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Published in the 1-15 Dec 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Palestine after Arafat

By Syed Shahabuddin

Yasser Arafat was perhaps the only Arab leader freely elected by his people. He commanded the loyalty of the Palestinian masses to his last breath. He symbolized the Palestinian nationhood and the Palestinian Resistance. Even when in virtual confinement in Ramallah he defied the surrounding Israeli tank. With only a wall standing between them and him, he preferred to die, and prayed for martyrdom, rather than surrender. Arafat was then recognized by more than 100 member-States of the UNO as a Head of State, yet he was isolated and helpless, the Security Council and the Big Five did not lift a finger to stop Israel. The Palestinian people saved their honour by standing unarmed in front of the Israeli tanks and hurling stones.

Arafat did not die in battle as he wished to. He died in a hospital. Yet when his body was brought back to his native land to be interred in Ramallah as ‘amanat’, till the change of circumstances allowed his last wish to be buried in Al Quds to be fulfilled, there was an upsurge.

But wherever he may lie he shall continue to inspire the Palestinian masses to struggle incessantly till they achieve liberation and a sovereign and independent homeland of their own.

When he made his offer of peace to Israel in the UN General Assembly the guerilla leader, whom the world called the head of a terrorist organization, had seen the futility of armed struggle to throw the Zionists back into the sea and to destroy Israel. When practically the entire Arab and Muslim world had given up the fight, when the Western powers, particularly the USA, stood solidly behind Israel, when even China and Russia saw long-term advantage in the existence of Israel, when the non-aligned States, though repeating their mantra of support for the ‘inalienable rights of the Palestinian people’ began to establish diplomatic and build economic relations with Israel, when the UNGA Resolutions, on vacation of occupied Arab territory and on persistent violation of the human rights of the occupied people lost their value, became routine, not even worth the paper they are typed on, when the Palestinian people, confined to their reserves and subjected to frequent closures, were being physically and economically strangled slowly, the Palestinian National Council, under Arafat’s guidance had adopted the resolution proposing a bi-national Palestine in which the Jews and the Palestinians, largely Muslims but including a substantial proportion of Christians, could live peacefully. He offered to recognize the right of Israel to exist within secure borders, determined by final settlement. 

But Arafat was not prepared to yield the West Bank and the Gaza, where the Palestinians would have a home land, after Israel vacated the occupation. The world was touched by his statesmanlike approach. And slowly the West European States changed their attitude. There were direct negotiations between the PLO and Israel. Came the Oslo Accord, based on a Land for Peace deal, followed by the formation of the Palestinian Authority which elected Arafat as its President to create an entity for negotiations for Palestinian State. Palestinians enjoyed a degree of self-government, mostly on municipal affairs but the Palestinian Authority was not a sovereign entity; Palestine was not free.
All the time, Israel, with the political support of the USA and by show of might, tried to undermine the Oslo Accord by slowing down withdrawals and building and expanding new Jewish settlements in the occupied territory so that the basic condition for negotiations for final settlement was never fulfilled. Israel could never be forced to the negotiating table.

Forced to the wall, the Palestinian youth, impatient and helpless against the ceaseless torrent of oppression and deprivation, staged Intifada I, which woke up the people to the Israeli game. Arafat shuttled from capital to capital but every state had its compulsion and none dared stand before the acknowledged might of the USA - now the sole megapower, the centre of a unipolar world, after the USSR had collapsed and disintegrated.

USA continued to press and persuade, cajole and humour Arafat to accept what Israel offered. But Arafat, even when advised by some other Arab States to do so, would not give up and would not accept less than the establishment of the sovereign State of Palestine on all the occupied territory which Israel was bound, under UN Resolutions and international law to vacate.

President Clinton offered him a cluster of non-viable tiny Bantustans, separated from each other by Israeli military presence in the occupied territory, where it would maintain its settlements and keep Palestine’s foreign borders under its control. Arafat refused to sign on the dotted line and thereby earned the ire of the imperial power.

Then came the Quartet Plan , co-sponsored by UN, USA, Russia and EU. The Palestinian Authority gave a positive response as a starting point. Once again Israel deliberately undermined it by launching attacks on the civilian population in the occupied territories and killing the leaders of the resistance movements, one by one. The West refused to intervene to stop Israel from its campaign of aggression and terrorization through serial murders of leaders, demolition of housing and destruction of infrastructure. There were no negotiations.

