Who said Palestinians are a people divided against themselves, presuming that Gazans and those living in the West Bank are at odds, living separate lives, with different political agendas, different administrations and little concern for the fate of one another?
Humbug! Palestinian leaders may inhabit a divided house, bitterly pointing accusatory fingers at each other, but the people do not. The people of Palestine, whether in the Occupied Territories, in Israel or in the diaspora, have never been more united as a nation. And it took a football match played last Friday in Hebron between Gazan team Ittihad Shejaiya and the local Ahl Al Khalil to attest to that.
The game, the first in 15 years to be allowed, under duress, by the Israeli authorities, was the result of intense efforts by Palestinians to take Israel to task by urging Fifa, football’s world governing body, to suspend the Zionist entity’s membership if the Israeli authorities continued to block the passage of players in and out of Gaza. (Ahl Al Khalil had travelled to Gaza for the first leg of the final of the Palestine Cup on August 6.) When the Gazans arrived in the West Bank, according to news reports, “they were treated as national heroes” and often posed with for photographs with beaming residents, including Al Khalil fans, who “gave them roses”.
The name of the Gaza team, Shejaiya, is resonant, as many of us who followed the dreadful devastation inflicted on the Strip by the Israeli military last year will recall. It is the neighbourhood in the eastern Gaza City that was so heavily hit that it resembled a later-day Dresden. The New York Times, whose reporters covered the game, quoted one fan as saying: “It is like a national wedding party and the bride and groom are in love.” The reporters then added: “The show of support for Gaza was clear in the game. Men banged on tables to cheer on Shejaiya, drowning out the wheezing rendition of the Palestinian anthem ... ‘This is the least we can do to show our solidarity with our people in Gaza’, said Hassan Iman, a football coach from Hebron, who had switched his football allegiance for the evening. ‘I’ll sit in the area for the Shejaiya fans’, he said with a smile. ‘Of course I’ll respect Ahli, too’, he hastily added, referring to the Hebron team’.”
The home team won 2-1.
The Gazan players “fell on the turf, weeping”, upon which, the Hebron fans began chanting: “We support you, with our soul, with our blood, we support you.”
These are not people divided among themselves. They are rather a people imbued with social cohesion (even as their leaders dither and feud), working towards a common goal, with strong bonds that link their emotional needs together. The origin of this strong sense of group pride or, if you wish, “we-ness”, lies in the nature of Palestinian history. When, say, the Zionists kicked the majority of Palestinians out of their homeland in 1948, they did not distinguish between Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians, poor Palestinians and rich Palestinians, peasant Palestinians and urban Palestinians, liberal Palestinians and conservative Palestinians. They made being Palestinian cause in itself.
The sufferings of Palestinians in the West Bank/Gaza, in Israel and of Palestinians in the diaspora may be different in kind, but it is the same in degree. Whether living in exile, saddled with a sense of otherness or as second-class citizens of Israel or, as George Orwell put it in his novel 1984, “with a boot on your face” under occupation, the pain is common. It is, in short, communal ethos of suffering that Palestinians over the years have learned to project in their idiom, their slang, their metaphor — even the looks they give each other, looks that have a sorrowful eloquence to them, a kind of darkness around them, a pitiful echo from the past.
Consider Annette Bening, playing the wisened CIA agent in the 1998 film, the Siege, explaining Palestinians. “They seduce you with their pain”, she mused. Social cohesion — conceivably one of the more central questions in the study of a community’s cerebral and cultural evolution — is a gift that history proffers upon a people — often, alas, at a heavy price.
Contrast that with the Jewish community, or that segment of it grafted on Palestine since 1948 — an unruly group whose only constant has been an inability to come to grips with its past or to reconcile itself to the rules of the objective world it inhabits.
No, it is not the Palestinians who are divided, but their leadership, a leadership that has sadly failed to harness their people’s moral optimism into a centralised expression. All the pity.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.