Sterile debates about the future do not help the Palestinians. What they need is help in stopping – and publicising – the frequent violations of their human rights.
Focus on Palestinians’ rights to get Americans engaged
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators are meeting in the latest chapter of the decades-long saga of on-again, off-again peace talks. With no leaks, and even less optimism, there is only speculation about how the talks are going or whether any agreement is even possible.
Here in the US, supporters of the Palestinians are engaged in a sometimes heated but rather pointless debate as to what the “deal” should include or whether no deal is the best outcome – since that result, some say, would lead inevitably to a one-state solution.
However, that entire discussion is unedifying, a waste of energy and an evasion of responsibility.
I do not mean that the outcome doesn’t matter. But everyone should acknowledge that the ultimate resolution of the conflict will not depend on that debate. Instead of exhausting ourselves arguing about what we can’t control, we should be focused on what we can do – shine a light on the daily injustices visited upon Palestinians, and mobilise support for those whose human rights are being abused.
There are human rights groups in Israel and Palestine that are engaged in this effort. They are documenting cases of land confiscation and home demolitions; cases of prisoners held without charges or trial; instances where vigilante gangs of settlers have desecrated mosques, cut down olive trees and beaten or killed Palestinian youngsters; and recording incidents in which the military has used collective punishment or excessive force or humiliated Palestinian civilians.
The victims of these illegal and immoral actions deserve our attention. Their cases should be taken up. Their names need to be known. They should be supported until the injustice ends.
In 1977 I and others formed the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC). Because no then-existing human rights group would adopt Palestinian cases, we took it upon ourselves to look into individual cases of Palestinians who had been tortured, had had their homes demolished, had been detained for prolonged periods without charges or who had been expelled from their homeland.
Back then, in the US discussion about the conflict Israelis were understood to be full human beings, but Palestinians were not known. Americans knew Israelis as real people who had hopes and fears. Palestinians, on the other hand, were an abstraction with whom few Americans could identify.
And so Palestinians were presented either in negative stereotypes, or merely as a problem to be solved. We hoped to remedy this by putting a human face on the Palestinian people.
Many of the Arab-American and Palestine support groups that existed back then were engaged, as many are now, in endless arguments about issues over which they had no control: which “political line” was the most correct or what should be the form of governance for the future Palestinian state.
And back then, much of the American liberal left was largely silent on Palestinian issues. Those who were engaged focused their efforts on setting up “dialogues” in the hope of promoting reconciliation between Arabs and Jews.
When the PHRC came into existence, we were denounced by both groups. On the one hand we were told that we had “sold out” because we ignored ideological debates and weren’t “pure” enough. But the peace groups kept us at arms-length, too, saying that by challenging Israel’s behaviour we made Jewish groups uncomfortable, thereby frustrating the effort to create a “no fault” dialogue.
After 36 years, the situation is much the same today.
The debate over one or two states rages in some quarters, while liberals who by now have embraced the notion of a two-state solution continue to shy away from any controversy and refuse to address Palestinian human rights.
The former effort is wasted time and energy. The latter is an abdication of morality. Meanwhile Palestinians remain unknown in the US, and their rights are still being violated.
As long as Palestinians are not known, discourse about the issue in the US will remain hopelessly one-sided. When Israeli humanity is presented as confronting the Palestinian “problem” you can guess who wins. If Americans can’t see or identify with the Palestinians who lost their homes and lands, who were humiliated in front of their children at checkpoints, or who were abused and denied basic rights as prisoners, then all they will care about is how to ensure security for Israelis.
To correct this situation, what is required is an embrace of justice and human rights, or as one of my early mentors, Dr Israel Shahak (founder of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights), put it, “to fight for equal rights for every human being”.
Whether there will be one state or two states will be decided, if it even can be, by the negotiators. But meanwhile, what of the victims? Who will speak for them? Who will give those who suffer the hope that their cries for justice will be heard? And who will inform the US public that it is not only Israeli humanity that is threatened by the absence of peace? In fact, Palestinians have paid, and continue to pay, an enormous price.
Recognition of this reality is a key ingredient in the search for a just peace, because only when Palestinians are known and their rights are fully recognised will the US feel the need to press for a balanced peace that recognises the rights and needs of all.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa