Sunday, June 08, 2008

Palestinian Activist Speaks Out in San Diego

Rejects Two-State Solution, Demands “Right of Return”


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Tall, well dressed and strikingly handsome, Palestinian activist Mahmoud Zubaidi didn’t mince words when he came to the Balboa Park Club in San Diego June 4 to speak at an event called “60 years of Al Nakba, The Destruction of Palestine: What happened, how this relates to the region today and why you should care.” After announcing that he was filling in for his wife, Ahlan Muhtaseb, who co-wrote the presentation with him and wasn’t available to give it because she’s in Syria due to illness in her family, Zubaidi bluntly told his audience that his topic was “the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians” at the hands of the Zionist émigrés who founded Israel — and the Western leaders who enabled them.

A research associate at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD), Zubaidi is an active member of the San Diego branch of al-Awda Right to Return Coalition, This group’s purpose is to reverse the expulsion of the Palestinian people from their historic homeland in 1948 and allow them to return to what is now the state of Israel. It’s a highly controversial demand that virtually every political party in Israel rejects because granting it would likely lead to a Palestinian majority and an end of Israel’s character as a “Jewish state.” But to Zubaidi and his fellow al-Awda activists, return and the replacement of Israel with a secular, multi-ethnic, multi-religious state covering all of historic Palestine is just simple justice.

“The nature of the conflict is not religious; it’s colonial and political,” Zubaidi explained. “Once we see the nature of Zionism, we see the nature of the force that drew them to the area. The native Palestinians are Muslims, Christians and Jews. Most of the Israelis are Europeans who fled persecution. During the conflict, a lot of the Palestinian Jews sided with the newcomers, although a lot of Jewish Palestinians are represented in the Palestinian Authority. In her research and oral histories from Palestinians in Lebanon, Ahlan found a pattern that most of the Palestinian Jews didn’t like what was going on and hated the newcomers.”

According to Zubaidi, for over a thousand years Jews “lived in relative harmony in the Arab and Muslim worlds.” Indeed, when the Christians reconquered Spain from the Muslim Moors in the 1400’s, most of Spain’s Jews fled to northern Africa “because they would be treated better” under Muslim rule. What changed was the formation of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century, when a group of secular Jews, mostly from western Europe, came together and demanded not only that there should be a country earmarked for the Jewish people, but that it should be in historic Palestine even though Palestinian Arabs had been living there for over a thousand years.

“Most [religious] Jews believed in the return of Jews to Palestine only after the coming of the Messiah,” Zubaidi explained. “Zionism manipulated religion to make people believe that in order to be a good Jew, you had to go back and establish [a Jewish state in] the Holy Land.” The early Zionists had key support from the government of Great Britain, which gained control of Palestine during World War I as the old Ottoman Empire, centered in Turkey, which at its height had ruled all the Middle East, most of northern Africa and much of Europe, tottered towards extinction and ultimately disintegrated.

Zubaidi mentioned a secret treaty between the foreign ministers of Britain and France, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which carved up the Middle East between those two countries; France got most of Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got what was then called “Transjordan” — essentially modern-day Israel, Palestine and Jordan — and Iraq, in addition to its already strong influence in Egypt. The following year, 1917, Britain issued what was called the Balfour Declaration, promising the world’s Jews a national homeland in Palestine — and in order to put that into effect the British government started granting more visas to Jews seeking to emigrate there. According to Zubaidi, Zionist organizations “paid money to the British government for access to the Holy Land.”

The next step towards the creation of Israel and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians to make room for a Jewish population came, Zubaidi said, in 1942, when the international Zionist movement held a convention in Baltimore. This, he explained, was the first time the Zionists “changed their idea of Palestine from a ‘national homeland’ to a ‘national state.’ A ‘homeland’ means you migrate and live among the people there, the way people who immigrate to the United States live according to our laws and rules. A ‘state’ means you have to kick out the native inhabitants.’”

