Palestinian Suffering: Who’s Responsible?


Few people have suffered more constant misery and daily oppression in the last 50 years than the Palestinians. The key issue, however, concerns not the amount — although it has obviously been grossly exaggerated — but the source of that suffering. There are wildly varying accounts of who is to blame. Our purpose here is not to assess how much blame to assign – that everyone must do on their own – but to list the major contributors to Palestinian suffering, and what is the nature of that contribution. We welcome comment, further examples, suggestions, links, reflections, additions.


The most obvious source of Palestinian suffering is the Israelis. According to the dominant Palestinian “victim” narrative, the Zionists came into the region, took their land, and, when war broke out in 1948, drove almost a million of them from their homes and relegated those who remained to second-class citizenship. The dominant Israeli narrative has argued that they came as civilians, purchasing property, developing the economy, clearing malaria-infested swamps. Israelis claim that most of the refugees were created by the Arab armies that sought to destroy Israel and urged the Arab inhabitants to leave. Arabs, whose own leaders openly declared their intention to massacre Israelis, naturally believed that the Israelis would do the same to them.

Recently Israeli “new” or “post-Zionist” historians have questioned the Israeli version, arguing that there were concerted efforts to drive out Arab populations, as well as some actual massacres of Arab civilians. This revisionist work has received sharp criticism from historians who argue that these writers have misrepresented, even distorted the contents of the archives on which they base their work. (That Israeli historians would distort history to criticize their own country may strike some as bizarre if not inexplicable, but such a move combines both hyper-self-criticism with therapeutic history: If we apologize, maybe they’ll stop hating us.) Not surprisingly, the Palestinian reaction to Israeli post-Zionism has been more favorable: it confirms their domineering cognitive egocentrism.

Since the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war, over 2 million Palestinians have come under the military rule of Israel; and since the two uprisings of 1987-92 and 2000-4?, the hostilities have produced a particularly onerous situation, in which Palestinian suffering most obviously derives from Israeli actions – curfews, check-points and shut-downs. To those who do not know the history of the conflict, the image of the Palestinian David throwing rocks and the Israeli Goliath in his tanks and planes seems not only accurate but poetically ironic.

the new intifada
Book cover for The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid

Most observers who, consciously or unconsciously accept the way that Arab and Palestinian leadership have framed the struggle in terms of zero-sum outcomes, stop here. This is the foundation of both the Politically-Correct and the Post-Colonial Paradigms (PCP1 & 2). For the politically correct, who would not dream of challenging the Arab mind-set, there is no need to go further. Indeed some, exceptionally self-critical Israelis go still farther in the same direction: It is the Arabs who have sought peace and the Israelis who have rebuffed them. Obviously, Israeli victories mean Palestinian defeats; obviously Israeli presence means Palestinian displacements; obviously Israeli independence is a Palestinian Naqba. Obviously Israel and its ally America are the greatest contributors to Palestinian suffering. And were this the only way to conceive of the conflict, such a narrative might well be true.

But from the perspective of progressive, positive-sum interactions and the civil society such interactions foster, this can hardly be the whole story. On the contrary, when Zionists first came to Palestine the population was under a million. Today it pushes 10 million. Modern civil society and the culture of abundance that it produces can create many new opportunities for all involved. This need not have been a zero-sum conflict, and while some Zionists, observing the growing dominion of al Husseini, argued for kicking Arabs out, many more continued to argue for a productive collaboration. So we now turn to the other sources of Palestinian suffering, those who have either forced or encouraged the Palestinians to see it only as a zero-sum game, and to see the Israelis only through the lens of Domineering Cognitive Egocentrism (DCE).


The contribution of Arab political culture to the suffering of Palestinians is less evident to those who do not know the history of the conflict. Arab political culture before Zionism was among the most autocratic and exploitative of the many “traditional” political cultures: With Turkish administrators, wealthy Arab landlords living in Egypt, and Bedouin tribes raiding whenever they could, the plight of the Palestinian peasant had involved plenty of suffering. That kind of suffering continues endemically throughout the Arab world today, regardless of whether the populace lives in an oil-rich state or not. It is characteristic of prime-divider societies.

But the Arab-Israeli conflict has increased the role of Arab political culture in the specific suffering of the Palestinians as a people. Fundamentally committed to zero-sum outcomes in this conflict – Israel should not exist, and nothing short of the elimination of the “Zionist entity” could resolve the conflict – Arab political culture has consistently chosen wars they lose to resolution in this conflict. In the inability to succeed in this goal, Arab political culture has largely preferred negative-sum solutions than exploring mutually beneficial solutions.

In 1958, Ralph Galloway, former UNWRA director wrote:

“The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations, and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders do not give a damn whether Arab refugees live or die.”

One might even make a more damning assertion: they do care; they want and need them to suffer.