The western argument was that Arafat had the power to restrain the Palestinian terrorists but was not doing so and that without a change of regime, there could be no progress towards settlement. What could the Palestinian Authority do when it had been virtually demilitarized? Why should it since there was no political progress? All that the Authority could and did do was to condemn the acts of terrorism against the civilians. It had no power to physically stop the youth who were prepared to die for the liberation of their homeland. Indeed the masses admired the courage and commitment of those ‘terrorists’ who kept their hope of liberation alive. Yet it was on the whole counter-productive. Israel exploited every act of suicide bombing directed against civilians, with the help of the world media, to justify its continuing terrorization of the Palestinian people and the confinement of Arafat.

The strategy of Israel and its friends and supporters was to unseat Arafat by promoting disunity and division in the ranks of the Liberation Movement, destabilizing his government by ‘nominating’ Prime Ministers through the back-door who would exercise effective power, by removing Arafat from Palestine by force or even killing him, if necessary.

But Arafat, exhausted by 3 years of virtual confinement, died before their plan could make any headway. With his death, a new phase begins in the Palestinian struggle for liberation and statehood. The new Palestinian leadership that emerges shall be subjected to a multi-pronged pressure to accept a moth-eaten Palestine in the form of 4 or 5 walled, small, non-viable Bantustans, dependent on Israeli goodwill for their very survival. The Quartet Road Map would be dusted and placed on the table for negotiating a final settlement, though it already stands undermined by the construction of the Sharon Wall and the continuance and expansion of settlements on the West Bank and by the firm refusal of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to dismantle the Wall or any existing settlement on the West Bank even if further expansion is stopped.

The USA and the UK have no doubt reiterated their formal commitment to the establishment of the State of Palestine but have taken care to leave the essentials, its territory and borders regime to be dictated by Israel!

Happily the Palestinian leadership has shown unity. An interim President has been appointed. Elections are due soon. Once elections have taken place, the diplomatic and military pressures will begin. Israel and USA hope that the new government shall be more receptive to their demands; it shall crush the ‘terrorists’ and sign on the dotted line. But they are mistaken. The people of Palestine shall not give up; shall not accept a moth-eaten Palestine living under the constant shadow of Israeli gun.

By its excessive and disproportionate response to Intifada, Israel has systematically subverted all peace plans. It horrified the world but reinforced the Palestinian will not to surrender their minimum and legitimate aspirations.

No doubt there are some hot heads and extremists in Palestine who still hope against hope to destroy Israel but a vast majority of the Palestinian people want an honourable settlement whose basic elements are vacation by Israel of all Occupied Palestinian Territory, beyond the 1967 armistice line, withdrawal of all Jewish settlements in that territory including East Jerusalem, international guarantees for security, if necessary, with the positioning of an UN force on the border, suitable compensation to the Palestinian refugees who originally inhabited what is now Israeli territory and who voluntarily abdicate their right of return, for the loss of property and the cost of rehabilitation in the State of Palestine or another neighbouring Arab country - Jordan, Syria, Lebanon.

Jerusalem may not be divided but reunited as a Free City, equally accessible to Muslims, Jews and Christians with the right to manage and conserve their holy places under an internationally guaranteed collective regime. No Palestine, no Arab, no Muslim shall accept incorporation of Jerusalem, which binds the entire Muslim world to the Palestinian cause in any final settlement in Israel.

Thus a final settlement involves two basic questions which are not negotiable: the Question of Occupied Territory and the Question of Jerusalem.

But will Israel give up its settlements on the West Bank and its undivided control over Jerusalem? Israel will have to, if the USA refrains from using its veto to protect Israel from international censure and sanction or stops its financial aid. The Zionist lobby is no doubt very powerful but the American people may force their government to rethink if Israel adopts an unreasonable attitude on a reasonable peace plan.

But there is no one with the arm and charisma of Arafat, a leader tempered in fire and tested for 50 years, who can ‘sell’ such a plan to his people, who can persuade his people to make a compromise here and there while finalizing the settlement. Thus the basic premise of Israel and the USA falls to the ground that with Arafat’s exit, progress towards settlement through negotiations can be resumed on Israel’s terms.

The new leadership is not likely to accept what Arafat refused to touch. But it can place Israel on the defensive and impact the US and world public opinion it succeeds in having Intifada II switched off, thus depriving Israel of the advantage of appearing before the world as the ‘victim’ of terrorism, though its hands are red upto the elbows with the blood of innocent Palestinians. But the Palestinian leadership has first to abjure negotiating positions which would amount to de-facto destruction of Israel.

That is where religious leaders must act with restraint and refrain from inciting the Palestinian people to commit pointless acts of violence.

In this context, a Fatwa by the eminent Islamic scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi on liberation of Palestine, recently circulated on a website under the title "Defending Jerusalem: A Sacred Duty" (widely distributed on the internet) raises a number of religious and political questions.

