by Elias A. Rashmawi
Since this article was written, the situation in Palestine has changed dramatically. Breakthrough believes that it is time to reassert international solidarity with the demands of the Palestinian liberation movement. For peace to become a reality in Palestine, the illegal Israeli settlements– organized in the first place by the government–must be withdrawn. Israeli troops must also be withdrawn; 27 years of occupation is far too long. Statehood for Palestine remains the only resolution that can promise justice and peace.
On my way back from jerusalem to my home in the city of Ramallah, on the evening of September 13, 1993, the day PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the "Declaration of Principles" on the White House lawn, I found myself in the midst of perhaps the most bewildering and stunning experience of recent years. The once-outlawed and dearly-protected Palestinian flag, in a size like I have never seen before and with a silky Madison Avenue shine, was being carried by carefree euphoric youth and flaunted before smiling Israeli soldiers who simply stood watch without their usual deadly barrage of bullets and tear gas. Immediately, something in me trembled with extreme intensity, as that particular shiny flag suddenly seemed fake and unreal.
You see, the flag that I recognize has no shine, and is always wrinkled and torn as a result of being hidden away from these very soldiers and others like them. It is sewn by a mother, or maybe a youngster, using uneven scraps of material found in any typical Palestinian home. It is the type that children died for as they climbed electricity poles despite mortal danger. It is the very flag that draped the coffins of thousands of my people killed for being who they are, Palestinians. It is that ever-beautiful scrap of paper colored by a child and plastered on a school bag for the world to see. That is the flag that I and my entire people know–the flag of the 1936 six-month general strike, of the villagers massacred in 1948 in Deir Yassin, of Sabra and Shatila and Beirut, of Jabalya camp, and of Beit Sahour–the
flag of the stubborn and resilient Intifada.
But then again, the symbolism embodied in any particular flag is a direct function of the conditions during which it is being displayed, and is integrally related to the national discourse of the moment. A Palestinian flag flying under the protection of the occupying power can’t negate that same occupation, while the flag that flies in spite of the occupation truly symbolizes the narrative of proud liberation.
I did not know at the time that this shiny clean flag and thousands of others like it, as well as countless full-color Arafat posters and T-shirts, distributed "free of charge," were financed by Arafat’s own political wing to celebrate the "coming of peace." In fact it was later revealed by the Israeli media that much of this paraphernalia was manufactured by a right-wing Israeli company that wanted to capitalize on the moment.
That day, I continued home only to witness more of the same: hundreds of cars and trucks with children packed inside and on the roofs, continuously honking, and enthusiastically cheering Chairman Arafat as the liberator of our besieged land. For a moment, if not for the sobering sight of soldiers toting automatic rifles everywhere, I almost believed that the occupation had just ended, and that our broken families were soon to be reunited. Emotionally charged, and with an uneasy feeling of excitement, I ran for the television set hoping to uncover the reasons for all the festivities. But instead of finding answers to my curious questions, I found disappointment and shame.
When given the chance, as the entire world watched his Washington address, my national leader spoke nothing of our history, nothing of our bitter struggle for a homeland, and nothing of our displacement and long exile. I watched, waiting for a mention of the endless trail of massacres carried out against our people, for a mention of our right to return, to statehood, and to self-determination. I waited for our collective memory as victims of repeated colonial projects to be told. I waited for our suffering to be recognized without conditions or selectivity. I waited for our heroic story–the Palestinian story–to be narrated by its entrusted leader.
Instead, and much to my indignation, it was Rabin that arrogantly spoke of our experience as he portrayed our entire history and existence as a menace to his own. He perverted truth, and turned reality on its head as he painted the Israeli occupiers as victims of the "heartless" Palestinian people–all of that, while my national leader stood smiling to the cameras. It was then that I covered my face with my hands in shame and anger. For regardless of any political agreements or backdoor diplomacy, our story should have been told without reservation. After all, we are the "victims of the map," the dispossessed, the landless, and the dwellers of wretched camps. And suddenly, it all made sense. The shiny, clean, and pressed flag–void of any meaning of suffering– that I saw earlier was apparently made to enshrine a false history and an unjust peace.
The lopsided narrative that Rabin presented to the world during the Washington ceremonies is but a rude continuation to that which has been told by other Zionist leaders for many decades. "It was not as though there was a Palestinian People in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian People and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them," once declared the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir as she attempted to negate the very existence of the Palestinian people. "They did not exist."
