Ghada Karmi

Palestine Report, October 01, 2003 Volume 10 Number 14

The Palestinians: Separate fates divisive to national cause
an expert report by activist Ghada Karmi  

THE ESTABLISHMENT of the state of Israel dealt Palestinian society a lethal blow. A homogenous population with its own culture, history and traditions that had lived on its land for centuries was suddenly shattered and fragmented into sections isolated from each other. The larger proportion went into exile outside the borders of Mandate Palestine. One part remained in the West Bank and Gaza but was augmented by an influx of refugees from pre-1948 Palestine and the rest were left to live under Israeli rule. The exiles were further sub-divided into camp dwelling refugees and those who found new homes in the neighboring Arab countries and beyond.

The displaced people numbered some 750,000 after the Nakba of 1948. Today, they are to be counted in the millions. Estimates put the Palestinian world population at a total of just under 10 million, of whom 3.5 million live under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and a further million live in Israel as citizens; the rest, that is slightly more than half, live outside the borders of historic Palestine. As a result, each of these communities developed differently and, given their physical separation, they inevitably grew apart.

This split has led to a concept of the Palestinians 'inside' and those 'outside,' each with their own problems and concerns, and precisely what Israel wished for. From 1948 onwards, Israel aimed to destroy Palestinian society such that no coherent resistance could ever emerge to threaten its existence. Having failed to eradicate the Palestinians physically, Israelis realized that they would have to do so by other means. Thus they tried to ensure that the Palestinians had no national cause, were not a separate people but 'Arab refugees' whose origins no one was quite sure of and who had never had a distinctive identity.

Between 1948 and 1965, Israel almost succeeded. The Palestinian communities that had resulted from the break-up of Palestinian society in 1948 were at first engaged in survival of different sorts: those in camps had to live on UN support; those lodging in other countries had to establish themselves and to make a living; those in Israel, largely forgotten by everyone else, were struggling to maintain their identity against their new occupiers; while those in the West Bank and Gaza tried to adjust to Jordanian and Egyptian rule respectively.

Those of us living in Western countries faced problems of alienation and difficulties of integration into societies that were friendly to the Zionist project and hostile to its victims. Overwhelmed with these problems in Britain, I can remember growing up almost totally unaware of my Palestinian origins or my cause. In that 17-year interregnum after 1948, there was little political activity amongst Palestinians, and what there was, was confined to joining already established political parties, usually socialist or communist and mostly in the Arab world. The rift between Palestinian communities seemed complete and the Israeli aspiration apparently fulfilled.

But at the end of the 1950s, when Fateh started to become established, things began to change. The Palestine Liberation Organization was set up in 1964 under the auspices of the Arab League, in official recognition, however token, of the fact that Palestine represented a national political cause. The PLO was shortly thereafter hijacked and reformed by Yasser Arafat and his Fateh group and in 1965, they carried out the first armed operation against Israel.

This seminal event, though unsuccessful in military terms, marked the start of a process that rescued the Palestinian issue from obscurity and transformed it into a national cause, forced onto the world stage. The armed struggle of the late 1960s made Palestine a cause celebre to which there flocked thousands of eager international recruits. When Arafat made his famous gun and olive branch speech to the UN General Assembly in 1974, the Palestinians were no longer a forgotten people but a nation with legitimate rights that needed to be addressed. The Palestine National Council, which the PLO created as a sort of parliament in exile with representation from all the disparate Palestinian communities, was a body designed to bridge the gap between them. Even though the PLO remained basically a Diaspora initiative, run and staffed by the people from 'outside,' it was nonetheless a laudable attempt to build unity in desperately difficult circumstances. The damaging rift that Israel had created in 1948 looked set to heal and for the Diaspora Palestinians, lost and alienated, it was an indescribable boon.

The PLO in effect provided a substitute homeland for the majority of us in exile, and a reason for living for those most disadvantaged of all Palestinians, the refugees in Lebanon. Many members of the PLO leadership and its rank and file, fighters and fedayeen, came from the Lebanese camps and indeed parts of Lebanon came under Palestinian dominance throughout the 1970s. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the PLO's subsequent rout and the expulsion of its leadership to Tunis dealt a near death blow to the organization and to all those who had looked to it for practical help and spiritual sustenance.

The PLO's fortunes continued to decline throughout the 1980s, just as Israel would have wished, and the dominance of the Palestinian Diaspora began to fade. Further proof of this came with the first Intifada of 1987, an initiative that arose wholly from the people 'inside.' This spontaneous uprising, largely fuelled by the young people under Israeli occupation, developed its own homegrown leadership, distinct from the PLO and in this way, reinstated the rift between the 'inside' and the 'outside.' Though the PLO attempted very quickly to take charge of the Intifada and reassert its leadership, it was too late. A consciousness of their separate struggle had developed amongst the people of the occupied territories and from then on, they would go it alone.

