David Gerstman of Legal Insurrection last week posted a critique of Vox's history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. While Gerstman is spot on with the recent material, in order to cover the recent history he leaves the pre-history of the conflict unaddressed. Unfortunately, the misperception of the pre-history of the conflict is responsible for the perception that there is nothing illegitimate in any Palestinian objective.
The offending part of the Vox video comes from the first minute. In it, the narrator states:
One of the biggest myths about the Israel-Palestine conflict is that it has been going on for centuries all about ancient religious hatreds. In fact while religion is involved [the] conflict's mostly about two groups who claim the same land and it really only goes back a century to the early 1900s. Around then, the region along the eastern Mediterranean we now call Israel-Palestine, then under Ottoman rule for centuries was religiously diverse including mostly Muslims and Christians, also a small number of Jews who lived generally in peace.Leaving aside the inaccuracy of the subsequent claim that Palestinian nationalism started at the same the Hertzl started the Zionist movement in Europe, the included quote is technically accurate, but obscures the reality of Jewish-Muslim relations in Palestine under Ottoman rule. Yes it was generally peaceful, that is mass violence against the Jewish population only occurred every few years and episodes were not prolonged, but it was peaceful in the sense that "relations between the white and Negro races" were "amicable" under Jim Crow as the signers of the Southern Manifesto described their objection to Brown v. Board of Education. Just as peace was maintained in the Jim Crow south by blacks learning their place under Jim Crow, peace was maintained in Ottoman Palestine by Jews learning their place under the Pact of Umar. The conflict that began in the 20th century is the result of the influx of Jews who refused to abide by the Pact of Umar.
Not all Arabs living in Palestine were offended by Jews abrogating the Pact of Umar to the point that they would wage an unceasing war to reimpose the Pact. Unfortunately, the British gave one such Arab a platform from which he could brand as a traitor any Arab who acquiesced to any rollback of the Pact by naming him Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Since the rise of the Mufti, the Palestinian national movement (PNM) has been about one thing, and it is not "freedom" for the Palestinians as Vox's Max Fisher would have you believe. Rather, it is about reimposing the Pact of Umar and teaching its trespassers a lesson the way Abu Ishaq did in 1066.
Returning to Gerstman's rebuttal to the Vox post, Gerstman recognizes Vox's distortion of the pre-1920 record as he responded to one of the commenters that he did not have enough time to include a response to that distortion and respond to the more recent material. The problem is whether or not one knows the reality of the Pact of Umar in 19th century Ottoman Palestine, and that the founding of the PNM was about restoring that social order, sets the framework for how one evaluates what happened subsequently. If restoration of the 19th century social order is not on one's radar screen for the PNM's motives, then one would naturally conclude that the PNM is concerned with protecting the rights of the Palestinian people. If that is so, and the PNM harps on the refugees from the Independence War, it must be because Israel did really bad things in creating that refugee crisis. If the PNM hasn't reached a deal with Israel, it must be because Israel hasn't offered enough to establish the Palestinians' rights.
All of this changes once one recognizes that the core of the conflict is Arab irredentism for the 19th century social order. From that perspective, a plot of land the size of a postage stamp where the Pact of Umar does not hold is an inexcusable humiliation to the Palestinian-Arab psyche. However, the Arabs have learned through decades of war that they cannot restore the Pact of Umar against western objections and it goes without saying that the West will not support restoring the Pact of Umar. What is feasible though, is to convince the West that the Palestinians just want their rights and specific actions under "international law" to secure those rights where it just so happens that those actions would enable the restoration of the Pact of Umar the way control of the Sudetenland facilitated the occupation of all of Czechoslovakia. Enter the Oslo Accords and western fascination with the notion that the 1967 "borders" should be the starting point for the final border between Israel and Palestine. Viewing Oslo through the lens of social order-irredentism would show that talks have failed to yield a result because the PNM will not accept anything less than their gaining the capacity unilaterally reinstate the Pact of Umar over time.
There are three points that are needed to ground the notion that the conflict is about social order-irredentism. First is establishing that there was a social order in the 19th century to which the Arabs could be irredentist. This part is trivial, it just requires showing the history and not allowing anyone to dismiss it as irrelevant (such as Vox describing that century as generally peaceful and moving on). The second part is establishing that the Mufti was animated by a desire to preserve and restore that social order as it was breaking down. Finally is to establish that today's PNM is a continuation of the Mufti's mission.