Solving the “Problem of Palestine”: Arguing through Reason, Law, and Emotion Void of Strategy

Solving the “Problem of Palestine”: Arguing through Reason, Law, and Emotion Void of Strategy

Palestinehas long been considered a problem. Even when people refer to it as an issue, as in “the Palestinian issue” [al-qadiyya al-filastiniyya], it is “the Palestinian problem” that they really mean: how to divide the land, how to keep the people divided, how to stop the violence, what to do with the refugees?

Numerous international investigative commissions have tried to understand and solve those problems. These have included American commissions, British commissions, a citizen initiative investigation into the Sabra and Shatilla massacre in 1982, and international commissions, including the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry of 1945-1946, the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations, and numerous investigations by the United Nations, such as the UN Goldstone Commission of 2009.

Each of these commissions has consisted of a group of experts of one kind or another — academics, lawyers, military men — and each was charged by a government or coalition of governments with investigating a specific set of circumstances related to conflict or violence in Palestine.

To all of these visiting investigators Palestinians have been trying to explain the problem from their own perspective. They have tried to explain both why they deserve an independent nation-state and why their deprivation of statehood is among the root causes of the violence in Palestine. Much effort has gone into framing their arguments palatably — in a language that would be convincing to western governments and publics, international NGOs and the UN. 

Many of the commissioners charged with receiving this testimony have given those arguments due consideration. But rarely are the recommendations or Palestinians’ demands followed on the political ground. Although many of the reasons for this are outside most Palestinians’ control, the blame for the inefficacy of these commission reports does not lie solely with the commissions’ sponsoring organisations. Those who might activate these reports, at least as advocacy tools, have not done much either. Neither the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestinian Authority, nor civil society has developed a coherent and unified strategy for making these commissions and their reports functional and representative of Palestinians’ points of view, whether refugee, Israeli citizen, or rightless subject living under occupation.

The 1919 King-Crane Commission

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson dispatched the first investigative commission, the King-Crane Commission, in 1919, on the eve of the Paris Peace Conference that would divide the post-Ottoman Middle East among European powers. He sent the Commission to Greater Syria (Bilad al-Sham, including Palestine) in order to assess “the state of opinion there with regard to these matters [of the post-Ottoman Middle East], and the social, racial, and economic conditions.” This was “in order that President Wilson and the American people may act with full knowledge of the facts in any policy they may be called upon hereafter to adopt concerning the problems of the Near East-whether in the Peace Conference or in the League of Nations.”[1]

The majority of the residents of Palestine wanted independence in a non-denominational, united nation of Greater Syria, under the constitutional rule of a monarch. The majority did not want a mandatory state ruling over them, whether British or American. Many Arab commentators refused Article 22 of the League of Nations charter; they refused to be categorized according to western opinion as “peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.” The majority was also against the Zionist plan to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. But they also made clear the distinction between interloper Zionists and the indigenous Jewish residents of Palestine. They asserted that there was strong agreement on the fact that the Jews among the national citizens would have their rights, the same as others. “What is incumbent upon them is incumbent upon us,” a delegation told the King-Crane investigators.[2]

Political groups and the central Arab Government organized a large petition campaign. The Commission tallied over 90,000 signatures on the 1,863 petitions that they collected. Emir Feisal, the main Arab leader in Greater Syria at the time declared to the Commission that he was “authorized to represent [the people] by official documents containing over three hundred thousand signatures”[3] — long predating Twitter and Facebook! Many of those writing in the newspapers of the day believed that the destiny of Palestine would be determined according to the opinion of people, so it was necessary that an accurate general opinion be presented.

Unfortunately, the final report of the King-Crane Commission, which faithfully communicated the Arabs’ demands, did not have much effect on the political outcome. The Paris Peace Conference ignored its recommendations, the Report was not made public until 1922 and contrary to the Arabs’ expressed wishes, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine were divided, and the British military occupation under which Palestinians had been living was transformed into a Mandatory government.

Similar points were made in the very different context of the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry, an investigation carried out in 1945-1946 “to examine the question of European Jewry and to make a further review of the Palestine Problem in light of the examination.”[4] Albert Hourani, a British scholar of Lebanese background, presented the Palestinian case — again arguing for an independent, democratic, Palestinian state based on majority rule — in eloquent, measured terms:

“The Arab people, speaking through its responsible leaders, has again and again emphasized that the only just and practicable solution for the problem of Palestine lies in the constitution of Palestine, with the least possible delay, into a self-governing state, with its Arab majority, but with full rights for the Jewish citizens of Palestine.”[5]

Although the commissioners were impressed with Hourani’s presentation, the final report of the Commission ignored his arguments against partition. The Commission ignored Hourani’s insistence that issues “like immigration, should be decided by the ordinary democratic procedure in accordance with the will of the majority,” and instead recommended admission of 100,000 more Jewish immigrants and continuance of the British mandate.  Additionally, despite Hourani’s warnings about “the difficulty of whatever frontiers you attempt to draw for a Jewish State, there would still be a very considerable Arab minority in there, and this Arab minority could not be transferred forcibly because you can't transfer peasants forcibly,” hundreds of thousands of peasants and others were forcibly transferred out of their historic homeland.

