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The struggle for Palestinian rights: Then and now

Aug 06,2018 - Last updated at Aug 06,2018

Forty years ago this month, I left a tenured teaching position and moved to Washington, DC to run the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC). It was not easy doing Palestine work back then and Washington was an especially inhospitable city in which to pursue my new vocation.

Advocating for Palestinian rights can still be difficult, but so much has changed in the past four decades that I thought it might be useful to reflect on where we were in the 1970's and where we are today.

Back then, major pro-Israel establishments and American Jewish organisations threw their full weight behind the effort to marginalise our work. They denounced and defamed us as supporters of terrorism, a disgraceful effort to silence and isolate us because we defended Palestinian rights, including the right to self-determination. The language they used was so harsh and the charges they levelled against us were so inflammatory that they took a toll. We received death threats and hate mail, culminating in violent attacks and even murder. 

Their campaign to make "Palestine" taboo also negatively impacted our ability to build alliances. A few hardy members of Congress supported our defence of Palestinian victims, of torture, administrative detention, collective punishment or illegal expulsion from their homeland. Most members, however, even those with stellar human rights records, begged off by citing their fear that if they were to defend Palestinians, it might damage their political careers.

At one point, we even stopped testifying before Congressional committees since they proved to be largely frustrating and unproductive affairs. Instead of being allowed to make our case, our appearances only provided pro-Israel members of Congress with the opportunity to badger and insult us with patently false scripted attacks ("Isn't it true that you are supporting terrorists?" and other such nonsense).

Even progressive foreign policy groups were intimidated. On two occasions we were disinvited from membership in a major left-leaning foreign policy coalition despite having won admission with an overwhelmingly favourable vote. The reasons given for asking us to withdraw were that a few Jewish groups threatened to leave the coalition if we were to join, creating the concern that the coalition might lose support from liberal members of Congress and financial assistance from liberal donors.

It was not all gloom and doom. Despite struggling against great odds, we did win some support for our work. A few principled Christian denominations provided assistance, as did most of the civil rights leaders, who had been in Dr Martin Luther King's circle. Major peace activists noted for their leadership in the anti-Vietnam war movement also participated in our campaigns and programmes. Strengthened by this support, we weathered storms and continued to grow.

Several developments occurring between the late 1970's and the early 1990's contributed to improving our ability to advocate on behalf of Palestinian rights. The first of these were the public releases of two detailed indictments of Israeli torture, The Washington Post's publication of the US Jerusalem Consulate cables that documented Israel's systematic use of torture as a way of forcing prisoners to confess to crimes they did not commit and The London Times' exhaustive study of Israeli torture of Palestinian prisoners. In the wake of these shockingly disturbing reports, it became difficult for some human rights leaders to remain silent.

In 1979, there was the "Andrew Young Affair" in which it was revealed that Young, then the US ambassador to the UN, had met with the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) UN representative. In doing so, he had broken the taboo that prohibited US officials from having any contact with the PLO. Young lost his job, but African Americans were outraged, leading many respected civil rights leaders to trek to Beirut to meet directly with Yasser Arafat in a direct challenge to the lunacy of the "no talk policy". On their return, these same leaders joined our PHRC.

During the 1980's, many Americans were horrified by Israel's especially brutal and senseless bombardment and occupation of Beirut, and the excessively cruel and violent tactics Israel used to squash the first Intifada, in which stone-throwing Palestinian youths confronted heavily armed Israeli occupation forces. They were shocked by the scenes they saw and reports they read, and became more sympathetic to Palestinians and came to support our work.

Two other events during this period also served to catapult the Palestinian cause to a front and centre position in American consciousness and politics. The 1988 Jesse Jackson presidential campaign mobilised Arab Americans, progressive Jews, African Americans and peace activists in support of Palestinian rights, and "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Building on Jackson's leadership and the growing awareness of the plight of the Palestinians, we were able to pass pro-Palestinian planks in 10 state Democratic Party platforms and have the first-ever floor demonstration and debate on Palestinian rights at the Democratic National Convention. 

The Oslo Accords of 1993 contributed to significantly altering the US landscape changing the situation from Jews versus Arabs to those who supported a just peace versus those who did not. Despite Oslo's weaknesses, it opened the door to a discussion on Palestinian rights and gave legitimacy to pro-Palestinian advocates who had been long been shunned for their work.

