There is something unusual about the Palestinian predicament.
It isn’t the rough boundaries, historical contingencies, and overlapping identities inherent in the definition of the Palestinian people. This is true of all nations, from those based on ethnicity or religion to those based on civic-constitutional creed. It likewise doesn’t matter that the history invoked in the Palestinian people’s creation is one-sided and part mythical. This too is not unusual and probably even universal.
Nor is it unusual that violence has been a means of achieving Palestinian goals. Wherever there have been conflicts of the kind between the Palestinians and Israel, partisans of one side or the other will justify the use of force by their own side and condemn it when it comes from the other side. The strangeness also has nothing to do with the fact that there are real and pressing claims on territory (among other things) that will not be achievable for the Palestinians in any conceivable diplomatic or military maneuver, including sites that have enormous symbolic and historical importance to them. This frustration is also true of Poles, Bulgarians, Greeks, Armenians, and, for that matter, Israelis as well.
No, what is unusual about the Palestinian cause starts from the observation that many of those other nations built states on parts of historic homelands out of the ruins of collapsed multi-national, multi-linguistic, multi-confessional empires, and the Palestinians have not. This fact is not entirely their fault, but when given the chance to establish a state, they have rejected it time and again. This is because the principal grievance of the Palestinian cause, one revealed in those rejections of sovereignty and by rhetoric spanning generations, is not the absence of a desired nation-state but the existence of another one. The hierarchy of goals that follows from this grievance—no state for us without the disappearance of the state for them—has contributed greatly to the Palestinian predicament.
What is that predicament? It isn’t defined solely by nationhood without statehood; those two factors alone would not be unique even today. Instead, it is defined by five dire properties: nationhood and statelessness combined with displacement, occupation, and fragmentation.
It is the argument of this essay that the Palestinian predicament is the direct or indirect outcome of three Arab-Israeli wars, each about a generation apart. These are the wars that started in 1947, 1967, and 2000. Each war was a complex event with vast, unforeseen, and contested consequences for a host of actors, but the consequences for the Palestinian people were uniquely catastrophic: the first brought displacement, the second brought occupation, the third brought fragmentation.
These three wars are so different from each other—in their duration, in the belligerents involved, in the global context surrounding and shaping them—that it’s hard at first to think of them as a set, as a group deserving some kind of collective analytical treatment to the exclusion of other major events. But it is actually the extreme differences among them that serves to highlight the unique features they share—the unique features, that is, that are the source of the Palestinian predicament.
I’m simplifying things, of course. Focusing only on three wars, not even necessarily the deadliest Arab-Israeli wars, is necessarily a bit of a contrivance. There are other developments that had an effect on where the Palestinians are today, from the civil war in Jordan in 1970 to the much longer and bloodier civil war in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 to the first Gulf War to the rise and fall of pan-Arabism and the subsequent rise of political Islamism. But in my view, the impact of these other developments is either small in comparison to the three wars, or their impact is wrapped up and included in the three wars themselves.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years thinking about these three wars as a conceptual set. This is because it has been clear to me since about 2020 that a fourth war would probably soon be added to them; and clear that, as before, the shape such a war would take would not resemble the others; and clear that, as before, the result for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause would be catastrophic.
I. Three Different Wars
On the surface, the three pivotal wars could not be more different from each other. The war that began in 1947, known to Israelis at the War of Independence, was first a civil war between Arabs and Jews in Palestine, and then a multi-state war involving sizable armies from at least five sovereign countries—Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Iraq, and Israel—as well as small contingents from others. It was a war fought village by village and town by town, and it resulted in massive population displacements on both sides.
No Jews remained anywhere in parts of Palestine that fell under Arab control. Sometimes this was a matter of fleeing urgently from a combat zone without intending that such flight might become permanent; occasionally it was because of massacre (as in Kfar Etzion) or terms of surrender after defeat in battle (as in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem); but more often than people care to remember it was a mostly voluntary preference not to live under Arab rule. For a similar mix of motivations, only a minority of Arabs in parts of Palestine that came under Israeli control stayed behind too. Many more were displaced on the losing side of the war than on the winning side; Jewish refugees were rapidly resettled and Arab refugees were not.