The Mitchell and Goldstone Commissions

The Mitchell and Goldstone Commissions illustrate the changing nature of the international community’s ways of understanding and governing the Palestinian problem.

The Mitchell Commission, officially the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, released its report on April 30th, 2001, about six months after then US President Clinton called for it at the conclusion of the Middle East Peace Summit at Sharm el-Sheikh. Dispatched just about a month after the second Palestinian intifada began, it was not to be a tribunal but a committee tasked with finding out what happened, how to end the violence and how to prevent its recurrence.

The Goldstone Commission was launched in 2009 by the UN in the wake of Israel's 23-day assault on the Gaza Strip (the so-called “Operation Cast Lead”). This UN Commission aimed to investigate the implications of the hostilities for the human rights of the population of Gaza, examining the actions of both sides.

Both commissions involved the gathering of, on the one hand, technical and legal evidence, and on the other hand, personal stories of violence and victimhood. In the case of the Mitchell Commission, this involved receiving multiple written submissions explaining the events of the second intifada and their causes — from both the Israeli government and the PLO. Their work also included visits to Israel-Palestine, during which commission staff, and the commissioners themselves, were taken on field trips to hear from political representatives and victims of violence on both sides. These included Palestinian families of those killed by Israeli forces, people whose businesses were destroyed by occupation measures and farmers whose trees had been uprooted by settlers.

The Palestinians rested their case heavily on the Fourth Geneva Convention and underscored Article 49 that prohibits the establishment of settlements in occupied territory. They presented their arguments in an organized, professional way, as in a legal case. The Palestinians organizing the commissions’ field visits also sought to encourage the commissioners to understand life under occupation as Palestinians were experiencing it, for example by visiting with common Palestinians which elicited sympathetic reactions. In one such visit, a Palestinian farmer described what had happened to his family’s olive grove where Israeli settlers chopped down hundreds of their trees. That action by the settler struck a commission staffer as a spiteful actwhich helped the commission staff realize that the problem was not just one of Israeli forces against terrorist groups. The authentic testimony and emotional impact of non-professional, non-politicians made the most convincing impact, precisely because these regular people suffering from the occupation and settlements were not professional communicators with personal political agendas. The people who had families and had suffered economic deprivation in everyday ways were most persuasive. Not the official spokes-peoples’ reasoned discourse about the history of the occupation, nor the requirements of international law presented in the PLO written submissions. Even though the Palestinian lawyers made a good impression with their systematicity, organization, and professionally presented legal arguments — not unlike the organized, orderly presentations to the King-Cane Commission — in the end, what persuaded the Americans most was the evidence gathered in another register: the empathy-inducing interactions with regular people, or the negative emotions of spite and “vindictiveness” displayed by the Israeli settlers.

Justice Richard Goldstone said: “No written words can by themselves convey human stories the way people can do it in their own voice and words.” Similar to the Mitchell Commission, an important dimension of the Goldstone Commission was the airing of public testimony by regular people — referred to as victims — who lived through Operation Cast Lead. This was the first UN fact-finding commission to involve public hearings, and it “heard close to 40 testimonies during the public hearings … many from victims who had lost members of their families.”[6] Justice Goldstone, who said they were “fully aware of the pain to victims of coming here and recanting their sufferings”thanked the courageous women and men who had come forward to share their experiences. According to the Mission report, “[t]he aim of holding these public hearings … was to show the human side of the suffering; to give a voice to the victims so that they are not lost among statistics.”

In the report the authors noted that the “Mission received expressions of gratitude from participants, as well as members of the affected communities, for having provided an opportunity to speak publicly of their experiences.”[7] One of the commissioners insisted that they had tried their best to “portray the [victims’] plight from the stories that [they] heard.” What was important, she said, was that nothing “affect their right to be heard.”[8] However, victimhood oriented how participants were heard.

As Noura Erekat has noted, “the [Goldstone] Report never had the potential to deliver on its promises of justice and accountability absent significant political will among states.”[9] So what were those human stories of suffering meant to provide?  In opening the first public session, Goldstone stated: “The aim is to allow victims and survivors on all sides to speak for themselves to the international community. In that way we hope that their concerns will be better understood by a worldwide audience.”[10]

Perhaps Richard Goldstone had no intention of achieving anything more than Henry King — one of the commissioners in the King-Crane investigation — did at the end of his Commission journey to Greater Syria: “I think our trip has been very worthwhile, and that we have gotten results that could not possibly have been gotten without such a commission.” He said: “The people will certainly feel that they have been consulted and cannot help having a somewhat different attitude on that account.”[11] King provided people with the feeling that they were consulted.

Lacking a Political Strategy

For each and every one of the tens of commissions that has summoned their evidence and political arguments, Palestinians have corralled historical facts, collated statistics, presented photographic proof and offered eye-witness testimony. In these repeated efforts, they have tried to present their political demands for liberation in ways that those with final say over their fate might hear and understand their position.  In different ways, they have tried to present these claims as being representative of Palestinians living under occupation.

All of these commissions offered the language of political legitimacy –and legitimization — for Palestinians to appropriate, maneuver within, and present arguments through.In the unified, calm and representative petitions presented to the King-Crane commission, Palestinians conformed to the reigning vision of the world as a League of Nations. They continued to submit petitions to that body via the Permanent Mandates Commission using legalistic arguments that invokedrights granted by the legal system outlined by the League. They maneuvered through the reasonable, law-abiding and law-demanding language. Palestinians presented arguments in the legal language and sympathetic interactions convened by the Mitchell and Goldstone Commissions, in which emotions of carefully specified types — not melodramatic or apparently manipulative, only the unpractised, seemingly spontaneous testimony of victims — were invited. There is a consistent modus operandi in the way that Palestinians have tried to do this through reasoned discourse and by inducing empathy. But there is no consistency in the presentation of those arguments. Often the argument stops when people “feel they have been consulted.” But, they are farther away from having an independent state than ever. Israel’s settlement enterprise, illegal and an obstacle to peace, continues to expand; international law continues to be ignored; Palestinians’ human rights continue to be violated inside and outside Israeli prisons.

The reasoned arguments and impassioned pleas to international commissions will never be enough on their own. Palestinians’ representations of their own arguments, their descriptions of the justice of their cause, the injustice of the occupation and ongoing dispossession must be coordinated and convincing. One of the few efforts to present a unified and sustained argument to western publics and powers was the work of the Arab Office, which lobbied governments, introduced the Palestinian perspective to western media outlets and talked to western publics. The Arab Office shut down in 1949. As Cecil Hourani, one of the Arab Office directors wrote, “[w]e were trying to make friends, not to create enemies, and friendship is a mutual relationship which demands on both sides a will to like and be liked.”[12] Making friends to make one’s argument convincing is politics. It is time for politics to re-enter the struggle.

* Lori A. Allen is Lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, Cambridge University, and author of The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[1]See The King-Crane Commission Report, 28 August 1919, available at:

[2]“Interview King Crane Commission in the Corners of Palestine and East Jordan; June 1919,” in Watha’iq al-Haraka al-Wataniyya al-Filastiniyya 1918-1939. Min Awraq Akram Zu’aytir. (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1984), pp.23-24.

[3]Harry N.  Howard, The King-Crane Commission: An American Inquiry in the Middle East. (Beirut: Khayats, 1963), pg.121.

[4]Committee report available at:

[5]“The Case against a Jewish State in Palestine: Albert Hourani's Statement to the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry of 1946.” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Autumn, 2005), pp. 80-90, pg.81. Also see Walid Khalidi, “On Albert Hourani, the Arab Office, and the Anglo-American Committee of 1946.” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Autumn, 2005), pp. 60-79.

[6]See UN Human Rights Council, United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, available at:

[7]UN Human Rights Council, A/HRC/12/48, 15 September 2009.

 “Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Territories, Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict,” available at:

[8]“Unofficial transcript of 29 September 2009 press conferenceat the Palais des Nations in Geneva by members of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict -Justice Richard Goldstone, Hina Jilani, Professor Christine Chinkin, Colonel Desmond Travers,” available

[9]See Noura Erekat, “Review Roundtable Part II: Goldstone and Accountability,” available at:

[10]“United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict Public hearings – Gaza City, Morning Session of 28 June 2009,” available at:

[11]  Harry N.  Howard, The King-Crane Commission: An American Inquiry in the Middle East. (Beirut: Khayats, 1963), pg.154.

[12]Cecil Hourani, An Unfinished Odyssey: Lebanon and Beyond, Books I & II. (Beirut: Antoine, 2012), pg.64.