Naivity vs Objectivity:
Arab historiography and the Palestinian Cause
Maher Al-Sherif
The term Qadiyat Falasteen (Palestinian cause) designates a political issue which first emerged in the early 1920s as a result of the interplay between three factors. The first of these was the British occupation of Palestine and the imposition of the British mandate, resulting in the creation of a distinct geo-political entity, separate from the rest of Greater Syria and defined as "Mandated Palestine". The second was the birth of political Zionism which secured a British promise to facilitate Zionist efforts aimed at creating a "Jewish national homeland in Palestine". Finally, there was the nascent Palestinian Arab resistance movement against both the British occupation and the Zionist enterprise.
The relationship between Palestine and the Palestinian cause, on the one hand, and history and the writing of history, on the other, is a complicated one. Writing about the Palestinian cause emerged as a response to a political movement -- Zionism - which was itself a product of a particular vision of history, one which made historical legacy, both factual and mythologised, the moral basis for the founding of a nation.
Walid Khalidi, in his introduction to Before the Diaspora: An Illustrated History of the Palestinian People 1876-1948, interprets the nature of the relationship between Palestine and history as follows: "The parties to the conflict tend to be deeply immersed in the history of their struggle. The injustices and their origins overwhelm the oppressed more than they do the oppressor. The intensity and duration of this feeling is affected by several factors: the nature of the injustice that was inflicted, the attitudes of other parties towards the injustice, and, finally, the conduct of the oppressor after it committed the injustice." He continues: "In the case of the Palestinians -- the wronged party in their conflict with the Zionists -- we find that these factors have combined to perpetuate and increase the weight of the millstone of history."
Zionism not only forced the Palestinians and their Arab brothers to make history a weapon of war. It imposed the subject matter for their writing of history and the agenda for their research. A cursory reading of Emile Toma's massive history of the Palestinian people testifies amply to the truth of this remark. The aim of Toma's fourteen-volume work was to offer an alternative to the Zionist interpretation of history and thereby demonstrate the continued presence of the Palestinian people on their land, their Arab affiliation and the legitimacy of their cause. Simultaneously, he also sought to refute the customary Zionist myths and clichés, such as "Palestine being a land without people", the "eternal" history of Zionism, and the notion that "the resurrection of the Jewish nation on the land of Israel is what created the Palestinian nation."
Modern historiography on the Palestinian cause dates from the 1930s. Eissa Al-Safari's Arab Palestine from the Mandate to Zionism, published in 1938, was the first work to establish clearly that the Palestinian cause is the product of two factors: the imposition of the British mandate and the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration. The author concludes that the most important consequence of the revolution that erupted in 1936 was the expansion of the Palestinian cause from a local to a universal Arab issue.
The mandate period saw the emergence of a number of other Palestinian historians. Among the most prominent were Aref Al-Aref and Mohammed Ezzat Darwaza. Al-Aref's work chronicled the history of countless Palestinian towns and cities and demonstrated a particular interest in their archaeology. Darwaza, according to Adnan Abu Ghazala's study of Palestinian historians in the age of the mandate, began his career as a representative of the tradition of Islamic biographers of the life of the Prophet and pioneered the transition, under the influence of the nascent pan-Arab movement, to the modern pan-Arab orientation in Arab historiography.
In the 1950s, there appeared a number of serious studies on the Palestinian issue. Of particular value are the works of Ahmed Tarbin and Akram Za'itar. However, their approach to the Palestinian cause was largely influenced by eye-witness reports and was governed by an idealism that held that the "Nakba/catastrophe" of 1948, in the words of one writer, "inflicted such a painful wound in the heart of every Arab political leader and people" that it would impel the Arabs to eradicate "the monstrous Jewish state" which was founded "on a very narrow patch of land, with no economic prospects, in the midst of a vast sea of Arabs, rich in numbers, capabilities and potential."
This uncritical and naive outlook continued to prevail, even in the wake of the defeat of June 1967. It is best illustrated by The Palestinian Struggle over Half a Century by the Libyan journalist and parliamentarian Saleh Masoud Abu Yassier. Relying on a few widely-circulated secondary sources and on the Palestinian and Arab newspapers, the result was highly emotive and very popular; its first edition sold out within a few months of its publication in 1967 and a second edition was issued the following ear. For Abu Yassier, the Palestinian question was the product of a conspiracy, woven by the British and supported by the "crusading" nations. The Palestinian people had resisted the conspiracy for thirty years and now, following the creation of Israel, they persisted in their struggle. But, the eradication of the Palestinian problem at its source demanded the concerted efforts of the millions of Muslims around the world. The author concluded by asserting: "If the European Christian nations had ignored their sacred sites in Palestine, which Islam has safeguarded for many centuries, and if they did not act to rescue these sites from the Zionists, that is all the more reason to compel us, the Muslim and Christian Arabs, to act so that we might render to all of humanity - including the Christians in Europe and the USA - the historic service of delivering these sacred sites from the abyss of Zionist deception and tyranny."
