"To a man with a hammer," Mark Twain famously quipped, "everything looks like a nail." To a propagandist, everything looks like a poll.
No sooner had my latest New York Times op-ed piece, The Palestinians, Alone, been published than my mailbox was swamped with polls of all hues aimed at proving the depth of Arab compassion for the Palestinians.
One such poll claimed that 86% percent of Arabs were "prepared for peace" with Israel within the pre-June 1967 borders (these Arabs obviously forgot to consult the Palestinians, as only 21 percent of them named the "right of return" - a red line for all Palestinian factions without exception - as a most important concern). Another poll, held by the Brookings Institution in conjunction with Zogby International, reported a precipitous drop in Arab confidence in Barack Obama's Middle East policy (as if Obama had not distinguished himself, in his short term in office, as the most anti-Israeli U.S. president in living memory).
James Zogby himself, among others, felt compelled to attempt to rebut my article. "There are bad polls, and then there are bad interpretations of polls," he wrote in the Huffington Post. "Putting them together (i.e. a bad interpretation of a bad poll) can create a mess of misinformation."
The "bad poll" in question is a recent survey for the al-Arabiya television network, noted in my article, which found a staggering 71 percent of Arab respondents had no interest in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. And the "bad interpretation" is my presumed failure to recognize that this was not a fully scientific poll but rather an "online vote," which didn't refer to the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks but rather to the "Middle East peace process."
It is arguable of course that an "online-vote" by 8844 respondents (more than twice the size of the Brookings/Zogby poll), answering one straightforward question, might be more accurate and less susceptible to manipulation than "scientifically" crafted surveys purposively choosing their target audiences; or that ordinary Arabs, living as they do in one of the least democratic parts of the world, will be more candid in the relative obscurity of the web than in the presence of a pollster knocking on their front door or contacting them by phone.
Nor is there any risk of Arabs, and for that matter any other polled audience, construing the "Middle East peace process" for anything but the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks; not only because there has been no other regional "peace process" for quite some time, but because the two terms have long become synonymous.
But whatever the scientific merits and flaws of certain polling techniques, this issue has no bearing whatsoever on "The Palestinians, Alone." For, contrary to Zogby's claim, my contention that the Arab world has never had any real stake in the "liberation of Palestine" is not based on my reading of the al-Arabiya survey but on the long history of systematic Arab abuse of both the "Palestine Question" and the Palestinians themselves. A poll, even in the best of circumstances, can only give a fleeting glimpse into reality, which is what the al-Arabiya poll did; a historical survey, by contrast, can put current circumstances within their far wider and deeper context, which is precisely what my article did.
Since this point seems to have eluded Zogby and like minded critics, as has my plea that the Palestinians should be allowed to determine their own fate rather than be bossed around by their Arab "brothers," let me expand the argument and diversify the historical examples in the (admittedly slight) hope of convincing the unconvinced.
To begin with, it should be borne in mind that although the doctrine of pan-Arabism, which dominated Arab politics for most of the twentieth century, constantly flaunted the "Palestine Question" as its most celebrated cause, this had nothing to do with concern for the wellbeing of the Palestinian Arabs, let alone the protection of their national rights.
Pan-Arabism views the Palestinians not as a distinct people deserving statehood but as an integral part of a wider Arab framework stretching over substantial parts of the Middle East (e.g., "Greater Syria") or the entire region. As the eminent Arab-American historian Philip Hitti stated in 1946: "There is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not." As late as September 1974, Syria's President Hafez al-Assad described Palestine as "a basic part of southern Syria."
Though anti-Zionism formed a core principle of pan-Arab solidarity since the 1920s - it is easier, after all, to unite people through a common hatred than through a shared loyalty - its invocation has almost always served as an instrument for achieving the self-interested ends of those who proclaim it.
Take Emir Faisal ibn Hussein of Mecca, the celebrated hero of the "Great Arab Revolt" against the Ottoman Empire and the effective leader of the nascent pan-Arab movement. In January 1919 he signed an agreement with Chaim Weizmann, the upcoming head of the Zionist movement, which endorsed the Balfour Declaration. Yet when the opportunity arose, he had himself crowned (on March 8, 1920) King of Syria, "within its natural boundaries, including Palestine." Had Faisal had his way, Palestine would have disappeared from the international scene already then.
