Will Palestine exist in another generation? With the Trump administration gearing up for its meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week, it’s a question worth asking. The last thing the Trump administration should want is a repeat of the mistakes the Great Powers made a century ago when they created artificial countries.
Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Palestine among others were all carved up out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire by the Great Powers — chiefly Britain and France — after the First World War. It was a recipe for continual strife, as peoples of different nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, religions and political traditions were forced to live together. The Great Powers created, in effect, mini multicultural, multinational states. The result was civil and sectarian discontent, and war, throughout much of the last 100 years.
We see the latest chapter of those horrors in Syria where yet another civil war has led to yet another split up. Iraq has de facto split, as has Yemen, and Lebanon, which originally was part of a multi-state Syrian federation. Jordan, whose Hashemites fought a civil war against its Palestinian Arab majority, is also tenuously held together.
The creation of a Palestinian state astride Israel — the two-state solution today’s Great Powers insist on — would have even less chance of survival than its failed neighbour states. The Arab clans of Palestine throughout the 20th century refused to accept a state of their own. Only in the 1960s did the idea of a Palestinian nation take shape when Yasser Arafat created the concept of an Arabic “Palestinian people.” Previously, “Palestinian” was a term that referred to all the residents of Palestine, Jews and Arabs. The original name of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was the Palestine Orchestra. The Jerusalem Post was first the Palestine Post.
But Arafat never forged a united people — most Palestinians only grudgingly accepted the rule of his Palestinian Authority and some never did. Few Palestinians identify chiefly with a national identity; their loyalty instead is clan-based — to the tight-knit group of extended families that share the same ancestry, based on the father’s male line and a preference for marrying within the clan. Palestinians pledge loyalty to their clan in a binding, formal code of honour backed by local militias. An attack on one clan member is an attack on all members.
Clan-based systems of governance do not lend themselves to nation states. Little surprise, then, that after Arafat died, civil war broke out and Gaza broke off from the West Bank to form its own statelet. To make dicier still the notion of a coherent Palestinian nation whose people share common values, Gaza is theocratic, run by Hamas, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the West Bank is largely secular.