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Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Psychological History of Palestinian Arabs, part 12

The Palestinian Arab psyche underwent tremendous changes in the years after the 1948 war. In some ways, the Palestinian Arabs were more fragmented than ever before - certainly physically - but in some very important ways, for the first time in their history, they were turning into a people.

It is difficult to overemphasize the amount of shame that the 1948 war inflicted on both the Arab nations and the Palestinian Arabs themselves. This unprecedented disgrace informs most of the actions taken by the Arabs during the 1950s and 1960s, and nothing took priority over erasing this shame from their collective minds.

In the early years after 1948, the refugees tended to blame the Arab countries for their fate. For their part, the Arab nations looked at Palestinian Arabs as embarrassing reminders of their impotence in 1948, and this is one of the reasons that there was so little interest shown by the Arab nations in helping out Palestinian refugees at all, let alone allowing them to resettle in their countries (again, with the exception of Jordan, who used them to help expand their own boundaries.)

As has always been the case, there were extremists and pragmatists among the Palestinian Arab populations. The influence of Amin Husayni was still felt as it was a Palestinian Arab who assassinated King Abdullah of Jordan in the Dome of the Rock in 1951, and his co-conspirators had ties to the ex-Mufti. In the following years, communism made ideological inroads into the refugee camps as well. The philosophy that made the greatest and broadest inroads in the Palestinian Arab consciousness, however, was that of pure hatred towards Israel.

Hate is not too strong a word to describe the feelings that Arabs, both Palestinian and at-large, felt about the Zionists and, by extension, all Jews. Loathing towards the Jews poured out of the Arab media. The disgrace of 1948 could not have elicited any other reaction to a people who are as proud as Arabs are. They seethed, they detested, they were disgusted by Jews. In the aftermath of the 1948 war the Jews of Arab countries were accused of being spies, many were tortured and ultimately most were expelled and their possessions confiscated.

The Arab nations' propaganda against Jews and Israel, and their pretense of caring about the refugees, seeped into the Palestinian Arab viewpoint. Although the Arab nations as a whole were using the Palestinians as pawns, often in conflicting ways, the cognitive dissonance of believing that their brethren were not interested in their well-being was too much for Palestinian Arabs to handle. It was much easier to blame Israel and the West for all their troubles than to see how they were being used for selfish, political gain.

No matter what their disposition - Christian or Arab, religious or secular, in camps or in houses in Israel - Palestinian Arabs created their own fictional accounts of the war in 1948 to mitigate some of their feelings of shame at having been in the forefront of their ignominious defeat. They made up stories of massacres by Jews (although practically none of them knew anyone who had been killed,) they claimed that the US and/or Britain had conspired against them, they claimed that the Arab nations swooped into Palestine in 1948 to defend them from the Jews, they claimed that they all had palatial homes in Palestine and huge tracts of land they owned that were stolen by the Jews. They kept inflating their fantasies and they taught them to their children, the next generation to carry on their tradition of hate.

As the UNRWA tried to employ them and fix the refugee problem by building the economy of the Middle East itself, the Palestinian Arabs had no qualms about taking every advantage of the system. They never reported any deaths in order to get more ration cards, and a black market in food rationing cards flourished in the camps. They started businesses in the camps but didn't put up signs for fear of losing their benefits. They happily took in all the free perks of refugeehood - by the early 1960s they were better fed, better educated and better equipped to work than their non-refugee neighbors. While their situation in 1950 was desperate, by 1960 the Palestinian refugees under UNRWA were doing better than most Arabs.

But if the UNRWA expected to see appreciation and thanks from the Palestinian Arabs, they were sorely mistaken. The Palestinians attacked the agency both verbally and physically. To the Palestinian Arabs, all the free schooling and aid - more than most refugees worldwide have ever received - only symbolized their dependence on Western charity. Their pride wasn't strong enough to say no to the benefits, but it was quite strong enough to despise the people who were providing them.

This was one manifestation of the defining characteristic of Palestinian Arabs that started in the 1950s: that of selfishness.

Even though they had supported a war that they lost, even though they had for the most part chosen to flee their homes in the expectation of a quick victory, even though they were to a large extent responsible for their own troubles, the Palestinian Arabs of the era had little capacity for self-examination nor for self-criticism. All the bad things that happened were the fault of others, and anything that could compensate for these bad things were their inherent right.

Another example of this selfishness was their utter inability to empathize with anyone besides themselves. Had the tables been turned, they would have happily cheered their Arab brethren dumping all the Jews into the sea, and the very idea of compromise with Jews when they were in the superior position was unthinkable. Now, in defeat, they clung to the 1947 UN Partition plan as their right - they wanted the victors to share the spoils with them, even though they would have laughed had someone asked them to do the same.

