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"The Palestinian People:" Perhaps the best of its kind - could be much better


Book Review: Kimmerling, Baruch and Migdal, Joel S, The Palestinian People: A History, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2003.

Kimmerling and Migdal have written a book that is essential reading for those interested in the Middle East. It gives a broad overview of the history of the Palestinian Arabs from the beginnings of their evolution as a modern nation to fairly recent developments in the peace process. It opens with an account of an early revolt against the Turks, covers nationalist anti-Zionist activity under the Turks and mandate, traces the birth and growth of the PLO, and follows the peace process with Israel to present day developments (before the election of PM Abu-Mazen).

"The Palestinian People" is essential reading because it is probably the best of its kind, but it has a number of faults that prevent it from being a definitive or authoritative work, and which make it difficult for outsiders to understand at times. The authors have assumed that readers know too much. They seem to have neglected some essential basics, concentrating instead on some interesting but often peripheral side issues. In their anxiety not to offend either side too much, they have also steered around explosive, embarrassing, but essential issues. There are many interesting questions begging to be examined in a book with this subject, but the authors have instead devoted extensive space to the Oslo accords and the recent violence, subjects that have been treated at length by others, and that tend to date a book that should otherwise become a long-lived description of the formation of a people. Hopefully, these faults will be corrected in a future edition. Meanwhile, this should not be the first book you read about the Israeli - Palestinian conflict, if only because you may find it difficult to follow.

"Palestine" in modern times did not come into existence as a legal entity until the British were given a mandate to form a Jewish homeland in "Palestine" after World War I. Even then, the territory was defined arbitrarily and just as arbitrarily divvied up by the British. The authors have made the somewhat controversial decision of retroactively calling the land Palestine, even in the early 19th century. At that time, it was composed of Turkish administrative districts. The people themselves did not think of themselves as Palestinians, though European Christians may have thought of a more or less abstract Palestine which was the land of Jesus.

Since it is precisely the evolution of this national consciousness that this book is trying to explain, the anachronistic references to "Palestine" and "Palestinians" may lead the unwary astray.

The Ottoman empire was a vast collection of lands, ethnic groups and religious spread over a huge area and administered inefficiently. There were always particularistic tendencies in different areas, which were accentuated during the 18th and 19th centuries, because of the decay of Ottoman power. These tendencies sometimes expressed themselves in mini-revolts, in which a local pasha or sheikh set themselves up as independent or semi-independent, were probably not related to modern nationalism, which requires the existence of a middle class that had not developed in Ottoman Turkey. In the area of Acre, Tyre and in Jerusalem, there were several such revolts. In these areas as elsewhere, they might or might not eventually lead to solidification of nationalist tendencies. Kimmerling and Migdal open their story with an account of one such revolt in the Jerusalem area against the Egyptian Mehmed Ali, who himself was in revolt against the Sultan. The revolt against Mehmed Ali has not been covered much in other accounts of Palestinian history, and this more or less unique discussion in "The Palestinian People" has attracted disproportionate interest perhaps among readers and reviewers. This account plus generous application of the name "Palestine" might give some readers the impression that the revolt was the start of Palestinian national consciousness, though that is probably not the intention of the authors.

The first crucial event in the development of most nations of the modern Middle East was the break up of the Ottoman empire following World I. The collection of Ottoman administrative districts that more or less coincided with what Europeans called "The Holy Land" or "Palestine" was no exception. However, the process affecting the Arabs of the "Holy Land" was uniquely complicated by the arrival of Jewish Zionists bent on creating a Jewish homeland in "The Land of Israel" as they called it.

Though there were some newspapers and groups with the name "Filastin" or Palestine before the dissolution of the Ottoman empire, the sentiment and political orientation of Arabs living in this area was that they were part of Syria, as Kimmerling and Migdal duly note. It was only after Syria was finally and definitely awarded to France in a separate mandate, and Palestine was awarded to Britain to develop as a Jewish Homeland, that the Palestinian Arabs began agitating for self determination and national rights, and "Palestine" began to take on meaning for them, as a way to focus the religious and national feelings against Jewish rule. Opposition to Zionism and to Jews had in fact preceded the first signs of nationalism by several years and the national feelings and Palestinian national movement grew hand in glove with the opposition to Zionism.

Arab opposition to Zionism very quickly took on the form of violence as well as political action. In the twenties the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin El Husseini, instigated a series of riots against Jewish settlements, Zionist or otherwise, that transformed the attitude of Zionists toward Palestinians, catalyzed the militarization of Zionist society and helped to propel Haj Amin El Husseini and the Husseini clan to the forefront of the Palestinian national struggle.

