by Bernard Sabella
Enemies exist in reality. In fact, the history of much of the world and certainly of our region is the history of enemies engaged in conflict and continued strife. The plight and hardship endured by Palestinians, throughout this century, is the result of the conflict with Israelis. The Israelis, too, have endured hardships as a result of their conflict with Palestinians and Arabs. Whatever the interpretations and justifications, in the final analysis, the relationships between Palestinians and Israelis until now are best characterized as those of enemies.
Some would like to explain the root cause of enmity as lying in attitudes, in differing world views and in the refusal to acknowledge the other for simply being the other. This implies a psycho logistic approach to conflict and a sharp break with reality. Granted that relationships of enmity have psychological effects on individuals, groups and nations, but these are resultant from a situation of conflict and not its root cause. To start with, it is the specific and concrete situation of conflict which is responsible for enmity and its various sociopolitical and psychological manifestations.
Attitudes of Palestinian Arabs and Jews to each other, early on in this century, could not be characterized as those of enmity. Enmity between the two evolved as the result of the conflicting claims to the land. As long as the Arabs did not perceive a threat from Jews to their claim, they did not have a reason to suspect Jews and to treat them as enemies. No one can argue that Palestinian Arabs were inherently anti-Jewish and, therefore, disapproved of the arrival of Jewish immigrants to Palestine on this ground. At the same time, the Jewish immigrants who started to gather in Palestine did not care much for the Arabs of the country. Their interest was the return to the land without consideration for the Arab inhabitants or their claims. Their return was certainly not motivated by an inherently anti-Arab attitude, but rather by an ideological disposition which eventually pitted them against the local Arab population and other Arabs.
An Equation of Enmity
I am not arguing that relations between Arabs and Jews were ideal, but that, if we want to understand the enmity between the two, we have to examine the history of contact between them, especially since the imposition of the British Mandate on Palestine. How the Jews and Arabs came to perceive each other is dependent on the establishment of a new entity on the one hand, and the dissolution of society and national community on the other. Feelings and attitudes of Jews and Arabs towards each other were formed in the sociopolitical reality which prevailed during the British Mandate. Certainly, the intercommunal strife and the ongoing confrontations in different parts of the country led to the development of stereotype images of the other in which negative psychological projections became the norm.
There is here an equation of enmity in which the establishment of state and loss of homeland reinforced and strengthened the mostly negative images and attitudes formed up to 1948. To Palestinians, the loss of homeland and disintegration of their society left scars which they carried with them to their refugee camps, to host countries and to every place they went. In one sense, the Palestinians carried their enemies with them. The extent of Palestinian hurt was best summarized by the term Al-nakbeh, the disaster. Reminiscences and memories of life in cities, towns, villages and homes left behind in Palestine were for a long time the psychological mainstay of Palestinians. But they were also the nucleus around which socialization of younger generations, born outside Palestine, took place. The Israelis were responsible for all this hurt and, naturally, it was expected that the hurt would be returned not simply to Israelis, but also to Westerners who supported the Jews in accomplishing their national objective to the detriment of Palestinians.
To Israelis, the establishment of the State was the fulfillment of an age-old dream. The turn of events which led to the creation of Israel was, in part, due to the hostility and refusal shown by Arabs to the Zionist enterprise. The original expectation was that Arabs in Palestine would not be hostile. This expectation rested to a great extent on negating the other and their claim to the land. Arab hostility further reinforced the negation process of the other, on the Israeli side. Negation, however, was accompanied by the belief that the language of force was the only language understood by Arabs. Legitimation for this position found various justifications, especially in the first two decades of the life of the State.
