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The real Nakba
By Shlomo Avineri
Tags: Palestinians, Israel, Nakba

When the Palestinians mark what they call the "Nakba" (catastrophe) on May 15, they would do well to consider that their real failure did not occur in 1948: It had already happened earlier, and it continues to happen now. The real Nakba occurs before our eyes - and theirs - every day, at every hour, and Hamas' violent coup in Gaza is only the most recent example of it.

While Palestinians may see themselves, with much justification, as the victims of the Zionist movement's successful establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, the reasons for their historical failure should be sought elsewhere: in the inability of the Palestinian national movement to create the political and social institutional framework that is the necessary foundation for nation-building. The history of national movements teaches us that national consciousness, strong as it may be, is not enough: Movements that could not create the institutional system vital for their success failed.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of the Palestinian national movement, as quite a few members of the Zionist camp did in the past; it is an error that many continue to make today. But it was Haim Arlosoroff - then a young man in his early 20s - who as early as 1921 recognized that what the Zionist movement faced was not a series of violent events, but a national movement.
The Palestinian national movement, however, has been accompanied by a long string of failures, which have been rooted in its inability to form frameworks of consensus and solidarity; these failures weakened and fragmented it, and it seems that this is a problem the Palestinians have not been able to overcome to this day.

The first and sharpest expression of this failure came in the years 1936-1939, during the Palestinian uprising against British rule. This rebellion failed not only because it was brutally suppressed by the British colonial authorities or because the Haganah (pre-state underground) forces were able to defend the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine). What happened is that the Palestinians were unable to establish institutions that would be acceptable to all parts of Arab society in the country, and when internal disputes arose over the nature of the struggle, the rebellion evolved into an intra-Palestinian civil war. More Palestinians died at the hands of rival armed Palestinian militias than were killed in clashes with the British army or with the Haganah. Within Palestinian society there is tendency to suppress the memory of this violent struggle, which took place between the militias associated with the Husseinis and those tied to the Nashashibis. But this suppression only deepens the failure and makes it more difficult to draw lessons from it.

A similar failure came in 1948: Although most of Palestinian society was opposed to the plan for the partition of Palestine adopted by the United Nations on November 29, 1947, the Palestinians proved unable to create a unified military and political apparatus for confronting the Yishuv. The Arab Higher Committee was never more than a group of traditional dignitaries, and it did not oversee an effective system comparable to the Yishuv's "state-in-the-making." The violent Palestinian resistance to the partition plan consisted of attacks by armed militias in the Jerusalem area, in the Galilee and around Jaffa, militias that operated without centralized coordination and guidance.

The Palestinian defeat was to a large extent the result of an inability to establish a central military command. The leaders of the militias - Abdel Qader al-Husseini, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, Hassan Salameh - never answered to any central authority, and if the Yishuv referred to the militias as "gangs," the term had propagandist value, of course, but it also contained a great deal of truth.

Critical movements

Anyone familiar with the history of the Yishuv may comment, and accurately, that the Jews had their own splinter groups that refused to accept the authority of the majority, which called itself "the organized Yishuv." This is true, of course - but at the critical moments it was David Ben-Gurion who made the fateful decisions, thus ensuring the unity of command and of political legitimacy. The Altalena affair [a violent 1948 confrontation between the newly formed Israel Defense Forces and the Irgun, one of the pre-state militias] was the watershed moment in this matter, and so the fledgling state guaranteed what German sociologist Max Weber has called the defining feature of state sovereignty: the existence of a monopoly based on the legitimate use of force. The same did not happen within the Arab community in Palestine in 1948.

The consequences were swift in coming: not only a failed struggle with the Yishuv, but an inability to extract from the defeat even a remnant of national authority. Had the Arab community possessed a leadership with broad legitimacy, it presumably would have been able to create a Palestinian national entity in those parts of Palestine that remained under Arab control. But even when an "all-Palestine government" was established in Gaza, headed by the mufti, it was an Egyptian puppet government, which could never impose its authority on the West Bank, then under Jordanian control, and it soon disappeared. Palestinian history might have been different if the Palestinians had had institutions and an organizational system capable of confronting the Egyptian occupation in Gaza and the Jordanian annexation of the West Bank, and which might have tried to extricate a Palestinian state even out of the clutches of the 1948 defeat.

When confronting this series of failures, the Palestinians tend to attribute them to their own weakness and to the difficult conditions that prevailed after the military defeat to Israel. In some ways this is true, but it is irrelevant: National movements are not built under convenient conditions; they must always face enemies, foreign rulers, occupation. We need not go very far to compare the Palestinian failure with the success of the Algerian national movement, which confronted an occupying regime far stronger and crueler than the Zionist movement, and yet managed to create an organizational, diplomatic and military system that not only successfully confronted the French, but was able - not without problems - to create the foundation for an independent Algerian state.

