Parallel Strategies in Israeli and Palestinian Experience
When, in the Autumn of 1919, Amin al-Huseini made an appeal in the newly founded Jerusalem newspaper Surriyya al-Janubiyya to reflect on the dynamics of the regional scenario at that time, he used words which, rereading them today, carry a hint of prophecy. He stated that the Arabs "should take heart from the experience of a people long dispersed and despised, and who had no homeland to call their own, but did not despair and were getting together after their dispersion to regain their glory after twenty centuries of oppression." (quoted in Khalidi 1977,168).

Whether they listened to him or not about the Jews, the fact remains that the Arabs of Palestine had to take heart for a struggle of their own against their being dispersed themselves!

The newspaper had only a short life, and was closed by the British later in April 1920 after the Nabi Musa riots. However far-sighted and acute he was as an observer, al-Huseini, the future Mufti of Jerusalem, could certainly not imagine how the behavior of the Palestinian people would come to mirror in future years that of the Jewish people-both seeking out unity and autonomy through similar forms and strategies.

Parallel Paths

Whether on the offensive or the defensive, Amin al-Huseini was to follow step by step the evolution of events and the definition of objectives that were still hazy at the time. He was to see Zionists and Palestinians set off with determination down the same road, thinking of themselves not only as an ethnic or religious group, but as solid, homogeneous and compact communities. Above all - this is the new element - they were recognizing in themselves the traits and identity of a nation. The inhabitants of the ancient sanjak (district) and the Diaspora Jews strove to grasp the best chance of survival that the era offered them: creating their own national identity. Thus they would assure their place among the peoples that actually exist, give themselves an identity and a voice --and not only in the list that Wilson drew up and which, as is well known, remained on paper (On the invention of identity, see Remotti 1999).

The historical period was characterized by an international scenario no longer content to record people, families and villages. Rather than accepting the fluidity of groups and their changeability, it demanded control, more classification and circumscription, fixing of barriers and borders. It was hoped that where armies had been forced to a halt, something real could replace them. The concept of national identity turned out to be a suitable one: a concept that evokes similarity, but in reality tends to separate, to accentuate differences (see Amselle 1990). As Kedourie explains, determining the position of each group provides an illusion of autonomy and spontaneity ( Kedourie 1960).

In the construction of this identity, both Arabs and Jews have used the leverage of very similar arguments, projecting an image of themselves that refers to the same stereotypes and putting into practice strategies of the same kind. All of this perhaps occurred through reciprocal influence, perhaps because of the models of reference, perhaps simply because events drove them both in the same direction or perhaps due to all of these things together. It is undoubtedly true that the numerous analogies, the undoubted similarities, the parallels and the mirror images are, on the one hand, shared by the two histories. On the other hand, their differences are accentuated with respect both to the contemporary developments in the region and to relevant Western experiences.


It was not an easy task for the inhabitants of Palestine, nor for the future Israelis, to define and circumscribe themselves, to isolate their specific traits. Arabs had a strong feeling of kinship with the family, the clan and the village; but as soon as they could broaden their horizons, the ancient Bilad al-Sham, Greater Syria, was their natural point of reference. In a diametrically opposed dimension, the Zionists, instead, had their only unifying element in the fact of being a community scattered over the centuries; and, while the Arabs had to come to terms with inclusion, the Jews found themselves fighting against dispersion. It was, therefore, an arduous endeavor for both to leave the natural magma in which they were immersed, to put themselves forwards as "originals" (see, e.g., Lewis 1998).

It is not by chance that they did not initially perceive their specificity in terms of particular traits or attributes, but rather in terms of isolation or solitude, of the distance separating them from "others." In this seclusion, there was a profound sense of a vacuum that it seemed impossible to fill. This took hold of the Palestinians and Jews in the same way, obviously at different times and in different circumstances, but with equal intensity. At a certain point, they realized that they would never be able to merge with the "others" that existed around them.