The stock in trade of the Mufti and of the Palestinian extreme nationalist movement was the claim that the Jews were physically displacing the Palestinians by buying land and forcing the peasants to leave without compensation. This was the engine that motivated the riots of the twenties, and rallied Palestinian public opinion around the Arab revolt of the thirties, forcing the British to curtail Jewish immigration by the White Paper of 1939. A British investigation concluded that in all, only about 600 families had been dispossessed and were entitled to compensation.

Kimmerling and Migdal do not address the truth of the dispossession claim explicitly. Instead they show that the coming of the Jews and the British and changing world markets caused shifts in Arab population, as they moved from traditional agriculture in the highlands to more lucrative cash crops and industrial employment available on the coast. This incidentally, caused Arab population to increase disproportionately in coastal cities like Haifa, and other areas that were to become part of Israel. Far from displacing Arab inhabitants, the Zionist settlement, if anything, was creating work for them and attracting them. Kimmerling and Migdal mention some of the facts involved in the population shift, but do not discuss the implications. They also fail to point out the obvious, that industrialization had caused, and was causing, similar upheavals throughout all of Europe, so that countries that were 10% urbanized at the start of the 19th century had 90 percent or more of their populations in cities by the 1950s. This process was not unique to Palestine, though it was more precocious and accelerated there, compared to other parts of the Ottoman empire. It was not caused by Zionist settlement or British governance only. It was the process of industrialization that was essential to modern society and that is now slowly taking place in other Middle East countries as well. Without it, the land between the Jordan river and the sea would never be able to support more than a few hundred thousand people, as it had done under the Ottoman rulers.

In the 20s, the Mufti-initiated riots were major events in Palestinian life. They ultimately displaced the entire Jewish community of Hebron, caused the flight of about half of the Jewish community of the old city of Jerusalem, catalyzed the birth of the Haganah defense force and the British Passfield White paper. In retrospect, the riots caused relatively little loss of life, but their effect on both communities was profound. In particular, the riots of 1929 were kindled by the false claim that the Jews were threatening the holy Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, a theme was to be used again, in recent times to cause riots, and which set the tone for much of the Arab-Jewish antagonism. Therefore it is rather curious that Kimmerling and Migdal, though they mention and refer to the riots, do not describe them, and do not really document the role of Haj Amin El-Husseini in these events.

Husseini was to become "Mr. Palestine" during the Arab revolt that he led beginning in 1936 and until the end of the Israeli war of Independence. Husseini was an active ally of the Nazis as well as an active participant in Nazi genocide. He or his agents received money from them to finance the Arab revolt according to US intelligence. He organized SS units in Yugoslavia, and pleaded with the Hungarian government not to let its doomed Jews escape, especially not to Palestine, where they would try to put into effect their plans for world domination.

The Mufti's "Nazi Connection" has been perhaps exaggerated by Zionist sources, as claimed by some, but it is certainly an issue that is essential for understanding the formation of Palestinian identity on the one hand, and on the other hand, for appreciating the consternation that the Mufti invoked in eyes of the British as well as moderate Arab governments, not to mention the Jews, but this central if embarrassing characteristic of Palestinian nationalism is hardly mentioned in this book.

Without an understanding of the Mufti's Nazi connections, the actions of the British in suppressing the revolt as well as the depth of Jewish fear of the Palestinians would be unintelligible. Yet this whole issue, and much of the Mufti's sometimes mysterious career, are largely neglected in "The Palestinians." Even if the issue has been exaggerated by Zionists, then Kimmerling and Migdal missed an opportunity to present a more balanced view.

The Palestinian national movement, because of its declared goal of driving the Jews out of Palestine, or, as the Mufti put it, solving the Jewish question in Palestine in the same way as it was solved in Europe, had to collide violently with the Zionist movement at some point. This collision had to result in tragedy for one people or the other. In the event, it resulted in a massive flight and expulsion of Palestinians from Israel, following the UN decision to partition the country into two states in 1947, and the 1948 Israeli war of Independence.

Kimmerling and Migdal are at their shining best in examining the complex history of the Arab expulsion and flight, steering clear of the polemics and mythmaking that usually characterize treatment of this subject by pro-Palestinian and Zionist historians. Their account is a good antidote to most of the others and brings the problem out of the realm of propaganda and into the field of respectable historical investigation.

However, the Palestinian tragedy or Nakba of 1948 rests on several cornerstones. The flight/expulsion is only one. The loss of part of the homeland was made into a permanent tragedy by failure to establish a state, and by the quite strange circumstance of perpetual refugee life that seems to have become the voluntary or involuntary lot of most of the Palestinians. These two aspects of the problem are almost always neglected in historical accounts, and this account is no exception.

The Arab states actively prevented the formation of a Palestinian state in 1949, as shown by numerous authors, and briefly alluded to in "The Palestinians." Opposition of Arab states was partly due to their own territorial ambitions, partly due to fear of the Mufti and partly due to Israeli pressure and clandestine dealing between Israel and Jordan's king Abdullah. Whatever the reasons, this fact that was not given sufficient emphasis by Kimmerling and Migdal and its causes and implications are not discussed.

