The Israeli – Arab Wars 1947-1973 : Part II



Who’s a Palestinian?

by Martin Sieff

If you asked anyone in Palestine – Arab or Jew – from 1920 to 1947, “Who are the Palestinians?” the answer would be unequivocal:Palestinians were Jews, not Arabs. The quickly growing Jewish community in Palestine during this time always described itself as Palestinian. This usage was still recognized in 1960 when the hit movie Exodus was made. Palestinian Arabs invariably referred to themselves as Arabs.

The war of 1947-1948 to eliminate the Jewish state at birth was fought by the Palestinian Arab community not as Palestinians but as Arabs. A distinct Palestinian Arab identity certainly emerged as a reaction to the massive Jewish immigration into Palestine, but it was not a millennia-old attachment to the country or the name.

Palestinian identity changed dramatically during the 1950s. The Palestinian Jews who had called themselves Palestinians for nearly thirty years now dropped that label and called themselves Israelis instead. Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees displaced by the war were bottled up in miserable refugee camps, primarily in Egypt-controlled Gaza, the West Bank, and to a lesser degree in southern Lebanon. The governments of Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon did not want to risk destabilizing their societies be giving the refugees full citizenship, and so these Arabs had no home but the refugee camps – which interestingly, provided excellent education for the youth. The well-funded United Nations Relief and Works Agency maintained the best possible basic standards of health care in those camps. Conditions were actually better than endured by the rural peasantry in Syria and Egypt until the 1950s and after. And within a decade the Palestinian Arabs became the best-educated ethnic group in the Arab world. If the United Nations of the 1950s was the benign hand of postwar Western imperialism, the Palestinian Arabs benefited greatly from the emphasis on improving education and health care.

By the mid to late 1960s, wealthy nations like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil states were importing tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs for skilled labor, such as teaching, plumbing, electrical maintenance, and engineering. The Palestinian Arabs became the “can-do” upper working class and professional middle class of the Arab world. But still, the vast majority of them continued to fester in the camps.

The older generations of Palestinian Arabs who had fought the Zionist enterprise and growing Jewish settlement so long throughout the British Mandate period had been overwhelmingly rural peasants. Even while the overall standard of living in Palestine and opportunities for more prosperous lives in towns and cities grew during British rule, the fiercest centers of opposition to the Jewish settlement erupted in reaction to legal Zionist Jewish organizations purchasing usually extremely low-grade land, like the swamps of the Jezreel Valley or on the coast, as the main centers for building kibbutzim (collective farms) and other settlements. Thus Arab opposition stemmed from the peasantry, and took the form of relatively random attacks against Jewish civilians traveling alone or caught at vulnerable moments.

This pattern continued, though in much intensified form, in the first generation of guerrilla attacks during the 1950s. At first, the infant Israeli army proved ineffectual at deterring or responding to these attacks, and was unable to knock out the bases they came from. During his critical years as the Israeli army chief of staff (1953 to 1957), Lieutenant General Moshe Dayan reshaped the military to combat such attacks. In 1956, in coordination with the Anglo-French move against Egypt’s illegal nationalization of the Suez Canal, Israel seized the Gaza Strip and Sinai in response to cross-border terrorism and Egypt’s closing of the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping. After that campaign and the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, guerrilla movement appeared to be over. (Continued after the break).

Arafat the Murderer

When U.S. President Bill Clinton embraced PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993 when the Oslo Peace Accords were signed, did he know, or care, that Arafat had personally ordered the execution of U.S. ambassador Cleo Noel in 1973?

We know this because the CIA, which hadn’t yet been gutted by Jimmy Carter, was tapping Arafat’s phone and recorded him giving the order. President Richard Nixon’s reaction was to vastly increase cooperation between the CIA and the Israeli Mossad to fight Palestinian terrorism.

That changed in 1964 when a young Palestinian Arab related to Hitler’s old ally, Haj Amin al-Hussenini, created the Fatah organization. He would later make it the dominant faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. His name was Yasser Arafat. Arafat’s first tactical victory in 1964 was purely a verbal one, but inspired. He appropriated the name Palestinian – which had been used exclusively by Palestinian Jews – for the Palestinian Arab people. it has been exclusively applied and used in this way ever since.

Adopting the term Palestinian sharpened and legitimized the nature of the Palestinian Arab opposition to the very existence of the State of Israel. It also served to shroud the essential underlying religious and existential nature of the conflict. It was certainly true that the Palestinian Arab people from the very beginning overwhelmingly opposed the Jewish return to the ancestral land of both peoples.

The 1948 invasion of Palestine by the Arab armies was represented to the West as a campaign to rescue Palestinian Arabs from Jewish oppressors. In Arab countries it was presented unambiguously as a war to destroy the Zionist state. In the West, Arafat downplayed the underlying religious and potentially genocidal aspects of his anti-Zionist campaign. If the Palestinian Arabs were the Palestinian people, then they were obviously eligible for national rights of “self-determination.” As various Western-built empires crumbled, the United Nations and the United States both professed to support national “self-determination” around the globe.

Redefining the Arab-Israeli struggle as a national conflict between two different nationalisms changed the debate from Muslims vs. Jews. It became diplomatically respectable. it put the PLO and Fatah firmly in the camp of countless other national liberation movements supported by leftists in the liberal democratic West. It also had the considerable advantage of being true as far as it went.

There had been no Palestinian Arab nationalism during the long centuries of the Ottoman Empire. But the conditions of living under British rule after World War I, while a new Jewish national society was being built up at breakneck speed around them, had certainly given the Palestinian Arabs a very different experience from that of other peoples in any other part of the Arab world. And the experience of the hundreds of thousands who fled their homes or were expelled by Israeli forces in the 1948 war into the miserable refugee camps, with their bizarre but significant combination of excellent basic health care, superb education, and otherwise awful condition, made that national experience more distinctive still. If the Palestinian Arab people were not a cohesive national group in 1948, they certainly were twenty years later.

Next up in our Middle East series – Egypt’s fight to destroy Israel.

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