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Your stake in Palestine

December 23, 2012


ONE would think it impossible to maintain a flicker of hope when recently Gaza was the site of ceaseless bombs raining down from the skies.

But if there’s one thing the Palestinians have in spades it’s boundless optimism, and never was it more evident than in the aftermath of the United Nations General Assembly vote on the statehood of Palestine.

I watched the vote with my husband, on TV in our hotel room in Tel Aviv with a distinct sense that we were missing the party. A couple of doors down, our Palestinian colleagues were on Facebook attempting to celebrate as best they could.

For six days we had been hosted in turn by the Jordanian, Palestinian and now Israeli offices of the environmental organisation Friends of the Earth-Middle East, and taken to see environmental and heritage sites in their respective countries. All three offices were converging on Tel Aviv the night of the vote, to attend a meeting scheduled the next day.

After a meeting at the Friends of the Earth Israeli office, the various factions disbanded, and we headed back to Bethlehem with the Palestinian organisation.

With the General Assembly vote in hand, the world now braced itself for the inevitable repercussions that would no doubt be born by the newly anointed state.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians accompanying us were in a more buoyant mood and planning for the future. It was during that journey that I learnt the true significance of the vote.

News media identified the immediate benefit of the vote as paving the way for membership to the International Criminal Court, which in turn would allow Palestine to seize the court with claims of war crimes against Israel.

My Palestinian friends in the meanwhile had more laudable ambitions; ones which had more to do with a functioning state than the knee-jerk reaction to immediately confront their oppressor.

Apart from the suggestion to shelve the shekel for a national currency, the possibility of an international airport was also put forward, which struck a chord with me, having encountered the capriciousness of Israeli immigration days earlier.

In fact, since returning from Palestine, I’ve been inundated with queries from Pakistanis as to how I made it into the occupied territories, and I’m afraid the foreign passport I possess was the key to my entry, but not my guarantee.

Israeli immigration seems to welcome only two flavours of tourist: Jewish and Christian evangelical. The rest are likely to receive a grilling, which may vary in intensity.

Needless to say it’s the main impediment to travelling to Palestine, and increases manifold if you’re Palestinian and becomes impossible if you have a passport “not valid for travel in Israel”.

Now consider how an international airport in the West Bank would no longer be subject to Israeli immigration control and visits to Palestine whether for tourism, business or otherwise could become a distinct reality, even for Pakistani passport holders. Admittedly, the Israeli military force destroyed Palestine’s Yasser Arafat International Airport in Gaza in 2001, but control over your airspace (and territorial waters) is a legal right conferred through statehood, and Palestine is now entitled to exercise it.

Israeli restrictions on movement of Palestinians are key to the occupation and one envisages ample resistance to the notion of an international airport in the occupied area. If an international airport is to come, it will come as a response to international pressure.

The General Assembly vote signals a new weariness towards the continuing occupation, and a volatile Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring has made it harder to predict responses to Israeli excess.

Whilst one may argue that our decision not to recognise Israel prevents Pakistanis from interacting and extending material assistance, the same could also be said of Malaysia, whom the Palestinians hold in far greater esteem for their commitment to the Palestinian cause.

It was embarrassing to note that our being Pakistani held no greater significance in Palestine than the novelty of being the first many had met in the West Bank.

This is an opportunity for Pakistani foreign policy to go beyond claiming the Palestinians as brothers in name, and contribute through gestures of goodwill to the comity of nations.

Leading diplomatic efforts for an international airport would be welcomed by a majority of countries. And though it would not yield the immediate financial rewards Pakistan has grown accustomed to in the form of aid and assistance, it will benefit both economies in the long run in areas such as trade, tourism and education.

After all peace is only achievable if you can imagine new realities.

Never having suffered occupation I don’t think I will ever truly understand how deep the wounds go, but the resolve to build and progress in spite of the numerous challenges brings into stark relief how most of us view Palestinians solely through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For those with a less charitable disposition who might view the pursuit for normalcy as naïve, or worse, as facilitating the occupation, I rely on the words of poetess Rafeef Ziadah who movingly responds to a journalist’s stock question: “Don’t you think that everything would be resolved if you would stop teaching so much hate to your children?”

“We Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world life, sir” (from We Teach Life, Sir).

The writer is the owner of The Last Word bookshop and co-founder of The Life’s Too Short Short Story Prize.