The first shock for the Palestinians occurred at the beginning of the 1920s, after Lausanne, after San Remo, after Sèvres, and after Versailles-in other words when it was possible to draw some overall conclusions about the hopes that the world war had dashed. There was an upheaval the like of which had not been seen since the times of the Rashidun, the "rightly guided" Caliphs of the eighth century. Despite all the promises, there was no chance of even talking of Arab autonomy. Crown Prince Faysal and the other leaders had been unable to oppose the British support for Zionism. Rather than take up the Jewish intrusion in Palestine, they were engaged on other fronts - again with little success, with the exception of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. With clarity and without self-commiseration, another famous representative of the Huseini family, Musa Kazim, expressed the same sentiment. In the disappointment and desolation of the summer of 1920, he declared: "Now, after the recent events in Damascus [i.e., the French occupation] we have to effect a complete change in our plans. Southern Syria no longer exists. We must defend Palestine" (quoted in Khalidi 1997, 165).

Alone, faced with the Jews, who were undoubtedly by then their enemy, they began to describe and illustrate their own specificity. They moved forward quickly, and already at the beginning of 1923 had a school textbook available in which everything-territory, crops, transport routes, population, former administrative divisions-came together to underline the innate difference and natural features that made Palestine a specific entity.

However, the more they identified distinctive peculiarities, the more their isolation increased. It should be remembered that this was only the beginning and worse was still to come. Not only the disinterest of Arab brothers themselves shocked the Palestinians in this grey dawn of the post-Ottoman era. Less than thirty years later, even more serious was the phenomenon of those who were readying to take advantage of the Palestinian defeat while continuing to call themselves brothers.

Here, first and foremost was the Emirate of Transjordan, annexing the West Bank and East Jerusalem and assuming the prestigious role of protector of the Holy Places. And then Egypt gained control of the Gaza Strip, nothing particularly profitable, but preferable to having Israel and the Jordanians breathing down their neck there. Lebanon also benefited, perhaps more than anyone, with Beirut, rather than Haifa, becoming the unquestioned chief port of the eastern Mediterranean, and with the oil pipeline that ran through Palestine diverted into Lebanon.

All these were examples of looking after real, concrete, interests, even if nobody would have admitted it publicly. On the contrary, the Palestinian cause was still supported verbally, but always and only in words. In reality, the isolation was to increase even more: the Palestinians would be alone in the refugee camp of Tel al-Zatar, alone in the night of Sabra and Chatila, alone nowadays in this second intifada.

But the isolation of the Jews, the people on the other side of the Green Line was also immense and continues to be so. Isolation in the Holocaust, the greatest blow of all, in the rejection by a Europe that encouraged concentration camp survivors to leave rather than offering an embrace of solidarity in seeing Britain, after Balfour's promises, washing its hands of Palestine and violating its trust. (Why then continue to rely upon promises?) This was the isolation of those who felt themselves encircled by anything but benevolent Arab countries, posing real external (and even perceived internal) threats. Then there was the isolation of new immigrants, of every new aliya compared to the previous one. And isolation because the prolonged use of violence towards the "enemy" had alienated much of the initial sympathy abroad toward the Jewish state.

Finally, there was the self-engendered isolation of the settler-colonists in the occupied territories, suffocated by their own aggression and by their own arrogance. This sort of isolation was the worst advisor and the worst enemy. With the uncertainty that it engenders, it has driven the Israelis to new conquests, seeking confirmation of their own abilities, of their own rights, in the only way that they seem to know, through the use of force. It is comparable to people who, never having grown up, need constant reassuring declarations from international public opinion and especially from Western governments stating that Israel really exists-that it has the right to be there and that it is not a dream destined to be swept away at the first light of dawn.

In response to this Israeli show of strength, loud declarations inevitably emanated from the Palestinian side: on the fact that they too are there, that they have a history, traditions, culture and dignity. In other words, they possess a positive identity, not only by exclusion as had been intimated for too long. Balfour had reduced them to a "non-Jewish community"; General Allenby on his entry into Jerusalem was accompanied apart from his own soldiers only by Italian and French armies. For the Zionist Zangwill the Palestinans were absent from a land ready to welcome a different people that had no land; Golda Meir was scathing in her well-known negation "There was no such thing as Palestinians... They did not exist." But the Palestinians did indeed exist and proclaimed it in all possible ways, often with a language that seems unfortunately at times to be the only one that is heard. That is the language of visible demonstrations, theatrical effects, acts of terrorism, which are nothing other than the result of desperation and, indeed, of isolation.

