What are their references? The Palestinians are not asking for something they cooked up from thin air, but for rights enshrined in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the League of Nations mandate before them. In their specific case these rights have been applied to them by numerous UN General Assembly and Security Council Resolutions.
Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 provide for full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories in exchange for peace with Israel. UN Resolution 194 guarantees the right of Palestinian refugees, so cruelly deprived of their country and homes for fifty-three years, to return to them and live in peace with their neighbours. While they are waiting for this, under the brutal heel of Israeli military occupation, the Fourth Geneva Convention is supposed to protect Palestinians from the abuses of the occupation army.
What is a people to do when they find their rights denied and almost every one of the protections rendered worthless by the tanks, troops and bulldozers of Israel? For almost a full decade, the Palestinians negotiated in good faith with Israeli governments of the “left” and “right.” They went to the Madrid conference in October 1991, where Dr Haider Abdul Shafi, their eloquent spokesman, declared before the entire world that “we are willing to live side-by-side on the land.”
Then prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, responded that Israel would never give up an inch of the occupied territories and later confessed in his memoirs that had he remained in office he would have allowed the negotiations to drag on for ten years while Israel completed its colonisation of occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
Shamir fell from office, and Yitzhak Rabin, the bone-breaker, took his place, and the Palestinians pressed on. In 1993, the PLO signed the Oslo accords and explicitly recognised the State of Israel.
Despite much criticism from Palestinians and others who felt the Oslo accords were fatally flawed, the PLO embarked on negotiations for an interim self-rule period to last five years. Agreeing to put off the toughest issues until last – borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem – the Palestinians relied on the good faith of the United States, if not the Israelis, to ensure that the negotiations would have a chance to succeed. For years the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) did the bidding of Israel and the United States, arresting dissidents without charge or trial, and altering documents and even history books in order to suit Israel.
But what did Israel do? While saying that it wanted to solve all outstanding issues by negotiations, it continued to predetermine them by bulldozers. Shimon Peres followed Rabin, and Benyamin Netanyahu followed Peres. Each outdid his predecessor in settlement building.
Since 1993, according to the Israeli group “Peace Now” the number of housing units in Israeli colonies in the occupied territories increased by 53 per cent. Palestinians watched as their land continued to disappear, and settlements and settler-only roads spread across it. If they resisted they were called “terrorists,” if they did nothing, all hope was lost.
Sometimes Palestinian resistance took unacceptable forms, targeting Israeli civilians, but this was always taken as an excuse by Israel to punish the entire Palestinian population and to declare that all Palestinians are driven by hatred and zealotry.
When a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, massacred dozens of Palestinians in Hebron, it was the entire Palestinian population of Hebron that was punished, and is still being punished, not the settlers who continue to terrorise the inhabitants of the land.
Palestinians watched the promise of economic improvement rot like so many truck loads of Gazan oranges and tomatoes held up at Israeli checkpoints. They watched their dreams of democracy and self-rule evaporate in a fog of mismanagement and greed. Agreement after agreement was ignored as Israel simply declined to withdraw from occupied territory as it had promised to do.
But they pressed on. At Camp David last summer, the Palestinian leadership went and found themselves confronted by a US-Israeli axis that offered them autonomy or eternal damnation. Accused of spurning a “generous” offer from then prime minister Ehud Barak, the PNA did a poor job of explaining to the world that autonomy is not independence, and that a statelet in part of the West Bank is an unacceptable compromise on the already enormous compromise contained in Resolution 242, of allowing Israel to keep the 78 per cent of Palestine it conquered in 1948 in exchange for allowing the Palestinians to have a future on just a fifth of the country they overwhelmingly dominated just two generations ago.
Exasperated, frustrated, angry at the continued denial of their freedom, the Palestinian people in the occupied territories rebelled. For this they have paid an enormous and growing price: More than five hundred dead, most of them unarmed civilians. Twenty-thousand injured, and millions confined and deprived of work, medical care and even food and water by blockades and sieges.
The Palestinians turned to the Arab world, and found that its officials are experts at holding summits and crafting declarations but incapable of any sustained and coordinated action that would exact a political or economic price either on Israel or its supporters for the hell they are imposing on the Palestinians. Now the PNA has taken the ultimate step that a people must take when it has had its freedom taken away for so long. It went back to the international community, as embodied by the United Nations Security Council, to ask for international action – at least monitors. The Palestinians went back to the same international community that throughout history meticulously applied international law, when for example it concerned the League of Nations mandate that gave the Great Powers colonial mastery of the Middle East, or the UN resolution that created Israel. The Palestinians went back to the same international community that allowed a million Iraqis to die in the name of enforcing Security Council resolutions.
But the same Security Council took no action because, as the acting US Ambassador James Cunningham said, Washington “question[s] the appropriateness and effectiveness of any action here in New York.”
This then, is the end of the road. After 34 years, three million Palestinians are still under a relentless and inhuman occupation, and five million are in exile. Negotiations with an Israel that simply will not stop devouring the little of Palestine that is left to be negotiated over have proved useless. There is virtually no element of the international community that is either willing or able to provide material support for the Palestinians’ struggle for freedom. The Europeans talk about Palestinian rights, but continue to buy produce from Israel’s illegal colonies. The world’s sole superpower, the United States, stands solidly behind Israel and thus international law is rendered meaningless. The Apache helicopters that murder and maim, the bullets that kill and the tear gas that chokes, are all made in the United States, an unconditional gift from the American taxpayer.
So the message is clear to the Palestinians: You are on your own. You alone among people do not have human rights by virtue of your membership in the human family. The world will do nothing for you. You must either come to terms with the dictates of an enemy that is a thousand times stronger than you, or you must fight your way to freedom. For if negotiations, the United Nations, the European Union, the Arab world are all closed to the Palestinians, where is there left for them to turn?.
The first eleven months of the Intifada were just the warm up. Now begins the long war for Palestinian freedom, which will be costly and bloody for both sides, but which, like the Indians, Algerians, South Africans and many other colonised nations before them, the Palestinians will undoubtedly win.
Mr. Ali Abunimah contributed this article to The Jordan Times.