Juan Cole on Gringrich’s Palestine Comments

Informed Comment: Newt Gingrich has been trying for the monetary backing and votes of Jewish Americans and Christian Zionists by taking up the positions of the Israeli far Right. He promises to move the US embassy to Jerusalem (disputed territory under international law) just because right wing Jewish nationalists insist that all of Jerusalem belongs to them and because they intend gradually to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from the city.

And, now he has begun talking like an Israeli propagandist from the 1950s, saying that there had never been a Palestinian state in history, that the 11 million Palestinians are an invented nation, that there is no difference in the attitude of the PLO and Hamas toward Israel, and that all Palestinians are terrorists. His remarks have been condemned by other politicians as extreme, but that is hypocritical. America acts as Gingrich talks.

It is important to note that only a minority of Jewish Americans agrees with Gingrich. Some 37 percent of American Jews say in polling that they don’t have a strong attachment to Israel (there is no reason for them to; they aren’t from there). Two-thirds of Jewish Americans would trade land for peace in the Mideast. Jewish Americans have often been the social conscience of America in the past century, and the vast majority of them would not dream of voting for someone like Gingrich, who is all about giving more to the super-wealthy and taking away things from the workers. Gingrich’s positions are not meant to appeal to Jews in general, but rather to a handful of American billionaires, some of them Christian Zionists and others Jewish hyper-nationalists.

Gingrich’s assertions about the poor Palestinians have been refuted by two generations of scholarship by academic historians who actually study Palestinians in Arabic, and Gingrich has in any case made his allegations a simple-minded way that makes them hard to take seriously.

The important thing to realize is that Gingrich is not an outlier in Washington, and that the US government consistently acts as though it believes exactly what Gingrich says.

I don’t mean to be unfair to Barack Obama, who came into office with, I think, generally benign intentions toward the Palestinians. But that is sort of like swimming into shark-infested waters with generally benign intentions toward minnows. Obama tried hard to set up some meetings, which the Likud Party torpedoed by insisting on expanding squatter settlements on the territory over which they were negotiating. The Palestinian leadership for once declined to offer a fig leaf to this naked theft of their own territory, and sensibly decided that far right wing prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not serious about negotiating with Palestinians. (And, indeed, why bother, since they don’t exist).

But after some efforts, behind which he never put his own prestige and in which he never intervened with the office of the presidency, Obama gradually started giving The Likud Speech, which American politicians believe is central to raising funds from Jewish Americans for their campaigns. Aside from pressing for negotiations, and sometimes snubbing Netanyahu, Obama has been a helpless giant in the face of the settler-industrial complex, and in recent months he has allowed it to occupy his rhetoric.

How many tens of thousands of further Israeli squatters are now residing on Palestinian territory compared to January of 2009? How many Palestinian civilians (including children) have Israeli forces killed out of disregard for the lives of non-combatants? How many Palestinian mosques and other properties have been attacked or burned by violent Israeli squatters? How many Palestinians have been evicted from their homes? For some ( of these mostly untold stories on this side of Atlantic, see this site) and that of the invaluable B’Tselem.

If you believed what Gingrich says he believes, wouldn’t you stand by and watch all this happen without lifting a finger to stop it? And isn’t that exactly what the US has done? So what is the difference, practically speaking, for the average Palestinian being deprived of life, liberty and happiness by a brutal and grasping Israeli colonial occupation– what is the real difference between Gingrich’s honestly expressed views and those of mainstream Washington?

The US government is spineless before right wing Israeli provocations. Did Israel from 2007 want to impose an illegal blockade on Palestinian children and other non-combatants in the Gaza Strip, putting them on “a diet” and keeping them on the edge of humanitarian disaster? Wikileaks revealed that the State Department did no more than tut tut at these war crimes. The US government has responded far more vigorously to college students downloading some music files than it has to Israeli squatters stealing much of the West Bank’s best land.

So, maybe it is for the best that Gingrich put aside the polite language of negotiation and peace process and Palestinian state, and told it like it is. He doesn’t believe that the Palestinians have any legitimate claims at all, and that is that. In which case their children can at will be thrown into food insecurity, and their land can be stolen from them, and they can be chased off into the great inchoate mass of “Arabs” with no bad conscience.

As for the substance of what Gingrich said, it is first of all stupid, and second of all wrong.

It is stupid because all nations are invented, and they have all been invented in the past couple hundred years. There were peoples in pre-modern times, but in the absence of printing, literacy, modern communications, and the new post-empire model of the Enlightenment state with its educational institutions, they weren’t really nations. Those who supposedly spoke a common language couldn’t even understand one another across regions (north and south Italy, e.g.) As Eric Hobsbawm observed, people think that nations created states, but in fact states created nations. States standardized languages, e.g.

