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Constructing Identity: Violence, the State, and Ethnicity

That violence and mass mobilization are intrinsically linked to nationalism is frequently, and rightly, asserted in the literature.[40] It is argued that this is due to, among other things, the impact of military conscription, which both exposes subjects to new experiences and ideas in unfamiliar settings and turns them into citizens with new political claims and material entitlements, and to the breakdown of traditional controls, “of which war is the ultimate expression,” leading to “a search for alternative sources of authority.”[41] What underlies these factors and explains their causal effect (what makes them “work,” in other words) is the way in which they act simultaneously on two social constructs—identity and the state—that determine the access of individuals to needed resources (whether material or moral).[42]

A further implication is that identity is not fixed, especially in its political attachments, although nationalists and ideologues of other hues insist otherwise, despite the role of political, economic, legal-administrative, and cultural institutions in demarcating and reproducing specific identities. War makes certain of that, as its impact on identity is not independent of its impact on the state (and other social organizations): crucially, it affects how the two constructs relate to each other, altering their balance and generating the competitions and crises that may lead either to latent substate collectivities gaining new meaning as political communities or to the suppression of their challenges to the state.[43] The issue therefore becomes not one of how war alters the preformed identity of individuals or groups, but rather of how, through its intervention, they are “induced, persuaded, forced or cajoled into making identifications” that are profoundly political and that affect their relation to the state.[44] At the same time, as I will argue later, the nature and extent of war’s impact is bound closely to the manner of its convergence with other contextual factors and underlying processes that exist both prior to, and independent of, war.

It is precisely these dynamics and patterns that are revealed in the case of the Palestinians, no less so because they are stateless. Here, too, the central question is not about the ontological reality or makeup of Palestinian national identity, but rather of how armed conflict prompted people to assert or change identifications, and how this necessarily involved statist structures of one type or another and led to nationalist reformulations. After all, the emergence of a distinctly Palestinian national identity was not a foregone conclusion, since it did not correspond to a defined state-society dyad. The Arab inhabitants of mandate Palestine may have had the historical experience of the British mandate and al-nakba in common, but it is not self-evident that they formed a “people” or “cultural community” (as a historically derived ontological reality) distinct from neighboring Arab populations with whom they broadly shared language, religion, and social custom. The ambivalent relationship of Palestinian and Jordanian identities is a case in point: a persistent, if minority trend in Palestinian national politics has argued at least since the 1930s for the inclusion of any Palestinian patrimony under the umbrella of the Jordanian state; the defeat of the guerrilla movement in 1970–71 similarly decided the issue of overt identification for local Palestinians in favor of Hashemite-led Jordan, even as the undeclared policy of “Jordanization” of the armed forces and civil service reinforced the unspoken ethnic stratification of political power in the kingdom. Thus, only the assertion of a specifically Palestinian statist ambition and the associated territorialization of national claims could give rise to a separate political identity.

It goes without saying that violence has been the chosen means of most postcolonial and national liberation movements, but the fact that it was directly linked to self-image and identity was specifically clear to the founders of Fateh. Borrowing from Fanon’s writings on the Algerian revolution, in which he stressed the “cleansing” effect of violence on the psyche of the oppressed, they sought consciously to use it as a catalytic agent that could break through what they saw as the resignation of the Palestinian refugees.[45] More to the point, “revolutionary violence,” as they termed it, was an expression of independent national will, proof of the existence of a distinct Palestinian people. It followed that armed struggle was required in order to cure “the worst diseases of dependency, division, and defeatism” that had afflicted the Palestinians since al-nakba, allowing them to take their fate into their own hands, achieve national unity, and “restore our people’s self-confidence and capabilities, and restore the world’s confidence in us and respect for us.”[46]