The absolute contempt for us as a people can best be illustrated by the writings of the founder and architect of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl. In his landmark essay, "The Jewish State," Herzl wrote that if Jewish settlers were to "move into a region where there are wild animals to which the Jews are not accustomed–big snakes, etc.–I shall use the natives, prior to giving them employment in transient countries, for the extermination of these animals." Later on, Israeli leaders took turns in their diatribes and racist remarks, as Palestinians were referred to as "twolegged animals," "cockroaches" to be crushed, and "flies" to be swatted.
Yet, and much to the disappointment of Arafat’s proteges, the elaborate festivities that swept nearly every town and village came to a sudden and immediate halt only one week after it began. No longer did you see or hear the louder- than-ever cars and trucks plastered with Arafat’s photo. No longer did youth crowd the streets with their dancing, or fill the air with their singing. It was as if there were some sort of order from the "king" of the land to "his commoners and servants" to celebrate for exactly seven days and nights, for reasons that he alone understood-perhaps because he needed cheerleaders for his performance in the American capital. After all, the real celebration of a victorious liberation movement can’t be anything but spontaneous and total in scope. It could never be limited to the honking of cars, or by the display of brand-new Israeli-made shiny Palestinian flags, or to one single week of festivities by only a segment of the supposedly victorious people.
Gaza and Jericho, we were told by our leadership, would be placed under Palestinian rule as a first step. And soon after, the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip would be transformed into a sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Refugees in exile would be allowed to come home. People were promised economic revitalization and rejuvenation through the billions and billions of dollars that would be poured into the area.
At the time, the leadership pointed to the scheduled redeployment of Israeli army forces on December 13, to the promised release of prisoners and to the future hope of dismantling the settlements, as solid proof of their successes. They asked us not to pay attention to the continuous declarations by Israeli officials that such things were simply not going to happen. Rabin’s denial of Palestinian statehood was simply for Israeli public consumption, so we were told.
Given such promises, and the drastically differing views over the intent of the signed agreement, it was not long before the debate within the Palestinian movement became heated. Those rejecting the accords pointed to a host of problematic issues resulting from the agreement and its false promises, the most paramount of which is the total dismemberment of the Palestinian people, the full negation of their history, and the complete undermining of the national consensus. "Whatever happened to the Palestinian right to return?" they asked as they questioned the transformation of a collective right into an individual privilege subject to the approval of the Israeli government.
They pointed to the fact that there are no guarantees whatsoever that the Israeli army would really withdraw from the area, and cited the language of the agreement as well as that of Israeli officials as proof of their claims. Even traditional critics of the Palestinian resistance movement, and historical supporters of Israel, such as the well- respected journalist and Middle East expert, Thomas Friedman, agree with this view. "Mr. Arafat’s letter to Mr. Rabin is not simply a statement of recognition. It is a letter of surrender, a typewritten white flag, in which the PLO Chairman renounces every political position on Israel that he held since the PLO’s foundation in 1964," Friedman wrote in the New York Times four days before the Washington festivities. When the Israeli army sent its undercover units to hunt down and kill pro-Arafat militants right after the PLO Chairman had ordered them to lay down their weapons and surrender to the army, Israel’s hidden agenda became even more evident, and claims by Arafat’s critics became more convincing.
I attended several of the countless rallies held in nearly every city, town, and camp for and against the signed accords, and engaged people from many walks of life, in an attempt to understand the reasons for the apparent support Arafat was commanding in the streets. It became evident to me that the PLO Chairman had skillfully manipulated the desperate economic situation of the people and transformed it into a winning ticket, or so he hoped. He had capitalized on the patriarchal position he had created for himself as the uncontested national leader, and presented himself as a prophet-like figure with all the answers.
For instance, one afternoon a few days after the accords were signed, I was called by a friend to step out of a Gaza store, where I was engaged in the usual afternoon coffee and heated debate, in order to observe the then-new phenomenon of masked youth strutting the streets with automatic rifles on their shoulders. It was explained to me by many bystanders in a casual yet enthusiastic manner that these were going to be the protectors of the future state and its institutions, the guardians of the coming wealth, and the symbols of Arafat’s absolute power. Such was the popular perception in the Gaza Strip: "the Old Man (as Arafat is called) is coming to save the day," much like Gary Cooper in a high-noon shootout. During all pro-agreement rallies, it was not the revolution that was hailed for achieving the perceived triumph, but the Chairman alone. He was presented by his party as the brave and lone peacemaker, some sort of Robin Hood coming to lend a hand to the wretched and impoverished.