Thus when the UN resolution of 1947 created two states, with the Palestinian one significantly greater than the Israeli, which consisted of three scarcely contiguous units, the largest of which was desert wilderness, the Arab League, without consultation with the Palestinian people (just coordination with the Nazi ally al-Husseini, rejected the partition and prepared for a war of annihilation.

un partition map 1947
Map of UN Partition: Note the three discontinuous Israeli “Bantustans.”

The ensuing disaster (al-Naqba) produced a much larger and contiguous Israel with a substantial minority of Arab residents, and a widely dispersed population of Arab war refugees. At this point, rather than negotiate the best possible situation for the refugees, the Arab League unanimously chose to continue the war and confine the Palestinian refugees to camps, as a weapon against Israel. The Palestinians became the sacrificial pawn of Arab politics, forced to live in squalor, indoctrinated with Nazi-inspired propaganda in their schools, and held up to the world as an example of Israeli crimes against humanity. And of course, the worse they suffer, the worse the crime.

This state of affairs beggars the imagination of liberal cognitive egocentrism (LCE). Indeed many observers just assume that it was the Israelis who put the refugees in camps and kept them there. Michael Moore speaks about a visit to the refugee camps in 1988:

Although in my life I had already traveled through Central America, China, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the Middle East. I wasn’t ready for what I saw in the refugee camps in the Occupied Territories. I had never encountered such squalor, debasement, and utter misery. To force human beings to live in these conditions – and deo so at the barrel of a gun, for more than forty years — just made no sense. Stupid White Men, p. 178.

Now Moore seems to presume that it’s the Israelis who have done this to the Palestinians. (His next paragraph goes into how badly the Jews have been treated in the past and how sad that they should turn around and do it to someone else — the favorite formula of the moral Schadenfreude set.) He seems to have no awareness that for the first (and critical) half of the Palestinian experience of refugee confinement, it was Arab rulers and Arab guns who kept them in misery, and that once Israel took over they tried to move these unfortunate victims out into decent housing, and it was the Arabs who pushed UN Resolutions insisting that they be returned to the squalor of the camps.

How much more nonsensical is that — it’s the Arabs who want their misery, not the Israelis?

Unless one thinks in terms of Domineering Cognitive Egocentrism, and the Honor-Jihad Paradigm.

After the second Naqba of 1967, with the Israelis offering to return most of the conquered territories in exchange for peace, the Arab League met at Khartoum and issued the “Three No’s” – no negotiations, no recognition, no peace! In the context of contributing to Palestinian suffering, this decision of the Arab League — with Arafat, al-Husseini’s nephew, representing the Palestinian people’s “interests” — reveals perhaps more than anything, the “incomprehensible” skew of this conflict. To save the “honor” of the Arab nation and not have to recognize or make peace with this rebellious Dhimmi people, these Arab leaders preferred to leave over two million Arabs under Israeli rule. And given how for an Arab Muslim, it is a stain to one’s honor that can only be cleansed with blood, to live under the rule of another people — above all, a people who should be suspect — they knew that this “occupation they were sanctioning, would poison the Israeli’s world no matter how beneficent or economically advantageous Israeli rule might prove.

And when the Palestinians threatened the stability of the Hashemite kingdom in Jordan – the only Arab country to offer them citizenship – King Hussein’s troops massacred as many as 10,000 Palestinian men, women and children in one month, remembered in Palestinian lore as Black September. PLO troops fled to Israel rather than fall into Jordanian hands. Many Palestinians and other Arabs acknowledge their victimization by their “fellow” Arabs. Current Palestinian Authority Prime-Minister Mahumud Abbas said in 1976 that,

…the Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians from Zionist tyranny but, instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate, and to leave their homeland, and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live.” (Falastin a-Thaura, March 1976).

However, such comments are tempered partly by their desire to enlist support, partly by their fear of reprisal, partly by their need to believe that the Israelis are their greatest enemies.

PALESTINIAN LEADERSHIP: Palestinian political culture, from the earliest period of Zionist settlement, has fostered the zero-sum mentality whenever possible. The uprising of 1936-9, supposedly fighting the British and the Zionists, ended up killing far more Arabs (vendettas, looting) than either English or Jews. The Peel Commission (1939) asked Arab rioters why, despite the increased levels of prosperity brought to Palestine by their arrival, they attacked the Jews, one Arab responded:

You say we are better off: you say my house has been enriched by the strangers who have entered it. But it is my house, and I did not invite the strangers in, or ask them to enrich it, and I do not care how poor it is if I am only master of it.” (Weathered by Miracles, p. 207)

The pattern whereby the Palestinians suffered more from the militant policies of their leadership than Israelis became a standard feature of all the “uprisings,” from the “nationalist uprising of 1936-39, to the “intifada” of the late 1980s and the “second intifada” of 2000. In general, terrorists almost never limit their aggression to the “enemy”, and since their own populations do not have the protection that enemies can mobilize, they tend to suffer the daily impositions of their “militants” far more. And until it becomes completely unbearable, most people in such terror-dominated societies stay silent.

