Mamilla cemetery, located just inside West Jerusalem, contains the remains of several prominent Islamic leaders, including those who fought alongside Saladin to retake Jerusalem from the Crusaders. It is visited also by the descendants of the less illustrious, like Mohammed al-Dejani, whose great-grandfather is buried there. The Israeli Supreme Court has, however, has approved the move to bulldoze it and construct a $250 million complex to be built upon those graves by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. The gigantic complex designed by Frank Gehry is, according to the Rabbi Marvin Hier from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, to be built on derelict land. And what will it house? Well, obviously, the Museum of Tolerance.
It is an irony that exemplifies the conundrum that faces President Barack Obama this week. In the months after assuming office, in the speech in Cairo that we imagined signaled his position on Palestine, the President said, "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own." On September 23, 2010 addressing the UN, the President called for the creation of a Palestinian State, an event he felt was possible in the course of a year. That year ends this Friday when Mahmoud Abbas takes his plea for statehood to the United Nations and Barack Obama goes to bat for America and for Israel, veto in hand. Perhaps the fault lies not in the faith that we placed in those two speeches but in the stone-faced response that the President-elect presented on the day before his inauguration when during the 'We Are One' celebration, Bono, that modern-day champion of desperate causes looked directly at Barack Obama and said these words: "(your election is) not just an American dream but also an Irish dream, a European dream, an African dream, an Israeli dream and also a Palestinian dream."
Why now? reasonable people ask. Barack Obama himself referred to President Abbas’ effort as a “short cut,” during his address to the UN Wednesday. Perhaps the American president has forgotten his history. The people of Palestine have undergone centuries of external pressure if not always occupation - from the Israelite, the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Iraqi, Egyptian, Turkish and British forces - and when push came to shove, the Palestinian voice has been repeatedly silenced. Nobody asked them for their thoughts when Theodor Hertzl advocated for a Jewish State with his publication, The Jewish State, and nobody asked them for an opinion when the World Zionist Organization was set up in Switzerland in 1897 or the Jewish National Fund was set up in 1901 to help in the creation of Israel. They were absent from the room when the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed in 1916, dividing the Arab countries between toady's on-the-fence members of the Security Council, Britain and France. The Balfour Declaration was made without in-put from the Palestinians.
When Lord Peel released his report in 1937, the silenced Palestinians were expected to go along with his recommendation that 33% of the best land available should go toward the Jewish State and the rest for Palestinian Arabs and that the latter should also be "forcibly transferred" from what are euphemistically termed "the Jewish sections." In that same year when the Arab Higher Committee rejected these recommendation and called for an independent Palestine with protection for the rights of all, Britain dismantled the Committee and all Palestinian political organizations thereby silencing them altogether. In 1942, the Biltmore Conference for Zionist leaders convened in NY calling for making Palestine a Jewish Homeland and no, they did not invite the Palestinians to the discussion. Indeed, as far back as 1947, the UN only calls for 43% of their own land for Palestine and 56.5% of Palestine for a Jewish state.
Rhetorical Question: How many Americans would tolerate over a century of systematic occupation, suffer the silencing of their voices, ignore the dismantling of their political institutions and then take it lying down when a motley gang of third parties hand over the more desirable parts of their land to, say, the Burmese Buddhists? Today, the Palestinians do not occupy even a quarter of their own country.
Those who would like to discredit this latest Palestinian effort will bring up terrorism. In fact, by the time that the Palestinian political movement got under way in 1935, Haganah billed as a Jewish neighborhood watch but actually a group of militants who supported illegal immigration and the building of settlements in new areas, had already been operating for fourteen years! And Britain's White Paper on terrorism in 1946 made no mention of any Palestinian terrorist organizations yet names the two extremist Jewish organizations, Haganah and Irgun. In July 22, of 1946, it is Irgun that blew up the King David Hotel, killing 91 people including British, Palestinian and Jewish employees. How easy it has been to forget the origins of terrorism in that part of the world.
By 1948, America had joined forces with the Zionists, with Truman's pledge to Chaim Weizman to support the declaration of the Jewish State on May 15. By April the US had begun its unceasing and unconditional shipments of arms to Jewish organizations. By May there were almost 200,000 Palestinian refugees, the battles that will involve Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptians commenced, and over the next several years we were treated to the Israeli massacres in Gaza, Qalqilya, Kafr Qaasim, Khan Yunis, As-Sammu', arson attacks on the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the diversion of the Jordan river. In 1963 the PLO constitution was drafted at a summit of Arab states in Cairo, although it took another 11 years for the UN and the Arab League to recognize the PLO as the sole representative of the people of Palestine. In 1967 the work of the Zionists was done with the complete occupation of the rest of Palestine.
