GOING HOME IS THE ONLY ROAD MAP FOR PALESTINIANS
In 1969, Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir astonished the world with this: ‘it was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine’, she said ‘… and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.’ Such a statement would be unimaginable today, thanks mainly to a tireless Palestinian struggle for recognition and legitimacy waged over the last three decades since then. Today’s Middle East ‘Road map’ would seem to be an important landmark in this struggle. It establishes some significant benchmarks: it explicitly acknowledges the need for Palestinian statehood and underlines the role of territory as fundamental to a settlement of the conflict.
It is hard to believe that in the 1960s, the Palestinian issue was not recognised as such in the West; the very word ‘Palestine’ had slipped out of the lexicon and growing up in England, I remember people thinking I meant ‘Pakistan’. The 1948 Palestinian exodus, tragic and monumental though it was, mainly resulted in creating a new category, ‘Arab refugees’, but no one remembered where they came from or who they were.
It took the PLO’s establishment in 1964, an armed campaign against Israel and several spectacular terrorist attacks in the 1970s to force the Palestine question onto the international agenda. Political manoeuvring thereafter, led by the much disparaged Yasser Arafat, kept it there. The eruption of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation in the 1987 intifada forced Israel to negotiate the Oslo Accords with the PLO. Failed though these were, they helped establish the structures of Palestinian statehood and make the concept broadly acceptable. And the second intifada that started in September 2000 has been instrumental in forcing the instigation of the current peace proposal. This long struggle has cost the Palestinians dear. A 55-year history of continuing depredation has left them today fragmented, displaced and occupied. It is time, both on moral and practical grounds, that this problem was resolved through an adequate, fair and final settlement that addresses their predicament.
The question is therefore whether the road map as proposed will lead to that settlement, or whether, as some have suggested, it will be a time-consuming, cynical exercise merely designed to make the Bush administration look better after occupying Iraq. On the face of it, the plan looks like an improvement on the Oslo Accords and the plethora of subsequent proposals. It has a shorter and tighter time-frame – Palestinian statehood by 2005 - through a series of concurrent, rather than consecutive stages, each side having to complete its tasks independently of the other. Also, this time progress on the road map will not be left to Israel to monitor, the US having indicated that its own senior officials will be closely involved. Observers further point out that in a post-Iraq war era, Israel’s importance to the US has declined and the priority will be to settle a conflict that could destabilise American plans for regional control.
Whatever the intentions behind the road map, its flaws are obvious. Like its predecessors, it is needlessly staged, ambiguous and vague on crucial detail. We do not know what and how much territory will form the Palestinian state, nor what its sovereignty will mean; and, as before, all the crucial issues are left to then end. Israel has already put forward 14 reservations to the plan, the most serious of which requires the Palestinians to relinquish their right of return ahead of any agreement. If this condition is allowed to pass, then this proposal, like the previous ones is already a dead letter. For, the real issue as Mrs Meir’s denial in 1969 so tellingly revealed - the return of Palestinians to their homeland - is at the heart of this conflict. Israel has consistently tried ever since 1948 to confuse the story and obfuscate the facts. The conflict was presented as baffling and complex; red herrings such as ancient Jewish history, the Bible, Jewish persecution in Europe and anti-Semitism were constantly thrown in to obscure a picture that was actually quite simple.
And it is this: Palestine’s’ indigenous people were evicted, terrorised or fled from their homes in 1948 to be replaced by a foreign Jewish population, mainly from Europe and intent on taking their place. The incomers seized their homes and property and they were never subsequently allowed to return home and or be compensated for their losses. The international community ruled this act unlawful and passed laws (UN Resolution 194) requiring Israel to allow the refugees back. Israel has never complied and now wants the Palestinians themselves to relinquish their right of return in return for a settlement with vague terms and an uncertain outcome. The Palestinian refugees’ rejection of such a demand is neither complicated nor mysterious. Today, these displaced Palestinians are estimated to number 5, 928,430 million; that is they form the vast majority of the total population. The road map makes provision only for those under occupation and, if seen in that light, it may be a positive step. But it cannot legislate on behalf of the rest and will not lead to the end of the conflict.
Only Israel’s recognition of its responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy of 1948 and its readiness to accept the consequences will do that. To evade this, Israel has argued that Palestinians should returh to the proposed new state. But this woukld neither be feasible nor just. A Palesstibnian state as currenbtly envsiioned would be too small to accommodate thise wishig to return and most refugees oriignateb in what is now Israel. There is only one logical, moral course out of this impasse: that is for both peoples to share the territory that is now ‘Greater Israel’ and that was the original Palestine. This sharing negates the selfish idea that each side must own the land exclusively to the detriment of the other and entails niethr expulsion nor ‘ethnic cleansing’. This ‘road map’, if both sides can lay aside their fears, will be the only way to a durable and humane settelement of a deadly conflict whose solution is an urgent necessity for both Palestinians and Israelis.