“SECULAR” PALESTINIAN LEADERSHIP: The degree to which Palestinian leadership has followed the lead of Arab League politics in victimizing its own people can best be seen in the formation of the PLO in 1964. Rather than demand the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, governed by Jordan, as a sovereign nation in which they might begin the long-overdue process of getting people out of the refugee camps and into decent housing and work situations, they ignored the plight of their brethren, and focused on the elimination of the Zionist entity. National Liberation consistently took second place to the annihilation of another nation.

The widespread practice of executing “collaborators” without trial, even women, has throttled any “moderate” Palestinian leadership from emerging. Rape and sexual assault of women is a common form of intimidating other Palestinians into cooperation and as a way of rewarding one’s “soldiers” for their efforts. Palestinians themselves often acknowledge how much of their suffering derives from the corruption of their own leaders, but rarely do they take it the further step to wonder whether this is not merely corruption or violence, but also an endemic problem of their political culture.

ISLAMIC POLITICAL CULTURE: The emergence of a powerful culture of Jihad in Palestinian circles (Islamic Jihad and Hamas) have intensified the dynamic of self-inflicted suffering. Promoting a culture of death that encourages youth to die trying to kill Israelis has contributed immeasurably to the casualties among Palestinian youth, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The notion that suffering in this world wins rewards in the world to come gives a particularly powerful motivation to self-destruction. Indeed, Islamic Jihad gives a new meaning to positive-sum outcomes within the framework of negative-sum behavior: if a Muslim dies in battle with the infidel, he goes to heaven; if he succeeds in winning the Jihad, his reward is in this world as well. The war begun in October 2000, in which Islamic Jihad has played a particularly prominent role, has inflicted immense suffering on the Palestinians, perhaps more than almost any earlier catastrophic rush to violence.


Once one factors in the ways in which Arab political culture thrives on victimizing the Palestinians, one becomes aware of another source of Palestinian suffering: the “support” the Palestinian leadership gets from outsiders, particularly the Europeans, the UN, and the “progressive left,” and the media. For the last three decades, since the mid-1970s, these parties have become increasingly anti-Israel and, supposedly, pro-Palestinian.

The mistake appears in the very formulation. By falling into the zero-sum formulations of the Arab and Palestinian leadership, these major world forces reinforce the very figures who have most to win from victimizing the Palestinians.


The role of the Left may be the single most striking illustration of the ironic reversals in this conflict. One might argue in the last half decade that the Palestinians have become the “chosen people” of the Left, in that anyone who is more critical of them than of the Israelis is considered a right-wing neo-conservative (at best). And yet, the Palestinians have hardly flourished under this “progressive” solicitude. Rather than urging the Palestinians to develop the kind of qualities necessary for a progressive state that takes care of its citizens (e.g., self-criticism), the Left has systematically explained their violence as the result of Israeli (and American) policies. As a result, the Left reinforces the most regressive and fascist elements in Palestinian culture, even as they claim to work for peace and civil society.


The contribution of the Media to Palestinian suffering may be the most subtle, but also the most pervasive. The nature of media coverage – if it bleeds it leads – has always favored violence, and in particular fed the need of terrorists for attention. Its superficial and dramatic news has encouraged the systematic victimization of Arabs for the purposes of international sympathy. By ignoring or playing down the Palestinian calls for genocide against Israel and hatred of the West, while at the same time portraying Israel as the cause of war and of whatever damage Palestinians do to themselves, the media have contributed to a profound misunderstanding of the sources of – and therefore the solutions to – the conflict.

Given the extraordinary sensitivity of Arab honor-shame culture to public disapproval, one might even argue that the sympathy and understanding that the media grant to the most depraved of Palestinian terrorists, represents an enormous opportunity cost. When 500 Palestinian intellectuals denounced suicide terrorism, they did so because it did not serve the Palestinian cause — indeed it lost them international sympathy. Were the international community to have condemned it with even greater insistence, these voices would have had even greater strength. When the media mis-reported the outbreak of Oslo War in late 2000, arousing world-wide support for the Palestinians in their struggle for “freedom”, they encouraged Arafat to believe that “the whole world is behind him” so that he had no need to work to lessen the violence. By promoting and diffusing stories of alleged atrocities committed by Israel without a solid background check, the media reinforce the hate-mongering propaganda of the Palestinian leadership. “Balancing” negative coverage of the Arabs with unfounded accusations of the Israelis, for example, balancing stories of “honor killings” with accusations of rape of Palestinian women by Israelis and seizing on Palestinian accusation of “massacres.”

There is no question how much Palestinians have suffered and continued to suffer, but there are many sources to this suffering. To truly sympathize and help improve the wretched condition of Palestinians, one must understand the wide range the factors that cause their suffering. One way to conceive of this problem is to ask, what if the Palestinians had their own state? Would their conditions improve? To judge by their conditions under Jordanian rule (1948-67), or their conditions in Lebanon when the PLO had power (1970-82), or Gaza after withdrawal (2005-), or by the fate of other Arab peoples ruled over by their own elites… no. If the state and its governors are committed to ruling for the people, if they pursue positive-sum strategies both domestically and with the Israeli neighbors, then we can hope for a dramatic improvement in their condition. But for that to happen, we progressives would need to put our shoulders behind a very different wheel.

