Invented People Are Still People

Daniel Larison has been laying into Newt Gingrich for saying the Palestinians are an “invented people” in a way that I think rather misses the most important point.

“Is this a real people?” is the kind of question that colonial powers ask all the time. The French professed that there was no such thing as an “Algerian” – there were Arabs and Berbers and French and other peoples in Algeria, but there was no historic “Algerian” identity.

Which is true as far as it goes. Algerian nationalism was born of the experience of French colonization; in the absence of that experience, it’s hard to know what kind of political entity Algeria might have become. But the salient point about the French in Algeria is that prior to independence the Algerians were not equal citizens of their own country. According to Paris, Algeria was integral part of France. But Algerians were not an integral part of the French nation.

That was the situation that had to be rectified, one way or another. Whether Algerian nationalism was the “right” solution is an unresolvable question, but it clearly wasn’t the only possible solution. The French could have granted full French citizenship to the entire population of Algeria. Algerian nationalism might still have developed – in our world, we have seen Quebecois nationalism and Flemish nationalism and Catalan nationalism and Scottish nationalism, even though citizens of Quebec, Flanders, Catalonia and Scotland are full members of the political communities of Canada, Belgium, Spain and the UK, respectively. But it might not have, or if it did, the character of that nationalism would inevitably be different.

But there was no chance that the French would grant this. And as De Gaulle recognized fairly early on, if France would not grant equality, it would inevitably have to grant independence. There was no third way.

When people say that the Palestinians “are just Arabs” they are on one level correct. In 1900, before Palestinian Arabic could have been influenced by Hebrew, the Arabic spoken by a citizen of Haifa would have been extremely similar to the Arabic spoken by a citizen of Damascus. “Palestinians are just Arabs” is as historically and ethnologically correct as “Palestine is just part of Greater Syria” – which, at various points in history, has in fact been the Syrian perspective on the matter.

And, on another level, it’s obviously incorrect. The Arabs of Palestine had the nationalizing experience of reacting to Jewish colonization of their country – country in the French sense of “native land” rather than “state”. That experience was foreign to the otherwise-similar population in Syria, and resulted in a distinct identity.

But on yet another level, what’s the point of the argument? One can imagine an alternative universe in which the Palestinian refugees of 1948 were accepted by the neighboring Arab countries, welcomed to settle permanently and become citizens. They might have continued to press claims against the State of Israel as individuals (as the Jews expelled by the Arab countries after 1948 might press their claims against those countries), but they would not be stateless. In this counterfactual world, the Palestinian refugees would be analogous to the refugees who fled India for Pakistan (and vice versa), or who fled Turkey for Greece (and vice versa).

And this is basically what happened with respect to the Palestinian Arabs who fled to Jordan, which annexed the West Bank in 1950. But in 1967, Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan.

The Palestinian refugees living in the region but without citizenship in the state where they live are a collective problem, practical and moral. The most problematic are those who live under effective Israeli rule in the West Bank. (Yes, the Palestinian Authority has responsibility for the overwhelming majority of them, but the P.A. has neither the formal nor the de facto powers of a sovereign state; these Palestinian Arabs are still stateless, formally and substantively.) This problem can only be solved by making them citizens of a sovereign state where they live. That state could have been Jordan – if Israel had managed to achieve a land-for-peace deal with Jordan before 1988, when Jordan renounced all claims to the West Bank. It could be Israel – if Israel were willing to grant the Palestinians in the West Bank equal citizenship, which it isn’t, for entirely understandable reasons. Or it could be an independent, sovereign Palestinian state free from Israeli domination. Those are the choices.

When someone like Gingrich says that the Palestinians have “plenty of places” they could go, I have to wonder what that means. Does he mean that Lebanon is obliged to grant citizenship to the Palestinian refugees (and their descendants) who live there? Does he mean that the Israelis have the right to transfer the Arab population in some part of the territory it controls to some other place where they would rather that population lived? What exactly does he mean – if anything?

The Palestinian “question” is not one that, ultimately, turns on the “reality” of a Palestinian nation. It’s a question that turns, ultimately, on the goals of the State of Israel and of the surrounding Arab states. Neither the State of Israel nor any Arab state will volunteer to accept the Palestinian people who live in Gaza and the West Bank as full and equal citizens. Those are the salient facts. The question of whether the Palestinians are a “real” people bears mostly on the likely prospects of success of any Palestinian state that is created, not on whether such a state is practically and morally necessary.