The last remaining major European colonial powers, Britain and France, were whiffing quite an opportunity at the dawn of World War I, as they found themselves on the right side of history. With the 400-year-old Ottoman empire flickering out, its massive hinterland in the Arabian Peninsula was ripe for the taking.
In 1915, Sir Mark Sykes, a British diplomat, was assigned the responsibility to work with his French counterpart François Georges-Picot, a colonial administrator, to decide the fate of the region. And decide they did, decisions which shaped the past, present and the foreseeable future of the Middle East.
Despite their knowledge of the complexities of the region, Sykes and Picot ripped apart the map with lines—straight, austere, imaginary—with nonchalant disregard for the sectarian, tribal and ethnic mosaic of the region: Britain had control of areas that today constitute Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, while France had control of what is now Syria and Lebanon. This is how the blueprint of a century of conflict and bloodshed was drawn.
Britain in particular was soon in a tight spot with the Zionists and Arabs in what is now Israel and Palestine. Britain was entrusted to support the recently founded Zionist movement that aimed to create “a national home for the Jewish people” in the land. But it was not an easy task. With Jews accounting for only 11 percent of the population in the area, and Arabs and Christians comprising the remaining 89 percent, it was difficult for Britain to support the formation of a separate nation for the Zionists. The difficulty of the mandate often resulted in Britain being at odds with both the Arabs and the Jews.
Although by the end of World War II the Jewish population had increased to 32 percent—almost one third of the total population—it still wasn’t enough for them to secure half the land that they desired. Matters reached a boiling point when it became apparent towards the end of World War II that Britain would soon make their exit from the troubled region. Both communities started jockeying for power. Thus began a struggle which led to wars, which enabled the Jews to systematically flush out the Arabs from the region in order to make their claims over the land more legitimate.
During the first Nakba—translating literally to “catastrophe” in English—in 1947-48, between 700,000 and 800,000 Arabs fled their homeland or were expelled by well-equipped World War II veteran Israeli militia. And the ones who could flee were lucky because they could at least escape with their lives.
The result was another map drawn in imaginary lines—this time, inked in blood. The sudden disappearance of a people and their social, cultural, political values define the first Nakba—one moment they were there, another they were gone. The lands were swiftly taken away by Israel, property expropriated, villages bulldozed—the way today Myanmar is bulldozing the possessions of the displaced Rohingya—and most importantly identities were erased.
But the Arabs did not give up their claims to the land of their ancestors. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was found in 1964 during a summit in Egypt. Fatah was established in 1965 by Yasser Arafat. And the Arabs kept up their fight for an independent state.
Then the second Nakba happened, to further stretch the imaginary lines that formed Israel. And this was better planned and more systematic than the first one. This time Israel had certain strategic locations in mind and they soon captured and occupied Gaza Strip and Sinai from Egypt, West Bank including East Jerusalem from Jordan and Golan Heights from Syria. People living in these areas were trapped, further adding to the ethno-sectarian tensions of the Arabian Peninsula.
In 1988 Yasser Arafat proclaimed the establishment of the State of Palestine. Palestine claimed right over a territory over which it had no actual control—territories that had been occupied by Israel during the second Nakba—adding another layer to the imaginary lines that divide and dominate the lives of the millions caught in the middle of conflict.
And in the last few decades there had been the Intifada—the uprisings by the persecuted Palestinians; there had been killing of innocent Palestinians by Israel; there had been illegal Israeli settlements built on Palestinians lands; and there had been the continued struggle of the Palestinians for their rights.
But the suffering of the Palestinians continues; their self-determination remains as elusive as ever. And there are factions among the Palestinians—the most major is the rift between Fatah and Hamas, their two major political parties. Infighting between these factions only make their fight for justice more difficult.
After a jostling between Hamas and Fatah, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, and still retains it, despite the interlude from 2014 to 2016. Fatah heads the legitimate government of Palestine, but is mostly cornered in the West Bank. There is much more than just a big chunk of “Israeli” land dividing the Palestinians today—including ideology and beliefs.
Amidst all this fighting, within and without, perhaps what is now needed is unity among the Palestinians for their common cause of self-determination and realisation of their rights.
Earlier this month, Palestinians marked the 55th anniversary of the founding of Fatah. But the anniversary made headlines this year for another reason: to the surprise of everyone, this year Hamas, Fatah’s bitter rival, allowed the Fatah supporters in Gaza to bring out rallies to celebrate the occasion.
While talking to AFP, a Hamas official said, “We consented to holding these festivities on Al-Wehda Street for Fatah to champion the unity of the Palestinian people.”
Does this signify a shift in the political strategy of Hamas and Fatah in their struggle for self-determination; to right the wrong of the all layers of imaginary lines that have distorted the plurality of the region and destroyed the lives of millions? Can Palestinians finally unite in their fight for their land, rights and justice? One can only hope.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem.