Palestinian resistance: The gun or the olive branch?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The death and destruction inflicted by Israel’s assault on Gaza point to the futility of Palestinian armed resistance. Peaceful resistance is the way.

Gaza Day poster from 1969.  Source: http://www.palestineposterproject.org/poster/gaza-day

Gaza Day poster from 1969.
Source: http://www.palestineposterproject.org/poster/gaza-day

Sunday 27 July 2014

The war in Gaza has exacted a heavy human and humanitarian toll on the long-suffering civilian population there, especially for children and women. At least 925 Palestinians have been killed, of which at least 676 are civilians, including 206 children, according to UN figures.

The images of the suffering, anguish and pain have provoked an enormous sense of outrage, anger and despair amongst Palestinians outside the strip.

Hamas’s barrage of primitive and puny rockets may have been physically targeted at Israel but ideologically their intended recipient seems to be arch-rivals Fatah, and its negotiated approach to the conflict.

Arafat UNForty years ago, in 1974, Yasser Arafat stood before the UN General Assembly and declared: “I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

During the intervening years, the PLO packed away its “freedom fighter’s gun” in favour of the peace process. However, the net result has been that the life of Palestinians today is worse than it was when there were no formal agreements between the two sides. Prior to Oslo, Palestinians had freedom of movement across all of Israel and Palestine and were not strangled in by settlements.

It is no wonder that the olive branch looks like it has fallen irretrievably out of the feeble hands of Mahmoud Abbas, whose gestures of peace remain unrequited by the Israelis and whose Palestinian Authority has, in many ways, become a security contractor for the Israeli occupation.

And there is a rising public sense here that armed struggle is inevitable. “Till we have a viable and independent Palestinian state, the Palestinian people have the right to resist the Israeli occupation and domination in any and all ways possible,” contends Imad Karam, a Gazan filmmaker and peace activist currently based in the UK.

“I really dislike Hamas but what they’re doing against Israel is the right thing,” a Jerusalemite friend told me, echoing an increasingly common sentiment.

“Israel has got to feel that there is a cost to its actions. It needs to get some of the same sense of fear and anguish we feel,” another said.

Hamas’s rockets are a “symbolic and radical assertion of an indigenous people’s unbending will to live with dignity in their ancestral homeland,” described Susan Abulhawa, the Palestinian author of the critically acclaimed book Mornings in Jenin, in a public post on her Facebook page. “They are the minimal acts of self-defence of a people against whom unspeakable crimes have never ceased in 60 years.”

Palestine’s increasingly successful peaceful popular resistance movements have also been caught in the crossfire. “This is the most aggressive Israeli war and one which hit families hardest, but we have not seen in the past such Palestinian unity and support behind the resistance,” says Karam. “A sign would be the general mood in both Gaza and the West Bank which is one that is proud and supportive of the resistance and their achievements, despite the hefty cost.”

Some even mock and ridicule the very notion of peaceful resistance. Rana Baker, a London-based Gazan, asked mockingly, in an article for openDemocracy, whether Palestinians “should grab guitars, pianos, and white ribbons, look up at their oppressors flying over their heads in apaches and F16s, and sing a lullaby of peace”.

Baker even justifies the targeting of civilians, which is a war crime, through the convoluted logic that “Palestinians fire rockets into what belongs to them in the first place.” In a show of dangerous self-deception, she even believes that armed resistance must continue “until Palestine is liberated, and by Palestine I mean historical Palestine.”

Such hardening maximalist nationalism in some Palestinian quarters is a product of disappointment and disillusionment at the failure of the peace process to deliver an independent state or even equality, only a state of segregation, settlements and walls.

But can armed struggle deliver justice for Palestinians where negotiations have failed? Judging by the long annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict, armed struggle has been a double-edged sword, with the edge facing the Palestinians digging much deeper and causing more pain.

In fact, in almost every military confrontation the Palestinians and Arabs have had with the Israelis, Israel has come out on top, with Palestinians paying a heavy price for the loss. Yet for advocates of the way of the gun such overwhelming evidence is ignored, or perhaps irrelevant.

“I remain convinced that there is no military solution to this conflict,” says Karam, recognising the futility of armed conflict in the Israeli-Palestinian context. “No matter how hard Israel hits our people, the Palestinian people will simply not give up until our legitimate demands for freedom are fulfilled, and no matter how far our rockets reach in Israel, they will not bring a solution to the conflict.”

'The sole solution'. A 1935 poster by the Irgun group. Source: http://www.palestineposterproject.org/poster/the-sole-solution

‘The sole solution’. A 1935 poster by the Irgun group. Source: http://www.palestineposterproject.org/poster/the-sole-solution

This is a lesson which Israel repeatedly refuses to learn, preferring the so-called “deterrence” of military brutality to the employment of soft power and the tackling of the underlying causes.

Karam still sees a future for unarmed Palestinian resistance, even in Gaza. “In my view, popular and non-violent resistance is the best way forward to achieve our national aspirations, alongside political negotiations,” he asserts. “However, it is difficult to apply this in Gaza which is blockaded and I don’t see an end to armed resistance from Gaza unless at least the blockade is lifted.”

Personally, I am convinced that non-violent resistance need not wait for a lifting of the blockade and, in fact, in a situation where Palestinians are seriously outgunned, peaceful protest can outsmart the Israeli military, leading to the lifting of the siege.

In fact, the most significant gains made by the Palestinian cause came through peaceful means. This is reflected in the first intifdada, when ordinary, humble, unarmed but dedicated Palestinians almost brought Israel to its knees. That the opportunities for peace and justice this threw up were manipulated in ill faith by too many Israeli leaders and squandered by the PLO does not detract from the power of popular, peaceful resistance.

Palestinian peace activist Sulaiman Khatib believes this apparent surge in support for armed struggle is passing and is fuelled by outrage and powerlessness at what is happening to the population of Gaza. “When people see all the images from Gaza, there is a shift in the balance between violent and non-violent struggle. But this is only temporary,” he told me.

“The large disparity in power in Gaza confirms my conviction that violence – or armed resistance – is not the way. The best way to change and combat the occupation is through non-violence.”

Khatib is the co-founder of Combatants for Peace, a group of ex-fighters, both Palestinians and Israelis, who “decided to put down our guns, and to fight for peace”.

This organisation didn’t get off to an easy birth. At the first-ever meeting of ex-Israeli and Palestinian combatants the air was thick with distrust, loathing, disagreement and, above all, fear. The Palestinians and Israelis were both paranoid that the meeting might be a trap.

Today, they are a well-organised and effective, if still relatively minor movement. In keeping with their ethos, they held a joint Arab-Jewish protest, albeit a small one, against the Gaza war. “We also need co-resistance,” emphasises Khatib.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Last week’s large peaceful protest in Qalandia is a clear sign that unarmed resistance has certainly not yet run its course in Palestine.

And it doesn’t end there. The Palestinian grassroots weave together a long and loose web of activists and groups who employ only peaceful means: from the likes of Bassem Tamimi, the school teacher who became an anti-settlement activist in Nabi Salih to Emad Burnat, the farmer who became an Oscar-nominated filmmaker to protest the Israeli wall in Bil’in.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated and extended version of an article which originally appeared in The National on 23 July 2014.

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From peace now to peace how

 
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By Khaled Diab

As John Kerry’s efforts appear doomed, Palestinian and Israeli peace activists are left with an impossible challenge: peace how? Ask the people.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, US secretary of state John Kerry sounded a doubtful note on the “intractable” Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but emphasised that the US is committed to finding a solution. Kerry’s determination seems to reflect his conviction that Israel can be brought to make peace with the Arab world.

Earlier this month,  Kerry commended Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas for having “demonstrated courageous and determined leadership”. But in the real world, Palestinian negotiators are in open mutiny against Abbas, settlement building is continuing apace and senior Israeli officials are urging the government to reject any proposals put forward by the “messianic” Kerry, as Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon described him.

And to me it is unclear just how Kerry intends to breathe life back into the failed Oslo framework, especially as the race against space for the two-state solution was lost many years ago and Washington shows no signs of bringing anything new or imaginative to the table.

This has left peace activists contemplating peace how more than peace now. “Despite all Kerry’s efforts, I am not optimistic at all,” confesses Nancy Sadiq, the director of Panorama, a Palestinian pro-democracy and peace NGO in Ramallah. “I guess Netanyahu and Abbas are playing a game of political poker and they’re waiting to see who will blink first.”

“And Kerry has no Plan B,” she added for emphasis.

Sadiq co-organised the recent annual conference – which took place in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem – of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum, an umbrella group of around 100 pro-peace organisations, where the mood struck me as being similarly dour.

