UAE’s pact with Israel is in the tradition of Arab leaders’ opportunistic use of the Palestinian cause.
There is an interesting story widely circulated in Palestine about the trial of Arial Sharon, the former Prime Minister of Israel and the champion of Israel’s victory over the Arab forces in the 1967 War and the chief architect of Israel’s unauthorised occupation in the Palestinian land, for his involvement in a massacre in an Arab village in 1948. The judge asked him, “What prompted you to commit such a heinous crime (killing innocent Arabs)?” “It was the false promise of the state of Israel that made me do so”, he replied in a resolute and unwavering manner. “What? How come a false promise of the state motivated one to kill the innocent Arabs?”, the judge went on asking him. Sharon’s argument was logically safe, “Remember what you (the state of Israel) taught us, ‘Palestine is an empty land, a land without people is for the people without land.’ So, when I saw people (Arabs) around me, I shot at them. Who is the culprit then, the state or me? The blame, no doubt, goes to the state,” argued Sharon.
Hanan Ashrawi’s tweet in response to UAE-Israel deal:
There is perhaps little point in citing this story here, but there is a serious point in it while discussing how this Orientalist narrative of “empty land”, of late, has shaped the world’s popular imagination of the land of Palestine and its people. The UAE’s move to fully normalise relations with Israel, a deal brokered by the US, in a way, is a subtle endorsement of this narrative. For much of the “public” that has emerged over the past few decades, the Palestinians are almost like fantasies one can conveniently love or hate, befriend or despise, kill or protect, stand with or betray. Ashrawi’s tweet aptly sums up the resentment of the Palestinians to the long experience of humiliation and betrayal by the fellow Arabs.
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Relatively little attempt has been paid to understand this betrayal. Any inquiry leading to comprehend the issue should make the interventions of Arabs at different points in the history as its basic premise.
In such an account, Arab leaders, one after another, add emotional content to the question of Palestine, promise to defeat Israel or mediate the conflict and save the Palestinians from their sufferings, but vanish causing more damage to the Palestinian cause. Starting from Emir Faisal and King Abdulla (who became the rulers of Iraq and Jordan respectively), two sons of Hussain bin Ali, the Grand Sharif of Mecca, who had proclaimed himself the leader of Arabs in the beginning of the 20th century, the list of Arab “messiahs” appears pretty long.
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It forces us to ask a question: Have all such adventurisms on the Palestinians’ behalf yielded the desired results? Palestinians will, certainly, not answer in the affirmative. Faced with gross injustice (often committed by Israel and the US), the Palestinians might have rallied behind the Arab messiahs, but these interventions on their behalf served little or no purpose, even caused adverse effects at times.
The history of Arab betrayal starts with a secret pact between Emir Faisal and the leaders of Zionist movement in 1919. Faisal pledged the Hashemite family’s support for the Balfour Declaration in a reciprocal act of Zionist’s support for an Arab state in the former Arab provinces of the disintegrated Ottoman Empire. With an ambition of establishing a greater Hashemite Kingdom in the erstwhile Arab provinces of the Empire, the family endorsed the Jewish colonisation of Palestine as the quid pro quo.
Faisal’s brother, Abdulla moved further to the extent of invading a portion of Palestine, the West Bank, as a part of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and formally annexed it in 1950. The invasion of the West Bank attracted the wrath of other Arab countries and led to the assassination of Abdulla by a Palestinian militant in 1951, amid rumours of his intention to sign a treaty with Israel recognising the latter’s right to rule the occupied territories of Palestine.
During the 1960s, it was Gamal Abdel Nasser’s turn. Not only did he claim the patronage of Palestinians in their struggle but also elicited strong emotions and support in favour of him from the ordinary Arabs using the question of Palestine. Nasser’s master-narrative of Greater Arab World with a socialistic tilt caused poor growth of Palestinian nationalism till his defeat in the 1967 War. Almost a decade later, Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, in a surprise move, signed the Camp David Accords, the first between an Arab and the Jewish state, but with no substantial reference to the major contentious issues such as Israel’s move to consolidate its hold on the occupied territories by increasing the Jewish settler population and the right to return of Palestinian refugees.
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Inspired by Nasser, Saddam Hussain, in the early 1990s, sought to popularise the issue and even used it for legitimising his invasion of Kuwait. He offered a pullout from the Gulf soil only in return for Israel’s disengagement from the occupied territories. Saddam’s use of the Palestine question, in fact, produced an opposite result diverting the world’s attention from the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation that began in the late 1980s. As an unarmed mass insurrection, the first Intifada by then had captured the popular attention via television footage of brutal Israeli crackdown on Palestinian women and children who resorted mainly to relatively less violent means like stone pelting. Israel was internationally hurt and faced diplomatic isolation throughout the period and though not linked directly, it was actually Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait that came to Israel’s rescue and helped them to find a way out from a near-total labyrinth.
The obsession with the question of Palestine is categorically no longer a preserve of Arab Sunni leaders, but has often been adopted by Iran and its Arab ally, Hezbollah, determined to link up politically with the ordinary Arabs. A series of events in the last two decades such as the Lebanese War of 2006 has elevated the status of Iran and Hezbollah to a new pitch in the region. Turkey is the other regional player attempting to fill the political vacuum left by the Arab leaders. President Recep Erdogan often makes political rhetoric relevant in ways different from the Arabs, more appealing to the Palestinians. But what is strange to grasp is Ankara’s silence on any downgrading of its seven-decade old diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, while threatening to suspend diplomatic ties with the UAE following the deal between the Emirates and Israel. The move was criticised by many commentators as hypocrisy.
For the Palestinians, the UAE’s open pact and Saudi Arabia’s tacit deal underway are nothing but 20th century avatars of a series of secret deals that Hashemite brothers had with the Zionist leadership and Israel. As Seraj Assi in his column in the Haaretz daily termed “a sense of historical déjà vu” creeps over Palestine as the events follow a clearly predictable pattern. Every Palestinian is, thus, suspicious about own friends’ move on par with enemy’s; Ashrawi’s tweet in anger is reflective of that.
The writer is professor and director, School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.
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