Yet just because the integral relationship between identity, violence, and statist political institutions was central to Fateh thinking does not explain why Palestinians should have accepted its outlook and responded to its appeal, let alone done so with sufficient vigor and in numbers to make it dominant among the many guerrilla groups that appeared on the scene in the 1960s. After all, it was not inevitable that a majority of political activists among them should have coalesced at any point after 1948 into a single national movement with broadly agreed-upon objectives and strategies. No more inevitable, for that matter, were the use of organized violence (however likely in the long run) and the dominance of a particular mode of political mobilization or brand of nationalism over other alternatives. Indeed, in the first decade after al-nakba most Palestinian activists joined pan-Arab or pan-Islamist parties such as the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party (Ba‘th), Movement of Arab Nationalists, and Society of Muslim Brothers, while Palestinians in general still looked to the Arab states, above all Nasir’s Egypt, for salvation. In this context the pinprick guerrilla attacks that Fateh launched against Israel in 1965 drew attention to the inactivity of other Palestinian groups and of the Arab states but had only a modest effect otherwise.

For Fateh to be transformed into a mass movement characterized by the use of organized violence, and for its brand of Palestinian nationalism to become dominant when it did, reflected a set of three contingent factors or events: the prior emergence and experience of alternative, nonviolent modes of political mobilization; contextual conditions creating a social constituency potentially available for political action along the particularistic Palestinian lines that Fateh espoused; and a crisis that would both demolish the political and social certainties to which Palestinians clung and shake the physical, administrative, and ideological control of the state structures that held sway over them. Only in the latter instance was war directly a factor.

In the first instance, the experience gained by the activists who joined Arab political parties in considerable numbers after al-nakba was an important factor in the subsequent evolution of Palestinian nationalism. This was measurable not so much in terms of their acquiring organizational skills or political sophistication, as in limiting and eventually reversing the appeal of ideologies—from class-based ones to pan-Arabism, Islam, and pan-Syrian nationalism—that invoked broader objectives than Palestine. The parallel marginalization or closure of alternative options—such as the short-lived Palestine Refugee Congress of 1949—was key in the eventual emergence of what can be termed an ethnic form of nationalism, best embodied in Fateh’s stress on Palestinian-ness. It also underscores the importance of Palestinian grassroots associations—such as the general unions of students, women, and teachers—which emerged or revived after 1948. These played a crucial role in enhancing a distinctive national consciousness and provided many members of the guerrilla leadership that was to come to the fore after 1967 (although the unions’ experience of democratic internal practice was not to survive the takeover of the PLO by the guerrilla groups, most of which had paternalistic or authoritarian roots in Islamist and nationalist forerunner organizations.)

The second necessary factor was the marginality of Palestinians under Arab state control after al-nakba in terms of political entitlement, social mobility, and economic access.[47] This varied markedly from one government to another, but for refugees of peasant, worker, or petty trades and employee background in particular the mass migration and economic dispossession of 1947–49 were compounded by their sense of social uprootedness and of degradation resulting from the disintegration of their cultural environment.[48] Nor was marginality the result only of official policies; Palestinians ostensibly shared language, religion, and social culture with Arab host societies, but in reality there were numerous markers that could be used (by others or by themselves) to set them apart, including confessional denomination and socioeconomic mode (Sunni among Shi‘a Muslims and Maronite Christians in Lebanon, sedentary agriculturalists among pastoral bedouins in Jordan, and peasants among townsfolk in the cities of West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring Arab countries), not to mention landlessness and refugee status. These became operative in competitions over labor markets and in differentiating access to state services, public employment (both civil and military), and political power, even in Jordan where the Palestinians were granted full citizenship in the course of the 1950s. So, not unlike rural migrants in urban settings, they may have yearned “for incorporation into some one of those cultural pools which already has, or looks as if it might acquire, a state of its own” but knew they had been spurned and would “continue to be spurned.”[49]

