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Back to Roots of the Palestinian Problem

Salman Abu Sitta

PMC, August 20, 2006

Over half a century ago, it would have been inconceivable, that I, a Palestinian boy living peacefully in his home thousands of miles away, would be speaking to you here today; nor that many of you, third generation refugees from Palestine, would be here in such numbers, away from the homes of your fathers and grandfathers. But such is the working of "Al-Nakba" (The Catastrophe).

I became a refugee at the age of 10, when strange European Zionist settlers invaded my country, destroyed my home and made me a refugee. I spent all my adult life wondering why this enemy destroyed my life. I tried to put a face to this invisible enemy—for I have never seen one before.

Like millions of Palestinians, I started, then in 1948, on the long trek to return home. The trajectory of expulsion propelled us to the four corners of the earth, but our compass was always directed toward our home. In unison and with unbelievable resilience, we vowed: "We shall never rest until we return home." This is the ninetieth year in our struggle for freedom and peaceful life in our homeland. In 1916, two European colonial diplomats, the British Mark Sykes and the French Georges Picot conspired to enslave the Arab people after winning the war in alliance with the Arabs against the Ottoman rule. While the Allies’ planes were dropping leaflets expressing devotion to the Arab quest for freedom and democracy, Sykes and Picot charted on a map lines dividing the territorial spoils of war.

A latent European colonial enterprise came into the fray. The Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann, extracted a fateful letter from the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, in November 1917 addressed to a Jewish millionaire, Lord Rothschild. None of the three conspiring Europeans lived in Palestine or had a legitimate presence in Palestine. The British army then had barely crossed the border of Palestine.

Balfour’s declaration was a false promise of those who did not own to those who had no title, behind the back of the rightful owner. Thus began a relentless Western war against the Palestinian people, now in its ninetieth year.

Balfour was fully aware of what he was doing. True to his colonial heritage, he said in 1918:

"For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. … [Zionism is] of far profounder impact than the desires and prejudices [not the rights] of the Arabs who inhabit this ancient land.

He said the Arabs are "wholly barbarous, undeveloped and unorganized black tribes."

The British Mandate ruled Palestine from 1920 to 1948 with the irreconcilable objectives of preparing the Palestinians for a free, democratic government and building a "national home" for Jews in Palestine.

Nine decades before George Bush came up with his campaign for "democracy" for the whole world, the Palestinians started their campaign for democracy. When they petitioned, agitated and revolted for their cause, Winston Churchill, the British colonial secretary, told them in 1921:

"Step by step we shall develop representative institutions leading to full self-government, but our children’s children will have passed away before that is accomplished."

They are still waiting. They have not given up.

In his five-year tenure (1920-1925), the Zionist first British high commissioner of Palestine, Herbert Samuel, laid the foundations for the state of Israel.

Hebrew was introduced as an official language; separate Jewish institutions for banking, education, labor, water and energy were formed. A pseudo-government and an embryonic army were established. What was left was to import citizens for the new state, hence the drive for Jewish immigration.


By 1948, with the collusion of the British Mandate, the Zionists had failed to acquire—even by money, Zionist-inspired laws and economic pressure—more than 5.5 percent of the land of Palestine. But they succeeded in increasing the Jewish population from nine percent to thirty percent of the total population and they trained an army of 120,000, or 20 percent of the Jewish immigrant population. (Compare this with a normal country where the army makes up one to two percent of the population). This Zionist army was ready to pounce on Palestine.

It is often said in the standard Israeli narrative that, at the end of the Mandate, the Palestinians refused to accept the partition plan of Palestine, while the Jews accepted it. This narrative deliberately omits and distorts key facts.

How can the Palestinians accept to give away sovereignty over 54 percent of their country to Jewish European immigrants who controlled only 5.5 percent of Palestine, many of whom had just waded onto their shores under the cover of darkness from a smuggler’s ship?

In the would-be Jewish state, 457 Palestinian towns and villages suddenly found themselves under the rule of foreign immigrants. The Palestinians comprised about half of the total population of this new state.