Gathered at the forum were Palestinians and Israelis from all walks of life and backgrounds – from secular types whose national background could not be determined easily to Muslim men in beards and women in headscarves, as well as Jewish men in kippas and women in wigs or colourful headscarves. There was even a man with a Moshe Dayan-style eye-patch.

This reflects the fact that, despite growing mutual hostility and rejection, not to mention the huge contraction of the active peace camp, a broad cross-section of both societies still mobilises for peace. “Peace is too dear to be left to politicians,” as one speaker put it.

Though the conference met under the banner of a “Palestinian state now”, one major overriding focus was to plan a course of action in the likely event that negotiations broke down.

“We are the peace police. We are the peace firefighters,” emphasised Yossi Beilin, the co-architect of the embattled and defunct Oslo process and the grassroots Geneva peace initiative, the sabotaging of which, the late Ariel Sharon admitted, was part of  the motivation behind his Gaza disengagement, which many leftist Israelis disastrously supported.

And preparing for a breakdown, rather than a breakthrough, seemed to be the order of the day. “There is a fear that talks will fail which will make the work of peace NGOs very difficult,” one Palestinian participant said, echoing the general sentiment.

Some participants suggested that both societies needed to focus on laying the psychological groundwork for resolution through promoting peace education and a deeper commitment to mutual non-violence.

“I wish that there was room for grassroots activities for peace, separate and joint, but it seems that the time is not yet ripe for that,” veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin told me. “While a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace, a majority on both sides, roughly the same size, does not believe that it is possible… because each believes that there is no partner for peace on the other side.”

Personally, I think the problem runs much deeper and relates to the political infantilisation of the public. Efforts to bring about a resolution to the conflict have largely been top-down and from the outside-in, side-lining the actual parties who will have to implement and live with any agreement – the people themselves.

In addition, the two populations have been kept artificially apart, creating fear and distrust, while no leaders of the stature of the late Nelson Mandela or FW de Klerk have emerged. These factors create ideal conditions for extremists to have their way and to reinforce the downwardly spiralling status quo.

For that reason, I do not share Baskin’s optimism that Kerry can bring about a framework agreement, and if he does, it will likely fall apart under the combined fire of extremists, fear and hatred.

In my view, the only sustainable way forward is to launch a true people’s peace process in which a bi-national conversation and negotiations involving all segments of both societies is launched to bring all the issues out clearly in the open.

In addition, anyone should be free to suggest actions and any proposals which garner enough support should be voted on by the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Any measure which the majority on both sides vote for should be implemented immediately. This will help build traction and a virtuous circle of gradual change, rather than the all-or-nothing game currently in play.

“You know what I would like to see?” Nancy Sadiq asks. “The grassroots on both sides gathering in their masses until the white smoke of peace rises from the chimney of conflict.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 26 January 2014.

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A peace of the people, by the people, for the people

 
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By Khaled Diab

Palestinians and Israelis don’t need more US diplomacy but a people’s peace process… and this requires mutual understanding and humanisation.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Photo: US Department of State

Photo: US Department of State

John Kerry recently returned, yet again, to the Middle East on an impossible mission to revive stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In an effort to allay Israeli fears, the US Secretary of State was expected to present Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on Thursday, with a plan for security arrangements in the West Bank following the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Even though this is the Promised Land, the facts on the ground do  not look so promising. Just ahead of Kerry’s visit, Israel defiantly bulldozed Palestinian land earmarked for settler homes, according to media reports.

It was exactly this issue of settlement building and how it makes the establishment of an integrated and contiguous Palestinian state impossible that prompted Palestinian negotiators to quit last month, even though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not yet accepted their resignation.

For his part, Abbas has reportedly said he will appeal to the United Nations if peace talks fail.

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu focused on the Iran nuclear issue during his encounter with Kerry, despite the fact that, in my view, the unresolved Palestinian question is the greatest threat to Israel’s future security.

In addition, prior to the Secretary of State’s arrival, Israeli officials voiced loud criticism of Washington. For instance, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett expressing his view that Israel must reduce its dependence on the US, which was holding it “hostage”. This echoes the findings of a poll in which half of Israeli Jews believed that Israel should seek new allies other than the United States.

But judging by his previous statements, John Kerry seems undeterred by the obstacles ahead. He has warned Israel that it faces the prospect of a “third intifada” if it fails to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians, and Washington may push through its own deal in January if an agreement is not reached before then.

Despite this uncharacteristically active US diplomacy, I am unconvinced John Kerry will succeed in his mission. This is partly because the two-state formula has lost the race against space, Washington is not an honest and impartial broker, not to mention poor political leadership on both sides, a reality which favours the status quo and the downward inertia this imposes.

The Oslo process has also been undermined by its quest for a “comprehensive peace”.  This raised unrealistic expectations. In a conflict this deeply entrenched and with the massive disparity in power, there can be no ultimate, one-time, all-or-nothing resolution.

But possibly the most fatal flaw of Oslo has been its largely top-down, outside-in nature which sidelines and ignores the most vital ingredient in any truly lasting peace: the people. That is why I have repeatedly advocated a people’s peace process.

For such a grassroots effort to work and to stand a chance of success requires a high degree of mutual understanding and a good dose of empathy. This conviction is what spurred me, as an Egyptian, to climb down from the ivory tower of the outside spectator and to engage directly with Palestinians and Israelis, despite the mainstream hostility towards such encounters in the Arab world and Israel alike.

Like only a handful of Egyptian journalists and writers before me, I have embarked on a personal journey of discovery in the unholy mess of the Helly Land. I have visited Israel and Palestine, lived there for nearly two years and now have returned to live among the people again.

In my time here, I have encountered the good, the bad and the ugly, not to mention the outright eccentric, from Palestinian women race drivers to Israel Jewish Sufis who fast Ramadan. Along the way, I have had many adventures and misadventures.

To construct a proper understanding and a realistic picture, I have striven to challenge and push myself, not only questioning every aspect of the conflict, but also forcing myself to meet people from all walks of life, including those who are hostile to who I am and what I stand for, such as ideological settlers.

On the whole, Palestinians are thrilled to have an Egyptian here, given the Hollywood-like appeal of Egypt in these parts, and Israelis, who are more hospitable than their hard exterior suggests, are flattered to find an Arab willing to learn more about them.

This has enabled me to see the human face veiled by the conflict, and to witness how people on both sides are, for the most part, ordinary folk caught in an extraordinary situation – a conflict inherited from their great-grandparents which most expect to hand down, as an unenviable legacy, to their great-grandchildren.

My journey has radically altered my view of the situation and has unearthed some surprising realities, such as just how much in common Israelis and Palestinians have, their massive political differences notwithstanding, and how confoundingly diverse each society is, despite being so small that, combined, they would only make up half the population of my hometown, Cairo.

In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that, if it weren’t for the artificial political and physical constructs keeping them largely apart, many Palestinians and Israelis would find greater common cause among members of their enemy camp than among their own side.

In a bid to promote understanding, or at the very least a modicum of human sympathy, I have tried hard to capture this complexity and ambiguity in my journalism. I am also writing an ambitious book about those most intimate of enemies, those forgotten people, the Palestinians and Israelis.

Even though Israel-Palestine has become overshadowed by the recent uprisings and upheavals in the region, it is probably the most written-about conflict in the modern Middle East. But I believe my book of the people is different. Most of the literature out there deals with the geopolitics and history, focuses on the land, as if a nation is a piece of dirt and not the sum total of its people, and/or is partisan in nature.

Based on extensive interviews and thorough research, I profile both peoples in all their rich variety, relate my personal experiences living among them, explore the two societies, examine the culture, plot the differences, investigate the commonalities, and much more.

Although my book is not primarily about the politics or history, I do explore both through the prism of the people. I dig into the annals to uncover the shocking and shameful history of missed opportunities for peace over the past century, and I propose what I call the ‘non-state solution’ to the conflict.

But at the end of the day, it is up to the Israeli and Palestinian people to find the path to peace and coexistence that best suits them. And, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, to forge a peace of the people, by the people, for the people.

 

If you would like to keep abreast of the latest developments relating to Khaled’s book, please drop him a line at info@chronikler.com

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post  on 5 December 2013.

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Israel-Palestine: a book of the people

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Israel-Palestine, a peace without the people has left two peoples without peace. That is why I am writing a book about these most intimate of enemies.

People: the forgotten link. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

People: the forgotten link. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 21 November 2013

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become overshadowed by the tumultuous upheavals gripping the Middle East, the US Secretary of State has created something of a stir with his stated determination to revive the defunct and dysfunctional peace process.

John Kerry even warned Israel that it faces the prospect of a third intifada, if it failed to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians. Presumably to avoid such an outcome, Washington reportedly plans to push through its own peace deal in January if an agreement is not reached before then.

Even if the uncharacteristically stern tone Kerry adopted with Israel’s intransigent government is sincere, I cannot help but think that the Secretary of State is flogging a dead horse.

As I’ve argued on numerous occasions before, the Oslo framework has been a spectacular failure. This is for a host of reasons, including the fact that Washington is not an honest and impartial broker, as well as poor political leadership on both sides, a reality which favours the status quo and the downward inertia this imposes.

The Oslo process has also been undermined by its quest for a “comprehensive peace” and to put in place a “permanent status”.  This raised unrealistic expectations. In a conflict this deeply entrenched and with the massive disparity in power, there can be no ultimate, one-time, all-or-nothing resolution. The best we can hope for is little pieces of peace, shards of shalom or slices of salam, as the two sides gradually navigate the minefield towards conciliation.

But possibly the most fatal flaw of Oslo has been its largely top-down, inside-out nature which sidelines and ignores the most vital ingredient in any truly lasting peace: the people. That is why I have repeatedly advocated a people’s peace process.

For such a grassroots effort to work and to stand a chance of success requires a high degree of mutual understanding and a good dose of empathy. This conviction is what spurred me, as an Egyptian, to climb down from the ivory tower of the outside spectator and to engage directly with Palestinians and Israelis, despite the mainstream hostility towards such encounters in the Arab world and Israel alike.

Like only a handful of Egyptian journalists and writers before me (at least since the conflict began), I have embarked on a personal journey of discovery in the unholy mess of the Helly Land. I have visited Israel and Palestine, lived there for nearly two years and now have returned to live among the people again.

In my time here, I have encountered the good, the bad and the ugly. I have had many adventures and misadventures. Although as an Arab my instinctive sympathies are with the Palestinians, as a humanist, I have also nurtured empathy and sympathy for Israelis. To construct a proper understanding and a realistic picture, I have striven to challenge and push myself, not only questioning every aspect of the conflict, but also forcing myself to meet people from all walks of life, including those who are hostile to who I am and what I stand for, such as ideological settlers.

Along the way, I have made many good friends on both sides, and probably some enemies, though on the whole Palestinians are thrilled to have an Egyptian here, given the Hollywood-like appeal of Egypt in these parts, and Israelis, who are more hospitable than there hard exterior suggests, are flattered to find an Arab willing to learn more about them.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

This has enabled me to see the human face veiled by the conflict, and to witness how people on both sides are, for the most part, ordinary folk caught in an extraordinary situation – a conflict inherited from their great-grandparents which most expect to hand down, as an unenviable legacy, to their great-grandchildren.

My journey has radically altered my view of the situation and has unearthed some surprising realities, such as just how much in common Israelis and Palestinians have, their massive political differences notwithstanding, and how confoundingly diverse each society is, despite being so small that, combined, they would only make up half the population of my hometown, Cairo.

In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that, if it weren’t for the artificial political and physical constructs keeping them largely apart, many Palestinians and Israelis would find greater common cause among members of their enemy camp than among their own side.

In a bid to promote understanding, or at the very least a modicum of human sympathy, I have tried hard to capture this complexity and ambiguity in my journalism. I am also writing an ambitious book about those most intimate of enemies, those forgotten people, the Palestinians and Israelis.

Another book, the weary reader might ask? It is true that, even though Israel-Palestine has become overshadowed by the recent uprisings and upheavals in the region, it is probably the most written-about conflict in the modern Middle East – some might say, the entire world.

But I believe my book of the people is different. Most of the literature out there deals with the geopolitics and history, focuses on the land, as if a nation is a piece of dirt and not the sum total of its people, and/or is partisan in nature.

Based on extensive interviews and thorough research, I profile both peoples in all their rich variety, relate my personal experiences living among them, explore the two societies, examine the culture, plot the differences, investigate the commonalities, and much more.

Although my book is not primarily about the politics or history, I do explore both through the prism of the people. I dig into the annals to uncover the shocking and shameful history of missed opportunities for peace over the past century, and I propose what I call the ‘non-state solution’ to the conflict.

The unusual nature of my enterprise has made publication a tough challenge, given the polarised nature of the Israel-Palestine publishing industry. Although I have written some 65,000 words and am two-thirds of the way through my manuscript, I have yet to find a publisher who will actually publish it.

A number of publishers have expressed initial interest and praised the manuscript, but have shied away from actually committing to publishing it. This is partly due to the (unintentionally) controversial nature of my work and partly due to the crisis afflicting the industry which has made editors reluctant to try the untested. Perhaps the path to follow, and one that will guarantee my editorial and political independence, is to self-publish, despite its reputation as a vanity outlet.

Whether I find a publisher or not, I am determined, with the help of family, friends and supporters, to finish what I have begun and to make whatever modest contribution I can to the quest for peace, by the people and for the people.

If you would like to keep abreast of the latest developments relating to Khaled’s book, please drop us a line at info@chronikler.com

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter. This article first appeared in The Daily Beast on 13 November 2013.

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Obama, enough listening, it’s time to act

 
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By Khaled Diab

Barack Obama’s plan to “listen” when he visits Israel and Palestine is not enough, the US president must act to launch a people’s peace process.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Sages through the ages have told us that listening is a virtue – and US President Barack Obama is apparently heeding their advice. According to the new US Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama “wants to listen” during his upcoming visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories this spring.

But is this wise?

“We’re not going to go and sort of plunk a plan down and tell everybody what they have to do,” Kerry explained. And more recently, a senior US official noted: “The Israelis and Palestinians must decide what they want to do, and we’ll be happy to help.”

On the face of it, this sounds like a sensible course of action. One of the things the United States is most regularly criticised for is its dictatorial foreign policy tendency to impose its will on smaller countries.

In addition, the sympathetic and optimistic might read into Obama’s reticence a judicious and prudent silence. After all, if Washington plans to (re-)launch a serious new bid to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama may be keeping his cards close to his chest, given the enormous obstacles that stand in the way of peace and the potentially dire consequences of further failure.

But judging by Obama’s first term and the state of the union speech inaugurating his second – in which the only mention of the Holy Mess was the president’s reiteration of his oft-repeated pledge to “stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace” – “listening”, the sceptic in me is tempted to conclude, sounds a lot like code for inaction and maintaining the status quo.

And maintaining the status quo has been the hallmark of Obama’s presidency, as I predicted even before he became president and after his famous Cairo speech.

“The visit will be a good opportunity to reaffirm the strong and enduring bonds of friendship between Israel and the US,” Washington’s ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said. And in case anyone was in any doubt that this would be more than a photo-op, Obama will be feted wherever he goes and offered the Presidential Medal of Distinction during his visit – perhaps in an effort by Shimon Peres to exercise damage control following Binyamin Netanyahu’s disastrous attempt to influence the U.S. electoral process.

And if media reports are to be believed, security, or at least the illusion of it, will trump peace. The American president, Israel’s Channel 10 has claimed, intends to tell Netanyahu that a “window of opportunity” for a military strike on Iran will open in June 2013.

So, rather than chart a course towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama’s visit could trigger a plunge towards regional conflict. Meanwhile, the true “window of opportunity” and key to Israel’s future security, the Palestinians, will be ignored, relegated to non-issue status, even if they deserve their freedom and dignity, rather like they were during the Israeli elections.

However, Palestinian impatience and frustration is simmering near boiling point – with renewed talk of a third intifada, though a full-scale uprising has yet to erupt – as reflected in the collective prisoner hunger strike and demonstrations to end detention without trial following the death in Israeli custody of Arafat Jaradat.

But inaction on the Palestinian-Israeli front is not an option – at least not for anyone desiring a better and fairer future, and avoiding future escalations of the conflict. In addition, if Obama wishes to secure a lasting legacy for his presidency and to earn the Nobel peace prize he was prematurely awarded, he must do more than listen. He must take robust action.

But what can and should the American president do?

Well, freed of the spectre of re-election, Obama has the space, if he so wishes, to work towards radically redefining the US approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first step, in my view, is for him to announce publicly that the failed, discredited and ineffective Oslo process will be abandoned.

One reason why the peace process broke down is that Washington has never succeeded in playing the role of an honest and impartial broker. To address this shortcoming, Obama should announce his intention to turn peace mediation into a truly multilateral process not only by giving the toothless Quartet real teeth but also by bringing in the Arab League and other influential and important members of the international community.

In order to focus the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships’ minds, Obama should harness and mobilise all the diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks at his disposal – and encourage international partners to do the same.

For example, he should significantly downsize US military aid to Israel – though this seems highly improbably, given new Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s assurances that American military assistance would continue, even as the United States hangs precariously off a fiscal cliff – and security assistance to the PA. Obama should also make continued aid to both sides contingent on progress towards peace. In Gaza, where far too many sticks have been deployed, inhumanely and ineffectually, Obama should offer to end its destructive international isolation and he should start a dialogue with the Hamas leadership – perhaps even visiting the Strip, which would be a huge symbolic act of peace and conciliation.

Of course, as decades of foreign meddling going back to the 1947 partition plan and before have clearly demonstrated, there can be no lasting resolution without broad domestic buy-in, among both Israelis and Palestinians.

This involves forcing the leaders on both sides – who are blighted with serious visionary myopia, lack courage, represent too many vested interests, and suffer from ideological paralysis and ineptitude – to take action by giving representatives of every strata of Palestinian and Israeli society seats at the negotiating table.

This may seem like a recipe for chaos, disaster and deadlock, but I am convinced that direct public dialogue and participation is essential if this impasse is ever to be overcome. One factor that has held back a peace deal, even at the most pragmatic and optimistic of times, is the fear that the negotiators would not be able to sell the agreement to their respective constituencies, particularly the radical elements among them.

By involving the public from the start, the entire process is given democratic legitimacy and ensures that there will be a groundswell of popular opinion for any accord when it comes time to sign on the dotted line.

Moreover, such a process would allow an honest public debate to emerge, within both societies and between them, which would most likely strengthen the hand of moderates and pragmatists, allowing the emergence of robust pro-peace alliances, and would shed light on who the true villains of the peace are.

Most importantly perhaps, public involvement would challenge the current levels of endemic popular apathy, cynicism, distrust and despair by empowering people to take direct responsibility for their future, and that of their children. And with apathy and despair, the best allies of extremists, out of the way, pragmatism and moderation might finally win the day.

Some might wonder how on earth you’re going to get two such fractured and divided societies, not to mention determined foes, to agree on the colour of the stationery, let alone the outlines of a comprehensive peace deal.

Well, poll after poll after poll keep suggesting to us that the public in Israel and Palestine are more sensible than their leaders, so it’s time to put that hypothesis to the test. Moreover, “comprehensive” is unlikely to happen, because as bitter experience shows, no wand exists to magic away decades of animosity and wrong turns.

Instead, we should take an immediate and incremental approach. Anything agreed on by the majority of people on both sides, no matter how small or apparently insignificant, should be put to an immediate referendum and implemented straight away. This would gradually improve the situation, create positive momentum, and build a house of peace, shalom, salom, or even salom, one brick at a time.

“All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear,” Obama said in Cairo, at the beginning of his first term. I hope he lives up to this responsibility by supporting and facilitating a peace of the people, by the people and for the people.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 March 2013.

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Israel and Gaza: When attack is the worst form of defence

 
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By Khaled Diab

As the fog of war distort people’s vision and compassion, can Israeli and Palestinian reject the strategy of violence offered by their leaderships?

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Just days before the current escalation in violence, I encountered a young Gazan art student living “illegally” in the West Bank because Israel would not allow her to change her address.

With her precarious existence as a kind of fugitive in her own land, which had made her unable to visit her besieged hometown for over seven years, and in light of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its 2008-9 invasion, I asked her how she felt about Israelis.

“I am a human and believe in humanity, regardless of religion, nationality or race. We are all humans. I will not let this affect me,” the art student said, surprising me with the simple intensity of her conviction, as her Jewish-American friend listened in, even though she did not understand a word of what we were saying.

As I watch with rising alarm the fog of imminent war distort people’s vision and compassion, I cannot help but recall this conversation. I wonder whether this young woman is managing to cling on to her admirable compassion and humility, when those around her are losing theirs, or has it too fallen victim to this senseless confrontation?

The first victim of war, it is rightly said, is truth, but its second casualty is humanity. The demonisation, hatred, vitriol and jingoism that has been fired indiscriminately and disproportionately in recent days has been troubling. Personally, though I have felt fury at Israel’s vicious “send Gaza back to the middle ages” military offensive against a captive civilian population – not to mention anger with Palestinian militants for also targeting civilians – I am determined not to allow this to darken my view of ordinary Israelis.

This latest conflagration confounded me but it did not surprise me.

It did not surprise me because we have been here before – in 2006 in Lebanon and 2008-9 in Gaza, to name just two examples, when the Cain of senselessness murdered the Abel of sensibility. The timing was also no big surprise. The smokescreen of military confrontation is a powerful political ploy because it can turn political villains into heroes and discontented citizens into loyal soldiers, silencing growing dissent in the ranks – although it can backfire or blow up in its user’s hands, as discovered by Israeli prime ministers Shimon Peres in 1996 and Ehud Olmert in 2009.

Although this brewing war is ostensibly about the security of Israel, it is, in reality, more about the insecurity of the Israeli government at the ballot box, faced as it has been with growing social unrest, economic dissatisfaction, widening inequality and increasing public fury at the fiscal black hole opened up by settlement subsidies. How else can we explain Israel’s infuriating decision to murder its “subcontractor” in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari, who was, reportedly, on the verge of sealing a permanent truce with Israel?

On the other side of the fence, Hamas has been facing growing popular discontent – with a recent poll suggesting that it would receive just 31% of the popular vote in Gaza, and considerably less in the West Bank, if suspended elections were held – particularly since the eruption of the ‘Arab Spring’, and especially amongst young people. Although it was elected for its apparent lack of corruption and cronyism, now that Hamas is the uncontested master of Gaza, it has been guilty of severe abuses of power and human rights violations. Hamas is also far less tolerant of dissent than Fatah.

Though the current fighting does not surprise me, it does confound me. It confounds me because if Israeli and Gazan leaders are truly sincere in their claims that they seek to defend their people, then why have they not yet recognised that attack is the worst form of defence, at least in this conflict?

What have Israel’s many long campaigns of violence against Hamas achieved? The previous Gaza war did not accomplish its intended objective of destroying Hamas, nor did it halt the flow of rockets into Israel. All it succeeded in doing was to increase the quotient of human misery in Gaza, and with it the measure of hostility and distrust towards Israel among Palestinians and Arabs. This current campaign is about restoring “deterrence”, we’re told, but the greatest deterrent effect it is likely to have is to deter even more of the world from viewing Israel with sympathy or compassion.

More broadly, Israel’s other attempts to destroy Hamas by other means have backfired spectacularly, and though they may serve the interests of extremists, they do little to enhance the security and well-being of ordinary Israelis.

Take the blockade on Gaza. While it has been very effective at increasing the destitution and despair of the average Gazan, it has done very little to weaken Hamas’s hold on power. In fact, tightening the screws on the Strip has led us from a situation in which Hamas had to share power with Fatah – and signal its willingness, now that it was actually in power, to act more pragmatically – to one in which the Islamist movement became the only show in town in Gaza and its position has re-hardened.

Hamas’s violence has also paid precious few dividends to the people of Gaza and the Palestinian people in general. Though some see Hamas’s behaviour as a heroic form of resistance against the humiliation and oppression of occupation, what good has this supposed heroism done Gazans or the Palestinian cause? Ever since Hamas tacitly joined forces with extremists Israelis to assassinate the (admittedly flawed) peace process, Israel has seen to it that the situation of Gazans has deteriorated immensely.

That is not to say that resistance is futile. On the contrary, if Palestinians are to secure their human rights, resistance is necessary. But in a situation where they are by far the weaker party militarily, they will never be able to match Israeli firepower, so they need to unleash the most potent weapon in their arsenal: peaceful people power, which is more suited to the political nature of the conflict.

The relative potency of this weapon can be seen when you compare the peaceful first intifada with the violent second intifada: the first uprising effectively brought Israel to its knees, while the second brought the Palestinians to theirs. And since the second intifada died down Palestinian peace activists have been rediscovering and reasserting the power of non-violent resistance.

While non-violence has received a lot of attention in the Palestinian context, when it comes to Israelis, it has received precious little. This is reflected in the fact that while most Israelis agree, and urge, the Palestinians to abandon violence, they cling on to the right to use it themselves, as illustrated by the overwhelming support for the previous Gaza war among the Israel public.

But the rejection of violence is as important a creed for Israelis as it is for Palestinians, even if they are militarily the more powerful. In this asymmetric conflict, there can be no winners because the more Israel destroys, the more it bolsters Palestinian determination to resist and the more it isolates itself internationally. More importantly, since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ultimately political, and not military, it cannot and will not be decided on the battlefield, no matter how long the hawks deny this basic law of nature.

Recognising this important truth, a  resident of a kibbutz near the border with Gaza urged the Israeli government, despite the rockets which have landed in her backyard: “If you want to defend me… try to negotiate until white smoke comes up through the chimney.”

In my view, the best way to defend the Palestinian and Israeli peoples is through a complete rejection by the public of violence, not only that committed by the other side, which is easy, but also, more significantly, that perpetrated by your own. Once the cycle of violence is broken for long enough, the two sides can gradually shift from resistance of the other to coexistence with one another.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 November 2012.

 

 

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Settlers for Palestine

 
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By Khaled Diab

Israeli settlements are one of the greatest obstacles to peace, but could settlers also help build a Palestinian state?

Tuesday 16 October 2012

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Israel’s ongoing settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank revealed that the “Israeli government rejects the two-state solution” and that if no action was taken urgently, the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel would become “extremely difficult if not impossible”.

It is not only Palestinians who see Israeli settlements as one of the main obstacles to peace – the international community does too, as do many Israeli peace activists. Personally, I have been convinced for many years now that the race against space to implement the two-state solution has been lost.

Today, more than half a million Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In what the Oslo Accords calls Area C – which makes up 60% of the West Bank and would provide the bulk of the land upon which the Palestinian state would be built – there are currently twice as many settlers as Palestinians (300,000 v 150,000), and Israel controls 70% of this territory.

Despite these facts on the ground, there is a small but growing group of religious settlers who believes not only that they are not an impediment to peace, but that they can help build it. This movement is led by the charismatic and influential Rabbi Menachem Froman.

Rabbi Froman cuts an unlikely figure as a peace activist. He is an ideological settler, yet believes in the two-state solution along the pre-1967 Green Line. He is one of the founders of the messianic, religious settler movement, Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), and supports continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank, yet believes in and promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs.

Adding to his maverick credentials, Froman was friends with the late Yasser Arafat and met regularly with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. He is also close to Abbas, meets regularly with Binyamin Netanyahu, and negotiated, along with Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh, a ceasefire agreement with Hamas, which would have ended the blockade on Gaza, to which the Islamist group agreed but Israel simply ignored.

This renegade rabbi so intrigued me that I visited him, along with an American-Israeli filmmaker making a documentary about this enigmatic figure, in his modest home in Tekoa, an Israeli settlement near Bethlehem.

So, how does Rabbi Froman propose to square the circle between his support for Jewish settlements and Palestinian statehood? Religious Muslims and Jews believe, he says, “that this land is holy… that this land belongs to God. This can be a very strong basis for peace”.

In his view, since it is the land itself that is holy and not the political structure governing it, settlers should be given the choice to become part of a Palestinian state or move to Israel. Froman also believes that the presence of an Arab minority in Israel and a Jewish minority in Palestine would have the additional benefit of promoting tolerance and understanding between the two neighbouring countries.

The Palestinian Authority has, on a number of occasions, floated the possibility that Israeli settlers can be given the option to live under Palestinian sovereignty. However, this option elicits fears. Palestinians worry that the settlers would remain Israeli citizens and hold on to their privileged status, as well as possibly provide Israel with an excuse to carry out military incursions, even invasions, at will on the pretext of looking after the interests of the Jews there.

I asked Rabbi Froman whether, in his vision, the settlers would become Palestinian citizens and live according to Palestinian law, and whether the settlements would become mixed neighbourhoods for all. “Yes, yes, yes,” he responded emphatically. “The keyword here is to be open, to be free.”

Froman’s vision chimes with that of some pro-Palestinian Israeli leftists. However, even many of Rabbi Froman’s neighbours – such as the American settler who expressed his disapproval of the Rabbi’s politics to us when we asked him for directions – do not agree with him. Economic settlers are unlikely to want to become Palestinian citizens, though they could more easily be persuaded to move under the right conditions.

Ideological settlers, who generally see the land and Israel’s control over it as vital, do not share Froman’s vision. “I reject the two-state solution,” David Wilder, the spokesperson for the radical settlers in Hebron, told me some months ago. “I want to live in Israel. I came to live in Israel, under Jewish leadership. I didn’t come to live under the rule of anybody else, certainly not an Arab.”

“The question is not the Palestinian attitude,” Rabbi Froman freely acknowledges. “The question is the Israelis: if Israel and Israeli settlers are ready to be part of the Palestinian state.”

But he believes that, once they overcome their fear and distrust, people can be persuaded. “It’s all a matter of confidence,” the rabbi insists, his bright blue eyes glimmering energetically in his ailing frame, as his body gradually succumbs to cancer. And it is building this foundation of trust that the rabbi is dedicating his remaining time to. “I have not got long now,” he reflects sadly.

Rabbi Froman is also a strong believer in the power of religion to help resolve the conflict and build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. This, you could say, was something of a revelation to me, as I have long viewed religion, though it is often only used as a pretext by fundamentalists, as a major stumbling block on the path to peace – it is what I call the “God veto”.

In fact, Froman believes that one major factor behind the failure of the peace process is that it ignored or did not pay enough attention to the religious dimension. “[Sheikh] Ahmed Yassin used to say to me: ‘I and you, Hakham [Rabbi] Froman, can make peace in five minutes, because both of us are religious.’”

The very idea that an Orthodox rabbi and an Islamist sheikh would engage in dialogue, let alone believe that they can resolve a conflict that has defied everyone else for decades, is likely to confound both Palestinians and Israelis alike.

“Religion is like nuclear energy: you can use it to destroy or to kill. You can also use it for peaceful purposes,” the renegade rabbi observes. “The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount can be a reason to quarrel or a reason to make peace.”

Despite his fine words, I left the meeting sceptical that Froman’s vision would, especially in the current climate, attract many takers. However, our encounter did drive home some important lessons: the situation is never black and white, peacemakers can be found in the most unlikely places, and that we must understand the obstacles to peace if we ever hope to remove them.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 12 October 2012.

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The stick of boycott v the carrot of recognition

 
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By Khaled Diab

The targeted boycott of Israel should be complemented with Arab recognition of the Jewish state and grassroots engagement with ordinary Israelis.

Monday 1 October 2012

In a YouTube video, Chili Peppers express their excitement about their imminent Tel Aviv gig.

It is a mark of the phenomenal success of a certain band from Los Angeles that the words Red Hot Chili Peppers are primarily associated in the minds of millions with a unique flavour of funky sounds that has all the spice and kick of the piquant fruit they are named after. The Chili Peppers were an important and integral part of the soundtrack to my youth.

Appealing to the band’s sense of justice, many Palestinians and supporters of the cultural boycott against Israel called on the Chili Peppers to cancel their recent concert in Tel Aviv but to no avail.

“Art alone cannot break down a wall that appropriates Palestinian land and resources,” Palestinian-American poet, writer and activist Remi Kanazi, who is a member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, wrote in an article for al-Jazeera calling on the band to cancel their Israel gig. “But artists and their art can inspire millions to take conscientious action against occupation and discrimination.”

In ignoring this outcry, were Kiedis and his crew guilty of putting profit over principle and of hypocrisy?

In the past, I might have responded with an unqualified, “Yes, they were”, and advocates of the boycott against Israel see the Chili Peppers as having sold out the Palestinians by coming here and behaving as if there were no occupation. And to their discredit and shame, the band which has dedicated so many memorable lyrics to the racism and segregation suffered by African-Americans and the plight of Native Americans, despite expressing strong love for Israel, did not seem able even to spare a single word for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza who live in enforced segregation.

That said, the situation is not entirely black and white. The Chili Peppers have a special emotional link with Israel, because the group’s original guitarist Hillel Slovak was Israeli, and Kiedis and crew may have decided that Israelis cannot be held collectively responsible for the crimes and injustices committed by their state.

For myself and the majority of Arabs, the idea of boycotting Israel is almost second nature, given that it has been an integral part of Arab political culture for decades. Even in Egypt, which has had a peace treaty with Israel for most my life, those who deal with Israel or Israelis are often depicted as unscrupulous opportunists who are out to profit from the misery of their Palestinian brethren.

Prior to moving here, I did not buy any Israeli products and, given my commitment to ethical spending, I still believe that a targeted economic boycott is justified to ensure that people do not bankroll the occupation and the subjugation of the Palestinians. In fact, in addition to the popular boycott, Western governments should not effectively be rewarding Israel for its intransigence and there is a case to be made for the United States to suspend military aid and the EU to downgrade relations with Israel – which the EU’s former foreign policy chief Javier Solana once described as an EU member in all but name – until a peace deal is reached.

However, I do have serious misgivings about the cultural and academic boycott. Although institutions which perpetuate the occupation, such as military research centres or universities on occupied land, should rightly not be dealt with, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) effectively calls for a blanket boycott, arguing that, “unless proven otherwise”, all Israeli academic and cultural bodies “are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights”. But presuming guilt until innocence is proven is unjust, and this is a form of collective punishment, albeit not on the scale of the Gaza blockade.

On a more pragmatic level, it is also counterproductive. Take the case of the German documentary about Jerusalem which was set to feature both Palestinian and Israeli residents to show the reality of life in the divided city. Pressure from campaigners caused many Palestinians to pull out of the project, the upshot of which will be that the film is more likely to show only Israeli perspectives.

The veteran Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab – who co-founded the now-defunct Bitter Lemons journal where Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals engaged in oft-heated dialogue – described the furor as a form of “intellectual terrorism”. Other activists who advocate joint action and dialogue I have spoken to have complained of a growing rejection of their approach.

“Some regard any encounter with an Israel as ‘normalization’. I am against normalization… but dialogue is not normalization,” a prominent activist who has spent years promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue told me. “Peace is too precious to be left only to politicians,” she emphasised.

Part of the reason for this hardening of positions appears to be disillusionment and scepticism at the entire apparatus – which put some emphasis on dialogue and collaboration between the two sides – put in place as part of the failed and discredited “peace process”.

“The aim of most of these so-called dialogues is to give the impression that there is an exchange going on,” one young activist involved in the BDS movement told me. “But this happens without the recognition of our rights, without the acknowledgement that there is a people being oppressed.”

But by punishing sympathetic Israelis along with hostile ones, this kind of unenlightened boycott alienates the doves more than it isolates the hawks. Although the cultural boycott claims to target institutions and not individuals, individuals who work for these bodies more often than not fall prey to the boycott, regardless of their politics.

“They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv University,” complained Shlomo Sand, the maverick Israeli historian and one-time friend of the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, warning that the Palestinians were boycotting “the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture”.

“It’s a very, very closed-minded tactic,” he told me.

Moreover, the Arabs have little to show for their decades of boycott, beyond perhaps the emotional satisfaction of not dealing with the enemy. Some suggest that it has even strengthened Israel. “I think that the reason for Israel’s prosperity is, ultimately, an unexpected result of the boycott,” believes Iraqi-Israeli poet Sasson Somekh, who was a close friend of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

“I am against boycotts, even of your worst enemies,” he told me. “If you want to influence them and change the status quo, you need to have dialogue with them, not boycott them.”

Counterintuitive as it may sound to many Arab ears, the best way forward is for ordinary Arabs, not just Palestinians, to engage more with ordinary Israelis – both in dialogue and joint action – because there can be no resolution to this conflict without an Israeli partner, and gaining that partner requires the empowering of Israel’s increasingly marginalized and embattled peace movement.

Moreover, the blanket Arab boycott belies a profound and damaging misunderstanding of the Israeli psyche and the existential angst Jews have suffered following the deadly pogroms of the previous century and the Holocaust. The majority of Israelis do not see the boycott as a principled stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, but as a manifestation of Arab rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

To allay such fears and deprive Israeli hawks of their intellectual and emotional prey, I think that the majority of Arab countries who have not yet done so, perhaps through the Arab League, should immediately recognize Israel within its pre-1967 borders. This simple, highly symbolic act – which actually costs the Arabs nothing and does no harm to the Palestinian cause – can help the Arab world, rather like Anwar Sadat once did, to go over the intransigent Israeli leadership’s heads and appeal directly to the Israeli public.

Sadat believed that a psychological barrier existed between Arabs and Israelis – a “barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection; a barrier of fear, or deception” – which constituted “70% of the whole problem”. While the percentage is open to question, in this, Sadat, for all his failings, was largely right.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 September 2012.

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The battle for Palestinian memory

 
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By Sohair Mohidin

Palestinians run the risk of forgetting the Nakba and there are those who do not wish us to remember it. But our future freedom depends on our memory.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Villa Palestine in Marseille, France. Photo: ©Abou Zouz

It is not easy to carry the responsibility of a collective memory in early childhood. For the first few weeks after I started school at the age of six, I used to go home to my mother almost every day in tears. The other children taunted me for being “Palestinian”. I asked my mother to explain to me what it meant and why we were different. She said that we Palestinians had so many things in common with our Jordanian brothers: “We are all the same,” she insisted. But – and there was this big “but”– “We have a home and lands in Palestine to which we cannot return for the time being, but to which we shall, one day, inshallah.”

I then embraced this belonging and my Palestinian identity in every single composition the Arabic or English teachers asked us to do for homework. I peppered my texts with mentions of Palestine, my grandfather’s lost land. Palestine appeared everywhere, in my drawings, in my accessories, in every single expression possible. The dream of a free Palestine has not left me since then.

When I was nine, I read all the stories that Ghassan Kanafani wrote for children. I remember the book cover with the title Ard el-Bortoqal al-Hazeen (The Land of Sad Oranges). I also kept that with me. Even to this day, the presence of oranges or the slightest hint of their tangy odour makes me feel melancholic for lost Palestine and the sad eyes of those Palestinian kids illustrated in that book.

My parents used to tell me, “When we die bury us in Palestine. If you can’t manage that, then try to bring some of its soil and bury it with us.”

This huge responsibility of belonging to a place I’d never seen and would probably never visit, of identity and of memory instilled in me how important the right of return is to Palestinians. This is my cause which I should stand for no matter what. But what is my identity? The question of who I am has echoed in my mind for years. I found part of the answer in Mahmoud Darwish’s poem I Come From There.

I come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.

And “there” for my father is the town of Silat al-Harethyiah near the city of Jenin, which he left in 1957, originally to serve for three months in the East Bank border town of Ramtha. He was a police officer. Back at that time, the West and East Banks of the Jordan were one open territory ruled over by Jordan.

My father’s service took longer than he has imagined, so my mother joined him six months later. They were newlyweds. My father was 21 and my mother was 18. My father was still on duty, a decade later, when the 1967 war broke out. This marked the beginning of my family’s displacement, and my parents were given a “nazeheen card”. Nazeheen are Palestinians displaced from the West Bank and Jerusalem as a result of the 1967 war.

My father was forced to sell the house he built in Silat al-Harethyiah because my grandfather feared that the Israelis would take it over under what they call the Absentee Property Law, which was created to enable Israel to seize the maximum amount of property, especially since it is Israelis who created the displacement which led to this “absence” of the original owners.

Growing up as a Palestinian in Jordan did not “de- Jordanize” me, but it did not make me less Palestinian either. It only reinforced both my Arab identities and my desire to exercise my right of return. This right is recognised in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948 and is enshrined in numerous bodies of international law, including customary and treaty law.  Article 13(b) of the Universal Declaration of Human Right states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

Like exiled Palestinians everywhere, I am in a constant state of deferment, as if we are all sitting in a waiting room awaiting the return train home. In recent years, I have been struck by the realisation that there are so many things in my life I keep on subconsciously postponing, as if I were in a temporary state of transit.

This reminds me of the late grandmother of my friend Ahmad Ameen, a screenwriter who lives in Amman. After his grandmother, a refugee from Jaffa, passed away, he and his mother started to sift through the belongings in her room. “I looked under the bed to find dozens of black bags sitting there. I crawled under the bed and took them out one by one. They were dozens of black bags containing expired canned food,” he told me in dismay.

“Was she in a constant state of waiting?” he asked me. “Or did she simply carry her identity as a refugee with her wherever she went?”

And the burden of memory is not just about not forgetting, it also carries other burdens. One is the immense pressure, known to vulnerable minorities everywhere such as Jews, to make something of your life in order to attain a measure of security. “As a Palestinian, you need to overachieve, to secure something for yourself because you will most probably be somewhere else soon, and the risk is very high that you will lose it all,” my friend Deema Shahin reflected. This can be referred to as the “culture of return”.

But would I actually return? I sometimes ask myself: “If I have the choice, would I really want to live there? Would that really be home to me?” At times like this, I answer myself: “If you give up on this, if you  accept the concessions made since Oslo, our right of return will sooner or later be exhibited in museums.”

Then, the unruly horse of my imagination would gallop off with me, and I’d imagine my future children taking their children on a guided tour to the ruins of our memory. I’d imagine them saying in a foreign language: “Here they dreamt, here they fought, here they aspired, and here they died of frustration…may their memory rest in peace.” In panic, I’d rephrase the last part: “…and here they died of frustration, and here their memory survived, peace be upon them.”

But the trouble with our painful memories is not only the risk that we may forget, but also that there are those who do not wish us to remember, who wish to punish Palestinians for feeling pain at their loss, at their Nakba, their Catastrophe, of 1948. In March 2011, the Knesset enacted its controversial “Nakba Law”, which denies state funding to institutions, including schools, which “undermine the foundations of the state and contradict its values”, which has been read to include the marking Israeli Independence Day by Palestinian citizens of Israel as an occasion of mourning for Palestinians.

Here I would like to paint a contrast rather than draw a parallel. Whereas Israel denies the right of Palestinians not only to commemorate the loss of their homes, but also their right of return and even their right to visit, Israel has a “Law of Return” for Jews which allows, organises and facilitates the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world to what was once Palestine, but where Palestinians now live under occupation and apartheid.

Over the past two decades, land expropriation through the construction of the illegal Israeli separation wall and aggressive settlement building has left Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem with fewer resources, and even without homes, due to demolitions and evictions.

Rather than seeing more Palestinians driven off their land, we should be seeing the return of Palestinian refugees. When the Resolution 194 was passed, it did not stipulate that peace was a prerequisite for return. Over the past 18 years, the peace process has been trudging from one swamp to another, until it completely drowned in its own shortcomings. The peace process is dead and the only way out is to acknowledge that and work on creating new structures that could lead to a comprehensive solution. For decades now, the international community has found comfort in managing the conflict instead of ending it. Living the illusion of resuming negotiations in the current state of affairs will only contribute to increasing the frustration of Palestinians in the current Arab revolutionary context.

When I am asked how the right of return will be implemented, my answer is through one secular democratic state for Palestinians and Israelis together, a state where all citizens enjoy equal rights. This can only happen when the Israelis remove all forms of occupation, discrimination and hatred established within their education system and policies.

So far Israeli politicians have failed to present us with a true partner of peace. All we see is the shifting of Israeli governments from left to extreme right, and they all proved not only a lack of political will but also to be violent. Their poor proposals did not respond to the minimum Palestinian aspirations.

Israeli society should realise that their politicians have put them under the worst form of siege, that of the endless fear of extermination and distrust of the whole world. Peace cannot be achieved with such a recipe. Peace cannot be achieved if Israelis fail to recognise and implement our rights.

Today, away from the failures of politics I still see my free Palestine coming. The work of our memory hasn’t even begun yet. The work of our memory is too powerful for a state of occupation to control. It goes beyond everything because we keep it alive within us and for generations to come. On Nakba Day, we remember hundreds of Palestinian villages that were wiped off the map by Jewish armed groups. We remember hundreds of innocent Palestinians who were killed while defending their lands and homes. Our memory will be at the vanguard of the endless battle for our rights and our freedom.

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Mustafa Barghouti: “We are heading towards a Palestinian Spring”

 
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By Khaled Diab

Palestinian reformer Mustafa Barghouti on the demise of the peace process, the death of the two-state option and the dawning of the Palestinian Spring.

Friday 4 May 2012

From beginnings as a medical doctor, Mostafa Barghouti has been a prominent Palestinian reformer, human rights activist and politician for many years. Before entering politics, he founded, and still chairs, the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, which has grown to become one of the largest and most successful medical charities in the West Bank and Gaza. During the first intifada, he also set up a think tank to research health and development issues.

A member of one of the largest West Bank families, in terms of numbers, and one known for its political activism, it was almost inevitable that Mustafa Barghouti would enter politics. One of his earliest forays into politics was when he attended the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 as a member of the Palestinian delegation, though he quickly became disillusioned with the peace process launched with the Oslo Accords. Along with other Palestinian luminaries, he established the Palestinian National Initiative (al-Mubadara al-Wataniyya al-Filistiniyya) in 2002, which has sought to reform the Palestinian political landscape by providing a third viable alternative to the PLO and Hamas. Though he has been dismissed as a ‘no hoper’ and the Mubadra did badly in the previous legislative elections, Barghouti himself became Mahmoud Abbas’s strongest rival for the presidency in 2005 and insists that his movement has matured and now enjoys a significant support base.

Having followed him for some time and seen him perform in debates, I was looking forward to meeting the man. Our encounter took place in his spacious office in Ramallah, at the medical NGO he set up. When introducing myself, I mentioned that I lived in Jerusalem, to which he responded by informing me that he and other West Bankers are not allowed to visit the city. I expressed my bewilderment and disappointment that I, as a foreigner, had more freedom of movement here than Palestinians. I asked him whether he, as a politician, had a permit to visit Jerusalem to which he said he didn’t but that he defied what he considered to be illegal restrictions by taking back routes regularly into the Holy City – and occasionally getting detained for it.

During our interview, he talked about the peace process, the future of the two-state solution, Israeli policies, Palestinian divisions, and the coming dawn of a Palestinian Spring.

Khaled Diab: I’d like to begin with a general question: are you optimistic about the future?

Mustafa Barghouti: I am optimistic when it comes to the future of the Palestinian people – of course. I am optimistic that the system of occupation and racial discrimination will be broken, and we will gain our freedom. But if you mean to ask whether I’m optimistic about what is called the “peace process”, then the answer is no. The peace process is dead.

You were a member of the Palestinian delegation which went to the Madrid peace conference.

And I was amongst the group which included Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi who vigorously opposed the Oslo agreement.

So you find that the Oslo Accords do not accord with the Madrid principles?

No, the Oslo agreement contravened the Madrid principles in three areas. Firstly, it accepted the notion of a transitional solution. Secondly, it accepted a partial solution. Thirdly, it accepted the resolution of the Palestinian question in isolation from the wider Arab sphere.

The other dangerous aspect of Oslo was that an agreement was signed without the cessation of settlement building. I am with Haidar Abdel-Shafi, who is also one of the co-founders of the Mubadra [Palestinian National Initiative], along with Dr Edward Said. The three of us said that there can be no agreement without a full cessation of settlement activity.

Because the settlements have created realities on the ground?

Settlements have become a weapon for destroying everything, including Oslo itself. And that is what Yossi Beilin is now talking about. But Beilin does not admit that he is also at fault and responsible for the situation, even though he is one of those who allowed the continuation of settlement building to occur.

Do you think it would have worked if, after Madrid, instead of Oslo, an attempt to forge a comprehensive deal was pursued?

With the power of the intifada behind it, yes. There was also an international consensus. I believe that the successes of the intifada were squandered when the Oslo Accords were signed.

And do you think Israel could’ve accepted a comprehensive solution?

Israel was losing a lot at the time. The occupation was costly. And so Israel could’ve compromised. We might well have been living in an independent state by now. It’s also possible that we wouldn’t have been. I don’t know.

However, I believe it was entirely possible. I also think it was wrong for the Palestinian leadership to accept the notion of autonomy instead of full independence. Autonomy was supposed to be transitional and temporary, but the transitional has become permanent.

Why do you think that the exiled PLO leadership in Tunisia accepted this transitional agreement?

Perhaps one of the reasons is the huge international pressure that was exerted on the Palestinian leadership. Another factor was the allure of power. They began to hold on to the fantasy that the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) would enable them to change the reality on the ground. But this has been proven to be a fallacy.

Do you think that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin affected the peace process, that if Rabin had lived things could have turned out differently?

It’s possible, yes. Look, Rabin’s assassination and the electing of Netanyahu together sent out a clear signal that Israeli society would not go down the road of an independent Palestinian state. And this message should have been read and understood early on. Arafat understood this in 2000 and that is why he refused to submit to the pressures at Camp David and refused to give up the claim to Jerusalem, as was being demanded of him. And this led to the second intifada.

In my personal view, the message was already clear in 1996 and the duty at the time should have been to tell the world that the process is over. I believe that the establishment of the PA played a negative role because now the leadership is preoccupied with the trappings of power rather than the liberation movement. Israel has exploited the Oslo agreement to empty the liberation movement of its content and has transformed the PLO into little more than a cost item in the PA’s expenses.

This has had the effect of weakening Palestinian unity and has created enormous fractures in the Palestinian arena in two areas: between the supporters and opponents of Oslo, and between the internal and external dimensions, weakening the ability of exiled Palestinians to support the national struggle internally.

After the second intifada, the pro-Oslo camp – who built their election platform around the continuation of the Oslo process based on the false conclusion that it had failed due to our own errors and if we correct our ways everything will be fine – have been trying to revive the process since 2005 and to no effect. It is all an illusion planted by the international community and the United States in support of Israel.

The reality is that the Zionist movement has not accepted since its creation and until now the right of Palestinians to establish an independent state. But it is an intelligent movement. It procrastinates and delays to the fullest, accepting certain things temporarily while working towards its ultimate goals. But it has always kept a tight rein on maintaining the strategic initiative.

What do you say to those on the Israeli side who counter that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”?

Firstly, these are Israeli lies. For example, they say that in 1947 the partition plan failed because the Palestinians refused to accept it. There are documents that prove that Ben Gurion intended to continue his plan, even if the Palestinians had accepted partition. Even if we assume that what they say is true, why did they not stop at the borders set by the partition? These are lies. Even now, they had the chance to permit the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, who has prevented them from doing so? The Palestinians? On the contrary.

So are there no rejectionists on the Palestinian side to the establishment of two states?

No, the vast majority are with the two-state solution. Even Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But Hamas and Islamic Jihad were opposed to it at first.

Yes, but today, they support it. Who has prevented the establishment of an independent state? Israel.

You were among the biggest supporters of the two-state solution. In light of the current situation, do you still have faith in it?

Look, I believe in the freedom of the Palestinian people, and its right to independence and self-determination, and its right to end its subservience to Israel, either in the framework of two states or a single state.

But what I witness around me is that the Israelis have destroyed the two-state solution. Right now, we are in a grey area where it is difficult to determine empirically whether the two-state solution has actually died or is about to. Have we crossed the red line or are we about to cross it? In either case, it is clear that Israel, with the density of its settlement activity and its policies and the inability of the United States to exert pressure, is preparing to kill off the two-state option.

Under these circumstances, I say that the Palestinian people are not without options. One option is a single, fully democratic state in which every citizen has full and equal rights. However, for the time being, we must not allow differences of opinion over the one- or two-state solution to divide us once again.

Our slogan must be the freedom of the Palestinian people, whether in two states or one. When we reach the moment of truth, then we can decide. We cannot allow this to become another cause of internal division in the Palestinian ranks. Secondly, when we shift from one option to another, the decision must be a collective and unified one. Thirdly, we must not allow Israel to forfeit, this time, its responsibility for destroying the two-state option.

If Palestinians, Israelis and the international community wish to salvage the two-state solution, what needs to be done?

Firstly, pressure needs to be exerted to change the Netanyahu government. Military and economic aid to Israel must be stopped. Israel must pay a price for its occupation. There must be a clear resolve on the cessation of settlement activity and the removal of settlements. And there must be a clear reference to the 1967 borders. I do not accept the idea of land swaps and see it as a trap for the Palestinians. First, there’ll be talk of swaps, then of larger swaps. The settlements are illegitimate and so they must be removed – just as they were removed from Gaza.

The remove of the settlers or the settlements too?

It’s up to them whether they take the infrastructure or leave it behind, but the colonisation must end.

What do you think of the idea that if some of the Israeli settlers wished to stay on the land…?

If they are there in a legitimate fashion…

As Palestinian citizens?

If the place where they are living is not stolen from the Palestinians, then they are welcome to acquire Palestinian citizenship. But they cannot stay with us as Israeli citizens, like ‘Joha’s nail’.

So, you’re saying they should either become Palestinians or return to Israel?

Yes. They cannot stay here as Israeli citizens.

If Palestinians choose to go down the road of the single state, what strategy should they pursue?

The peaceful popular resistance that we are currently employing, the struggle for our rights.

Your civil rights?

Not just our civil rights. All our rights. Citizenship rights. Our national rights too. This has to be recognised. If we are to have a single state, this state must recognise the Arabic language and the Palestinian people. This is fundamental.

Popular resistance is a successful formula because it works both in the case of two states or one. In my opinion, the strategic choice before us is made up of four elements: the escalation of popular resistance, the BDS campaign, revamping all domestic Palestinian economic policies to focus them on reinforcing the people’s steadfastness instead of drowning them in debts, taxes and consumerism, rejecting the distinction between Areas A, B and C, and fourthly, national unity. We must end our divisions and form a unified leadership pursuing a unified strategy.

Do you think, in practical terms, with all the cracks in the Palestinian ranks, they can agree on a unified position?

Our destiny depends on it. Perhaps the deepening level of division has reached an untenable level. This could prove to be an opportunity to change the status quo, but the continuation of the current divisions will weaken us all and weaken our national cause. It will also cause enormous losses in popularity both for Fatah and Hamas.

Until you reach this fork in the road where you must choose between the two options, what should be the demands of the popular resistance movement?

Security co-ordination with Israel must end. The PA’s security role must be terminated. The PA cannot play a security role at a time when Israel mistreats us.

Before we started recording, you told me that the number of demonstrators on Land Day was greater than expected. Is this a sign that popular resistance can truly be stepped up and become a new intifada or revolution as has occurred in other countries?

I believe that we are heading towards a Palestinian Spring and it is inevitable that there will be another intifada.

Do you think the next intifada will be like the first one, peaceful, or…

Peaceful. I’m sure of it.

Do you think it will happen in the near future or…

It’s hard to say. But what we are seeing is a gradual escalation, as we expected. This phase of popular resistance began 10 years ago.

There are those who say that the Palestinians have already tried to mount their revolution during the first intifada, and its failure led to a sort of disillusionment.

No, the first intifada was a success. It was the political leadership which failed to consolidate the gains of the intifada.

Do you think the “Palestinian Spring”, as you called it, will have a clear leadership or will it be largely leaderless like the other Arab uprisings?

Ideally, there should be a unified leadership. But life goes on even in a vacuum. If the politicians fail to forge a unified leadership, then the intifada will create its own grassroots leadership.

You were a co-founder of the Mubadra and you took part in the previous presidential elections, where you came second to Mahmoud Abbas. Do you intend to enter the forthcoming presidential race?

Firstly, there are no elections. And when elections are called, we need to know elections for what, for the presidency of a country or the presidency of a Bantustan. If it is to lead a Bantustan, then I have no interest or desire – I don’t even accept the principle. If it is for the presidency of a country, then we can debate it closer to the time.

The danger is that the Palestinian Authority is without authority. It has no real existence. That is why we insist that, if elections are to take place, they must include the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem without exception. It should also include the Palestinian diaspora. The elections need to be both for the PLO and the PA simultaneously. We must never accept that the PA becomes the government of a Bantustan.

You personally scored well in the presidential elections in 2005, but the Mubadra only gained three seats, if I recall correctly. Is this a true reflection of the Mubadra’s power?

No, at the time, the Mubadra was still a new movement, so when we entered the legislative elections, we had not yet built a strong and effective organisational presence. Today, the situation is different. This is reflected in the results of the university elections, where the Mubadra has collected between 13 and 20% of the votes. These are decent gains.

Life has proven that the Mubadra is a necessary movement. Many new movements have been established but the only movement that has endured and survived and proven its capabilities, and has become the third power in the Palestinian arena, is the Mubadra. This is proof that this movement possesses a manifesto that is vital and needed. It is also the most youthful movement, and has a great future ahead of it.

What distinguishes the Mubadra are four things. Firstly, the popular resistance it has called for since its inception, and now everyone has adopted this strategy. It also stands out for its stance on domestic democracy, and that is why we do not participate in any government except a national unity one. It is also distinguished by its constructive role in unifying Palestinian ranks. We were the mediators in the most important agreements, namely the national unity government and the most recent Cairo accord, with the help of our Egyptian brothers, of course. Fourthly, the Mubadra upholds the principle of social justice. In addition to its vision for the liberation of the Palestinian people, the Mubadra also possesses an equitable social vision which takes into account the interests of the poor and the needs of Palestinian society. In addition, we are against party fanaticism and factionalism. Despite the hostility we sometimes face, we insist on remaining a unifying influence.

So, in your view, the Mubadra truly represents a third way in Palestinian politics?

Yes, and its ability to play a unifying and mediating role is linked to the fact that it is fully independent of both Fatah and Hamas.

You are in favour of peaceful resistance but there are others who criticise non-violent resistance and say that it has no future.

I am in favour of resistance as a principle. And the Palestinian people have the right to resist in every form. But it must comply with international and humanitarian law. We are not against other forms of resistance but we say that, in light of the current situation, the best, most appropriate and most effective means is Palestinian popular resistance. The evidence of this is that all the Palestinian political forces have adopted this strategy without exception.

I read in the papers that elections in May or June are impractical, and it would even be tough to organise elections in 2012.

True. I now believe that elections will be impossible as long as Gaza and the West Bank are divided. How can you have credible elections in the presence of this division? How can there be credible elections in the absence of the freedom to engage in political activities?

But in the absence of elections, there is also a democratic deficit?

That is exactly what I have said. We have regressed a lot, whereas we were once at the forefront of the Arab world. In 2005 and 2006, the Palestinian people were in the lead. I was the only Arab who ran against the president of the established order and did not go to jail, unlike Ayman Nour in Egypt and others. Unfortunately, the refusal to recognise the Palestinian unity government and the results of the elections divided Palestinian ranks.

So, the international community played a major role in this?

Israel and the international community were the main culprits behind the loss of democracy. That is why we insist on national unity, not for the sake of unity in itself. We are in favour of political pluralism and the right of Palestinians to choose but we cannot regain democracy without a transitional phase of reconciliation and national unity.

 

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