First published by the Middle East Monitor on 6/3/2017
In my last article for MEMO, I wondered whether the Conference for Palestinians Abroad (CPA) could lead to Palestinian unity of vision. It was a privilege to be with an estimated 6,000 Palestinians from 50 countries in Istanbul for the conference, which took place on 25 and 26 February, both as a founding member and to test that question.
The dates are important because I believe that the launch of this conference will mark a milestone in the Palestinian struggle for justice, freedom, equality and the restoration of our rights. The 26 February will forever by the day when Palestinians who live outside Palestine and who are refused the right to return to their homeland said loud and clear that enough is enough. We will no longer be sidelined or ignored, either by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO, our non-representative representative); Israel (the cause of our catastrophe); or those in the “international community” who had a hand in our dispossession and expulsion from our homeland by Zionist terrorists in 1948 and who continue to deny us our rights to this day.
The unequivocal message from Istanbul was that the Palestinians will not give up their right to return to the places from which we were ethnically cleansed. This was exemplified by Palestinian poet Mohammed Abu Daya who brought his original title deeds to the conference and after a moving speech handed them to one of his many grandchildren, imploring him to commit to returning, and receiving a promise from him that he will struggle to return to that very plot of land one day. Some may see this as unrealistic and theatrical. However, that would be to misunderstand the core Palestinian issue. The struggle has always been about Palestinian refugees returning to their homes instead of languishing in the diaspora, whatever political structure exists in historic Palestine.
Reaffirming the right of return was at the heart of the conference but the final statement also reaffirmed the commitment by Palestinians in involuntary exile to liberate Palestine from the “river to the sea”. Such language is usually mistranslated by Zionists to mean the destruction of Israel and “throwing the Jews into the sea”. That is pure propaganda from Zionists who, by the way, happen to believe that the Palestinians must be thrown out of their own land for there to be a truly Jewish state west of the River Jordan.
They are forever looking for means to achieve this, claiming that “Jordan is the Palestinian state” or that a state can be created in the Sinai to which the Palestinians in “Judea and Samaria” (the occupied West Bank) can be sent, by force if necessary. Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely has no qualms about claiming the whole of historic Palestine for Israel. “We need to return to the basic truth of our rights to this country,” she believes. “This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologise for that.”
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, buoyed by Donald Trump being in the White House, claims that there will not be a Palestinian state. Indeed, the far-right Bennett has called for the annexation of most of the illegally-occupied West Bank, starting with the illegal colony-settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, and bringing it under Israeli “sovereignty”.
Standing next to Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placed two conditions that must be met before “peace”: The Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state and, “Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River.” The latter is de facto Israeli sovereignty over historic Palestine from the river to the sea. While he has not explicitly called for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, Israel would continue to rule over an occupied people for ever, making their lives so miserable under the pretext of security that they would leave of their own accord. In Zionist terminology, this is known as “silent transfer” and it is very much part of Israel’s strategy for a Palestinian-free land.
None of the above inflammatory statements by the most senior Israeli ministers has been condemned by any member of the so called international community. It seems that Western governments are happy for Zionist Israelis to claim the whole of historic Palestine as theirs, but not for the Palestinians whose land it is to do so. If modern day Zionists with no real connection to historic Palestine can lay claim to the whole land on the basis of what they claim to be a Biblical legacy, then surely Palestinians have every right to lay claim to their homeland, which they inhabited prior to Israel’s creation was forced upon them and from which they were expelled over the past 70 years.
I must stress that I did not get any impression from the CPA that liberating Palestine would necessitate or result in the mass expulsion of Jews, unlike the mass expulsion of Palestinians which took place in 1948. The conference focused on the emergence of a just political solution with the right for Palestinian refugees to return at its heart. Had I detected any sense of the former at the conference, I would certainly have withdrawn.
The failure of the two-state solution demonstrates the need for creative thinking to meet the needs of those who truly wish to coexist in historic Palestine. A solution is needed which would end separation. There should be no racist settlements built only for Jews or a new town built only for non-Jews. The solution must allow all who inhabit historic Palestine to live in peace wherever they desire. It should allow those refugees in Gaza, Jenin, Syria, Brazil, Europe and elsewhere to return to their land and homes. A reconciliation commission would need to be set up to deal with the details where the reclamation of exact sites is not physically possible.
Following the Trump-Netanyahu press conference in Washington, the Palestinian leadership’s 24-year long negotiations strategy — the charade of the peace process since signing the catastrophic Oslo accords — has collapsed. The PLO has been almost silent since that 15 February media circus, apart from calling for the international community not to abandon the two-state solution, bringing new meaning to the term “flogging a dead horse”.
It is time for fresh thinking that can strengthen the hand of a future, democratically-elected Palestinian leadership. The 6.3 million Palestinians abroad can play a vital role in shaping this. However, in the absence of a clear plan by the PLO to revitalise diaspora input, the CPA is the only game in town. The outcome of the conference was a commitment to continue to build both the new institution and Palestinian community, as well as lobby organisations abroad.
What is needed for this to materialise is for every Palestinian outside the borders of their homeland to make a commitment for contributions to the struggle in his or her adopted country. They should be knocking on the doors of their local decision-makers, lobbying for a just solution. They should take a more active part in the political system through joining political parties and standing for both local and national elections. They should be supporting and joining local solidarity groups, both as activists and donors. They should be forming alliances with other human rights groups and Jewish groups committed to justice for Palestinians. They should raise their voices in the media, locally and nationally, using articulate and convincing speakers and writers. They should also be knocking on the door of the PLO leadership in support of the CPA to ensure that the message is received and it is understood that they will no longer accept being ignored.
The CPA needs to find a sustainable way to continue to function long into the future. For that, it will need to widen its membership base in order to put to bed accusations that it is led by one group. The more community organisations which join, bringing together the widest possible spectrum of Palestinian views, the more representative the CPA will be. In turn, the more effective that the CPA is, the louder will be the call to the PLO to wake up and respond to that half of the constituency that it is meant to serve but which it has ignored since 1993. It can take strength from blessing the CPA, working to encourage Palestinians abroad to join it and developing appropriate links to it, leading to elections for the Palestine National Council, the people’s parliament.
Can the PLO rise to this challenge, as it must? Can its necessary reform include true representation for Palestinians abroad? Not only do they hope that it can, but all Palestinians would also want this. Fulfilling its responsibility would strengthen its hand in uniting and representing the Palestinian people and seeking a just solution for them. Ignoring or smearing the CPA will only add to the PLO’s own weakness, bringing it to the point of irrelevance. No Palestinian would want that to happen or for it to be interpreted as a desired outcome of the gathering of 6,000 Palestinians in Istanbul last month.