So the Palestinians aren’t more of an invented nation than anyone else.

Gingrich said that there had never been a Palestinian state in history. If you want to play the romantic nationalist game of finding ancient forebears for modern nations, it would be easy in the case of the Palestinians, who were mentioned by the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians. But today’s Palestinians are equally descended from the ancient Canaanites and as well as from the ancient Jews.

If Gingrich meant to argue that Palestine was never an administrative unit of Muslim states, this is incorrect– under the Mamluks it was one of the five districts of Syria and had its capital at Jerusalem.

Palestine was a known place in medieval Islam. People referred to it as a place. It was sometimes the name of an administrative unit. There are coins stamped Filastin. People who lived in that area were Filastinis or Palestinians. Over time, 80% of them came to be Muslims, with the rest Christians. Between 1000 AD and 1800 AD there were very few Jews in geographical Palestine (Bonaparte found 3,000 or so as I remember).

That Palestinians were part of the Ottoman Empire is irrelevant to whether they are a nation or not. You could make all the same assertions about Albanians that Gingrich made about Palestinians. There was no Albanian state in antiquity. They were ruled by the Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian and Ottoman Empires. There was no Albanian province under the Ottomans.

But Gingrich does not assert that the Albanians are not a nation. It is not necessary to denationalize the Albanians. None of Gingrich’s campaign contributors wants to make the Albanians stateless and homeless and steal all their land and property.

If you want a “national” precedent for the Palestinians, in the 18th century when the Ottoman Empire had largely decentralized, Jazzar Pasha ruled Palestine from Akka and successfully fought off Napoleon Bonaparte.

As for Palestinians being “Arabs,” actually no Palestinians would have called themselves Arabs in the nineteenth century, except Bedouins. The word then for the most part meant pastoral nomad. The idea of a pan-Arab nation only arises in the 20th century, and it hasn’t been notably successful. The only thing “Arabs” have in common is that they speak Arabic. But it is arbitrary that we call all forms of Arabic “Arabic,” but we do not speak of Romance as a language. The difference between Moroccan spoken “Arabic” and the “Arabic” spoken in southern Iraq is greater than the difference between Spanish and Portuguese.

The British Empire conquered Palestine during WW I and the League of Nations created a Mandate of Palestine, which it scheduled to become a nation-state, as with Syria and Iraq. The only reason Palestine did not is that the British derailed the League of Nation mandate for Palestine by promoting the immigration of European Jews, who were meant to be imperial allies (as the French promoted Maronite Christians in Lebanon, a country they carved off from Syria for imperial purposes).

The European Jews ultimately formed a third of the population in Mandate Palestine, and at the end of WW II, they became militant, formed militias, assassinated officials, engaged in terrorism, and ultimately chased the British out and ethnically cleansed some 700,000 Palestinians, allowing them to create the state of Israel. The 1948 war did not necessitate the ethnic cleansing. Jordanian forces never threatened to come into the territory designated for Israel in the UNGA partition plan.

Parts of Mandate Palestine — Gaza and the West Bank– escaped the Israelis’ control in 1948. But in 1967 the Israelis conquered these remaining Palestinian territories and have ruled them militarily ever since (they rule Gaza by controlling its air, sea and land borders and occasionally bombing or invading it). Contrary to the law of occupation, the Israelis have been settling on and stealing Palestinian land in the West Bank on a large scale ever since.

The Palestinians who were forced north to Lebanon still for the most part live in refugee camps. Their accent is immediately discernible. They cannot own property and cannot easily get a work permit. They are in a set of large jails. They have no hope. They will not be given Lebanese citizenship because the French set Lebanon up as a country of religious communities, with the Christians dominant. For 300,000 or 400,000 Sunni Muslims to be given citizenship in a country of 4 million would shift power decisively toward the Sunnis, disadvantaging the wealthy and powerful Christian minority and the Shiite plurality.

So it isn’t true that the Palestinians are monochrome “Arabs” who, having been stripped of their property by the Israelis and expelled from their homes, could easily just be Arab somewhere else.

The Israelis committed a tort against the Palestinians when they ethnically cleansed them in 1947-48, for which they have never paid a dime in compensation. The Israelis continue to keep millions of Palestinians stateless and without meaningful human rights, under brutal military occupation.

The complicity of official Washington in this ongoing crime against a whole people angers the Muslim world and causes many of America’s problems with the region, as Stephen Walt points out.

Gingrich’s remarks were headlined at Aljazeera and even as we speak have stirred a wave of anger at the United States. But it is not because he has put forward a new American position. It is because he has confirmed what the Arab public had perceived as US policy all along. The US is an accomplice in the erasure of a whole people, in keeping them in an estate. of statelessness, only a little elevated from that of slavery, and in helping further expropriate them on a daily basis.

And that, folks, is What Went Wrong.

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