Intifada Reprise: The Importance of Narratives

I’ve noticed that more students seem to be coming earlier to watch the music videos that  end when class begins.  Today I began a clip from the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour fifteen minutes before class.

In Thursday’s lecture I had tried to make an argument: For historians, Islam is not the explanation for the problems of the Middle East, despite what pundits might claim.  Although historians used to insist that certain races (or cultures or faiths) were essentially, innately, inherently violent or troublesome or superior, we have long since looked to multiple causes to explain trends in our own and other societies.

The other half of my argument had been that some in the Middle East viewed Islam as the answer to the problems in the region.  Today I pointed out that others in the region proposed a variety of solutions, and that people had been grappling with questions about how to create powerful and/or just societies ever since–even well before–the Ottomans (with whom we had begun the course).

A few weeks ago I had asked the students to think about the challenges facing rulers in the region.  This time I wanted them to think about the problems that people in the Middle East had been confronting.  Their responses:

It was in this context then, looking at these words, that I posed today’s problem: Why was there a Palestinian uprising in 2000?  I wanted both to show the connection between the issues Palestinians were facing and broader regional issues, and at the same time to argue that narratives had consequences.

There have been two major narratives surrounding the start of the 2000 intifada.  The first (and commonly accepted version in the US) ties the uprising to the 2000 Camp David Summit.  In this story, the Palestinians, always inherently violent and never really wanting peace, were unwilling to make concessions despite Israel’s “generous offer,” and, having rejected peace, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat returned home to begin war.

The second narrative takes a historical approach, refusing to assume any kind of national character argument: why would the Palestinians have begun an uprising in 2000?  What were the causes?

Beginning with the word cloud they had created about the challenges facing people in the region, I first summarized the economic, political, and demographic results of the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles as they had influenced the lives of Palestinians.  These included rapidly expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza open to Jews only, doubling of the number of Israelis moving into territories occupied since 1967, declining living standards, and division of the West Bank into mutually exclusive enclaves.  Then I showed them a series of tables from UN Human Development Reports illustrating poverty and unemployment, an increasing gap between rich and poor Palestinians, the overwhelming distrust that Palestinians had for the Palestine National Authority government, and their cynicism about the goals of the political parties that had presided over both the signing of the Oslo Accords and the devastating consequences.

Like all other uprisings that I can think of, a spark ignited the anger.  In this case, it wasn’t Arafat’s return to begin a war–this intifada began at least partly in frustration with his government.  It was an incident related to upcoming Israeli elections, when would-be Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visited the top of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to make a political point.  Despite warnings and pleas by Palestinian leaders that his visit would be incendiary, Sharon, accompanied by some 1500 Israeli police (according to Israeli sources), entered the enclave holy to Muslims.

My focus today was on the importance of historical narratives.  The consequences of the two versions are enormous, I argued.  If the first narrative is believed, then the Palestinians cannot be trusted as “partners for peace” because they are inherently, innately, and essentially committed to violence.  To accept this narrative, to accept this explanation for the uprising, one has to exclude all previous efforts at resolution, ignore longstanding Palestinian movements of nonviolent resistance, and be blind to the existence of any possible causes for Palestinian discontent.  More important, if Palestinians had no reasons to rise up, then there is no possibility for resolving the conflict–there are no grievances.

If, on the other hand, Palestinians face the same kinds of issues as those in the rest of the region (economic deprivation, external control, unresponsive governments), then there is a possibility for resolving conflicts by focusing on concrete and specific problems.

It isn’t only history that matters.  The way we narrate history matters, too.

I was thrilled when I realized that at least one student understood the broader implications of today’s session:

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