The Bloody Shirt of Palestine

The Evolution of the Palestinian Cause throughout the Middle East

After the assassination of Othman, the third Caliph of Islam in 656 CE, his relatives found refuge in Syria, then ruled by his second cousin Muawiya. Muawiya didn’t much care for his relations but recognized the widespread mood of indignation following Othman’s murder as a political opportunity. Othman’s bloodied shirt with its multiple stab wounds was circulated among the Syrian garrisons and then nailed to the pulpit of the Grand Mosque of Damascus to initiate the revolt of Muawiya.

Muawiya – “the Caesar of the Arabs” – became the fifth Caliph of Islam and founder of the Umayyad dynasty. The phrase “Othman’s shirt” – Qamis Othman – became the Arabic version of “waving the bloody shirt” in English: a political tactic to rouse the masses to anger. Today, the Palestinian cause is one of the most powerful “bloody shirts” for Muslims and Arabs worldwide: a rallying cry that still has real power. And like Muawiya’s canny use of the Qamis Othman fourteen centuries ago, the Palestinian cause simultaneously concentrates indignation, a sincere sense of injustice, tribalism, and a cynical lust for power.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in 1964, in East Jerusalem, a city then ruled by Jordan. Its first head, Ahmed al-Shuqairi had been born in Lebanon, was half-Turkish, and had served as both a Syrian diplomat and a Saudi ambassador. Two years before becoming the first PLO Chairman, when he was the Saudi Permanent Representative to the United Nations, al-Shuqairi had distinguished himself at a session of the General Assembly by “saluting” the Argentine Peronist, antisemitic and neo-fascist Argentine Movimiento Nacionalista Tacuara. Three decades later, al-Shuqairi’s successor Yasir Arafat repeated the error by embracing the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein just as Hussein began falling from grace in the eyes of other Arab regimes.

Fifty years ago, the Arab oil-producing states attempted to bring the West to its knees as part of an energy embargo in support of Arab armies fighting Israel. They would spend tens of billions of dollars over decades, ostensibly for the cause of Palestine, but most of it was wasted, or stolen. In general, the Palestinians have been consistently unlucky in both diplomacy and war but fortunate in their multiple second chances. Consider the following: a century ago an international treaty gave the Armenians a large state in what is now Eastern Turkey, the so-called “Wilsonian Armenia.” The Armenians, devastated by genocide, were too weak to keep it. No second chance for them. Yet the Palestinian cause still remains alive… 

A Palestinian state could have been formed on the basis of the 1947 UN Partition Plan or anytime from 1948 to 1967 on territory held by Jordan and Egypt, but it wasn’t to be. Seeking to emulate the Algerians in their successful expulsion of the French, the PLO failed for decades in their conflict with Israel, and meanwhile attempted to overthrow regimes in Jordan (1970) and Lebanon (1975). The Cause survived all these reverses. 

The PLO would eventually get a sort of quasi-state in 1994 as a result of the Oslo Peace Accords. Thirteen years later, part of that quasi-state, the Gaza Strip, would become the territory of the terrorist group Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and bitter rival of Yasser Arafat’s dominant PLO faction, Fatah. The PLO would go on to reject further peace deals in 2000 and 2008 while maintaining basically corrupt control over the occupied West Bank. Hamas, for its part, favors temporary truces, not peace deals, as it pursues its medium-term goal of displacing the PLO and its long-term goal of destroying Israel.

If the movement of the hour today is Islamist Hamas, fifty years ago the impetus for the Palestinian Movement was the revolutionary Left. Arafat claimed their West Beirut stronghold was the Hanoi, or the Stalingrad, of the Arabs. A number of senior Palestinian leaders were on the KGB payroll. The PLO helped train far-left German Red Army Faction terrorists, Nicaraguan Sandinistas, revolutionary Kurds and Armenians, and also some of the first Lebanese Shia fighters that formed Hezbollah, the Iran-backed political and military group that today dominates Lebanon.

Broadly speaking, the discourse on the Palestinian cause has evolved over the decades from revolutionary Marxist rhetoric evoking Che Guevara, Soviet Russia and Vietnam to a mixture of political Islam invoking the Holy Places and academic and progressive discourse emphasizing anti-colonial struggles, human rights, and indigenous racialism. Yet the energy that drives the Cause is ultimately less about rights, and more about sides. Although a considerable part of the Palestine discourse is presented wrapped in the contemporary language of rights and freedoms, its most militant champions have cared for only one right: the right to be free of the Jews. One difference between Hamas and the PLO is that whereas the former openly calls for the destruction of Israel and the Jews, the latter clings to the “right of return” where incoming waves of people of Palestinian origin would swamp the world’s only majority Jewish state. But the result would be the same. 

Gamal Abdul Nasser fervently supported the Palestinian cause while Egypt used poison gas on Yemeni tribesmen. Saddam Hussein, a great champion of Palestine liberation, did the same while trying to exterminate Iraq’s Kurds. The Assad regime, Qaddafi, the Algerian Generals, the genocidal Bashir regime in Khartoum and so many other non-Arab tyrants from Havana to Beijing have all behaved very similarly while stridently calling for the rights of the Palestinians. But this is not, as Westerners might think, hypocrisy, but rather Asabiyyah, the group feeling or tribalism of supporting ours against theirs

Arab states particularly concerned about Palestine today have their own very parochial concerns. For Qatar, supporting Hamas is a way of projecting political power (through money) and strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood. For Jordan, with its majority Palestinian population, the goal is to keep the focus outside rather than inward, preventing a recurrence of Black September 1970 when the Hashemites almost lost their throne. For Saudi Arabia, it is about the rivalry with Iran, Hamas’s other patron, and about securing Saudi leadership regionally as the country reforms internally and the Saudi Crown Prince ensures his own succession to the throne. For none of these actors is the Palestinian cause per se important: it is important only in so far as it strengthens the position of these nation-states.

If Palestine is somewhat less popular today in some quarters in the region than it was at the time of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, it is because some Arab states have moved on and have other concerns. But if you are a Pakistani or Turk, or an Iranian regime seeking regional hegemony, or a tinpot Third World kleptocracy or an immigrant, or a nihilistic progressive college student in the West seeking to identify with an intense and exotic cause, the bloody shirt of Palestine retains its considerable luster. Through the magic of the bloody shirt, “problematic” symbols and visions like borders and flags, holy places, ethnic supremacy, and blood and soil, have been redeemed into an acceptable form and recharged with the capacity to spellbind and sparkle.

Alberto Miguel Fernandez is a former career U.S. diplomat and Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C.

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