The ethnic sorting was most pronounced in the center of the land. Unlike in the north, where everything fell into Israeli hands, and in the south, where all but a tiny strip of land on the coast around the city of Gaza did too, in the center, more land was conquered by the Arab Legion than by the IDF. This territory included many sites with religious and symbolic importance to both sides. It became known then as the West Bank and—this is a fact we will return to—it sits on a smaller patch of land that what had been allocated to a future Palestinian Arab state in the rejected UN partition proposal that preceded the war.
The Green Line, so called because that was how it was marked on maps in the armistice when the war ended, separates the narrow strip of now-Israeli land on the central coast from the West Bank. Almost no Arab population remained west of the Green Line. With few exceptions, the few places in central Israel today with a significant Arab population were not actually conquered by the IDF in the war; they were largely territories that were held by the invading Iraqi army and that were ceded to Israel in the armistice.
For the Arabs, the defeat in this war was and remains a searing trauma. No regime or ruler involved in it remained in power for long. Not only had the goal that had united the Arabs in 1948—preventing the establishment of a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab Middle East—been thwarted, but hundreds of thousands of Arabs living in Palestine had been displaced by war. In time, their displacement became the enduring image of that defeat and humiliation.
The war in June 1967 looked much different. It was not fought village by village and town by town, and it did not involve any ragtag militias. For the most part, it didn’t involve civilians caught in direct combat either. It was, instead, a three-front war fought by four different armies belonging to Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. It all happened so fast that the military advances didn’t lead to any of the major demographic changes that might be expected in a longer war, except perhaps in the Golan, which Israel conquered from Syria. (It also took the Sinai from Egypt, but many fewer people lived there. In 1973, Israel would fight another, much more difficult war on both territories, and eventually withdraw from the latter in exchange for peace and annex the former.)
But it wasn’t those conquests that upended the Palestinian situation. Rather it was the conquest of the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan that put millions of Palestinian Arabs under Israeli rule. The Palestinians went from being a people defined by their dispossession at the hands of a hated enemy across a sealed border to being a people defined by their dispossession at the hands of a hated enemy that now also ruled them as an occupier. Unlike the larger Arab trauma of defeat, which was mostly bookended in time by the end of actual combat, for Palestinians, this remains a continuous trauma right up into the present.
A generation after 1967, another war erupted, once again completely different in character from the first and second. This war is often not spoken of as a war at all, though it was. The second intifada involved no armies on distant fronts. Nor did it involve militias fighting over individual villages with waves of refugees fleeing the fighting. There was a campaign of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, including shooting attacks that were mostly (but not entirely) directed at settlers, together with a campaign of suicide bombings in Israeli cities. There were occasional armed clashes between the IDF and forces of the Palestinian Authority or between the IDF and fighters from various Palestinian armed factions. And in the West Bank there was something that looked less like either a civil war or a conventional war and more like an asymmetric war or a counterinsurgency campaign by an occupying army that took years to settle down into a victory on the Israeli side.
By the time that war ended, both sides had lost thousands of lives, the Palestinian economy was shattered, and most of the West Bank lay behind an Israeli security barrier, as did all of Gaza, the two effectively cut off from each other. The Palestinian state-in-the-making from the 1990s broke into dysfunctional fragments, and all that kept them functioning was the threat they would fall apart and lead to something worse.
II. Three Similar Wars
These three wars are as different in form as any wars could be—probably as different as any three wars ever fought by roughly the same sides. Yet in several crucial ways they are quite similar. For one, all three of these wars were preceded by months of excitement in the Arab world and heated rhetoric that was simultaneously righteous and violent. Righteous in that the cause of attacking Jews was held to be an absolute good and a moral exigency infused with theological overtones. Violent in that the rhetoric was often openly eliminationist.
This pattern was set in motion by the first of the wars. The vote by the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947 to partition British Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, set off an explosion of violence against local Jewish communities almost immediately in Palestine itself and throughout the Arab world. If there were doubts about the justice of the cause being fought for—preventing the establishment of a Jewish state—there is little record for that. If there were doubts about the morality of the methods employed—sieges that blocked food and water and attacks on Jewish civilians of all ages wherever they could be found in cities, towns, and villages—there is no record of that. If there were doubts not even about the morality but about the wisdom of a total war against the new Jewish state—concern, for example, that the Arab side might lose and end up worse off as a result—there is little record of that too.
