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Somnolent America Must Act to Support Palestinian Rights

<i> Rashid Khalidi is an associate professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Chicago and the author of "Under Siege: PLO Decision-Making During the 1982 War" (Columbia University Press, 1986).</i> David and Goliath (amended)

After the shooting of hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli troops, the Reagan Administration roused itself from its somnolence to administer a mild slap on the wrist to Israel.

At the same time, it equated the desperate rage of the youthful Palestinian demonstrators with Israel’s cold-blooded use of lethal force against those whom Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin described as “so-called civilians.”

Even though the shooting has died down for the moment, the repression continues as hundreds of young Palestinians are dragged before mass military courts-martial.

Yet there is every danger that the concern aroused in this country by the unprecedented Palestinian national uprising will fade away, to be replaced by the old attitude of complacency.

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In the past this was based on the Israeli argument that the Palestine issue had been eclipsed by “new realities.” Whether these were described as Arab preoccupation with the Iran-Iraq War, or the irreversibility of Israel’s absorption of occupied Palestinian lands, or the more intimate alliance between America and Israel, the message was clear: Ignore the Palestinians, ignore the illegality of occupation and the need to end it, ignore policy positions that the United States has maintained since 1967.

Today, after the Palestinians have proved that they cannot be forgotten, after the Israeli government has refused to address this issue in anything but the crudest law-and-order terms and after the same Arab regimes that were willing to forget the Palestinians have been forced by domestic public opinion to take a strong stand, a return to the blind complacency of the past few years would be perilous indeed.

If Israel needed two weeks to bring the occupied territories back under control, after the Palestinians unequivocally demonstrated their opposition to occupation and their desire to rule themselves, it would be faulty to try to maintain the status quo or to contemplate handing them over to Jordan.

And if young Palestinians who have lived all their lives under occupation are not afraid of Israeli bullets, they will never accept representation by quislings chosen for them by Israel or anybody else.

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As the brutality of the past two weeks has proved once again, the basic problem at issue in the Arab-Israel conflict is that the Palestinian people have been deprived of their political and human rights. They are the primary Arab party to this conflict. Any solution will have to be based on recognizing this simple fact.

Though it will be difficult in an election year, a new departure by the United States is imperative.

Its key element must be an admission by all concerned of the centrality of the Palestine question, and of the Palestinians themselves. The Administration has pussyfooted for seven years on this issue, catering to the whims of Israel and its supporters in this country, and it has systematically moved away from dealing with the Palestinians. It must begin to do so now.

Beyond this, the Administration could remind Israel that although its annual billions in aid are today politically sacrosanct, that will be jeopardized if American public opinion continues to be alienated by Israeli actions that no amount of public relations can sanitize.

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Washington should reassert long-held U.S. positions on the illegality of the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, of settlements in the occupied territories and of the occupation itself. This should be backed up by firm action to prevent tax-deductible donations or U.S. aid from being used for any of these purposes.

The United States should further demand that Israel cease deporting Palestinians in violation of the fourth Geneva convention, and indeed should insist that it take back those expelled since 1967.

These steps can help prepare the way for a real peace process, in which the Palestinians would be central. None of them would be easy.

But if Israel is to escape further violence, the Palestinians further repression and the United States more damage to its interests in the Arab world, it is imperative that this country act on the basis of its stated principles and cease giving unquestioned support to any and all Israeli actions.

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