The Palestinian people have no grudge against the American public. We never did. As a matter of fact, if one resists the media spin and takes a closer look at what the Palestinians have been struggling for during the last two weeks—let alone the last thirty-five years—it will be revealed that the Palestinian Intifada is a very American struggle. After all, it is a struggle for national independence, civil liberties, human rights, as well as a struggle to establish an open market in an independent economy, free to market forces and free from Israeli domination.
The Palestinians are doing what any American citizen would do: we are fighting for our rights. At times, some Palestinian individuals and organizations reach a point of equating life under Israeli occupation to death and unfortunately choose to take Israeli civilian lives along with their own. This is a sad but bitter reality of the environment that a prolonged foreign military occupation creates. No matter how many times US President Bush or a war criminal like Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon call upon Palestinians to condemn these acts, the reality remains that taking civilian lives is definitely not the norm in the Palestinian struggle.
Palestinians realize that, unfortunately, too many Americans—as the anti- apartheid song used to say—think the West Bank is California and the Middle East is Chicago. In fact, however, the history of the Palestinian struggle is rich; it is something that every American can relate to. Let me explain.
First, the Palestinians are not begging for a homeland of their own. They had a homeland in 1948 before the establishment of the State of Israel. As a matter of fact before 1948 they were living mostly peacefully in a secular environment: Jews, Muslims and Christians. It is the establishment of the State of Israel that created the first wave of Palestinian refugees who are still suffering a daily hell, fifty-four years later. These Palestinian refugees, plus their offspring, are the same people that are (or were) living in the Jenin refugee camp before Israel committed its latest atrocity. In 1948, these Palestinian refugees did not immediately take up arms against Israel when they were forcefully evicted from their homes. Just the opposite.
From 1948 up until the mid-1960’s Palestinians attempted to find a peaceful resolution to their being forced from their homes by the Israeli military. Through numerous political and organizational venues, Palestinians shuttled from the United States to the United Nations to the United Kingdom and back again, demanding that justice be served. Everyone recognized the historical injustice committed against the Palestinians, but no one stood up to take action. It was only then that the Palestinians took up arms and began their military struggle. For this they paid a high price. Israel saw that the world’s powers-to-be were not concerned with resolving the plight of Palestinians and proceeded with a military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem on June 4, 1967. This created a second round of Palestinian refugees and, consequently, another generation of anger.
In the 1970’s the Palestinians went to the UN and asked again for justice to be served, peacefully and diplomatically. The UN took significant decisions in favor of Palestinians; however, it had neither the power nor the will to implement any of them. Palestinian living conditions continued to worsen. The Palestinians turned again to non-violence in the beginning of the 80’s, only to have the leaders of that nascent movement exiled from the West Bank. Many others — writers, student activists, unionists, musicians, and organizers — that tried to work non-violently to end the occupation and restore the rights of the refugees were thrown in Israeli prisons. Most of them were tortured. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and tried to crush the Palestinian movement there, where thousands of Palestinian refugees had taken refuge as they waited for the world to act. Although it supported the massacre of up to twenty-five hundred Palestinians in the refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila, Israel failed to destroy either the Palestinians’ hopes or their struggle. Then in 1987 the Palestinians took to the streets in what is now known as the first popular uprising (Intifada), an action not unfamiliar to anyone who lived in the US South during the 1960’s. Palestinians made their voice heard, again mostly non-violently, but the US continued to turn a blind eye while at the same time arming Israel to the teeth and pumping more foreign aid money into Israel than it provided to the entire continent of Africa.
In 1993 Palestinians entered a peace process that made unprecedented Palestinian political overtures to Israel even though the Oslo accords still maintained the system of Israeli military occupation. Palestinians recognized Israel as a state and renounced terror. During the next eight years what the Palestinians got in return was a seventy per cent increase in the number of illegal Israeli settlers living on their land and Israeli domination of their economic development. And now we are facing another Israeli military invasion and more war crimes. Many Palestinians believed that a world now in a state of US-led globalization would not put up with continued Israeli intransigence. We were wrong.
I was born in Ohio and lived all of my life there before relocating to Palestine following the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords. I would bet that any American put in the circumstances the Palestinian people have found themselves in would act just as we have. The American way would counsel being steadfast, fighting back, and even painfully witnessing some of their own taking their lives after losing all hope for the possibility of a secure and respectable life.
Over the years Palestine and the Palestinians have historically been every American government’s worst nightmare. Why? Because US administrations know something that every Palestinian also knows — US foreign policy, at least on this issue, has never reflected genuine US strategic interests in the Middle East, nor has it reflected the will and principles of the American people. The foreign government of Israel identified the huge chasm between the American public and its administrations and the United States Congress. Thus, when the Palestinian struggle moves to the front burner, as it does periodically, US presidents, officials and most congresspersons know that their most prestigious government institutions are about to be exposed to their own constituency. What is their fear? Well, Israel decided not to waste its time with the American people so it created the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) and its related political action committees to deal with Congress. And deal with Congress it has!
In their own words, AIPAC aims to “Reinforce our commitment to Israel and support her security infrastructure by providing nearly $3 billion in aid, while refocusing that assistance to meet Israel’s changing security needs.” Also, AIPAC aims to, “Recognize Israel’s singular needs by granting unique early disbursal of aid — all assistance was received 30 days after the foreign aid bill was passed.” What does all this mean to you -the American citizen? It means an expenditure of your taxes amounting to $5 billion a year: in total over $82 billion since Israel was established. Additionally, it means that a good amount of these monies went to build illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands, in flagrant disregard to US objections and in blatant violation of international law. Moreover, it means that some of these monies will go to professional public relations firms that keep repeating that “all Palestinians are terrorists” until you actually believe it. And there is more. Israel offers its citizens free health care, free education and a standard of living that beats that in most US cities. All this and more is made possible by your tax money.
In his farewell address in 1793, George Washington said, “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence - I conjure you to believe me, fellow- citizens - the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake; since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” With regard to Israel, his words could not have been more accurate.
Most Americans do not recognize the similarities between the Palestinian struggle and their own principles of freedom and independence, because Israel (with your taxes) makes sure that you do not hear the other side. Worse yet, the pictures of innocent Israelis killed have overwhelmed and moved you—as they should—but you have yet to ask why no cameras have been allowed in the Jenin refugee camp to photograph the mass killing of Palestinian civilians by the State of Israel. A sad but true fact is that American society, the most developed in the world, has forced upon you to view the Palestinian struggle, and many others too, in the same manner that you purchase your toothpaste…the side that spends more advertising dollars wins.
Palestinians will eventually end the Israeli occupation, maybe sooner, maybe later. But Israeli colonialism will fail no matter how many US armaments, UN vetoes and US funds are made available to it. Colonialism always fails. And as we struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, we urge you to end the Israeli occupation of Congress. The American people deserve better leadership.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American living in the besieged Palestinian City of Al-Bireh/Ramallah in the West Bank.