The desire for international legitimacy has limited the Palestinian imagination

PA President Mahmud Abbas during a session of the UN Security Council in New York, February 2018 (Taher Ganaim - APA Images)

Abdaljawad Omar

Mondoweiss  /  October 18, 2022

Palestinians are capable of explaining their resistance without censoring themselves to gain legitimacy. Doing so has only served to diminish their own politics of hope.

Ever since the Zionist movement entrenched itself in Palestine, it has waged a symbolic war on Palestinians — one that, to say the least, is not without its ironies, in its very essence soliciting Palestinians to recognize the historic righteousness of the Zionist movement.

It is ironic precisely because the Zionist movement sees in Palestinians a source for its own historic and political legitimacy. In other words, the natives it denies the right of political existence are the same natives it needs to recognize the righteousness of their state. For Israel, Palestinians are a necessary vanishing mediator — a mediator that it continues to politically erase, but which can nevertheless serve as a foundation for its own political legitimacy. The only political act the Zionist movement desires from Palestinians is their political act of self-negation. 

The Zionist movement has always yearned for these foundations, a concrete ground upon which to erect its own place in the world and proclaim legitimacy in the region and beyond. In this political posturing, it shows its pragmatism — using the history of antisemitism in Europe to justify building a Jewish state outside of Europe. It employs the ethno-democratic character to appeal to liberal Europeans and North Americans. It colludes with antisemites when such collusion is expedient in recruiting more settlers to make their way to Israel.

But it also yearns for Palestinians to recognize their own defeat, subsequently bequeathing the conqueror with a semblance of historic legitimacy. Therefore, it is always searching for greater symbolic security. As a neurotic political movement, it increasingly makes political demands for more symbolic compromises from Palestinians. In fact, one can understand Oslo not as a peace process leading to an agreement ending a conflict between a worn-out revolutionary movement and a modern colonial state, but rather as a keystone in this symbolic and neurotic demand that emanates from a colonial movement demanding recognition from the people it has colonized.

Some in Palestine viewed such symbolic compromises as necessary for their own political and economic fortunes. A largely impotent Palestinian leadership commercialized these symbolic concessions. It placated many of Israel’s symbolic demands in return for control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and domination over a 17-billion-dollar economy, fueled by foreign donors, remittances, and Palestinian labor in Israel. The current Palestinian leadership typically asks, what are these concessions financially worth?

Palestine imports new political discourses

Since Oslo, this small clique of Palestinian leaders has renounced historic Palestine, the right of return, and even agreed to change Palestinian historic narratives as they have been taught Palestinian curricula. But while these symbolic concessions continued, and are well documented, the search for a new political language to describe the conflict, to narrate Palestine’s history, became part and parcel of many political activist networks and movements.

Palestinians have largely altered their own political discourse and imported various interposed discourses, hoping that this importation would better suit an imagined western audience. It was as if the speaker had to reformulate his speech to attune it to the listener.

Palestine now seems to be a hodgepodge of interposed discourses and explicative paradigms that include an international legal-speak that centers notions such as legal rights or violations of human rights, and military occupation. They even employed political metaphors that appeal to an imagined (largely white liberal) audience, such as the excessive use of the apartheid analogy and the discourse of racialized separation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis.

Palestinians have attempted to align their political-speak with networks of words that give the unique Palestinian experience a source of legitimacy external to the experience itself, or with causes that echo better in mainstream western political life.  Instead of trusting their own language, their own understanding of their relationship to the world, Palestinians seemed to be on a journey to legitimize their own experience by implicating it in a paradigm outside of their own.

Indeed, after 1993, Palestinians seemed in a neurotic search of their own — to reconstruct their own political language. It led them towards various networks of words, but what was common to all of these networks was the insistence on distancing Palestine from its own radical tradition. Even the most radical of movements turned towards a more religious grounding, as in the case of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Palestinians were to be found in auditoriums apologizing for past deeds, retracting their statements, hesitating, choking on microphones, even denying some of their historical understanding as a “price” they had to pay to enter the community of nations. President Abbas infamously proclaimed that he will not return to Safad (his ancestral town), and that he will only visit it as a tourist. He sanctified security cooperation with Israel, and withdrew several Palestinian legal efforts to try Israel for war crimes at the International Criminal Court. Despite all these apologies, Palestine is yet to enter this prized community.   

The politics of truth

On October 15, Haaretz published a long piece that chronicles some of the debates held by Zionist leaders as they contemplated the breadth and scope of the methods they were willing to employ to drive the Palestinians out of their homeland. The documents the piece discusses reveal that Israel was not shy about using biological warfare during the Nakba, including the poisoning of Palestinian wells with the aim of driving the natives out and frustrating any future efforts for their return. 