The third necessary factor was an external crisis that would undermine the structural and normative contexts within which Palestinians operated. This happened to be provided by war in their case, specifically the devastating defeat of the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian armies by Israel in June 1967. It shook not only the physical control of the frontline Arab states over their territory, allowing the Palestinian guerrillas to set up sanctuaries along the borders with Israel, but also their political credibility and moral standing. This was especially true of Nasir’s Egypt, and of the pan-Arabism and Third World socialism that it, along with the Ba‘thist regime of Syria, epitomized. The fact that Fateh now “ gaged in a popular discourse that was heavily laced with religious imagery and well-entrenched within the framework of an Islamic-oriented value system,” at a time when many Palestinians and other Arabs were turning to Islamic identification in response to the 1967 defeat, only enhanced its ability to draw support from most sectors.[50] However, while the changed external environment and loss of certainties made the Palestinians available for new forms of political mobilization, this was insufficient by itself either to guarantee their active, mass participation in politics or to determine the particular ideological direction and organizational shape their participation would take.[51] Besides the presence of a mobilizing agent, a demonstration of the effectiveness of the model it proposed as an alternative was crucial. This was provided in March 1968, when Fateh opted to confront a vastly superior Israeli punitive force at the refugee town of al-Karama in the Jordan Valley; its decision cost it half its trained manpower, but, aided by astute manipulation of the media, caught the imagination of a public starved of victories and turned the guerrilla movement overnight into a force to be reckoned with in Arab politics.[52] For Palestinians generally, “a revolutionary expectation of fundamental changes was now available as an alternative to the passive acceptance of destiny.”[53]

The battle of al-Karama gave birth to a new self-image. “To declare Palestinian identity no longer means that one is a ‘refugee’ or second-class citizen. Rather it is a declaration that arouses pride, because the Palestinian has become the fida’i [self-sacrificer] or revolutionary who bears arms.”[54] Armed struggle was the new substance of the “imagined community” of the Palestinians. Guerrilla literature developed this theme by emphasizing the continuity of conflict and the tradition of resistance from the turn of the century; peasant imagery (real or imagined) and folklore were the source for political posters, compilations by academics of proverbs and songs, and traditional embroidery workshops run by middle-class women in the refugee camps. As a PLO pamphlet later presented it, the 1967 war and conscious action by the “various popular, political and military organizations” had “led to a reawakening of the people’s sense of national identity. . . . And so . . . the process of a Palestinian cultural renaissance began.”[55] Naturally this also came with a romanticized imagery of war and an ethos of martyrdom; posters bearing the photographs and biographical details of guerrillas killed in action appeared regularly in the streets, serving to advertise the military presence and nationalist zeal of the group to which they belonged, and funerals turned into powerful political demonstrations.

The 1967 war and al-Karama therefore enabled the ascendance of Palestinian “proto-nationalism,” to use Eric Hobsbawm’s term for the “feelings of collective belonging which already existed and could operate, as it were, potentially on the macro-political scale which could fit in with modern states and nations.”[56] This ambition was connected in no small measure to the rise of lower-middle-class and petty-salaried strata over the preceding decades, which discovered after al-nakba that the social and economic opportunities provided by education and employment could not be translated into tangible political assets under Arab or Israeli state control. As in other newly nationalizing societies, the collective dislocation and migration of 1947–49, followed by education, mobility, and the growth of novel strata in urbanized settings bred strong political discontent.[57] Constant “pilgrimages” between places of study, work, and family residence in different Arab countries confirmed the commonality of their experience, while the myriad impediments to obtaining travel documents and visas emphasized their marginality.[58] Little wonder that the marginalized wielded protonationalism as a response to their own middle class, which was perceived to have “denied its Palestinianism and hastened to obtain the nationality of Arab and non-Arab states, and which obscured its Palestinian features, for instance by deliberately changing accent or social customs.”[59]

The relationship illustrated above between violence, nationalism, and social change demonstrates the need once again to “unpack” the role of war more precisely. To adapt Fred Halliday’s discussion of Yemeni nationalism, war was one of “a set of contingent events and processes” that explain the particular form that Palestinian nationalism took and the timing in which it emerged; but emerge it would, given universal pressures that made some form of nationalism inevitable by the middle of the twentieth century.[60] Of course the British decision not to establish a Palestinian colonial state during the mandate period, compounded by the massive dislocation and dispossession of al-nakba, severely impeded the emergence of a dominant form of Palestinian nationalism by or after 1948 and heightened its fragmentation into varieties that emphasized pan-Arab, Islamist, or Jordanian components of identity (to mention the most salient), and so war can be said to have played a more central role in the Palestinian case. Certainly it played an important part in enabling the PLO to promote its own statist, cognitive brand of nationalism. However, the precise nature or form of this nationalism was dependent on other factors, as discussed previously.