Can we do it? What’s preventing us?

24 Responses to Palestinian Suffering: Who’s Responsible?

  1. David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 04/02/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

  2. Eliyahu says:

    RL, on a world scale the Palestinian Arabs, including the 1948 refugees, have not suffered so much or lived in such misery as you indicate. You can compare their physical living standards to the average Egyptian villager, for instance. Add in the free education provided by the UN through UNRWA, etc. I see many Arabs in so-called “East Jerusalem” living in big houses, driving nice cars, etc. I see many Arabs patronizing the Jerusalem shopping centers, buying clothes, furniture, housewares, appliances, etc., patronizing the cafes in the shopping malls. I know that many are poor but many are not, and I think that the “misery” and “oppression” undergone by these people are often exaggerated, and on a world scale their situation appears rather good, compared with Egyptians, Brazilian peasants from the north, Sudanese, Indian peasants, etc.

  3. Who’s Reponsible?

    “Few people have suffered more constant misery and daily oppression in the last 50 years than the Palestinians. The key issue, however, concerns not the amount — although it has obviously been grossly exaggerated — but the source of that…

  4. Good Lt says:

    Superb post, and an excellent blog you got here.

  5. Israellycool says:

    Today’s Must Read Post

    ..comes courtesy of my friend Richard Landes: Palestinian Suffering: Who’s Responsible?Few people have suffered more constant misery and daily oppression in the last 50 years than the Palestinians. The key issue, however, concerns not the amount — …

  6. antidhimmi says:

    RL has nailed the problem again. Western support for Arab violence adds a high octane ingredient to the Jihadi self justification for violence.

    Amongst the large tragedies of the Arab beneficiaries of massive western beneficence is the failure to develop an economy that can stand on its own. Arabs in the territories are so dependent on western welfare payments that they continue to have large families and demand ever-greater support from the west, while using the resources provided to them to finance their never-ending war against Israel. While there may be shortages of consumer goods there seems to an abundant supply of weapons. Were the west to say ‘enough’ they would be forced, like welfare recipients elsewhere, to spend their considerable free energy on supporting themselves, rather than on hating and killing their enemies both within and without.

  7. Heimo says:

    great post – since I’ve been watching the Israel-Palestine conflict since my youth & know already a lot (but not all) of the background facts – I never found such a concentrated essay like this with accurately facts to the theme – it has almost all of the arguments in it I’d like to have if in discussion about Israel – I’ll tell the link to this article to all of my friends who are at least slightly interested
    – yes like Israelicool says: ‘It’s a must-read’!

  8. Kesher Talk says:

    Robert Noval opens mouth, swallows propaganda

    In his recent column in the Washington Post, Robert Novak’s credulity toward his Palestinian tour guides, rehearsal of discredited tropes and total lack of curiousity about the other side of the story is a painful example of the cliche that…

  9. Cynic says:

    There is no credulity involved but just an agenda.
    As Powerline says:
    Nothing to do with apartheid
    Conservative columnist Robert Novak probably dislikes Israel as much as Jimmy Carter did before Carter started hating Israel.

  10. JeffB says:

    This situation reminds me a lot of the North American Indians. Who is responsible for their fate? European settlers arrived, seeking freedom from persecution and self-determination. They purchased property (Manhattan), built the economy, drained swamps, cleared forests, established agriculture, industry, trade, etc. The natives obstinately refused to get along, and their resistance contributed to most of their subsequent suffering. Their violent attacks on settlers forced the Europeans to adopt harsh countermeasures: resettlements, movement restrictions, and “targeted assasinations” of those advocating violent resistance. Perfectly reasonable, ethical, justifiable actions forced upon the settlers by the shortsighted and intransigent native population.

    Sadly, European settlers arriving in Palestine 300 years later fell into the same trap. Seeking to escape persecution, they brought modern industry, agriculture, and democracy to the region. But the native population inexplicably turned on them. Again, the European settlers faced armed resistance that forced them to adopt harsh countermeasures. Again, the natives’ refusal to cooperate brought on their own suffering. They have no one to blame but themselves.

