I was honoured when a Middle East Studies student asked to interview me as part of her thesis on our Gordian-knotted Conflict.
Here is a sampling of her questions and my subsequent ramblings (watch me stray off topic):
Q: As a Palestinian, who do you hold responsible for the Arab refugee crisis of 1948?
I care more about how the refugee crisis is perpetuated rather than about who and what created it. The war preceding and following Israel's creation produced its atrocities, but the Jews prevailed and the rest of history is a half-hearted Arab effort to undo the defeat of 1948 and Israel playing nicely into their hands.
I stress the word "half-hearted" because the Arab leaders need the conflict with Israel to perpetuate their regimes and justify their rule. My father used to joke cynically: "you only get to eat one labaneh sandwich, we can't make a you a second one because we need the money to buy a tank and fight Israel." In reality, that tank was used to keep the leadership in power.
Still, the situation in 1948 could have been a basis for negotiation and settlement, if the people’s interests were a priority, but in come the leaders - who had no interest in accepting the Arabs from former Palestine. They were happy to absorb and the middle and upper classes and their money but used the rest as pawns to fight each other and Israel.
On the same note, Israel needs a measure of conflict with the neighbouring countries to stay buoyant. Talk of peace is nice, but low intensity conflict with an Arab "other" helps unify and solidify the ranks despite differences (and disparities). The ethos of Israel (and of the Jews in general) is survival in the face of perpetual enmity. Without thousands of years of anti-Semitism, Jews in their present form wouldn't exist, most would have fully assimilated into their respective societies through intermarriage and other means. Except perhaps for a core that would have degenerated into insular and irrelevant Amish-like communities.
To go back to the Palestinians, what you call Palestinians today were Levantines who were living under the Ottoman boot. Their Palestinian identity as it is known today crystallised in the refugee camps in the 1960's. Had they not been corralled into camps, they would have "melted" into their host countries within 1-2 generations at most. I know many Lebanese whose middle-class grandparents fled Haifa in 1948 and purchased their Lebanese citizenship upon arrival in Beirut. It is impossible to differentiate between them and other Lebanese. Impossible.
Q: You don't blame Zionism?
I would differentiate between the authentic Zionist core who came to rebuild the perceived "old country" and maintain their national identity along with humanistic values and with what eventually developed as a result of circumstances and human nature (think of Immanuel Kant's "twisted timber of humanity") .
Achad Ha’am, an essayist worth discovering, once wrote that if the future entity becomes just another Levantine state, full of intrigues and a ball in the courts of world politics, he prefers to close the book of Jewish history rather than add empty pages to it. Lucky for him he died in 1927.
Herzl, Jabotinsky, the socialist Zionists, all had very lofty ideas and ideals about the type of society they wanted to establish in Palestine, and morality and fraternity (some even coopted the Arabs to a certain degree) featured high. In any case, the raison d’être for these Zionist Ideologists was to give the Jewish nation a chance to live a healthy moral life, because the Galut was destroying their souls.
But at the end of the day, Zionism, in all its shades was there to serve Jewish interests. Zionists were not primarily out to eradicate Arabs as some would make you think. We were passive fauna at best, pesky vermin at worst - to be managed when we got in their way. Achad Ha'am criticised that mentality, which I would add, eventually facilitated the cleansing of otherwise peaceful villages that lived harmoniously with their Jewish neighbours (such as my family's that was cleansed at gun-point by the Haganah in Operation Ben-Ami).
Nevertheless, I dare you to find me a single Palestinian refugee who doesn't regret the Arab refusal of the UN partition. Find me one. One.
Anyway, my bigger concern is the forces that have conspired to keep the Palestinians in camps for 60 years.
Q: What forces?
The incompetent Palestinian and Arab leadership - but I won't unroll the giant scroll that lists their sins. I will tell you that the only buffer against them is a very strong (well off and educated) and independent middle class. That’s why Stalin made sure that his subjects were provided with free schools, affordable housing, jobs, etc. But no independence. The Soviet people were dependent on their government for everything, and were thus kept on a short leash.
The same phenomenon is true to a degree in Arab states like Egypt and Syria. Now the proportionally tiny elites in those countries are coopted, with the few dissenters bleating in London and Paris. How many useful, enlightened, educated Arabs disappeared altogether. How many middle-class Egyptians, Syrians and Lebanese who had the means to settle in the west have been absorbed and have melted into the UK/American/Canadian pot. Only Allah knows.
Think of it as a severe brain drain - or haemorrhage, while the Arab countries are left with the poor masses who will back anyone who gives them half a labaneh sandwich.
Q: Would you prescribe democracy as a way to avoid future tragedies such as the war of 1948?
I wish I could, but all leaders I've seen so far, once they get to power, have but one goal: remaining in power. Even if they started out as idealists or good willing and caring about the people, they degenerate into Louis XIV. Think "l'état c'est moi" and “Only I can do the best for the people,therefore my survival in power comes first”.
Pardon my cynicism, but in pseudo-democracies without that solid middle class or the rule of law, leaders are mainly elected due to ignorance about them, or naïveté about their promises. It is assumed that the evil that can be perpetrated by leaders is much less in democracies than in dictatorships because of the limited number of years that democratically elected leaders have. But that's in countries with a system of checks and balances, not the Arab world.
You think an elected Hamas would ever give up power if they were on day voted out? they're the equivalent of the FIS in Algeria. FIS said that if they get elected they would ban democracy.
Wallah, every drop of FIS blood that was shed in the Algerian war is halal. Otherwise, it would have been a matter of time before radical Islamism would have metastasised like a cancer throughout Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Paris. Again, the masses will back anyone who gives them half a labaneh sandwich. Especially when they've been living under corrupt regimes which remain, at least in my eyes, as "nuss-musseebeh" or half a catastrophe, in comparison with the big "musseebeh" of radical Islamism.
So, if that's where democracy would lead us then I'll stick to the hope that benevolent and enlightened strongmen or women would emerge and cultivate a healthy economy and civil society in the hope that it would bring about the middle class I'm talking about.