Opinion Articles

The Palestinian Path Untaken

The industrial peace complex could benefit, should it choose, by acknowledging what lies at the heart of this conflict

History is filled with instances in which aggressors, facing military defeat, underwent transformative reforms. Numerous nations and states throughout the last century have initiated attacks, committed war crimes in the process, only to later engage in profound self-reflection that led to a comprehensive internal overhaul. This has been the path untaken by the Palestinians for more than a century.

For the Palestinians and their international support system, the October 7 massacre and the ensuing war currently present themselves as another chapter in a narrative that oscillates between an initiation of active aggression, accompanied by celebratory triumphalism and then victimization, with an adherence to accept the outcome as a decree of fate, rather than the consequences of political decisions that require reflection.

The latest poll of Palestinian public opinion clearly indicates this. Conducted by renowned Palestinian pollster Dr. Khalil Shikaki from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research during the “pause in fighting,” respondents in the West Bank and Gaza were asked whether they thought Hamas’ decision to launch the October 7th offensive “was correct or incorrect, given its outcomes so far.” The phrasing of this question goes out of its way to allow for “incorrect” as a legitimate answer given the current state of Gaza. Nonetheless, overwhelming majorities (72% in total; 82% in the West Bank and 57% in the Gaza Strip) stated that it was the correct decision.

Understanding this result is relatively straightforward: admitting to the original sin in this war comes uncomfortably close to acknowledging that their political cause is inextricably tied to their historical military defeats. And yet, if the current generation are to reshape the narrative from an initiation of aggression to one of sole victimization the stage is set for repetition.

  1. From Aggression to Righteousness 

To understand why, historically significant events include the rejection of the partition plan in 1947 and the decision to launch a military campaign aimed at eradicating the Yishuv (the pre-1948 Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine), along with the subsequent 1948 war declared by the Arab world on the newly formed Jewish state — actions that played a pivotal role in what later became known as the Nakba.

Nowhere in the aftermath of the military defeat was there a substantial debate or open acknowledgment from Arab-Palestinian leadership or intellectuals that the decision to reject the UN Partition Plan and wage war against it might have been politically or morally flawed.

In the weeks leading up to the 1967 war there were public expressions of celebration at mass gatherings, as anticipation to reverse the outcome of the 1948 military defeat grew. Think images of Americans in the streets of New York after the allies’ victory against Germany at the close of WWII. However, unlike the American scenario, the war had not yet started, and when it did, the anticipated triumph did not materialize.

As with 1948, the pre-war fantasies and celebrations were swiftly forgotten, much like everything else related to the Arab aims in the 1967 war. The narrative shifted from wiping Israel off the map to one of only occupation. Similarly, to how the story of 1948 transformed from a narrative of a humiliating military defeat in an effort to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel to one of only displacement. It is as if, in both cases, the Arab-Palestinians had no agency and bore no responsibility.

Consider this trajectory as an example: Constantin Zureiq, a prominent and influential Syrian-Arab intellectual who coined the term Nakba, wrote the following explanation in the opening paragraph of his booklet ‘The Meaning of Disaster’: “Seven Arab states declare war in an attempt to subdue Zionism, then stop impotent before it, and return on their heels.” He continued:” “The defeat of the Arabs in Palestine is not a small setback or a transient evil, but it is an unequivocal catastrophe.” According to Zureiq himself, the Nakba is the failure of the Arab armies to defeat the newly established Jewish state. Now, consider the popular usage of the word today to depict some Western outpost arriving in the Middle East with the goal of expelling indigenous peoples to establish an ethnic-supremacist state, of which the Palestinians are subdued to a role of the blameless and hailed as righteous.

The unwillingness to reflect on the mistake of not accepting partition would come to a head in July of 2000. The story of the Camp David peace summit typically focuses on Yasser Arafat, his reluctance to meet concessions with concessions, and his refusal to accept a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. While this was indeed misguided, many leaders have missed such opportunities, and the Palestinians are not the worst offenders.

What is particularly unique in the case of the Palestinians and what is willingly overlooked due to its lack of alignment with specific interests, is the absence of dissent at the time of the rejection. Not even a minority camp opposed the move, political opposition did not mobilize against leadership and there were no warnings against the potential consequences of rejecting peace. No organized protests were held among the people to demand their leadership return to the negotiating room to secure a state, and there was no outcry from the community of NGOs, activists, or intellectuals.

 Photo by Majdi Fathi/TPS

What ensued was precisely as one might anticipate at this point—an initiation of active aggression. The second intifada in 2000 stands out as another example that, with the passage of time and accumulating testimonies, does not appear to have been a historical accident but rather a well-planned aggression.

And what became of the intifada story? The Second Intifada was hailed as the cause of resistance to the West Bank military occupation by the very Palestinian factions who regarded the rejection of the peace deal at Camp David just weeks before – a deal that actually would have brought an end to that very occupation – as a “sense of victory.” Yet, no one views the narrative today with any skepticism. In fact, the idea is more potent than before, not because any new evidence has been revealed that could grant the claim legitimacy, and not in the least because of the Palestinians themselves, but because the myth has served segments of the international community well. It has been used as an empty page from which to launch their own justice struggles. As such, there has been no constructive dialogue or self-reflection on this matter either.

