I remember vividly the pride I experienced watching PLO chairman Yasser Arafat
address the United Nations live on television on November 13, 1974. But all I
could feel was pessimism and sadness as I listened to his successor, Palestinian
Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, address the same UN forum almost 37 years
later this past September 23.
So much time has passed and so many
opportunities have been missed. Peace seems farther away today than it ever has,
and more and more the Palestinians, the Arab countries of the Middle East and
the Islamic world in general are seeing that maybe conflict is the only way to
force Israel to do the right thing.
I was in Kingston, Jamaica, visiting
relatives when Arafat visited the UN, and my spirits were raised. Most of my
Palestinian relatives lived in what is now Israel and fled during the 1947 and
1967 wars to the Caribbean countries and South America to avoid
Arafat was strong and tough, but he was also willing to
compromise. He didn’t back down from Palestinian grievances against Israel but
instead reminded the world what Israel had done to undermine Palestinian civil
rights not just in Israel but also in the occupied territories of the West Bank,
Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
Instead of embracing Arafat’s gestures and
his noble declaration warning that conflict only ends when peace is accepted by
both sides, Israel rejected his offer and fought him until he recognized
Israel’s right to exist in 1993, which led to the historic agreement on a
Declaration of Principles to pursue peace with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak
Rabin in 1993. I was at the White House audience on that September day. And I
was moved then, too.
But Rabin was assassinated several years later by an
Israeli extremist. And his successors since have all opposed genuine peace.
Netanyahu has made it clear that he does not really support or want peace based
on compromise, but rather a peace based on submission.
That’s why he
continues to expand Jewish settlements in places like Gilo, which was captured
in 1967 and in the eyes of every Palestinian remains an illegal settlement that
is part and parcel of any solution.
LISTENING TO Abbas I could only feel
more tragedy. Not because Abbas failed to say what many Palestinians who support
peace believe, but rather because his powerful words were again brushed aside by
an uncaring Israeli leadership that believes it has everything
Why should they give up their control over the West Bank or
freeze settlements in order to resume negotiations that might lead to peace? The
main difference between our former and current leaders is that Abbas is not an
equal. He is being humiliated by Israel’s refusal to freeze settlements, and
pride has prevented many people on this Earth from doing what is
What I saw in the two speeches of Arafat and Abbas was a
reflection in how the dynamics of the conflict has changed, much to the
disadvantage of all those who support peace.
Arafat started negotiations
in 1993 as an equal to Israel. The PLO fought back against Israel and forced the
world to recognize the Palestinians as a displaced people in the shatat
(diaspora). For the first time, instead of being stabbed in the back by
governments in Jordan and Egypt, Palestinians were leading their own struggle,
responding to Israeli violence with violence of their own.
gesture, “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun.
Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand” was historic.
there could never have been a peace process had the Palestinians not turned to
violence to respond to Israel.
Arafat proved that the Palestinians were
capable of doing to Israel what Israel was doing to the Palestinians.
real tragedy of the failure to achieve peace is that Israel never responded
properly to Arafat and Hamas continued violence as a means of derailing the
peace process. Palestinians and Israelis view each other in the same light. They
both call each other terrorists.
They both blame each other for the
violence. They both claim to be defending themselves. They both claim rights to
the land, which is what this conflict was about and continues to be
Abbas detailed the narrative of the Palestinians which conflicts
with the narrative of the Israelis. For some reason, many on both sides refuse
to just accept that as a fact we cannot escape.
Until Israel is ready to
give up significant tracts of land and to recognize the right of Palestinians to
exist in a Palestinian state – the parallel to Israel’s demand to be recognized
as a Jewish state – there can be no peace.
Despite our different
narratives, we can achieve a genuine peace with mutual recognition and true
But until we really accept each other as equals, there will,
unfortunately, never be peace.
The writer is an award-winning columnist
and Palestinian activist.