Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 June 2010
Issue No. 1004
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Azmi Bishara

From Diaspora to fragmentation

Current negotiations calling into question the right to return of the Palestinian refugees constitute the fragmentation of the Palestinian national cause and a sword hanging over the heads of the Palestinian refugees, writes Azmi Bishara

Refugees from the war in 1948 fled to the nearest Arab lands, though these too had been divided into separate countries on colonial lines. At first, they fled to the closest Palestinian towns and villages on the other side of the partition lines. But the occupation forces quickly outpaced them to what became the first truce lines.

Click to view caption
Palestinians began fleeing in late 1947, but the bulk left, or were driven from, their homes between April and August 1948

As a result, people from Lud and Ramla fled to Ramallah, and people from the southern Palestinian coast fled to Gaza. Many people from border towns and villages fled to neighbouring countries. For the people of Jalil and Haifa, Lebanon was no further geographically, politically and culturally than Gaza was from Al-Majdal. Likewise, Safd was closer to Damascus geographically and in other ways than it was to Nablus, Al-Khalil (Hebron) or Jerusalem.

The people of Jaffa were torn in all directions. Those who fled by sea headed northwards to Lebanon or southwards to Gaza, and those who fled overland to the east ended up in Amman.

The Palestinians were never "parasites". They were farmers from the villages and skilled workers and intellectuals from the emerging towns and cities of a land that had embarked on a modern renaissance. The shared communal bonds and sensitivities that prevailed at the level of the clans and villages of Palestine and of the neighbouring countries were much closer than those that prevailed at the country or national level, and perhaps for this reason some politicians later attempted to exploit the Palestinians in internal conflicts.

On the whole, though, the Palestinians were part of the emerging Arab civic project, and they linked their fates to various trends in that project, especially the nascent pan- Arab movement. Arab cities could embrace them as long as they were part of an assimilating civic project. They failed to embrace them when that project unravelled and when the ruralisation of the city won out over the urbanisation of the countryside.

Like all parts of the Levant in the first half of the 20th century, Palestine in 1948 had not yet crystallised as a distinct political entity and identity. However, due to the conflict with the Zionist settlers, it had been making more rapid progress in this direction than other Arab entities that had gained independence within the geographical matrix of the colonial Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement.

Nevertheless, three decades of unification under the British mandate proved insufficient to unify the Palestinians in terms of identity, largely because of the rudimentary forms of communication that existed at the time. As a result, the historical dialectic decreed that Palestinians would coalesce in the Diaspora, that Palestinian towns and villages would unify in the refugee camps, and that exile and the cause of a displaced people would merge into one. Life in the Diaspora and in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools did more to build Palestinian identity than many Arab states did to build the identities of their own peoples.

The modern Palestinian national liberation movement arose in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It arose specifically in the Diaspora, even if it insisted on holding its first convention in East Jerusalem, which was then under Jordanian control. Fedayeen activity and the militia factions began as movements spearheaded by Palestinian refugees and their children. The freedom-fighters were refugees infiltrating back into their original homeland.

Palestinian identity was maintained through the reaffirmation of the affiliation with Palestinian land. But to the Palestinian farmer of the day, his country was his village, and his emotional attachment was to an area of land that bore a name, as opposed to a "lot" or a "block" number, as the British and Jews referred to their property.

The Jewish settlers were a hodgepodge of different people from all quarters of the earth. They came from a myriad of remote countries and spoke dozens of different languages. They called Palestine "the land" -- haaretz -- as in "the land of Israel". They used the singular. The Palestinians, on the other hand, who came from the same country and spoke the same language, reminisced about "villages" and talked of "lands". They used the plural.

This was one of the differences between the indigenous inhabitants, who had felt no great urgency in the process of nation-building or the pursuit of nationalist ideology, and a colonialist settler movement armed with the nationalisms of central and eastern Europe and equipped with the philosophical and ideological tools of nationalism, socialism and nationalist-socialism. The latter term is not an allusion to Nazism. Rather it is borrowed from the Jewish historian Zeev Sternhell of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who in his The Founding Myths of Israel speaks of "the triumph of nationalist-socialism" over the Zionist labour movement.

The greatest achievement of the Palestinian national movement in the Diaspora was its success in building Palestinian national identity. Therefore, the greatest disaster that befell that movement following the Oslo Agreement with Israel was its fragmentation. The Palestinian cause was fractured into separate issues: the question of the West Bank, the question of Gaza, and the question of Jerusalem; the problem of the Arabs in Israel; the question of the Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Diaspora.

Imagine the self-appointed spokesmen for each of these fragments telling the others not to interfere in his people's internal affairs because they could not understand the problems of his part as well as its own people could. I foresaw this happening the moment the Oslo Agreement was signed. In an article I wrote at the time arguing against the agreement, I described it as leading to the "Kurdification of the Palestinian cause".

To me, the Kurds at the time represented a prime example of a cause that had been split into separate issues and dispersed over several countries. As a result, the Kurds had not been capable of forming a unified national movement. Unfortunately, it was not long before the Palestinian situation exceeded even my worst expectations. Even the unifying factor of the Diaspora was shattered.

The chief success of the Palestinian refugee camps lay in their ability to become places for the formation of the Palestinian person: an individual who clung to his or her homeland and to the right to return, who was educated or determined to educate his or her children, and who was a fighter.