Faisal's ambitions were opposed by his elder brother, Abdullah, who strove to transform the emirate of Transjordan (latterly Jordan), which he ruled since 1921, into a springboard for the creation of a vast empire comprising Syria, Palestine, and possibly Iraq and Saudi Arabia; and it was this ambition, rather than the desire to win independence for the Palestinian Arabs, that was the main catalyst of the pan-Arab invasion of the nascent state of Israel in mid-May 1948.
- Abdullah, who led the invasion, sought to incorporate mandatory Palestine, or substantial parts of it, into his coveted empire.
- Egypt wanted to prevent that eventuality by laying its hands on southern Palestine.
- Syria and Lebanon sought to annex the Galilee.
- Iraq viewed the invasion as a stepping stone to bringing the entire Fertile Crescent under its rule.
Had Israel lost the 1948 war, its territory would have been divided among the invading Arab forces. The name Palestine would have vanished into the dustbin of history. By surviving the pan-Arab assault, Israel has paradoxically saved the Palestinian national movement from complete oblivion.
During the decades following the war, the Arab states manipulated the Palestinian national cause to their own ends:
Neither Egypt nor Jordan allowed Palestinian self-determination in the parts of Palestine they had occupied during the 1948 war (respectively, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip).
The Palestinian refugees were kept for decades in squalid, harshly supervised camps throughout the Middle East, where they could serve as a rallying point for anti-Israel sentiment.
Lebanon may offer the starkest example of this abuse, having deprived its 400,000-strong Palestinian population of the most basic human rights - property ownership, employment in numerous professions, free movement, etc. - but nowhere in the Arab world, with the partial exception of Jordan, have the Palestinians been treated like decent human beings, let alone "brothers."
In 2004 Saudi Arabia revised its naturalization law, allowing foreigners who had resided in the kingdom for 10 years to apply for citizenship. Only one group was excluded: the estimated 500,000 Palestinians living and working in Saudi Arabia.
Such attitudes have by no means been confined to the official level. From the moment of their arrival in the neighboring Arab states in 1948, the Palestinians were seen by ordinary Arabs as an unpatriotic and cowardly lot who had shamefully abdicated their national duty while expecting others to fight on their behalf. These sentiments were also manifest within Palestine itself, where the pan-Arab volunteer force that entered the country to "protect the Palestinians" found itself at loggerheads with the community it was supposed to defend. When an Iraqi officer in Jerusalem was asked to explain his persistent refusal to greet the local populace, he angrily retorted that "one doesn't greet these dodging dogs, whose cowardice causes poor Iraqis to die."
For their part, Arab leaders repeatedly exploited the Palestinian cause to promote their personal goals:
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser cloaked his hegemonic aspirations by invoking the restoration of "the full rights of the Palestinian people." Yet this didn't prevent him from telling a Western reporter that "The Palestinians are useful to the Arab states as they are. We will always see that they do not become too powerful."
Saddam Hussein disguised his predatory designs on Kuwait by conditioning his evacuation of the emirate on "the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israel from the occupied Arab territories in Palestine," only to drop this demand once his position became untenable.
Syria's President Assad was a persistent obstacle to Palestinian self-determination. He pledged allegiance to any solution amenable to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) - appointed by the Arab League (in October 1974) as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" - so long as it did not deviate from the Syrian line advocating the destruction of the state of Israel. Yet when in November 1988 the PLO pretended to accept the 1947 partition resolution (and by implication to recognize Israel's existence) so as to end its boycotting by the U.S., Syria immediately opposed the move. When the PLO took this pretence a step further by signing the 1993 Oslo Accords with Israel, it was strongly condemned by the Syrian regime, while the Damascus-based Palestinian terrorist, Ahmad Jibril, threatened Arafat with death.
Nor have the Arab states shrunk from massacring Palestinians on a grand scale whenever this suited their needs.
In 1970, when his throne came under threat from Palestinian guerilla organizations, the affable and thoroughly Westernized King Hussein slaughtered thousands of Palestinians during a single month, now known as "Black September." Fearing certain death, scores of Palestinian fighters fled their Jordanian "brothers," surrendering themselves to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
In the summer of 1976, Lebanese Christian militias, backed by the Syrian army, massacred some 3,500 Palestinians, mostly civilians, in the Beirut refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar.
In September 1982, these very militias slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.
When the PLO tried to re-establish its military presence in Lebanon in 1983, it was unceremoniously expelled by Assad, who then instigated an internecine war among the Palestinian factions in Lebanon, which went on for years and cost an untold number of lives.
