A chance encounter with the well known Palestinian filmmaker Michel Khleifi at the offices of the Qattan Foundation in Ramallah says it all: “No, one should not get depressed about the current situation,” says Khleifi. “In fact, this is the best time for us to work seriously on the Palestinian as a human being.”
There is indeed quite a lot to be depressed about. The political situation in general appears hopeless. Palestinian factions are busy fighting each other while Israel pursues its own criminal designs with the complicit approval of the international community. The level of poverty has increased very sharply and many children are now beginning to show the effects of malnutrition. Many teachers and civil servants have not received their salaries since March 2006 and the stresses and strains on the Palestinian economy are beginning to show. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Palestinian society has been subjected to a fierce attack by the Israelis since September 2000, an attack that is totally incommensurate with the possible threat that Palestinians may ever pose to Israel’s security. And more recently, stiff sanctions have been imposed following the democratic elections that resulted in an unexpected win for Hamas. The Palestinian political system has clearly failed and the Palestinian national project that began in the 1950s, so poorly managed and so utterly corrupt, has now come to naught. A self destructive struggle is under way between a beleaguered and bankrupt government run by Hamas and a bunch of incompetents run by Mahmoud Abbas and his largely discredited Fatah movement. And yet, Palestinian society does not collapse despite the absence of a system of law and order.
What do Palestinians draw upon from their own society and their history in order to survive these incredible assaults against their identity and their existence on their own land? Where do they find the strength, absent a competent leadership, to persist in their refusal to surrender to the diktats of their conquerors?
Recalling the internal dynamics of the first Palestinian Intifada that began in 1988 may give us a hint as to the fundamental reasons why Palestinian society can withstand repeated assaults. These include, among other things: the emergence of a community of creative resistance; the high level of volunteerism; widespread manifestations of high levels of social solidarity; and the emergence at the grassroots level of competent leadership that engaged in democratic decision-making.
Much of this spirit of creative resistance was derailed when the PLO returned following the Oslo Agreements, an event that comes close to a second Nakba for the Palestinian people. Instead of trying to build the foundations of a possible state, the Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat, proceeded to squander some 1.2 billion dollars in aid, siphoning most of the money into private coffers and failing to build even one viable institution. What we now witness are the dying moments of the Palestinian national movement and the end of an inglorious era in contemporary Palestinian history.
And yet, ironically, it is deep within the recesses of Palestinian society that one detects signs of hope. Many villagers come together and those who receive income contribute funds to help others who are in need. Self help, an important mainstay of Palestinian society during the days of the British Mandate, has now been resumed and new forms of social solidarity are being created bypassing the silly factional identities that had divided people in earlier times.
On May 28, 2006 I attended the one hundredth graduation ceremony of the private Quaker Friends Boys School in Ramallah, Palestine. Eighty two students were graduating on that day with sixty two receiving their international baccalaureate, eleven students matriculating in the arts section and nine students in the science track. Nadeem Rabaia gave the valedictorian speech in flawless English. He tells me that he will be attending Harvard University in the Fall on a full scholarship. One other student has been accepted at MIT while another will be going to Stanford University and yet another will be attending Cornell University also on full scholarship. Others will be attending the following institutions: University of Texas at Austin, Ohio State University, Butler University, McGill University in Canada, Simmons College, University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, Guilford College in North Carolina, Earlham College in Ohio, Bern University in Switzerland, the American University in Beirut, the American University in Cairo and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
What is remarkable about these young men and women is that they have spent the last five years of their school life under incredibly horrible conditions: the reentry of the Israeli army into their towns, with high levels of killing and destruction, a daily cycle of violence that saw many youth of their age die as a result of Israeli gunfire, weeks on end of being locked in under curfew, severe restrictions on freedom of movement that meant having to brave one checkpoint after another, often under horrendous conditions. It is difficult to imagine the conditions under which these students, their families and their teachers had to live. And yet, here they are- a wonderfully cheerful group, happy to be graduating, proud of their achievement and committed to excellence. Any American high school would be quite envious of what the Friends Boys School has achieved.
To mark its centennial, the school paraded a number of distinguished alumni who included the following: Hanan Ashrawi who also gave the keynote commencement address, Zuhdi Hashweh who graduated in 1929, Maher Masri who graduated in 1964 and who served at one point as Minister of Economic Affairs, and a number of others who have distinguished themselves in their various fields. Each generation lit a candle and passed it on to the next. A simple ceremony that tells a big story.
Fouad Moughrabi is a Professor and head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the Director of the Qattan Center for Educational Research and Development in Ramallah, Palestine.