Image by Chisda Magid, 1/27/2012

How would a Republican administration help bring peace to Palestine and Israel when most candidates barely recognize the existence of Palestine or its people? As a Palestinian American Republican, I’m here to tell you we do exist.”

Abraham Hassan, a self identified Palestinian-American Republican, asked a question in Thursday night’s Republican debate, raising an interesting issue of Republican credibility in the Palestinian community domestically and abroad. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in typical fashion characterized the Palestinian population as “Hamas and others who think like Hamas,” as Romney said. Both candidates were emphatic that American and Israeli interests, especially when it comes to the Palestinians, are exactly the same. Gingrich attempted to defend past suggestions that Palestinians are an “invented people” by arguing that “[the term Palestinian was] an invention of the late 1970s…prior to that [Palestinians] were Arabs.”

In his book, Palestinian Identity, Columbia University professor of history Rashid Khalidi extensively chronicles the emergence of a Palestinian national consciousness as early as the late 19th century, like modern Zionism, belies Gingrich’s proposition (ironically, Gingrich fashions himself a professional historian yet seems unaware of Khalidi’s historical work). All national movements are imagined communities, to use Benedict Anderson phrase, but that does not mean they are meaningless, as the word “invented” seems to suggest. By denying the origins of Palestinian peoplehood, and hence much of its history, Gingrich is rejecting precisely what it means to be a Palestinian. Hassan’s statement that Republicans “barely recognize” the Palestinian identity appears to be a gross understatement.

Romney’s exaltation of Israel and silence on the issue of Palestinian identity subtly achieved Gingrich’s far more direct attack on the Palestinian national consciousness. Gingrich made two noteworthy points in his response. The first, that the Palestinian identity emerged, presumably, shortly after the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) gained observer status in the United Nations in 1974, is easily refuted by almost any historical account and is no longer taken seriously by most Israeli scholars and politicians. Gingrich’s second point is an emotional appeal, asking Republicans to empathize with the Israeli perspective.

Imagine, in Duvall County (in Florida) that eleven rockets hit from your neighbor. How many of you would be for a peace process?”

Gingrich’s appeal for greater sympathy for Israel seemed particularly inappropriate considering the question. Hassan’s assertion, “we do exist,” implies a demand for personal and political rights for the Palestinian community, including self-determination in the form of a sovereign state. Perhaps Hassan was saying that by barely recognizing the Palestinian people, Republicans have not even attempted to empathize with the Palestinian cause because it is impossible to recognize the shared circumstances of a community without acknowledging the existence of that community. Romney’s promise that his administration “will not have an inch of difference” with Israel ensures that Palestinians would never accept a Romney administration as an honest broker, mediator, or facilitator of any peace process. America’s international credibility, not only in the Palestinian community, is threatened by the prospect of a Romney or Gingrich administration that views American interests in the Middle East primarily through Israel’s eyes.

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