Palestine, Jerusalem, and
the Western Public
Addressing issues related to Palestine and Jerusalem to the Western public that express the Arabic and Palestinian perspective is of crucial importance for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that pro-Israeli propaganda has so permeated the Western consciousness over the past 50 years especially, that the very mention of the word 'Israel' automatically means a number of very identifiable and positive things to the Western public. 'Israel' means democracy, it means America's closest ally, it means Western liberal tradition, it means bravery in the face of overwhelming odds and it means the same religious tradition, the Judeo-Christian tradition. This identification of the Western public with 'Israel' has not come about by mistake or chance. It is the result of decades of planning, influence, determination and focus.
The second reason why the issue is crucial, is that this identification of America with 'Israel' has come about at a tremendous cost to the Arab and Palestinian perspective on the same issue. Not only has the Israeli viewpoint permeated the Western consciousness, but it also has infused that consciousness with an image of Arabs and Palestinians as the alter-ego of Israelis; as a violent, untrustworthy, conniving people with a tradition not in line with Western traditions of democracy, human rights and openness. The average Western will tell you that every Arab-Israeli war was begun by the Arabs, that the Arabs want to wipe 'Israel' off the map, that Palestinians are terrorists and that Islam is a foreign religion. All this is vitally important because this means that when one is bringing an Arab-Palestinian issue to the Western public that concerns both Israelis and Palestinians one is automatically operating from a tremendous disadvantage of pre-set notions about Palestinians and Israelis. People always wonder and are frustrated about why it is so hard to advance Arab and Palestinian issues in the U.S. even though the justice of the cause is so obvious. The major reason is that the Western public has a hard time identifying with Palestinian issues because of these pre-set notions.
So the question becomes how to formulate Palestinian issues so as to make them palatable to the Western public, so they can digest them, given the disadvantage from which we are operating. Just shouting out about the justice of the cause and the issues, saying the land has been stolen and the people dispossessed is not enough and has proven a failure as an approach.
There is no lack of issues that can be addressed to the Western public when it comes to Palestine and Jerusalem; and I will list some of the key ones. Bear in mind that it is important not to overwhelm the public with issues, nor to confuse them with complexity.
To be effective, therefore, the issues must be three things: (1) simple; (2) identifiable; and (3) marketable.
One needs only to turn on a TV set to see how well Netanyahu has mastered these concepts. He has skillfully reduced the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict, decades upon decades of complexity and countless issues, to one word, SECURITY. He has manipulated every prejudice and played upon every fear that the Western and Israeli publics have concerning the Palestinians in order to push the issue of security. How can a Western or an Israeli argue with a man just trying to make sure his people and nation are secure? We may disagree or dislike the man, but he has been very successful at presenting Israel's "security" issue to the Western public.
Our concern however, is with Palestinian issues, so beginning with the issues related to Palestine itself, I have identified a number of key issues that fit the categories of simple, identifiable and marketable. I will name three of them. My list of issues is by no means comprehensive or final; it is only meant to illustrate how issues that fit these categories can be very effective in appealing to the Western public.
The first issue is exposing the most common Zionist myths regarding the beginning of the conflict - that the Arabs rejected partition while the Zionists accepted it, that the militarily and numerically superior Arab armies ganged up and attacked overmatched 'Israel' after May 15, 1948 to annihilate it, and that the Palestinians fled because they were ordered to do so by the Arab armies and countries. All three myths are false. It is true that the official Arab leadership rejected the UN partition plan. This was due to the fact that while the Jewish community in Palestine constituted only 35% of the population and owned only 6% of the land, the plan gave them 56% of Palestine. It is also true, however, that the Zionist Revisionist camp did not accept partition either. They began military operations against Palestinian towns and villages six months before the entry of the Arab armies, culminating in the seizure of major Arab towns such as Jaffa and Haifa, from which over 120,000 Palestinians were forced to flee, and the massacre at Deir Yassin. The Israeli historian Simha Flapan confirms this in his book The Birth of Israel, where he details eight major Zionist military attacks on territory accorded to the Arab state. This culminated in the Deir Yassin massacre on April 9, 1948, the ruthlessness of which, according to Flapan, "shocked Jewish and world opinion alike, drove fear and panic into the Arab population, and led to the flight of unarmed civilians from their homes all over the country."
