Unsettled by war and peace

Palestinian Identity - Palestine and the Palestinians
February 19, 1999

Much of the literature on the Palestinians is about their role in the peace process and high politics. Work drawing on the social sciences is thin on the ground and limited in scope. Both of these books make contributions in these areas.

Rashid Khalidi's book combines dispassionate analysis with scholarly rigour. Beautifully written and calmly reflective, it is an original and important addition to the literature on the Palestinians and the modern Middle East. The central question addressed in the book is when did Palestinians begin to think of themselves as a people? Basing his argument on secondary sources, private papers and the contemporary press, Khalidi argues that the notables, the press and the peasants had come together to form what Benedict Anderson has called "an imagined community" of Palestinian Arabs as early as 1922. Herein lies the major significance of the book: like revisionist historians of Arab nationalism, Khalidi is convinced that the answers to questions about national identity in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire lie in the periods immediately before and after the first world war. Where he parts company with them is in suggesting that a recognisably Palestinian identity (as opposed to an Arab identity) had clearly emerged in the wake of the war.

Influenced by subaltern studies, Khalidi also sheds light on the role of the Palestinian peasantry before the war. He shows that Palestinian peasants, along with the notables, were at the forefront of the struggle and that a link between countryside and town had emerged long before the Iz al-din al Qassam insurrection of the early 1930s.

Khalidi demonstrates easy familiarity with literature in several languages, the major debates and the empirical evidence. He shows how Israeli-Jewish and Christian historical narratives have dominated and distorted Palestinian history. In this way, Khalidi makes the case for his assertion that although Arabism, Ottomanism and being Palestinian were compatible for sections of the notable classes, the peasantry and the press on the eve of the war, the link with Istanbul was being challenged by change and its weak response to Zionist settlement. With old certainties gone and few choices left in the wake of the first world war, many Palestinians, Khalidi argues, decided to go for it as Palestinian Arabs.

But it is a pity that Khalidi is primarily concerned only with the beginnings of Palestinian identity construction. His book would have made an even more important contribution if he had brought the story up to date. Instead, his final chapter is about myth-busting, Palestinian failures and a critical examination of the peace process. There is little on the impact of the 1948 war, the Arab host states, the Palestinian resistance movement and Israeli occupation.

The book by sociologists Samih Farsoun and Christina Zacharia is the first comprehensive political economy of the Palestinians. Clearly written, it covers the period from 1800 to the present and takes in the Palestinians of the post-1948 diaspora - too often forgotten in writing on the subject - and those in the West Bank and Gaza. Surprisingly, Palestinians inside Israel are absent.

Based on secondary sources in English, the book makes another contribution by bringing together much of the best and most recent scholarship on socioeconomic and political history. The book is also significant because it represents a radical, secular and nationalist viewpoint seldom heard outside the Arab world, helping to explain much of what is happening in the region.

Drawing on work by Beshara Doumani, Roger Owen and Alexander Scholch, the chapters on the Palestinians from 1800 to 1948 are particularly valuable. They show how Palestinian society was transformed as a result of indigenous change and integration into the world economy. Like other Arab states created and controlled by European powers after the first world war, Palestine developed into a dependent colonial economy. The crucial difference in Palestine, of course, was Jewish immigration and British commitment to the establishment of a Jewish national home there. The authors demonstrate how this combination of Jewish settlement and British policy led to "the Catastrophe", the collective dispossession and dispersal of the Palestinians in 1948.

Subsequent chapters on the diaspora, the rise of the Palestinian resistance movement and the intifada provide a wealth of information and a fresh perspective. The last two chapters offer a particularly useful critique of the Oslo Palestinian-Israeli peace process that started in August-September 1993. The authors argue that it is leading to the continuation of Israeli domination in another form rather than Palestinian independence.

Farsoun and Zacharia's views come across throughout the book. For instance, while they blame Britain, the US and Israel for the Palestinian predicament, they spend little time on the impact of Arab cold wars and the behaviour of the Palestinian resistance movement in Jordan and Lebanon. Another related point is that they do not present a clear alternative to the current peace process. But the story they have to tell needs to be heard, and as the only work of its kind, it is useful for both teachers and students.

Paul Lalor is lecturer in contemporary Arab studies, University of Edinburgh.

Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness

Author - Rashid Khalidi
ISBN - 0 231 10514 2
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - £32.00
Pages - 309

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