Palestinians should not renounce their history

Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), is due to meet President Barack Obama in the White House on March 17 to discuss the US-driven Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Although the possibility of settling this seemingly intractable conflict should be a cause for joy, many Palestinians are alarmed by what has been revealed about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s so-called Framework Agreement.

These Palestinian voices are crucial to any lasting settlement between the Palestinians and Israel, and it is imperative that they be heard and understood.

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We are two such voices, direct descendants of Palestinians who have been forcibly excluded from their homeland for decades. One is the grandson of Palestinian refugees who were expelled from Jerusalem and Haifa in 1948, and the other is the grandson of Palestinians who left their land to search for work following the economic downturn precipitated by the Nakba (or catastrophe, as the Palestinians term our forced expulsion when Israel was created) and who were unable to return when Israel completed its occupation of Palestinian lands in 1967. We grew up listening to our grandparents’ detailed reminiscences about their birthplace and to our parents’ stories of activism against their prolonged dispossession. We have inherited their struggle.

Alongside many other Palestinians in both the occupied territories and in the Diaspora, we see the U.S. Framework Agreement as a direct threat to our national interests – indeed, to our universally recognized rights.

Foremost amongst these threats is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most recent demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state (the PLO already recognized Israel in 1993.) This harms Palestinians in three ways. First, it condemns the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are already discriminated against by over 50 Israeli laws (see Adalah’s excellent “discriminatory law database”), to a continued denial of their rights and of their place in their homeland. Second, it means that Palestinian refugees must surrender their right of return so that Israel can maintain a Jewish majority.

And, third, it threatens the core of Palestinian identity: For Palestinians to recognize Israel as the rightful land of the Jewish people they must renounce their own history. They must denounce their grandparents and their ancestors as mere passers-through who could never have really owned or belonged to the land of their birth. This is not only a question of narrative; it also has real and tangible implications with respect to current and future Palestinian rights.

According to other news leaks about the Framework Agreement, Israel insists on maintaining a military presence in the Jordan Valley and control of all Palestinian international boundaries for an undetermined period of time. In other words, the proposed Palestinian state will have no sovereignty.

As for the suggested land swaps beyond the 1967 ceasefire line, they transgress the rules of international law, which forbids the settlement of occupied territories by civilians of the occupying power. Not only does this legitimize Israel’s colonialism, it also allows Israel to deprive Palestinians of major resource-rich areas of the West Bank, undermining the economic viability and independence of the proposed Palestinian state. 

Are Palestinians willing to pay such a price for peace – a “peace” that will entrench Israeli control over what is left of historic Palestine? America’s exclusive dealing with the Abbas-led PLO and Palestinian Authority (PA) gives us no way to find out. The U.S. and Israel have elevated to the position of “leadership” a political and economic elite with little popular support or authority beyond the pockets of control it has been allowed to establish inside the West Bank. Not only is Gaza clearly beyond their authority, but so too is the entire Diaspora.

In efforts to counter mounting criticism, Abbas pledged in a speech he gave to young Fatah cadres this past weekend that no agreement would be signed without some sort of public referendum. This does little, however, to reassure Palestinians. The fact that the Palestinian people is spread across the globe, often living in conditions of extreme isolation and difficulty, makes it far easier to talk of a referendum than it is to implement a truly representative and inclusive process. Furthermore, the right of return is both a collective aspiration of the Palestinian people and an individual right of every refugee and their descendants. Any process of public participation will, therefore, need to be able to accommodate both.

We and other Palestinians in the Diaspora are mobilizing to raise awareness of the pitfalls of the Framework Agreement. We call on the Palestinian negotiators and their American mediators to listen to the voices of Palestinians, both in exile and inside the homeland. Any agreement that does not satisfy those voices will fail to meet its objectives of achieving a lasting peace. Instead, it will ensure that millions of disenfranchised Palestinians remain committed in their struggle to pursue a settlement that will bring dignity and justice.

Baconi and Sammour are policy members of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.