What was the result? Repetition. A rejection of the Clinton parameters that could have established a Palestinian state later in 2000. A refusal at Taba in 2001. Turning down an even more favorable Israeli peace offer in 2008 at Camp David II, following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza three years prior. Can anyone identify a public conversation where the Palestinian leaders or negotiators have extensively discussed these events, exploring how today’s reality might differ had they accepted any of these peace deals?

  1. Rebuild, Revitalize, and Renew

With the war ongoing and discussions about a post-war strategy, some who seek to rebuild Gaza cite the example of Imperial Japan at the end of World War II to illustrate a new roadmap toward the eventual development of Palestinian statehood. It is true that, like the Palestinians, the Japanese engaged in active aggression, committed severe crimes against humanity, faced significant casualties of their own, experienced tragic outcomes, endured infrastructure destruction, grappled with refugee crises, and suffered territorial losses. So, how did Imperial Japan evolve from the violent political culture of Emperor Hirohito to become a democratic and economically prosperous nation?

On the one hand, this transformation was shaped by the American occupation spanning from 1945 to 1952, which played a crucial role in implementing democratization, demilitarization, economic restructuring, educational reforms, and war crime trials to prevent the country from posing a threat to stability again. On the other hand, this transformation would have been destined for failure if not for the Japanese themselves, who embraced the key ingredient missing from past Palestinian military defeats: engagement in profound self-reflection that leads to a comprehensive internal overhaul. For the Japanese, the basis upon which the American system could succeed was a liberal political agenda that had existed in some form before the warring regime.

If one doubts the significance of Japanese self-reflection, consider the American display of naivety following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks when it portrayed Japan as a model it sought to replicate in the Middle East. What the Bush administration failed to acknowledge was that the Middle East produces more enduring models of defeated aggressors: entities that may be battered or even occupied but seldom engage in self-examination, implement domestic reform, or, in many cases, have no precedent for a robust democratic culture that existed before the war.

A prime example is Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which relentlessly attacked its neighbors, most notably Kuwait in 1990. Despite Saddam’s defeat in the first Gulf War in 1991, he retained leadership in the country, and neither political nor public discourse experienced significant changes. The second and more dramatic defeat of the country in 2003 did shake Iraq as a political entity. However, due to the absence of a robust civil society and persistent interreligious and intercommunal hostilities, there was no collective discussion about the sins of the past, and hence, little change.

The point only deepens when one considers the internally led transformation evident in Argentina in the aftermath of the Falklands War (1982), which played a role in ending the tyrannical Junta. In Serbia, where Slobodan Milosevic was toppled after NATO’s attack on the country against the backdrop of the massacres perpetrated against the Albanians in Kosovo at the end of the 1990s, and to a certain degree, a similar pattern occurred in Rwanda after the murderous Hutu regime was ousted by Tutsi rebels in 1994.

The only common thread among post-war Japan, Argentina, Serbia, and Rwanda lies not in a system or structural development but in the rigorous process of self-reflection undertaken by each population. They centered their future around a constructive goal, where adherence to or the creation of a reformed system was the natural outcome.

III. History Repeating Itself 

I am not making the claim that these issues related to violence and the sanctity of human life are inherent or unique to the Palestinians as a people. What I am discussing is the influence of steadfast ideas within a specific group at any given time and place, which, upon a shift in the collective consciousness, can change. This holds true for the trajectory of human history, both in cases related to war and in cases removed from the concept of war between two belligerents, both in the Middle East and outside the Middle East.

October 7 has provided few public voices from the Palestinian camp with a moral backbone—individuals who are able to distinguish between crimes committed against Palestinians and those Palestinians commit against others. I need not provide examples – we’ve all likely heard the endless litany of denialism, lies, antisemitism and fabrications. And yet, among voices of reason, there is Samer Sinijlawi, a Palestinian political activist, who wrote an article for the New York Times from a Palestinian perspective that treats Palestinians as people with agency, imbued with the responsibility of making political decisions where the results of one’s actions are not considered a natural disaster. He did not wallow in victimization at the hands of Israel and presented a concrete but flexible plan on what it would take for Palestinians to support a revitalized Palestinian Authority. Most importantly, Sinijlawi, who is no “friend of Israel,” depicts reconciliation with the Jewish state not as a humiliation but as a positive step for the Palestinians themselves.

The disparity in these voices serves as the beacon that separates resolution from war.

Meaning that if the current Palestinian generation persists in following the trajectory laid by their predecessors, with a reluctance to engage in reflection, then whether in the short or long term, the specter of another large-scale war will loom. The pattern will repeat, and efforts for resolution will be rendered impotent and futile once again. The industrial peace complex could benefit, should it choose, by acknowledging what lies at the heart of this conflict.