Abandoned by governments, Palestinians rely on the kindness of strangers | Nesrine Malik

There was a time when support for the Palestinian cause was fed to Arabs with their mothers’ milk. I am of a generation that grew up in the shadow of the Camp David agreement and the assassination of the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, for what was seen as a betrayal of the Palestinians. Until Camp David in 1978, Egypt had been Palestine’s main ally and the strongest military power in the region after Israel. The peace treaty returned Sinai to Egypt in exchange for recognition of Israel. With that normalisation, Egypt closed the door to any sort of Arab military assistance to the Palestinians for ever.

We inherited that era’s bitter disappointment. Palestine had been such an integral part of Arab identity for so long that it came to be known as “the case” or “the file” – an urgent unresolved issue at the heart of our world. After the Camp David agreement, “the case” went from being a rousing call for solidarity to something more melancholy and scattered.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iranian revolution motivated Arab and Gulf governments to ingratiate themselves with the US, and that wouldn’t work if Israel remained their public enemy number one. So even the lip service paid to the Palestinian cause in the period immediately after Camp David fell away, and the Palestinians were slowly rubbed out of the public consciousness from the 1990s onwards.

Poems about Palestine stopped appearing in our Arabic-language textbooks and in the media. The Lebanese singer Fairuz once sang, “The striking anger is coming and I am full of faith”, in a popular song about the return of the Palestinians driven out of Jerusalem. But her chant was no longer on the airwaves. The Arab world’s most celebrated poet, Nizar Qabbani, wrote, “The migrant pigeons will return/ To your sacred roofs/ And your children will play again”, again about Jerusalem. But they did not.

Eventually, the cause became something governments didn’t even feel the need to namecheck any more. The idea that was subtly passed down, via erasure and silence, was that any active support for the Palestinians was naive, a hangover from the past, or part and parcel of an extremist religious agenda. By the time Donald Trump announced he was moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Al Jazeera noted the muted response from Arab governments and asked, “Why would Arabs not forget the Palestinian cause, now that they have themselves a thousand causes?” By withdrawing even their moral backing of the Palestinians, weak despotic regimes across the region helped make the cause seem a fringe issue, something only romantics and radicals held on to.

This same suspicion hangs over support for Palestine in the west. And with that suspicion comes an accusation – that there is an unreasonable fixation with the issue. A question hovers over solidarity with Palestine – why focus on this crisis when there are so many others around the world that demand the same, if not more, outrage? What about the Uyghurs in China or the Rohingya in Myanmar? The answer to that question is that western politicians may be doing too little in Myanmar or China, but they are certainly doing enough to acknowledge that human rights abuses are taking place. British MPs declared a genocide in China. Myanmar is under sanctions. Even the west’s other coddled ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, is coming under censure, with Joe Biden suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia earlier this year. Meanwhile, the UN security council failed to pass even a statement condemning Israel’s military response in Gaza and calling for a ceasefire.

The view that Palestine attracts a disproportionate degree of moral outrage fails to account for the fact that so little of that outrage comes from the places that count – the ranks of government ministers, political elites and the mass media. And because that advocacy is only allowed to thrive outside the respectable mainstream, it is easier then to frame it as disreputable, as a sinister singling out of Israel, or special pleading for a not-so-special cause.

But the stubborn reality is that the Palestinians are special. They have, unlike most other oppressed peoples, been denied the language of legitimacy. The facts of their occupation, their resistance and the apartheid they are subjected to have been annulled or made ambiguous. The Palestinian cause has been rendered dubious through a kind of reversal of roles in the narration of the conflict. The victims became the aggressors. The Palestinians were abandoned to their fate, and then framed for it.

Palestinians were held responsible for the crimes of individual terrorists and punished for the retaliations of Hamas. There was no defensive action they could legitimately take, whether in response to eviction from their homes or attacks on civilians. A well rehearsed line, slickly delivered by credible politicians, defined the situation – Israel had the right to defend itself. What kind of person doesn’t support the right of Israel, or indeed, any country, to defend itself? Perhaps someone with terrorist sympathies, perhaps someone who is antisemitic, perhaps someone who is a crank conspiracist who collects lost causes and has no grasp of international law or the region’s history.

But something is changing. That negative profile of the unsavoury Palestine supporter is being challenged. The latest assault on Gaza, met once again with the same robotic excuses for Israel’s actions, seems to have shifted the balance. The geopolitics may be the same, but the ability of governments to maintain a monopoly on explaining what is happening on the ground in Israel and Palestine is weakening. Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of human rights group B’Tselem, spoke directly to those who might now be questioning the official line. “Believe your eyes. Follow your conscience. The reason that it looks like apartheid is simply because it is apartheid.”

More and more people are believing their eyes. The individuals who support the Palestinians are growing in number and confidence, shaking off the “fringe activist” stereotype. Social media and the rise of an anti-establishment protest movement last summer are bringing in the Palestinian cause from the cold. Its advocates are beginning to find each other, to share information and footage, to draw legitimacy for the cause with every new connection. They are not terrorist sympathisers, antisemites or radicals, though any mass mobilisation will inevitably attract its share of cranks and thugs, who should be vigorously called out. They should not be allowed to taint a growing movement of foster carers for the cause, those who see a gross injustice visited on the Palestinians every day, and see no pledge or promise from their leaders that anything will be done about it. People are showing up for Palestine not because their politics are dodgy or their characters questionable, but because governments across the Arab and western worlds have left them with no other choice.

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