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In the shadow of empire
The imperial institutional commons (and its absence).
I have a photograph from 1913, the year before the First World War started, and it’s a picture of a band playing for the patrons in the cafe and the band consists of two Muslims, a Jew and a Christian and this would not have been abnormal in 1913. This [Israel-Palestine] conflict is only a century old and it is a political conflict over disputed territory.
In 1913, Palestine, like most of the Middle East, was part of the Ottoman Empire. That Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War. Palestine became part of the British Empire under a League of Nations Mandate. The British left in 1948.
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So, an indefinite Ottoman imperium was replaced by a provisional British imperium and then by no imperium. People talk of the US as an imperial power, but the US does not run an empire, it runs an oceanic hegemony based around naval power. This is not the same thing.
US hegemony has created something of an international institutional commons — the so-called rules-based international order or the liberal international order — but that order relies on other states being willing partners. It is not a full institutional commons because it is not a systematically enforced commons. International law is pretend law precisely because it has no remedies,1 it has no systematic enforcement.2
The US engages in some enforcement, but of a hegemonic, not of the full imperial form, precisely because it is not an imperium: it does not bundle provision of public goods with territory in such enforcement. It has alliances which involve various degrees of support for other states provision of public goods to their territories.
The Pax Romana was a full imperial peace based on bundling Roman provision of public goods with Roman territory, with imperium. Neither the Pax Britannica of 1815-1914 nor the post-1945 Pax Americana are of the same form.
Both the Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana represent the capacity, and limitations, of naval hegemony. Direct military conflict between the Great Powers was limited in occurrence and scope but plenty of other conflicts occurred in both periods.
British hegemony in the Middle East faded as its imperium retreated. US hegemony in the Middle East has always been very partial and contested and is fading as it becomes a net energy exporter.3
The great advantage of empire is the imposition of order over a large area. This will be an imperial order, one with favoured and disfavoured groups, with typically very limited accountability to anyone outside the ruling elite of the empire.
Imperial protection is, to varying degrees, a predatory protection. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that such imposition of order is beneficial for trade, for the arts and cultural activities, for intellectual life, for the capacity of ordinary folk to go about their lives. Indeed, the population growth that imperial peace enables can create social crowding that eventually undermines the empire itself.
The aforementioned multi-faith band in the 1913 cafe in Jerusalem reflected a long-standing imperial order. It was an imperial order that very much created a hierarchy of subjects, one marked by periodic violence and massacre, and which would end in war and genocides. Nevertheless, it did impose a long-standing order on its territories that mostly allowed folk to go about their business.
Imperial versus civilisational institutional commons
With the collapse of the Ottoman imperial order, the Middle East became much more fractured. One of the features of Islam, like that of Brahmin civilisation, was that dominance of law by religious scholars created something of a civilisation-wide institutional commons.
This was also true of medieval Latin Christendom, due to the reach of the Church and of its canon law. There was a key difference, however, in that Christianity accepted that law was human, even Church law. The place of canon law within the framework of law was a decision of secular authorities that could be, and eventually was, revoked. Retaining authority over law, Christian polities created distinct, and persistent, institutional arrangements to a far greater degree than did the autocracies of Islam and of Brahmin civilisation.
By 1920, Britain had centuries of experience in imposing its imperial institutional commons on its possessions. It was notable, however, that it had generally operated in majority Muslim lands via dependent Muslim rulers. It would do so in Transjordan (now the Kingdom of Jordan), with success. This was not true in Mandatory Palestine.
Operating via dependent rulers meant minimal imperial disruption to the institutional commons of Islam. In Mandatory Palestine, that institutional commons was the underlying reality, but without clear political expression. Invoking that civilisational institutional commons was a potential path to political authority. One that Mohammed Amin al-Husseini — appointed by the British as Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in 1920 — was to use, and both Hezbollah and Hamas still do.
The fundamental concept of the Caliphate is that the civilisational commons of Islam should have a common political authority. Hezbollah and Hamas are both religious movements whose religious ambitions are politically expressed precisely because of their religious conception of the proper politics of the Ummah, the Muslim community.
Disrupting existing order
The disruptive factor in the Muslim political vacuum of Mandatory Palestine was Zionism. The flow of Jewish settlers into Palestine was potentially manageable. The newcomers brought in financing and human capital that created surging economic activity. This stimulated an inflow of Muslims and Christians from elsewhere in the Middle East into Mandatory Palestine.4
Both the Jewish and the Christian-Muslim inflows were, however, disruptive to the existing social order. Rising wages from the influx of capital disrupted the debt bondage that was a significant basis for the socio-economic power of local landlords. The influx of people outside existing connections — including client-patron connections — made those connections relatively less valuable. The modernising impact of European-educated Jews undermined the standing of landowning and religious notables.
Amin al-Husseini was a scion of the existing local elite. He invoked Muslim identity against the Jewish newcomers as a way of protecting the standing of the landlords and religious notables while integrating the Muslim newcomers by mobilising them against the Jewish newcomers.
This represented quite systematic rejection of cooperation with the Jewish newcomers for mutual benefit, even though that was already clearly happening at scale. But, as we can see, that was precisely the problem.
Jewish political authority
The other disruptive factor was many of the Zionists had a firm conception of creating Jewish political authority. The notion of a Jewish polity on Muslim land was deeply offensive to many Muslims (and still is). Equal standing with Muslims for Jews was not on offer from Islam.
