MAXWELL: World has forgotten Palestinians, too, need a homeland

10/15/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


“Israel Needs an Ally,” reads the headline of a recent column by William Safire of the New York Times. Safire is right, of course. But the other headline should read: “Palestinians need a homeland.”

The Palestinians are a dispossessed people.

For me, or Hillary Clinton, to say that Palestinians need a homeland is not to be anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. I am neither.

Granted, a homeland _ a new Palestine _ will not cure all of the problems between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, but it would ease many seemingly intractable problems and bring the one ingredient to the lives of Palestinians that has been missing: the dignity of belonging to a place.

Blame for the current outbreak of violence in the region rests on the shoulders of all principals involved, especially Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon, whose intentionally provocative visit to the Temple Mount sparked the first angry responses from Palestinians, and PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat who has shown baffling intransigence and a lack of common sense.

All that said, the world seems to have forgotten that the Palestinian people _ like Jews were until the nation of Israel was created _ are a diaspora, a people dispersed from their homeland. Let us not argue about who was in the region first, Arabs or Jews. The fact is that an entire group has been scattered, creating one of the world’s enduring and most serious human rights crises.

Some history: Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees for the first time when, during 1948 and 1949, much of Palestine was annexed by the Hashemite dynasty to Transjordan to form the kingdom of Jordan and when Gaza fell under Egyptian control. Currently, according to The Penquin Atlas of Diasporas, the majority of Palestinians who are neither in Israel proper nor in the West Bank are in the “immediate periphery of historic Palestine” _ Jordan, Lebanon, Syria. More Palestinians were uprooted during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Two-thirds of the Jordanian population is made up of Palestinians. In addition to those in Gaza and the West Bank, refugee camps sprawl across Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The Penquin Atlas states that Palestinian colonies, consisting of skilled males, work in the Gulf, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The United States has a Palestinian diaspora, and colonies of Palestinians make their home in Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Some are well integrated in their adopted homes. Others are not.

Anyone who visits the Gaza Strip, as I have for extended periods, can see firsthand reasons for Palestinian discontent. With a population of more than 1-million, the Gaza Strip, called the “Soweto of Israel,” is not a state and has not been annexed into Israel. The crowding is directly attributable to Israel’s economic stranglehold over the strip, which is fenced from the Erez Crossing in the north to the Rafah Crossing at the Egyptian border in the south.

The Israel Defense Forces control all borders. Even with the recent opening of a special passage from Gaza to the West Bank, if Gazans want to leave the area, they must obtain a permit from the Israelis. Unless the trip is work-related, most residents never get permits and, therefore, never see Israel or the West Bank.

I met many people _ born since 1967 _ who have not been off the strip, which is only 25 miles long and less than 4 miles wide in some areas. The region is trapped between the Negev Desert and the Mediterranean Sea.

Some of the worst conditions I saw were in the Dehaishem Camp that Pope John Paul II visited earlier this year. Here is the New York Times’ description of the site: “Almost 10,000 Palestinian refugees, nearly all Muslim, live on less than one square mile of land here, crowded into concrete shacks that line alleys dotted with junked cars, stray coils of wire and trash. They have been refugees for 52 years, and many of them still keep the keys to homes they fled or were forced to leave in the fighting surrounding the creation of Israel.”

After seeing Dehaishem and other places in Gaza and the West Bank, the Pope said: “No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment is before the eyes of the world, and it has gone on too long. The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have the right to a homeland and the right to be able to live in peace and tranquility with the other peoples of this area.”

Indeed, Arafat needs to bargain with the Israelis in good faith, and he needs to come to terms with the realities of what he will not get in Jerusalem. But no matter how many peace accords and treaties are signed, people in the Holy Land will continue to spill their own blood until the conditions that dehumanize Palestinians are eradicated.

Israelis, along with their supporters in the United States and elsewhere, are misguided to believe that a diaspora in their midst and along their borders will have any desire to live in peace with them. Such an expectation defies all logic.

Humiliated and frustrated, Palestinians feel like strangers in a land they consider theirs as much as Jews consider it theirs. The violence in the region is unfortunate, but no one should forget that the hopelessness of dispossessed young Palestinians makes many of them prime candidates to become terrorists.