To take this argument further, the success of the PLO was intrinsically connected to the manner in which the Palestinian encounter with Arab host states and societies produced what we have come to think of as a specifically ethnic form of nationalism. War, or rather manifestations of armed conflict, were an integral part of its rise, but primarily by providing an additional “marker” to distinguish Palestinians from Arab counterparts. This is not to suggest the ontological reality of ethnie, but simply to stress that, as a relational construct, it was influenced by the lack of alternative political or institutional paths, on the one hand, and the use of violence against, or by, others, on the other hand. Though reflecting a particularly bitter view that was not representative of all Palestinians, the way in which Fateh’s founding document described the encounter with the Arab environment and drew appropriate political conclusions is revealing: “Our people have lived, driven out in every country, humiliated in the lands of exile, without a homeland, without dignity, without leadership, without hope, without weapons. . . . With revolution we announce our will, and with revolution we put an end to this bitter surrender, this terrifying reality that the children of the Catastrophe experience everywhere.”[61]

In short, the national and state-building project required the assertion of Palestinian difference, not from Israel but from other Arabs, as did the wielding of a specifically Palestinian (as distinct from pan-Arab, Islamic, or pan-Syrian) nationalism; armed struggle provided the means to this end. Equally, and not for Fateh alone, if it was the defeat of the Arab armies that “allowed the Palestinian people to grasp its cause in its own hands for the first time since 1948,” then the appearance of an effective mobilizing agent that used conflict to establish symbolic and institutional alternatives to the Arab host authorities, produced what may be described as ethnic politics.[62] This implicit ethnicity was, moreover, to be maintained by the engraving in Palestinian official discourse and vicarious grassroots memory of massacres suffered at the hands of fellow Arabs—most notoriously in the Wahdat (1970), Tal al-Za‘tar (1976), and Shatila (1982 and 1985–88) refugee camps—effectively creating collectivity through victimhood and death.

Ethnic politics, arguably, manifested itself at one level as “competition ethnicity,” by which middle-class Palestinians initially sought in effect, through engagement in the PLO and use of their bicultural capital, to renegotiate their access to the political resources of host states. This was notably the case in Jordan, where they formed a major part of the population and private sector. At another level Palestinian protonationalism took the form of “ closure ethnicity,” as the economically deprived refugees, their numbers swollen by the three hundred thousand Palestinians displaced in 1967, replaced their previously “inward-looking strategy of collective self-definition” with membership in the paramilitary agencies of the various guerrilla groups.[63] Driven by class grievances and resentment of government treatment prior to 1967, the newly armed refugees vociferously displayed their contempt for middle-class sensibilities, reordered power relations with neighboring urban communities to which they had been socially or economically subordinate, and repeatedly assaulted members of the armed forces and security services and other agents of the state (including, not surprisingly, collectors for public utilities).

It can also be argued that, for its part, the Fateh-dominated PLO leadership effected a shift from enclosure to competition ethnicity, but did so in order to secure extraterritorial status in the host countries and negotiate Palestinian entry to the Arab state system, rather than to assimilate culturally and integrate politically within host states. To succeed, this shift further depended on manipulating the territorialization of Palestinian national claims. Having originally raised the slogan of “total liberation” of the whole of mandate Palestine, the PLO effectively reduced its territorial goal to the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the mid-1970s, implicitly at first but then explicitly by the end of the 1980s. The implied redefinition of national identity that this entailed was paralleled by a discernible and lasting shift in the social constituency that the PLO targeted: from the refugee communities of the diaspora, especially in frontline Arab states, to the inhabitants of the territories occupied by Israel in June 1967. This process eventually culminated in the transfer of the PLO’s state-in-exile to its new territorial and social base in the West Bank and Gaza Strip following the start of Palestinian self-government under the terms of the Oslo Accords of 1993 with Israel. The question, then, is what role war played in constructing or deconstructing the social constituencies that correlated to these political transformations, and in particular in altering the balance between them and in shaping elite formation.


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War as Leveler, War as Midwife
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