In our June issue, Wajahat Ali writes about traveling to the West Bank to talk to the Israeli settlers who are at the heart of one of the world’s most intractable disputes. As a Pakistani-American Muslim, the conflict has been a predominant theme throughout his life, he writes. “I recall listening to more passionate khutbahs—Friday sermons—about the injustices in Palestine than stories about the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.” So he went to the West Bank to explore a question: "Is this land worth all the pain and suffering and bloodshed?”
This week, we bring you a robust examination of the Israel-Palestine conflict. If you, like our writer Wajahat Ali, have struggled to understand the stakes of this dispute for most of your life, this suite of perspectives should help:
On this week’s Radio Atlantic, Jeff will discuss the situation on the West Bank with Yossi and Wajahat. Both this and the Atlantic Interview episode will be available in the members-only ad-free podcast feed.
Today’s Masthead issue features an essay from our regular contributor Abdallah Fayyad, who sat down with Wajahat to discuss his own experience of the conflict as a Palestinian. Audio from that conversation will be added as a bonus to your ad-free podcast feed as well.
Not coincidentally, this issue lines up with the launch of The Masthead’s new forums—find them at forums.theatlantic.com—where we plan to hold civil dialogues about impossible topics. Consider this the First True Test of that proposition.
Without further ado, here’s Abdallah.
The Roots of Palestinian Nationalism
By Abdallah Fayyad
Many of the scenes and anecdotes captured in Wajahat’s story were familiar to me. The altercations with Israeli soldiers, the tensions with settlers, and the hatred that consumes both sides were not uncharted territory during my upbringing as a Palestinian in Jerusalem. I was reminded of what Palestine means to so many people around the world—and what it means to me. The religious symbols were never really the reason I loved my childhood in Jerusalem. It was a place that—along with its people, history, and culture—influenced me in a unique way. The city represented an incredible age-old story that I and the rest of the Palestinians were part of.
Wajahat’s piece also prompted me to reflect on the true meaning and purpose of Palestinian nationalism. When the conflict is presented to audiences outside the region, this perspective is often buried beneath the narrative of a broader global conflict between Muslims and Jews. To understand Palestinian nationalism, though, it’s necessary to consider a constituency Wajahat omitted in his story: Palestinian Christians. In the many media accounts presented in the West, it’s easy to see how observers might conflate Palestinians and Muslims. But Palestinian nationalism is rooted in a cultural and ethnic movement that has, over the past century, sought to gain control of the region from several different powers, including Israel, the British Empire, and, at one point, the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. It began not as a Muslim movement, but an Arab one, an effort to preserve and protect a people indigenous to the land.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Palestinian Christian population rapidly declined in Israel and the territories it has occupied since 1967. Many still hope to return. In Chile alone, there are over 400,000 Palestinians, the majority of whom are Christian. A future Palestinian state, if ever realized, would incorporate many of these Christians, including, of course, the ones who still live in Palestine.
And there lies the root of a common misunderstanding of what Palestine, the nation state, will look like. Many Muslims view the Palestinian struggle for freedom as a fight to recapture Jerusalem and other holy sites. But in reality, if East Jerusalem ever happened to be under Palestinian control, it would not necessarily mean that it would be under Muslim rule. Palestine would be the nation state of all its citizens, regardless of their faith.
Ultimately, that’s what Palestinian nationalism is about: not a movement that only intends to defend places of worship, but to preserve Palestinian culture and identity, an amalgamation of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and secular contributions. To many Palestinians—including me—the claim to the land is not religious but ancestral. We are indigenous to Palestine, whether we are Muslims, Christians, or Jews.
I sat down with Wajahat to discuss how these different framings of the conflict matter to its participants and observers. We talked about the occupation beyond the religious narrative and what a future Palestinian state would look like.
The transcript of our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Abdallah: Why did you decide to go to the settlements and try to understand them as a Muslim American?
Wajahat: As an American, I always assumed that the settlements are one of the biggest obstacles to peace. The Swiss cheese model, right? In the past 25 years, even after Oslo, the settlements have ballooned. Instead of 100,000 settlers in the West Bank, now it’s up to 385,000. And when you talk about a two state solution, well what solution when the settlements are just increasing and they represent the holes of the Swiss cheese?
I wanted to go as a reporter first and foremost, not as an activist or an ambassador, not as a representative of any group, which is what many people assume I would be or wanted me to be. I thought, I’ll talk to the settlers, see what motivates them, see why they move into volcanic real estate, and how they respond to criticism from Palestinians, the international community, and fellow Jews that they are one of the greatest impediments to peace.
Abdallah: You wrote: “For Muslims, Jerusalem is al-Quds, ‘the holy one,’ and, many hope, the site of a future Palestinian capital ... For Jews, it’s their biblical home, finally liberated and reunified in 1967, a dream fulfilled after 2,000 years. For Christians, it’s the home of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to be the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and entombment.” You only talked about the governance of the land strictly in the context of Muslims and Jews, but didn’t mention what, beyond religion, attaches Palestinians to Jerusalem. Why did you end up writing about a conflict between Muslims and Jews instead of Palestinians and Israelis?
