Refusal to surrender quietly
DATE :5 August 1999
SOURCE : Al-Ahram
By Edward Said
Edward SaidPresident Bill Clinton's position on Jerusalem -- i.e., that the United States would take no unilateral action that prejudges the final status of the city, since its future can only be decided in direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians -- has now become a fixed pole representing one side of a policy debate. Looking back on the period between 1970 and 1982, which is bounded at one end by Black September in Jordan and by the PLO's exit from Beirut at the other, we can quite easily see what Arafat's leadership accomplished. Certainly the Jordanian and Lebanese fiascoes are nothing to be proud of, although in extenuation one could argue that, given the circumstances, the disastrous outcome in each case may have been inevitable. As an extra-territorial and armed political organisation, the PLO was bound to clash with the host country. Unlike the Algerian presence in Tunisia during the colonial war against France, the PLO never shielded itself from its host country's politics, but then both Jordan and Lebanon had a very large population of Palestinians resident there well before the PLO appeared, a situation which Tunisia did not have when the FLN came there for refuge; it was therefore easy for the incoming Algerians to remain apart as strangers secreted in their own enclaves. Be that as it may, the PLO was evicted from both Jordan and Lebanon only after making some extremely important contributions to the whole Palestinian cause, simultaneously with bringing great damage to those two countries.
This is a tragic fact, but it should not totally obscure what the positives were. In the first place, the PLO provided all Palestinians with a collective sense of political identity. From 1948 until 1967, Palestinians were refugees scattered not only throughout the Arab world but also further afield. All of them, without exception, had lost their homes and their society, were without passports and at the mercy of whatever government happened to be in power where they ended up. The overwhelming feeling everywhere among Palestinians was a sense of profound lostness and desolation. No one who has not gone through the experience of losing one's home by being forcibly evicted, and of seeing that home, its history and memories declared non-existent, effaced, and cancelled, can understand completely the terrors of such a situation. In addition, the fact that the entire world seemed to celebrate and honour the perpetrators of Palestine's destruction as brave pioneers who "liberated" a desert and "made it bloom" rubbed salt into the unhealing wound. Only when the PLO began to speak internationally on behalf of all the Palestinian people did some sort of hope and pride return. It was nothing less than the PLO's singular achievement under Arafat to restore us to ourselves and to each other, to make it possible to see ourselves as a whole people despite our dispersion and agonising pain. Palestinians in Nazareth, Beirut, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Amman, Kuwait and New York were bound together in one political identity for the first time since 1948.
Second, the PLO provided Palestinians with institutions such as unions, research centres, political parties, and a common political discourse that transcended the internal sectarian divisions that threatened national unity. In such organisations as the Palestine National Council, of which I was a member between 1977 and 1991, Palestinian individuals were able to debate issues of national significance in a parliament in exile that had been virtually impossible to imagine a few years earlier. And the dominating symbol of all this was Yasser Arafat, who, with considerable tactical and even strategic vision, kept the whole group together with a benevolent despotism that was uniquely his own, both in style and in substance. When the Intifada began in late 1987, it was immediately clear to all Palestinians that the uprising belonged to all Palestinians, and hence every one gave it support, with the PLO as the nation's symbolic leader.
Since 1993 I have thought, along with others, that it was a supreme irony that by signing the Oslo Accords Arafat in effect presided over the dissolution of the unity he had himself created through the PLO. The moment Palestinians who were neither in the West Bank nor Gaza were left out of the peace process was the moment that different and dispersed segments of the community began to feel isolated and cut off from the others. I think that such a dissolution was part of the Israeli-American intention, that is, to reduce the Palestinian cause to a matter only of residency on the West Bank and Gaza, and not of dispossession or national eviction -- in effect, ethnic cleansing.
And I must say that subsequent PLO behaviour has caused refugee Palestinians to be delinked from the process. Now the final status negotiations will theoretically deal with the refugee issue, but it has been made clear to everyone that no major repatriation or compensation (such as the one that has been taking place for Albanians in Kosovo) is contemplated, much less planned.
This grim fate is one reason why there is a new insistence among exiled refugee Palestinians that their right of return must be maintained no matter what Israel and the Arabs agree on now. The feasibility of such a return has been given substance by the extraordinarily important work of Salman Abu Sitteh, who has shown concretely that if most of the refugees want to return, the land can accommodate them, given that most Israeli Jews (almost 80 per cent of them according to his figures) live on about 15 or 20 per cent of the land of historical Palestine. The ethics of the current peace process, however, stress separation rather than integration, separation between Arab and Jew and, worse, between Palestinian and Palestinian, as well as the fundamental injustice that gives Jews the right of return, but not Palestinians.