Founding Traumas

A group that is building its collective identity has a great advantage if it can identify in its own past an event which can be dated as the beginning of the road that sooner or later would lead to the creation of a nation: an event whose meaning cannot be challenged by anyone - inside or outside the group. This event must possess a great emotional charge and strong legitimizing value, better still if it has the taste of tragedy. It is when a group is defeated, that then the need for self-assertion emerges. External sympathy is expressed with most feelings for the victims. And both Arab and Jew have put themselves forward as victims.

The choice of the "founding trauma, " to use Galtung's words, was effectively a trump card. Was this not what the Serbs did recently in recalling the ancient defeat of Kossovo Polje to announce to the world their legitimate national status? There is certainly no lack of traumas in Palestinian and Israeli history. The Crusaders left a scar that has never completely healed in the land of Palestine. On the Jewish front, there are numberless traumas from the Destruction of the Temple to the tragic Diaspora history. But for both peoples, the more recent traumas obviously have a stronger legitimizing power. Thus it was the Palestinian Nakba (disaster) and the Jewish Shoah (holocaust) in the middle of the last century that sanctioned beyond any possible doubt the passage from vague or dispersed entities to homogeneous groups.

Opinions are unanimous that the history of Israel as a nation begins, or reaches a new height, with the tragedy of the Nazi concentration camp. Lev Talmon wrote that "It is from the Holocaust that we need to begin, from this uneliminable reality of our history, because it allows us to understand the birth of the Israeli state and the distant origins of the obsessive neurosis from which our people still suffers" (Talmon, 1978). If a similar tragedy is not to be repeated, the only solution worthy of consideration was the passage from a community to a national entity: the creation of a state, and of a state that was "only for Jews"-say Avraham B. Yehoshua and many others.

In a similar way for the Palestinians, the Nakba was a tragedy that left no one untouched, and brought many together, closing them in the same container, the refugee camps. Shopkeepers from Haifa and Bedouins from the Negev Desert, farmers from Jaffa and fishermen from Galilee found themselves side by side, expropriated and expelled. And the camps became ghettos, which few left and where the refugees learned to know each other, to think as a group, and to build on what they discovered about each other. "The trauma of 1948," Rashid Khalidi says, "reinforced pre-existing elements of identity, sustaining and strengthening a Palestinian self-definition that was already present. … That catastrophic experience, and its impact on different segments of the Palestinian people, is still a common topic of discussion among Palestinians of diverse backgrounds and generations, and ultimately a potent source of shared beliefs and values" (Khalidi 1997, 22).

And it was then that the consciousness crystallized: that return and the creation of a state were the only possible solution to their experience.

Promised Lands and Lands Lost

One thing is immediately clear in this process. In all of this history, one basic element in the two hypotheses of identity is missing - land. Not because it was considered secondary, but because the land to which reference is made was not, so to say, "within reach." And if for the Palestinians, the lack of land was due exclusively to their later expulsions, for the Zionists the idea of the return to Zion to create a nation-state around the tomb of David did not mature at exactly the same time. Nor was it even clear from the outset that this state would be built in the Promised Land. It is enough to recall that the Sultan did not even receive that unknown journalist, Theodore Herzl, who went to Palestine only once and did not love Jerusalem. (See Hermet 1996; Thiesse 1999).

It was even less predictable, when the Sikes-Picot agreements were not in the minds of those who were to draw them up, that the British would lend the Jews a hand. There was talk of Uganda, and the name of Argentina came up often. Then, a few decades later, came the resolution of the United Nations, the green light, almost as if a geographical reference was enough for dispersed peoples who spoke different languages, had different colored eyes and different clothes. "Suddenly," regardless of all, they became one people, with common citizenship. Thinking of this today, it was an act of pure madness to imagine a state without the people having lived in the land that was destined to host it! This had no precedent, no model to refer to in a world which, for over a century, had indeed seen the formation and organization of nation states but starting from land as its primary element (See, e.g., Hermet 1996 and Thiesse 1999).
The path of the Palestinians was obviously different, but for them too the need to build a nation state arose precisely when that land on which they had lived, worked and suffered for generations was suddenly torn out of their hands. It is true, however, that the expropriation of 1948 was only the last of a series of events that had begun decades before, when the Ottoman agrarian law liberalized the land market, allowing the Zionists as well as the rich Arab families of the region to acquire property. The early waves of Jewish immigration before and after the British Mandate benefited from this.