The 1948 war heralded the regionalization of the conflict and enmity between Arabs and Jews. Political transformations took place in the Arab world - Egypt and Iraq as examples - in part as response to the defeat suffered by Arabs in the war. The centrality of the Palestinian problem to the Arab nationalist movement, led by Nasser, served to strengthen pan-Arab solidarity and the resolve of Arabs to liberate Palestine. Among Palestinians, the fifties and sixties witnessed socioeconomic and political transformations which eventually enabled them to set up the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Mounting Nationalism, Fortress Mentality
The establishment of the PLO could be read as the start of an empowerment process in which Palestinians acted out their hurt and anger against those responsible for inflicting them. But the fifties and sixties could be seen, in terms of enmity, as a time of preparation for a second showdown. Arabs and Palestinians started examining the causes of the disaster and they came to difficult conclusions which reflected on the archaic nature of Arab social organization, the corruption of political systems and the need to match Israel, on different counts, if they were to win the next round. Some Palestinians attributed some of Israel’s advantage to thinkers, academics and researchers who laid some of the groundwork to its eventual victory. As a parallel, Palestinians set up their own research centers, libraries and other academic institutions which focused on their own society and on Israeli society, as well. Knowing the enemy could not be left to feelings and emotions. More in-depth understanding was needed, certainly not for the sake of understanding as such, but in order to be better equipped to confront the enemy. Thus, an element of objectivity seeped in which affected the stereotypes of years past with more realistic assessments.
With the mounting Arab nationalism of the fifties and sixties, Israel developed a fortress mentality. Israeli foreign ministers, on the yearly occasion of the State’s establishment, were accustomed to broadcasting messages in Arabic expressing willingness to meet any Arab leader, in whatever place, to make peace. In reality, however, Israel was not ready for peace because it was preoccupied with the absorption of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants and it was not ready to pay the exorbitant price of peace. It is even doubtful that a majority of Israelis were interested, or even cared, to know the Arabs and the Palestinians and their experience in an objective manner. In fact, what befell the Palestinians was of their own making and the Israelis never felt responsible for what had happened. While Israel kept its alert militarily and proceeded to amass information on its enemy neighbor states, the preoccupations of Israelis were light-years from those of their neighbors or even from those Arabs who lived within the boundaries of the State.
The 1967 war was the turning point in the history of enmity between Palestinians and Israelis. With Israeli jubilation and Arab depression at the swiftness and outcome of the war, a new-old reality reasserted itself: the two national groups were once again living side by side in the territory of Mandatory Palestine but now in a relationship of occupier and occupied. The prevailing conditions were certainly different from those under the Mandate, but the demographics of the post-1967 situation clearly indicated that the conflict between Arab and Jew in Palestine remained to be solved. The Palestinians, light-years away from the preoccupations of Israelis, were all of a sudden at their doorstep. The Israelis, who were depicted in the worst language possible, were slowly discovered to have a colorful variety of characteristics and not simply black. Boundaries between the two groups were strictly laid and the occupation authorities made sure of exercising their controlling power to that effect. In spite of this, the two groups were once again face to face.
Those Israelis who were optimistic for a liberal occupation eventually acknowledged that occupation is occupation. The implication was that it could not be a viable system of governance of one people over another.
To many Palestinians who came in daily contact with Israelis, the reality of Israel as a different and distinct entity from the West Bank and Gaza Strip started to be considered. The wounds and scars of past years were not forgotten, but the knowledge of the other, the enemy, started to be oriented more by reality than by feelings and emotions emanating from reminiscences and memories of the pre-1948 period. Yet the relationships of Palestinians and Israelis were not normal ones, but those of enemies. As the "live and let live" policy of early occupation evolved into more oppressive measures to control the Palestinian population and its resources, some Israelis started questioning the ethical and moral implications of a continued occupation, though the majority of Israelis did not care about what happened in the administered territories.
