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Joseph Massad
Joseph Massad
Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University.
The compulsion to partition
Palestinian rejection of the Partition Plan was rational - it was never a traumatic event.
Last Modified: 06 Aug 2012 13:16
Palestinians rejected the 1947 partition plan, but accepted later proposals to divide up their homeland [EPA]


The definition of madness, it is often stated, is when one repeats the same act numerous times and obtains the same results, but still believes that the next time the act is repeated it will produce a different outcome. This vernacular paraphrasing of Freud's important insight into human behaviour with regards to trauma, namely, what he diagnosed as the neurosis of "repetition compulsion", where one is unconsciously compelled to repeat a traumatic event, time and time again, fits perfectly the strategy of the Palestinian Authority.

The PA's quest to declare a Palestinian state in international fora and thus consecrate the partition of historic Palestine, it believes, will somehow bring about the actual establishment of an independent Palestinian state, despite the persistent fact that this strategy has failed every time it was tried in the past - an outcome that has been experienced as trauma.

The most recent plan of Mahmoud Abbas, supported by the Arab League, to next month submit a formal request to the United Nations' General Assembly for the admission of the State of Palestine to its ranks (with observer non-voting non-member status, no less) is the latest attempt in this futile and mad project.

This compulsion to repeat ad absurduma traumatic act, which resulted historically, not in Palestinian liberation from Zionist colonialism, but in more colonial dispossession, is important to note in this regard. It was in 1988 that the Palestine Liberation Organisation, in a renewed commitment to "pragmatism" (to which it had already committed in the mid-1970s), declared the establishment and independence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. This proved to be a decision that has greatly impaired the Palestinian national movement and strengthened the international forces that have sought its subjugation - at least since the 1940s - through a colonial formula, namely, the tireless refrain that the "solution" to what is purposely and obfuscatingly misnamed as the "Palestinian-Israeli conflict" - as opposed to the colonisation of Palestine and the resistance to it - lies in partitioning the country.

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First project of partition

Partitioning Palestine between its Jewish colonial settler population and the indigenous Palestinians was first proposed by the British Peel Commission in 1937, while the Palestinians were staging one of the most massive revolts (1936-1939) encountered by the British Empire in the 20th century. It was revived again in the 1947 United Nations General Assembly's Partition Plan. The Palestinians rejected it strategically, because they saw it as a concession to the Zionist colonial theft of their lands - and the Zionists accepted it tactically, as a step towards the final dispossession of the Palestinians and the theft of their entire country. 

Ever since, Zionist colonial propaganda had it that the Palestinians remain disenfranchised not because of Zionist colonialism, but because of their resistance to Zionism, coded as "rejection" of the project of partition. Whereas the Palestinian national movement understood Zionist argumentation for what it was and had responded to it accordingly early on, specifying that the UN could not decide to partition what it had no authority to partition, much less to do so without the consultation, let alone the consent, of the people of Palestine, Yasser Arafat's 1974 speech at the UN deployed the very biblical language that Zionism has much exploited to undo Zionist propaganda:

"The General Assembly partitioned what it had no right to divide: an indivisible homeland. When we rejected that decision, our position corresponded to that of the natural mother who refused to permit King Solomon to cut her son in two when the unnatural mother claimed the child for herself and agreed to his dismemberment."

Yet, soon after and by the 1980s, many Palestinians and Arab neoliberal "pragmatists" came to be persuaded by the Zionist argumentation forced upon them by US power and funds and began to consider the rejection of the UN Partition Plan as "the traumatic" event of Palestinian life, and not the Zionist conquest and the Nakba it visited on Palestine and the Palestinians. As Abba Eban, in a typical racist and colonialist manner, would describe the Palestinian rejection as the Palestinians' "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity", the leaders of the Palestinians, many among them traumatised by the Western judgment of the original sin of Palestinian rejection of the Partition Plan, and some pursuing "pragmatist" strategies which they hoped would bear more fruit than anti-colonial steadfastness and resistance, decided to declare an independent Palestinian state in 1988.

Rejection of the Partition Plan 

But the trauma of the Palestinians has not been the rejection of the 1947 plan, but indeed their acceptance of a truncated version of it in 1988. Palestinian rejection of the Partition Plan was a rational and principled anti-colonial position shared by all colonised peoples - and not a neurosis; their rejection of it was never a traumatic event in their lives. Palestinian trauma has always been caused by Zionist colonial conquest of their lands and their expulsion from it.

On the other hand, it was the 1988 declaration that many Palestinians had hoped would usher them into the game of pragmatic politics, which they saw as the way to end colonialism, if only partially, which traumatised them. As they did exactly what US power and western pragmatism had told them to do in order for the West to accept them so that they can enter the game of nations, once they had done so, they were traumatised by persistent Western rejection.

