The Arab revolutions and “sitting on the fence” on Palestine

The last twelve months have largely been about Arabs trying to put an end to the denial brought about by a coalition of internal, and more importantly, external forces to Arab agency. Palestine is the constant, tangible, and often lethal manifestation of this narrative.

I was provoked into writing this piece by my perception - which I hope is wrong - of a disturbing tendency among some Arab supporters of the revolutions to divorce Palestine from the push for dignity, freedom and justice sweeping the region. I refuse to name names because I fear it will unnecessarily distract from the main crux of the argument. I also do not believe it to be particularly burdensome to discern who am I talking about. The case I wish to make is that Palestine sits at the heart of what we are witnessing in the region. The parallel point, however, is that Palestine is an issue in which there is no fence to sit on, unless of course you are a Palestinian in the West Bank.

There is a small but loud cadre of Arab journalists, bloggers, and activists who conceive of the Palestinian cause as having, somehow, very little or nothing at all to do with the Arab revolutions. Indeed they go to great lengths to describe how and why Arabs on the street should disregard Palestine so as to not dilute the presumably limited capacity of their attention span. This enlightened group’s apprehension is inspired by their memories of Palestine cynically used to deflect anger away from tyrannical regimes in many parts of the Arab world, and their concern that Palestine demands ‘too much’ attention and consequently Arabs need to look inward.

However, it is entirely hypocritical and equally cynical to argue that for people who are fighting for the same things - elementary freedom and justice, Palestine is a distraction to be put aside. And it is morally bankrupt to deny Palestinians what is their only source of solid support because of the exploitation of their cause by despots: blaming the victim is not a workable formula. Finally, while I do not suggest that people protesting at Tahrir Square ought to shift their focus to Palestine, I do want to argue that Palestine is the symptom of what they are protesting.

It seems to me that there are plenty of reasons for assuming that a pro-Palestinian stance is a moral imperative. I will try to elucidate some of it, though I am certain that my words will fall short of capturing the breadth and depth of the case for Palestine. Palestinians are a people who have been dispossessed of their land for the last 63 years and consequently condemned to refuge, exile and silence; their history is one of an enduring campaign of ethnic cleansing; their politics has been populated by leaders who have been, for the most part, abject failures; they have had a systemic project of death and destruction visited upon them with vicious regularity under the audacious pretense of  ‘defense’; their very memory, even existence, has been the subject of a process of complete erasure.

Ultimately, and most importantly, Palestinians have been constantly, indeed violently, denied, if not personhood, then the very basic dignity that Arab revolutionaries are now fighting for. So in this respect, people regardless of their ethnicity, race, or religion are compelled - if they are not deficient with regards to the minimum standards of human decency - to support Palestinian rights.

In this respect Palestine is not an Arab or a Muslim cause but a human cause. The multitudes of groups and individuals who are not Arab or Muslim yet who are among the most active and engaged supporters speak to the universalism of the Palestinian cause.

Finally, suggesting that there is a fence to sit on is an act of remarkable intellectual acrobatics – of the kind one can only marvel at. There is no equity between the two sides of the conflict; one side is a colonizer while the other colonized; a highly developed state with a powerful military (and a seemingly inexhaustible propensity to rain Grapes of Wrath) versus a collection of Bantustans with little more than what could generously be described as armed groups - who make it a habit to fight among each other, lest we forget. It is very clearly, then, a false equivalence to suggest that there is some sort of seemingly equal or equally compelling narrative on both sides and hence one ought to ‘sit on the fence.’ There just is not.

However, Palestine is also an Arab cause. There is a reason why most Arabs, regardless of the kind of government under which they live, (in the region or among the diaspora), passionately support Palestinian rights. It has, I think, very little to do with the fact that Palestinians are Arabs in some sort of primitive Arab Nationalist sense. Indeed, I would suggest that their Arabness is of secondary relevance. The modern Arab world is a product of European colonialism, the borders of which have come to be entrenched post-independence. The problems that plague Arab states - such as internal divisions along ethnic, sectarian and religious lines – are part of the deep legacy of colonialism. The dictatorial regimes that have replaced the colonial masters were empowered, propped up and supported by the very same powers (in addition to the United States) before and after de-colonization. One would probably be right in suggesting that the revolutions sweeping the region today are the inevitable consequence of the mutilated states that emerged post-independence. This of course is not unique to the region, much of the rest of the world previously under colonial rule is still hostage to it, as de-colonization has had insufficiently meaningful consequence. While formally independent, a significant number - if not all - of these states remain in bondage to an international system that privileges one set of values; an international legal framework they have had minimal contribution towards formulating (yet remain the most subjugated to its precepts); and an international structure which by definition limits the tools through which they can appropriately express this supposed independence. The contemporary narrative of the Arab world has been a history of negotiating a way out of those three institutions of post-WWII existence for non-Western states.

Palestine, then, is the constant, tangible, and often lethal manifestation of this narrative. The history of this conflict is as much a history of Britain and later the United States as it is a history of the Jewish and Palestinian people. The kind of interference that western powers have engaged in - with varying degrees of subtlety - within the region becomes perceptible when it comes to Palestine. The blatantly discriminatory international system within which Palestinians must fight for their rights has at some point or the other affected every single Arab adversely. Palestine is therefore not only the issue of the physical conflict itself but also an incorporeal representational conflict that captures so strongly the general state of decline, of political impotence, that characterized Arab politics for much of the last sixty years. This is perhaps the strongest case for why Palestine sits at the heart of the revolutions sweeping the region. The last twelve months have largely been about Arabs trying to put an end to this malaise, an end to the denial brought about by a coalition of internal, and more importantly, external forces to Arab agency.

So, for Arabs, especially those engaged in these revolutions, to not perceive this link is an act of naivety because it suggests that the change desired is not one of systems but of personalities. However, to blindly refuse to acknowledge the link, and ‘sit on the fence’ is an act of moral cowardice. I do not intend to impose a way of resolving the Palestinian question - despite my strongly held convictions - I do however believe that Palestine will necessarily remain the emblematic issue for Arab identity and politics as long as it remains unresolved. A just solution to the conflict will represent a landmark departure from a global politics dominated by an extremely one-sided narrative.

For Arabs it will represent a dramatic statement that they have regained their agency. For Palestinians - though I do not pretend to speak for them - I imagine it will mean, in more ways than one, a chance to finally put down their bags.

About the author

Muath Al Wari is a graduate student at the London School of Economics. You can follow him @MuathAlWari.