H.A. Hellyer is senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London. He is author of A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond.
It is the 15th of May today. It is the day when Palestinians, Arabs and people all around the world remember what is called al-Nakba – “the Catastrophe” in Arabic, and the great dispossession of Palestinians from their land in 1948. Seventy years later, Palestinians have yet to establish a free and independent state in their homeland; their refugees remain unable to return home; and their most precious of cities, Jerusalem, lingers under Israeli occupation. So many seem confused why Jerusalem – treated so recklessly by the U.S. Trump administration – remains such a live issue beyond Palestinians themselves, particularly in the Arab world. But only those who fail to understand that the Arab revolutionary uprisings were all about Arab freedom can fail to understand why Jerusalem – al-Quds – and the Palestine question continue to be so very important indeed.
There were many reasons why so much of the Arab world erupted in late 2010 and early 2011: economic ones, social ones and so forth. No one should underestimate the complexity of those issues, nor how they differed in different countries. But there was one common thread that passed through them all: the attempt to regain Arab autonomy and the freedom of Arabs to decide their futures.
Nearly all Arabs have lived under colonial occupation or their parents’ generation did – 22 states, some 300 million people, who have a direct and recent historical memory of their rulers being foreign interlopers who exploited them. I’m an Englishman, whose ancestry goes through the south of England for as many generations as I know – but I am also an Arab, whose heritage goes through Egypt, Sudan and Morocco, back to seventh-century Arabia and beyond, and I know the history of my peoples. We all live with that memory.
As Arab populations threw off the colonial coil in the 20th century, they established postcolonial nation-states. The exception endures – Palestinians were not able to establish a state, and on their territory instead was the establishment of Israel, which could only take place via a mass exodus of Palestinians. But – and here is the but that people do not always recall when it comes to what has become known as the “Arab Spring” – Arabs in other Arab nation-states were not necessarily “free” either. It’s not a universal truth, but it is common enough nonetheless: Can we really say that Arabs are truly and definitively “citizens” in their countries?
Are Arabs empowered, as citizens, with the freedom to decide their own destinies? Or, far more often, are they simply subjects, living under autocrats and dictators? Is their autonomy really assured? Or is it the case that postcolonialism, another form of disempowerment, endures for so many Arabs?
Jerusalem possesses so much symbolism – it is a special place in the three main faiths of the Arabs: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Arabs count adherents of all among them – and so it has been for hundreds of years. As bizarre and incredible claims are made by U.S. Christian fundamentalists about Jerusalem and what they consider to be necessary “pre-Rapture” events, including President Donald Trump’s establishment of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem – they seem to forget their own co-religionists who still live under Israeli occupation. Christian Jerusalemites are Palestinian Arabs – the indigenous Christian population of the Holy Land are exactly the same stock as the Muslims who were shot in their thousands and killed in their dozens on Monday, as they protested near the Gaza-Israel “border.”
Israel’s defenders will point out the cynicism of Hamas, an appalling group that operates in Gaza and undoubtedly had a hand in supporting the protests – but it isn’t Hamas who is shooting unarmed Palestinians. It’s the Israeli military, and to blame Hamas for those bullets is to deny responsibility where it lies and to demand the victim take responsibility for being victimized. Lest we forget, Israeli forces occupy Palestinian territories, not the other way around. There is no parity here and an imaginary one shouldn’t be attempted.
Jerusalem teems with religious and cultural significance and has a deep, unending role in the Palestinian question. But Jerusalem represents something else as well: the symbolic denial of Arab autonomy in the modern age. It is one of the most meaningful cities that Arabs live in – and it is under occupation by a foreign power. As long as that is so, Arabs around the region will continue to note that the colonial period is not quite over – and that the freedom that so many of them sought and still seek is loudly denied.