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US Progressives got it wrong on Palestine
A book that promises to correct 'Orientalism' ends up aggravating it
Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick think that America’s progressive movement cannot claim to “understand racism, sexism, religious bigotry, anti-LGBTQIA hate, and other prejudices” without recognizing “how these systems of oppression inform our foreign policy.”
An end to oppression means that Iran should stop its racial discrimination against non-Persian minorities, including its four million Arabs. It also means an end to the world’s biggest genocide since WWII, in Syria, where Bashar Assad has not only attacked Syrians with chemical weapons, but also thrown barrel bombs on their hospitals, schools and bakeries, and displaced over five million of them, embarking on a campaign of ethnic cleansing and demographic change. But this injustice is not in the book. Instead, Hill and Plitnick argue that “a progressive political outlook — one rooted in anti-racist, anti-imperialist, humanistic, and intersectional values,” means that America “must begin to prioritize the freedom, dignity, and self-determination of Palestinians.”
Ending the unethical Israeli military rule of Palestinians in the West Bank is important, but the problem should be put in context. Compare Israel’s killing of 27 of the six million Palestinians, in 2020, to the 198 homicides in DC, where only half a million people live. In Syria, over 1,500 non-combatants were killed during the same year. While every death is horrible, the Israeli Palestinian conflict does not look as pressing.
Hill and Mitchell describe their book, Except for Palestine, as a “major work of daring criticism and analysis,” one that targets US “elected officials, activists and average citizens.” The authors claim that their goal is to correct America’s “Orientalist perceptions.” Yet it is hard to find any Arabic or Hebrew sources in their endnotes. The book could also use fact-checking. For example, the authors argue that the Israelis agreed to peace talks with Palestinians only after fearing that President George HW Bush had opened secret channels with late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
But in reality, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, and that of Arafat’s regional ally Saddam Hussein of Iraq, a year later, that weakened Arafat and made him sue for peace. At first, the Israelis did not reciprocate. When Bush organized the Madrid Peace Conference, the Palestinians were not invited because Israel’s Right wing government refused to recognize the existence of the Palestinian people. But when the Left won Israel’s election and Bill Clinton succeeded Bush in America, Israel took Arafat’s hand and jointly produced the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993.
The book has other mistakes. It claims that America introduced the “language of (Palestinian) recognition (of Israel)” for the first time “in the mid-1970s.” In reality, after Egypt’s Gamal Abdul-Nasser lost the 1967 War to Israel, he retaliated with the Khartoum Peace conference, in which the Arab League issued its famous “Three No’s” statement that said “no reconciliation, no recognition, and no negotiations” with Israel. Nasser then sponsored the “War of Attrition,” and the rise of armed Palestinian non-state actors, the most famous of which was Arafat. The goal was to destroy Israel and replace it with Palestine. This is why “recognition” became the cornerstone of any peace settlement.
Oslo’s two-state solution was not invented by Arafat. At the Arab League summit in Fez, Morocco, in 1981, Saudi Arabia first proposed that if Israel withdraws to its internationally recognized borders of 1948, the Arab countries will sign on peace and normalization. The league’s summit in Beirut, in 2002, reiterated the Arab commitment to peace, as approved by Arafat, then under siege in Ramallah. Radical Arab regimes, like Assad and Saddam, tweaked the Arab Peace Initiative by adding an article that demanded Israel to allow the return of the 1948 refugees, not to the future Palestinian state, but to Israel. Hence — per the initiative — there would be two states: One Arab and the other half-Arab half-Jewish. Assad and Saddam made sure that the initiative would be unacceptable to Israel and that wars, which they thrive on, will continue.
The book makes the return of 1948 Palestinians a non-negotiable right, which is presumably enshrined in UN Resolution 194. But do not expect the authors to explain that 194 was approved by the UN General Assembly (UNGA), whose resolutions — unlike those of the UN Security Council (UNSC) — are non-binding.
Hill and Plitnick also argue that “ignoring the right of return is impractical.” But in reality, it is return that is impractical, or near impossible. In 1948, the Palestinians who left Israel were 750,000. Seventy-two years later, they number some five million. Moving those into Israel is not only a logistical ordeal, but millions flooding into any state would shake it, or even force it to collapse.
A more “practical” step would be a land and population swap within the two state solution to ensure that one state is only Arab, without Jewish settlers, and the other is only Jewish, without Arab-Israelis. Such swap is currently demanded by far Right Israelis, and hence anathematized.
However, it sounds more practical than exchanging 10 million people, given that Jewish Arabs would have to make space for the returning Palestinians, and would have to abandon the democratic state of Israel, where they enjoy full rights, and go to countries where their ancestors came from — such as Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria — and where they would live as minorities in non-democracies, with minimal rights.
Without polls to substantiate its claim, the book says that “Palestinians are not seeking resettlement, but repatriation to the land that was taken from their families in 1948 and 1967.” Had Hill and Plitnick had a whiff of exposure to Palestinians outside their “binational state” circle of Palestinian Americans, they might have learned that most Palestinians have settled wherever they ended up in 1948.
In her interview with a Palestinian who lives in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, Anaheed Al-Hardan quotes Palestinian Syrian Hassan Hassan as saying this: “I love it [Yarmouk Camp] a lot. I love its details. I love living in it. I don’t know why. I hope to never leave it, I hope to remaining (sic) living in it. I hope my circumstances become better and I remain living in it. I only want to remain living in this place.”
Perhaps Diaspora Palestinians do not open up to Americans, even anti-Israel ones like Hill and Plitnick. But when Arabs talk amongst themselves, it becomes clear that — like Syrians, Iraqis and other Arab refugees who resettled in their new countries — 1948 Palestinians have moved on.
Unlike what the book says, Israel is not a state “that privileges Jews.” It is a state created by the Jews, for the Jews, in a world where ethnic states are the norm, not the exception. The authors argue that in “Israel, the assault on Palestinian identity has intensified.” But even in the coveted Nordic countries, naturalization requires passing tests that certify fluency in the Danish language, culture and history. Naturalized Danes, even those who maintain their heritage, pledge allegiance to the flag, which is what Arab-Israeli Palestinians do not do, and rather mix between their legitimate insistence on keeping their Arab heritage and their unacceptable demand of using their heritage as a political identity, which would undermine the Israeli-ness of the state.
Hill and Plitnick probably want to be fair. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live in miserable conditions because of a conflict that Israel has been part of. Yet it is a conflict that Israel cannot solve alone, without a Palestinian will to preserve Jewish sovereignty in Israel, while simultaneously constructing Arab sovereignty in Palestine next to it. Raising maximalist demands, like Palestinian return to Israel, and describing them as inalienable rights, will only prolong the conflict.
Hill and Plitnick tried to explain “Palestine,” but instead ended up offering one radical Palestinian view. Perhaps if they were not aliens to the Middle East, they would have had a better understanding of the conflict, and of what Palestinians want. They would have also known that the Dome of the Rock is not a “place where, as recounted in the Quran, Muhammad ascended to heaven.” The Quran does not say Muhammad ascended anywhere. If Hill and Plitnick could not get the Quran right, what else on Israel and Palestine did they get wrong?