True Palestinian reconciliation must include refugees

By ensuring that the diaspora’s rights are fully represented in the Palestinian liberation struggle, Palestinians can draw upon the combined financial and human resources of that worldwide community to finally shed the manacles of Oslo.

By Samer Badawi

Last week’s unexpected détente between the would-be “governments” of Fatah and Hamas raises more questions than it answers. What exactly is a government of technocrats, and who best to christen their political agnosticism? And so what if Hamas has accepted the terms of the Oslo accords? Can common cause lead to a unified command structure, encompassing, for example, Gaza’s Izz a-Din al-Qassam brigades?

The questions are as numerous as the pundits attempting to answer them. But beyond the din of discourse, every Palestinian must reckon with the reality that nothing about these questions is ultimately impersonal. Unlike John Kerry, Palestinians can no sooner enjoy a “holding period” than wish away the daily violence visited upon the innocents of their outsized struggle.

For those of us who are the children of Palestinian refugees, our yearning for a just peace grows each day our parents are denied the right to access their homeland. With more years lived than left, they are the true gauge of progress toward reconciliation — or its absence. That, I think, is why last week’s news immediately prompted in me a memory of my father.

It was the first time I had seen him cry. We were sitting over a brass-rimmed tasse of sage-infused tea, darkly steeped and steaming still. This was September 1993, and my father’s voice — once so resonant to my siblings and me — was chafed by a specific sorrow. This was not the melancholy I had come to know in him, the daily sparring of the middle-aged man, jabbing at the penumbra of what might have been.

No, something all-too-real was gnawing at him, and as an eldest Arab son, I braced myself for the worst. When he finally spoke, he seemed husked of that toughness fathers so often feign for their sons.

“I still remember their eyes,” he said, tea now tepid. “I remember how young they were, how naïve.”

These, it turned out, were comrades from the early days of the Palestine Liberation Organization, men and women whose nationalist struggle inspired — and drew inspiration from — similar movements from Latin America to East Asia.

My father, himself a nonviolent man, was mourning what many viewed as their bartered sacrifice at the hands of Yasser Arafat, whose deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, had just signed the Oslo accords.

He was right to mourn. Two decades on, the piecemeal process they set in motion — a process the late Edward Said called the Palestinians’ Versailles — has carved the land my father still remembers into islets of dependence.

In the West Bank, Abbas — now saddled and tilting atop the Palestinian Authority — has assembled a massive public sector wholly reliant upon foreign aid while enabling a private sector dominated by oligarchs. Their combined wealth, though not publicly disclosed, could easily outstrip that of the more than 4 million Palestinians in the occupied territories.

And in Gaza, of course, 1.7 million of that population — the majority of whom are still counted refugees from Israel’s creation — are trapped within a strip of land 25 miles long and eight miles at its girth. Overseeing this penury is another “authority” — this  one run by Hamas — complete with ministries and a “border control” reception area.

That the self-proclaimed leaders of these territories have reportedly reconciled means as little to the millions of their people who remain occupied as it does to my father, a Palestinian refugee recently forced into yet another exile — this time from Damascus.

Like the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Arab world — and the hundreds of thousands more who reside throughout the globe — my father represents the critical mass of Palestine’s diaspora. Without it, the present reconciliation is merely a factional one, not a Palestinian one.

Indeed, just as no sustainable peace was possible without the people of Gaza, who represent one-third of the occupied territories’ population, lasting reconciliation cannot be forged without the support of Palestine’s refugees and their descendants.

This is not obstinate sloganeering. Neither is it a hindrance to negotiated peace. Instead, by ensuring that the diaspora’s rights are fully represented in the Palestinian liberation struggle — one outcome, presumably, of planned PLO elections under the Abbas-Hamas deal — Palestinians can draw upon the combined financial and human resources of that worldwide community to finally shed the manacles of Oslo.

What Palestinians need most now is a leadership that can articulate a unified vision for achieving freedom and justice — not stopgap measures that maintain the status quo. Getting there will take an institutional framework that can accommodate all voices, including those in the diaspora.

My father may be too old to participate in that conversation. But righting the wrongs endured by his generation, including the displacement of more than three-quarters of Palestine’s population in 1948, must remain central to any attempt at reconciliation — both among Palestinians and between the peoples of the Holy Land.

Samer Badawi is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. He is the former DC correspondent for Middle East International.

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