Since Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent trip to Washington to meet Obama, there’s been plenty of discussion over the future of Palestine-Israel. It appears to many that we’re seeing a genuine opportunity for movement on the stalled peace process. Obama is keen on two-states. Netanyahu, under pressure, has mentioned the possibility of a (highly conditional) Palestinian "state", but is nonetheless content with the Palestinians out of sight behind the Wall. Israelis want Israel for Jewish people everywhere.
But what about the Palestinians? What’s their perspective? Zionists, moderates, outsiders — even dissident Israelis — get more space to talk about the issue, including how it affects the aspirations of Palestinians, than Palestinians do themselves. Their views are rarely expressed in the mainstream media. As one of those Palestinians, let me give you my take.
There is a hollowness in the modern Palestinian psyche, a product of the failed Oslo agreement, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, the weakening of the PLO, the emergence of Hamas, a long history of captive American administrations and decades of Israeli occupation, dispossession and economic distress. Along with that, the Palestinian perspective is complicated by the lack of an always-cohesive position on contentious matters (including the two-state issue), by their differing representation in the political landscape, and by the diverse conditions different sectors of the Palestinian people live under as a result of 61 years of conflict.
Of those different population sectors, the refugees (who represent almost half the Palestinian people) have endured the longest and gravest effects, have the least representation and would gain very little under many versions of the two-state proposal. And significantly, in Netanyahu’s version of the future, they are virtually non-existent.
One fundamental issue here is this: if the displacement of the Palestinians from their homes since 1948 is an accepted fact, why is their natural and legal right to return offensive and unrealistic? Any serious attempt to resolve the conflict involving a people cannot ignore the plight of half the people it has impacted. Had Palestinians actually stayed in Palestine back then, would Israel have been established — despite the presence of what would have been an overwhelming Palestinian majority? In essence, Palestinians had to be forced out to make a "viable" Israel, and their consequential personal loss is yet to be acknowledged, returned to them or compensated for.
Where injustice is perpetuated, peace does not flourish, and that is a problem facing those who would seek "peace" without addressing the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland. If a family were to be removed from its home in Melbourne, forced to live in Canada, America or England, and forbidden to return, how could we possibly justify that? Could it be justified by telling those families that there are other countries they can go and live in which are majority-Christian, English-speaking and considered Western? Would that make their dispossession acceptable? If the answer is No, how is that different from Palestinians refusing to consider Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt or any other country as an acceptable alternative to their own homes? And those homes are not simply "in Palestine" they are actual homes, in actual towns. If the Melbourne family would reject returning to Perth as a compromise, a family from Haifa will predictably demand to return to their family home in Haifa instead of settling in Jenin.
For Palestinians still living in Palestine-Israel there is another problem. Recently, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, formalised his plan to test the allegiance of the one-fifth of Israeli citizens who are of the indigenous Palestinian minority. The plan, proposed by his party Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel Is Our Home"), would require these Palestinians to swear loyalty to the Israeli state — the very state that came to replace their own, and displace their people. Many will likely decline to take the racially prejudiced oath, lose several of their rights in their own birthplace and perhaps be thrown in jail and lose their citizenship for commemorating their dispossession.
Let’s be clear here: the predicament for Palestinians under Lieberman’s plan doesn’t equate to an Afghan migrant facing tricky questions about cricketers for the Australian citizenship exam, it rather equates to telling Cathy Freeman that she will lose her citizenship unless she swears loyalty to Australia, agrees that the dispossession of her people was a good thing, and swears that Australia is an exclusively Christian country and that non-Christians should have fewer rights. And if later she is deemed to have broken this oath — for example by attending a commemoration of the dispossession of Indigenous peoples — then she’s suddenly stateless and has no rights at all.
Israel’s peculiar selective democracy affords an Australian citizen more rights than an Israeli citizen, if the Australian is Jewish and the Israeli is of Palestinian origin. This would stay under Netanyahu’s vision for the Palestinians.
The exact shape of the next "peace plan" may be something between Obama’s and Netanyahu’s proposals. Such a "solution" would look like this: Palestinians living in Israel will permanently be inferior citizens, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will be the citizens of a virtual Palestine, living on scattered pockets of land (albeit with fewer checkpoints and a heavier addiction to international aid); and Palestinians in Jerusalem will have to choose between the two. The refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria will remain in transit in perpetuity, and if they get lucky, they end up as lower-class citizens of another Arab state. None are allowed to return to their homes.
Palestine, according to Netanyahu, will not host all the Palestinians, will not be contiguous, will have no apparent borders, will not have an army and will not control its airspace, water resources or economy. While virtual and intangible, it is promised to be a viable "gas" state. On the other hand Israel will be the "liquid" state that fills the gaps among the Palestinian fragments, and ultimately maintain its present form. The perfect two-state solution!
There is no way that this "plan" will be workable. That is why we say to Mr. Netanyahu that we will pay no attention to his empty and deliberately impossible proposition. Lasting peace brings justice, not illusions that merely improve the living conditions a little for some, legitimise the harsh realities of others and yet expect to be welcomed as conclusive and just.
Netanyahu’s current stance in demanding Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state while giving up the right of return for Palestinians is absurd and extremist. Based on a "divine promise" to the Jewish people, Netanyahu’s plan simply gives millions of people living in America, Australia and elsewhere a collective right — if they happen to be Jewish — to territory that they’ve never set foot in, and would extinguish the legal right of people who were displaced from that very place.
To Barack Obama however we say this: we are fascinated by your energy and truly encouraged by your decency and leadership. We concur with your positive approach of openness and inclusion. On the current recipe for peace however, we hold a different view. We believe that when Palestinian refugees are granted the rightful, unambiguous and urgent return to their own homes, then we can have true peace. Individuals’ rights will have to be the guiding principles, not the bargaining chips, and the settlements must not be only frozen, but become homes for all — Israelis and Palestinians. Yes, we will have to accept and accommodate the generations of Israelis who know no other home — we must not demand justice with injustice. Perhaps then we will see before us a country like yours, Mr Obama, for both peoples as equals regardless of race or faith. We Israelis and Palestinians have, like Americans, "shed blood and struggled for centuries" and maybe should adopt a motto similar to yours: E pluribus unum — "Out of many, one".
To sum up, many of us Palestinians decline this form of two-states, staunchly challenge the Jewish state and finally say to Netanyahu, and to Lieberman, "Palestine Beiteinu": Palestine is our home.
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