The ones who always lost out were the fellahin, farm labourers and sharecroppers: when the property passed into Jewish hands, they lost their jobs, as it is well known that only Jews were allowed to work on Jewish land. The anti-Zionist revolts were immediate, starting with Petah Tiqva, where Jews settled at the end of the nineteenth century. The response was not particularly patriotic, however-just protests of an economic nature, the explosion of rage of those who were suddenly chased out of the land that their family had in many cases cultivated for generations. But the rage gradually grew, gained in substance and became political consciousness. And this also increased in the course of time, in direct proportion to the land that disappeared. When everything was lost, the consciousness became total.

Diaspora and Return

Far from the land, in other words in the diaspora, came the experience which was and is decisive in the construction of the national identity of both actors. Unsurprisingly, therefore, their existence as a nation is based on a shared slogan, that of return: the Jewish "Law of Return" and the Palestininan "Right of Return." The desire to return and the consequent refusal to integrate or to be integrated elsewhere forced a continuous redefinition of their own status and rules of life. Historical changes in a distant past for the Jews and relatively recently for the Palestinians, were the essential condition for continuing to exist as a group. For the people of David, it was perhaps the captivity in Babylon that made the initial mark in Jewish people-hood. Nissim Rejwan explains: "Judaism was to survive, and it is clear as we know it today was the creation of an era of the long Babylonian exile" (1999, 54). It was then that the priest caste was founded and the theory of return was conceived.

Centuries later, but in the same state of exile, the Palestinians also reached a turning point obviously a different one, but of the same impact. The trigger was the conflict with the people around them. Their life style clashed with the coarseness of King Hussein's Bedouin army. Relations with the Egyptians were difficult. In the countries in which they had sought shelter, their degree of acceptance swung back and forth, subject to the prevailing interests of the moment. In Syria, taken up in constant feuds and the search for political stability, they were barely tolerated. In Lebanon, where they seriously unbalanced the proportions between the different religious components, they were kept rigidly separated. In Jordan, the situation was more flexible since the Hashemite intentions were to confirm territorial enlargement. Finally, in the oil-producing countries they were granted only the status of temporary workers, with no hope for most of taking their families with them, of acquiring a plot of land or building a home. Manifestly, they were discriminated against and felt alien wherever they went. But this only reinforced their dignity: their pride as a group turned out to be a good refuge. And as has been said, they adopted survival strategies that were to leave a deep mark on their communities and especially on their external relations.

In continuity with the choices during the British mandate, priority was given once again to education, an intangible asset that nobody could take away from them. Literacy and culture were primary objectives, and the results became visible. Palestinians occupied management positions in the oil fields of Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. They gave to the world writers and poets like Fadwa Tuqan, Gassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Darwish. They brought out people of the stature of Edward Said, Naji Ali and Ibrahim Souss, and they reached the big screen through the names of Michel Kleifi or Akram Safadi. In other words, they demonstrated that they were capable of producing, even in exile, a rich and complex culture, certainly a culture worthy of a nation.

The Enemy and the Alliance with God

The growing self-definition-always as a nation-also corresponded to another term of comparison fundamental to both, that of the "enemy." Each has been the enemy of the other or in other words, the two parties in competition played a reciprocal role of reinforcing what was, in the dawn of 1948, still confused. They have left a strong trace in emphasizing, or minimizing, the distinctive features of each other.

Under the constant threat-whether real or presumed is of little importance-of an enemy ready to take advantage of any sign of weakness, Israel fitted together as best it could the pieces of what would be Israeli citizenship. It tried to identify the most acceptable solutions to questions that the survivors of the Holocaust certainly had not posed, and on which not even the leaders had clear, or shared, ideas. Was Israel to be an exclusively Jewish state or an Israeli state? A state with European characteristics and philosophy or Middle Eastern ones, as its geographical location and part of its population would suggest? Should it adopt a theocratic or a secular policy? What legal status was to be envisaged for non-Jewish citizens? And so on. These were not minor questions: time would be needed to draw up a constitution-in which, significantly, Israel did not succeed-but there was no time.