The other aspect of the Palestinian tragedy is a phenomenon that is probably unique in the history of the world. The Palestinians have the longest record for maintaining themselves as refugees in temporary camps. No other population continued a life of temporary exile in temporary housing for such a long periods. Jews displaced by the Holocaust found permanent refuge in Israel or in the USA or Europe. Sudetens Germans and Germans of East Prussia were repatriated to Germany. Vietnamese boat people found new homes after long periods in refugee camps. Only the Palestinians remained in UNRWA refugee camps in large numbers. The very mechanism of the UNRWA is unique and the status of Palestinian refugees is unique. International conventions that apply to refugees specifically exclude the Palestinians dependent on the UNRWA. This is certainly a unique and central feature of Palestinian identity. As Kimmerling and Migdal note, UNRWA officials early recognized the reluctance of Palestinians to leave the camps and find permanent homes. This issue is also a crucial point in the peace process. One would like to know how much of the adherence to the camps is due to genuine sentiment, how much is due to the desire of Palestinian groups and Arab countries to exploit the refugee issue, and how much may be due to inability of Palestinians to find better havens in Arab countries, in Europe and the USA. One would like to know the answers to these questions, but "The Palestinian People" does not even ask them.

The question of land ownership is perhaps the backbone of the Palestinian formative experience. Most land was not privately owned, but was rather held by the Ottoman crown and leased to tenants and subtenants in various legal forms including collective ownership by groups of farmers, villages or clans (musha'a) and tenancy conditional on use (miri). Land ownership was not fully privatized, and it helped to determine the Arab economy of pre 1948 Palestine. The Ottoman government had tried to privatize land ownership, resulting in purchase of some large tracts by absentee owners and perpetuation of tenant farmer roles for peasants. The early Zionists found it easy to purchase these tracts from absentee landlords, resulting in dispossession of tenants, sometimes without adequate compensation.

Israel was also able to take land legally from Palestinians on the grounds that it is "government land." In many cases, the lease had in fact lapsed and the claims of the Palestinians were tenuous, because a great deal of the land was disused: the tenants had not fulfilled their lease conditions. The Israeli government promulgated a somewhat dubious land law that gave primary access to state lands to the Jewish agency, effectively excluding Palestinians. Baruch Kimmerling is an authority on the complexities of land ownership; therefore it is a disappointing that this book did not include a chapter on that topic.

The refugee population has not just remained stagnant. In 1990, there were 2.4 million refugees registered with UNRWA. By 1995, there were 3.2 million, and by 2000, there were over 3.7 million. The increase between 1990 and 1995 would require an annual birthrate of 6%, without counting deaths or renunciation of refugee status. The birthrate of Palestinian refugees is about 3.2%. Overall, the increase between 1990 and 2000 would have required a birthrate of over 4.5% to be explained by natural causes. These truly heroic increases must indicate either UNRWA fiddling with population figures, or exceptionally high intermarriage rates or very lax procedures in deciding who is a refugee. Surely this is an important issue in deciding "who is a Palestinian" and what is Palestinian identity, but the problem is not even mentioned in "The Palestinians."

Important omissions in this book may be due to unwarranted assumptions about what the reader might know. For example, from oblique hints in the text, it may be surmised that the authors assumed that their readers already knew about the riots and about the Nazi past of the Mufti.

In several other places the book either refers indirectly to events, or runs ahead of itself, assuming again and again that the reader knows facts that were not presented or discussed. This is particularly evident in the chapter about Israeli Arabs, where the June 1967 Six Day War is referred to in passing, without an explanation of the upheaval it caused in the life of Palestinians, since the territory that had remained under Arab control in the West Bank and Gaza now passed to Israeli occupation. The explanation is given much later in the book, probably leaving the uninformed reader bewildered for several chapters.

A dominant feature of Arab life in Israel until the 60s, and a particularly obnoxious and undemocratic one, was the military government, which is, surprisingly, hardly mentioned. Likewise, the administrative arrest procedure which is in a way a remnant of the military government and the entire psychology it entailed, gets little attention as well. The use of identity cards that show "nationality" (now abolished) is also mentioned only in passing, but it certainly is an issue important to Israeli Arabs and one which impinged mightily on their daily lives. The tangle of Israeli laws and unwritten laws that in practice prevent equality between Arabs and Jews is not really examined in depth. The Jewish National Fund is in charge of most new town development in Israel, and so there is virtually no development in the "Arab sector" as it is called, promises to the contrary notwithstanding. On the other hand, the authors did not go into the dilemma presented by a growing fraction of the Israeli Arab population who insist on equal rights as citizens of Israel but at the same time want to use those rights to destroy the state. This is epitomized by the Islamic movement members who insist on their right to support the Hamas.

