For my generation, growing up in the 1950s, the Palestinian cause was ever present. It was the “central” Arab cause in the chants we recited in the school courtyard. It topped the headlines in the five-o’clock news, and no after-dinner conversation among adults was complete without a discussion of the latest developments in Palestine.
For two decades, the cause was framed in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For us, it was not that long ago that Arab armies had marched to Palestine to confront Jewish settlers in the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Some years later, Egypt and fellow Arab volunteers fought off the tripartite invasion of Israel, Britain and France. Britain wanted to retake the Suez Canal, France hoped to deprive Algerian freedom fighters of Egyptian and other Arab support, and Israel thought it could nip Egypt’s economic and military revival in the bud.
Israel had started planning for this war soon after the famous Egyptian-Czechoslovak arms deal of 1955. After the June 1967 War, when Israel engulfed what was left of Palestine and occupied territories in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the Palestinian cause receded as these frontline states focused on “eliminating the effects of the aggression.” As for the Palestinians, since the mid-1960s they have opted for a course based, first, on armed struggle and secondly on “independent Palestinian decision making.” This coincided with the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which was eventually recognised as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Since the end of World War II, the Arab peoples had been fighting to free themselves of colonial rule and establish independent states. That period gave rise to territorial integration projects or drives for reconciliation and concord between various groups and regions, but it was the state-building project that preoccupied the people. As the Arab saying has it, the locals know the lay of their own land best, making them the best equipped to manage their own affairs. So as they struggled for independence or national development, it was up to other Arab states and peoples to lend whatever help they could, be it financial, military, political or diplomatic.
The UN and other international organisations, alliances and collective media campaigns were common vehicles for rallying support. Eventually, through a blend of armed struggle and political and diplomatic action, all Arab countries won their independence. Then they had to decide what to do with it. In other words, they had to determine how they would develop, prosper and advance among the community of nations.
Unfortunately, the Palestinians remained the exception. They are the only people in the Arab region and perhaps the world who have not yet been able to win their right to self-determination and independent statehood. There are many reasons for this, first and foremost among which is the nature of the Isreali state and the Zionist colonialist settler movement. That said, the PLO came very close to the goal of independence when it signed the Oslo Accords with Israel, leading to the creation for a Palestinian National Authority on Palestinian land for the first time in Palestinian history.
Nearly three decades have passed since the signing of the Oslo Accords. So much has changed since then, in Israel, Palestine, the Arab region, the Middle East and the whole world. Israel has drifted further and further to the right. The ultra-zionist and religious right had been steadily gaining ground since 1977, slowly and hesitantly at first by taking turns in power or forming coalition governments with the left.
For decades, almost since the creation of the state, politics in Israel revolved around the shifting balance between the two main parties, Labour and Likud. However, since 2009, Israeli governments under Benjamin Netanyahu have swung to the far right. The most dramatic shift occurred after the brief hiatus when he had been ousted from power by a centrist coalition. On his return in the last election, he brought with him elements from the extreme right who advocate complete annexation of the West Bank and the mass expulsion of Palestinians.
The most significant change in the Palestinian sphere is the geopolitical schism between the West Bank and Gaza and between Fatah and Hamas. In recent years, new organisations have emerged out of Fatah advocating armed confrontation against Israel. A similar dynamic has occurred in Gaza where the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) recently took it upon itself to battle Israel. Ultimately, the Palestinian National Authority not only lost control over the territory that it administers, it also lost one of the main prerequisites of a modern state, namely the monopoly on the legitimate right to use armed force.
In the Arab region, a division has emerged between the countries that do not have peace treaties or normalised relations with Israel, even if they support the Arab peace initiative, and six countries that signed peace agreements: Egypt and Jordan which have a “cold peace” with Israel, and four Gulf states that have developed warm relations with that country.
The Middle East as a whole has watched Israeli military operations against Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. It has also seen Iran emerge as a threat to Arab states: Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular. Turkish-Arab relations entered a period of tension but have recently begun to thaw. The same applies to Ankara’s relations with Israel.
The international realm is in the throes of another sea change. Russia and China are campaigning to revise the world order that has prevailed since the end of the Cold War and the US’s rise to the helm of world leadership and mastery of the era of globalisation. The contest precipitated the Ukrainian crisis and mounting tensions in US-Chinese relations. As a result, the attention of the world has been drawn away from the Palestinian cause, other crises in the Middle East and even climate change.
Against this backdrop, Arab-Israeli relations seem complicated. This stems from the diversity in their nature, which range from peaceful to hostile. Even so, all share the realisation that the Iranian factor has grown increasingly dangerous because of Tehran’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons as it grapples with mounting domestic political and economic crises. Palestinian-Isreali relations are no less complex, primarily because of the lack of a single political frame-of-reference.
The Palestinian people are divided physically and ideologically between those in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora. The first demand equal rights as citizens. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza demand liberation and independent statehood. Palestinians in the diaspora want to see a peaceful settlement that includes the right of return. The Palestinians in Israel could have forestalled Netanyahu’s electoral success. If they had united to form a single Arab list, they would have won 15 to 17 seats in the Knesset. As things stand, however, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are on the brink of a military confrontation with Israel. The more this danger looms, the more they will reach out for help to Hizbullah in Lebanon and Iran to the east of the Gulf.
The Arab world needs a mechanism to organise political thought and action on this volatile situation before it explodes, whether in Palestine or the Gulf.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly