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Thursday, June 21, 2007

There are no 'Palestinians'

On Tuesday, I Fisked an article by Robert Malley and Aaron Miller in which they asserted that 'moderate' 'Palestinian President' Mahmoud Abbas Abu Mazen would not be satisfied with being the 'President' of the 'West Bank' and would also want to be the 'President' of Gaza. My comments were based on the premise that Malley and Miller
assume that there is a distinct, 'Palestinian' nation and that its indigenous territory includes both the 'West Bank' and Gaza (and by implication all of the State of Israel). And that is a fiction that the Arab countries have imposed on the Western world. It wasn't just an accident of history that until 1967, Egypt occupied Gaza and Jordan occupied the 'West Bank.' It's because the inhabitants of those areas from 1948 to 1967 came from distinct nomadic tribes that were not related to each other except that they were all Arabs (just like the populations of Egypt, Jordan and twenty other Arab countries). That's why Gaza is dominated by 'clans' while one doesn't hear that word used in the 'West Bank.' Those clans are family, tribal groupings.
In yesterday's Los Angeles Times, Jacob Savage explored the possibility that a 'three-state' solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute might be more practical than a two-state solution. I don't favor a three-state solution (or for that matter a two-state solution, because I believe this isn't about 'Palestinian' statehood but about Arab unwillingness to tolerate a Jewish state of any size in the Middle East), but I found his background regarding the differences between the 'West Bank' and Gaza to be very helpful. (Hat Tip: Soccer Dad):
To a large extent, residents of Gaza and the West Bank are two different peoples, and the idea of a three-state solution — Israel, plus a Hamas-run Gaza and a Fatah-governed West Bank — makes historical sense.

Gaza was, starting in the early 1800s, culturally dominated by neighboring Egypt. Though Gaza was part of the Ottoman Empire, a large number of its residents were Egyptians (and their descendants) who had fled political turmoil. The West Bank, on the other hand, became culturally and economically linked with Jordan after the kingdom's founding in 1921. Unlike Gaza, the West Bank always has had a prosperous Christian minority, which served as an important moderating influence.

The two regions' experiences after the establishment of Israel in 1948 also were quite different. In 1950, Jordan annexed the West Bank, granted its residents citizenship and created a bureaucratic and legal infrastructure that helped connect the West Bank with the rest of the Arab world.

The simultaneous Egyptian occupation of Gaza, however, was both careless and brutal. Gazans remained stateless and were forbidden to leave the strip. Egypt never created a Gazan civil service, placing Egyptians in charge of all civil and military posts.

Even today, the two economies are almost entirely disconnected. Gaza wallows in a poverty that has led to political and religious radicalization. In 2006, Gaza's unemployment rate was more than 35%, compared to 18% in the West Bank. With the exception of the joint distribution of foreign aid and political patronage, the two regions have very little to tie them together.

However, the most important difference is the way that refugees who fled or were expelled from Israel in 1948 have assimilated. More than a million refugees and their descendants live in the Gaza Strip, making up more than 84% of the total population — and nearly 50% still live in camps.

The much larger West Bank integrated its refugees far more successfully. Only 26% of refugees are in camps there — representing less than 10% of the total population. Because they have created familial and economic ties to the West Bank, they are more rooted and amenable to political compromise.


The idea that national identities remain static is a late 20th century fiction. Palestinian identity has been in flux since the Ottoman period, and there is no reason to think that it is now frozen in place. Indeed, after receiving Jordanian citizenship in 1950, many residents of the West Bank came to see themselves as Jordanian. Yet following the Israeli conquest in the 1967 Six-Day War, they quickly adopted a pan-Palestinian identity.

All that was needed for this identity to shift was a single generation severed from Jordanian power, influence and institutions. (Acknowledging that his ostensible subjects would never again view themselves as Jordanians, King Hussein renounced all claims to the West Bank in 1988.) A similar division has existed for some time between Gaza and the West Bank. As a result of Israeli travel restrictions, an entire generation of Gazans has never set foot in the West Bank, and vice versa.


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