June 15, 2007

A Farewell to Palestine

Golda Meir once claimed, "There was no such thing as Palestinians" before 1947. One can argue that after 1947, there definitely was an identity that could be called Palestinian. Historians will one day look upon June 14th 2007 as the day that identity died.

I try to keep up with the news as best as I can. So it came as a bit of a surprise when I read news reports that Gaza and the West Bank might be splitting, with Hamas and Fatah respectively in control.

There are reasons why I don't write about the Israel-Palestine situation. First and foremost, I feel that as Muslims we are taught to be needlessly Arab-centric and the obsession with Palestine is a sign of that. Muslims suffer in a lot of other places, such as Kashmir, Kosovo, Kazakhstan, Iraq (before and after 2003), Afghanistan (before and after 2001), Sudan, Syria, Myanmar, Thailand, and even Bangladesh. Why single out Palestine as the greatest example? Secondly, as a very proud Bangali Muslim, I feel slighted that Arabs expect us to care about their conflicts when they were "less than helpful" (quotation marks denote understatement) with "our little problem" in 1971. Thirdly, it's too easy and cliche to write about the Territories without having been there. Fourth, it's not terribly relevant to Bangladesh.

None of which is to deny the severe human rights abuses that take place there, that the people of West Bank still live under a military occupation. Or to forget that along with sub-Saharan Africa, Gaza is the only place that has seen negative GDP growth since 1999, the year the second Intifada broke out.

I'm writing about Palestine today not only because I'm surprised at the news, but because I feel that the lessons of what went wrong have some relevance for Bangladesh. Besides, it's not everyday that I get to write about what might be the birth of a new country or two.

How did it come to this? Part of the blame lies with Arafat. Whatever the virtues and flaws of the Chairman were, institution-building and personal coruption were not part of them. He ran the entire Palestinian Authority like a personal fiefdom. That did not mean he stole public money: he lived in a small two-room flat probably much simpler than yours or mine, and in his spare time drank tea with honey and watched cartoons. Nor did that mean the people were unhappy: they got their water pumps, their schools, government jobs, pretty much everything they wanted. Provided they were loyal to Arafat. Note, not Fatah, Arafat's party, but Arafat himself.

After his death, the party simply expanded its service coverage to include more Fatah loyalists instead of Arafat loyalists. Not that there was much discrepancy between the two groups. At no time did it try to be representative of the entire Palestinian people. As a result, the security forces came to include Fatah loyalists only, since government jobs were the reward for continuing loyalty. And what do you expect Fatah loyalists to do except to fight for Fatah and kill off all dissent?

Now none of this means that Hamas does not operate in similar fashion. Yes, it has charities and social welfare programs, but it also has its own security forces loyal to itself and not the Palestinian people as a whole. After Hamas' victory in the January 2006 elections, it seemed only a matter of time before fighting would erupt given the fragmented nature of the Palestinian polity, especially its armed elements. It did. And finally we end up with this: the fragmented state mirroring the internal fragmentation.

Yes, this is a very simple picture. Yes, Western countries cutting off aid, the political system, the proliferation of arms all have something to do with the current situation. But this you have to admit: if Fatah had not built up a politicised Palestinian security force that would serve regime interest over state interest (when they eventually had a state... if ever!), the chances of all this violence would have been significantly reduced. If Hamas had not followed suit, the prospects of such outright violence would have diminished even further.

Instead, we hear reports of our Islamist friends Hamas, "liberating" Gaza from Fatah security personnel and then executing them. Whatever you call that - "barbarism", "animalism", "brutality" are a few words that come to mind - that is not Islam.

So farewell Palestine, and rest in peace Edward Said. One hopes for your sake that other post-colonial states avoid the tragic mistakes of your countrymen. And yes, I do have a particular state in mind.


Anthony said...