What’s astonishing, then, is that a war that was embarked on so willingly, with so much unanimity, and with so much excitement could be later remembered as a story of pure victimhood. Yet before the war was even fully over, the Syrian Christian intellectual Constantin Zureiq published a passionate lament of the Arab failure to defeat Israel, The Meaning of the Disaster [Nakba], giving birth to the word that would be used from as a shorthand for the traumatic Arab defeat in that war. (Hussein Aboubakr wrote about this history for Mosaic in September 2023.)
As time passed, memories of that defeat evolved and the Nakba became not an Arab event but a Palestinian one, and not a humiliating defeat—“seven Arab states declare war on Zionism in Palestine [and] stop impotent before it” is how it is described on the first page of Zureiq’s book—but rather the story of shame and forced displacement. The word itself came into popular usage in the West only around after the 50th anniversary of that war as a description of that displacement and not of a war at all—a tale of unjust suffering and colonial affliction laced with transparent Holocaust envy, which is its unspoken appeal for the Westerners who use it.
The same dynamic repeated itself twenty years later. The weeks leading up to the 1967 war were, in the Arab world, likewise a time of public displays of ecstasy. The hour of “revenge” was nigh, and the excitement was expressed in both mass public spectacles and elite opinion. The Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser promised an elated crowd the week before the war broke out that “our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.” Contemporary descriptions of the “carnival-like” atmosphere in Cairo in May 1967 relate that the city was “festooned with lurid posters showing Arab soldiers shooting, crushing, strangling, and dismembering bearded, hook-nosed Jews.” Ahmed Shuqeiri, then the leader of the PLO, promised that only a few Jews would survive the upcoming war.
Of course, the promise of revenge was not realized, and the expectant longing was not satisfied. The Arabs were quickly routed, and almost all of the Jews survived. Then, however, despite the eagerness to fight, the incitement to war, and the euphoria at the prospect, this defeat was reconceived not simply as a story of loss but once again into a story of victimhood. The pre-war fantasies were forgotten; like everything else about the 1967 war, this process happened very quickly. In the Khartoum Resolution rejecting any accommodation with Israel that was agreed on by the Arab League less than three months later, the war is referred to unironically as the Israeli “aggression of June 5.”
As with the first Arab-Israeli war, memories expanded and hardened with time, and the mythology of the defeat came to assume much larger dimensions than the size of the war or the actual defeat itself. Thus it is that the major anniversaries of the Six-Day War were largely marked in the Arab world as 20 or 40 or 50 years since “the beginning of the occupation.” To the extent there was even a minimal reckoning with the Arabs’ own failures of 1967, it was with military errors and not with the overall goal of exacting revenge and eliminating Israel.
As for 2000 and the Camp David peace negotiations, the usual story tends to focus on Yasir Arafat himself, his calculations and, depending on the perspective, his shortcomings. Arafat’s refusal to accept a Palestinian state on all of the Gaza Strip and nearly all of the West Bank was indeed tragic and misguided. On its own, though, this isn’t remarkable. Lots of leaders make poor choices. In the annals of history, the list of nations that have missed opportunities for peaceful settlements of disputes only to end up with less isn’t short, and neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are the worst offenders.
What is striking about Arafat’s refusal to accept the deal offered at Camp David—a state on all of Gaza and more than 90 percent of the West Bank, including a capital in East Jerusalem—and his subsequent turn to violent confrontation is just how popular it was and remains. There was not anywhere within Palestinian politics a minority camp that opposed this move, that warned against the possible consequences, that organized protests and galvanized opposition parties. Neither was there, in the broader Arab world, any real pushback from governments or the public. In the wider pro-Palestinian community of NGOs, activists, and intellectuals, there were no voices calling the decision a mistake, just as there were no anguished letters at the back of this or that Review of Books from lifelong supporters of the Palestinian cause who couldn’t bear to see it go astray.
