From Al-Ahram Weekly
20 - 26 July 2000
Issue No. 491 

Dark at the end of the tunnel

By Edward Said 

The media has been bursting with all sorts of rumours, speculation, and some news about the Camp David summit, its progress, outcome, and meaning. Whatever happens as an immediate result of the negotiations, one thing seems quite clear: that despite any arrangements that will be made with regard to territory, borders, the status of Jerusalem, refugees, water and sovereignty, the underlying issue is whether or not the Palestinians will agree to terminate the conflict with Israel, and to declare the past to be null and void so far as the present and future are concerned. This declaration is, I think, the big prize that Yasser Arafat -- remember that even with his army of assistants in Camp David, only he has final authority -- has it in his power to bestow on Israel, and it is precisely this that Israel wants more than anything else. 

Therefore, even Jerusalem and the refugees' right of return are less significant by comparison with some kind of declaration, voluntarily given by the Palestinians, that they foresee an end to all their claims against Israel, plus an end to any further struggle against the state that effectively stripped them collectively and individually of their historical patrimony, land, houses, property, well-being, and all. What has concerned me all along with Arafat's tactic (or is it a strategy?) of threatening to declare a state is the danger that his state might quickly be recognized as in effect the equivalent of granting the Palestinians the fulfillment of their self-determination, perhaps only on paper, but granting it nevertheless. No country like Israel is likely to tolerate the existence, much less assisting at the birth, of another country in whose structure might lie an unfulfilled or incomplete past. In return for accepting a state of Palestine then, Israel is quite within reason to demand also that the new state must forego any claims about the past, which this new state by definition is, I believe, going to be seen as having fulfilled. 

In other words, the existence of a demilitarised and necessarily truncated Palestinian state, no matter how disadvantaged territorially, economically, or politically, is going to be designed, constituted, founded, and built out of a negation of the past. In Israel's view the past in question is entirely and exclusively a Palestinian past (and not a Palestinian-Israeli one), since in Israel's case no one forecasts the end or termination of Jewish claims against persecutors of Jews in the past. Torn from its context of struggle and dispossession, its long trail of suffering, exile, displacement and massive loss, this real Palestinian past will be declared null and void in return for which the Palestinian people will be said to have achieved statehood. 

This will not be a merely formal matter but something that is designed to get at the very roots of Palestinian identity. Already Oslo has taken a toll out of Palestinian history as taught to young children through Palestinian Authority textbooks. In the new order of things Palestinians are represented as people who happen now to be in Nablus, Ramallah and Jericho; how they got there, how some of them came to these places as a result of 1948 and 1967, and how Tiberias and Safad were once preponderantly Arab, all these inconvenient bits of information have simply dropped out of the textbooks. In a grade six history book Arafat is referred to only as President of the Palestine Authority; his history as PLO Chairman, to say nothing of the Amman, Beirut and Tunis days has just been effaced. In another book, Palestine is presented to Palestinian children as a blank rectangle: they are asked to fill in the spaces which, once the peace deal is concluded, will be studded only with the names of places that are considered Palestinian according to Camp David. 

Now there is a great difference between disliking or being annoyed by the past on the one hand, and, on the other, refusing to recognise it as the past, even the past that some people believe in. The reason so many official Palestinian representatives have been so anxious to refer to UN Resolution 194 (Right of Return) or even 242 (territory returned) is that scant and telegraphic though they may be, these resolutions represent distillations of Palestinian history that seem to be acknowledged by the world community. As such then, they have a validity independent of any one party's whim. The danger of Camp David is that it will nullify, explicitly or implicitly, this very quality. History is to be rewritten not according to the best efforts historians have made to try to determine what occurred, but according to what the greatest powers (the US and Israel) say is allowable as history. 

The same brushing away of the past, and its claims on the future, will surely apply to the Israeli occupation which began in 1967. We now have a full record of what damages to the economy occurred and, I am sure, a full record of what deliberate destruction occurred in agriculture, municipal affairs, and private property. Deaths, woundings, and the like are also recorded. I am certainly not arguing for holding a permanent grudge against the perpetrators, but I am for remembering that three decades of occupation should not simply be blown away like so many specks of dust on a gleaming surface. Iraq is still paying Kuwait for the few months of its occupation in 1990 and 1991, and that restitution is as it should be. Why then is Israel miraculously exempt of restitution for all its past malfeasance? How can southern Lebanese citizens be expected to forgive and forget the 22-year-old occupation of their territory, and not least the horrors of Khiam prison, with its torture, dreadful solitary confinements, and inhuman conditions, all of it supervised and maintained by Israeli experts and their Lebanese mercenaries? 

These matters, I believe, require much deliberation, reflection and considered evaluation. In due course perhaps even a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission might be convened. But I do not believe so awesomely weighty and dense a matter as the Palestinian history of injustice at Israeli hands, and even the whole question of Israeli responsibility itself, can be settled in the form of a backroom deal done relatively quickly, bazaar-style. There are truth, and dignity, and justice to be fairly considered, without which no arrangement can be fully concluded, no matter how politically expedient or clever. 

As a minimum guarantee that some such consideration be given peace of the kind aimed for at Camp David, a Palestinian plebiscite or referendum is therefore essential, if it is democratically fair. For once, in this whole shabbily unsatisfactory Oslo process, Mr Arafat and his supporters have a chance to save a small part of what has been left us as a people -- in no small part because of years of misrule, dishonesty, and indignity. Can they go at least some of the way toward partially redeeming themselves?