This, Zubaidi said, was exactly what the Jewish settlers in Palestine did in 1947-48 when they came en masse and drove out the Palestinians at gunpoint in what has come to be called al-Nakba — Arabic for “the catastrophe.” “You had families who had literally lived in their homes for a thousand years, who ended up in refugee camps living on United Nations food aid,” Zubaidi said. The Jewish settlers came with the approval of the international community — a 1948 United Nations resolution had allocated 54 percent of Palestine to Jews and only 45 percent to its indigenous inhabitants, even though when the resolution passed Jews owned only 6.7 percent of Palestine’s land — and the parts of Palestine left to its Arab natives were further divided by the 1948 armistice agreement, which separated the West Bank from Gaza.

As part of his presentation, Zubaidi showed a series of images of life in Palestine in the 1930’s complete with modern buildings, well-kept streets and then-new cars, and bluntly said that “the good life ended for Palestinians” when Israel took over. “In 1948 there was a massacre in Ramallah,” he said. “The Palestinians were forced to leave and three Jewish gangs with guns drove the Palestinians out of their land.” He also cited a massacre at Deir Yassin by two Jewish terrorist organizations, the Stern Gang and the Irgun, whose head, Menachem Begin, would later become prime minister of Israel. Zubaidi said similar events happened throughout Palestine in 1947-48, and the only distinctive thing about the Deir Yassin massacre was that the New York Times reported it at the time (April 10, 1948).

According to Zubaidi, Israeli spokespeople like former prime minister Shimon Peres claim to this day that the Zionist settlers who came after World War II “didn’t have weapons or planes,” when the reports of the time said they did. “In 1948, with the creation of Israel, 800,000 Palestinians were displaced over 77 percent of the land. In 1967 [when Israel occupied the rest of historic Palestine after the Six-Day War], a new forced emigration of 330,000 Palestinians took place.” Today, Zubaidi said, 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, 600,000 more in Syria, while others are scattered throughout the region in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

“The Palestinians are in miserable living conditions with internal turmoil,” Zubaidi said. “In any civil war in their host countries, they are always in the middle. Their education is almost zero because they have to fight for day-to-day living. … My brothers tell me about going to school in tents, and it’s still happening.” What’s more, while the Israelis and their Western enablers are primarily responsible for the Palestinians’ plight, their Arab neighbors haven’t exactly welcomed them with open arms either, Zubaidi conceded. They were relatively well assimilated in Jordan and in Syria they were allowed to own land, but only in partnership with a Syrian. In Iraq they were relatively well treated when the Ba’ath regime was founded in 1963, but their situation deteriorated when Saddam Hussein took over in 1979 and, not surprisingly, got even worse after the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Zubaidi said that Israel has mounted occasional attacks on Palestinian communities since 1948. “In 1958 the Israelis systematically destroyed the city of Emmaus” — where Jesus Christ is supposed to have walked the earth and shown himself to his disciples after the Resurrection — “until nothing was left,” he said. “Areas like these are empty right now because they’re still working on taking more of Jerusalem and building settlements. More than 400 Palestinian villages have been destroyed.”

But the occasional Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians aren’t the worst of it, Zubaidi contended. “Palestinians live every day under Israeli harassment, a systematic ethnic cleansing meant to force people to leave,” he said. “Their land is continually taken away from them bit by bit, sometimes for settlements, sometimes for access roads, sometimes for the ‘separation wall’ to cut them off from water and make their lives unbearable, so they leave, especially if their schools are targeted.” Zubaidi showed a short Internet video called The Killing Zone “that shows how children are being shot at in the schools. Once you hit the kids, the parents will say, ‘I can’t stay here. I have to leave for the sake of my kids.’”

In talking about the wall, Zubaidi said that its purpose is not to protect Israel against “Palestinian terrorists,” as the Israeli government claims. “You can always cross the wall,” he said (a claim that America’s experience with the U.S.-Mexico border fence is bearing out). “It’s just there to make their lives harder, and we’re all paying for that with our tax dollars. You have $15 billion of American tax money going to Israel every year for weapons and funding.” At this point in the presentation he explained that most Palestinians who have a living at all are farmers, and showed a slide of a woman hugging an olive tree that had just been pulled down by Israeli soldiers — thus “clearing the land” at the expense of her livelihood.

