When Hanny Elqutub, the son of Palestinian refugees, arrived in America 30 years ago he was focused on carving out a life for himself in Houston. Palestinian identity was a frame of mind but never something he engaged personally.
“Sometimes people who went to the US or Europe or South America were running away from bad economics, running away from occupation, running away from political circumstances,” Elqutub says.
But now, the mortgage broker says he and his fellow diaspora Palestinians spread out across the globe believe they have something to contribute toward the shaping of a sustainable, democratic, secular Palestinian state.
“The American experience inspired me to work towards having the same thing in Palestine,” says Elqutub.The Media Line News Agency
The state of Palestine does not exist; the courts are still not working, local government has numerous problems, not to mention health care, education and infrastructure. Representatives of Palestinian communities abroad have come to Bethlehem to kick off the independent “Palestine Network.”
“Welcome to your second home,” announces Ramzi Khoury, executive director of the Palestine Network. “You are representatives from 23 countries who have chosen to be engaged in building this Palestinian state and not just talking about it. This is a do tank, rather than a talk tank. This is not a political club.”
Of the estimated 10 million Palestinians living today, at least half live in what Palestinians call its diaspora – away from the region. According to Khoury, the Palestine Network is establishing chapters across the world that will serve as a conduit for professionals, entrepreneurs and intellectuals to lay the foundations for a Palestinian state.
“If you want to build a democratic state, you need to tackle all the sectors of that state,” Khoury says. “So doctors need to come down here and revamp our health system, engineers need to come here and help us build, lawyers and judges need to come and help us create an independent judiciary and a state of law, and we need educators.”
The Palestine Network is not just another charity or source of funding. The Palestinians have many economic backers. In 2008, global financial aid to the Palestinian Authority exceeded $2 billion, including about $526 million from Arab countries, $651m. from the European Union, $300m. from the US and about $238m. from the World Bank, according to the Arab League’s 2009 economic report.
The founding conference, sponsored by the governments of Germany and Belgium, was held in the opulent Convention Center on the outskirts of Bethlehem, hub of Palestinian culture and tourism.
The network’s goal is to use expertise from Palestine’s diaspora communities to develop the local economy, judiciary, education and health infrastructures in what will be the future state.
With half a million people of Palestinian origin living inside its borders, Chile represents the largest Palestinian community outside of the Arab world. Daniel Jadue of Santiago believes they can help.
“I have been working for the Palestinian cause for about 30 years,” Jadue says. “This is the first time that the Palestinians from outside and the Palestinians from inside Palestine are in the same space discussing and taking decisions like a nation.”
For some visitors who had grown up in a democratic society, the visit to the region brought a stark realization of the struggles the local Palestinians have had to face in the seemingly endless conflict with Israel. All were intensively questioned by security when arriving via Israel and some were refused entry and sent back.
Working with local Palestinians may also prove to be challenging when it comes to allocating resources and aid. A board was chosen to help map out future endeavors.
Nabil Shaath, a minister in the Palestinian Authority and former peace negotiator, says that the amount of money that is expected to come from the Palestine Network “is not going to be significant.”
“But their involvement with their country, their commitment, their networking is going to be an element of strength for the people inside as much as satisfaction for the people outside,” the minister adds.
“I understand that the many people who emigrated are willing to really come back, either permanently or to make businesses and go back again, which is fine with us,” Shaath concludes.
The Palestinian Network is setting up clubs across the world, several each in major cities like London and Chicago. The first club will symbolically be in Jerusalem, headed by Theodosios Attallah Hanna, Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Sebastia.
Notably absent were Palestinians from Arab states, where an estimated 1.2 million live. Khoury says that club formation there was contingent on Arab governments’ approval, which they hope will come later. Clubs will also be opened in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as well as inside Israeli Arab communities. Non-Palestinian supporters were also welcomed.
Claudia Baba, a Palestinian American from Houston, says forming a solid base for democracy is necessary for a Palestine to remain free and accountable.
“Leaders come and go,” Baba says. “But as long as institutions are intact and strong enough to withstand whatever type of leader may come into office, then your chances for a democratic state to last, be viable and to work for all the people are much better.”
The Palestinians are the first to admit they have borrowed from the Israeli experience, which set up the Jewish Agency to build Israel.
“It is a model, why not,” Khoury says. “It was a network like this that established the Jewish-state idea. What they did is create all the programs on the ground to bring in Jews into Palestine and create the infrastructure that is still needed for the State of Israel today.
“Today there are many networks out there which are there to support Israel,” he continues. “Some of them are left-leaning, others are right-leaning. You find them clashing and arguing and they are not harmonious. But at the end of the day they are there to support Israel... and this is what Palestine needs.”
Michael Jankelowitz, spokesman for the Jewish Agency, says that the Palestine Network is not the first attempt at setting up a worldwide organization of the Palestinian diaspora. He mentioned that even back in 1929 the British offered both the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine help in setting up national agencies that would serve as a forerunner to an independent state.
“The Jews accepted the challenge and the Jewish Agency was formed, but the Arabs rejected it,” Jankelowitz says adding that previous attempts by the Palestinians to set up “Jewish Agency-like” organizations fizzled.
“But now, if their goal is to set up a state that will live peacefully side by side with Israel, then I say this step is better late than never,” he says.
And like the Jewish Agency, the Palestine Network aims to imbue a greater sense of identity to the members of diaspora communities.
“I have always said that culture is a way to demonstrate or prove the
existence of a people and that is what we need to prove,” says Odette
Yidi, a 19-year-old student from Barranquilla, Columbia. “We need to
revive that feeling among our [Palestinian] community that we have a
place of origin, that we have a culture and a tradition.”
The weeklong conference left participants energized to move forward.
“Our main goal is to build the economy and help build the democratic
Palestinian state,” says Elqutub. “We have a lot of expertise in our
community. I’m talking specifically on the American side. I was really
surprised to see how much expertise and wealth we have in South America
and in Europe. We have a number of experts in their fields; doctors,
engineers, professionals, successful IT businessmen and they have a big
role to play in the future of Palestine.”