The Palestinians have faced many tough situations over the years, but in most cases they have succeeded in winning the sympathy of their Arab brothers and most of the international community. They have a just cause, and the injustice done to them since 1948 is unquestionable. Only skeptics with their own personal agenda would ever seek to deny that injustice.
The same thing must also be said about the injustice done to the Jewish people over the centuries. Unfortunately, today we see two wronged peoples, the Palestinians and the Israelis, locked in an existential conflict. This has happened because the moderate and reasonable voices have died down, and the two sides have become obsessed with victory over the other, if not each other’s complete annihilation.
I dare say that the many setbacks that have befallen the Palestinians are a partial excuse for the way they have lost faith in the international community, which the Palestinian people have found to be firmly biased in favor of their adversary. The people of this troubled land have also been let down by a fractured “Arab nation” that is now threatened with total fragmentation.
I do wonder about the excuses the Israelis have to justify their descent from “democracy” to “militarization.” Since the June 1967 war set their de facto borders, they have had a number of military victories that have enabled them to occupy lands far larger than the entity demarcated in 1967.
The Palestinians have long failed to fully grasp the nature of the Zionist movement. This failure has multiplied since the founding of the Jewish state, but this has not been the fault of the Palestinians alone. The entire Arab world was wept away by the euphoria of “Arabism”—though they never quite succeeded in defining it—and so they were chasing after mere illusions and dreams. In their quest for “one Arab nation with an eternal message” stretching “from the Indian Ocean to the Gulf,” the Arabs were willing to sacrifice principal human values: freedom and dignity.
Thus Arabism, particularly in its revolutionary form, has become associated with two negative traits: demagoguery and political opportunism. The revolutionary tyrants in our part of the world successfully used this to put a glossy veneer on their backwardness, tribalism and sectarianism.
As the Palestinians are part of the Arab world, the Palestinian resistance was directly influenced by Arab interests. In spite of the pledge to support the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, in the wake of the 1967 defeat several Arab regimes established their own client organizations under the PLO umbrella. The Palestinians, like many Arabs, were also an active part of the “international liberation movement” against “colonialism” and “imperialism,” towing the line of the Soviet Union and China in the face of the capitalist, imperialist West.
Two influential moments in the Palestinian struggle were the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president, and Anwar Sadat’s decision to draw Egypt closer to the US. Other related factors were the competition between the Ba’athists in Baghdad and Damascus, as well as the positions of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and Gaafar Nimeiry’s Sudan, about who was the rightful heir to Nasser’s “Arabist” mantle.
The Palestinian movement was further affected when Sadat, calling himself the “pious president,” began to exploit the forces of political Islam, using them as a weapon in his battle against the remnants of Nasserism and dimming the light of Arabism. The Camp David Accords struck another blow to the Arabist dream, enabling Hamas to rise at the expense of Fatah and the weakened Leftist organizations.
At the time, Israel was not particularly troubled by political Islam. It was fomenting internal battles in the Arab world between Islamists on one side and Arabists and Leftists on the other. The US was also happy to support political Islam—even its jihadist element, as we saw in the Afghanistan War in the 1980s. That is to say, the emergence of Hamas was once seen as a rather positive development by Israeli and American strategic planners, who at that point were in a hurry to settle the Cold War in favor of the West.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would later become a game changer. The influence of the Left in the Muslim and Arab worlds shrank as a result of the Cold War’s end, and the Arab national identity fell apart in the face of the growing power of political Islam supported by the West. The awakening only came after the Afghan jihadists discovered they had been used as tools in the West’s war of attrition against Soviet communism: as soon as the jihadists were no longer useful, the West’s strategic goal became to put that genie back in its bottle.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, the jihadist response would be worldwide suicide operations, reaching US soil with the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. From that point onwards, the game took a drastic turn. In the Middle East, Israel found itself in the eye of the storm.
At one stage, Israel had faced the threat of the Khomeinist revolution in Iran alongside its Western allies. But, seeing itself as part of the conflict between the US and Iran, Israel started gradually to rethink its regional strategy. Rejecting the “land for peace” principle on which the international Arab–Israeli peace process is based, the Israeli Right wing is today implicitly encouraging an intra-Islamic civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the region. This may best be seen by the West’s furtive support for the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, which is also supported (and armed) by Iran, even though the US was a leading force pushing for the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
The Iranian leadership, which is enviably pragmatic, discovered some time ago that there is an important intersection of interests between it and Israel. The Iran–Contra scandal was an early indication of Tehran’s pragmatism, based on the idea that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Today, the intersection of Israeli and Iranian interests manifests itself in the war on “terrorists,” in Tel Aviv’s discourse, and against “takfirists” in the parlance of Iran.
The price Israel is demanding is, quite simply, enough to end any possibility of a viable Palestinian state. This can only be achieved by weakening an already imperiled moderate power in favor of an unacceptable armed Islamist movement. Regionally it requires, if only on a temporary basis, that Iran use its affiliates in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq for the protection of Israel’s borders. In return, Iran is seeking full control of the Arab Mashreq, from the Gulf to the Mediterranean; it is also claiming leadership of the Muslim world on the principle of “the unity of the Umma.”
For the time being, Israel does not seem to be opposed to Iran’s aspirations and actions because it benefits if Tehran succeeds in protecting its borders, and benefits even more if Tehran’s failure intensifies the intra–Islamic civil war.
The Gaza tragedy can only be understood from this angle.