Having come this far with Oslo, it is perfectly obvious that neither Arafat nor the PLO nor the Arab states has any choice except to go through to the conclusion, the outlines of which commit Ehud Barak, like Netanyahu, Rabin and Peres before him, to stressing power, security and sovereignty for Israel. The final push is now on to confine us as a people in the smallest, most inoffensive and marginalised space possible. Much as Arafat and his officials may protest and remonstrate, the potential left to them for manoeuvre is actually tiny, if not completely absent. So they must do the best they can with the odds weighted terribly against them. Since it is apparent that neither Barak nor Clinton has much courage, wisdom, or vision -- politicians being notoriously expedient and short-sighted -- they will be unable to see beyond what their considerable power, much greater than the Arabs', allows them to impose on us. So what will be agreed to in the end will not last, even though it will provide moments of triumphal exultation for the signatories and their media chorus.
What they will miss seeing are the encouraging signs that Palestinians are regrouping, reasserting a collective identity despite the constricting limitations of the peace process. These need to be pointed out since, in the scheme of things celebrated by the conventional media, which only cover presidents and foreign ministers, such encouraging signs will be totally missed.
Let me mention, first of all, the Across Borders project originally initiated at Bir Zeit University last January but fully launched a few days ago in Deheishe Camp on the West Bank. The young people I have been in touch with who have been behind this imaginative programme are Adam Hanieh at Bir Zeit and Muna Muhaisen in Deheishe.
The idea is to put a fully-equipped computer laboratory inside the camp for the use of the young people there -- all of them refugees -- who after a brief training period will be able to communicate directly with the outside world. Soon all refugee camps will have the same facilities, making it possible for refugees separated by borders and geographical distance to communicate with each other and, just as significantly, to communicate with young people all over the world. Thus the voice of the Palestinian refugee population, larger than that of the official residents of the West Bank and Gaza, will restore confidence and visibility to the common identity which has been dissolved by the Oslo peace process. I believe this is a tremendously important and audacious step, a sign that as a community Palestinians can still function across obstacles and impediments.
A second encouraging sign is the project to build a museum of Palestinian memory. This is now being undertaken and financed actively by a group of intellectuals, businesspeople, and ordinary citizens both in Palestine and outside it. Here the interesting point is the felt need to counteract the erasure of Palestine from official memory with a reconstruction of it by various imaginative means -- oral history and testimonials, letters, newspapers, official documents, photographs, films -- and to locate all this in one place where it can not only be easily viewed but also used by researchers and historians. This is a tremendous undertaking quite unlike anything that I know of in the Arab world. What is unique is that it stresses the unofficial and often unwritten past, and shows how it can be reclaimed and reappropriated by citizens whose political fate has included the deliberate destruction of that very past. The perhaps surprising thing is how quickly the idea has gathered support and enthusiasm.
There are other such encouraging signs whose plain meaning, in my opinion, is that they actively refute the negation of our nationhood as envisaged by the current peace process. It is far too early to say what will result from the Across Borders computer project and the Museum of Memory, as well as other projects like them, but it would be wrong to see in them only a pathetically sentimental effort by Palestinians to safeguard their collective identity as a people with a political will of their own. The peace procession is too strong and determined now to be stopped or diverted: that seems evident enough in all the new investments made in it by the US, Israel and the Arabs. In one respect, of course, it will not fail, and "peace" will occur. But it cannot be expected to succeed in winning Palestinian hearts and minds to its injustices, untidy parameters and clearly unworkable premises (such as apartheid between Israelis and Palestinians, the use by Israel of 80 per cent of Palestinian water resources, the settlements, the confiscation of all of Jerusalem, Palestinian economic dependence, and political inferiority). Oslo is supposed to nullify the Palestinian "problem" by giving less than half the Palestinian people (about three million of them) the semblance of self-determination but not its substance. For the rest -- 4.5 million refugees and dispersed communities alike -- this is like putting a small cover on a very large and boiling pot: their wishes, aspirations, memories and fulfillment will not retire gracefully, nor slip away quietly under the cover. They will continue to ferment so as to rectify and modify those injustices of the past that have either not been addressed or have been perpetuated in the present.
Innovations and projects such as I have mentioned here are small symbols of the continuing struggle by Palestinians against oblivion and the silence of terminal surrender. At least that is my symbolic reading of the importance of such efforts at this precise moment in our history. I am sure I am right in supposing that peace made under duress will not gain many converts, particularly when the vast majority of Palestinians have either been left out or remain unconsulted, and are therefore stateless and exiled. Dispossession is still the basic Palestinian condition.