LONDON: 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 and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them,” she said. “They did not exist.”
Such a statement would be unimaginable today, thanks mainly to a tireless Palestinian struggle for recognition and legitimacy. Today’s Middle East roadmap 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 very word “Palestine” had slipped out of the lexicon. Growing up in England, I remember people thinking I meant “Pakistan” when I said where I was born. The 1948 exodus, tragic though it was, created a new category — “Arab refugees” — but no one remembered where they came from.
It took the PLO’s establishment in 1964, an armed campaign against Israel and several terrorist attacks in the 1970s to force the Palestine question on to the international agenda. Political manoeuvring thereafter, led by 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 it broadly acceptable. The second intifada that started in 2000 has been instrumental in forcing the instigation of the current peace plan.
The question is whether the roadmap as proposed will lead to an adequate, fair and final settlement that addresses the Palestinian’s predicament. On the face of it, the plan looks like an improvement on the Oslo Accords and subsequent proposals. It has a shorter and tighter timeframe — Palestinian statehood by 2005 — through a series of concurrent, rather than consecutive stages, each side having to complete its tasks independently. This time, progress will not be left to Israel to monitor; senior US officials will be closely involved.
However, the roadmap’s flaws are obvious. Like its predecessors, it is 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. 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. Since 1948 Israel has consistently tried to obfuscate the facts. The conflict was presented as baffling and complex, with ancient Jewish history, the Bible, Jewish persecution in Europe and anti-Semitism thrown in.
It was actually quite simple: 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 property and they were never allowed to return home and or be compensated for their losses. The international community ruled this act unlawful and the UN passed resolution 194 requiring Israel to allow the refugees back. Israel has never complied and now wants the Palestinians to relinquish their right of 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. The roadmap 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 end of the conflict.
To evade facing the consequences of the Palestinian tragedy of 1948, Israel has argued that Palestinians should return to the new state. But this would be neither feasible nor just. A Palestinian state would be too small to accommodate those wishing to return and most refugees originate in what is now Israel. There is only one logical, moral course: that is for both peoples to share the territory that is now Greater Israel and that was the original Palestine. This negates the selfish idea that each must own the land exclusively to the detriment of the other and entails neither expulsion nor “ethnic cleansing”. This roadmap, if both sides can lay aside their fears, will be the only way to a durable and humane settlement of a deadly conflict whose solution is an urgent necessity for Palestinians and Israelis.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.