Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Withering Palestinian Ethos

There has never, to my knowledge, been a national movement more lavishly subsidized, financially, militarily and politically, as that of the Palestinian people. Each year, hundreds of millions of European and American tax euros and dollars, mounting to billions if contributions from Arab states and NGOs are included, are deposited in Ramallah, with no end in sight. Nation after nation joins the chorus, pledging their support in the ongoing quest for Palestinian statehood. Year after year it drags on, this pregnancy that refuses to end in a birth, the unborn child holding the mother, father, hospital and everyone else in five block radius hostage to its irresponsible, petulant demands.

Karma Nabulsi ("from Nablus"), a PLO functionary once and always, is a case in point. In spite of herself, she aptly describes the depths of Palestinian dysfunction in the London Review of Books:
The way Palestinians see things, the fragmentation of the body politic – externally engineered, and increasingly internally driven – has now been achieved. This summer, even the liberal Israeli press began to notice that the key people in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s capital in the West Bank, no longer discuss strategies of liberation but rather the huge business deals that prey on the public imagination. Every institution or overarching structure that once united Palestinians has now crumbled and been swept away. The gulf between Gaza and the West Bank, between Hamas and Fatah, between Palestinians inside Palestine and the millions of refugees outside it, between city and village, town and refugee camp, now seems unbridgeable. The elites are tiny and the numbers of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised increase every day. There is, at this moment, no single body able to claim legitimately to represent all Palestinians; no body able to set out a collective policy or national programme of liberation. There is no plan.
For an outsider, Karma's wistful recollections of and an implicit urging for a return to "revolutionary" ideals are delusional and intellectually embarrassing. The entire piece oozes despair, projecting a resigned fatalism I am more familiar with in its Russian incarnation. Even as she describes the depth of Palestinian political and social stagnation, the corruption of basic public trust, deteriorating relationships not merely between factions, but between cities and villages, as her people and their would be country collapse and burn around her, she refuses to unclasp her fist from the phantasm of heroic struggle, whose goals are left undefined, and I suspect purposefully so. Karma may be a washed up Marxist, a veteran of revolutionary lore long since forgotten, which never truly was except in myth and Soviet-inspired propaganda. Yet, the ailments she describes have merit, to the extent that Palestinians I've known have conveyed them to me in similar exasperated tones.

Beyond the physical foundations, a state needs an intellectual, psychological backbone, a raison d'etre - an ethos. In a backhanded way, since its inception, Israel has provided the Palestinians with a unifying ethos. This may be received as arrogant, patronizing even, but I've never sensed a passion among pro-Palestinian activists for dismantling the refugee camps and building proper cities in their place. True, the occupation is a daily irritant, creating tension and feeding resentment, but surely a people need vision beyond ameliorating their immediate circumstances. Resistance, struggle - these inspire the masses, not civil engineering. At least within the small circle of Palestinians I have access to, the recent, meager infrastructure investments of the PA generate scoffing, cynicism, even hostility. The revulsion is not merely at the self-serving corruption, the kleptocracy and nepotism, but against the betrayal of core principles, against collaboration with the "Zionist entity" in any form, including the most basic, pragmatic resignation at Israel's permanence.

Fifty years before Israel was founded, Zionist thinkers, writers, poets, leaders were articulating and debating the very sinews of the culture and the politics of the state to be. There was a focus, a direction; statehood was seen not an end in itself, but a means to self-empowerment, a Jewish return to history and all the rest that came with it. The Palestinian national experience need not emulate the Jewish one, but I am still left asking, what of the Palestinian ethos?

What Karma suggests is that the present Palestinian socio-political morass began in earnest after Oslo, when the Palestinian leadership recognized Israel, thus ending the prospect of revolutionary change in the basic status quo. She seems to be saying that, post Oslo, the Palestinian people lost focus, the leadership lost direction. With the goal of undoing the Nakhba relegated to rhetoric, implies Karma, the raison d'etre for a unified Palestinian body politic, and the society it held in cohesion fractured. Resistance is the still the prescription, but the cure of redemptive revolution has been abandoned, and with it, the Palestinian national ethos.

I've written of this in the past, and remain convinced, and saddened by it, to this day: resistance to Jewish self-determination is a central, likely inseparable feature of Palestinian national identity, at least for the foreseeable future.

On My Bookshelf