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Social Text 21.2 (2003) 1-5

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Palestine In A Transnational Context

Timothy Mitchell, Gyan Prakash, and Ella Shohat

In the three years since the outbreak of the second Intifada in October 2000, the policy making of the U.S. government has been haunted by the question of Palestine. The Intifada made briefly visible the consequences of Israel's continued occupation and expanded colonization of the West Bank and Gaza, an expansion facilitated by the Oslo accords of 1993 and disguised under the name of "the peace process." Within a year, however, the launching of the worldwide war on terror provided Washington with a new way to misrepresent the nature of Israel's war against the Palestinians. A century-long history of dispossession, expulsion, occupation, and resistance was reduced, once again, to a series of Palestinian acts of terror. A people's loss of their homes and homeland, of their freedom of movement and human dignity, of their personal security and political future, could instead be framed as a battle of civilization against terror, of democracy against hatred, of the West against Islam.

Under the banner of the war on terror, the United States then announced its plans for a war against Iraq as the cornerstone of an unapologetic project to remake the political order of the Middle East. Yet the question of Palestine refused to disappear. From the protests of up to half a million people in several cities of Europe to the revived antiwar activism of the campuses of North American universities (see Vincent Lloyd and Zia Mian's essay in this issue), an emergent peace movement in the West placed the issue of Palestinian rights, alongside the right of the Iraqi people to be spared the devastation of war, at the center of its politics. The importance attached to the Palestine question was a response to the obvious discrepancy between Washington's use of U.N. Security Council resolutions against Iraq, its disregard for council resolutions against Israel, and its vetoing of any international intervention on behalf of the Palestinians. But the importance reflected something larger. The injustice against the Palestinians has always been carried out in the name of the West. Washington supports, funds, and arms many forms of injustice in the Middle East. But only in the case of Israel is the injustice disguised and defended as a moral struggle of the West against the rest.

The Palestine question now haunts the West, much as the question of apartheid haunted a previous generation. We draw the analogy with apartheid not to make any simplistic historical comparison between Israel and South [End Page 1] Africa, but rather to place the Palestine question in a transnational and comparative frame, and to try to understand it in its historical complexity. In the aftermath of World War II, the hegemonic powers attempted to resolve the question of Palestine through a plan of partition. Postwar Europe sought to compensate for its deplorable record of genocidal practices toward Jewish communities of Europe by adopting a characteristically colonial solution—the partition of Palestine, and the displacement of its people from their lands to provide a state for European Jews. From the very beginning, therefore, the problem has been transnational, involving diverse populations, nation-states, and imperial powers, especially since the principle of the separation of Arabs and Jews had the concomitant effect of displacing Arab Jews from Arab countries (see the essay here by Ella Shohat). Furthermore, partition involved new articulations of nation and community, redefining the relationship between national identity and the nation-state. If the state was to be a nation-state, claiming to represent a singular national identity, then what was to be the relationship between the state and its multiple identities? Partition, as the example of the ethnoreligious bifurcation of British India and Pakistan in 1947 shows, produced only further conflicts between the majority and the minority, and sparked majoritarian and exclusivist nation-building. It is no coincidence that the introduction of the policy of apartheid in South Africa in 1948 took place in the same period of colonial crisis. The establishing of...


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