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Archive for August, 2000

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

ust about everyone in the US who has access to the press is currently beating on  Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, blaming him for the failure of the most recent Camp David talks.  President Clinton, needing redemption, and his wife, needing votes, seem to be leading the charge from the political side and even such a serious and unbiased commentator on Middle East affairs as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has joined in the fray.

The rap on Arafat is that he has made no compromises on any important matter of any real substance.  Not only that, he hasn’t even had any proposals to make that could conceivably lead to compromise.  That is probably all true, but there always two sides to every argument.  Unfortunately, the Palestinian side is largely unknown to the American people.

Over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were ejected from their homes by the Israelis in 1949.  It was safer to throw them out of the new Israel than to try to assimilate them.  Since 1949, there have been a number of wars between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors.  The Israelis have won them all and have occupied vast tracts of Arab land.  They have occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River (the Palestine homeland) and East Jerusalem (their Capital) both once part of Jordan. They have occupied the Sinai and the Gaza strip, both once part of Egypt, the Golan Heights which had been part of Syria and Southern Lebanon.  In short, at one time they had more than tripled the land mass they had originally occupied.

Most of that land was taken in the 1967 war.  The Sinai was returned to Egypt for political advantage and because there was no emotional Israeli attachment to those barren lands.

Since 1967, a succession of Israeli governments has systematically colonized the West Bank and East Jersulam with Israeli settlers.  This was done for the sole purpose of making the return of those lands (Judea and Samaria of the Old Testament) to the Palestinians difficult or, preferably, impossible.  There are very strong forces in Israeli which do not wish to give up a square centimeter of the occupied territories.  If you are given to dark conspiracy theories, you could make a fairly good construct that the Israelis engineered the 1967 war specifically to occupy the lands taken in that war – in the cases of Samaria and Judea, lands that have an extraordinarily emotional connotation to Jews everywhere.

The point to remember here is that none of this formal waging of war has been undertaken by the Palestinians.  They have no real government and no real conventional army and are dispersed throughout the world in their own Diaspora.  It has been their so-called, fellow-arab friends, the Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Egyptians who have not

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allowed any assimilation of Palestinians in their own countries and have kept the Palestinian refugees festering in virtual prison camps, while they sought to eradicate Israel.

The Palestinians are the lost people of the Middle East.  They have never been in charge of themselves under five hundred years of Ottoman, British, Jordanian and now Israeli rule.  Since 1949, they have become an almost exact analogy to the Jewish Diaspora.  The only major difference is the Holocaust.

During the period between the Second Partition of Palestine in 1949 and last month’s Camp David talks, just about  every move that the Israelis have made to consolidate their position in East Jerusalem and the East Bank has been condemned in the United Nations.  Only the United States and its perpetual and unflinching Security Council veto has prevented the Israelis from feeling the sting of sanctions for its policies in the occupied lands.  The resolutions which have avoided our veto (UN Resolution 242, for example) have all condemned Israeli policies in those lands. Why do we always forget these things?

So, when you start to condemn Arafat and the Palestinians, think of them for what they really are – a people pushed out of their homelands through no fault of their own whose only ability to get back the lands taken from them by force is to throw rocks at Uzi-armed Israeli soldiers or give up their national identity and heritage under American pressure and without protest.  Maybe that will help you understand where the Palestinians and their scruffy leader are coming from and why they do not seem eager to formally give away what they consider their birthright.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served five years in the Middle East.  He lives in Williston.

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