Along with Zia-ur-Rahman’s assassination/funeral, a special Palestine episode of Fazle Lohani’s Jodi kichu mone na koren is one of my first political memories. I take your point that most Arab states were not interested in helping us in our hour of need, but Palestinians were butchered before Bangladeshis by a Pakistani General. I didn’t know this in 1982, but to my five year old eyes, Arafat was a hero. Over the years my views about the conflict has changed (http://amar-akbar-anthony.blogspot.com/2006/07/turning-clock-back.html). These days, I think the end of the war in this Biblical land will be one of Mahabharata (http://amar-akbar-anthony.blogspot.com/2006/02/on-land-with-two-people-and-two-people.html).

And I don’t think there is any reason at all to be that depressed about the post-colonial state that you and I share. Why? Because all those things — occupation, regional and global politics, boycotts and sanctions, refugees — that made institution building that much more difficult in Palestine are absent in Bangladesh.

J @ ShadaKalo said...

Very nice article. But I think that this is the Darwinian process that will probably result in a viable Palestinian state, even if its half of its current size. Abbas' Palestine will stabilize (W. is already releasing money) while Gaza will slowly choke and collapse on their own.

On your concern about Bangladesh: I believe we are also seeing a failing Darwinian selection going on in Bangladesh, with non-viable life-forms like Dr. Kamal Hossain and insignificant characters like Ferdous Koreshi going to the top of the food chain. If we carry the analogy further, there will be an extinction event within the next 5 years in Bangladesh, and these dinosaurs will vanish, and hopefully some intelligent species will emerge.

Lastly, I am not negating Mr. Arafat's contribution to the Palestinian movement, but Mr. Arafat was not free of personal corruption; the well-documented fight between the Palestinian authority and Mrs. Araft over the control of certain bank accounts prove that. What I found the most disgusting was the resale of cement from Egypt and Jordan to Israili contractors building the border wall. Arafat condemned the wall, and his henchmen sold the cement to build it, instead of using it to rebuild Palestine.

asif said...


Your blog doesn't let me comment, so let me say here that I really like your writing on history on culture. The one on our national anthem was an amazing read for me, even though I didn't agree on all points.

It's been years since I read the Mahabharata, so I really don't remember how it ends. An apocalyptic battle perhaps? That would go down well with the American Evangelical Right.

Yes, the Palestinian tragedy is old. But I'm sure there are ones that are older. For instance, that of the Kurds. Or even Bengalis the first few years under British rule. It's a tragedy that we remain subalterns of Muslim history as well as Western history.


Very incisive and amazing research as always. Darwinian selection. That's a new perspective for me. Yes, I'm wary of this new party myself. Another cult, I feel, instead of a genuine political party.

I should have made clear that when I said personal corruption, I meant diverting public resources for private MATERIAL use. Arafat's simply lifestyle is widely known. The evidence you've presented ties in with what I've said: that he depended on patron-client relations. The essence of such relations is that resources must come from the patron and not some de-individualised, anonymous "state" machinery.

It's the same reason I get very frustrated when people talk about Mujib and Zia's personal integrity and lack of corruption, how they never stole for themselves. Yes, that's true. But they also made sure that all power was concentrated in his hands, instead of building institutions that could carry on once the person had passed on. Arafat's legacy is unfortunately sadly similar.

Both and the rest,

The comparison with Bangladesh is a bit of a caricature, to show the logical conclusion of politicising the bureacracy and military. Thankfully our military does not have to rely on party patronage to survive. It used to at one point. And we all know how much blood was shed in those years. I'm not going to say this a lot, so relish it: we might just have Ershad to thank for that!

Wow, I feel dirty just writing that.

Anthony said...

Mahabharata is about two groups of cousins fighting it out over a kingdom. At the end of the fight, there is no survivor.

You are right that there are worse national tragedies than the Palestinians’. But then again, Jews were not the only stateless people in Europe to be persecuted over the centuries. But whoever heard about a national movement for the Gypsies?