In addition, records of the BBC, which monitored all Middle Eastern broadcasts through 1948, along with companion records by a United States monitoring unit on display at the British Museum, show clearly that there was not a single order or appeal or suggestion for evacuation from Palestine from any Arab radio station, inside or outside Palestine in 1948. In fact, there is a repeated monitored record of Arab appeals, even flat orders, to the civilians of Palestine to stay put. On the other hand, plans for the Palestinian population had been formulated years before by the Zionists. On December 19, 1940, Joseph Weitz, then director of the Jewish National Land Fund wrote: "It must be clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country... there is no way besides transferring the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries... we must not leave a single village, not a single tribe."
Finally, the "vastly outnumbered" Zionist forces numbered 65,000 highly trained and organized troops while the "numerically superior" Arab armies could only field a combined strength of under 16,000 troops without a centralized command.
It was these massacres, expulsions and dispossessions that necessitated the entry of the Arab armies. Arab action was the logical and inevitable response to these assaults and was the only means of stemming the tidal wave of refugees and preventing the complete loss of Palestine.
This first issue can be simplified into one of debunking myths, of reaching the truth. With this first issue therefore we achieve two aims: we counter the destructive myths associated with it and we also begin to remove some of the prejudices and stereotypes that exist in the Western public towards Palestinian issues. They begin to see 'Israel' as more of the aggressor and the Palestinians as the victim.
The second issue concerning Palestine that can be addressed to the Western public is the issue of self-determination. Self-determination is a deeply held Western value and a pillar of Western political thought as old as America itself. First formulated most clearly by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, it was later championed by President Woodrow Wilson. As early as 1916 he proclaimed: "every people has a right to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live." In 1918, addressing Congress he said: "National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their consent. Self-determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril."
Thankfully, the myth that Palestinians do not exist as a people only remains in the most extremist circles, and therefore, it can be effectively articulated to an Western public that Palestinians, as a distinct people possessing a distinct identity, are entitled to self-determination. It can be pointed out that America itself was created on that principle, refusing to remain as a British colony. Most recently Puerto Rico will soon be given the option of self-determination when Puerto Ricans vote on whether to remain a commonwealth, become a state or achieve independence. Self-determination is a concept that resonates deeply in the Western psyche and can be a very useful and legitimate one when applied to the Palestinian people. The second issue therefore can be articulated simply as self-determination for Palestinians.
The third issue that can be addressed to the Western public is that of Palestinian human rights. With the issue of human rights so dominating the Western agenda and so often reported on in the media and in movies (China is a perfect example), it too is an issue that could resonate well with the Western public.
Palestinians living under occupation are subjected to massive denials of their human rights. For 50 years, 'Israel' has consistently refused to live up to its human rights treaty obligations. It has repeatedly acted in violation of these fundamental principles, when these principles have conflicted with its military and political objectives.
Since the signing of the Declaration of Principles, in September 1993, over 500 families have had their homes destroyed by Israeli occupying forces; thousands have been arrested, tortured and imprisoned, five percent of the land has been added to the 65% already confiscated to place settlements on Palestinian land; and thousands of people have found themselves jobless, homeless, destitute and hopeless. Each act is a serious violation of Israel's international obligations under human rights law.
The use of lethal force against Palestinians is a serious human rights violation. In one incident in 1996 an armed Israeli settler was fined the equivalent of 28 cents for killing a young Palestinian man. 'Israel' continues to arbitrarily arrest and imprison Palestinians.
'Israel' is also the only country in the world where torture has been legalized. In May 1998, the United Nations Committee Against Torture reiterated its call to 'Israel' to cease immediately the use of torture and ill-treatment during interrogation. The Committee found that Israel, on its own admission, used "hooding, shackling in painful positions, sleep-deprivation and shaking" against detainees. The Committee also expressed concern about the holding of detainees in administrative detention, without charge or trial, for long periods, particularly where the detainees themselves posed no threat to state security.
B'Tselem, the Israeli information center for human rights in the occupied territories, also in May 1998, presented estimates at a news conference that Israel's General Security Service interrogates between 1,000 and 1,500 Palestinians a year. "Some 85 percent of them - at least 850 persons a year - are subjected to methods which constitute torture," it said in a report on GSS interrogation. Its estimates were based on official sources, human rights organizations and attorneys. The third issue therefore can be simply put as abuse of Palestinian human rights.
Moving now to the issue of Jerusalem, there are numerous issues that can be addressed to the Western public. I have chosen three of them. Here, too, these issues must fit the categories of simplicity, identifiability and marketability.