The camps served to reaffirm the idea that return was immanent and that this justified temporary residence in the camps. The camps were also schools of instruction in the Palestinian struggle. But what can the camps become for their Palestinian inhabitants when they hear that the right of return might be dropped and that return will remain out of reach? What do they become when fedayeen activities are no longer an option because all available avenues have been closed?

These are not hypothetical questions. I am talking of real people who refuse to compromise on the right to return, yet who can no longer see how their lives in the camps are contributing to the eventual realisation of their rights and to their search for better opportunities for their children.

Any Palestinian national movement must address these questions. The same applies to Arab countries that want to make peace with Israel without insisting on the Palestinian right to return.

Moreover, the term "Diaspora" is something of a misnomer when used in the context of the Palestinian cause. It implicitly likens an actual reality to a form of myth. For Jews, the "Diaspora" takes as its starting point the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, and refers to the Jews living in lands remote from "the land of Israel" or "the promised land," terms that have sometimes been interpreted to refer not to a physical place but to a divine kingdom.

Jews have always seen their country as being the one in which they lived. That other land they saw as being a theological construction, though it was one which Zionism transformed into a nationalist ideology and a vehicle for state- building. But Diaspora Jews have countries and nationalities of their own. Tell an American Jew that he's not American, or that America is not his home, and you might risk a punch in the face. The Palestinian Diaspora, on the other hand, refers to the living reality of people who have been driven from their homes and their homeland in recent times.

Many members of the first generation of Palestinian refugees are still alive, as are their memories. The majority of the Palestinian Diaspora consists of Palestinian communities in the Arab world. The emphasis on their status as exiles and refugees was never intended to refute their affiliation to the larger Arab nation, but rather to reaffirm their right to return to their original homeland.

Recently, however, means have apparently become ends. When wretchedness is taken as proof of refugee status, and being a refugee is proof of dedication to Palestine, then wretchedness becomes a means. But the end is no longer seen as liberation and return. In the current negotiations between the Arab governments and Israel, the emphasis is no longer on the right to return but on resettlement. Now that wretchedness has become the proof of the Palestinians' dedication to their national identity, because the loss of the homeland and the demand for the right of return were not sufficient, the end is to reject the principle of resettlement in Arab countries.

While Arab officials may pay lip-service to the Palestinian right to return, they are actually using it as an instrument for rejecting the principle of resettlement. But refusing to resettle Palestinian refugees does not mean they will be able to return to Palestine. It could well mean their resettlement elsewhere, such as in Australia, Canada or Scandinavia.

Curiously, the right to return, uncomfortably and awkwardly out of context in the Arab peace initiative, has no place in any of the existing treaties between the Arab countries and Israel. Countries with large Palestinian refugee populations have signed peace treaties with Israel without including the right of return as one of the conditions, though this has not kept them from reiterating "the right of return" as a slogan for domestic consumption.

But what can such a slogan mean in the context of a peace with Israel in which the substance of that slogan has not been included as a condition? It can only mean shifting from the context of the conflict with Israel to that of the relationship between an Arab state and the Palestinians residing in it. But isn't the right of return a demand that is meant to be aimed at Israel, not at the Palestinians?

In the context of calls for peace with Israel on the basis of the pre-June 1967 borders and without the right to return, the refusal of the resettlement of the Palestinians could mean any number of things apart from the right to return. Firstly, it could imply domestic resistance to Arab nationalist identity through the creation of an Arab "other," something which could be used to build a local identity distinct from a broader Arab affiliation. The Palestinian "other" could thus be exploited in the domestic identity politics of different Arab countries.

However, secondly this refusal of resettlement could also turn domestic political and social conflicts into identity conflicts, in which identity is used as an ideology, as has been the case with the countless ultra-nationalist, fascist and extremist sectarian movements that many other countries have experienced. Thirdly, the rejection of the principle of resettlement when not combined with a political programme for the realisation of the right to return within the framework of a strategy for liberation can only signify a threat of expulsion constantly hanging over the heads of Palestinian refugees.

The Palestinian right to return only acquires its proper meaning in the framework of a strategy for liberation. And by liberation, I mean a concrete political programme and not just an exercise in ideological rhetoric. Such a programme can only work as part of a collective Arab drive, for the existential difference with Israel is one with the Arab world as a whole, rather than one with individual Arab countries.

When the rejection of resettlement is pursued in the absence of a collective Arab liberation drive and in the context of a country-by-country negotiating process with Israel, it reflects little more than local chauvinisms. The proper response to this is not to appeal to the Arab fraternity, but to appeal to rights -- citizenship rights, resident rights and human rights. If relationships with the Palestinians are not founded on overarching Arab nationalist bonds, in accordance with which the individual Arab states are part of a greater Arab nation to which the Palestinians are also affiliated, then surely the right way forward is not to sink into the logic of bigotry and racism, but rather to espouse the logic of civil and human rights.

No one is asking anyone to do the Palestinians a favour. The Palestinians have contributed to building every Arab country they have ever lived in, even before those countries developed their own national identity. That was only natural: no one, or no single identity, merits more credit for progress than any other.

The right to return acquires its proper meaning in the context of the Arab conflict with Israel. The Palestinian national movement, as a movement that is pressing for this right to be realised, rather than merely brandishing it as a slogan, must strive to order Arab ranks. Unless the Palestinian movement is organised within the framework of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it too risks dissolving into just another separate bilateral negotiating process that will be ready to sacrifice the right to return.

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