Whatever escalations have taken place on the part of the Palestinians must be seen against this historical background. It has been 36 years since the UN adopted General Assembly Resolution 3379 condemning Zionism as a form of racism. It has been 30 since UN Resolution 36/226 was passed declaring opposition to the Israeli policy of settlement in Palestine. It has been 18 years since three leaders, Presidents Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Arafat began discussions that could have lead to the cessation of hostilities and a modicum of redress for the people of Palestine. It has been 16 years since President Rabin was assassinated by one of his own people. For the record, the PLO agreed to the conditions negotiated by President Clinton pending clarifications. With Sharon's visit to Al-Aqsa mosque and his election, that agreement was called off by both sides. It was Sharon, after all, who was responsible for the massacre of more than 800 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut in 1982. An act which prompted his resignation as minister of Defense after an Israeli commission held him responsible. And it was Sharon who re-ignited the flames of hatred in Israel during a fragile moment when the prospect for peace had come into an albeit distant view.
Israel has a right to exist. Not because there is agreement that the foundation of that nation was right, but because time moves forward, not backwards. Unless we are thinking about returning all the national treasures plundered by the British Commonwealth from all the countries it colonized, unless we are talking about taking the influence of France out of the continent of Africa, unless we are discussing the return to pride of place for the Native Americans in the United States, and reparations to the families of Africans brought to the United States as slaves, unless we are at the table to discuss all these and more.......we cannot talk about an absence of the nation of Israel. What has been done, has been done. The task at hand is figuring out how close we can come to rectifying the injustices that have been perpetrated against the people of Palestine. How compensate them for the loss of land, homes, livelihood and children? And how to accomplish all this while allowing Israelis the safe conduct of their own lives.
Contrary to popular belief here in America, "the world" made no agreements with the Arab nations. Astonishing as it might seem, a collection of short-sighted officials from the United States, Britain and France, do not constitute the world. This moment is about Palestine and Israel. There are no "rebels" here. There are people who have been crushed by superior force and who must now figure out how to live beside and despite that force. This moment is about the inalienable right of the people of Palestine to self-determination, to freedom, and the re-establishment of normalcy to the lives of their children, within the context of reconstruction and reconciliation with a powerful, powerfully supported and certainly well-armed neighbor. This moment is also about laying the groundwork for allaying the fears of Israelis.
37 years ago, another Palestinian leader stood before the United Nations and stated the circumstances under which Palestinians were living and asserted the rights of the people whom he represented. That man, Yasser Arafat,who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Peace along with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, is not recorded as having threatened anybody with cryptonite, cyanide capsules or suicide bombers. On Friday, another Palestinian leader, President Mahmoud Abbas will ask that, in the face of repeated failure to get any agreement from Israel for the basis of talks, and the failure of the Quartet to come up with a plan that is acceptable to all sides, the only non-violent move left to his people is to go the United Nations and ask that his country be recognized. 193 people who represent the world come to vote on a matter that has blighted history for more than a century. Barack Obama has the opportunity to be a one-term president who, nonetheless, gave his all for peace. Or, he can be a two-term president who pissed away his one chance at it for the sake of domestic policies that are inextricably bound to the foreign policy of an ally he has never controlled.
Yes, America has a seat on the Security Council and yes, the US Congress has threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority and to any UN agency that treats Palestine as a state with voting privileges in that agency. It sounds frightening, but only when we fail to consider the numbers. Out of a world population of 6,830,586,985, the three permanent members of the Security Council who have either indicated that they would use their veto against Palestine (US) or have not yet declared what their vote will be at that level (France and the UK), represent 469,467,118 people. That leaves us with roughly 6,361,119,867 people represented by the member countries (including the Russian Federation and China), who, to a greater or lesser extent, support the recognition of Palestine. The numbers, then, are on the side of Palestine.
In 2009, a small island nation called Sri Lanka told the United States where it could put its money and its rhetoric, ended thirty years of war and now, in a state of peace, and with the aid of China, enjoys a thriving economy. Palestine, too, has friends in other places. It can and will do the same. It will achieve statehood and, in time, peace with Israel. And people around the world will no longer care who wins the American presidential elections.