By Chandra Muzaffar
An address to Pax Christi Victoria,
via Zoom 18th October 2020.
Before I attempt to show why Palestine is at a turning-point, let me underscore the significance of the Palestinian issue to the world. Why is the Palestinian issue so important?
It is important because of the human suffering it has caused. Even before the state of Israel was established in May 1948, scores of Palestinians protesting the growing Israeli presence in their land lost their lives in conflicts with Israeli settlers from Europe who had begun to colonise Palestine from the beginning of the 20th century. What facilitated colonisation was the British mandate over Palestine.
Though the British mandate ended in 1948, Palestinian suffering continued. Palestine was now divided with the larger portion of the land occupied by Israel. Israeli occupation intensified in 1967 with its conquest of the West Bank and Gaza. Settler colonialism reinforced by occupation was further consolidated through regular armed assaults upon Gaza and through the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
It was the injustice associated with colonial settlement and occupation which increased Palestinian suffering. Not only were thousands of Palestinians killed, tortured and imprisoned. They were also expelled from their lands and farms and their rights crushed mercilessly. Palestinian dispossession rendered them refugees within and without Palestine. In fact, their dispossession is the major cause of the Palestinian catastrophe.
The catastrophe or Nakba or more accurately, the on-going catastrophe, al-Nakba al-Mustamera, expresses itself in the drive to eliminate the indigenous Palestinian population which is seen as an obstacle to the usurpation of the whole of Palestine for the Israeli project. It is for this reason that the killing and expulsion of Palestinians is viewed as a genocide in various circles.
What reinforces this perception is the gross imbalance in physical power between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel has one of the most formidable armed forces in the world while Palestinian military power is so limited that it is incapable of providing even elementary protection to the Palestinian people. This huge disparity in military power underlines the helplessness of the victim in this conflict.
It is partly because of this utter helplessness and the desire to restore the dignity of the Palestinian people that almost all the wars fought in West Asia and North Africa (WANA) since 1948 has had some link or other to the plight of the Palestinians. The 1956 Suez conflict, the 1967 Israel –Arab war, and the 1973 war between Israel and neighbouring Arab states would be some of the earlier examples. In more recent times, the 2003 Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq; the 2011 NATO led assault on Libya; and the long-drawn attempt by the US and its allies within and without WANA to overthrow the Bashar Assad government in Damascus, emasculate the Hezbollah in Lebanon and isolate the Iranian government are all intertwined to a greater or lesser degree to the Palestinian question.
Finally, Palestine is also important to the relations between and among religious communities in the region. For many Jews, there is a deep religious connotation to the very birth and survival of the Israeli state. For Christians, Bethlehem in Palestine with its profound association to Jesus Christ will always remain special. For Muslims, Jerusalem is their third holiest city and has a spiritual significance that revolves around the mission of the Prophet Muhammad.
This backdrop to the Palestinian question is crucial in understanding recent developments. It is intimately enmeshed with the recently announced ‘Deal of the Century’. The deal does not address critical concerns such as the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees; the viability and sovereignty of a Palestinian state as part of the so called two- state solution; the role and status of Jerusalem; Israeli settlers on the West Bank; and the Palestinian/ Arab population within Israel. The deliberate marginalisation of these and other related concerns is an attempt by Israel and the US to erase the crux and the core of the Palestinian Nakba. The Palestinian question is re-cast as an economic concern confined to creating jobs and stimulating economic growth.
As expected, the vast majority of Palestinians and others in WANA have rejected the deal. Elites in certain countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have embraced it and extended diplomatic recognition to Israel. Other governments who have forged close security ties with Washington DC or are dependent upon Saudi largesse may also follow suit. This may result in a more pronounced elite – mass dichotomy in the region as a whole.
It is a dichotomy that may eventually weaken the Sunni-Shia split — a split which the Saudi elite in particular has in recent times exploited as a way of targeting preponderantly Shia Iran, its regional rival. Indeed, because the Iranian elite is deeply committed to Palestinian rights, especially the right of self determination, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Tehran is emerging as the most consistent and principled champion of the Palestinian cause. Political movements and social groups and individuals in WANA are now more inclined towards the Iranian position on Palestine and on issues related to hegemony and political independence. Shia majority Iraq and Shia majority Bahrain are cases in point. There is also the Shia dominant Hezbollah in Lebanon, arguably the country’s most significant political actor. These forces ensure that there is a powerful counterweight to a Saudi-Israeli nexus in WANA, buttressed by the US.
An elite mass dichotomy and new emerging alignments in WANA have been rendered even more complex with the deepening involvement of other states within and without WANA in the region’s political maelstrom. Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, Turkey is trying to play a bigger role in a region whose history has a profound link to Turkey’s Ottoman Empire. China is also taking a greater interest in WANA partly because of its own dependence upon oil from major producers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. But the nation that has become really prominent in WANA in the last five years is Russia. AS the USSR in past decades, Russia had enjoyed a close relationship with the government of Hafiz Al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian president.
That relationship has grown since 2015 through Russia’s direct involvement in the Syrian war as a staunch defender of the Bashar Al Assad government. It is a role that has brought Russia closer to Iran and to a lesser degree to the Hezbollah. Since the bond that holds Syria, Iran and Hezbollah together is the defence of Palestine, Russia’s image within a segment of Palestinian society has also risen.
Since Russia also enjoys a warm relationship with Israel, going back to the creation of the state in 1948, will this enable Russia to play a positive role in the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict? Indeed, will Russia’s increasingly critical role in WANA change the region’s political landscape? Or are there vested interests more in the US than in Israel that will prevent this from happening?
These are questions of great import that should be raised because US influence in WANA is waning rapidly. The decline became obvious with the turmoil and turbulence that followed the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq of 2003. The colossal death toll, the massive destruction of infrastructure and the mammoth depletion of financial resources destroyed the US image in the region and elsewhere.
Its debacle in Libya in 2011 further damaged its standing. Its concerted push to oust the Bashar government in Syria was yet another foolish manoeuvre surpassed only by its military support for the Saudi government in its reckless adventure in Yemen.
US decline in WANA has impacted negatively upon its role in Palestine exacerbated no doubt by some of the arrogant and ill-conceived moves made by President Donald Trump.
These moves such as the decision to shift the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem have convinced Palestinians that they cannot expect even a modicum of even handedness from the US Administration. The Jerusalem move, together with the deal of the century, demonstrates that the Palestinian catastrophe has reached a turning-point.
Palestinian interests have been totally abandoned by the US. Even the fig-leaf of hypocrisy has fallen off!. That US hypocrisy has been exposed so blatantly is not the only reason why many feel that the Palestinian catastrophe has reached a turning point. As we have observed, new dichotomies and alignments are emerging in WANA. Actors from outside the region are also beginning to shape the political landscape. All this will certainly impact upon Palestine.
WHAT DO WE DO?
What should we — civil society groups and citizens in general committed to justice and peace in WANA ? Our first task is perhaps to raise awareness among people everywhere about the real issues in the Israel – Palestine conflict. Let us proclaim with courage that the real issues are about the dispossession of the Palestinian people, their suppression and oppression and the Israeli threat to obliterate their catastrophe. Developing this type of mass consciousness is not going to be easy since Israel and Zionism backed by the US and a certain segment of Western public opinion have the media behind them. Nonetheless, we should use all channels of communication available to create an alternative narrative that is more just and genuine.
Translating the vast corpus of materials that exists in the English language and Arabic into languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Malay and Vietnamese would be a major undertaking. These translations should be converted into videos and easy to understand documentaries and widely disseminated.
Cartoons and children’s stories should also be part of this mass public education. Having materials on the Palestinian catastrophe that will reach the grassroots is one thing. But they will not have the desired impact if groups and organisations do not exist which are prepared to carry the message forward, There should be more Palestinian support groups in different parts of the world that will play this role.
Support groups should not only articulate the Palestinian position but should also counter distortions and lies about their struggle through the local media and other platforms. This sort of combat often helps to advance one’s cause. For instance, Christian Zionism which is opposed to the Palestinian struggle has to be confronted through the media. At the same time, there may be groups claiming to champion the Palestinian cause which may be advocates of senseless violence. Genuine Palestinian advocates should not hesitate to expose such groups.
This brings us to the question of the means employed by the champions of the Palestinian cause. There is more and more support today among young Palestinians for peaceful resistance to Israeli and Zionist power and dominance. Such resistance should be nurtured.
Many young Palestinians are also deeply disturbed by the schism that separates Palestinian leaders and their factions — specifically the division between Fatah and Hamas. This is the festering wound that hurts the Palestinian liberation movement. No liberation struggle in modern times has been as split as the Palestinian leadership. If the leadership was united, it would be able to offer more meaningful support to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS has revealed the magnitude of support that Western corporations, agencies and universities extend to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In a direct sense, it has helped to convince ordinary citizens in the West that they should act on behalf of the Palestinian victim. It is this kind of networking that may hold the key to the future of the Palestinian struggle.
There is another type of networking that is vital not only for the future of Palestine and WANA. It is a relationship that is crucial for the entire human family. This is the relationship between Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is significant that in spite of the negative influence of Christian Zionists and some Muslim bigots, Christians and Muslims who are in the actual struggle for Palestinian liberation have developed strong ties. The strength of these ties reflected in various events and episodes, sometimes rooted in deep personal friendships, has endowed both Christians and Muslims in Palestine with a shared culture of sorts. It is a culture which some Jews also share.
If peace with justice descends upon the land, —– a land which God had touched a number of times through various prophets —- then Palestine may once again light a multi-faith lamp for the entire human family.