Wajahat: I’m obviously not Palestinian. I’m not Jewish. I’m not Zionist. I’m not Arab. But the Israel-Palestine conflict has bled over into the American landscape: philanthropy, foreign policy, media, student activism. And as a student leader of the Muslim Student Association, I can say with hand over my heart that this was “The Issue” for us. Now as a professional, I can tell you that wherever I go, even though I’m not Arab, it becomes conflated, like Muslim and Arab often times, and this issue comes up and it inspires the worst angels of our communities. I went specifically as an American Muslim knowing full well that this issue corrodes the religious landscape for Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
I agree with people who say this is not exclusively a religious issue. But to deny religion as a very influential tool that has been used and abused by groups and has influenced the conversation is, I think, disingenuous. That is why I decided to frame the story the way I did because I would not be able to encapsulate all the narratives that exist in this ongoing, 70-year conflict.
Abdallah: One question that kept popping up in my head when I was reading the piece was, where did all the Palestinian Christians fall in the story? They are an important part of the puzzle and a part of a future Palestinian state.
Wajahat: When you write a piece like this, you think, “How can I not unintentionally do harm?” No matter what frame I take, I unfortunately harm someone. Palestinian Christians had the same response. They said, “Hey man, you forgot us. Why did you deliberately exclude us?” And that was not a deliberate exclusion. I think it was just the framing to anchor it in what I experienced at that moment.
Abdallah: I don’t think it was just a criticism from Palestinian Christians. For me, the reason it didn’t resonate in the way that it may have intended was, because Palestinian Christians were not mentioned, it lacked some of the nuance of what a future Palestinian state would look like. It undermined, in a way, the Palestinian narrative, which is that we do not claim that this land is ours because it happens to be where the Prophet Muhammad rose to heaven from. We claim this land to be ours because we are indigenous to it.
It was a misunderstanding almost of what Palestinian nationalism is, if that makes sense.
Wajahat: No, it makes sense, and I’m not one to discount your take on it but I don’t necessarily disagree with you either. This was one particular frame of the story. I don’t think they’re even disconnected because Palestinians were indigenous to the land, Muslims, Christians, and atheists …
Abdallah: And Jews as well …
Wajahat: And Jews. Eleven percent of the population in the 1920s were Jews. This particular story is not just a Muslim-Jewish issue, but that’s one frame of the story.
People who are intrigued and don’t know as much about the conflict saw it as one particular frame, one entry point. Here’s a reporter who happens to be a Muslim American and he’s taking us to the settlements. I told a story essentially that the settlements are coming at the expense of the Palestinians, and how could this lead to a two-state solution?
Abdallah: I wanted to talk about your conclusion. One of the interesting questions that you kept asking throughout the piece was, to both Palestinians and settlers, “Is this all worth it?” Other than Yossi Klein Halevi, the voices in the piece were saying, unequivocally, that this is worth it. But your conclusion was that ultimately land and buildings aren’t worth this kind of bloodshed and violence.
I think that adds to the asymmetrical narrative between Palestinians and Israelis. When you were asking that question, you were posing it to Israeli settlers on the one side and just Palestinians in the West Bank on the other. For the Israeli settlers, they have an alternative. This is something that they can give up. They can, if they wanted, move into Israeli territory, whereas Palestinians have absolutely no other alternative and have very low mobility. And so when you ask Palestinians, “is this worth it?,” the only answer they can give you is unequivocally yes. It is absolutely worth it, because we have nowhere else to go.
Wajahat: I thought and I hoped that I was subtle and unsubtle enough in the description of what I saw that most readers would say, “Here’s a settler who’s living on the high ground in Efrat with a one million dollar unit. And here’s a person who’s living in a refugee camp who literally has nothing and saying, ‘You took my land.’” I painted enough of a story where I thought it’s for the reader to decide. I thought it was pretty clear.
As far as the objective, “is it worth it?” This, I think is two-fold. Number one: As a person living outside who’s still nonetheless connected from a Muslim framework, there’s this deep longing for Jerusalem both from a religious point of view but also to empathize with the suffering of Palestinians. Is it worth it in the way religion has been used and abused for this particular conflict? Is it worth it with what it’s produced? I come out saying no. And that’s why I quote the Prophet Muhammad, who says about the Kaaba, “I love you more than anything but you’re still not worth the blood of a believer.”
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Today’s Wrap Up
- Today’s question: We’re looking for perspectives that make the Israel-Palestine story more complete, not more complex. What viewpoint have you seen recently that has advanced your understanding of it?
- What’s coming: On Friday, Karen Yuan writes about the difficult problem of memorializing moments of trauma.
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