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Conference on People’s Foreign Policy: A Case for the Palestinians

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Prepared for the Conference on People’s Foreign Policy, Mumbai, India: December 7-8 2006.

I am honored and delighted to have the opportunity to address you today. But it is unfortunate and tragic that I address you in a time where circumstances on the ground have deteriorated so much that the desperation which Palestinians endure today perhaps cannot be compared to any other time in their history.

And as we have also seen in the past, the US is at the forefront of an exerted effort to coerce Palestinians and their government through institutionalized, systematic and collective punishment of the entire civilian and refugee population in Palestine.

From house demolitions to withholding food aid, the US, Israel and all their supporters, it seems, will stop at nothing to topple the democratically elected Palestinian government. Of course, this is not their justification, but they insist that all they demand is that the government condemns violence and recognizes the right of Israel to exist.

So, what’s so unfair about forcing the Palestinian government to recognize Israel’s right to exist?

Those truly familiar with the disparity of power between Israel – a formidable nuclear power – and Palestinians with their dysfunctional police apparatus must find the notion tragically humorous.

It gets even more amusing when one understands that those expected to recognize Israel’s “right to exist” are the descendants of those who have been utterly victimized by Israel’s policies, and who continue to endure on a daily basis the pain and hurt of Israel’s military occupation.

But is it not unjust to expect the Palestinian government to recognize Israel who has intentionally left its borders undefined with the hopes of robbing Palestinians of the leftovers of the original size of their homeland – 22 percent of the total size of Palestine?

Maybe the West should hold on for a few months before making such demands, enough time to allow Israel to unilaterally determine how much it wishes to keep and how much it wishes to spare of the Occupied West Bank, so that Palestinians know exactly what it is that they must recognize.

Is it not unfair to demand an occupied nation to recognize the same entity that has illegally expropriated its future capital – East Jerusalem – to become part of its own “greater” capital, in defiance of international law?

Wouldn’t the PA be recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over what Israel conceives as part of “proper Israel” which includes much of the West Bank and all of Jerusalem?

What’s even more sanctimonious is demanding that the Palestinian government disown violence. Is this some sort of crude joke that the West insists on playing on Palestinians, keeping in mind that Hamas as well as other Palestinian factions largely adhered to a self-declared one-sided cease-fire with Israel for well over a year?

Let’s juggle some hypotheses. If the international community thinks that it is imperative that Palestinians abandon violence and terrorist ways of resistance, is it prepared to pressure Israel, through economic boycotts, denial of aid and travel restrictions on its officials to end all forms of collective and individual violence inflicted on Palestinians?

More, if such pressure fails, is it prepared to provide Palestinians with a tangible form of protection against wanton Israeli violence, such as the most recent onslaught in Gaza that left 400 people dead and many more wounded? Are they prepared to send peacekeeping forces?

How about the third demand that the new Palestinian government must commit to peace?

Such an approach reeks with hypocrisy.

I wish I could make a similar declaration to that made by the courageous Jewish American lawyer, Stanley Cohen in a recent BBC debate, where he said: “Palestinians don’t need your money.”

True, Palestinians are too dignified to succumb to such debasing pressure, but the reality is that the Israeli occupation and the past corruption of the former Palestinian government has left them broke and totally reliant on foreign assistance. Their economy was intentionally kept with no prospects of self-reliance precisely for a moment like this where such unwarranted pressure is needed.

Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, being punished for making a democratic choice that has been deemed unacceptable from an Israeli point of view and from its benefactors elsewhere.

Palestinians should recognize Israel, quit violence and commit to peace, but only when such demands are equally required of Israel. Until then, they are simply unmerited.

Regardless of ones political or religious affiliation, one cannot help but empathize with and even respect the current government, for the debacles which have been placed before them are extraordinary.

Time and again, they have made every good-faith effort to come to a mutual understanding with the US and the Israelis, only to be disregarded. It is clear that there is simply nothing they can do to please Bush and Olmert, short of disappearing altogether.

Seeing ample empirical evidence that supports such a claim, one has to wonder what the remaining options are for the Palestinian government. Unfortunately, there are not many, and none of them are trouble-free.

The coordinated financial and diplomatic boycott, led by the US, which was demanded by Israel, makes it impossible for the Palestinian government to pay the salaries of some 150,000 government employees.

Even Arab banks could be punished if they agree to transfer funds to the Palestinians, according to US anti-terror laws. The Palestinian government is, naturally, desperate to secure whatever meager funds from alternative sources.

