A Staring Contest


At a sizable demonstration recently held in London to protest against a war on Iraq, the Palestinian flag stood out amidst the sea of banners. Curiously enough, it attracted little attention, as though it were entirely normal for the Palestinian symbol to assume prominence at such an event. But such an occurrence is not commonplace — not in Europe at least — considering that Israel has gone out of its way since 11 September to associate the Palestinian cause with terror, and considering that US President George W Bush claims that the Palestinian leadership is the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Yet, here we are: a demonstration in London, about Iraq, and the Palestinian flag is the most visible symbol.

Those who have tried to reduce the Palestinian issue to a question of terrorism have failed because the Palestinians’ cause is a just one. Theirs is a clear case of occupation, and it is the last remaining colonial set-up in modern times. Palestine is the Arabs’ open wound, and it hurts other nations too, for it evokes bad memories. Even those who do not view the creation of Israel as a matter of colonialism concede that the 1967 occupation, with its continued settlers’ activity and the apartheid it generates, bears the hallmarks of colonialism. There is no two ways about it.

This moral, widely recognised aspect of the Palestinian issue has given it the strength to survive accusations of terrorism. It is the wind that makes the Palestinian flag fly high, even when the flags of other Arab countries are nowhere to be seen, and even in demonstrations concerning other causes. The Palestinian flag is the flag of a just cause, even by European standards, and even in countries that are allied with Israel. Neither the United Kingdom, nor France, nor any other country with a colonialist past can deny that. And the peoples of there sympathise with those forced to live under occupation.

The Palestinian issue has become a byword for oppression and injustice. This did not happen overnight, nor was it easily accepted by the Western left, with its sympathy towards the Jews. However, since the first Intifada erupted the Palestinian cause has increasingly become a symbol of injustice. And it has ceded none of the moral ground it gained.

The Palestinian struggle is not about secession. Palestine is not Kurdistan, Chechnya, Kashmir or the Basque country. While we may have different views on those cases and debate the appropriateness and intricacies of self-determination in each situation, none of them are instance of colonialism. The national aspirations and cultural identity of the communities in the above cases need to be addressed, but there is always room for compromise. The Palestinians have no such room, for theirs is not a matter of separatism. Israel is not offering citizenship to the Palestinians of the West Bank — it is not even offering a second-class status. The structure of relations between those Palestinians and Israel is relentlessly colonial. No one can claim otherwise, not even the Americans.

The United States will not suggest that the Palestinians be slaughtered, or even assimilated in the state that was built upon the ruins of their own, as was the case, for example, with the Native Americans. Even Washington has to deal with the Palestinian issue in terms of colonialism, liberation and independence. Wars may break out, battles may be won or lost, but nothing will change this.

Currently, the conflict is about the conditions for ending colonialism. The West, the United States, and even Israel have endorsed the Palestinian state in principle. Consequently, the conflict is now about the conditions for establishing that state. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, as he prepares for war against Iraq despite overwhelming domestic opposition, has recently felt obliged to call for the speedy creation of a Palestinian state. Forget it, Tony. There is no conflict over the creation of such a state, to start with. And the “speedy” part does not impress anyone, not to mention that Britain is in no position to do anything about it.

The Guardian, on 5 October, reported that Bush was angry with Blair over his remarks on a Palestinian state on the basis that priority should be given to the war against Iraq and the US president’s view that there is no need to apologise constantly about Palestine. This is the Israeli position, verbatim. Yet, before some Palestinians welcome Blair’s comments, it bears mentioning that the quarrel during and since Camp David is not about the Palestinian state as such, but about its borders, about Jerusalem being its capital and about the settlements. The issue of the refugees also remains unresolved. Whatever happens, one should not welcome statements that are designed to placate the public and divert attention from the war against Iraq, a war that has nothing to do with the suffering of the Iraqis at Saddam Hussein’s hands.

Even if Blair made the comments in another context, they would still be irrelevant. What the United Kingdom and other influential countries should do is define their position on the borders of the Palestinian state, on settlements, on Jerusalem and on refugees. This is where the action is. Anything else is a waste of time.

The Palestinians have to keep this in mind, for they are likely to be told, exactly as during the Gulf War, that after America finishes with Iraq, it will pay more attention to them and hopefully give them a state.

The fact is the weaker the Arabs are, the weaker the Palestinians are. This equation is at the heart of US policy. If the war against Iraq is successful, the American camp will find its voice. ‘The Intifada is wreaking havoc on us’, you’ll hear them say. ‘We should have accepted what we were offered at Camp David’, they are likely to add. But the Palestinian people, who, through action and not words, have turned the state into a definite prospect, would continue to struggle for better terms. The American camp would harp on fears of transfer. Some people would try to scare the Palestinians, including Israel’s Arabs, with the prospect of transfer. If you deny that Israel could take such an action, you appear to be defending Israel. If, alternatively, you admit the theoretical possibility, the conclusion some may draw is that the Palestinians have to accept what is on offer.

How low can one stoop for personal gains — could this extend to ending the resistance or capitulating to US conditions, which is just what some Arabs want. Forget about the resistance, the United States, and the haggling involved. Israel cannot do anything it wants. And the Palestinian people are not sheep bound for the slaughter. The Palestinian cause is solid and fair, so much so that it lends its mantle to others who need support. Remember when Jewish militants entered Khan Yunis to terrorise its people, they had to commit a massacre. Now think, what would happen if they enter Palestinian areas to force its residents out? Would the Palestinian people, with memories of previous exoduses so bitterly vivid, turn tail? Transfer is not a word to be spoken lightly.

We have come to the end of the conflict over Palestinian rights. We are at the point of defining the terms for a lasting solution. And, hard as Sharon may stare into our eyes, we cannot afford to blink. Do not forget that the Israelis are also in a dilemma. They too are fighting for terms that suit them. They too are racing against time.




* The writer is a leading Palestinian political activist and member of the Knesset.

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