Khalaf Al Habtoor
Gulf News (Opinion)
June 21, 2011 - 12:00am

Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion tried to reassure Israelis that Palestinians would never return to their homes. "We must do everything to ensure they never do return… The old will die and the young will forget," he said. He was wrong; the word ‘forget' isn't in the Palestinians' lexicon. For 63 long years, they've borne hardships, suffered humiliation and fought for freedom with nothing but stones and bare hands. But, sadly, they not only face a cruel adversary, their own leaders have let them down.

The late Yasser Arafat had his faults, but he genuinely loved his people. He did his utmost to forge the ‘Peace of the Brave' with Yitzhak Rabin, however, when George W. Bush came to power Arafat was treated like a pariah by the US while Israel kept him prisoner in his Ramallah compound.

Arafat wasn't successful because he refused to throw away the future of Palestinian children. Nevertheless, he earned his people's loyalty and spoke for all. The same cannot be said of those who came after him. Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have put too much faith in the US intermediary and have lost currency with the voting public. And, judging by ‘The Palestinian Papers' leaked by Al Jazeera, they were willing to accept any crumbs and sell out the refugees' right of return. Moreover, under pressure from the Obama White House, they shamefully ‘stonewalled' a UN Human Rights Resolution supporting the Goldstone Report on war crimes committed in Gaza.

Hamas has little credibility to negotiate peace either. It is funded by Iran and has been classed as a terrorist organisation by the US, the EU and others; the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said there will be no peace negotiations with any Palestinian National Authority that includes Hamas.

Practical option

So where do the Palestinians go from here? Firstly, Fatah and Hamas must put their people before politics and admit failure. There is no time to waste as long as Israel continues expanding Jewish colonies and ousting Palestinians from occupied east Jerusalem. The 22 per cent of their homeland that Palestinians were due to receive under the Oslo Accords is shrinking year on year and soon a two-state solution will no longer be viable.

To this impasse I would suggest a practical option: The current Palestinian government should agree to acting as a caretaker authority charged with the day-to-day running of the territories and work with prominent Palestinians around the world to appoint a committee responsible for negotiating peace. This would be made up of respected Palestinian individuals chosen on the basis of their loyalty and reputations rather than on their bank accounts or crony connections; every potential member should be security vetted and have a proven record of success.

Included in such committee with the irrevocable power to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians could be a representative of the GCC. To kick-start the process, the PNA could organise a conference — under the GCC's umbrella, if desired — to which eligible candidates would be invited. To give appointees legitimacy, a referendum could be held on the West Bank and Gaza as well as in the diaspora under the auspices of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) with which all Palestinian refugees are registered. With committed backing from the GCC, the committee would have far more international clout than the PNA.

No compromise

Negotiations should be based on 1967 borders with occupied east Jerusalem as Palestine's capital. The right of return is set in stone within UN resolutions and should be non-negotiable. On those fundamentals there should be no compromise. Israel's apartheid wall should be dismantled. Jewish colonies on Palestinian land should be evacuated before being handed over to the PNA to house a growing population. And to ensure prosperity, a ‘Marshall Plan' should be devised with those countries primarily responsible for the Palestinian catastrophe being the prime financial contributors.

In the meantime, Arab countries that host Palestinian refugees should treat them as human beings instead of political pawns. There are almost three million in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, large numbers of whom are still consigned to squalid camps with the barest minimum of educational and medical facilities. Many do not have the right to work or own land; many more are stateless.

Governments have been promising them that they will go back to their homes for too long but for the sake of babies born with a God-given right to a decent future, reality must be faced. Stateless persons living inside camps need urgent rescuing. They should be offered full citizenship and if they get the chance to go home one day, it will be up to them whether to stay or go. It's hypocritical for Arab leaders to complain at the way Israel treats Palestinians when so many have been condemned to a life of misery by their own Arab brothers. Which wealthy brother would allow a sibling to drink polluted water or cousin to rot in a rat-infested shanty town?

Fresh ideas as well as a strong commitment from the Arab world are needed before Palestinian hopes can be realised. The old guard has had its day; time for dynamic new faces willing to roll up their sleeves and think out of the box.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017