As happened 30 and 50 years before, in the months after Camp David and well into the second intifada, the rhetoric was as militant as ever, and triumphalist too. An official communiqué from August 2000, after Camp David and before the intifada, hailed the unanimity of Palestinian factions regarding the rejection of a peace deal at Camp David and the “sense of exaltation and victory” which it engendered.
Moderates held that a controlled outbreak of violence could improve the Palestinian position in any future negotiation, a wrong but somewhat understandable conclusion to be drawn from the experience of the so-called Tunnel Riots of 1996, when a fabricated claim that Israel had dug a tunnel under the Al-Aqsa Mosque served as the pretext for three days of violence in which the armed forces that Palestinians had been allowed to build under the Oslo peace agreements turned their guns on Israelis; the result was an improved Palestinian position in negotiations. (Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader most identified with the turn to violence in 2000, explicitly referenced this earlier event as a lesson for what could be achieved by combining violence with negotiations.) Less-moderate voices, meanwhile, hoped that a turn to violence after Camp David could replicate what was seen as the success of Hizballah in forcing a full Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon earlier in 2000 without Israel receiving any kind of peace agreement in return.
It’s important here to pause and consider what exactly was at stake in 2000 and the years immediately following. Over the seven years of the Oslo process, from 1993 to 2000, the Palestinian Authority was established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians had, for the first time, an elected government, a representative assembly, passports, stamps, an international airport, an armed police force, and other trappings of what was in every sense a state in the making. What was foregone at Camp David was all that plus what stood to be gained afterward: statehood, Jerusalem, a massive evacuation of settlements. (The expansion of the Authority’s territorial footprint and its sovereign powers occurred despite its failure to live up to even the most basic requirements of the peace deals it signed with Israel, including preventing terrorist attacks against Israelis and the symbolic but evidently impossible act of revoking the founding charter of the PLO so as not to call for the destruction of Israel.)
What happened instead was a wave of Palestinian violence during which suicide bombing became the totemic means of and metaphor for the whole endeavor, in line with the hierarchy of goals—eliminating Israel over freedom—that has been the preference of generations of Palestinian leaders. A people on the cusp of liberation instead suffered more than 3000 war deaths and the moral rot caused by the veneration of suicide and murder.
The Palestinian airport is no more, as is the Palestinian airline. The two Palestinian territories are cut off one from the other. One lies behind a fence whose path was decided unilaterally by Israel and not in a negotiated agreement; the other lies behind a blockade. West Bank settlements that could have been evacuated in a peace treaty twenty years ago are bigger than ever.
One might expect some further reckoning with this third Palestinian disaster. But once more, loss turned to victimhood so quickly that didn’t happen.
III. Symbols and Geopolitics
Three generations. Three different wars. Three different modes of combat. All three times, the wars were preceded by grandiloquent pronouncements and popular excitement as well as broad intellectual support. And all three times, as soon as or even before defeat appeared, the excitement and frenzy were excised from collective memory, so that the event came to be remembered as a case of pure cruelty by the hand of the Israeli other. That’s the root of the Palestinian predicament in a nutshell.
The late German historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch wrote a masterful book on this phenomenon called The Culture of Defeat. In it, he describes the way defeated nations can reconceive their military defeats as moral victories and refashion their own histories to transmute failure into cosmic injustice, with all the attendant revenge fantasies cosmic injustice entails. One of the most familiar examples of this is the Lost Cause of the American South, the mythology that turned the racist and immoral goals of the Confederate rebellion into a pure and noble tradition of agrarian virtue and aristocratic etiquette standing against rapacious modernity and capitalism. Contrary to the dictum that history is written by the victors, for most of the century after the American Civil War, it was the losing side that dominated the way the war was taught and represented in high culture, textbooks, monuments and Hollywood films. Just as with the Palestinian Nakba, the high point of this revisionism came around the 50th anniversary of the war itself, when the generation that fought it began dying out, and the urgency of turning both the humiliating defeat and the tainted cause into something nobler than it actually was became most acute.