Mainstream Sunni Islam is quite explicitly a religion of dominion. The religious horror at Jewish political authority on Muslim lands led to no Arab League state being willing to recognise Israel, a refusal epitomised by the Khartoum Resolution of 1967, which stated:
… the framework of the main principles by which the Arab States abide, namely, no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it, and insistence on the rights of the Palestinian people in their own country.
Despite the religious horror against Jewish political authority, when Arab states have been willing to recognise, and deal, with Israel, peace breaks out, as both Egypt and Jordan have demonstrated. The possibility of Saudi Arabia making peace with Israel seems to have motivated Hamas’s recent outrages. This is completely in line with the longstanding policy of Hamas of relentlessly seeking to disrupt any possibility of an Israel-Palestine peace — making Hamas a functional ally of all those Israelis opposed to a two-state solution (as Daryl Cooper notes in the Breaking Points segment).
Amin al-Husseini fought against both expanding Jewish settlement and those within the Arab community willing to seek mutual beneficial accomodation with the newcomers. The latter sentiment has never entirely disappeared but, since al-Husseini, it has never had serious political expression within Palestinian politics.
After the Holocaust proved the fundamental claim of Zionism — that Jews were not safe in Europe — to be catastrophically true, the Zionist impulse got an enormous boost, both among Jews and wider Western opinion. Mandatory Palestine had never been profitable for Britain and it now became a huge strategic negative, so Britain surrendered its Mandate.
The Jews had built a functional political infrastructure. Al-Husseini had not, beyond the demands of “struggle”. This was another pattern to be repeated in Palestinian politics.
So, when the 1948 Israeli War of Independence was over, Egypt grabbed Gaza and Jordan the West Bank. Apart from West Bank Palestinians becoming citizens of the Kingdom of Jordan,5 in Gaza and elsewhere, Arab states did not seek to integrate Palestinians into their own political orders, keeping Palestinians defined as — it turned out, hereditary — refugees, including in dead-end camps, so as to be stateless sticks to beat Israel with.
The statelessness of Palestinians was not created by Israel, but by the Arab world. The C20th saw lots of population “swaps”, such as between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s,6 or between India and Pakistan in the 1940s. Only Palestinians were kept stateless, with increasingly permanent camps, by their ethno-religious confreres. Religious horror at the creation of a Jewish polity was much more important than Muslim (or Arab) social solidarity.7 The affront of Israel’s existence to Islam’s civilisational institutional commons was more important than creating robust local political commons.
By contrast, Israel accepted, and integrated as citizens, waves of Jewish refugees from Muslim countries, and has continued to do so with incoming Jews. Israel is far more a country of refugees, and their descendants, than it is one of “settlers”. Zionism was profoundly disruptive in its drive to create a Jewish political authority, but it was also advantaged — and remains advantaged — by far greater seriousness in doing so.
The PLO came to represent a shift to Arab nationalism — so incorporating Christians, but not Jews — and to secular models of struggle coming from Marxism and similar streams of thought. What it did not represent a shift to was creating a Palestinian political order, beyond the demands of “struggle”.
While Hamas continued that tradition of not seriously investing in the development of a specifically Palestinian social order for religious reasons, the PLO continued it for rather more mercenary ones. Palestinians retaining their status as refugees — and the PLO as centre of “resistance” to Israel — is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.8
Establishing a Palestinian state recognised by, and at peace with, Israel would destroy the status of Palestinians as refugees and require the hard work of building a socio-political order, a functional local institutional commons. Fatah, and the rest of the PLO — transmorphed into the Palestinian National Authority — has never shown serious interest in doing that.
The realisation that there is no serious Palestinian interlocutor with Israel for peace has led to an ongoing radicalisation of Israeli attitudes to the Palestinian question. If no deal is on offer, then the alternative strategy of “making new facts” — with the logic of ultimately expelling the Palestinians — becomes a strategy that makes more and more sense. Darryl Cooper notes this Israeli radicalisation on Breaking Points, though he does not get into the why.
Religion is not merely an intensifier of the Israel-Palestine dispute, it has always been a central factor in its dynamics. But to really understand how the Palestinians keep going backwards, one has to understand how truly dreadful Palestinian leadership has been, and why it has been so dreadful.
The chimera of the institutional commons of Islam not requiring investment in a Palestinian political order; the creation and the use of the statelessness of Palestinian refugees; the vast flows of funds to not make peace with Israel; have all combined to create the endless horrors of the Israel-Palestine contentions.
Mark S. Weiner, The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom, Picador, 2014.
Because international law is pretend law — so not reality tested — international lawyers tend to be the main vector for bullshit Theory entering into law faculties.
The Great Power most dependant on the smooth flow of Middle Eastern oil is now China. The CCP wishes to challenge US hegemony, yet it rules the society that is economically most dependent on the pacified oceans that hegemony creates.
This non-Jewish inflow is why the definition of a Palestinian refugee only requires having been resident in Mandatory Palestine in the period 1946-48, or be a descendant of such a person.
This has been corrected from the original posting, which did not note that Jordan was an exception to the wider pattern.
This is a continuing pattern, as the lack of Muslim response to the CCP’s repression of the Uighur's demonstrates.
This is also true for Hamas, which receives considerable funding from Iran and elsewhere on the basis of its hostility to Israel.