On the Palestinian side, social and political developments were geared to confronting occupation. In the act of confrontation, new scars and wounds were imprinted on the Palestinians and eventually on the Israelis, as well. Palestinians and Israelis became involved in a mutual, and yet unequal, struggle. Palestinians realized they were not powerless but were capable of hitting back at those who controlled and restricted them. This realization provided psychological reinforcement as it pitted Palestinian youngsters against Israeli soldiers often in personalized confrontations. Palestinians discovered that Israeli soldiers felt fear the same way they themselves did. This discovery often took on an exaggerated projection: fear is a characteristic of the enemy but not of us; we are so daring, determined and heroic that nothing can stop us. This exaggerated projection eventually gave way to the realization that the conflict in its essence is a political one and needs a political solution to resolve it.
This realization started to take hold among some Israelis too. Peace groups which started forming in the late seventies and matured into the eighties saw no option but to acknowledge the rights of Palestinians. There was a reexamination and a redefinition of the Israeli position, albeit in limited circles, yet it proved essential in facilitating contact with the enemy, the PLO and its emissaries in distant capitals. The official line, however, persisted in its adamant negation of the Palestinians as represented by the PLO. The occupation, with all its oppressive measures, set the stage for a revision of positions on both sides. This revision was not planned nor was it total as significant numbers, on both sides, continued to insist on maxima list and exclusivist positions, i.e., either us or them.
While the first two decades of occupation led inadvertently to a slow change in perception among segments of both societies, it was regional and international events which molded the changing perceptions and reinforced them. The 1973 war which culminated in the Sadat visit and the peace between Egypt and Israel was a crucial link in the transformation process of enmity. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the dispersal of the PLO fighters was another such link because it forced the PLO to redefine. The changes of the mid and late eighties in the Eastern bloc countries eventually left their impact on all parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict, each for its own reasons and interests.
Ready for Accommodation
The Intifada, with its specific call to end occupation, was a mass reaction to an actual situation of occupation; there was no talk among the Intifada Palestinians of dismantling Israel. The message was clear: the occupation must end and Palestinians should exercise their right to self-determination. The Palestine National Council (PNC) decisions of 1988 showed the willingness of Palestinians to accommodate, based on realistic assessments of changes within the Occupied Territories, the region and the world.
On the Israeli side, some veteran politicians were expressing fears that a continued subjugation of another people would result either in an apartheid state or in a binational state. The conclusion was that Israel should rid itself of ruling another people. But neither this position nor the PNC decisions, on the Palestinian side, were unanimous.
The Gulf crisis and war made many Palestinians realize that their cause was no longer a number one priority in the Arab world. It was also clear that the alliance which was created to confront Iraq would be recreated to come to the rescue of Israel, if it were seriously threatened. Political realities and alliances were changing around them and Palestinians needed to adapt themselves to those changes in order to survive. For Israel, the changes in the region and the global balance of power meant that new possibilities were arising which necessitated a change of position towards the Palestinians.
The handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in Washington was certainly not the result of a drastic change of heart in both men, but was a political one reflecting the changing realities and interests of both Palestinians and Israelis. It was not the culmination of a genuine reconciliation process but the reflection of a political process, of accommodation and negotiation. Each side wanted to get the most out of this process and notions such as historic• reconciliation were certainly not part of the game. For reconciliation to occur, we must await another process of transformation which will probably take another decade or two. In this process Palestinians have the unenviable task of creating their institutions, developing their economy and upgrading the extent and quality of their social services. In other words, the Palestinians need to get to the point of being independent and feeling confident about themselves. Cooperation between strong and weak, rich and poor is not destined to succeed.
The vision of a new Middle East necessitates also the realization by Israelis that they cannot be hegemonic or patronizing. Issues such as relative justice to Palestinian refugees and the sharing of one Jerusalem with mutual respect and tolerance are important components in the creation of the vision of a new Middle East. Much needs to be done in order for the process to come to its maturation point. Changes in attitudes and feelings and willingness for mutual acknowledgment and trust are based on actual experiences. The more these experiences in the coming decade or so reinforce positive attitudes and feelings, the more they will lead to an era of peace and prosperity for all in this region.