The reason for this is easy to understand: critical self-reflection is torturous, and what is hard enough in the case of a single person is excruciating for a political community. For the Palestinians, an acknowledgement of error in these wars would approach too near an acknowledgement that their animating purpose is inseparably bound up with their defeat. Tragedies that fall upon us like bolts from the blue require much less introspection than our own choices and actions. But transforming self-caused defeat into noble victimhood isn’t just ahistorical—it more or less guarantees that the defeat will be repeated.
In the case of the Arab-Israeli wars, it’s notable that though there are widely divergent narratives about all of them—for example, both Egypt and Israel believe they won in 1973—this process of reimagining defeat as a moral victory of victimhood has only really been a factor in the three wars that are the focus of this essay, the three wars that essentially created the contours of the Palestinian predicament. That alone is the better part of the story, but there are still two other aspects of these three wars that merit some attention.
The first is the centrality of Jerusalem as an emotional symbol and as a site of deadly engagement between the two sides, a history that goes back even before 1947. The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, had been spreading rumors of Jewish desecration of al-Aqsa Mosque to whip up Arab violence since 1929, and there was a very real battle for Jerusalem during the War of Independence. Then, after the Israeli victory in 1967, it was the loss of Jerusalem that weighed heaviest on the Arab mind. In 2000, the Knesset member Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount was the pretext for the start of the war, still known to Palestinians as the Al-Aqsa intifada.
As with the conversion of defeat into victimhood, the Jerusalem factor applies to these three crucial Arab-Israeli wars but not the others. Those were fought instead over the Suez Canal, Beirut, Gaza, the security zone in southern Lebanon, and so on; some were bloodier and more protracted than the wars which began in 1947, 1967, and 2000. It’s hard to determine if this correlation is a cause or even an effect of a common cause, or simply coincidental. Probably a war that is fought over something so essential to both sides’ identities—the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam—will necessarily carry more symbolic baggage and necessarily leave a bigger scar for the losing side.
A second important aspect of all three wars, as well as of the emotional dynamic driving the Palestinian predicament, is that in each one the Palestinian cause was taken up in a larger global struggle: first World War II, then the cold war, then the jihadist war against free societies. Palestine has served as an excellent rallying cry for others; for Palestinians, the result has never been good.
The violence and displacement of 1947-49 in the Middle East was one more front in the global struggle between peoples that aligned themselves with the Germans and other Axis powers in the war and those that had aligned themselves with the Allies. In episodes that have largely been erased from historical memory, these conflicts, alignments, and displacements didn’t end with the war end in 1945. The Netherlands, for one, began expelling its German population in 1946 and continued until 1947; the expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe happened around the same time; and the bulk of the Istrian exodus, the mass transfer of a quarter-million ethnic Italians out of what is now northwest Croatia, took place in 1953-54.
Decades after 1948, Soviet propaganda would cast Israel’s birth as a venture in imperialism. But as the historian Jeffrey Herf’s 2022 book Israel’s Moment shows, it was imperialists in Western governments who were most hostile to Zionism, and anti-imperialists both in the Western left and Communists and socialists in both East and West who were most sympathetic. The anti-Zionist arguments of the Arab states and Palestinian leadership were framed in language that was self-consciously imperialist and openly racist, even fascist, recalling intentionally the language of their wartime allies. The secret to Zionism’s diplomatic success in the late 1940s was, in Herf’s trenchant analysis, due the fortuitous timing of its hour of greatest need falling just before the anti-fascist coalition of the war fell apart and split into cold war camps. When the creation of the Jewish state was put to a vote at the UN, both the USSR and the U.S. were in favor.
The decision of Palestinian leaders, and their supporters in Iraq and elsewhere, to align with Germany during World War II put them on the losing side in 1948, but didn’t leave them friendless in the long run. Soon enough, they had realigned themselves with the forces of anti-imperialism in the global struggles of the second half of the 20th century. Thus Gamal Abdel Nasser, the foremost leader of the anti-Israel cause in the 1950s and 60s, became a hero of the global, anti-imperialist non-aligned movement. And, as for most members of that movement, “non-aligned” for Nasser meant aligned with the Soviet Union. The second war of the three happened exactly at a peak moment of that cold war.
