Trapped in the chains of the past

On 3 January 1919, within the framework of the Paris Conference, Haim Weizmann, on behalf of the World Zionist Organisation, and Amir Faisal Ibn al-Hussein al-Hashemi, representing the Arab Kingdom of the Hijaz, signed an Agreement of mutual recognition on the basis of shared ties and racial affinity, assuming that the way to realise the national aspirations of both peoples (Arabs and Jews) should be cooperation, goodwill and mutual trust. "We feel that the Arabs and the Jews are cousins in race, have suffered similar oppression at the hands of powers more powerful than themselves, and by a happy coincidence, have been able to take the first step together towards the achievement of their national ideals," wrote the eldest son of the Sherif of Mecca and future king of Iraq and Syria to the American representative of the Zionist delegation to the Paris Conference, Felix Frankfurten. In the same letter, Faisal Ibn al-Hussein acknowledged the historical and religious bond of the Jews with their ancestral homeland, while expressing his concern about the ideological ramifications of the fundamentalist movements that were already beginning to emerge and which, yesterday as today, are fuelling the tactical agitation of a violence that will take the form of cyclical popular uprisings: 'We Arabs, especially those who have been educated among us, look upon the Zionist movement with the deepest sympathy. We shall give the Jews a heartfelt welcome home... People less well informed and less responsible than our leaders and yours, ignoring the need for cooperation between Arabs and Zionists, have tried to exploit the local difficulties which will necessarily arise in Palestine in the early phase of our movements". 

The Ottoman Empire had disintegrated, France and Britain were dividing up its remnants in the Middle East, and the multiple identities aspiring to nationhood were seeking their legitimacy within the International Treaties promoted by the newly created League of Nations. Palestine, the ancient land of Israel, was the name the British had given to their Middle East Mandate (which also included Transjordan and Mesopotamia) and which, on the basis of the Balfour Declaration (2 November 1917), which would initiate the legal process, would give birth to the future State of Israel in a part of that Mandate adjudicated as the Jewish National Home. A declaration issued by the British government with the consent and approval of its allies and the support of the rest of the international community at the time, at a time when Arab nationalism aspired to unity on the basis of a common language, culture and heritage, and Palestine was a geographical entity with no political autonomy or national identity of its own as yet.  

In fact, the Palestinians are the Arabs and Jews of the territory, subject to British legislation while the Anglo-Saxon power arbitrates the way in which the creation of the State of Palestine-Eretz Israel (Jewish) can be realised, whose basic constitutional document and in accordance with international law is the San Remo Resolution of 25 April 1920, which grants legal rights - political, civil and collective - to the Jews in Palestine and to the Arabs in the territories of Mesopotamia (today Iraq), Syria and Lebanon.  

The policy of rejecting Jewish immigration and free settlement, influenced by the profound cultural differences between the two peoples, imposed a static logic that interpreted any small Jewish autonomy as a violation of Arab social rights. As Arabs in neighbouring countries gained independence, Palestinian Arabs felt abandoned. Distorted politics trumped the logic of coexistence and development, and Arab pressure materialised in a sequence that today, likewise, alternately follows the cycle of violence and diplomacy. 

History is not always as we would like it to be, and rarely as it is told. It must be understood in context, especially when the weight of the past rewrites the present and conditions the future. In conflict analysis there is often an emotional component that transcends the objectivity of reality and data, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ideological sensitivity transcends reason. Few issues on the international stage and in the history of international conflict garner as much political and media attention and have as much significance in the emotional subconscious as this conflict, so misunderstood despite numerous sources and historiography, and in which the competing narratives are but a reflection of the various fractures running through Israel and the entire region from the Mediterranean.  

Not all conflicts are a source of growth, as conflict transformation theory asserts. The malleability of identities, in a regional environment where narratives respond to concepts embedded in deep culture, ultimately impose their objectives through violence. After all, myths and historical interpretations respond to an ideological and political need that is legitimised by academic circles and the media. It assumes the centrality of a region and the exceptionality of a monolithic narrative in which two antagonistic actors focus their personal and collective experiences on events that keep them trapped in the chains of the past. 

The narratives of the Shoah and the Nakba embody the Security dilemma of a fearful nation on the one hand, and the need to rewrite the history and reality of what was the past in order to adapt it to present-day nation-building on the other. Since the events of 1948, denying legitimacy to the State of Israel, Jewish nationalism (Zionism) has been interpreted as an expression of European colonialism - foreign immigrants who came to usurp the Holy Places - making the construction of a common history impossible and centralising Palestinian discourse in a victimhood that has at its core the demand for the "right of return", the main obstacle to a genuine peace solution between the two communities. The perception that peace is impossible to achieve demonstrates the extent to which deliberate bias prevents us from recognising whether we are dealing with a merely material, territorial conflict or a construct of competing and interwoven narratives that feed back into each other through the meddling of local, regional and international third party actors. 

Looking to the past to try to find bridges is no longer possible. In the absence of a culture of peace, the international community must stop being indulgent towards a Palestinian society that celebrates death and squanders enormous resources on the corruption of its leaders. The very limited regional option is Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Only when the International Institutions, with the UN at the forefront, truly understand the roots of Palestinian violence, leave behind their biases towards Israel, distinguish terrorism from civilian victims and dismantle organisations that constantly sabotage any progress, such as UNRWA, will the possibility of a process of recognition and peace open up. For poisoned narratives affect a population that deserves to cling to the winds of change blowing through the Middle East. 

Article previously published in The Diplomat.