  11. RL says:

    Response to JeffB:

    thank you for your long (and only slightly sarcastic) comment. here’s my response:

    historical analogies are important to make, but very difficult to make well. in all cases, we need to compare and contrast.

    here are some of the many problems i see with your effort to equate the palestinians and israelis with the native americans and the europeans puritans.


    a) the indians were a tribal, egalitarian society; the arabs in palestine were impoverished peasants at the bottom of an elaborate imperial hierarchical structure.

    b) the indians had no knowledge of the west and the differential between them was immense; the arabs of palestine were part of a literate culture that had had a longstanding rivalry with the west over the course of some 13 centuries, and had, since the early 19th century, been trying to adopt and master western ways.

    c) the advent of the europeans meant massive loss of life for the native americans and devastation of their eco-systems of support; the advent of the jews meant that the regional economy grew and the population of arabs – christians and muslims – grew substantially as a result.

    d) the europeans had never been in north america; the jews were returning to a place they had been ejected from and repressed by various imperial cultures including the islamic one.

    e) the “inexplicable” hostility of the indians came as a result of intensive intrusions by the puritans who sought to convert them to the one true way; the inexplicable hostility of the arabs came as a result of the inadmissable behavior of a dhimmi people who rebelled against their theologically ordained subjection to their muslim masters.

    indeed, one might even go so far as to say that if the jews had settled north america, they might have gotten on quite well with the natives whom they would neither have sought to convert, nor to conquer.

    as for comparisons, it is notable that in both cases the initial response by at least some of the “natives” was favorable (Thanksgiving). in the case of the indians, they were betrayed by the white man who’s unquenchable thirst for land and wealth meant that every deal was broken. in the case of the arabs, those who welcomed the zionists were systematically killecd by their own people for betrayal.

    one might even argue that, were we to look for a good parallel, that the roughly egalitarian jewish culture which had its origins in the place, which had been crushed and reduced by the imperial-colonial arab muslims, was closer to the indians, and the establishment of the state of israel was one of the few times in history that the imperialists lost and the egalitarians won.

    but i’d venture to say that there’s way too much here
    that makes these two cases different to warrant a serious moral or historical comparison any way you want.

    i’d be very interested in what you respond to these remarks.

  12. Eliyahu says:

    RL, according to Moshe Gil, Jews were a substantial part of the population of the Land of Israel until the First Crusade arrived in 1099. Gil says that the Crusaders massacred most of the Jews in the country. However, Jews have always lived here, although conditions for Jews [and probably for native Christians too] grew worse after the Crusades in many ways. Moreover, the post-Crusade Mamluk rulers destroyed the coastal cities in Israel, and maybe Tyre and Sidon too. This was to prevent a Crusader return, but consider the implications. The coastal plain was depopulated for about 250 years, until after the Ottoman conquest. Now, there is another difference between the situation in the Americas and in Israel. There is no sharp racial/biological distinction between Jews and Arabs, confirmed by DNA studies, inter alia. In fact, this lack of sharp distinction was accepted into the early 20th century, after which Judeophobes/anti-Zionists decided that the Jews in Israel had to be depicted as alien to the Middle East in order to combat Israel, just as Judeophobes/antisemites of the 1900 era viewed Jews as alien to Europe.

    Nevertheless, despite the relative racial/biological similarity, there are very sharp cultural distinctions between Jews and Arabs, particularly the Muslims. And when I speak of culture I do not mean superficial things like what food people eat. If the foods and dishes people eat were so important, then everybody who is a heavy consumer of spaghetti and pizza would be an Italian. My family forefathers in southern Ukraine used to eat a lot of chick peas there. Arabs too eat chick peas [called “humus” in Arabic] especially in the mashed form, which I too eat sometimes. But the differences in cultural/moral values are great. This goes to show that the racial/biological interpretations of history and society can only go so far. Culture too plays a very important role, and religion is a very significant part of culture. So Jeff is right to perceive certain important social-economic-cultural differences between Israel and the Arabs. But I think it’s a mistake to see these differences as stemming from any great racial difference. After all, the ancient East was an important center of civilization, and contributed much to what became Western civilization. Yet, under Muslim rule, the East has been fairly stagnant and lagging behind in many ways, including culture, economics, morality, technology, science, etc.

    Another point about Arab attacks on Jews in the country. Arab/Muslims in the country were long used to lording it over Jews, to oppressing, humiliating and exploiting Jews in many ways. However, under British mandatory rule –in my opinion– British officials [Generals Allenby, Bols, Barker, administrators such as Storrs and Ernest Richmond, etc (including George Antonius who came to the country as a British official)] encouraged Arab attacks on Jews. So it wasn’t simply a matter of Arab hostility acting on its own. Arab hostility was encouraged.

  13. JeffB says:

    Reply to RL – Parallels between European/American Indian and European/Palestinian conflict

    I agree that historical analogies can be treacherous, but it is not impossible or unproductive to develop them. The question is whether the differences (and there are certainly many) between situations can be teased away to reveal underlying common factors that illuminate the current situation.

    Is each colonization event unique, or are there common factors linking the European colonization of North America, South America, Kenya, Algeria, India, Vietnam, and Palestine? Is there a common thread in the rhetoric of colonizers as they point to the benefits they have brought to the colonized, evade the ethics of establishing their own society in land occupied by a native population, and use the resistance of the natives to justify violent countermeasures and lengthy occupations? Is there a common response by the colonized across centuries and continents, an almost compulsive resistance to colonization, violent and sometimes barbaric, that seems logically opposed to their long term interests?

