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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.4 (2003) 667-674
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Mohammed A. Bamyeh
Why is there conflict in Palestine? Why after decades of analysis, negotiation, and attempts at resolution do the tensions only seem to escalate? Why have negotiators returned again and again to the bargaining table to discuss the same terms in similar parameters, yet failed?
The tragedy of modern Palestine may be familiar to many. Palestinians lost their homeland to settler colonialism on the eve of the global epoch of decolonization. Instead of the emancipation that all colonized people had expected then, the Palestinians were made into refugees and saw their historical homeland being designated a homeland for the Jews, with the support of the West. In that process the moral bankruptcy of the Western powers was clear: in order to make amends for the Holocaust, they victimized another colonized people. The West thought simply it could resolve one great crime against humanity by committing another, against a people not involved in the original crime, a people who had the misfortune of both being weak and residing in a strategic world location.
For Israelis, 1948 is the year of "independence"; [End Page 667] for Palestinians, it is the year of Al-Nakba, or the "great calamity." While the different significances of 1948 suggest fully the irreconcilable visions of history, what is more important is that 1948 marks the loss of the Palestinian homeland, the beginning of a deracination, a disempowerment, and the structural, state-sponsored violence against the Palestinians. The great calamity of the Palestinians is a historical fact, not simply a state of mind or an instance of political rhetoric. It represents an unambiguous, uncomplicated argument: the Palestinians have a moral, legitimate, and legal claim to their historical homeland, one denied by the founding of the Israeli state. But it also means far more. Not just for Palestinians but for all humanity, the question of Palestine represents an ultimate knot of modernity. In an unacceptable present, a present that announces a series of historic, competing pasts and gestures toward further violence and strife in the future, there seems to be no possibility of moving backward or forward until we unpack, precisely in Palestine, issues that are central to our epoch: How does national identity (whether Israeli or Palestinian) serve alternately as a means of liberation and oppression? Can we imagine new forms of collective identity that would take us beyond the national impasse? Does the fact that we all live now in a globally interactive world suggest that Palestine/Israel, like other nations, should ideally become a zone of open traffic, flexible citizenship, and weakened sovereignties? What is the meaning of states and their "rights" in the present time? How are we finally to dispense with the impositions of colonialism? What more persuasive vigor is required to establish the obvious fact that a long-enduring conflict such as this one tends to give rise to fanatic visions? How does one develop, out of the hopelessness, nihilism, and resilience that coexist so intransigently, a vision of political life not based on the calculus of historical myth, domination, and terror? Why is it so vital, in all parts of the globe, from America to the Middle East to Europe, to address the impacted histories of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? What are the costs of avoiding such a critical engagement?
In comparison to many major causes that progressive and liberal forces in the United States have historically confronted, the question of Palestine has always maintained a uniquely divisive character. It was relatively easy by comparison, for example, to forge consensus among progressives and many liberals on the conflict-ridden questions of apartheid in South Africa, on the U.S. role in the wars of Central America, or on the need for global nuclear [End Page 668] disarmament. More recently, it was still relatively easy to forge common attitudes, if not common platforms, toward such large processes as globalization, women's rights, multiculturalism, the environment, and other minority issues. Palestine, however, has rarely, if ever, enjoyed a comparable consensus. Those active on university...