Encountering Peace: The Palestinian Spring of May 2011

Even if September comes and goes without the great achievements the Palestinian leadership is hoping for, the Palestinian people feel that they are on the final leg of their journey to freedom.

I was quite surprised at the rallying of Israeli troops and the high-alert calls of the army and the police beginning Friday morning and lasting throughout May 15 – Nakba Day. I was interviewed repeatedly by local and international media regarding what was expected to happen here. Is this the beginning of the third intifada? Will the Palestinian territories now erupt in violent or non-violent marches to the Israeli borders and checkpoints until September?
Was the internal reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah the green light required to launch the “Palestinian Spring,” inspired by the events in Tahrir square in Cairo? I kept checking my sources, speaking to people all around the West Bank and Gaza. I looked at my Twitter account and on Facebook to see if there was something I’d missed that the IDF and Shin Bet saw. I kept coming up with the same assessment – nothing major was planned, so if there were no significant provocation or violence, May 15 would pass this year without anything remarkable taking place.
The most memorable events of the day were of course those launched by Palestinians on the outside, and these were quite predictable because they had been in the planning stages for months, on Facebook and other social media. I started receiving e-mails about the May 15 “March to Palestine” months ago.
PALESTINIANS ARE really in a different place right now, and the Nakba is not really marked by a day in the calendar, but as a central part of their narrative.
The sharpest daily reminder of the Nakba for all Palestinians is the continuous growth of settlements, settlement roads, fences, walls and armed Israeli civilians who are above the law, or at least living by a different law than the one under which Palestinians live.
Yes, there have been many achievements over the past several years, and most Palestinians are quite pleased to feel they might someday have a normal life. They appreciate the economic growth, the stability, the ability to move from place to place more freely.
But for all Palestinians, there is an overbearing sense that no matter what has been achieved, they are still living in a cage controlled by Israel.
Palestinians recall that they paid a great price for the second intifada.
They do not want to return to that.
The Palestinian leadership is committed to leading its people to freedom, but not with the gun or the suicide bomber. Real change has taken place within Palestinian society since the horrible years of the second intifada.
Right now, Palestinians want to see the reconciliation process between the two major political movements take hold in the form of a new non-partisan government that will prepare for new elections.
They see the split between the West Bank and Gaza as one of their darkest periods and are pleased that it is coming to an end.
Palestinians want to see what will happen at the United Nations in September.
They are mostly convinced that the United States will continue its blind support of Israel, and will try to block Palestine state membership in the UN. They have no great expectations that the international community will rescue them. They are tired of fighting; they are tired of the occupation.
They don’t comprehend why Israel enjoys the impunity that it does in the international community, and why international law has no relevance when it comes to Israeli actions.
They want to be treated as a state, and they want to determine their own future. They are also quite ready, if need be, to drop the struggle for separate statehood if that is the continued choice of Israel and the United States.
They are prepared, after September, to adopt a new call: “Give me the right to vote. You won’t give me a state? Fine! Then I demand the right to vote in your state!” This fall-back plan is widely accepted all around Palestine.
THERE REMAINS an underlying contradiction among average Palestinians in the territories that causes us Israelis great concern. A large majority of Palestinians are quite prepared to make full, comprehensive peace with Israel, which in our terms is called “end of conflict, end of claims.”
The parameters of what they are willing to accept are known – a state based on the 1967 borders that, with territorial swaps, will remain the size of the territory occupied by Israel in June 1967, with east Jerusalem as its capital and Palestinian control over the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. Within these parameters, as Mahmoud Abbas and other Fatah leaders continually say, is the statement that the refugee issue will be based on the Arab peace initiative – “Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.”
They emphasize the word “agreed” to assure Israel that it will be negotiated and not imposed. But it takes days like Nakba Day for Palestinians to confront their narrative and realize how deeply rooted the concept of return is to them. It remains a central theme and the common thread of identity for all Palestinians. It is, without doubt, the single most difficult issue for Palestinians to make concessions on.
In one of the important speeches leading up to May 15, Abbas talked about return to the “homeland,” and not the right of return to “our homes.”
This is more than a subtle difference.
It in fact holds the real key to the final resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I expect we will hear more and more speeches about a “return to the homeland” in the coming months.
Even if September comes and goes without the great achievements the Palestinian leadership is hoping for, the Palestinian people are coming to the sense that they are on the final leg of their journey to freedom. As Jews who struggled for so many centuries for our own freedom and independence, we really should be more understanding of what they are going through. If we were really a people with vision and foresight, and not only a conglomerate of our collective historical experience, we would understand that the Palestinian process of achieving freedom is unstoppable. We would comprehend the power we possess to launch a new era of true reconciliation.
The Arab Spring has taken people throughout the region, including Palestinians, beyond the barriers of fear.
I wonder when it will happen to Israelis as well.
The writer is the Co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (www.ipcri.org), and is now founding the Center for Israeli Progress (http://israeli-progress.org).