The de facto shattering of the Palestinian Authority following the Hamas coup in Gaza is the extension of this failure. Even now the Palestinians are inclined to blame Israel, the Americans, the international community; but the real, essential responsibility ultimately lies with the Palestinians themselves. Elections were held, Hamas won, Fatah lost - and both groups have been unable to sustain a framework whose legitimacy is accepted by both sides. Fatah and Hamas, after all, are not just two parties operating within a democratic consensus: They are also armed militias, and their electoral strength is to a large extent rooted in their military power. All pan-Arabic attempts to unite them, such as the Mecca agreement brokered by Saudi Arabia last year, have failed in the face of this reality, which shows that ultimately power in Palestinian society grows (as Mao Tse-tung once said in a different context) out of the barrel of a gun.

Hamas' violent military coup in Gaza against what was supposed to be the locus of Palestinian legitimacy is only a repetition, under different conditions, of the Palestinian gang wars of 1938-9. The fact that there is no model of an Arab democratic state to follow also does not help.

To be clear: These words are not written in order to question the legitimacy of the Palestinian movement or the Palestinians' right to a state. They are meant to point out a profound internal social failure, one the Palestinians avoid confronting and which many Israelis ignore, since so much of the Israeli discourse on the Palestinian issue is conducted from the narrow perspective of security concerns. Moreover, parts of the Israeli left, rightfully troubled by the ongoing occupation, avoid holding the Palestinians responsible in any way for their situation, out of reasons of political correctness. Such a patronizing approach is not helpful to the Palestinians.

What is now happening in Gaza is the real Palestinian Nakba: the tendency to blame outside factors only blurs matters. Clearly, Palestinian society is in distress, and much of it is owing to 40 years of occupation. But this is a too-easy excuse: In the years after 1945, it would have been easy for the Yishuv to blame British rule, the Arab opposition, and the trauma of the Holocaust, and to wallow in the mire of self-righteousness as a way of explaining why a Jewish state could not be established under such difficult circumstances. But the framework of the Zionist movement, as established by Herzl, with its elected institutions, its multi-party pluralism anchored in a basic solidarity, and the formulation of national authority despite the instances of dissent and splintering - all these provided an organizational and institutional foundation that made it possible to marshal the human and economic resources necessary for coping with the harsh reality that followed the UN partition resolution.

The fate of the Palestinians now lies in the balance, and it is in their own hands. Those who look at their history will have trouble imagining Fatah and Hamas settling their dispute by creating a joint, legitimate framework. Perhaps Egypt or Saudi Arabia can foster the signing of some piece of paper or another, like the Mecca agreement. What matters, however, is not a piece of paper but an effective organizational and institutional framework and a commitment to shouldering the burden of a common legitimacy, which is necessary for constructing a nation. Such a framework must encompass the disarming of militias and entrusting one national authority with a monopoly on the use of force. Without this, there will also be no chance of an agreement with Israel, which is vital for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

These things should be said clearly, as difficult as they may be: If the Palestinians do not find a way to extricate themselves from their harsh historical reality, they ultimately will not have a state. It will be bad for them, and bad for Israel.
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  1.   Palestinans mistake 14:45  |  Ofer from Ofer 09/05/08
  2.   A false assumption 14:57  |  howiej 09/05/08
  3.   Sorry Shlomo Avineri you are dead wrong 15:12  |  Bruce Rubin 09/05/08
  4.   Right to Statehood? 15:31  |  Naftush 09/05/08
  5.   Great article, it only misses the point that... 16:43  |  Jerusalem Jew 09/05/08
  6.   PALIS ARE NOT A NATION. THAT`S WHY! 17:32  |  Adi Doron 09/05/08
  7.   A lack of national will 17:54  |  John 09/05/08
  8.   Bruce Rubin 17:59  |  David Hickson 09/05/08
  9.   WOW 18:50  |  Alex 09/05/08
  10.   national movement? 19:15  |  NE 09/05/08
  11.   great article 19:32  |  philesht. 09/05/08
  12.   As usual, Dr. Avineri, right on target! 20:03  |  David Turner 09/05/08
  13.   congratulations to leftist HAARETZ to publish such an article 21:17  |  David 09/05/08
  14.   Avineri and the Algerians 21:42  |  Binyamin 09/05/08
  15.   #9 you give me hope 21:58  |  Adam 09/05/08
  16.   imperialism 22:55  |  ya`akov ben-israel 09/05/08
  17.   Reply to #5 - Great Post 23:47  |  Tod Zuckerman 09/05/08
  18.   Not just the Palestinians 00:44  |  Alex 10/05/08
  19.   Part 2 00:53  |  Alex 10/05/08
  20.   naqba 18:17  |  elihu katz 10/05/08
  21.   Prof Avineri has put us out of our puzzlement 22:14  |  zeev 10/05/08
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