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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Book review: "Army of Shadows : Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948"

When used in wartime, the word "collaborator" is a loaded term. Like the words "traitor" and "treason," "collaborator" is pejorative by its nature, but its negative implication is only in the subjective context of the labeler.

Hillel Cohen, in his fascinating book "Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948," consciously uses these words in the context that Palestinian Arabs use the words today. As a firm member of the post-Zionist historians, perhaps this is not surprising, nor his use of the word "Nakba." But to Cohen's credit, despite his constant use of these terms without scare quotes, he is an honest enough historian to show that the supposedly treasonous behavior done by countless Palestinian Arabs between the Balfour Declaration and the founding of Israel was often anything but.

Reading this book, with Arab appellations being applied to situations where the Arabs end up looking very bad, is an exercise in whiplash. The exact same facts could have been used in a book called "Arab-Zionist Friendship, 1917-1948" but Cohen's use of the pejorative lends a sense of unreality to his terminology.

The book itself is a remarkable historical work, with much use of recently declassified Israeli archives showing the extent of the early Zionist Shai intelligence operations and methods, together with the large numbers of Palestinian Arabs who, to some extent, decided to work with the Jews rather than shun them, often at the cost of their lives.

"Army of Shadows" follows a roughly chronological history of Arabs who willingly sold land to Zionists, who traded with them, who worked for them and who at times employed them, even who married them. It follows the rise of Hajj Amin al-Husseini and elaborates on how his anti-Jewish policies often alienated the silent majority of Arabs and sometimes drove them to become even closer to the Zionists. It shows an overlooked aspect of the messy history of the competing desires of the Husseini-style Arab absolutists, Nashashibi-style pragmatists (who were no less nationalist), the pro-Abdullah camp who wanted a federation with Transjordan, the Arab labor unions, farmers, village elders, land dealers, economic opportunists, criminals, loyal friends to Jews. Yet, again, Cohen's terminology is exclusively the one used by the most extreme Husseini camp, and is now considered normative by Husseini's political heirs of Fatah and Hamas. In some ways, that terminology is almost Orwellian newspeak where it has become forbidden for today's Palestinian Arabs to even think that there could be something positive about cooperating with Israel.

In the 1920s, there were some Arab parties who were explicitly Zionist - the Muslim National Associations and later the Farmers' Parties. Cohen brings some evidence that Zionists were instrumental in helping these parties start and grow, but he implies that there would not have been any pro-Zionist sentiment altogether without this outside influence, a much weaker argument (and one that is slightly demeaning to Arabs, that they could not possibly have been independently anything but anti-Zionist.)

Cohen irritatingly ascribes noble motives to Arabs who want to become and remain friends with Jews, but he almost never gives the Jews the same credit. He consistently emphasizes the Zionist intelligence organization and how it manipulated Arabs but doesn't seem to think that it was possible that Jews could honestly be friends with the Arabs without ulterior motive. The paradox is that Cohen himself grew up friends with neighboring Arabs and those friendships helped him to go into the field of history; his enlightened post-Zionism cannot admit the possibility that early Zionist Jews could possibly have been as open-minded as he himself is.

But for all his faults, Cohen is scrupulously honest - he does not hesitate to tell anecdotes and facts that contradict even his own assumptions and biases. Even as he describes Husseini-style nationalism as being normative he is quick to mention that their opponents also felt they were acting with the best interests of their people in mind, and that they even accused Husseini of being the traitor to their cause.

The 1929 riots ended the explicitly Zionist Arab parties but there remained a significant number who were willing to work more covertly with the Zionist establishment. Some were opportunistic or greedy, some were idealistic, some were simply loyal to their friends. The collaboration included finding land that was for sale, providing intelligence from the Husseini nationalist camp, and quietly championing a more pragmatic relationship with the Zionists who many thought were too powerful to defeat anyway. The Husseini clan was most concerned about land sales, yet they often engaged in such sales themselves.

It was a combination of the Husseinis' intransigence, hypocrisy and their own terror campaign against their political rivals that paradoxically ended up pushing more Palestinian Arabs away from the extremist nationalism of the Husseinis. They didn't become Zionist but they were more willing to accept partition and accommodation. Yet even during the darkest days where the Husseinis were assassinating political rivals and suspected collaborators based only on suspicion, land sales to Jews continued and even increased. Even after the White Paper severely resticted land transfers, the Arabs and Zionists found loopholes to continue to sell land to Jews.

Early in the book, Cohen appears to conflate pan-Arab nationalism with Palestinian Arab nationalism - the former of which was far better established than the latter - and somewhat weakens his case when he claims that most Palestinian Arabs were nationalists. But by the end, when he takes a closer look at Palestinian Arab nationalism and its failure to stop collaboration with the Jews, he gets closer to understanding the truth - that specifically Palestinian Arab nationalism was always a shallow movement that didn't interest Palestinian Arabs themselves enough to fight and die for their own cause. Palestinian Arabs were more loyal towards their clans and villages than towards any sort of national cause, and even the nationalists were split between the absolutists, the ones that favored partition, the pan-Arab Greater Syrians and the Abdullah-oriented "Jordan option" advocates. (The relative ease in which the West Bank Arabs allowed themselves to become annexed to Jordan shows that the purely Palestinian Arab nationalism was weak even in their epicenter.)

Often, the outside Arab armies seemed to be more interested in fighting Zionism than the supposed victims of Zionism themselves. Cohen brings a number of examples where Arab villages fought to keep outside forces away, and many made peace pacts with nearby Jewish settlements. These pacts are part of the reason many Arabs stayed safely in Israel.

Cohen's reasons for the failure of Palestinian Arab nationalism dwells on these divisive factors and the relative success of Zionist intelligence and organization. He is too post-Zionist to entertain the notion that Palestinian Arab nationalism's failure was because it was from the start a negative movement, not a positive one - it was always more to stop Zionism than to build an independent Palestinian state. This is the real reason that it was so shallow and vulnerable to so many divisions - it was not an ideology so much as a violent reaction to a different ideology. No national movement can sustain itself if it is based mostly on the negation of another national movement.

Despite its flaws, this well-researched book is a very important addition to the history of the Palestinian Arabs and of Zionism.