Again, memories tend to exaggerate what actually happened: Israel was not yet a major recipient of American aid or weaponry, and one of the Arab belligerents, Jordan, was decidedly not in the Soviet camp. But in a broader sense, the war was experienced as a clash between a free, Western-aligned society and the pro-Soviet anti-imperialist sphere, with the regime most responsible for the build-up to and outbreak of the war, Nasser’s Egypt, also being the one most closely associated with Moscow. The humiliation the Soviets felt at their clients’ defeat attached itself to traditional Russian anti-Semitism and set in motion a global campaign of radical–left anti-Semitism. The themes of this coordinated Soviet effort—Israel as an apartheid state and an outpost of Western imperialism, powerful Jewish lobbies manipulating American foreign policy, and Zionism as a form of racism—outlived the Soviet Union and may even be regarded as its largest intellectual contribution.
The third war likewise fit (similarly loosely and imperfectly) with a contemporaneous global struggle, that between free societies and jihadist Islamism. This struggle dated at least as far back as the Iranian Revolution in 1978, reached its horrifying peak in the 9/11 attacks, and then lost steam over the next two decades by mutual exhaustion. It was just before that peak that the Camp David rejection and outbreak of the second intifada happened. Both decisions were framed in the Arab world and especially among the various Palestinian factions in terms entirely consistent with political Islam. This was true in both methods and messaging. Al Aqsa was again at the center of the 2000 conflict, and jihadist terror, in particular suicide bombings, was one of the most effective and deadliest means of pursuing the intifada. For the Palestinians, the association became a bit of a burden after 9/11. But for jihadists around the world, the anti-Israel cause retained its central symbolic role.
In all three cases, the cause of fighting the Jewish state fit into a larger geopolitical fissure, and even if the Arab side wasn’t fully onboard with the global forces adopting it, the external embrace reinforced the pre-war enthusiasm and misguided optimism. Again and again, the Palestinians have served as the tip of someone else’s spear. But the tips of spears tend to break when thrown, and when they do, it’s evidently easier to blame the wall they hit than the person who threw them. Thus, the external embrace of the Palestinian cause once again reinforced the self-serving instinct to the postwar erasure of prewar emotions, and the accompanying turns from certain victory to impending loss to the final resting state of the purity of victimhood.
IV. Diplomatic Experiments and Failures
This process has continued over the last twenty years, even as the irreversible price of the Palestinian defeat in the second intifada became clear.
The denialism about that catastrophe’s origins and consequences wasn’t limited to the Palestinians or the broader Arab world. The rejection of peace at Camp David and subsequent descent into suicidal violence was the starting point for a sixteen-year experiment in diplomacy that could only have failed.
In the wake of the intifada, new parameters for a final settlement were proposed numerous times in numerous settings—by a consortium of non-governmental actors from both sides in Geneva in 2003, by an Israeli prime minister in direct negotiations in 2008, by an American administration seeking to wrap up protracted peace talks in both 2001 and 2014, by a UN Security Council resolution pushed in 2016 by an outgoing administration that then abstained on the very proposal it had advanced. Each of these parameters offered better terms for the Palestinians and worse terms for the Israelis than what had been rejected at Camp David.
It’s crucial to understand that there was no conceivable prospect of success by using such a mad method. As I’ve written for Mosaic before, if there is a bedrock principle of conflict mediation it is that mediation seeks to arrive at a solution that is better for both sides than what either side could hope to get from open confrontation. This is true for warring states, for a divorcing couple, for labor and management, and for any other situation with competing claims and a possibility of forceful arbitration.
Why? If one side of a conflict rejects a compromise solution, initiates a violent confrontation, and is defeated in that confrontation, no mediator of sound mind offers that side better terms the next time around. The reasons are obvious. It creates a new incentive for the losing side to keep rejecting compromise while removing the biggest disincentive from the table, namely that the move from mediation to arbitration or open confrontation carries the strong risk that the rejecting side will lose. It also, for that matter, further disincentivizes the stronger side from seriously engaging in any kind of mediation to begin with, because mere entry into negotiations could lead to a diminishment in what it gets out of a deal.
And yet, by almost universal consensus among those involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace-making industry, this is what happened for two decades following the collapse of the Oslo process.