    I believe there is a common thread. The contrasts you raised are real, but irrelevant. Both egalitarian (Iriquois) and hierarchical (Aztec, Palestinian?) cultures were subjugated with equal efficacy. Whether the colonists sought to convert (Puritans) or not (Cowboys, Jews), whether contact with the colonists was brief or long, whether the colonizer’s technology was welcomed or not, the end result was the same. The colonizers got the arable land, water supplies, coasts, and other resources while the colonized were exiled to reservations/refugee camps and/or became second-class citizens in their own land. Whether the colonizers came as vassals of a king or free citizens of a modern liberal democracy, the outcome for the colonized was the same. The only substantive differences between the European colonization of Palestine 1920-1940 and the other European colonizations 1492-1870 were its timing and the lack of state sponsorship.

  14. rlandes says:

    i find your breezy dismissal of distinctions rather astonishing. the palestinians would not be in this kind of condition were it not for their imperialist tendencies — sooner rule in poverty than share the wealth. your concern for where they live, and how much water and other resources they have is touching, but has no regard for the data. palestinians have far more access to water per capita now than they did in 1900 or even in 1967 before June.

    you want it both ways — they have to be materially well off, but if the outsiders bring wealth to an impoverished scene (much worse in “palestine” than in the new world) then they are unforgivable colonialists and the native “resistance” is not only understandable but justified. is there nothing that can escape your condemnation if it’s european, and nothing that can get condemned if it’s native?

    does it matter that the jews were there and kicked out by arab muslim imperialists who did behave atrociously by our/your progressive standards?

    does it matter that, unlike all other cases of “colonialism”, the arabs in areas close to jewish settlement grew substantially in numbers and wealth?

    why. if it’s colonialism bad, native good, are the arab muslims, who not only brought conquest, destruction and enslavement of previous cultures, and ultimately deep empoverishment of the culture, not bad. why not rejoice in the victory of an indigenous, egalitarian, productive people who manage to come back and foil a hierarchical, impoverishing, imperial, theocratic imperialist regime?

    i really don’t understand. i’d say the analogies are there, but you’re comparing the wrong things. i’m really curious about what you consider good and bad, what the moral basis of your judgments and readings of history, and what you think would be a good outcome?

    i’m in china now, reading about Mao the monster (not available in local bookstores), and just read about Marshall’s role in saving Mao. the good, kind-hearted liberal, the man who created the Marshall Plan, quintessence of positive-sum resolution to zero-sum warfare, was a total dupe of Mao’s demopathy (“we aren’t really communists, we want democracy like america”). the cost was paid not by the US, but by the 70 million chinese Mao sacrificed to his communist utopia.

    i really don’t understand you’re argument.

  15. Jeff B says:

    Reply to RL

    “the palestinians would not be in this kind of condition were it not for their imperialist tendencies — sooner rule in poverty than share the wealth”. You have the cart before the horse. The palestinians would not be in this condition if europeans hadn’t come to build a jewish state on their land. They wouldn’t be in this condition if said jewish state didn’t seize the homes and property of any Arab who took his family to safety during the war.
    “you want it both ways…”. No – there is no requirement for the natives to be well off, simply that they have control of their own destiny.
    “if the outsiders bring wealth to an impoverished scene… then they are unforgivable colonialists and the native “resistance” is not only understandable but justified”. If wealth comes at the price of freedom/self determination then it is inexcusable.
    “does it matter that the jews were there and kicked out by arab muslim imperialists who did behave atrociously by our/your progressive standards?” No. A. the romans kicked the jews out, with christians and muslims throwing in some extra licks. B. two wrongs don’t make a right. the atrocious behavior of arabs centuries ago does not justify their dispossession today.
    “does it matter that, unlike all other cases of “colonialism”, the arabs in areas close to jewish settlement grew substantially in numbers and wealth?” Not if it was at the cost of sovereignty. Anyway, natives who cooperated with colonists prospered in almost every colonial system. Third-worlders were able to benefit from first-world trade, medicine, weapons, agriculture, etc. Let’s not forget that benefits for the arabs were a side-effect of prosperity for the outsiders, not the gift of some benevolent force.
    “why not rejoice in the victory of an indigenous, egalitarian, productive people who manage to come back and foil a hierarchical, impoverishing, imperial, theocratic imperialist regime?” The Israelis defeated some peasants who weren’t bothering anybody in a jerkwater corner of a defeated empire. You’re making it sound like they destroyed the Death Star and saved the galaxy from evil. I don’t deny the wonderful things the Israelis have accomplished – neither do I deny that they were done at a heavy cost for the natives, an outcome I can’t rejoice at.
    “i’m really curious about what you consider good and bad, what the moral basis of your judgments and readings of history, and what you think would be a good outcome?” I should put a lot more thought into this question, but off the cuff I think individual rights and freedoms are the greatest goods, totalitarianism the greatest evil. I don’t agree with “greatest good for greatest number” but with an absolute good (I’ll know it when I see it). I see human history as a gradual struggle against physical hardships and human desire for power that is slowly improving. But like people, societies need to make mistakes and grow at their own pace.
    I’m saying there are common threads in colonizations, just as there are common threads in resistance/revolutions. I imagine a 19th century British colonial officer explaining the “white man’s burden” and all the wonderful things Britain had done for India would sound a lot like you. That’s good, because we would know how to go from that mode of thinking to one in which the right of every people to be free of outside control was paramount.