That their expectations were dashed by Israel and the US commitment to continued Jewish colonisation of Palestinian lands has caused such a trauma for them that they have been compelled to repeat it time and again, leading, not surprisingly, to the very same Western rejection they seek to undo.

The 1988 declaration hoped to show the West that the Palestinians were "accepters" and not "rejecters". Failing to understand US, Western and Israeli commitments as commitments to colonialism rather than to "pragmatism", more and more Palestinians began to promote the US sponsorship of new partition plans. Under the banner of the "two-state solution", the US project was now to repartition not historic Palestine, but rather 18 per cent of it, namely the West Bank (which includes East Jerusalem) between the more recent Jewish colonists and the Palestinian natives. 

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Palestinians were permitted to negotiate, in principle, only parts of the geographic distribution of the new proposed partitions. Israel, of course, refused to let them do even that and insisted that the partition would be internal to its colonial structure and not external to it, proposing the bantustanisation of the West Bank without any real sovereignty. This in essence has been the Oslo process since 1993, which reached its logical conclusion with the cessation of these negotiations.

Palestinian 'liberation' 

Palestinian pragmatic neurosis then became one of identifying a non-traumatic event (namely the 1947 rejection of the Partition Plan) which Palestinian pragmatists determined never to repeat by never rejecting another partition plan. At the same time, they were compelled to repeat the actual traumatic event of the 1988 PLO acceptance of partition and the ensuing Western and Israeli rejection. This Palestinian compulsion not to repeat the rejection of the 1947 partition and the compulsion to repeat the acceptance of new US-sponsored partitions, led to more and more micro-partitions, which the PA would accept.

Still, all this would not ensure Western acceptance of the Palestinians as participants in the game of nations. Last year's fiasco at the UN Security Council, when the Palestinian proposal for UN recognition of statehood foundered, a proposal which had been much touted by the unelected Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and rejected by Obama's United States, will now be repeated at the General Assembly by the unelected PA President Mahmoud Abbas, as a first step before it is resubmitted to the Security Council.

In light of this, one begins to worry about a PA addiction to US and Israeli rejection of its state project and US acceptance of PA officials only as colonised operatives, which repeats the scene of the trauma yet again and the ensuing PA compulsion to repeat.

Historically, however, and as the indefatigable Ali Abunimah often reminds us, none of the billions of dollars expended, the hundreds of projects conceived and the thousands of negotiations sessions held over more than six decades have made this mad and neurotic project any more viable, much less desirable, accumulating, as it has, failure upon failure, and ensuring that no other strategy is pursued and preventing other visions from being contemplated.

Except for the Americas and Oceania, all European colonial settler projects in Asia and Africa have been seen - willingly or reluctantly - by most observers in the past half century, as reversible. Indeed their reversibility is the only successful strategy to end the violence their projects constantly engender, especially as the colonial settler project is predicated from its inception to its very end on an unending process of violence without which it would cease to exist.

Anti-colonial strategies

The visions and strategies to end these projects have been articulated differently in different settings, whether the end of French and British colonial projects in Algeria and Zimbabwe, or the end of Apartheid and the end of colonial and racial privilege in South Africa and Palestine. 

"The Palestinian rejection of the Partition Plan was a rational and principled anti-colonial position shared by all colonised peoples and not a neurosis..."

While partition was the operative criterion of the workings of the settler colonial projects in all these settings (indeed the name of that strategy in South Africa was "partition" or "Apartheid") and ending it was determined to be the only way to liberation, only in the Palestine case, partition is presented as the way not to strengthen the Zionist settler-colonial project, but amazingly, as a way for Palestinian "liberation". (Here one must emphatically expose all attempts to compare or equate the partition of India between its own indigenous peoples - an outcome of British colonial policy - with the project of partitioning Palestine between natives and colonial-settlers as nothing short of a ruse to "normalise" Israel as just another nation-state fraught with ethnic and religious problems, rather than a settler-colony practicing colonial dispossession of the native population.)

One would wish that Palestinian pragmatists were only suffering from the compulsion not to repeat anti-colonial strategies and to repeat colonial ones, as their new trauma consists mainly in the increasing success of the Palestinian non-pragmatist anti-colonial strategy calling for the establishment of one unpartitioned state that will end Jewish colonial and racial privilege, and establish equality for all. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is one of the key components of this anti-colonial strategy, although it does not explicitly take a position on the state arrangements that would formalise this decolonisation.

The pragmatists' compulsion to declare a state yet again and to partition Palestine one more time is another attempt to defeat the struggle for one state, or effective decolonisation in any form. Whether a Palestinian "state" is admitted to the General Assembly or not, this compulsion to re-enact and repeat the partition plan is doomed to the same fate as its predecessors, as it will not lead to the "two-state solution". Its failure, however, will be nothing short of another boon for the goal of a decolonised and democratic one state and for Palestinian liberation.

Joseph Massad teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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