Throughout his presentation, every time Zubaidi showed a slide, the upper left corner of the screen contained an image of an old-fashioned key. This, he explained, has become a major visual symbol of Palestinian liberation and their determination to regain control over their homeland. “When the Palestinian refugees left in 1948,” he said, “they hoped to return within hours or days. They still have their keys and the deeds to their old homes and lands. You talk to people in refugee camps who owned hundreds of acres, and now they live in two rooms and are passing away with no hope in sight. Their children are growing up with that dream in mind because they are not complete until they can return.” Meanwhile, Zubaidi explained, the Israelis have learned from the former apartheid government of South Africa — which they were the last country in the world to recognize — how to maintain power over indigenous people who outnumber them.

So what can the Palestinians and their advocates elsewhere in the world do about this? According to Zubaidi, the model should be the successful international campaign that finally helped bring down South African apartheid. “We need economic sanctions against Israel, stopping the [U.S.] government from sending millions of dollars to Israel,” he said. He also argued for boycotts against Israeli academics on the ground that they have to support “the racist nature of the Israeli government” and a boycott against Israeli medicine as well. The last he justified on the basis of a 1996 report by Amnesty International that documented systematic discrimination against Palestinians by Israel’s medical system. “You’re only allowed to receive care in Israel itself — not in the occupied territories — and only for ‘life-threatening’ emergencies, as the Israelis define them,” Zubaidi explained. “An amputation is not considered ‘life-threatening.’”

Zubaidi’s action plan also includes educating the public in the U.S. and elsewhere, direct relief to refugees in Palestine (including psychological aid) and “legal action against specific individuals who are responsible for the daily suffering the Palestinians have undergone from 1948 to now: people like [former Israeli prime minister] Ariel Sharon for the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila [Palestinian refugee camps inside Lebanon]. We should take them to international courts.”

One thing that isn’t on the agenda of Zubaidi and his fellow al-Awda members is the creation of a separate Palestinian state. Not only have the Israelis’ actions in the occupied territories — the steady expansion of settlements regardless of which political parties were in power; the criss-crossing of the West Bank with walls and “access roads,” which Palestinians are forbidden to use; and the sealing off of Gaza that has turned it into a virtual open-air prison — rendered a Palestinian state non-viable, but according to Zubaidi the very idea was yet another way for Israel to attack the Palestinians by luring them into a phony “peace process.”

“The two-state solution is a recipe for disaster,” Zubaidi said with his characteristic bluntness. “By acquiring more land and building more settlements, Israel has ruined the two-state solution before it was implemented. Refugees are definitely 100 percent asking for return to their original homes.” Instead, al-Awda advocates a “one-state solution, secular and democratic, one-person, one-vote, not binational or federal, with 100 percent return of refugees. Israelis who want to stay can stay. Anyone who wants to go back can go back. This is the only solution for all the refugees, just like what happened in South Africa.”

Zubaidi’s denunciation of the two-state solution and his insistence that Palestinians not only be allowed to return to what is now Israel but be given back the very same land they or their ancestors occupied in 1948 sparked a lively discussion. One woman in the audience questioned whether it was fair to punish Israelis for what their ancestors did in 1948 and drive them out of a country that’s the only one they’ve ever known in their lives. By contrast, a man in the audience was even more militant than Zubaidi and insisted that the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine was an historical mistake and needs to be corrected.

Asked whether it was “realistic” to expect the end of Israel and its replacement with a multi-ethnic, secular democratic state over all Palestine, Zubaidi fired back, “Is it realistic to drive natives from their land, steal their land, demolish their homes and bring other people in to live there? There are two options: a pure Jewish state or a state that includes Palestinians and Israelis.”