It was these developments from this earlier period that helped shape the political environment in which we are now operating. But it did not end there. Contributing to even greater change are several new factors that must be considered. First and foremost is the growing demographic and partisan divide over Israeli behaviour toward Palestinians. Millennials, African Americans and other "minority" communities have been shocked by the crude and heavy-handed policies of an increasingly hardline and overtly racist Israeli government. Further exacerbating the divide is the way Israel and President Donald Trump, and his conservative and right-wing Christian allies, appear to be locked in an embrace. This right-wing pairing has been matched by the alliance that has brought together the growing movement of young progressive Jews, Arab Americans and African Americans. This latter coalition found expression first in the Bernie Sanders campaign and now in several other political campaigns and pro-Palestinian initiatives on college campuses and even a few notable efforts in Congress.

In several significant ways, the Palestinian reality, whether under occupation or in exile, has worsened in recent years, taking a horrific toll on both Palestinian lives and aspirations. While US politicians may now feel comfortable mouthing support for a "two-state solution", it is difficult to imagine how such a solution can be implemented. It is even more unlikely that some of the same elected officials who say they support two states would consider taking the tough positions to force Israel to end the occupation in order to allow a viable Palestinian state to come into being. Their profession of support for two states, therefore, appears to be hollow and designed more to side step their responsibility to address Israel's abuse of Palestinian human rights and justice.

Nevertheless, I remain more optimistic than I was forty years ago. The developments that have occurred have had a profound impact. The situation may be more difficult, but the movement for Palestinian rights is stronger, larger, more diverse and more deeply committed to justice. There is new energy and new hope that we are turning a corner in our ability to secure justice for Palestinians.

 

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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Comments

JUST LIKE OTHER CASES, JACK IS WRONG AGAIN BY DRIFTING TOWARDS HAMAS AS THE CAUSES AND EFFECTS OF THE ISRALI-PALESTINIAN AFFAIRS. THERE WAS NO HAMAS DURING THE BRITISH MANDATE AND/OR WHEN THE STATE OF ISRAEL WAS CREATED OR EVEN YEARS AFTER THAT. HAMAS WAS A POLITICAL PARTY CREATED WHEN THE WEST FORCED THE PALESTINIANS INTO DEMOCRATIC ELECTION. DO YOU REMEMBER THAT. ELECTION WAS HELD UNDER THE SUPERVISION OF THE INTERNATION TEAM OF OBSERVERS, FREE AND FAIR AND HAMAS WON FOLLOWED BY THE REACTION FROM THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY THAT HAMAS CAN NOT RULE. THEY WERE NOT EVEN GIVEN A CHANCE BUT RATHER FORCED THEM INTO A RESISTANT FORCE. DURING THE BIAFRAN WAR, THE IGBOS OF THE EAST CENTRAL STATE DID NOT SURRENDER TO BE KILLED AND THAT WAS REASON WHY MANY SURVIVED. IT LOOKS LIKE WE ARE ALL INSTIGATING FEAR OF UNKNOWN AND CREATING CHAOS BY USING HAMAS AND IRAN AS THE DEMON IN THE MIDDLE EAST. IS THIS FACTUALLY CORRECT?. THE HONEST ANSWER IS NO!!. RATHER THAN THE BOGGY MAN HAMAS AND/OR IRAN, IT IS THE INTERNATIONAL BODY AND THE ARAB LEADERS THAT ARE FERMENTING THESE PROBLEMS AND USING HAMAS AS A SHIELD TO CONTINUE THE STATUS QUO. NEITHER HAMAS, FATAH NOR THE ISRAEL WANT THIS STATE OF AFFAIRS. THAY ARE ALL TIRED OF THIS NONSENSE AND WANT TO LIVE IN PEACE BUT WORLD FROM THE EPI-CENTER TO WASHINGTON, LONDON FUELED AND FUNDED WITH PETRO-DOLLARS. I WILL ADVISE DR JACK TO CONSIDER STOPPING BLAMING HAMAS ALL THE TIME AND CALL A SPADE A SPADE. THE WORLD NEED PEACE IN THAT REGION AND THE ONLY WAY THAT WE CAN ALL HELP IS TO TUNE DOWN THE ONE-SIDED BLAME GAME OF CHESS OF ON ONE SIDE AND PREACH PEACE AND STABILITY THROUGH GIVE AND TAKE.

Your optimism is warranted. Hamas seems to be coming to the same conclusion that Fatah came to a while ago, namely that terrorism will not destroy Israel. When that realization filters through more Hamas will have more internal disputes resulting in splintering and real internal debate. This will result in every day Palestinians having more say in their lives = more Palestinian Rights.

THERE IS NO THEN AND NO NOW UNTIL THE ARAB WORLD DECIDES TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS ISSUE.

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