Imperial Perceptions of Palestine is a historic account of the way Palestine has been viewed by imperial powers, with specific attention paid to European powers during the decline of the Ottoman Empire. It explores the origins of the mainstream perception of Palestine and the myths surrounding Palestine that followed, which were used as an ideological pretext for the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. It brings back old debates that have been buried in the underscores of history to bring a refreshing angle to the discourse on Palestine and Israel today.
The book begins by exploring the concept of Biblical Orientalism, which is a concept that uses Abrahamic religions selectively to depict Palestine as “The Holy Land”. Even today, this is being used as a pretext to justify the Zionist ideology. Not only did Kamel explain the reason behind Biblical Orientalism being one of the ideological catalysts for creating the state of Israel but, by comparing local historic accounts of how Palestine was truly like, he found a way to debunk myths in the Biblical Orientalist discourse regarding Palestine.
One example is the stereotype that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land” and that its “Arab invaders” are lazy, do not co-operate and have left Palestine in an aesthetically displeasing state. Kamel used the example of Consul Finn when, in 1948, he wrote about his visit to Palestine and was surprised at how well the indigenous Arab population kept it. Kamel highlighted Finn’s words about the Tulkarem, Nablus and Jenin triangle, in which he recalls the cotton plantations he visited were “beautifully clean and orderly”.
During the latter days of the Ottoman Empire, British officials in their documents described Palestine as “southern Syria”, as a form of erasure of the Palestinian state and indigenous Palestinian community. Kamel shows that the British term “southern Syria” is inaccurate not only by tracing the word Palestine to its roots which predate the birth of Christ, but by looking into ancient Arabic texts that describe Palestine and show that not once was the term “southern Syria” used to describe Palestine.
Kamel also assessed the different political and religious figures involved in creating the state of Israel, along with the development of the discussions surrounding turning Palestine into a Jewish state. One example of this is when an extract of founder of the Zionist school of thought Theadore Herzl was quoted. “We shall try to spirit the penniless population across border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our country. Both the process of expropriation and removal of the poor must be carried out silently and discreetly,” Herzl wrote in a diary entry in 1895.
Here, Herzl was writing about creating a Jewish state in Argentina. After this quote, Kamel then explained the different options being considered for creating a Jewish state. This was not just a slick use of Herzl’s diary to prove that Palestine was not the sole country being considered, but it also effectively grabs the reader’s attention to an important debate that was going to be elaborated on in the book.
Not only did Imperial Perceptions of Palestine explain the way in which European powers came to the conclusion of creating a Jewish state in Palestine, but it also assessed the reaction of Arab leaders at the time. One particular example Kamel uses is the reaction of Prince Faisal, son of Sharif of Mecca Hussein Ibn Ali Al-Hashim, when he was approached by President of the Zionist Organisation, Chaim Weizmann.
“He expects a great deal from collaboration with the Jews. He is contemptuous of the Palestinian Arabs whom he doesn’t even regard as Arabs,” Weizmann wrote to his wife in 1918 in regards to Prince Faisal.
The book also gives a brief insight into the Palestinian leadership at the time, with a specific focus on the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, comparing the way his legacy is currently perceived by the mainstream of western historians to his actions that are less well documented today.
Today, Hajj Amin Al-Husseini is well known for his pro-Nazi views and is rightfully criticised by the Western analysts for them. However, the fact that he was seen as a puppet for the British is very rarely spoken about. British officials constantly praised Hajj Amin for his charisma and saw him as an ideal candidate to be the new Mufti due to the extent he promised to facilitate “London’s interest”. The fact that he was appointed illegitimately by the British is also something that is not often recalled.
Overall, Imperial Perceptions of Palestine is an intriguing read. Kamel’s writing style is engaging and he makes clever use of archives to analyse the way Palestine is viewed through the orientalist mind-set and to prove why Palestine in the eyes of Biblical Orientalism is problematic and inaccurate.
This book achieves its aim of giving an alternative viewpoint of Palestine using historic facts and events that have become lost on the mainstream western discourse on Palestine and Israel. The last chapter before the epilogue tied the whole book together by explaining why revisiting the mainstream view of Palestine is crucial to not only understanding the Israel/Palestine conflict in more depth, but for the sake of pro-Palestine activism itself.