This selfishness stems from a number of factors: Arab supremacism, the desire to reinstate the Arab empire of the early part of the millennium, and Arab pride -where it is easier to deny history than to submit to the shame that accompanies defeat, especially defeat at the hands of a seemingly weak foe. Mostly, though, the selfishness comes from the "us vs. them" mentality that Arabs have had for their entire history, pre-dating Islam. The Arab nation is the only important fact; any other nation can be used if they are needed but the are effectively irrelevant. The fact that Arabs routinely accuse Jews of this very behavior, despite the thousands of counterexamples where Jews over-empathize with their oppressors to the point of self-annihilation, is but one outstanding example of Arab projection of their own attitudes on their enemies.

This selfishness is all the more notable since the 1950s was the lowest point in Palestinian Arab history. One would expect a people who are hated by those who profess to love them, and who hate those who were doing the most for them, to have some ability to step back and see where their problems may have started so as not to repeat them. But in fact the 1950s Palestinians were buffeted by competing Arab leaders trying to use them against each other. In the few cases where Arab leaders tried to help resettle the Palestinians, the criticism was so withering that the plans were abandoned. In 1952, Syrian "strongman"
Colonel Adib Shishekly worked with UNRWA to create a plan where the agency would provide $30 million to irrigate undeveloped northern Syria with the intent of resettling 80,000 refugees there; he became president in 1953 but was overthrown in 1954. A 1953 plan of resettlement and job creation, close to being agreed by Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Israel, was shot down in 1955 by the Arab League. Even plans to plant trees or build permanent housing in refugee camps were criticized as diluting the desire for Palestinian Arabs to want to return to their homes.

There is of course an irony here - just as the Arab leaders in the 1940s claimed to be doing things for the good of the Palestinian Arabs that ended up hurting them the most, so were the 1950s leaders prepared to do the same. In reality, it was pride that forced them to act this way, because if the Palestinian refugee problem would be solved by the Arabs, it would be an indirect belated admission of defeat in 1948. As long as the refugee issue could be kept alive, the Arabs could pretend that they still had a chance to destroy Israel without firing a shot.

The Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser, said this explicitly in 1961: "If the refugees return to Israel, Israel will cease to exist." Year after year the Arabs would lobby the UN for Palestinian Arab return, and their goals were hardly altruistic for their suffering brethren.

The only people who were truly working to solve the problem of Palestinian Arab misery were Westerners. Saudi Arabia contributed no money to UNRWA, but Israel did.

For their part, the refugees would say themselves that they would never return to any part of Palestine that is controlled by Jews. Even Israeli Arabs, enjoying benefits undreamed of before the war, still claimed that they were in worse shape and would prefer Arab rule, at least when talking to Westerners. Privately, some admitted that it may be possible to compromise. It is difficult to discern how many Palestinian Arabs were pragmatic and how many were truly hardline in their beliefs, but in an atmosphere where moderation could be construed as weakness and collaboration with the hated West, it makes little difference.

For a while, Gamal Abdel Nasser used radio broadcasts effectively to incite Palestinian Arabs against Jordan. To the refugees, Nasser was a true Arab leader that they thirsted for. Nasser, along with his rhetoric supporting the refugees, became a hero. In 1956, Egyptian incitement caused Palestinian Arabs in Jordan to riot and, in one case, the young King Hussein's troops had to quell a riot in a refugee camp, killing 100.

Nasser's fortunes with Jordanian Palestinians dipped, however, after the 1956 Sinai campaign where he very quickly lost the Sinai militarily (although he gained it back diplomatically.) Even so, his major incentive remained to right the perceived wrongs of 1948 and to become a pan-Arab leader, and even his survival after the 1956 war was considered a victory by many other Arabs. Hussein's rule over Palestinian Arabs in his country was far from absolute; terror attacks against Jordan included the bombing of an Amman office buildingin 1958.

The Palestinian terrorism of the 1950s, whether the fedayeen attacks against Israel or the attacks on Western interests of Jordan, were still planned and funded by the Arab states. Only in the end of the decade were the first stirrings of a new independent Palestinian Arab initiative starting - but rather than trying to unify Palestinian Arabs for peaceful purposes, this initiative was also centered on terror and violence.

The Fatah movement was started by a few Palestinian Arabs who had managed to move out of the refugee camps, into college in Cairo and then to jobs in the Persian Gulf. Even though they would have been considered the success stories of the West - people who managed to get off the UNRWA dole and find jobs - they would be the vanguard of the most destructive period of Palestinian Arab history, a period that is synonymous with terror and yet which made them heroes to the entire Arab world.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11