They did not like it. Neither did David Ben Gurion, for different reasons.

In 1948, Ben Gurion proceeded to expel Palestinian citizens even before Israel was declared. He went on, not only to conquer 54 percent, but 78 percent of Palestine and expel its population. Al-Nakba was born.

Zionists, now called Israelis, conquered 774 Palestinian towns and villages, depopulated totally 675 of them, while 99 remained under brutal military rule for 16 years to be replaced by second class citizen status.

It was the largest planned and foreign-supported ethnic cleaning in modern history.

Never before in modern history has a foreign minority descended upon the national majority of a country as in Palestine, depopulated its inhabitants, confiscated its land, property and records in the largest land robbery since World War II, destroyed its historical and religious landscape, and obliterated its identity and history, and called this crime a victory for civilization and a divine intervention.

These who missed Al-Nakba of 1948 can see it reenacted every day on their TV screens, albeit in different forms and under different pretexts.

Israel’s wars and ethnic cleansing

Today, the Palestinian population is about 10 million. Two thirds are refugees, the largest ratio among any people in the world. If you add those displaced in 1967, fully three quarters of the Palestinians are deprived of the normal human right to live at home. The remainder live under Israeli occupation, the longest and most brutal occupation in modern times.

You are the children and grandchildren of those refugees. You are fighting for the same cause—the right to return home. You have not sailed to Poland and Russia. Your adversaries sailed to your shores. You did not conquer, plunder and expel. Others did it to you.

Israel has waged five major wars, hundreds of raids by air, land and sea against the Palestinian people for exactly 21,412 days today. But Palestinians are still standing tall. They have never surrendered.

In the last six years since the second Intifada, 3,500 Palestinians were killed, over 9,000 are prisoners at present; 40 percent of all adult males have been imprisoned at some time by the Israeli occupation forces.

In what the author and film director John Pilger calls "a war on children," 700 children have been killed by Israeli occupation forces since 2000. This is not to mention Mohamed al Durra, killed in his father’s lap or Huda Ghalia, the child who lost all her family on a Gaza beach.

Ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity according the sixth principle of the Nuremberg Charter and the 1998 Statute of Rome. Collective punishment is contrary to Geneva Conventions. The International Court of Justice, the highest legal body in the world, in a landmark July 2004 advisory opinion, decreed that the apartheid wall is illegal and Israel’s brutal occupation is illegal.

The famous UN resolution 194, calling for the refugees’ return, has been affirmed by the UN over 130 times. It has been supported by all human rights conventions. The majority of the people in the world support Palestinian rights. Why then are they not implemented? Why do Palestinians continue to suffer?

U.S., EU united against Palestine

I submit to you that a campaign of genocide has been waged against the Palestinian people, a genocide of killing, a genocide of elimination, a genocide of exile and banishment, a genocide of decapitating organizations by assassinating their leaders, a genocide of starvation; a genocide of slow death by cutting sources of food, water and medicine; a genocide of civilized life by destroying schools, universities and hospitals; a genocide of oblivion by destroying the national identity and denying the right for citizenship and nationality.

Israel has done that and more. It is the raison d’etre of Israel. Ben Gurion said that the destruction of Palestine is a pre-condition for the foundation of Israel.

We know all that. We also know that Israel could not have done that without the massive military, financial and political support of U.S. administrations. You live here and you know this better than me.

While U.S. foreign policy is openly and unashamedly biased in favor of Israel, Europe, the original colonial power, continues to play the same role it did in 1916. Europe gives conditional aid to Palestinians. It tells them: "if you accept Israeli occupation and drop your rights, we will give enough aid to keep you alive. If you do not, we will let your people starve. We will also not let anybody else help you." Deliberate starvation of a people is a crime against humanity. Yes, this is what the hypocritical European politicians publicly declare.

The conditional aid they give to Palestinians is in effect financing the occupation. Israel, the occupying power, is obliged under the Fourth Geneva Convention and general humanitarian law to pay for all services needed for the occupied people. Europe relieves Israel from this burden and lets it freely conduct its brutal occupation.

I once said to some European diplomat: "Do you not have the courage at least to recover the cost of hospitals you built and Israel destroyed?" He could not answer.

The monumental verdict by the International Court of Justice of July 9, 2004, and its subsequent endorsement by the UN, did not cause any western power to move NATO forces, apply sanctions or economic blockade, not even make a strong protest against Israel’s violation of international law, as they have done with ferocity in innumerable other cases.

Outside the UN resolutions, western powers have proposed over two dozen schemes for so-called "peace in the Middle East" since Israel was conditionally admitted to the UN in 1949.

As an exercise, I went through all those schemes. Not one of them, forces Israel to implement international law. They all require Palestinians to drop all or most of their rights under the rubric of "realism" and ask them to legitimize Israel’s violation of international law.

The right of return

Take the right of return. It is enshrined in international law and affirmed repeatedly, particularly for the Palestinian efugees. It has been implemented in Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor, Rwanda, Guatemala, Abkhazia, Afghanistan and Iraq. But not in Palestine. Why?

The response we here from sympathetic Europeans: "it is not realistic, it is not feasible, there is no room, villages are destroyed, no where to return to" and so on.

What if this is true? This is like saying: "If you intend to kill or steal, you will be punished. But if you successfully kill and steal, you are forgiven for the crime and what you steal is yours." There is no moral, legal or even political logic behind that.

But it is not true. Such Zionist myths have been demystified long ago. We have shown that:

1. The land of the refugees, which is 93 percent of Israel, is inhabited by 1.5 percent of Israeli Jews, largely in the Kibbutz, which is financially and politically bankrupt. The Kibbutz share the refugees’ land with the army for its expansionist and occupation campaigns.

2. Ninety percent of the village sites are still vacant, seven percent are partially built-over, and only three percent are totally built over in Tel Aviv and west Jerusalem.

3. The total number of Russian immigrants is equal to all registered refugees in Lebanon and Gaza. If Israel wanted peace, Palestinian refugees could have returned. Instead, new conflict is created and the racists Natan Sharansky and Avigdor Lieberman became leaders in Israel.

4. Ninety-seven percent of refugees are located within 100 kilometers (62 miles) from their homes and 50 percent are within 40 kilometers (25 miles), a mere bus ride. Many can see their houses, but they cannot get there.

5. Gaza’s population density is 6,000 persons per square kilometer, while their land, a few kilometers away, is empty at six rural Jews per square mile. All the rural Jews in half of Israel, from Ramleh to Um Rashrash (Eilat) are less in number than a single refugee camp in Gaza. We could go on and on. This was published in books and atlases. The facts were never disputed by Israelis, only the motives behind them.

That is about Palestine enemies. But what about the Palestinian position?

Representatives of the Palestinian people

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed in 1964 as the representative of the Palestinian people with the sole aim of restoring their rights. In 1974, the UN passed several resolutions to affirm that these rights are inalienable.

In 1988, the Palestine National Council (PNC) made a major concession. It split its national objectives into two: (1) establishing a Palestinian state on only one-fifth of its territory; and (2) pursuing the right of return of the refugees to their homes wherever they may be, precisely in the meaning of resolution 194.

The Oslo Accords of 1993 were a watershed. Palestinian leadership, at its lowest ebb, accepted these accords which had two major flaws: (1) they ignored the massive body of international law that supported Palestinian rights; and (2) the Palestinian people were neither consulted nor did they agree to the Oslo Accords in any fully representative way, through referendum or a freshly elected PNC. The major victim was the refugees’ rights.

Hence, the right of return movement was born. Committees, groups and associations were formed in every place in the world where there were concentrations of refugees. By 1998, the fiftieth year of Al-Nakba, this movement became a formidable voice. Dedicated activists, academics, writers and community leaders worked tirelessly and joined forces with liberal and human rights groups. Today, no one can deny their presence. But they lacked a unified consolidated political entity. This situation is becoming detrimental to our cause and cannot continue.