    Bottom line. Ask Israelis if they would give up sovereignty to an outside power in return for a vastly improved standard of living. Then tell me why Palestinians shouldn’t be able to make the same choice.

  16. rlandes says:

    response to Jeff B

    i’m not sure where you’ve gotten your historical data from, and so let me just focus on one aspect of your latest comment:

    I said: “The Palestinians would not be in this kind of condition were it not for their imperialist tendencies — sooner rule in poverty than share the wealth”.

    You responded: You have the cart before the horse. The palestinians would not be in this condition if europeans hadn’t come to build a jewish state on their land. They wouldn’t be in this condition if said jewish state didn’t seize the homes and property of any Arab who took his family to safety during the war.

    there are multiple errors here. let me try and sort them out. first: your horse (the dispossession of palestinian families) comes in 1948, half a century after the zionists appear. the record of those 50 years is one of remarkable economic growth for everyone, including large numbers of arab immigrants to palestine to share in the economic growth.

    let’s go to the first situation (which is where you draw your analogy with the native americans and the puritans). they were both poor and not in control of their lives. they were fellahin, peasants ruled over by a political elite from istanbul and an economic elite from egypt. the idea that when the jews came they took away palestinian self-determination is one of the most astonishing errors of a leftist historiography which should have emphasized the degree to which the arab peasantry was, is, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be exploited ruthlessly by their elites.

    which brings us to 1948. if palestinian leaders had chosen to accept israeli independence and work on their own — offered by the UN at the same time — rather than go to war, there would not have been the refugee problem to which you refer.

    “you want it both ways…”. No – there is no requirement for the natives to be well off, simply that they have control of their own destiny.

    who had control of their own destiny in the palestine of 1900?

    “if the outsiders bring wealth to an impoverished scene… then they are unforgivable colonialists and the native “resistance” is not only understandable but justified”. If wealth comes at the price of freedom/self determination then it is inexcusable.

    these are bold words and i might even agree with them — that’s after all what we call a golden cage — but i really don’t think this is the case here at all. they had poverty and no freedom, after 50 years of zionism, they had more wealth and a shot at freedom, and they chose poverty and (they didn’t know it but they got it) further subjugation, not so much to israel as to the arab leaders who rounded them up and put them in camps. it just might be that if you line up the historical evidence with your values, the real villains are not the israelis but the arab elites.

    i’ll stop here. maybe respond to your other comments later.


  17. JeffB says:

    Reply to RL

    Thanks for the response. You’re right that we have to get the history straight before we can productively discuss the issues. I suggest the simplest outline that preserves the essential facts, using this as a start (please correct/expand as necessary).


    1450+ Ottoman Empire controls Palestine
    1500+ Demography of Palestine static: 1/10 Jew, 9/10 Muslim
    1910 Significant Zionist influx begins
    1915 Arabs ally with Britain to fight the Turks and gain independence
    1918 Control of Palestine passes from Turkey to Britain
    1918+ Arab independence proceeds in mideast outside Palestine
    1918+ Continued influx of Zionist people and capital
    1931-9 Palestinian uprising against British/Zionists
    1948 Zionists take full control of Palestine

    Broadly speaking, there were two independent movements for self-determination occuring simultaneously in Palestine. One by the native Palestinians who had lived in the region for centuries under Turkish rule, one by the (largely) European-born Zionists migrating into Palestine. It was clear to both sides that their goals were mutually exclusive – there could not be a Jewish state and a Palestinian state at the same time in the same place. The European powers determined that two geographically distinct states should be created. This was accepted by the Zionists but rejected by the Palestinians, resulting in a war which the Zionists won decisively. A large fraction of the Palestinian population was “transferred” and the Zionists claimed their land.

    I think the Palestinians made the proper choice on ethical grounds, though it proved disasterous in practice. To accept the right of European powers to hand land over to European colonists/refugees/castoffs was an unacceptable violation of the rights of the resident Palestinians, and would have set a horrible precedent for future land grabs. So would accepting the right of an absentee people to claim ownership of land after it had been occupied by others for centuries. The Palestinians also had valid reason to fear that they would be swallowed up by a neighboring Zionist state given the pace of Jewish immigration, Jewish military strength, Zionist aims to control all of “Eretz Israel”, and the indifference of the Zionists and European powers to Palestinian rights.

    Perhaps the simplest way to identify the source(s) of Palestinian suffering is to perform some thought experiments.

