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Palestinian-Americans take to streets

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Hundreds in Hartford, Conn., thousands in Washington, tens of thousands in New York.

Palestinian-Americans have been taking to the streets in record numbers to protest what they see as Israel’s most recent excessive use of force against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But there is a subtext to this new movement. It resonates among them like the low buzz from a distant beehive: al-awda, Arabic for “The Return.”

Palestinians once more are calling for full equality and justice, including the right to go home -- not just home to the West Bank and Gaza, but home to Israel itself. Israelis say those demands could change everything in the efforts to achieve peace.

“I have never seen, in the United States and worldwide, such a heavy concentration of Palestinian activism in such a short period of time,” said longtime Palestinian activist Elias Rashmawi of Davis, Calif.

When several thousand Muslims turned out Oct. 28 in Washington to protest the killing of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, The Washington Post reported, “The rally, one of the largest in the United States since the Middle East peace process disintegrated, was organized in less than two weeks, an unusually short time, organizers said.”

Though efforts to end the violence continue, renewed fighting in their homeland in recent weeks has galvanized Palestinians in diaspora, bridging deep rifts that developed as a result of both the Gulf War and the Oslo accords. The vague 1993 document was named for the capital of Norway, where it was secretly hammered out between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators.

Though Oslo established the framework for the now-faltered peace talks, Palestinians now say the 1993 document’s impediments to their right to return home and to receive restitution were never fully understood.

“When Oslo was signed and people still did not know the contents, I would say people in our community in the U.S. were 2-to-1 in support. Now it’s the other way around, and I’m being generous by saying that,” noted Khalil Jahshan, a Palestinian from Nazareth, who is vice president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington.

Rashmawi helps stage a protest every Friday in downtown Sacramento, Calif., that has drawn, in some weeks, as many as 300 demonstrators -- secularists standing shoulder to shoulder with Muslims and Christian Palestinians.

Rashmawi, who supports establishment of a democratic Palestinian state, said, “The awakening of today is really coming to correct the errors and confusions we talked about seven or eight years ago.”

In Connecticut, self-professed “cyber-activist” Mazin Qumsiyeh chairs the media committee of the Palestine Right to Return Coalition whose prolific e-group’s messages are exchanged among some 1,500 recipients. “People got dispirited and didn’t do very much in the ’90s, but this is changing,” he said, noting that an estimated 20,000 people turned out to rally for Palestinian rights in New York Oct. 13, and hundreds converged on Washington in September for a march supporting the Palestinians’ right to return. “These demonstrations show that there is quite a bit of renewed interest in politics among diaspora Palestinians,” Qumsiyeh said.

Of about 8 million Palestinians worldwide, about half of them, 4.4 million, are in diaspora. The first wave of refugees fled their homes in 1948 when the war broke out after the United Nations created the state of Israel by partitioning Palestine. The second wave was the result of the Six Day War of 1967, in which Israel occupied adjacent territories, including Gaza and the West Bank.

Columbia University Prof. Edward Said, a Palestinian and an outspoken critic of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Oslo accords, writes in the Oct. 30 issue of The Nation, “An alternative peace plan and leadership is slowly emerging among leading Israeli, West Bank, Gaza and diaspora Palestinians, a thousand of whom have signed a set of declarations that have great popular support: no to the Oslo framework; no compromise on the original U.N. Resolutions (242, 338 and 194), removal of all settlements and military roads; evacuation of all territories annexed or occupied in 1967; boycott of Israeli goods and services. A new sense may actually be dawning that only a mass movement against Israeli apartheid … will work.”

U.N. Resolution 194, adopted in 1948, calls for the return or compensation for all Palestinian refugees. It is the basis of a petition circulated in print and in Internet versions by the non-profit Council on Palestinian Restitution and Reparation in Washington. That group said more than 81,000 people have signed a short document that states, in part, that “every Palestinian has a legitimate, individual right to return to his or her original home and to absolute restitution of his or her property.”

An Israeli source in Washington said that position is impossible for Israel to accept. “A lot of the refugee groups are very opposed to compromise. But no one who seriously deals with the Middle East peace process really believes there can be a wholesale return of refugees because it would eradicate Israeli society.” The intake of millions of Palestinian refugees “who don’t exactly like us” would create another Bosnia or Kosovo, the source said. “It would be for us to agree to put our head on the chopping block.”

Under Oslo, the emotional issue of refugees was among several difficult hurdles that, because of their explosive potential to derail the talks, were left for the end of the peace process. Last summer, during ill-fated negotiations at Camp David, Palestinians and Israelis did tackle the refugee question. Israel would go only this far: some Palestinian refugees would be permitted to settle in a Palestinian state, but, with the exception of a minimal number allowed in under “family reunification,” no Palestinians would be allowed to return to Israel proper. Israel would not agree to culpability for the plight of the refugees or to return of refugees to Israel.

With emotions running high on all sides, it’s difficult to predict the starting point for any future negotiations. Violence within Israel over the past month already has caused many Israelis to rethink the family reunification offer, the Israeli source said.

Nor can Israel ignore statements like the one last summer, issued by refugees housed in the camps of south Palestine around Hebron and Gaza. It reminded Palestinian negotiators at Camp David of their U.N.-endorsed right to return to their homes, not in the West Bank and Gaza, but to Haifa and Akko in what is now Israel. “Our olive trees and oranges await us,” the statement read in part. “We will not accept anything less, no matter who signs the next of the infinite agreements.”

Phillip Mattar, executive director of the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington, does not dispute that there is a new consensus emerging among diaspora Palestinians. “The majority of Palestinian and Arab intellectuals seem to have sided with [Edward] Said,” Mattar said, “but I must say, with all due respect, they really don’t matter very much with Arafat. He doesn’t listen to them. What really matters are the people on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza.”

But many young activists don’t make such distinctions. Mary Nazzal, a 21-year-old Palestinian studying in the United States, said, “I speak to my close friends in the West Bank every day, and they respond very positively when I speak of the activities we have organized here. It is very important for the Palestinian people, who have been dispersed all over the world, to remain united.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2000