Theme of 'Return' Has Kept Palestinians Bucking Odds

Fouad Moughrabi is a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.

In their rebellion against Israeli occupation, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza are expressing a fervent nationalism that is proving difficult to suppress and that is unlikely to disappear.

The essence of that nationalism can be found in the Arabic word sumud , which means steadfast resistance, firm determination, the will to persist. Resisting, even in the face of superior odds, means for Palestinians the right to determine their own destiny. What makes them so sure of themselves, so confident of the justice of their cause, so unwilling to back down?

In the world today, 4.7 million Palestinians carry the collective memory of a historic injustice committed against them in 1947-49. For 40 years their experiences have largely been ignored or dismissed as irrelevant. Only lately have Israeli historians, digging through recently declassified archives, revealed the truth of the Palestinian claim.

The research done by Benny Morris, Tom Segev, Simha Flapan and Yitzhak Levi explodes long-established and still currently held myths. It is no longer honest to say that the Arabs simply rejected the 1947 partition through which the state of Israel was established. It is historically untrue that the Arabs, unified in their opposition to Israel, sought the destruction of the new Jewish state while its hand was always extended in peace. It is now more accurate to say that the majority of Palestinians were driven out of their homes by direct Israeli military action. All this, and more, adds up to historic indictment and should completely alter the rhetoric about the conflict.

In exile the Palestinians clung to the hope of going back to reconstruct their shattered lives. The theme of return came to dominate their literature and folklore. They were also pragmatic enough to begin the process of rebuilding; they organized institutions to end their fragmentation, and invested heavily in their children's education--often to the point of major sacrifice. Quickly they became the new elite in the Middle East, with the highest rate of literacy and the greatest ratio of university graduates. This well-educated population, politically active and aware, finds the status quo, imposed by Israel as an immutable reality, totally unacceptable.

In June, 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and a new cycle of Israeli oppression and Palestinian resistance began. For the 1.5 million who live under occupation, daily life is a litany of horrors. Ironically, the horrors are imposed by the Israeli army under the 1945 emergency regulations that the British put into place to curtail the activities of Jewish terrorists led by Yitzhak Shamir (the present prime minister) and Menachem Begin (a former prime minister).

Jewish settlers on the West Bank, living on land confiscated from Arabs, enjoy the protection of civilian law. The Arabs live under the rule of military occupation, which allows imprisonment without charges, torture and deportation, and the blowing up of homes; in the name of "administration" it means land confiscation, denial of water rights, and the forced closing of businesses and schools and universities--sometimes for months on end.

The injustice extends to economic matters. In a pattern resembling apartheid, Arab workers commute from the territories to jobs that Israelis consider beneath their dignity. The Palestinians are heavily taxed, but receive few benefits. For example, Israelis receive cost-of-living increases to accommodate inflation, but Palestinians do not.

This "iron fist" policy (as Israelis themselves call it) is designed to suppress, if not altogether eliminate, all manifestations of Palestinian nationalism and to make life so unbearable that many Palestinians will be forced to emigrate. Sumud under such conditions becomes a major accomplishment.

Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem who heads the West Bank Data Project, says that 500,000 out of a total population of 1.5 million in the occupied areas have spent some time in jail. The majority are high-school and college students. Most of those killed in the recent uprising were young men. The Palestinians feel that, having been robbed of the past, Israel is now trying to rob them of their future.

Israeli officials are convinced that they can solve the problem in the occupied areas while ignoring Palestinian national rights. Some even argue that Jordan is the Palestinian homeland. Palestinian nationalism, however, is separate and distinct. No Palestinian wants to suffer the tutelage of Jordan or any other Arab government. In fact, although the current uprising is basically a reaction against Israeli occupation, it also represents frustration and anger with the Arab governments' refusal to assist the achievement of Palestinian self-determination.

Forty years of fallacious reasoning and futile efforts to bury the Palestine question have created the present impasse. A few well-informed and courageous Israelis now see that the Palestinian dream can no longer be deferred. Alarmed by the future, people like Yehoshofat Harkabi, Matti Peled and others are calling for peace with the Palestinians that is based on acceptance of the right to a state of their own, and negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Palestinians also are anxious for peace; they are willing to accept a settlement on the basis of co-existence and equality.

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