Hazem Saghieh

The War on Gaza in its Broader Arab and International Contexts

The critics who found fault in some liberals rushing to mourn nationalism and pronouncing it dead were not mistaken. If we were to borrow from Plato’s allegory, with some alterations, life in the nineties looked more like shadows and blurred lines of real things, not real things themselves.

Nonetheless, there is a big difference between nationalism as the Arabs and the rest of the “Third World” knew it during the Cold War, and the nationalism of today. The former concealed and suppressed smaller identities, calling for a new national identity that united a transnational “Arab people.” As for the latter, it affirms existing identities, which tempts us to conclude that these identities are its ultimate end and final destination. Thus, it is ethno-nationalism in the narrowest sense of the word, so much so that terms like “nationalism” or “nation” are used only rarely and metaphorically, and, instead of promising a unified state larger than those that already exist, its demand, or dream, is a smaller autonomous state. The two nationalisms also have a different “enemy” - and nationalism cannot survive without enemies. “Colonialism,” the first formulation’s enemy, was tied to the “West” and by extension to “imperialism,” and their shadows converged over Israel. As for the second formulation, it appointed its closest neighbor as its enemy; it could ally with “colonialism” to defeat this enemy, while it is only hostile to “colonialism” if it is allied with that enemy.

While it is true that the first nationalism sparked civil wars in several Arab countries, culminating in the Yemeni Civil War of the 1960s, these wars were presented as side effects that had to be endured on the nationalist journey. Moreover, these conflicts were given labels that, to varying degrees, obscured and concealed reality, presenting them as, for example, contradictions between "progress and reactionary,unionism and isolationism," or "socialism and a capitalism tainted with feudalism." Today, however, communal groups wage their wars purely as communal groups that alone carry the familiar saturated dose of victimhood.

Culturally, the first nationalism boasted a broad and written culture rooted in Arab and Islamic history, leaving the second to take pride in a culture in which the spoken word and local folklore occupy broad swaths of the landscape.

Thus, the nationalism we have today is, to a large extent, antithetical to the forms of nationalism we are familiar with, inheriting nothing but absolute loyalty to a group of people, a large one in the predecessor and a smaller one in the successor. It could be correct to say that the defeat of the first form of nationalism, with Syria’s separation from Egypt in 1961 and then the defeat of June 1967, was among the causes for the rise of the second form, especially since the other doors, not just that of traditional nationalism, have been closed to our peoples. Indeed, the revolutions demanding freedom and democracy were also defeated, leaving military dictatorships and civil wars behind them. Before that, socialism, in its extremely bureaucratic and statist manifestation, had impoverished peoples and dried out societies.

Overall, it can now be said that the rise of the current form of nationalism rings the death bell of the old one, as well as almost every other promise. This undeniable rise is evident in the explicit civil wars that are underway, simultaneously, in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan, as well as the latent, or delayed, civil wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, and possibly other countries. Obviously, all of that is inconsistent with the notion that “the Ummah” {nation} is waging a fateful battle in Palestine.

Looking at the current war, we notice that this transformation is reflected in a way that silences what used to be a prevalent discourse about the "Arabism of the battle." And so, wars tied to Palestine were portrayed, truthfully or falsely, as wars that concerned all Arabs. For instance, the Arab Summit was established in 1964 as an institution with the aim of preventing Israel from diverting the course of the Jordan River, and the 1967 defeat led to intra-Yemeni and Egyptian–Saudi reconciliation, while every Arab state was categorized as either a "frontline state" or a "supporting state." Today, on the other hand, the axis directly involved in the war is notably led by a non-Arab state, Iran. That suggests that the forces who have accepted Iran's leadership are less than states and smaller in size, and it would be difficult to argue that those forces are the traditional torch-bearer of Arab nationalism. Something similar can be seen in international alliances: During the Cold War, the Soviet Union, the side facing the West and the United States, was presented as an ally of the Arabs. In contrast, it would be difficult to make the same claim today about China, which is considered the peer of the West and the United States. It is no longer a secret that the Chinese have voiced frustrations over their commercial interests being undermined by the actions of Houthis in the Red Sea. Similarly, the countries of the “South” replacing those of the “East” as the supporters of Gaza in the war being waged against it seems more a reflection of the Guevara-Fanon tradition than that of the Soviets or even the Chinese. The same applies to the make-up of the mass demonstrations in support of Palestine across the globe, especially in the West. In both cases, we are seeing a merger between "pre" statehood and nationalism and "post" statehood and nationalism. And as we have come to understand, that is among the hallmarks of globalization and our times.