The first issue is that of religion. Most Americans cannot identify with Islam's affinity with Jerusalem because they view Islam as outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. This has a direct bearing on Israel's ability to insist that Judaism has the strongest historical and religious claim to Jerusalem and consequently that 'Israel' should exercise sole political sovereignty over the city, while Islam, the foreign religion, has little connection to the city. In fact, Islam is integral too and, indeed, the culmination of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is the same God that the three faiths worship. This same God has revealed himself to humankind since creation through a succession of prophets and scriptures. Foremost among these scriptures are the Torah and the Gospels, with the Koran as the final of the three revelations. Both Jesus and Mary hold very special and venerated places in the Koran. Eighteen Hebrew patriarchs and prophet-kings are also mentioned reverentially in the Koran. Among these 18 Hebrew prophets, Abraham is especially venerated, being the builder of the Kaaba itself. Many of the holy sites for Jews in Palestine today are also holy to Muslims, e.g. the Western Wall, which is where the Prophet Muhammad tethered his horse before his miraculous journey to heaven, and the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, among others. Jews and Christians are "People of the Book" in Islam's eyes, belonging to the same scriptural tradition.
Let us not forget, of course, the Palestinian Christians who have a particularly intimate historical and emotional connection with Jerusalem. Today's Palestinian Christians are the descendants of the earliest Christians, having resided on the land since the time of Christ. The first issue therefore that concerns Jerusalem can be simplified to: Palestinians - Christians and Muslims - are part of the same scriptural tradition as Jews and therefore consider Jerusalem as sacred to them too.
The second issue concerning Jerusalem is that of UN resolutions. UN resolutions have not traditionally been an issue that most Americans readily identify with, but all this changed after the Gulf war. With numerous UN resolutions applying to Iraq and with consecutive Western presidents insisting that these resolutions be enforced, militarily if necessary, the Western public has become more aware of the importance of upholding UN resolutions.
There are numerous UN resolutions applying to Jerusalem (11 since 1967) all variously condemning, censuring or deploring 'Israel' for its actions in Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is occupied territory according to these UN resolutions and official U.S. government policy. Only two countries maintain embassies in Jerusalem. That not a single UN resolution regarding Jerusalem has been heeded by Israel, and that in fact the opposite has occurred where 'Israel' has acted in direct contradiction of these resolutions, is an issue that can be effectively articulated and easily understood. Resolutions concerning West Jerusalem in terms of restitution of property and the return of refugees are also ones that can be articulated effectively especially with the issue of restitution for Jewish losses in WWII now making headlines, and with Swiss banks and insurance companies in Europe forced to pay restitution claims. This second issue concerning Jerusalem can therefore be summarized as applying UN resolutions to Jerusalem too.
The third issue concerning Jerusalem that can be addressed to the Western public, is that of the treatment of Jerusalem's Palestinian residents. Israeli policy in Jerusalem has been documented by Israeli human rights groups and the U.S. Consulate there. The overall aim of the policy is referred to by B'Tselem as "the quiet deportation of the Palestinian population." Some of the measures include: (1) the confiscation of ID cards and the removal of residency rights (358 Palestinians had their ID cards or residency rights revoked in 1997); (2) the confiscation of the property of Palestinians living in Jerusalem, either directly or by supporting and protecting the Israeli settlers that have evicted them; (3) discrimination in the receipt of services and benefits (currently Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, a population which makes up 30% of Jerusalem's population, both East and West, according to Israeli statistics, receive less than 10% of Jerusalem's municipal services budget); and (4) denial of permits to Palestinians to build in Jerusalem, causing immense overcrowding, and with it, potential health and social problems. Palestinians have no recourse but to build without permits, risking the demolition of their houses. In 1997 alone, 16 homes were destroyed in Jerusalem.
None of these policies are directed against Jerusalem's Jewish residents; no Jews lose their residency rights, no Jews have their houses demolished if built illegally and no Jews have their homes taken over by Palestinians. Israel's policies in Jerusalem are according to B'Tselem "blatant discrimination." The third issue concerning Jerusalem therefore can be simply put as Israeli discrimination against Palestinians.
To conclude, there are many issues concerning Palestine and Jerusalem that can be addressed to the Western public. To do so effectively, the issues must be identified, they must be packaged in a form that is simple enough, understandable enough and identifiable enough to be understood and related to by the Western public, and, finally, they must be delivered in an effective forum.