The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994, by Edward W. Said. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994. 450 pages. GBP 20.00 cloth.
As the struggle between PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and the militants of Hamas intensifies in the Gaza Strip, it seems that Palestinians face an unenviable choice between autocracy and Islamic radicalism. Yet, in this collection of previously published essays, the Palestinian-American intellectual Edward W. Said suggests that things may not be so simple. The secular, democratic ideals which have played a central role in the development of the contemporary Palestinian national movement, according to him remain as relevant today as in years past.
Said, who from 1977 until 1991 was an active member of the Palestine National Council and during this period emerged as the foremost advocate in the West for Palestinian rights, is today a bitter critic of the September 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles. In this regard, some would argue that there is intellectual inconsistency in an author who during the 1983 Syrian siege of the PLO in Tripoli produced an essay entitled “Solidly Behind Arafat” (pp. 101-103), but today demands that Arafat resign (p. 415). A closer examination, however, reveals it is not Said's principles but rather the political context that has changed during the quarter century covered by this book.
Said's conception of the Palestinian struggle and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are closely related. To him, the Palestinian struggle is a classic case of political self-assertion whose goal must be equality with a more powerful adversary. The key ingredients of success, as in the South African case he so admires, are popular mobilization and a vigorous international solidarity campaign. And these, in his view, require a leadership capable of mobilizing its people and able to formulate a strategy that places concrete achievements above the enunciation of grand principles.
In order to effectively wage such a modern, global struggle, Said considers it essential not only to contest Israel (and its American sponsor) in every available arena -- with, he might have added, the same tenacity he exhibits throughout this book -- but also to study and know one's enemy thoroughly. Said's own efforts in this regard have led him to conclude that neither Israel nor the Palestinians possess a credible military option against the other, and that the Palestinians, as the "victims ... of the classic victim of all time" (p. 121) must, ironically, address the legacy of Jewish suffering in order to redress their own history of dispossession. The standard anti-colonial practice of evicting the settlers is therefore for Said neither a realistic nor desirable alternative, and a historic compromise between colonizer and colonized in which both enjoy equal rights to self-determination on the same territory (the two-state settlement) is consequently necessary.
It is on precisely this basis, however, that Said parts company with Arafat over the Declaration of Principles. Although he recognises the severe regional and international constraints facing the Palestinians, the Oslo agreement is to him "an instrument of Palestinian surrender; a Palestinian Versailles" (p. xxxiv), in which only Israel's claims to a dignified national existence are conceded, the issue of Palestinian dispossession is simply elided, and no mention is made of Palestinian national rights, including the self-determination so basic to Palestinian equality. For Said, this "rental agreement" (p. xxxv) reflects not only the Palestinian leadership's renunciation of its people's aspirations on the altar of narrow self-interest, but also its failure to "mobilise the vast potential of its people" (p. 419). Those whose policies left them with no alternative but capitulation, must therefore make room for Palestinians able to clean up the resultant mess and motivate their people to meet the challenges ahead.
Said presents a compelling case for peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians based on equality, and as such a set of coherent ideals. Their attainability, at least for the foreseeable future, is however much less certain. This is partly because Said and similarly-minded Palestinians have completely failed to organize their opposition; partly because planning and mobilisation are currently the preserve of Israel and the Islamists respectively; and partly because Yasir Arafat, whose position was never effectively challenged by independent Palestinians when he seemed responsive to their views and deserving of their support, today cares as little for their criticisms as he does for those of any other group of Palestinians.
[This review was originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique.]