The enemy was at the gates and it was necessary to define, clarify and accompany the physical barriers with ideological ones, to reach compromises where the divergences were most serious, and to sacrifice, where necessary, what seemed least urgent at the time. Because of the perceived external threat, agreements were signed on the home front that were to become milestones, or rather millstones around the neck (quoted in Rejwan 1999, 105). (Such is the case with the agreement between the Zionist coalition and Agudat Yisrael, 19 June 1947.) In the future social organisation, the lay and the orthodox were in conflict from the start but no concession or compromise seemed too great if it kept the storm at bay. David Ben-Gurion was later to explain: "I was prepared to limit my program to the basic urgencies and offer concessions on what I regarded as subsidiary issues" (quoted in Rejwan 1999, 105).

And so it was that Zionist secularism ended up being strangled by the power of the synagogue, and at regular intervals the rabbis continue to threaten reprisals and government crises, though their power has always been proportionally stronger than their parliamentary representation. But each time, the concessions seemed less serious than the risk of breaking up national unity. And, naturally, as a form of justification, was not religion the chief element that distinguished a Jew? And could internal schisms be tolerated and explained to the World Zionist Organisation without risking the loss of Diaspora support, especially financial support?

And thus economic dependence, and the constant military conflict delivered great power into the hands of the Rabbinate, though this is alien to the life of most Israelis, both those born there and new arrivals. This power applies, for example, in preference for the orthodox stream in the field of education, or in the absence of civil marriage, divorce, and burial. It was claimed that there was no alternative course of action if the Jews wanted to remain united against threat from outside. The enemy thus became the element capable of uniting people who had very little in common.

For the Palestinians the Jews "played" the part of the enemy, first as Zionists and then as Israelis. They were, first, powerful acceleration of a process that would have been spread over a rather longer period of time if left to evolve naturally. The proof of this lies in the fact that the Palestinians felt themselves to be Palestinian much quicker than the Jordanians felt themselves Jordanian or the Syrians Syrian. It is true that national kinship was also forced on other groups in the Middle East, following the lines traced on the maps of Mandatory Palestine. But once these divisions were accepted, each group followed its own history in a "linear" fashion: first independence, then the struggle between factions for power. Thus they discovered that they were Jordanian, Syrian, Iraqi, as if this had always been true. The UAR, the short-lived United Arab Republic, was only a brief episode in a world that was finding its equilibrium in inter-state relations.

Faced with an enemy ready for anything, the Palestinians accelerated the process of closing ranks. The enemy often became everything that manifestly impeded their revenge, the realization of their aspirations: first the British, then the Americans, even anything to do with the West in the moments of greatest exasperation. Everything was labelled "enemy" and became the target of antagonism.

Hence comes the power acquired by Hamas, the evocative capacity of the Jihad and fundamentalism in general, in a society where secularism and education have always gone together. This is but one result of the intensification of the conflict, a desperate reaction when faced with an enemy perceived as implacable and merciless. Facing such a danger, why not accept the help of God and call on Him to support one's own side. There is no need to elaborate and explain how much this has had and continues to have an impact on the construction of identity. It should be no surprise if the Palestinian shabab in the alleys of Jerusalem's Old City play at being hezbollahs, the soldiers of God, imitating the only ones who have so far obtained some victory over the enemy.


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Hermet, Guy. 1996. Histoire des Nations et du Nationalisme en Europe. Paris: Editions du Seuil.
Kedourie, Elie. 1960. Nationalism. London: Hutchinson.
Khalidi, Rashid. 1997. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. New York: Columbia UP.
Lewis, Bernard. 1998. The Multiple Identities of the Middle East. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
Rejwan, Nissim. 1999. Israel in Search of Identity:Reading the Formative Years. Gainsville: Press of Florida.
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Talmon, Lev. Article in La Repubblica. 11 May 1978.
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