Who'd be an Arab? Apparently not Palestinians

Who'd be an Arab? Apparently not Palestinians
Comment: The lack of effective Arab support for Palestinians means it is easy for them to forget they are Arabs, and that Palestine is an Arab cause, says Karl Sabbagh.
4 min read
13 Apr, 2015
Has the Arab world turned its back on Palestine? [Salvatore Esposito/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty]

Is it good or bad that Palestinians are Arabs? It's a slightly meaningless question, since we are and there's not much we can do about it.

Personally, I'm rather pleased with my Arab heritage. My first degree was in mathematics and I've written a lot about science and medicine, all fields to which "the Arabs" made major contributions. But of course, "the Arabs" is a broad and slippery phrase, used to cover people from Iraq to Morocco, with as much in common as "the Europeans", who stretch from Russia to Portugal.

In the past, we Palestinians have suffered from being seen as one small subset of a people who cover vast swaths of Africa and the Middle East, and Zionists have used this to some effect over the years, particularly at the time "tiny little Israel" was trying to make a case for taking over Palestine.

Typical of the way Palestinians' Arabness was used against them was Balfour's hope that "the Arabs" would not "grudge that small notch... in what are now Arab territories given to the [Jewish] people who for all these hundreds of years have been separated from it."

Whatever their differences, the Jews of the world have rallied to express unwavering personal and political support for Israel, at least publicly.

Every word of that statement is laden with meaning (and with nonsense) but it's often still said today that the Palestinians should be happy to merge into other Arab countries and leave Israel to get on with its "notch", although as notches go, its small size belies its status as one of the world's highest concentrations of racism and weaponry, combined for the purpose of expanding its territory to produce as big a notch as possible at other peoples' expense.

But in one sense at least, it looks to Israelis and others like the Palestinians are not Arabs. Why? Because if we were, other Arabs would be flocking to help us, their "brethren".

I don't just mean financially. There have been laudable initiatives, such as Qatar's contributions over the past few years to a Jerusalem fund and to rebuilding Gaza. But the real support Palestine and the Palestinians need is political.

It's a truism to say that many Arab regimes and rulers are in the pockets of the US, or at least afraid of US sanctions - withdrawal of aid or weapons. And no doubt, if Arab countries ever combined to take any sort of military action against Israel's occupation of Arab land, it would be a step too far.

But as long as Arab countries quarrel among themselves, and pay only lip service to the extraordinary actions of an alien essentially European country in their midst, the longer will Palestinian suffering continue. And Israel is alien, by its own choosing, looking west to Europe and the US, rather than east to seek rapprochement with its neighbours.

The Arab countries have so much potential leverage at their fingertips - both in terms of finance and oil as well as political alliances which could be made or broken - that it is a disgrace that since their spirited but fruitless stand at the UN in 1947 (those speeches still bear re-reading), coordinated Arab support for Palestine today has never been weaker.

Perhaps Arabs could take a leaf from the book of the Jews - and I don't mean the Old Testament. Whatever their individual differences, the Jews of the world have been marshalled by Zionists to express unwavering personal and political support - at least publicly - for Israel.

And yet the opposite is true of the Arabs. While at street level, support for Palestine is probably overwhelming, even unanimous, this is rarely translated into serious pro-Palestinian political action, perhaps because of the autocratic nature of many Arab governments.

Maybe it is time for all Arab states, and other countries if they wish to imitate the world's reaction to the Charlie Hebdo affair, to announce to the world at every opportunity that "we are Palestine".

That way, they might then act as if Palestine's suffering was their own, and perhaps do something about it.