gaza are still Palestinians and they will never give this up. Annexation of Gaza would be rejected by Palestinians in Gaza and Egyptians in Egypt. When Gaza was controlled by Egypt, it was not considered part of Egypt. It was controlled by the Egyptian military. Palestinians were given Palestinian passports. A Palestinian government was set up in Gaza City in opposition to Cairo.

      What you say about the new Egyptian government is true: Palestinians in Gaza will have a more cooperative ally in Cairo after the revolution. I fail to see how this would entice Palestinians to give up their state, even if it came with some sort of autonomous rule and some help on right of return. Why wouldn’t Cairo simply help with the right of return without an annexation it doesn’t want? Moreover, a new Egyptian government will open borders with Gaza, thus improving the life of Palestinians and undermining Israel’s siege.

      Next, why would Hamas agree to giving up power? It was democratically elected and then undermined, though it now controls Gaza. While Hamas is considered the MB branch in Palestine, Hamas and the Brotherhood are distinct parties that are linked – not identical (much like Palestinians and Egyptians are linked by Arab heritage, but not identical).

      Finally, transferring Gaza to Egypt would also require Egyptian troops in Gaza, something that no one – not Egypt, not Palestine and not Israel – wants. Israel refuses to allow Egyptian troops in the Sinai, why would it allow troops in Gaza? I understand that you, in good conscience, are trying to come up with an alternative solution to a seemingly intractable problem, however it is a solution that is not possible nor desirable.

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