PALESTINE IS STILL THE ISSUE
John Pilger, the well-known campaigning journalist, made last year one of the best documentaries on the Middle East conflict ever shown on British TV. It was called, Palestine is still the issue. Apposite as that title was then, it is even truer now that America and Britain have gone to war – not to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but against Iraq. The destruction of Iraq is now another open wound in the body politic of the Arab world to add to that festering in Palestine for over fifty years. And with the current chorus of threat rising against Syria, attention is focused on what that might bode for the future of that country. Given these upheavals, who now is thinking about Palestine?
That Iraq – maybe Syria next - and not Palestine, should hold front rank in the world’s attention, is a triumph above all for Israel. This state, which was imposed on the Arab world by force and coercion over 50 years ago, was always for Arabs the real problem, not Iraq. The conflict with Israel has dominated the history of the modern Middle East and is the main cause of regional instability. It has caused four major wars, chronic regional militarisation, distorted Arab social development and created violent anti-Western feeling, increasingly expressed as terrorism. Since its inception, Israel has served as a facilitator of Western regional interests. The structure of divide and rule introduced by the West, part of which was also to keep autocratic client rulers in place, was reinforced by Israel’s establishment. Far from unifying the Arabs to confront the challenge this event posed, it actually consolidated Western hold on the region. Arab regimes who suppress popular dissent and are dependent on the West, have been essential to Israel’s survival, and so have been supported. It is this culture of dictatorship and oppression, encouraged for decades to maintain the Western regional structure, that nurtured the likes of Saddam Hussein who was no more than an especially unsavoury example of the whole genre.
The real issue in the Middle East is the conflict with Israel and the Western determination to keep Israel dominant over its Arab neighbours. Though it is so central, people are weary of hearing about this conflict, simply because it has been going on for so long. And the war on Iraq will most likely only make it worse. Yet, it is the unsolved problem of Palestine that traditionally has engaged and enraged the Arab and Muslim worlds more than any other. Muslims everywhere, a majority of non-aligned states, and all Arabs feel passionately about Palestine. While on a recent visit to Pakistan, I observed first hand the passionate support for Palestine demonstrated everywhere. Even on the eve of war in Iraq, as it was then, Palestine was still the main issue. This is not just because people share an Islamic faith that rejects the suffering of fellow Muslims. It is also due to identification with the experience of oppression and a rejection of Western colonialist practices of which most Muslims nations have a living memory. The current attack and occupation of Iraq further reinforces these perceptions, and serves as yet another example of Western arrogance and contempt for the rights of weaker nations.
All these aspects are uniquely encapsulated by the Palestinian story. Here was a small people, living peaceably in their land who found themselves, without apparent cause, pawns in a game of someone else’s devising. With the implementation of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – the deal, which offered European Zionists a Jewish homeland in Palestine – Palestinians, became engulfed in a nightmare of which they had little understanding or control.
I remember that the Palestine of my childhood in the 1940s was overwhelmingly affected by this nightmare. My family was pretty ordinary. We lived in Jerusalem. My father was a school inspector, my mother was a housewife. I had an older sister and brother and a much-loved mongrel dog called Rex. By rights, that’s where I would have stayed, grown up and died. But we were forced to flee in 1948 and were never allowed to return. We came to live in Britain, while at home, Israel was born on our land and against our will. In true colonialist fashion, no one consulted us or asked for permission to perpetrate this terrible act. The UN passed numerous resolutions, enjoining our return and compensation, none of which has Israel implemented. Western powers, which have insisted on Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions and claim that as one of their reasons for going to war, never pressured Israel to comply similarly. The Palestinian refugees created in 1948 still languish with their children in camps surrounding Israel. A small part of the original Palestine – now known as the West Bank and Gaza - remained Arab after 1948. Today, even this residue is massively colonised by Israeli settlements, and the Palestinian aspiration to statehood there seems doomed.
Since September 2000, Israel’s army has perpetrated a brutal occupation of Palestinian land. The list of resulting depredations makes wretched reading. Over 2000 Palestinians killed, 85% of them civilians and one quarter under the age of 18; a ruined economy and widespread poverty; closures and virtually continuous curfews, destruction of agriculture and uprooting of tress; imprisonment and torture. And Israel perpetrates this extraordinary military assault on civilians with total impunity, while enjoying unprecedented levels of US support
It is this mix of Western-backed oppression, injustice and colonisation that makes of Palestine a paradigm for the Third World. Many Arabs and Muslims are prepared to die for Palestine and see it as the moral cause of our time. And not just for them. On the many anti-war marches in Britain that have taken place since February, Palestine has featured as prominently as Iraq, and every speaker on every rally made mention of it. The potency of Palestine as symbol and cause is the reason why diverse actors have exploited it. Saddam Hussein, in a bid to lead the Arab world, espoused it. Usama bin Laden, seeking credibility, took it up. Tony Blair has been at extreme pains to demonstrate his concern. He convened a Palestinian conference in London in January this year and has made much of the so-called Middle East Road Map. President Bush now speaks of resolving the Palestinian problem in the near future via the same Road Map. Anyone who studies the details of this map will see that it is likely to face the same fate as the other peace proposals which perished due to their lack of generosity towards the Palestinians and the intransigent Israeli reception they received. Though much of this US/British professed concern for solving the Palestinian problem is window-dressing designed to ensure Arab support over Iraq, it nonetheless shows an awareness that Palestine has become a matter of public debate.
And more so as Israel swings towards the extreme right and deals with the Palestinians only with military force. There is a humanitarian disaster in the occupied territories that Israelis gloss over. Israel’s leaders eagerly anticipated the war on Iraq and are currently crowing with delight at Iraq’s defeat – indeed many believe they played a major role in its inception. It has been widely reported that Israel’s leaders planned to liquidate the Palestinian problem under cover of the war and resulting focus of attention on Iraq, using even greater force and possible mass expulsions. This policy is openly debated in Israel, 44% of whose people support it. Anti-Arab slogans are widespread: ‘no Arabs no attacks’, declare the billboards across the country. The nightmare that I lived through 54 years ago may be about to happen again. So far, this has not happened on a mass scale. But what has happened is nearly as sinister. Small-scale evictions, house demolitions forcing people to leave, and killing are a daily occurrence in the Palestinian areas. In February Israel killed 84 peopole, in March, 80. During the week of April 3-9 alone, another 18 Palestinians, five of them children were killed. The only difference now is that these ghastly acts go largely unnoticed and unreported.
As long as the conflict remains unresolved, the potential for more regional wars and violence will remain or be aggravated, and the likelihood of terrorism, whether individual or organisational, will increase. Imposing another unequal settlement on the Palestinians will not work. And yet US/British attention is focused, not on this, but on what was a quiescent Iraq, destroyed by sanctions, and posing no threat whatever to the West. Astoundingly, it is Palestine with all its dangers, not Iraq, that is on the back burner. Israel’s increasing violence against Palestinians is also on the back burner, and Ariel Sharon, who has longed for this moment, will be hoping that no one will notice the horrors yet to come.
Can this orgy of killing be ignored? And can the world still pretend that peace in Israel/Palestine is secondary to Iraq? Will the chaos in Iraq and the trumped up charges against Syria be used yet again to obscure the real issue in the Middle East? This is manifest and wilful nonsense. But the wake-up call, when it comes, may be too late.
Ghada Karmi is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, England and author of ‘In Search of Fatima: a Palestinian story’ (Verso).
Dawn April 2003