This experiment failed, of course. In a sense, it wasn’t hugely different from some other failed experiments in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, especially those following the other two wars this essay has been focused on. The common and deeper meaning to all was that Israel’s enemies needed to be protected from the consequences of their defeat in the wars they initiated and lost. It’s notable that this doesn’t seem to have happened in Arab-Israeli wars where eliminationism didn’t feature in the rhetoric or the stated motivations—Suez in 1956, Yom Kippur in 1973, the first intifada, the wars in Lebanon. But it certainly happened in the wake of the much more traumatizing defeats of the wars that began in 1947, 1967, and 2000.
This quixotic diplomatic failure comes to a head in the cruelest human experiment of post-1945 diplomacy anywhere in the world. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees is the agency charged with caring for persons displaced by the Arab-Israeli war of 1947-49. Its mandate and its operations are completely different from those of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency which manages every other refugee crisis in the world. Unlike UNHCR, which endeavors to solve refugee crises quickly by repatriating refugees where possible, rehabilitating them in host countries where repatriation is not possible, and resettling them in third countries where rehabilitation is not possible, UNRWA endeavors to entrench refugee status. It has its own definition of refugee, which includes people who have not fled across an international border, people who have already been rehabilitated and received new citizenship, and the children of displaced persons and their children and their children. It runs cradle-to-grave welfare services with radically pro-natal policies. This is how 200,000 displaced persons in Gaza—Palestinians in a Palestinian enclave, not refugees in another country—became nearly 2 million refugees in 75 years.
A global diplomatic edifice that keeps the Palestinians in a permanent holding pattern of misery stemming from defeated Arab war efforts, where the Palestinians themselves weren’t even always the central actors in the descent to war or the principal combatants who lost them, is unlike anything the international community has attempted in other conflicts. Refugees are normally rapidly resettled or rehabilitated, rather than permanently immiserated and embittered. Territorial changes are normally negotiated quickly after fighting stops, with a new border drawn to the advantage of the side that won the war and remaining occupied territory immediately recovered by the losing side, rather than remaining under a semi-permanent occupation. This has certainly been the case with other competing national liberation movements in countries where large empires vacated territories or collapsed.
But of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict isn’t a normal conflict, and the cause of Arab Palestine still isn’t a normal cause of national liberation. The fundamental fact of this conflict, that one side believes the other’s existence is a metaphysical crime for which a just resolution can only be elimination, means that standard diplomatic practice is much harder to apply at best, and gets scrambled, inverted, and abused at worst.
V. A Fourth Catastrophe?
In the last three years, there has been every sign that another catastrophe was coming. Two decades have passed since the second intifada, during which no credible Palestinian or pro-Palestinian voice emerged to assess the mistakes that led to it; nor did a diplomatic force emerge to force such an assessment, only a force that helped the world forget one was needed. Going by the pattern set by the first three catastrophes, there was no reason to believe the next catastrophe would look the same as them; after all, each had differed in marked ways from the others. Yet once again the same underlying dynamics that generated those catastrophes have been present too.
There has been a larger cause that has at least in part appropriated the anti-Israel cause the same way global jihad did the last time, the same way the Soviet bloc did the time before that, and the same way unrepentant fascists did the time before that. A global program of anti-colonialism and left identity politics has taken up the existence of Israel as the worst example of white, European colonialism on the planet, and the Palestinian cause as its rightful, justice-bringing nemesis. The result has been the same: an unfinished project of national liberation, which is solvable for pragmatists, is instead reframed as a cosmic struggle against an evil entity whose existence stands in the way of the path to justness.
If there was a specific moment when that cause helped kick the next catastrophe into motion, it was during a few fevered months of 2021, when every major human-rights group started issuing glossy reports accusing Israel of practicing apartheid.
The faulty reasoning, poor data, and circular research methods of these reports have been the subject of numerous other essays and won’t be the subject of this one. What’s important is the timing. The fact that so many organizations came up with portentous announcements about a threshold being crossed at almost the exact same time, without any apparent coordination among them, is telling. The legal status of the territories changed drastically when they came under Israeli occupation in 1967. Arguably it changed again with the creation of Israel’s civil administration there in the early 1980s. It certainly changed again radically with the implementation of the Oslo II agreement over the course of 1996-97. The freedom of action that the IDF granted itself at the end of the second intifada in Area A of the West Bank, which had been off limits to Israeli forces during the Oslo years, arguably constituted another legal change.