    Q. What if there had been no large-scale Zionist movement?
    A. One can only speculate about political progress, but it seems reasonable to suppose that the independence movement begun during WWI would have reached fruition by 1950 as it did in other parts of the mideast. Perhaps Palestine would be controlled by Lebanon, Syria or Jordan, perhaps it would be an independent state. Economic development would probably parallel that in the neighboring countries. Muslims and Jews would be living in peace, sharing the holy sites as they had for centuries. What is certain is that there would be no nakba, no refugee camps, no occupation.

    Q. What if the Palestinians had cooperated with the Zionists?
    A. There would have been much greater European immigration, bringing money and economic development, and a substantial Jewish population would have been established much earlier. But the essential conflict between two groups seeking political autonomy in the same place would still have existed, and essentially the same outcome would have occurred, unless the Palestinians agreed to trade their sovereignty for economic advantage.

    Q. What if the Palestinians had accepted Partition?
    A. Very hard to answer with any certainty. I believe that given the pressure of millions of Jewish refugees, validation of Jewish land claims implicit in the Partition plan, and the desire of the western powers for a powerful client state in the middle east, Israel would soon have been expanding (settlements), leading to war with the Palestinian state and essentially the same outcome we have now.

    What results would you expect?

  18. Eliyahu says:

    There are very important points that you make in this essay, and you are patient with JeffB who seems to have become the resident nudnik in the Augean Stable. However, I want to suggest one point for further consideration and I disagree on one point.

    First, we ought to consider at much greater length the role of Britain and other outside powers in inciting, instigating, Arab attacks on Jews in Israel over the years. These other powers include the USSR, EU, and even the United States. Prof Shlomo Slonim has argued that the State Dept emissaries to the Arab countries in 1947-1948 who encouraged the Arab states at the time to make war on the as yet unborn Jewish state.

    Second, I object to the use of the term “palestinian” as a noun referring to a people. The Arabs themselves did not use the term as a noun until the 1960s, around the time that the PLO was set up by the Arab League, with Western approval. The term palestine or Filastin was not in use by the Mamluks or Ottomans who ruled the Land of Israel after the Crusadaes until 1917-1918. The Arab/Muslims in the Land did not use the term “palestine” [or Filastin] nor did they perceive a separate country called “palestine” or called by any other name, nor did they view themselves as a separate nation or people. This was expressed in many ways, such as the Arab testimony before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946 that there was no such place as “palestine” in history, it was all “Syria.” The UN General Assembly partition resolution of 11-29-47 recommended an Arab state alongside a Jewish state in the country [plus Jerusalem as an international zone]. The General Assembly did NOT recommend a “palestinian” state since the notion of a “palestinian people” was not in use at the time, and certainly not by the Arabs.

  19. Alprazolam. says:



  20. RiverCocytus says:

    I don’t usually comment much but I want to point something out:

    I think an general analogizing between ‘group conflict’ and the general conflict between the settlers and the American Indians of this continent is tenuous at best. First of all, the variety of different cultures and subcultures present in both sides, plus the variety of circumstances makes it difficult to make a sweeping generalization without saying something dubious or false. Clearly there were points where the American Indian were the aggressor; and other points where it was the settlers. Some tribes were just that way – and killed their other ‘fellow indians’ (as though they would have understood the term) and much as the settlers. On the other hand, you had situations such as the Puritans in some cases, who tried to forcibly evangelize a largely illiterate population in an extraordinarily hamfisted manner. In that case, it is little surprise that there was a violent reaction.

    I dislike it when a claim is made that either the settlers were generally at fault or generally completely justified or the same for the natives. Sweeping generalizations in this case are more than often used to justify a particular ‘narrative’ about Americans as a whole rather than examining facts, beliefs and cultures, their situations and history and the ramifications for their decisions.

    Instead of history we simply have advocacy. If you want to compare a specific example to make a point, like for instance the situation involving the Cherokee (for one) or others, it would be far more of a valid point than to just generalize. My personal study of anthropology revealed that a general saying about the tribes as for instance, egalitarian, dismisses the differences between them and the clear fact that a good number were not peaceful but destructive and ruthless and barbaric. If there is a tragedy it is that the settlers often got fed up with the actions of the reprobates and took action against any group of American Indians whether or not they were responsible for anything at all.

  21. JeffB says:


    Is there another conflict that provides a better analogy?

  22. […] , which confuses the carte blanche to demonize the Israelis that the Palestinians want for being victims of their own elites with the exceptional self-cr […]

  23. First Justice, Then Peace says:

    Christ… Your attempt to dress the misappropriation of blame for Palestinian suffering, from hostile Zionist colonizers to Palestinians themselves, in the garb of pseudo-intellectual equivocation is utterly shameless and reprehensible.

    One hopes that your profound moral and political ignorance sheds some light on the reality that as long as the western world is plagued by sadly deluded ideological demagogues (such as yourself), and the sheep that feed from the trough of intellectual nihilism(majority of the US), there will be no peace in the Middle East.

  24. […] Concise Recap of Palestinian Victimhood 6-April-2007 — legalize I really like this analysis because it talks about the predominance of zero-sum game politics in the Middle East.  Too many […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *