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Dark at the End of the Tunnel


Edward Said

From

Al-Ahram

Weekly

/

Issue No. 491 

The

media has been bursting with all sorts of rumours, speculation, and some news

about the Camp David summit, its progress, outcome, and meaning. Whatever

happens as an immediate result of the negotiations, one thing seems quite clear:

that despite any arrangements that will be made with regard to territory,

borders, the status of Jerusalem, refugees, water and sovereignty, the

underlying issue is whether or not the Palestinians will agree to terminate the

conflict with Israel, and to declare the past to be null and void so far as the

present and future are concerned. This declaration is, I think, the big prize

that Yasser Arafat — remember that even with his army of assistants in Camp

David, only he has final authority — has it in his power to bestow on Israel,

and it is precisely this that Israel wants more than anything else.

Therefore,

even Jerusalem and the refugees’ right of return are less significant by

comparison with some kind of declaration, voluntarily given by the Palestinians,

that they foresee an end to all their claims against Israel, plus an end to any

further struggle against the state that effectively stripped them collectively

and individually of their historical patrimony, land, houses, property,

well-being, and all. What has concerned me all along with Arafat’s tactic (or is

it a strategy?) of threatening to declare a state is the danger that his state

might quickly be recognized as in effect the equivalent of granting the

Palestinians the fulfillment of their self-determination, perhaps only on paper,

but granting it nevertheless. No country like Israel is likely to tolerate the

existence, much less assisting at the birth, of another country in whose

structure might lie an unfulfilled or incomplete past. In return for accepting a

state of Palestine then, Israel is quite within reason to demand also that the

new state must forego any claims about the past, which this new state by

definition is, I believe, going to be seen as having fulfilled.

In

other words, the existence of a demilitarised and necessarily truncated

Palestinian state, no matter how disadvantaged territorially, economically, or

politically, is going to be designed, constituted, founded, and built out of a

negation of the past. In Israel’s view the past in question is entirely and

exclusively a Palestinian past (and not a Palestinian-Israeli one), since in

Israel’s case no one forecasts the end or termination of Jewish claims against

persecutors of Jews in the past. Torn from its context of struggle and

dispossession, its long trail of suffering, exile, displacement and massive

loss, this real Palestinian past will be declared null and void in return for

which the Palestinian people will be said to have achieved statehood.

This

will not be a merely formal matter but something that is designed to get at the

very roots of Palestinian identity. Already Oslo has taken a toll out of

Palestinian history as taught to young children through Palestinian Authority

textbooks. In the new order of things Palestinians are represented as people who

happen now to be in Nablus, Ramallah and Jericho; how they got there, how some

of them came to these places as a result of 1948 and 1967, and how Tiberias and

Safad were once preponderantly Arab, all these inconvenient bits of information

have simply dropped out of the textbooks. In a grade six history book Arafat is

referred to only as President of the Palestine Authority; his history as PLO

Chairman, to say nothing of the Amman, Beirut and Tunis days has just been

effaced. In another book, Palestine is presented to Palestinian children as a

blank rectangle: they are asked to fill in the spaces which, once the peace deal

is concluded, will be studded only with the names of places that are considered

Palestinian according to Camp David.

Now

there is a great difference between disliking or being annoyed by the past on

the one hand, and, on the other, refusing to recognise it as the past, even the

past that some people believe in. The reason so many official Palestinian

representatives have been so anxious to refer to UN Resolution 194 (Right of

Return) or even 242 (territory returned) is that scant and telegraphic though

they may be, these resolutions represent distillations of Palestinian history

that seem to be acknowledged by the world community. As such then, they have a

validity independent of any one party’s whim. The danger of Camp David is that

it will nullify, explicitly or implicitly, this very quality. History is to be

rewritten not according to the best efforts historians have made to try to

determine what occurred, but according to what the greatest powers (the US and

Israel) say is allowable as history.

The

same brushing away of the past, and its claims on the future, will surely apply

to the Israeli occupation which began in 1967. We now have a full record of what

damages to the economy occurred and, I am sure, a full record of what deliberate

destruction occurred in agriculture, municipal affairs, and private property.

Deaths, woundings, and the like are also recorded. I am certainly not arguing

for holding a permanent grudge against the perpetrators, but I am for

remembering that three decades of occupation should not simply be blown away

like so many specks of dust on a gleaming surface. Iraq is still paying Kuwait

for the few months of its occupation in 1990 and 1991, and that restitution is

as it should be. Why then is Israel miraculously exempt of restitution for all

its past malfeasance? How can southern Lebanese citizens be expected to forgive

and forget the 22-year-old occupation of their territory, and not least the

horrors of Khiam prison, with its torture, dreadful solitary confinements, and

inhuman conditions, all of it supervised and maintained by Israeli experts and

their Lebanese mercenaries?

These

matters, I believe, require much deliberation, reflection and considered

evaluation. In due course perhaps even a South African-style Truth and

Reconciliation Commission might be convened. But I do not believe so awesomely

weighty and dense a matter as the Palestinian history of injustice at Israeli

hands, and even the whole question of Israeli responsibility itself, can be

settled in the form of a backroom deal done relatively quickly, bazaar-style.

There are truth, and dignity, and justice to be fairly considered, without which

no arrangement can be fully concluded, no matter how politically expedient or

clever.

As

a minimum guarantee that some such consideration be given peace of the kind

aimed for at Camp David, a Palestinian plebiscite or referendum is therefore

essential, if it is democratically fair. For once, in this whole shabbily

unsatisfactory Oslo process, Mr Arafat and his supporters have a chance to save

a small part of what has been left us as a people — in no small part because of

years of misrule, dishonesty, and indignity. Can they go at least some of the

way toward partially redeeming themselves?

 

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