Sheikh Qaradawi has taken the position that a Muslim cannot relinquish ‘the land of the Islamic world’ under any circumstances and that it is a religious duty of individuals and groups, from generation to generation, to liberate or retrieve the occupied/usurped land. But the Sheikh has not defined ‘Islamic World’. Does it mean any territory which ever came under Muslim rule at any time, irrespective of its present political status or demography? Or does he mean a Muslim-majority territory which was occupied by hostile forces, pushing out the Muslim inhabitants into exile and who have not accepted the status quo? 

Nor does the Sheikh identify the collectivity on whom this duty falls: the dispossessed as a group and those neighbours who have given them refuge or on all Muslims everywhere?

The Sheikh has declared it unlawful for homeless Palestinian refugees to accept compensation for their lost land, because the land of Islam is not for sale nor can it be relinquished.

The Islamic world today includes more than 50 sovereign Muslim-majority States but it has failed to prevent occupation or to liberate the lost land, and it has also failed to provide for the Palestinians who were forced out. How can the burden of liberation be shifted to the dispossessed individuals and how can they be barred from accepting compensation which would help them to begin a new life in a Muslim country of their choice, when they have no hope in the foreseeable future to regain their lost land and when they do not have the means to force the usurpers to vacate occupation.

Sheikh Qaradawi’s opinion emphasizes the sanctity of Jerusalem which no doubt gives it a special place in the heart of all Muslims. It is indeed the third holy city for them after Makka and Medina. But how does the sanctity of Jerusalem extend to the whole of Palestine lying between the Red Sea and the River Jordan? So why should the duty to liberate Jerusalem and the bar on alienating their private land apply to the Palestinian who are originally from outside Jerusalem and have been forced into exile? What about the Sultan of Turkey who allowed a foothold to the Zionists in Palestine? What about the Palestinians Sheikhs/elite who sold their land to the Zionists during the Mandate between 1924 and 1948, before Israel was born?

The First Islamic Summit was held, and the Organization of Islamic Conference was formed, primarily to liberate Jerusalem. Yet what have the Muslim states achieved in the last 40 years? History will record that apart from holding conferences, making speeches and donating some funds for the PLO, they did nothing. In fact many of them have recognized Israel and established diplomatic relations with it. Of course, as members of the UNO, they vote en masse for Resolutions condemning Israel’s continued occupation and persistent violation of the human rights of the people in the occupied territory and of international norms of behaviour as the occupying power.

There is no reason nor logic in asking the Palestinian refugees (specially those who come from the territory originally given to Israel by the UN Partition Resolution of 1948) to reject the idea of financial compensation and stand in the way of a final settlement, when powerful Muslim States and their rulers collaborate with Israel and forget their religious, political, moral and human duties. 

Instead of making demands on ordinary Palestinians, who are indeed facing the brunt of Israeli occupation every day, Sheikh Qaradawi and religious leaders who share his views should issue a FATWA calling upon the Muslim States to commit all their military power and economic resources to the cause of liberation and other leaders to offer their lives and all that they possess and warn them of Allah’s punishment in the Hereafter if they fail to do so. They may also divide the Muslim world into concentric circles, thus setting priorities for involvement in the sacred cause, beginning with the immediate neighbours. But they would not like to displease any Arab or Muslim government.

Let us not forget that Israel’s long-term plan is to annex the whole of Palestine right upto River Jordan. The Muslim world has seen many defeats and humiliation in its history but has always recognized and come to terms with reality. Politics is the art of the possible. The Palestinians must settle for peace if the international community offers to:

  1. Make Jerusalem a Free City, equally accessible to Jews, Christians and Muslims and give each Community freedom and responsibility for their Holy Places.

  2. Secure the vacation of the West Bank and the Gaza by Israel and recognize the State of Palestine on this territory and interpose an international peace force on the border between Israel and Palestine.

  3. Compensate the Palestinian refugees who came from Israeli territory for the loss of their property and rehabilitate them in Palestine and neighbouring Arab countries.

If the Muslim Arab or Palestinian leadership insists on the return of the refugees to Israel, there can be no progress towards final settlement because Israel, even if it agrees to withdraw to 1967 line, will never accept the possibility of the Jews becoming a minority in its own territory.

Israel is militarily the most powerful state in the region. It is the only nuclear weapon State. US veto protects it against international sanctions and its nuclear arsenal from international inspection. It is in the interest of Arab States to establish a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the region which is not possible without a final settlement of the Palestine question.

The only alternative is to wait for change of circumstances - a change in the equation of world politics. But to re-run the cycle of violence and counter-violence will be fruitless. If the negotiations break down, if Israel adopts an arrogant and unreasonable attitude and is not prepared to fulfill their minimum demands, the Palestinians have to think of changing the modalities of their struggle, take a page for Gandhi and launch a non-violent struggle to secure Peace with Justice. «

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