Unfortunately, in spite of considerable advances both in methodology and access to resources, this ideologically-charged mode of history writing has not entirely disappeared. In 1988, there appeared in Kuwait a book entitled How Palestine Was Lost: A Study of the Economic, Political and Cultural Factors Contributing to the Loss of Palestine by the Saudi Arabian scholar, Eissa Ben Mohammed Al-Madi. The author wrote in his introduction: "The loss of Palestine, and before that the loss of Eastern Europe and Andalusia and many other lands that had once been in the hands of the Muslim people, is indicative of the continual retreat of the Muslims before the advancing forces of heresy."
After presenting an analysis of the various economic, cultural and political aspects of life in Palestine, Al-Madi concludes that the loss of Palestine was brought about by the removal of the two major obstacles which had stood in the way of the creation of a Jewish national homeland. The first was the Ottoman Sultan, Abdel-Hamid II, who had blocked Jewish ambitions in Palestine and who he described as "Palestine's first victim and martyr". The second was Tsarist Russia, whose government was "intensely devoted to the traditions of Orthodox Christianity" and viewed the holy sites in Palestine with "the deepest piety".
This form of historiography, however, has been in decline since the seventies, when academics began to avail themselves of primary sources such as the British Foreign Office and Colonial Office archives, the files of the Zionist movement and Palestinian documents and private papers. The results of this coal face scholarship have been enormously illuminating. In 1967 Nagi Aloush published a critical-analytical study of The Arab Resistance in Palestine from 1917-1948. Abdel Wahab Al-Kiali, in 1970, produced is impressive Modern History of Palestine. Al-Kiali concludes in this work, which was thoroughly documented from British government archive sources, that the failure of the Palestinian uprising from 1936 to 1939 was inevitable. The author cites several reasons for this. Firstly, the balance of forces were heavily tipped in favour of the Zionists as a result of the fragmentation of the Arabs and the subordination of Arab governments to colonial powers. Secondly, the Palestinian leadership was narrow-minded and lacking in foresight and ambition. Thirdly, there was an absence of revolutionary vision and mass organisation as a result of the underdevelopment of both the leadership and society. Finally, he adds that international circumstances between the two world wars were not propitious for national liberation movements.
Most of the studies that appeared in the 1970s had a political focus. The primary aim of the historians was to examine the origins of the Palestinian struggle in relation to colonialism and Zionism, with an eye to demonstrating that the modern Palestinian resistance movement, as epitomised by the PLO, did not emerge out of nowhere, but was rather an extension of a national movement that appeared in embryonic form toward the end of the Ottoman era and which had shown an early awareness of the dangers posed by the Zionist movement. This was the objective of Kheiriya Qasmiya in her study of the early Palestinian challenges to Zionist activity and their development and institutionalisation during the mandate period.
A similar orientation was adopted by Bayan Noweihad Al-Hoot in her work on Leadership and Political Institutions in Palestine from 1917-1948. Within this framework as well, there emerged numerous studies of the British mandate, its role in generating the necessary conditions for the success of the Zionist enterprise, the Zionist immigration movement to Palestine, the history of Zionism and its political and military organisation. Exemplary of such endeavours was Sabry Grace's two-volume work on The Histry of Zionism from 1862-1948. Also, since the mid-seventies, in close conjunction with political developments, there appeared a spate of studies attempting to analyse the origins and development of Palestinian political thought and ideology. Particular attention was given to certain contentious subjects, notably the problematic of acceptance and rejection of the Zionist entity, and the relationship between Palestinian nationalism and pan-Arab nationalism, which was the focus of several studies by Faisal Hourani.
Others attempted to investigate the origins and development of specific political orientations. Thus Musa Bederi produced several studies of the Palestinian Communist Party, while I myself published a three-volume work on Communism in Palestine, covering the period from the beginning of this century to the 1980s. It is noteworthy that most such research projects have also been closely linked with the changing modes of political action and expression, a trait that continues even today. Thus, the growth of political Islam in the wake of the Intifada has coincided with a large number of studies attempting, from various starting points, to chart the historic development of this trend since its first manifestations under mandate Palestine. An outstanding work in this genre is Ziyad Abu Amr's history of the Islamic movement in the West Bank and Gaza published in 1989.
The peace process initiated by the Madrid conference has also inspired several historians to examine the history of peace efforts. In his three-volume critique, Mohammed Hassanein Heikal traces the peace process back through secret negotiations between the Arabs and Israel, while Abdel-Azim Ramadan, in his work, adopts a more emotional and vindictive stance.
Other historians have dealt with the attitudes of other Arab peoples, particularly in the adjacent countries, to the Palestinian cause and their role in the fight against the Zionist enterprise. In her book, Egypt and Palestine, published in 1980, Awatef Abdel-Rahman analyses the Egyptian newspapers of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, in order to assess the trends of public and political party opinion vis-à-vis the Palestinian cause during these periods. According to the author, Egyptian concern for the Palestinian cause and the dangers of Zionism was evident as early as the 1920s. Moreover, she concludes that this awareness was influential in modern Egypt's discovery of its Arab identity.