Perhaps the authors, anxious to create a "balanced" book, omitted issues that might be considered offensive to either side, but the issues need to be addressed.

The treatment of the occupation and the evolution of the Palestinian movement after 1967 to the Oslo accords and to the present day contains few surprises. The authors document what should by now be a well known story - how Yasser Arafat skillfully turned every objective defeat into a subjective victory, using masterful strategy to rise from the ashes again and again, and in effect, to create the Palestinian identity from almost nothing. Not enough attention is paid to the role of the USSR in turning Arafat into a star however, and to the implications of this role for Palestinian ideology.

There is an interesting hint at the early peace overtures of 1977, but in a book of this sort one would have expected much more detail about them. There are several glaring omissions. The book should have dwelt in much more detail on the origins of the different Palestinian political groups, many of which appear to have grown out of the "Ikhwan" brotherhood bands of Gaza. The explanation given for why all of these groups seem to be centered on violence and armed struggle is not really satisfactory either.

In 1967, shortly after the conquest of the West Bank by Israel, Palestinian notables came to Moshe Dayan with a request to form their own autonomous self government. For reasons that are fairly obscure, he turned them down. This may have been a crucial turning point in Israeli-Palestinian relations, and a crucial lost opportunity for Israel. An event of less importance perhaps, but some interest, was the meeting between Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery and Yasser Arafat in the 80s, one of many omitted peace overtures that seemed unrealistic at the time and eventually bore fruit. Curiously, it is not mentioned either.

The peace agreement with Egypt was a crucial stage for the Palestinian national movement in many respects. It isolated the PLO and placed tremendous pressure on them. At the same time, ideas and formulas developed at the time, and promises that Israeli PM Begin may have thought to be "dead letters" came to be evoked again in the Oslo accords and helped to form the basis of the agreements. In general, almost every aspect of the Oslo accords from the two state idea itself to details such as the five year adjustment period all had their roots in the proposals that were bandied about by different groups and individuals in the years following the peace with Egypt. A book of this sort should have given us a bit more detail on how all this came about.

The high handed methods of PLO leaders were exposed by Edward Said and others long before the Oslo accords put them in actual charge of Palestinian society. Once they were ensconced in power, it lead to disaster. This problem arouses bitter comment from Palestinians in private, who tell jokes about Ali Arafat and the forty thieves and discretely characterize Arafat as a tyrant. Sums donated by Europeans for housing projects for the poor are used to build villas for PLO officials. Huge sums that should have gone for economic development were diverted to armaments and "police" forbidden by the Oslo accords, and, Israeli sources claim, to large foreign bank accounts of Yasser Arafat and other PLO officials. This financial malfeasance was part of the reason for the failure of the Palestinian economy after 1993, and is a central fact of Palestinian existence, yet it is barely mentioned; most of the ills of Palestinian society are blamed on the closures instituted by Israel to counter terrorist attacks. This may be official the Palestinian view, but it is certainly not the whole truth.

The embarrassing corruption and autocracy of the Palestinian political apparatus get only perfunctory treatment in "The Palestinian People" Without understanding the depth of corruption in Palestinian society, it is hard to make sense of the internal pressures that led to appointment of PM Mahmoud Abbas and to Palestinian support for reform.

It is very difficult to write a book about Palestine or Israel, that is not biased. The subject is so broad that there are bound to be important omissions. Every such book, whether it is intended as a balanced presentation or a weapon in the Palestine-Israel propaganda war, is fated to be abused by partisans of either side as "evidence" supporting their case. "The Palestinian People" does a fair job of balancing their story. However, because this is an important book, it is important to correct the many omissions and to make it a book that "outsiders" can read easily and with profit.

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Replies: 2 comments

Ami, Shalom,
Thanks for your timely comment. I confess that I did not read the book, that is already creating big waves, but if you did and devoted time to analyze it, I am really thankful! I believe that unilateral, so called "leftist" approaches, particularly comming from Jewish researchers, are to be blamed to a great extent, of the debacle of the Israeli peace camp. Thanks again for your contribution!!

Posted by Aaron Barnea (Parents' Circle) @ 07/12/2003 07:08 PM CST

A truly outstanding review! You are admirably gentle in your criticisms of this work by Kimmerling and Migdal, although these criticisms do not merely reveal very serious omissions, but also indicate an often blatant anti-Israel bias. Your review also displays an impressive erudition and circumspection; in fact, it seems to me, you could produce a monograf of far greater value than the work reviewed. I hope there is one in the offing! By the way, shouldn't Kimmerling and Migdal have dealt with Palestinian--and Arab-- mendacity and anti-semitism, which are two of the pillars of the Palestinian conflict?
Thank you for your brilliant review.

Posted by Timothy Schiff, Ph.D. @ 08/31/2003 08:51 PM CST

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