George S. Hishmeh
Gulf News (Opinion)
August 19, 2009 - 12:00am

Fatah’s historic Congress, held in Bethlehem earlier this month, has generated widespread optimism in the region due to the ouster of the old guard which paid the price for tolerating the cruel status quo and its ineffectiveness since signing the inconclusive peace accord with Israel in 1993.

What was sorely missing from the exchanges at the Congress, and subsequently the media coverage thereof, was any mention of the consequences of Israel’s harsh policies.

Mazen Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian professor of biology at Bethlehem University, wrote in his blog ( about the failure of the Congress to expose the miserable conditions endured by Palestinians. He pointed out that “the Bethlehem district lost more than 85 per cent of its land to the Israeli [colonies] and the apartheid wall that snakes around us and captures most of the good natural resources, the agricultural lands, the water and more”.

The professor, who previously served on the faculties of the University of Tennessee, as well as Duke and Yale, added that “more than half of the residents in this shrinking ghetto of Bethlehem are refugees or displaced people [and] nearly 35,000 are refugees from the original frenzy of ethnic cleansing that happened between 1947-1949 and their descendants”.

“Another 30,000,” he underlined, “represent displaced people who moved into the remaining shrinking enclave when their lands were stolen by [colonists] since 1967 or are the security and other Palestine Liberation Organisation people that came to Palestine after the Oslo accords.” Unemployment, he noted, has hit 30 per cent.

For 10 days, all eyes were understandably focused on the Fatah Congress, which was being held for the first time in 20 years. But the disregard of the surrounding situation there was unpardonable — and I dare say typical of many reporters, who neglect to take Israel to task for its condemnable actions.

I was struck by Qumsiyeh’s comment when I read in The New York Times two columns by Thomas L. Friedman, probably the most prominent and influential American columnist, who previously served as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. He wrote two columns from Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian National Authority, where he found “some good cheer” in the praise-worthy efforts of its Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in building “quality institutions”.

He stressed: “Something quite new is happening here. And given he centrality of the Palestinian cause in Arab eyes, if Fayyadism works, maybe it could start a trend in this part of the world — one that would do the most to improve Arab human security good, accountable government”.

Devoid of criticism

But his columns, published on August 5 and 9, were void of any criticism of Israeli policies. Hopefully he was a little more outspoken during his lecture, which the Israeli daily Haaretz said he gave “to a number of members of the Israeli Defence Force’s General Staff ... about his impressions of his recent visits to Arab countries”.

Anything that may be interpreted as criticism of Israel comes at a high price, especially for American Jews, as has especially been the case with Rahm Emmanuel, the chief of staff at the White House. A writer for, a popular political website, reported that “Israelis across the political spectrum were sceptical of [US President Barack] Obama’s commitment to the Jewish homeland during the presidential campaign but many viewed Emmanuel as a guarantor of their interests, the best hope for continuing the US govenment’s favourable treatment of the Jewish state. Today, however, widespread unhappiness with their treatment at the hands of the Obama administration has led to feelings of betrayal and Emanuel is bearing the brunt of it”. Indeed, the chief of staff has been described as a ‘self-hating Jew’ and, worse, a ‘Kapo Jew’ — the name for Jewish police officers in Nazi concentration camps.

Undoubtedly, criticism of Israeli policies is increasing in the US — even within some liberal segments of the American Jewish community. The interview that Fareed Zakaria, the Indian-American CNN anchorman and editor of Newsweek International, had with the new Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren continued this trend. Zakaria had sharp exchanges with the evasive ambassador on many sordid issues, ranging from Occupied Jerusalem to ethnic cleansing, and ended his interview with the pointed remark to the ambassador: “I am sure you are taking notes, because you are also a great historian. And one day you will tell us what you [were] really think[ing] when you were sitting right here.”

It is about time that we all speak openly and freely. Certainly, I would hope that Obama will do so when he delivers his much-anticipated statement on the Middle East at the opening session of the UN General Assembly next month.


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