The PLO, which the Israelis had isolated and made increasingly irrelevant, responded to this new circumstance with panic. In September 1993, just before the Oslo Agreement was announced, I was working on a medical project for Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Galilee with a colleague from the West Bank. This man was a doctor but also a noted political activist. We had never met before, but I was struck by the way he regarded me, not as a fellow Palestinian but more like a foreign expert who happened to speak Arabic. Throughout many years of activism for Palestine, I had never felt so irrelevant or so surplus to requirements. I realized then that this feeling had been imperceptibly growing amongst many of us in exile ever since the start of the Intifada. Who knows if Arafat felt this too when he instigated the secret negotiations with the Israeli government that led to the Oslo Accords and the famous meeting on the White House lawn to celebrate them.

One thing is certain. With this agreement and the subsequent move of Arafat and the main PLO leadership from Tunis to the 'inside,' the old division between Palestinians became concrete, as if we had gone back to the period between 1946 and 1965. Much as Israel deprecated agreeing to Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories, however limited, the new situation was a great triumph for Zionism. The PLO, which had put the Palestinian national cause on the world stage and foiled Israel's plan to bury it forever, was now inside, under Israeli control, its remnants outside feeble and ineffective. The Diaspora community was left leaderless and has remained so ever since. The combined talents and skills acquired by these Palestinians over the decades of exile that could have enriched the struggle lay wasted.

The Oslo agreement converted the Palestinian national cause into a local issue. The negotiations ever since have concerned the post-1967 territories, their resources and population, as if there was no more to the Palestinian question. The solution is configured in similar terms, that an agreement on the basis of the 1967 territories is the summit of Palestinian aspirations and an end to the conflict. Lip service is routinely paid in these negotiations to the refugees' right of return, but everyone knows that this cannot be realized. The enthusiasm with which the new Palestinian Authority rushed to assume the appurtenances of statehood was a phenomenon encouraged by Israel to further marginalize the Palestine national cause. So long as the Palestinians were preoccupied with the minutiae of daily struggle in the West Bank and Gaza, they would neglect the bigger picture. The huge sums invested in these territories by the EU and other international bodies after 1993 fuelled this illusion and ensured that the same pattern would continue. The result has been that the Diaspora is effectively marginalized and made irrelevant, inviting unflattering comparison with the Jewish Diaspora communities' relationship with Israel.

A number of remarkable Palestinians - political thinkers, artists, writers and poets - have fought this dangerous trend, always striving to ensure a compressive vision of Palestine. On September 25, the Palestinians lost their most outstanding practitioner of this art, Edward Said. When I heard about his death, I wondered if, while we mourned, the Zionists would be celebrating the demise of one of their most successful and effective enemies in the fight to annihilate the Palestinian cause. The Israelis do not seriously fear Palestinian military resistance or Palestinian 'terrorism,' or the threats of militants. The battle they can't afford to lose is the one for hearts and minds, the public relations contest, which they've always won hands down against a poor and ineffectual Arab opposition. Over three decades, Said reversed that perception in the most important of arenas for Israel and its supporters: the US and the West. In his own way he was more effective than a dozen armies and a fleet of F16s in the fight against the Zionists. The effect on millions of people of his lectures, writings, ideas and sheer personal charisma has been stupendous and its effects will reverberate for years to come.

Though he was in one sense the intellectual property of the word, it is the Palestinian people who must claim him first, as one of their subtlest, cleverest and most loyal fighters, the foremost cultural bridge that connected and explained their cause to Western sensibilities. He did this in a myriad ways, not least in his major literary work, Orientalism, published in 1978. Though the book exposes a fundamental aspect of the Western approach towards the Orient - that conventional Western literature and scholarship about the East is colored by colonialist attitudes and regards the oriental 'other' as something less than human - it has special significance for Palestinians. Edward Said's real achievement is to have defined what I will call the will to dispossess that is at the heart of this scholarship. The orientalist writers who described the Arabs dispossessed them too, because a people who are recreated through the prism of an alien scholarship, influenced by alien notions of supremacy, are robbed of their true identity. And that is a sort of dispossession too that Palestinians, more than any other Arabs, feel keenly.

In the decade before his death, Said worked tirelessly to reinstate the Palestinian national cause to its rightful international place and to counter the Zionist campaign to degrade it. As if to underpin this, in the last three years, the second Intifada has burst onto the world stage, defying a solution based on the old assumptions. The way forward is clear for the whole of the Palestinian people, inside and outside: to unite in what should always have been a common struggle. -Published October 01, 2003©Palestine Report