The state of Palestinian discontent: Balfour in 1925 vs. Obama in 2013

When Lord Arthur Balfour visited Palestine in 1925, then under a mandate headed by Herbert Samuel and administered by Great Britain, he was greeted by a general strike of the Arab community, protests in a number of urban areas and a flurry of letters and editorials in the Arabic press that stressed widespread opposition to his visit. The leading Arab political figures in Jerusalem bid the population to forego a day’s work by striking. They touted the strike as “a little thing to do but . . . a fine lesson in patriotism.” The strike, according to the editor of one of Jerusalem’s Arabic newspapers, was meant to prove that “we [the Palestinian Arabs] are doing our utmost to show the world our discontent” with the mandate’s support for Zionism and with Lord Balfour himself.1

Furthermore, on the occasion of Balfour’s 1925 visit, one Bethlehem-based newspaper printed a firm declaration of the nationalists’ views of Balfour and the mandate. A front-page editorial asked for the statesman to enlighten the Palestinians as to “what existing code of ethics or law is ‘A’ empowered to give ‘B’s’ property to ‘C’ without the consent of ‘B’?” The position, the editorial continued, was “tragically absurd.”2 Other editorials and letters were peppered with demands to the British to respect the rights of the inhabitants of Palestine, to emancipate the population and establish a national government whose authority came from a democratic election and the initiative of the indigenous population. The Arab leadership also asked that no Arab civil servant, elected official or journalist meet with Balfour during his visit or attend any of the official celebrations held in his honour.3

Now, fast-forward nearly ninety years to March 2013 and President Barak Obama’s three-day trip to Israel, the occupied West Bank and Jordan. The impact of President Obama’s visit on the Palestinians and on the future of Palestine’s quasi-statehood status granted by the United Nations at the end of last year can be measured by the reactions to the visit itself. Obama’s arrival in Israel was generally welcomed and well-received with the expected anticipation of Obama’s commitment to the continuation of a strong political and financial alliance between the US and Israel. Obama opened his first speech with the greeting in Hebrew to the crowd that it was “good to be back in the land of Israel.”

In the same Jerusalem speech, Obama firmly denounced Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’ statehood bid as a unilateral effort “to bypass negotiations through the United Nations,” and thus insinuated that the US alone was to be the arbitrator for the future of the Palestinians. He added that the Palestinians must have the right to live freely in their land “[j]ust as the Israelis built a state in their homeland.” The Palestinian Arabs had a generally far less favourable reaction to Obama’s visit to the West Bank but that reaction was itself muted. When Obama arrived in Ramallah on 21 March, about 200 demonstrators voiced their opposition to the visit in light of America’s support for Israel. However, Obama did announce that aid (nearly five hundred million dollars, much of which is slated for USAID in the West Bank) had been reinstated to the PA.

The most radical response to the visit from the Palestinian side was the construction of a new tent village. Named ‘Ahfad Yunis’ after the grandchildren of the main character in Elias Khoury’s magnificent epic novel about Palestine titled Bab al-Shams, this new tent village was just opposite the first tent village called Bab al-Shams built earlier this year (named after Khoury’s novel). Both tent villages (since destroyed) were in the so-called E1 area on the outskirts of Jerusalem. One of the organizers of the new Ahfad Yunis told Mondoweiss that a key aim of the village was to expand the work of popular resistance to the occupation and the continued confiscation of land by Israel. The same activists also proclaimed their opposition to American foreign policy and the role the US government plays in funding the Israeli state’s settler-colonial enterprise—despite the successful UN statehood bid.

Obama’s praise for Israel on the day before meeting with President Abbas obliterated any hopes that the visit would re-start peace negotiations. If anything, Obama’s visit reinforced the lack of US support for Abbas’ attempt to formalize state structures in the West Bank, as well as the predictable lack of US support for unity between Abbas’ PA and the Hamas government in Gaza. The president certainly did not condemn or order a stop to the latest settlement construction endorsed by the Netanyahu government. The small number of protestors who addressed messages to Obama mentioned the US’s support of Israel as their main criticism of Obama’s administration. However, in stark contrast to the opposition voices against the visit of Lord Balfour nearly ninety years ago, a well-formulated charter of demands was not drawn up or presented by a united Palestinian civil society. Yet the opening remarks made by Abbas during the Ramallah meeting were similar in language to the demands first made to the British after the end of the war in 1918 and those which have since been repeated again and again: that the people of Palestine aspire to attain the rights of freedom, independence and peace in order to exercise natural life in and over an independent state. Unlike the demands made to Lord Balfour in 1925, the demands by Abbas and the PA to Obama were made alongside a cozy praise and statements of friendship and admiration for Obama and for America.

The attitude of the US as unwilling to support the new ‘state’ of Palestine is a far cry from the somewhat more promising peace negotiations at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency during which former Secretary of State Madeline Albright declared to Yassir Arafat that he would have the economic and financial support of the US for his future state. Arafat, to his credit, responded that he had no interest in American financial support when the state of Palestine materialized. The recognition of Palestine as a non-observer state has done little to change the situation on the ground in the occupied territories. Importantly, Abbas promised not to use Palestine’s new status to challenge Israel in the International Court of Justice on the illegal settlements in the occupied territories or on the numerous (including this incident on the date of Obama’s arrival to Israel) human rights violations by Israel.

What the meeting between Obama and Abbas did not highlight however, is the increasing weakness of the PA. Neither the president nor Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has a legitimate mandate over their positions. The PA itself is on shaky ground: elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council have not been held since 2006, the Palestinian National Council is not directly elected, and Abbas’ term expired four years ago. Polls have shown that if elections were held in Palestine in the very near future, the jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti would win the presidency over both Abbas and Hamas’ Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. It is perhaps ironic then that several crowds reacted to Obama’s visit by demanding the release of Barghouti and other Palestinian prisoners, including Samer Issawi, in Israeli jails.

The way forward for the Obama-Abbas relationship is murky—a number of ambiguities remain unresolved by the statehood bid and the stalled negotiations. Although the discontent with Obama and Abbas is muted at the Palestinian street level as compared to prior years, the percentage of Israelis with a favourable view of Obama rose after his visit with Netanyahu. When viewing Obama’s visit through the historical lens of the 1925 visit by Lord Balfour to Palestine, it is clear that the momentum of civil society and popular resistance to the mandate played a far greater role in placing dissent and demands for statehood and independence front and centre in 1925 than it has in 2013. If elections are held in the West Bank by next year, the results will presumably allude to a shift in US-Palestinian relations, although the recent Obama visit demonstrations that it remains to be seen just how radical that shift will be.

1 “The lion and the mouse,” 25 Mar. 1925, Mirat al-Sharq.

2 “To our readers everywhere,” 25 Mar. 1925, Sawt al-Sha’b.

3 “Meeting of the Arab Executive,” 26 Feb. 1925, Sawt al-Sha’b.

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