Helen Thomas Was Crucified for Saying of Israelis What Newt Says About the Palestinians

On the front page, our own Rania Khalek offers up 10 of the craziest things uncle Newt has ever uttered, and here, via Politico, is one more...

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich dismissed the Palestinian bid for statehood as the effort of an "invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community."

Gingrich also said the Palestinian Authority, which has typically represented the moderate wing of Palestinian leadership and formally accepts Israel's right to exist, is motivated by "an enormous desire to destroy Israel."

Gingrich's comments, in an interview with The Jewish Channel, edge him and his party further away from the two-state solution embraced over the last decade by presidents of both parties, and are the latest in a series of comments from Republican leaders that will set a sharply confrontational tone toward the Arab world if a Republican is elected next year.

Allow me to recycle some passages from a piece I wrote last year, when Mike Huckabee made similar comments...

Helen Thomas lost her job, and ultimately her reputation, for an off-the-cuff, off-duty remark that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” -- and “go back” to Germany, Poland or the U.S. It’s a disgrace -- the tone and context of her comments were completely overlooked in the feeding frenzy that followed (she was speaking to a bunch of Jewish students, for example).  

It’s important to understand the stunning hypocrisy in the overblown reaction to Thomas’ quip. The argument that there’s “no such thing as a Palestinian” -- that the Palestinians displaced in the creation of the state of Israel were just wandering Arabs who might simply be “absorbed” into neighboring Arab states -- is incredibly commonplace but not at all controversial. But if hundreds of thousands of Italians were living in exile in Europe -- if we were talking about Europeans rather than Arabs -- nobody would dream of suggesting they be "absorbed” by Spain and Portugal.  

The first rule for evaluating views of the Israel-Palestine conflict: never take anyone seriously who doesn’t grasp the simple truth that both Israelis and Palestinians have various and competing claims -- historical, cultural and legal -- to the same chunk of sun-baked earth. To suggest otherwise is not only historic revisionism, it’s also a serious obstacle to peace. It’s 2010, and the world’s attention (and political pressure) must be directed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in some way that both sides can live with. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are going anywhere. Entertaining fantasies of ending this decades-long conflict with some mythical evacuation of an entire people is not only a distraction, it’s a dream that leads the combatants to believe they might eliminate their opponents instead of making the concessions necessary to finally negotiate a settlement. 

That’s the intent of those who claim that Palestinians don’t exist as a people. While historian Rashid Khalidi has noted that Palestinian identity has been fluid over the centuries -- from biblical times through the era of Ottoman rule -- as a discrete national identity, it long predates the creation of the state of Israel. Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal traced the formation of Palestinians’ national identity to the Palestinian Arabs’ revolt in 1834. But historian Walid Khalidi wrote that while during Ottoman rule, which began in the early 16th century, the forbears of today’s Palestinians’ considered themselves to be subjects of the Empire, they were "acutely aware of the distinctiveness of Palestinian history." The Palestinians, dating back centuries, “considered themselves to be descended not only from Arab conquerors of the seventh century but also from indigenous peoples who had lived in the country since time immemorial, including the ancient Hebrews and the Canaanites before them." 

Thomas’ suggestion that Israeli Jews are all descended from refugees who fled Europe after World War II and have no connection to the region is no less ahistoric. The archeological record shows that there have been Jews in Israel/Palestine continuously for thousands of years. According to historian Alexander Scholch [subscription required], Jews made up about 4 percent of the population of Ottoman-era Palestine in 1850. That was probably a low point, but more migrated to Palestine over the following few decades. 

By the closing days of the British mandate, around a third of the population was Jewish. What followed was what the Israelis call the War of Independence and the Palestinians describe as the Nakba, or “disaster.” There was an often bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian Arabs. There were massacres, notably in the Arab village of Deir Yassin, where women and children were among the more than 100 dead. Many Palestinians fled in panic, and many more were forcibly expelled by Israeli forces -- turned out from homes their families had occupied for generations.  

The first Israeli government then passed a law forbidding their return. In 1946, the non-Jewish population of Palestine is estimated to have been about 1.3 million, and 750,000 are believed to have fled (the exact numbers are subject to heated debate). Many of their descendants make up the longest standing refugee population in the world. You can pick a number of starting points for the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, but this is when it became the seemingly irresolvable mess it is today. 

People say they want a balanced view of the Middle East conflict, but more often than not they want confirmation of their belief that the other side is motivated not by legitimate historical claims and concern for their communities’ health and safety in the future, but by monstrous and irrational blood lust that cannot be negotiated with and must be met with violence. And so the conflict continues. 


AlterNet / By Joshua Holland

Posted at December 9, 2011, 10:12am