“A land without a people for a people without a land” is a phrase that gets under the skin of most Palestinians, who think that the authors of the phrase looked at Ottoman Palestine, did not see them, and instead saw an empty land. Yet perhaps this phrase would have made sense if we zoomed in on the meaning of the word “people.”
Whoever coined the phrase that became a Zionist slogan did not use the word people to describe a bunch of humans dwelling on a certain land. People, in this phrase, is used to mean a nation, a state or a nation-state.
Before 1948, the Arabs who lived in Palestine had never organized themselves in a state, but had, for centuries, lived as subjects of empires that ruled them from faraway capitals, such as Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad, and Istanbul. In the history of the Arabs, Jerusalem never served as the seat of any dynasty and never practiced sovereignty. At best, the city served as a provincial capital. In this sense, when the Zionists looked at Ottoman Palestine, they did not see a nation-state. They saw Arab provinces of successive empires, Arab or Turkish. This is why the land looked one without a people, that is without a nation state.
The Mandate and Nationalism
After the British stitched a few Ottoman provinces together to produce Mandatory Palestine in 1920, and with the Zionists putting forward their vision of a country in Palestine with its capital in Jerusalem, Palestinians borrowed elements from both, and made them their own. Then Palestinians started talking about a Palestinian nation-state whose capital is Jerusalem.
Yet despite the birth of this Palestinian nation overnight, the meaning of independent Palestine remained elusive, especially to Islamists and Arab nationalists, both of which saw the borders drawn by British and French colonials as fake and designed to divide-and-conquer Muslims or Arabs.
But even after Arab nationalists started referring to Palestine as a country with a flag and national emblems, they still criticized Lebanon’s Christians for insisting on an independent Lebanon, saying that Arab countries were fake, and were produced by the colonials to divide the Arab and Muslim nation. Arab nationalists also disapproved of the creation of Jordan and Syria.
Izz-eldeen al-Qassam, the Muslim Imam who died near Haifa while fighting the British in 1935, and whose name Hamas borrowed for its military wing and locally produced rockets, was Syrian. His coffin was draped in the flags of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Yemen, but not Palestine, which shows that Palestinian nationalism was a late-comer that only surfaced after the 1967 defeat of the leader of Arab nationalism, Egypt’s Gamal Abdul-Nasser.
Nasser tried to make up for his defeat by propping up Palestinian nationalism and militias to fight a “war of attrition” against Israel. This war of attrition, now fought by pro-Iran regime militias like Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah, continues until today.
Even as Palestinians started promoting their local identity, their conflict against the Zionists maintained its pre-Palestinian nationalism format, rendering the conflict with Israel as one over land and sovereignty rather than civil rights, as can be seen in the behavior of Arab Israelis, who claim to be suffering Israeli discrimination, which they counter — not by demanding assimilation — but through Palestinian nationalism.
While insisting on the creation of independent Palestine, a majority of Palestinians seem to think that a state is made of land and people, not of people organizing themselves into a successful state. But land alone does not make states. Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq are all sovereign over the land, and yet all three of them are failed states. This is why Israel fears that land concessions to Palestinians will result in a failed state, and not country in the world wants a failed state — that would turn into a hotbed of terrorism, crime, and illicit trade — on its borders.
Palestinians spent a century trying to learn how the Zionists managed to overpower them. Think tanks were set up to teach Palestinian researchers Hebrew and to monitor Israeli press and literature. The Palestinians drew many lessons, but the only one they never seem to have learned was that Zionists created a state long before they had any land.
In his manuscript on Zionism, written in the 1890s and only published this year, Palestinian Rawhi al-Khalidi was impressed, not only by the good organization of the Zionist movement and its regular elections, but also by the dedication of its rank and file. Al-Khalidi wrote that poor Jewish peasants in Russia or Eastern Europe saved on buying food in order to pay their membership fees to the Zionist organization and elect its officials. Khalidi described the movement as a government without a land. This would have perfectly described a “government (people) without a land for a land without a government (people).”
The “Right of Return”
Successive rounds of conflict have resulted in the division of the land along the line of the 1948 truce, known as the Green Line. Conflict has forced some pragmatism but neither side is happy about dividing the land into two states. Yasser Arafat and other Arab states agreed to “land-for-peace” in principle, but with the caveat that Arabs who were displaced (or willingly left) the 1948 territories, recognized as the State of Israel, have the right to return to Israel. Palestinians cite a UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution to substantiate their claim, even though unlike the Security Council, UNGA’s resolutions have no legal power.
To Israel, the return of a few million Palestinians to their country would tip the demographic scale drastically and make the Jews a minority in the country that they have worked hard to create and maintain. This “right of return” is therefore a deal breaker for the Israelis and, so far, for Palestinians as well.
Even if the two sides manage to separate their respective populations, Palestinians have never demonstrated any ability to govern themselves. While self-determination is a right enshrined in the UN’s founding literature, it is not a guarantee that sovereign nations can create and manage successful states. If other Arab states — including Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq — are any indicator, it is highly likely that the Palestinian state will be a failed state too.
Such a state next to Israel means that the Jewish state will have to keep tabs on its neighbor, and maybe police it. After all, no state would want to sit adjacent to a failed state that can become a hotbed for terrorism, crime, and illicit trade.
It is unfortunate that Palestinians have yet to recognize these two Israeli prerequisites for a Palestinian state: That Israel’s population remains predominantly Jewish and that a Palestinian state has a good enough government that can guarantee the security and safety of its neighbors, including Israel.
It is also unfortunate that Palestinians blame the failure of peace on Israel’s expansion of settlements in disputed land. The Palestinians never seem to have noticed that it was Hamas’s suicide bombings the obstructed the peace process, until it killed it. Instead of reining in Hamas and proceeding toward peace, Arafat was either too weak or too unwilling to do so, forcing Israel to do the policing for him, as Palestinians sat back and claimed victimhood, often by depicting Israeli policing as unwillingness to pursue peace.
The way out of stalemate is tied to Palestinians figuring out how to build a state that can represent them, deliver on its security promises, and offer the Palestinians a good government able to grow the economy, decrease poverty and therefore offer them hope that keeps them away from joining suicidal groups like Hamas.
There was one Israeli leader who, despite his reputation of being a right-wing bully, understood the requirements of peace with Palestinians and pursued them.
Ariel Sharon was Israeli the Arabs hated most. As a general, he was blamed for reversing the Arab tide in the 1973 war and leading Israel’s counterattack across the Suez Canal. As Minister of Defense, he led the Lebanon War that ejected Arafat and his militias from Beirut. As opposition leader, Sharon visited the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem, giving the brewing Second Intifada its spark. To the Arabs, Sharon was a criminal and a bully. He certainly enjoyed strong credentials with Israel’s Right wing and settler movement.
But when it came to peace with the Arabs, the hawkish Sharon had a vision and a plan, one that was never completed because of a sudden brain hemorrhage that resulted in his incapacitation in 2006. To the late Israeli prime minister, peace was impossible between a democracy, like Israel, and militias, like Arafat’s PLO or Lebanon’s armed factions.
When Sharon invaded Lebanon in 1982, his plan was to sponsor the election of a president and empower the weak state over the armed militias that had been engaged in civil war since 1975. Sharon ejected Arafat and the Palestinian militias and supervised the election of Bashir Gemayel as president of Lebanon. Sharon reasoned that only then could Israel sign a lasting peace treaty with Lebanon.
Gemayel was elected, but before he could take office, the Syrian regime of Hafez Assad assassinated him. Sharon was also weakened at home amid an unpopular war in Lebanon and atrocities that accompanied the Israeli invasion, especially at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut. With Sharon and Bashir Gemayel out of the picture, Bashir’s brother Amin was elected president and tried to carry on with the plan. On May 17, 1983, Lebanon and Israel signed a peace treaty, which was later killed by Assad. Under international pressure, Israel eventually ended its occupation of Lebanon, which became the hotbed of pro-Iran Hezbollah, one of the most notorious terrorist groups on the planet.
In 2006, Hezbollah started a war with Israel that lasted for 33 days and resulted in death and destruction in Israel, but exponentially much more death and destruction in Lebanon. Today, Hezbollah still dominates Lebanon. Like Hamas, Hezbollah rejects peace wholesale and wants Israel destroyed. It imposes its maximalist view on the Lebanese, forcing them to say that Israel is an illegitimate state, and to refer to the country instead as “Occupied Palestine.”
Sharon repeated the same experiment with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon had given up on Arafat, seeing him as a weak and unreliable peace partner. With American assistance, the Israeli prime minister forced the Palestinian Authority (PA) to elect a prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who was supposed to eclipse the wily Arafat. Sharon hoped that an elected Israeli government and an elected Palestinian government could make comprehensive and lasting peace.
Sharon then put his money where his mouth was. In September 2005, amid much anger from settlers, Sharon dismantled the Israeli settlements in Gaza, and handed the strip over to Abbas, who had been elected president eight months prior, following the death of Arafat. Sharon was probably on his way to do the same in the West Bank when he was suddenly hospitalized.
Sharon was succeeded by Ehud Olmert, a much less charismatic character, who tried to carry on with Sharon’s plan by offering Abbas a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in addition to the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and a promise to iron the remaining wrinkles. Abbas turned down Olmert’s peace proposal, and again turned down a similar offer by Benjamin Netanyahu, which was made under the auspices of the Palestine-friendly American president Barack Obama.
The biggest obstacle to Abbas’s ability to say yes to any Israeli offers for a Palestinian state is that he cannot forego the “right of return” of Palestinians to Israel (not to the to-be-created Palestine). He tested the waters by giving an interview in which he said that any peace deal with Israel would not mean his return to his birthplace in Safed, in northern Israel. Palestinians, especially hardliners like Hamas, immediately forced Abbas to retract his statement.
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians was not always standing at a dead end like it does today. Some Israelis, like Sharon, understood that Palestinians have to have a representative government that can make peace with Israel, manage Palestinians well, and maintain neighborly relations with Israel. But Sharon’s plan died with him. Since then, the Palestinians have yet to understand what it takes for them to get their state, and that does not include destroying Israel or behaving as the victim.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a DC-based policy analyst. He tweets @hahussain and you can subscribe to his page at https://hussainabdulhussain.substack.com