Honesty in the Question of Palestine

BY AMER G. ZAHR
The Progressive Pen
Published April 14, 2002

It is not so fashionable these days, as a member of the pro-Palestinian movement in this country, to be criticizing the Palestinian leadership. But unfortunately, the truth is that Yasser Arafat and his cronies are a thorn in our side. As activists struggling to further educate the American public about the atrocities being committed by the Israeli military throughout the West Bank and Gaza, we are hard-pressed to counter accusations about the futility and corruption of the Palestinian leadership. I believe the best strategy here is to be completely honest.

Charles Goddeeris
The Progressive Pen
[Amer G. Zahr ]

Yes, Yasser Arafat was duly elected by the Palestinian people in January 1996 in a landslide where 75 percent of the eligible Palestinian population turned out to vote. He has, however, refused to have elections again, even though his term was only for three years. In fact, during times of relative calm in the West Bank and Gaza (in other words, during times when the American-made Israeli military apparatus is not going from town to town and arresting and killing Palestinians), Palestinians have turned much of their attention to their own leadership, questioning its sincerity and challenging its authoritarian practices. Mr. Arafat has a history of jailing journalists and quieting dissent. The Palestinian Authority, which was initially jubilantly received by a weary Palestinian population, has turned out to be a model of corruption run by one man who holds all the reins, administering all the financial and political decisions.

This is simply the truth and we should be honest about it. Arafat is not an example of liberty, he is not a visionary and he is no Mandela or Gandhi. But we should be honest about something else as well. All of Arafat's corruption and ineptness should not translate into more suffering for the Palestinian people. It simply does not make sense. It has been, however, very popular for supporters of Israel in this country to continuously point the finger at Arafat for all Israeli military incursions into occupied lands. This same strategy has been used to justify murderous sanctions against Iraqi civilians for the misdeeds of Saddam Hussein. The question is this: What does the 35-year-long illegal foreign military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza have to do with Arafat? Absolutely nothing. It has to do rather with Israeli land-grabbing, confiscation of property and an illegal transfer of Israeli citizens resulting in about 150 illegal settlements and over 200,000 illegal Israeli settlers. Are these settlements, which are traditionally situated around densely populated Palestinian towns, coastlines and borders, the fault of Palestinian leadership? Is it the fault of the Palestinian leadership that Israel has committed a documented murder of civilians in the refugee camp of Jenin?

As Justin Huggler of the Independent writes, "A terrible crime has been committed by Israel in Jenin refugee camp, and the world is turning a blind eye. Colin Powell, the U.S. Secretary of State, visited the scene of a suicide bombing that murdered six Israelis in Jerusalem, but he did not visit Jenin, where the Israelis admit they killed at least 100 Palestinians ... We saw the helicopter rockets rain down on desperately crowded areas ... The Israeli army sealed off the entire area around Jenin yesterday, arresting journalists who ventured into it. That is because they have something to hide in Jenin: The bodies ... there are abundant eyewitnesses who say they have already seen the soldiers piling the bodies in mass graves. Hiding the bodies is what Slobodan Milosevic did in Kosovo." Palestinian officials, as well as officials from the International Red Cross, have said the number is likely much higher.

Finally, is it the fault of Arafat and his right-hand men that Israel treats Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in a completely humiliating and immoral fashion? Even archbishop Desmond Tutu, who attended a conference in Boston over the weekend, noted striking similarities between Israeli occupation and apartheid. After speaking out against suicide bombings, Tutu declared, "I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks suffer like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about" (CNN.com). Even many Israelis have understood that what Israel does under occupation is not the fault of Palestinians. Almost 300 Israeli reservists have refused to serve in the occupied territories, and demonstrations against occupation by Jewish Israeli citizens are not unusual.

Blaming the victim takes an unbelievable level of moral bankruptcy. Would we blame African-Americans for slavery? Do we blame black South Africans for apartheid? The irony here goes without saying, as the people which has been such a victim of oppression throughout the years is now overwhelmingly supporting a government inflicting such subjugation upon another people. I challenge individuals of humanity and conscience to speak out. This means holding Israel responsible for occupation, separating the legitimate and just cause of the Palestinian people from their incompetent leadership, calling for a corporate divestment of American universities from Israel and advocating an end to the $5 billion of American taxpayer money that annually goes to the Israeli government. Take your stand.

Amer Zahr can be reached at zahrag@umich.edu.