It’s now politics at work; forget about a “just solution” to the conflict, “peace” and “democracy” and all other ornamental phrases. What’s at play here is politics, and dirty politics at that:

Any Palestinian government or leader, democratically elected or not, that fails to perform according to a specified role and insists on addressing the central elements of the conflict, must be fought, branded and discarded, no matter how pragmatic his argument may be.

Recent history provides the quintessential case in point. Former Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat was caged in the basement of his battered offices in the West Bank town of Ramallah for years, for simply failing to read his assigned lines. The lapel of his jacket was decorated not only with the flag of Palestine, but that of Israel as well. He condemned terrorism, shut down Palestinian charities, imprisoned militant and political leaders, but was still deemed “irrelevant” and was literally imprisoned until a mysterious illness and death set him free.

He would call Israeli leaders “my brothers”, “my partners”, he would condemn attacks on Israeli civilians and often neglected to even address attacks on Palestinian civilians, yet he was told that all was not enough. “Arafat must condemn Palestinian terrorism in Arabic,” US officials and pundits parroted. He did. That too did not suffice. “He must follow his words with deeds,” they further instructed, but without calling on Israel to free him to achieve such a mission.

He was humiliated, physically confined and completely stripped of any tangible powers, and yet he was expected to ensure Israel’s security while in his shackles. He was expected to do the impossible, and naturally he failed.

History has an odd and often ironic way of repeating itself. The same conditions are now being imposed on Hamas, who would, predictably, have to do more to prove to be seen as a legitimate partner in a peace process that doesn’t exist and was not meant to exist. The US is now backing Fatah, which was much more “flexible” and ready to sign and initial with the slightest wink, yet, it was too “no peace partner”, according to Israel, and of course the US.

Undoubtedly, Washington has no constructive foreign policy of its own regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is itself following an Israeli script, one that will deem any Palestinian leadership “terrorist”, “irrelevant” and “no peace partner”.

And this is the primary point of my speech so please listen carefully: All Israel is striving for is time: To consolidate its strong hold over occupied Jerusalem, to conclude the construction of its illegal Apartheid Wall built mostly on Palestinian land and to demarcate its own borders, which also happen to fall in Palestinian areas.

Meanwhile, let Palestinians starve, wrangle over pathetic powers of the government and the president, and resort to Iran and others for financial aid. None of this is of any concern to Israel, but it provides the further proof needed to brand Palestinians incapable of governing themselves, and to make obvious the “evil” alliance between Hamas and Iran – which in turn places the Palestinian government in the anti-American camp.

It’s unfortunate indeed that the EU has agreed to participate in this charade, betraying the trust of most Palestinians who have always seen Europe as different from the US, believing that their foreign policies have not yet been fully hijacked by pro-Israeli lobbies, and so forth.

All of this will likely push the Palestinian government, willingly or not, toward a more detrimental and extremist political line, because mere survival – neither pragmatism nor a shadowy peace – is now its ultimate objective.

On the other hand, the disparity between Israel’s public narrative and its actual intents cannot possibly be any more palpable than in the current Gaza onslaught following the capture by Palestinians of an Israeli soldier near Gaza in a daring June 25 raid on a military post.

The Gaza Strip, a stretch of land that hardly exceeds a few kilometers in length and is much smaller in width, has always been the home of the poorest of Palestinians, with living conditions that can only be compared to that in the world’s poorest countries, though Gaza’s population is highly educated.

If the military’s intentions are indeed to “root out terrorists”, then why insist on pursuing the same detrimental policies – those of siege, isolation and overt militarism? Policies that deprive Palestinians of any sense of hope that Gaza could ever become an economically viable, truly independent polity? Why push desperate Palestinians through endless assassinations and targeting of civilians in broad daylight?

And the so-called Palestinians rockets, as ominous as they may appear on television, have claimed the lives of two Israelis in over a year, while the Israeli military has killed over 400 Palestinians since June of this year alone.

But how about the captured soldier? Is that not a legitimate grievance? It would be if it were not Israel who insisted on creating utterly perilous circumstances under which it places not just its soldiers, but also its civilians.

For example, Gilad Shalit – no matter how harmless the photos Israel deliberately provides of him to the media – was taking part in a murderous mission aimed at exactly that, murdering Palestinians. In the seven weeks prior to Shalit’s capture, the number of Palestinians killed at the hands of the Israeli military – Shalit’s equally innocent looking colleagues – approached the 100 mark.