But nothing whatsoever changed in 2021, or the year before, or even the decade before. How then did so many reputable organizations discover a new legal category that Israel violated at the same time? No doubt some of their motivation emerged from the fear that Arab-Israeli normalization was going to continue and in so doing bury the Palestinian issue. Mostly, though, it demonstrates how much anti-Israel activism in the West is a social activity, a moral pose, always maneuvering under the twin shadows of Western imperialism and the Shoah, that requires periodic reaffirmations of faith. And nothing lightens the burden of imperialism and the Shoah simultaneously like imagining the victims of the latter as bearers of the sins of the former.
In this way, a national movement motivated less by a vision of its own liberation than by a vision of its enemy’s elimination received another global tailwind as toxic as the previous fascist, Soviet, and jihadist ones. The upshot has been the same. The three years preceding October 7 were a period of unbridled optimism among Palestinian intellectuals. Israel was rotting, losing its legitimacy, and couldn’t possibly sustain itself, they knew. An outbreak of violence in May 2021 led many of them to conclude that a comprehensive Palestinian struggle against the Zionist entity in all its manifestations was finally taking form. The violence came to be seen as part of a “unity intifada,” whereby rockets from Gaza, low-intensity combat with settlers and the IDF in the West Bank, and a week of Jewish-Arab rioting inside Israeli cities were all seen as separate fronts of the same fight—Palestinian natives rebelling however they could against an Israeli colonial imposition.
It was a horrible misreading of the situation, not least because of the evolving relationship between Arabs and Jews in Israel. Less than two months after the May events, an independent Arab party joined a coalition government for the first time in Israel’s history, a clear sign that Israel was not rotting or losing legitimacy, a sign reinforced by those growing ties between Israel and other Arab nations around the same time. Ultimately, what appeared to Palestinians to be an emerging global consensus that Israel was an essential evil—not a state or a society whose actions might arouse controversy and opposition but an irredeemably malignant presence on the international scene whose food and language were themselves tainted by its sin—was as dazzling, and ultimately blinding, as previous attempts from outside the region and its conflicts to jam the Palestinian cause into a rigid ideological framework.
In other words, the righteousness and unfounded certainty of victory preceding 1947, 1967, and 2000 were back, and the scene was set for widespread ecstasy when, on the morning of October 7, the partisans of the Palestinian cause worldwide woke up to the news of the Hamas atrocity in southern Israel. In the immediacy of overwhelming passion that momentarily cast aside all thoughts of consequences, they exulted. Examples are so numerous and will likely be so familiar to most readers by now that they need not be described at length. There was the Hamas fighter who called his parents from Israel to tell them “Look how many I killed with my own hands! Your son killed Jews!” to which both parents wept with joy and pride. There was the history professor at Cornell who shouted, “It was exhilarating, it was energizing,” at a celebratory march the next week. There was the British Palestinian woman who crowed on TV that “Nothing will ever be able to take back this moment, this moment of triumph, this moment of resistance, this moment of surprise, this moment of humiliation on behalf of the Zionist entity—nothing ever.” These emotions were further inflamed by the name of the Hamas operation, “al-Aqsa Flood,” geared to bring in the emotions relating to Jerusalem, even though the fighting was nowhere close to it; for the same reason, Hamas leaders promoted propaganda claiming that Israel was planning to destroy the mosque.
And yet passion subsides and ecstasy is fleeting. The exultation spurred by the October 7 massacre is already fading, and the now-familiar sense of loss kicking in. At the moment, the war is contained in Gaza, though no one can guarantee that it won’t spread to the West Bank and beyond. The price for Israel will be high, and Israel is far from blameless in the string of events that brought it about. But the price for the Palestinians will be much, much higher, and much of what will be lost will be unrecoverable. And if the present generation follows its predecessors and transforms that loss into a story of victimization that papers over the defeat and the excitement that preceded it, odds are good that one day yet another in the chain of Palestinian disasters will appear again.