The poising of the wells also served a military purpose, targeting Palestinian resistance groups that would use such wells for their own upkeep. Beyond that discrete purpose, well-poisoning served as a weapon to destroy the future possibility of life in these now ethnically cleansed towns and villages. The operation of poisoning the wells with typhoid was named “Cast Thy Bread.” 

The revelations are in fact nothing new for Palestinians, who have directly suffered from these practices. Palestinians held onto their suspicion that Israel practiced forms of well-poisoning and biological warfare since the Nakba. This long-held suspicion was also documented by Palestinian historian Salman Abu Sitta in 2002. The suspicion that bacteriological weapons were employed by the Zionist movement has also been the direct result of lived experience, including the fact that during the war of 1948, typhoid outbreaks were recorded in many Palestinian towns, including, infamously, in Akka.

The politics of truth, however, means that whatever Palestinians claim is either seen as a “lie” or as a rumor, until it is disclosed from the infamous and bloody Zionist archives. Truth is exclusive to the realm of the victors’ own documentation and self-incrimination. Palestinians, on the other hand, can only produce rumors, or libels, since they have an “irrational hatred” of Israel.

The weaponization of “blood libels”

In 2016 Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas gave a speech in the EU parliament. During this speech, he claimed that some rabbis in Israel have called on their own government to poison the wells of Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank.

Abbas based the claim in his speech on an inaccurate news story that had little corroboration. The story was first published by the Turkish news agency, Anadolu.  

The bureau of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu jumped on the opportunity to discredit Abbas. Netanyahu put out a statement after the speech, condemning the Palestinian President as showing his “real face”. The statement then continued: “someone who refuses to meet President Rivlin and spreads a blood libel in the European Parliament falsely claims that his hand is extended in peace.”

The notion that Israel would poison Palestinian wells was easily connected in Netenyahu’s view of the world to medieval Europe. It has nothing to do with the actual and real fear that Palestinian society has of such possible actions — actions Israel has in fact undertaken in the past.  In fact, the ease with which a Palestinian would include such statements in an official address has nothing to do with medieval Europe, and has everything to do with Palestine’s own encounter with the Zionist movement.

Israel once again weaponized antisemitism, but what was even more tragic is that it turned a well-known antisemitic trope used to demonize Jews in Europe into a state policy during the War on Palestine in 1948. It acted in ways that genuine antisemites would gleefully congratulate. It in fact betrayed Jewish history.

No more apologies and retractions

There are two tragedies here. The first is Israel’s dangerous manipulation of a long and painful Jewish history in Europe. The second is Palestinians’ break with their own political language. More than that, it is the demeanor and hastiness of their retractions, the willingness of some Palestinians to rewrite history to fit the victor’s narrative, and the need to find new paradigms that legitimize Palestinian experiences through other experiences that are foreign to them (or which in some ways link up with their own experiences, but end up becoming the dominant paradigm when they are imported from elsewhere). 

In fact, the Palestinian encounter with Zionist colonialism has produced a rich language that attempted to describe and make intelligible political and lived realities. Palestine’s own “speak” is a direct result of this historic encounter with the Zionist movement. It was never one-sided. Nor was it simply radical or diabolical, but drew on the experience itself, and on the language tools it possessed to produce its own network of words.

The break that Palestinians created with their own historical and revolutionary experience only served to distance themselves from their own politics of hope. The retractions, apologies, and symbolic compromises have led to little changes in Palestinians’ fortunes. The current Palestinian leadership sits comfortably in Ramallah as it largely accepts its role as a financially propped up yet vanishing mediator. 

In the past decade or so, this break deepened. It included redirecting PA enmity towards internal rivals, while constructing Israel as a distant or undefeatable enemy, thus turning Israel into a friend. Two weeks ago, the Palestinian governor of Nablus described the mothers of Palestinian martyrs as deviants who send their children to die, using a mix of sexist and Zionist language to describe the death of young Palestinian fighters in Nablus.

Settler-colonialism always finds willing partners. The tragedy of the transformation of a revolutionary movement into a willing partner means that Palestinian discourse has not only become dispersed, unassured, lacking, or depoliticized, but also means that, at the heart of the current PA leadership and the clique that manages the security apparatus, there is a wholesale adoption of some of Israel’s own discourse on Palestinians – a redefinition of who is a friend and who is an enemy. This redefinition ends up damaging Palestinian national cohesion. This is why it is also no coincidence that the Palestinian President has retracted so many statements and seems to be on an apologetic journey. 

Palestinians should trust themselves and their experiences more. They are capable of explaining their own reality and their own need for a politics of resistance, centered on the regeneration of hope. The shadow of a conformist sensibility with a white liberal audience should not be the marker of how we speak.  The problem was never in our language. The problem was always with those refusing to listen.

Abdaljawad Omar is a PhD student and part-time lecturer in the Philosophy and Cultural Studies Department at Birzeit University