The reason is simple. The internal conflict between Hamas, the elected Palestinian Authority government, and Fatah, the old, largely corrupt faction, stifled any progress towards the essential Palestinian issues.

Last month, I met many Palestinian leaders, including Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas). It is my considered opinion—supported by many others—that Fatah clings to the PLO structure, which it previously marginalized, as the only remaining vehicle for power.

Israel and Western powers support Abu Mazen more or less and act to destroy the Hamas government because it is the elected representative that would not forfeit Palestinian inalienable rights. Israel does not consider Palestinians or Arabs a military threat. But Palestinians have a coveted valuable prize that Israel desperately seeks—legitimacy, they want Palestinians to say, "There is no Palestine, no Palestinians, no rights big or small." They want Abu Mazen, the nominal head of the outdated PLO, to sign on behalf of all Palestinians on the required concessions, in what would be called a historic settlement. Then, he and the PLO will be dumped in the bin.

Organized members of Fatah, Hamas and other factions do not count for more than 5 percent of all Palestinians. Where is the voice of 95 percent of Palestinians? Who represents them now? Who defends their rights? It is, and should be, the Palestine National Council, the source of ultimate power and the arbiter of the destiny of the Palestinian people.

As you know, the old PNC is now defunct. Its members have been gathered arbitrarily and it has grown to 600 or 700 unknown people. Many have died or lost touch with the people. There must be a new PNC—clean, lean and a truly representative council through elections everywhere. It is our only safety net.

We have a large database to know who the Palestinians are, where they come from; where they are today. Elections could be held in many parts of the world and, where not possible, other representative means may be devised.

The PNC membership should not exceed 250, at the rate of one member for 40,000 or 4 village units. Only 33 percent of Palestinians now live in occupied Palestine of 1967, under the PA. All Palestinians, including those living within the 1948 borders, should be represented.

These simple and necessary principles are rejected or obstructed by current leadership. They wish to allocate half the seats to one-third of the people under PA. They underestimate the weight of Palestinians abroad. One leader, who appears on TV frequently, told me, "We are in the fire. We represent you. That is enough." He did not mention the secret agreements by his ilk to drop the right of return, nor the corruption as his credentials.

This old, tired leadership gives lame excuses for not holding PNC elections. They delay endlessly, convening the meeting of the preparatory committee, which should be entrusted with holding the elections.

They ignore the major fact, plain to all, that western powers court the present leadership for the single reason that they sign concessions in the name of the PLO on behalf of the Palestinian people. Then they and the PLO will be wiped out. The two-thirds of Palestinians will be left to their own devices or forcibly settled somewhere.

We must prevent this happening. The PLO and the PNC are our major achievements in the past half a century as the representatives of the Palestinian people. A new PNC must be elected soon.

To do that, we have to forge a union of all groups to speak with one voice. We then must hold a popular conference of 1,000 to 2,000 people for Palestinians from all walks of life. A venue is already available. We must form a single unified people’s voice very soon. We must participate in the preparatory committee of the PNC and prevent it being hijacked by old cronies.

As we have forced our presence in the media and in human rights activism, we must now have a real, strong voice in shaping our destiny.

Our resilience and determination has carried us through 58 years. We should carry this message forward, a message of freedom and justice.

And as we always say: "Ma dha’a huqqon wara’hu mutalib." No right is lost if pursued vigorously.

This article was first published by the Party for Socialism and Liberation, http://www.pslweb.org, Friday, August 4, 2006.

Dr. Salman Abu Sitta researches and writes about Palestinian refugees and their right to return to their homes and land. He was a member of the Palestine National Council for more than 20 years. Currently, Dr. Abu Sitta is the president of the Palestine Land Society. He presented this talk at the Fourth International Convention of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right of Return Coalition, in San Francisco on July 14. It was the keynote presentation on the convention’s opening night.

:: Article nr. 25929 sent on 20-aug-2006 20:30 ECT


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