In the midst of that overwhelming and overpowering euphoria, little if anything was said about the autocratic practices of the Chairman, his absolute control over finances, and the well-known corruption of his institutions. Very few chose to recall that not so long before, Arafat had stopped paying the salaries of thousands of fighters and their families, and drastically slashed the financial support for the Intifada. All that was forgotten as the Chairman came on a "white horse" promising heaven for those dwelling in the hell of the Gaza camps.
But, before long, such authoritarian leadership practices of the Chairman began to be openly and seriously challenged by Arafat’s increasingly-popular critics. Those against the Oslo Agreement began pointing their finger not only to the serious political problems of the pact, but also to the abrogation of the democratic process by the PLO Chairman. An agreement of this magnitude affecting the fate of the entire Palestinian people warrants a popular consensus, or at least a majority, they argued.
Yet Arafat continuously refused to convene the Palestine National Council (PNC), the Palestinian parliament-in-exile and the only legislative body with authority to ratify such an agreement. In fact, the PLO Chairman went so far as to nullify sections of the Palestinian National Charter, an act requiring a two-thirds majority vote of a PNC session held expressly for that purpose. The Chairman has also refused to hold a national referendum on the agreement, arguing that it would be a waste of time to do so.
As a result of these autocratic actions, many of the Chairman’s own supporters have joined the loud choir of his critics. Well-known individuals, such as Dr. Haider Abdul Shafi, Hanan Ashrawi, poet and scholar Mahmoud Darwish, senior Fateh member and PLO Foreign Minister Farouq Qaddoumi, senior PLO official Shafiq AI-Hout, Palestinian scholar Edward Said, as well as countless others-including some leaders of political parties that support the Oslo agreement –have attacked the Chairman’s policies, and some have abandoned him altogether. Many have gone so far as to question Arafat’s credentials to lay the foundation of a civil society, the most important building blocks of which are the democratic process and the separation of powers. "We have not struggled all of our life to create an undemocratic despotic system of government on less then two percent of our land," stated one critic in an opposition rally. "Our national aspiration cannot be shrunk down to mere Bantustans."
What unites the vast array of Arafat’s critics, ranging from those with egalitarian and democratic tendencies to those with theocratic ideologies, is the fear that he has abandoned the very principles and history that provided him with the position and stature he currently enjoys. Advocates of democracy are as concerned about the sort of society envisioned by the Chairman as they are concerned about the future of Diaspora Palestinians. They speak about duality in the struggle: social and national. A neo-colonial model such as that of Hong Kong or Singapore, where the people are transformed into cheap laborers without any say over their destiny or socio-economic situation, is a change that they do not welcome. They fear a government run solely by Arafat will open the door to human rights abuses, the disregard of political liberties, even prison camps for critics. Arafat has made it clear, they charge, that he will not allow any dissent to take place, and that he has taken it upon himself to silence all critics. In this context, these parties have been able to generate increasing support, as demonstrated through their winning leadership positions in Palestinian institutions.
The agreement completely marginalizes central issues such as settlements, borders, natural resources, Jerusalem, and statehood. In other words, it omits all aspects of Palestinian sovereignty. And, although it is important that the Palestinian people administer their own health care, education, communications, and most aspects of civil government, it is essential that they be able to legislate laws, protect their borders, govern their land, and fully determine their destiny without the interference or control of Israel. Not only does the agreement not address these at the present time, but, in fact, it creates an obstacle to dealing with these crucial issues in any foreseeable future.
Because the text of the agreement does not address fundamental aspects of Palestinian sovereignty, its implementation has been left open for interpretation. For instance, Israel argues that the illegal Jewish settlements will be outside the jurisdiction of the Palestinian authority, and that a system of dual government will have to be enacted. Arab Jerusalem will never be turned over to the Palestinian entity, Rabin has repeatedly declared, as he pointed to the massive construction and settlement projects that have been carried out in the city. Never will millions of Palestinians be allowed to return, for that is a serious security threat to Israel, the Israeli Prime Minister also stated. And never will Israel go back to its 1967 borders. "Administrative autonomy is all that the Palestinians will get, and nothing more. If Mr. Arafat wants to promise them a state, then that is his problem. But that is not what they will get," said Rabin to his parliament. He, and other Israeli leaders, went on to argue that the essence of the agreement is to achieve stability for Israel by making Arab markets fully dependent on the Israeli economy, a NAFTA-like agreement in the Middle East.
In fact, and contrary to popular perception, "Israel has escalated its expropriation of Palestinian land and expansion of Jewish settlements and infrastructure in the Occupied Territories, since the signing of the Declaration of Principles." Such was the conclusion of a January 1994 joint statement by four well-recognized Palestinian institutions– the Palestine Human Rights Information Center, the Land Research Committee, the Palestine Geographic Research and Information Center of the Arab Studies Society, and the Society of St. Yves. The statement went on to document what they called "disturbing developments, all in violation of customary rules of international law, the individual and collective rights of the Palestinian people, and the terms of the Israel-PLO agreement."
According to the four organizations, "over 46,000 dunums of the West Bank land were expropriated from September 13 through the end of 1993; direct expansion of settlements occurred on 1,025 dunums, entailing the uprooting of 5,540 fruitful trees; eight new Israeli nature reserve projects were initiated on Palestinian lands, and eight new roads connecting settlements were constructed; 46 extended families were evicted from their lands, and 63 homes were demolished."
Now that the December 13 deadline for the start of Israeli military withdrawal has passed and negotiations are stalled– agreement could not be reached even over simple issues like the size of Jericho and the control of entry points–Arafat’s promises to deliver an independent Palestinian state have suddenly become even more distant. As a result, the Chairman’s political bloc has lost nearly all of the local elections held after the signing of the accords, including those for student and trade unions. And while his critics have been gaining momentum, his support in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan has dwindled to almost nothing. Many Fateh fighters and Intifada activists, who early on obeyed his orders to surrender to the Israeli authorities, have once again joined the resistance movement. International donors have withheld much of their promised aid pointing to the serious incompetence of the Chairman’s proposed government. And Israel, gratified by the weakening of the PLO as a result of the agreement, now insists that if Arafat does not like their deal, he does not have to take it, for they have nothing to lose. Thus, Israel has skillfully placed the Palestinian leadership in a very difficult corner: either they further concede to all new Israeli demands, or admit their mistake in accepting the agreement in the first place, risking damnation by the Palestinian people for surrendering their rights and struggle. What a choice the Chairman has to make!
Defenders of Arafat’s political line currently argue that it is the Israeli leadership that is hindering the peace process. They charge that while it is true that the letter of the Declaration of Principles does not provide much for the Palestinians at the present time, the spirit of the agreement, if respected by all parties, is certain to result in a Palestinian state in the near future. The supporters of the agreement once again are dependent on the "goodwill" of the Israeli government, and are driven by the international hoopla welcoming their steps.
They forget that last December, while the secret talks were underway in Oslo, Israel deported 415 Palestinians; and that during the same period Palestinian prisoners went on the largest-ever hunger strike in protest of the extreme conditions and torture they live under. They also do not remember that it was only a few months before the agreement was signed that Israel closed off the West Bank and Gaza, plunging the area into conditions of extreme economic stagnation and hardship. How then could a government that carries out such acts of subjugation, headed by a prime minister who, as Defense Minister in 1988, instituted and carried out the brutal policy of bone-breaking in order to quell the Intifada, deliver the Palestinian people to peace– all without guarantees, all without international enforcement of law, and all without an intent to establish peace?
A curious double standard characterizes the perception of the international community of the Palestine Question versus that of South Africa. In Palestine, the movement is hailed and cheered on as it buckles under pressure into accepting socio- economic and political segregation and apartness–the very concept the people of South Africa have been struggling against for decades, and another form of the apartheid system that the world has denounced over and over again. It is as if the Palestinians are being told that the very best that can be done for them, and the most that they deserve, is an apartheid government and a Bantustan existence. The offer by Israel to completely enslave Palestine, and to forever destroy its cultural fabric and historical continuity, is not only accepted but, in fact, is enthusiastically supported. Ironically, as Nelson Mandela enters history through a wide- open front door ushering in a new era of liberty for his people, Arafat opens a back door to economic slavery and political submission for "his" people.