In 1991, shortly after the Gulf War, thousands of innocent Palestinian workers living in Kuwait were slaughtered by their hosts in retaliation for the PLO's support for the Iraqi invasion of the emirate.
In the summer of 2007, the Lebanese army killed hundreds of Palestinians, including many civilians, in the north Lebanese refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.
For their part, the Palestinians turned on their Arab hosts whenever given the opportunity.
It was the PLO's subversive activities against the Jordanian regime, which had allowed the use of its territory for anti-Israel attacks, that set in train the chain of events culminating in the Black September massacres.
The PLO's abuse of its growing power base in Lebanon, and its meddling in the country's domestic affairs, helped trigger the Lebanese civil war that raged for nearly two decades and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. In the process, the Palestinians perpetrated numerous atrocities in their adopted country. For example,
- In May 1975, tens of Lebanese civilians were massacred in the Dekkwaneh-Jisr al-Basha neighborhood in East Beirut.
- In October 1975, dozens of civilians were slaughtered in the convent of Naameh, which had received and sheltered Palestinian refugees in 1948.
- In January 1976, the Palestinians massacred hundreds of civilians in the Christian town of Damour, south of Beirut, desecrating the local religious shrines and expelling the rest of the population.
- During the Tel Zaatar siege, the Palestinians massacred hundreds of civilians in adjacent neighborhoods.
- In October 1976, dozens of women, children, and elderly persons were massacred in the village of Aishiyah.
Much has been made of the Palestinian exodus of 1948. Yet during their decades of dispersal, the Palestinians have experienced no less traumatic ordeals at the hands of their Arab brothers. For example,
Following the 1991 liberation of Kuwait, most of the 400,000 Palestinians who had been living and working in the emirate were expelled, creating an epic scale humanitarian problem.
In September 1995 Libya's dictator Muammar Qaddafi ordered the expulsion of the 30,000-strong Palestinian community in his country. "Since the Palestinian leaders claim they have now got a homeland and a passport," he ridiculed the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. "Let the 30,000 Palestinians in Libya go back to their homeland." No Arab state opened its doors to the deportees, with thousands of hapless refugees stranded in the Egyptian desert for weeks before being allowed into Gaza.
After the 2003 Iraq war, some 21,000 Palestinians have fled the country, in response to a systematic terror and persecution campaign, leaving about 13,000 Palestinians.
Indeed, even during the 1948 war, far more Palestinians were driven from their homes by their own leaders and/or by Arab armed forces than by Jewish/Israeli forces. Nowhere at the time was the collapse and dispersion of Palestinian society described as a systematic dispossession of Arabs by Jews. To the contrary, as a senior British official discovered to his surprise during a fact-finding mission to Gaza in June 1949, "while [the refugees] express no bitterness against the Jews (or for that matter against the Americans or ourselves) they speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states. 'We know who our enemies are,' they will say, and they are referring to their Arab brothers who, they declare, persuaded them unnecessarily to leave their homes.... I even heard it said that many of the refugees would give a welcome to the Israelis if they were to come in and take the district over."
The prevailing conviction among Palestinians that they have predominantly been the victims of their fellow Arabs has remained unabated to date. For example,
Salah Khalaf (a.k.a. Abu Iyad), the number two man in the PLO, publicly stated (in 1983) that the crimes of the Syrian government against the Palestinian people "surpassed those of the Israeli enemy."
Addressing mourners at the funeral of a PLO figure murdered at Syrian instigation, Arafat stated: "The Zionists in the occupied territories tried to kill you, and when they failed, they deported you. However, the Arab Zionists represented by the rulers of Damascus thought this was insufficient, so you fell as a martyr."
Following the 1991 Kuwait massacres Arafat acknowledged: "What Kuwait did to the Palestinian people is worse than what has been done by Israel to Palestinians in the occupied territories." A Palestinian survivor of the massacres echoed this prognosis: "Now I feel Israel is paradise. I love the Israelis now. I know they treat us like humans."
I could go on and on, but I doubt whether the historical record will induce the Zogbys to publicly acknowledge the unhappy state of Arab-Palestinian relations. Some people would simply not be bothered with the facts. Yet to judge by their hysterical response to "The Palestinians, Alone," it is clear that the article has touched a raw nerve, or to paraphrase Mark Twain, has hit the nail right on the head.