It’s rather odd that the Israeli government is painting an image for Israel as a nation that would go to any lengths to save the life of one man, while it puts the life of hundreds of thousands of its people in great danger, notwithstanding the total disregard for the life of all Palestinians. If Israel’s actions send any message, it’s one filled with hypocrisy and racism.

However, I feel that it is most critical that Palestinians, as well as their supporters around the world, and I know there are so many here in this great nation, for which I am eternally grateful, we must not only look outward to the struggles that face us, but we must also focus inward to contemplate, what must we do to strengthen ourselves as a people, to liberate ourselves, not only from our oppressors, but from our own inner-corruption as well?

I truly believe that any nation’s greatest patriot must also be his homeland’s most honest critic as well. With that in mind, and motivated by a deep love for my homeland, I must say that it is no secret that the Palestinian people have always struggled with the problem of impotent, self-seeking leaderships, who have historically invested far greater time fending for their own status and position at the helm – however worthless – than representing the legitimate rights and aspirations of an occupied nation.

Alas, the present leaderships too are caught in similar wrangling, although it offers an unprecedented lesson for the Palestinians to learn from.

To differ is only human, indeed. But when political and ideological differences within the Palestinian leadership turn into wide chasms that split further an already weakened and oppressed society in urgent need for national cohesion – amid incessant and sadly successful attempts to splinter its national identity – then one must question the wisdom and merit of such leadership that would allow for, in fact, instigate such a travesty.

The current leadership struggle in Palestine is an illustration of the misguided priorities of Palestinian leaders, and for once, Palestinians must possess the courage to realize and confront it.

It has been well established that the current Hamas-led government was a direct manifestation of the democratic choice of the Palestinian people; a choice that was fought resolutely by an alliance that encompasses the United States and other Western allies and Israel.

It was not the transparency of the elections they have rejected; rather the outcome. Each party in that alliance had good reason to disallow genuine Palestinian democracy – from their own self-absorbed viewpoint.

Of course, that rejection was not a mere political position, but quickly translated to the stoppage of aid to the Palestinian government and robbed blind and collectively punished by Israel. Palestine is a nation that lives, for obvious reasons, under utter economic dependency.

With over 150,000 civil servants not receiving their paychecks, however meager for the last 9 months, the Palestinian economy has descended into chaos.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories John Dugard told the UN Human Rights Council on Sept. 26 that the Gaza Strip – ironically the ‘liberated’ part of the territories – has sunk into the most severe crisis in 13 years.

“The Palestinian people have been subjected to economic sanctions – the first time an occupied people has been so treated.” He also warned that the West Bank is also on the verge of an imminent humanitarian crisis because of the 700km-long Israeli Separation Wall. What is taking place in the West Bank is ethnic cleaning, he said, “but political correctness forbids such language where Israel is concerned.”

If not for the sensitive and perceptive reporting of a few individual journalists such as Amira Hass of the Israeli daily Haaretz and Donald Macintyre of the British newspaper Independent, the untold suffering of the Palestinian people would have gone completely unnoticed.

Gaza however, remains the most intense example where, according to Dugard, three-quarters of its 1.4 million residents are now dependent on direct food aid.)

Facing an endless campaign of military violence and all sorts of collective punishment, Palestinians in the occupied territories and the equally wretched dwellers of refugee camps in Diaspora, had little choice but to hold on to their straw-man leaderships, which grew incredibly wealthy, detached and hardly representative of the people and their true aspirations.

In recent years, particularity under the Oslo dictates, the Palestinian leadership upgraded its status to that of Israel’s iron fist and most faithful prison guard, in exchange for special privileges to its members of old and emerging elites. Yes, indeed, before we are liberated from the outside oppressor, so much self-reflection must take place, an inner liberation must wash away this corruption, further, Palestinian masses must absolutely make their voices heard that their destiny and the destinies of their children, the borders of their homeland and the fate of their millions of refugees cannot be bartered by any government or faction. 
If history is of any relevance, Palestinian rights are not personal property with which to be haggled by one government and inherited by another: Palestinian territorial rights, especially those of occupied East Jerusalem, the removal of all Jewish settlements and the Wall, the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees, among all others, are not political decisions to be made by Hamas, Fatah, or any other Palestinian faction, no matter how widely represented.

Any decision concerning these inalienable rights is to be determined by national Palestinian consensus, not only of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, but Palestinians in Diaspora as well.

Too much has been sacrificed, too many lives lost and too many hopes dashed for the dreams of this courageous people to be bargained market place style. If there is anything that Palestinians deserve, it is some dignity, long-awaited respect and at last, a moment of peace.