"Not so," argue supporters of the Israeli peace movement. "For many years we have been attempting to get our government to recognize the PLO, and for many years we dreamed of a day like that of September 13," they tell you with an emotionally charged tone. "To us, 1993 is as important as 1948. Then we established a state, and now we secured its existence," a leading peacenik told me over a cup of coffee. I replied: "You are correct. Both years are historical landmarks. In 1948 our land was stolen from us as we were sent into exile, and in 1993 that process of theft became secure as we the victims granted it legitimacy."
Immediately their tone and demeanor completely changed: I became yet another annoying Palestinian dwelling on the past. "Can’t you let go?" they asked me, when in fact they were commanding me to do so. "How could 1?" I asked. "Would I ask you to forget your people’s holocaust? Don’t ask me to forget mine!""
They were enraged that I had challenged their hegemony over suffering, and dared to place my people at the center of our own history, where we truly belong, instead of at its periphery. But my attempt to explain the centrality of a nation’s historical experience and collective memory to its well-being only made sense with regards to Jewish history. I, and my entire people, remained "the Other"–vague, obscure, void of humanity and without features or details, people to be dealt with, and a continuous nuisance to be silenced one way or another.
Of course, a peacenik never fails to express liberal pity as he or she faces a victim, especially their own victim. And we were an object of such a pity. "We understand your anger," they said in the usual patronizing tone that typifies their attitude. "But you must see that the signing of the agreement was a real victory for the Israeli peace movement," they urged me. "Indeed it is. But is it a real victory for the victim, the Palestinian people?" I wondered out loud as they looked at me again as if I were transparent and unreal.
I then challenged my friends to materialize their demands for peace by pressing their government to accept the Palestinian collective right to return, selfdetermination, and full unconditional statehood. These are all rights that the Israelis enjoy, while the Palestinians are denied them. I invoked the examples of dual and unequal systems of government such as that of South Africa. Segregation is not the answer, and never was, I tried to explain; only total and full equality and rights, paramount among which is the national right to self-determination and statehood. But I was barely understood. I had to be thankful for the recognition granted to the PLO. I had to be thankful for finally being granted the right to be who we are–Palestinians.
I wondered as I departed my peacenik friends about the response of the peace and justice movement in the U.S. Would I be congratulated by my long-time activist friends? Would they understand my concerns, or should I tip-toe around issues so as not to offend them? I wondered because of the historical perception associated with "me and my kind." For years, the dominant American view of a Palestinian was painted by the vulgar and racist depictions of the media and policy-makers-a view which affected all people including peaceniks and activists. I remember the days our community had to struggle to ensure entry of a banner in favor of Palestinian rights in a march or a rally. And believe me, we were rejected a lot more than once. Somehow, I was always given the feeling that our suffering did not count as really human. And when it did, it had to be qualified and counteracted by the presence of a Jewish person, or a discussion of the holocaust-as if Palestinian existence only mattered relative to that of Jews.
"Careful," a close American friend told me when I returned to the U.S., "you don’t want to be seen as a rejectionist." Immediately I began recalling the old days when, by simply identifying myself as a Palestinian, I used to be perceived as a troublemaker. Like all Palestinian activists, I was fine when I rejected the dictatorships of Somoza, Pinochet, Marcos, and Papa Doc. I was accepted and cheered as I spoke out against the apartheid regime and nuclear proliferation– but not when I spoke about going home to my motherland. Then I became a nuisance. And today, I have similar worries. For I will speak out against the betrayal of my cause and the wholesale dismissal of my people. I will demand not only human rights, but full national rights. I will not settle for a bantu-land, or a canton. I will not accept being relegated to the margin of history. I will not accept going home to Palestine as a visitor or a tourist anymore. No one should issue me a visa to return to my motherland. Indeed, the time has come for us, the dispossessed, the exiled, and the nation-less, to be granted what we have long been denied–the collective right to return, to self-determination, and to statehood without any reservations. Yes, the time has come for Palestine to be on the map of nation-states.
[Elias Rashmawi is director of the Palestine Arab Center in San Francisco and member of the Executive Committee of the Council of Presidents of Arab-American Organizations in the Bay Area.]