Hussan Ali Halaq, by contrast, turned to Lebanon in a series of studies that he began to publish in the 1980s. He investigates the history of Lebanese attitudes towards the Palestinian cause, with particular attention to the role of the Union of Lebanese Parties in combating Zionist plans in Lebanon itself. He also examines the Zionists' promotion of one minor and ineffectual trend in Lebanon in the 1930s, where they advocated the establishment of a "Christian national homeland" on the model of the Jewish national homeland in Palestine.
Since the 1980s the development of a more rigorous methodology in writing history has influenced historical writing on the Palestinian cause. Increasingly, researchers turned their attention to economic and social matters, so as to produce a more comprehensive and detailed account of Palestinian Arab society before 1948. This trend represents a belated sequel to two pioneering studies which appeared during the 1930s and 1940s: The Economic System in Palestine by Said Hamada (1939) and Mohammed Younis Al-Husseini's Social and Economic Development in Palestine (1946). These research projects included a great variety of studies on rural life, land ownership, industry, education, the working class and the labour and trade union movements.
Rosemary Sayigh's compelling Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries, which appeared in English in 1979 and was translated into Arabic the following year, stands out in this regard. Sayigh was inspired by the belief that the voice of the Palestinian people had become muted and distorted behind the catchwords of the "cause" and the official Arab and Palestinian narrative of the conflict. In order to restore an element of human substance to increasingly empty words, she conducted countless intervies with the Palestinians of the refugee camps in Lebanon, compiling their oral accounts of their experiences and life-stories so as to allow them to speak with their own voice. Sayigh argues that the "Palestinian belonging" never constituted a rejection of Arab identity. Rather, it was the natural response of refugees who had been reviled, in the absence of proper Arab historiography on the process of their uprooting, for having sold or deserted their land - as mercenaries or cowards. In this context, one should also single out for praise Walid Khalidi's efforts to produce at last a comprehensive and scholarly history of the process of that uprooting.
Also in the mid-1980s, there was a revival of interest in ancient history. Thus, Shawqi Shaath embarked on the study of ancient Palestinian culture and civilisation, while Abdel-Wahab Elmesseiri proposed a study of the history of the Jews that would distinguish between the history of Judaism as a religion with various denominational creeds and divisions, and the histories of the diverse Jewish minorities around the world. His typology is intended to refute the Zionist myth that the Jewish people must be treated within a single historical framework. Elmesseiri believes this is scientifically impossible.
Another exciting attempt to deconstruct the historical roots of Zionist mythology is Kamal Salibi's The Bible Came from Arabia (1985). Through a minute analysis of Old Testament place names, corroborated by contemporary Pharaonic and Mesopotamian sources, the author locates the ancient land of Israel, not in Palestine, but in the Najran province of what is now Saudi Arabia. On this basis, he draws a distinction between the ancient Hebrews - the "sons of Israel" - and the "Jews" and "Judaism". Thus, while the ancient Hebrews became extinct through their assimilation into other peoples, the religion founded by the Hebrew prophets continued to flourish and spread among other peoples who had no connection with the original Hebrews of the Old Testament. The implication, of course, is that the Jews today are not descendants from the Old Testament tribes and, consequently, that they have no claim to the "promised land", whether it is located in Palestine or elsewhere.
From a different perspective, Bayan Noweihad Al-Hoot, in Palestine: the Cause, the People, the Civilization, tracing Palestinian history from the time of the Canaanites to 1918, also probes ancient historical sources in order to determine who Palestine belongs to and who the Palestinian people are. Her work represents a new trend towards comprehensive specialisation, producing a field of inquiry we might term "Palestinology". Under this heading, we must also include the Encyclopedia of Palestine, edited by Anis Sayigh, which, in six volumes covers many various aspects of Palestinian geography, history and civilisation -- not forgetting the Palestinian question.
In conclusion, it is possible to say today that Arab historiography, which, over the past six decades, has honed and diversified its methodologies, unearthed and taken on board a wealth of new resources and expanded the scope and orientation of its subject matter, to produce a rich body of scientific knowledge on Palestine, the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause. In the course of its development, it has helped shatter most of the Zionist myths and narratives. Nevertheless, it is my impression that these writings have failed, up to the present, to offer a convincing and cohesive answer to one important question: Why did Israel win, and continue to win, in spite of the emergence of new Palestinian leaderships in the wake of the defeats of 1948 and 1967, and in spite of developments in the strategies and styles on the part of the Arabs?
To answer this question, I believe, Arab historiography must free itself from the terms of reference imposed by the Zionist reading of history. It must look at the Arab and Palestinian experience in its own terms, in order to locate the roots of underdevelopment and fragmentation. These two phenomena, which existed well before colonialism, though they were both exacerbated by it, gave the Zionists the advantage throughout.