French Historian Henry Laurens on the historical and religious baggage of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Mohammed Saad , Wednesday 22 Feb 2017

French historian, Henry Laurens, celebrated the launch of the last volume of his book 'The Question of Palestine'

Henry Laurens

The renowned French historian Henry Laurens, Chair of History of the Contemporary Arab World at the Collège de France, is arguably best known for his work La Question de Palestine. This seminal work has marked his reputation as an exceptional scholar and an expert on the Middle East.

Laurens celebrated the launch of the Arabic translation of the last volume of La Question de Palestine, in Cairo last week. The Arabic edition features an eloquent translation by the prestigious translator Bashir El-Sebai' and is issued in ten volumes from the National Center for Translation (NCT).

Laurens spent ten years working on the original French volumes. The Arabic translations took an additional 20 years to be completed. Each volume is thematically divided into a specific era, extending from 1799 until 2001, reflecting Laurens’ own method in writing the history of the Arab World.

Laurens positions himself in his own historical school, a school that depends on a special method that he developed with his friend Samir Kassir (1960-2005), the late Palestinian historian.  Laurens’ method depends on dividing the history of the Arab World into small pieces, to break it into months, weeks, and even days in order to understand it.


“My idea was that the history of the Arab World can be understood best if we divide it into small time windows, months, weeks or days, and this is why in the book you read the events day by day, like 2 August, 3 August, and this is what enabled me to determine the dominating theme of every era, in sometimes, you can find parallel scenes where the events are going at the same time as a director divides the screen in a given moment, and from that point the reader starts comprehend the timeline of events and that is a decisive factor in understanding that history,” Laurens explained to his audience at Taha Hussein Hall at the NCT.

The title of the book The Question (La Question)  stemmed from Laurens’ concern of the notion “Question” that appeared for the first time in 1815, and developed with the rise of the “issue of the East” in France as a political and technical term, but it also comes from a speech by David Be Gurion, the founder of Israel, where he said: “The greatest success of Zionism is that it transformed the Question of the Jews, into the Question of the Arabs.”

Laurens added that he hopes that “the question of Palestine disappears someday, but I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime.”

The last volume spans between 1982 and 2001, as the author stops right before 9/11. The main feature of this era, according to Laurens, is that the Arab-Israeli conflict evolved into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He explained this shift in terminology by stating that Israel tried to force a peace that only works in its own favor, yet it “failed due to the Palestinian resistance and the rise of Yasser Arafat, who became a well-known figure on the world stage and disappearing him from that stage was hard to accept by the international community.”

In September 1982 the peace process was started and there were an attempt to enroll the Palestinians into the peace talks by force, i.e. they join the process but not the negotiations. This path has unfolded over many years and has opened a link between the United States and the Palestinians.

It nevertheless led to numerous political failures. This phase lasted until the First Intifada in 1987, an even that allowed the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)  to announce a Palestinian state from Algeria and become the sole representative of the Palestinians in the peace process.

“It failed of course because Hamas appeared and protested that the PLO became the exclusive representative of the Palestinian cause on one hand and on the other hand the right-wing Israeli government didn’t want direct negotiations with the Palestinians,” Laurens said.

Laurens further explained to his audience that the first Gulf War, which isolated the PLO but relaunched the negotiations for peace, led to Madrid peace conference in 1991, in which a delegation from the occupied territories participated.

He explained that Arafat controlled the delegation because he didn’t want a Palestinian force independent from his control.  For Laurens, Arafat was able to keep playing a major role because he was able to get funds from international donors. “Oslo Accords were bad for Palestine, but they were good for Arafat, because it gave him more significance and huge financial abilities,” he explained.

The occupation force worked to prevent any real development in the occupied territories. The Palestinians had a stringent budget that could only be used within very tight limits, even though the international parties that had participated in Oslo negotiations pledged a multi-billion dollar budget. The main challenge became how to obtain that budget.

The French historian was very critical of Arafat’s political ways, stating that he refused civil strife between Palestinians but he had no resources so he had to rule by corruption and nepotism.

“You can have all kinds of good and great ideas in a certain political scene but achieving it requires tools. The active players in any conflict always have a foreign power on their side, and on this basis Arafat kept being strong because he had control of the flux of money,” he said.

For Laurens, to understand what went wrong in Oslo, we have to look at the way negotiators handled it. “Negotiators kept saying that the essential issues, the right of return, the land, and Jerusalem, were to be discussed in the end of the negotiations.

During the process, each party needs to work on building trust, but what happened is that each party tried to be at a better position as the process went on, and eventually there was no trust, and the Israelis kept building settlements during the negotiation itself,” he added.

When the Palestinians realized that the Israelis wouldn’t make substantial concessions they opened a parallel track. They began talks with Syria that ultimately failed, following which came the second Camp David negotiations in 2000, which Laurens described as most chaotic negotiations to take place in the 20th century.  

In the Arab Israeli conflict Laurens makes a distinction between “realistic land” and a sacred land, and throughout the history of the conflict, there is a continuous switch between the two.

“In 1920 the issue was the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in 1937 it was he land, and again in 1989 when the First Intifada broke out it was the land, and by the time Camp David II happened and the United States allowed the Israelis to pray in the Aqsa Mosque the issue became the holy land and the mosque,” he explained.

Laurens’s book stops with the rise of George W. Bush and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to power, the subsequent characterization of the Intifada as a terrorist movement, and finally 9/11 because then the conflict enters another phase with different characteristics, as he describes it.

Laurens, who is pessimistic about the situation in the Arab World, perceives that the Arab-Israeli conflict has comparatively small stakes on the global stage. He notes that throughout the course of the conflict, 23,000-24,000 Israeli Jews and 100,000 Palestinians have been killed, while tens of Arabs have died.

Significantly more Syrians have been killed during the ongoing conflict in that country, now in its sixth year, while millions have died in Africa in vicious conflicts that are given relatively little attention. He argues that the reason the Arab-Israeli conflict is accorded such significance is the symbolism of it: it is a conflict saturated in history and religious sensitivity.

“The West can’t look at the Palestinian case without seeing what happened to the Jews of Eastern Europe during World War II; Arabs and Muslims can’t look at the Palestinian issue without remembering the history of the violent imperialism.

This is why the symbolic stake here is so great and this is how we come to understand the passion related to it, and this is why it is a conflict that differs from the finite conflicts in Syria and Iraq, that do not have this symbolism,” he explained.

“This work isn’t just about the issue of Palestine in the Arab world. It is a history of the work of empires inside our region; it is about the struggle between the empire and its enemies, the role of the United States in the conflict. This work combines details with analysis it puts the details into its context, and analyzes the social, political structures; the diplomatic history.

"It is a monitoring of events that is done according to certain logic,” Bashir El-Sebai' said. “No Arab historian has taken it upon himself to present such work, it is the biggest work in one subject even in the French historical writing in the past century, and we owe Laurens this great achievement,” he added.

Short link: