Saturday, 21 August 2010

Good Palestinian, Bad Palestinian

"We will take care to remind our children of the Gaza slaughter. We will save the pictures of the children of Gaza with their wounds and blood, and we will teach our children that the strong believer is better than the weak. We will teach them: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and he who started it is the more unjust. What is taken by force will not be returned but by force."
These were the aggressive words voiced in support of the Palestinians by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during Israel's Gaza assault in January of last year.  There is no more emotive issue then the so-called question of Palestine in the Arab world. A recent survey of six Arab countries by Brookings researcher Shibley Telhami revealed that support for Obama had dropped, with the primary reason of disappointment (61% indicating it as such) being his policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The Arab position is reflexive support for the Palestinians in Palestine. Yet, what about the Palestinians closer to home? Those refugees who have settled (or at least tried to) in countries ranging from Lebanon to Kuwait? They, unfortunately, are not the good Palestinians.

The 'Good Palestinian' is the one far away, serving as a whipping boy for Israel as the rest of the Arab world cheers and jeers on. There are contrasting narratives about the extent of Arab sacrifice for the Palestinian cause. From a 'financial' perspective, in recent years, countries such as the United Arab Emirates have pumped in $100m annually, a testament to ongoing support over sixty years after the proverbial Nakba. Often, however, the pledges from governments for the Palestinian Authority fall short as they did in 2008 and again this year. Yet, whatever the views and actions of different governments over time, the 'Arab street' is viewed decisively as rabidly pro-Palestinian. When Israel carried out its brutal assault on the Gaza Strip, there were lines in every Arab capital to donate blood, derived from an honest spirit of empathy. Charitable aid is supported without question for the Palestinians as witnessed currently by the ongoing flotilla parade launched week after week from country after country, whether it be Libya or Lebanon or elsewhere. The 'Good Palestinian' is in the West Bank living under occupation. He is persevering under the threat of an Israeli attack at all times in Gaza.

There also exists the 'Bad Palestinian.' He doesn't live far away, but rather down the street and perhaps in the same neighborhood - he's right next door. In Damascus. Beirut. Baghdad. Cairo. Kuwait. And the list goes on. Today, the South in Lebanon supports the 'resistance' but in the late 1970s, the enemy was not Israel but the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the first militant mobilization by the AMAL party was to defend Shiite villages against the Palestinian presence. The PLO did not do any favors for the Palestinian reputation in Lebanon. Neither did the sectarian system, however, that stoked fears of an influx or integration of a large Sunni Arab population. A prominent Amnesty International report three years ago captured the plight of the Palestinians:
"Most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have had little choice but to live in overcrowded and deteriorating camps and informal gatherings that lack basic infrastructure. The amount of land allocated to official refugee camps has barely changed since 1948, despite a fourfold increase in the registered refugee population. The residents have been forbidden by law from bringing building materials into some camps, preventing the repair, expansion or improvement of homes. Those who have defied the law have faced fines and imprisonment as well as demolition of the new structures. In camps where additional rooms or floors have been added to existing buildings, the alleyways have become even narrower and darker, the majority of homes receive no direct sunlight and, despite the best efforts of the inhabitants, the pervasive smells of rubbish and sewage are at times overwhelming."
To varying degrees, however, some Palestinians have been afforded a respectable place in a number of countries, where many are in fact flourishing. Nevertheless, behind closed doors, the disdain sometimes is hard to contain. In Damascus, most of the Palestinian refugees (the vast majority of whom have ID cards but not citizenship) live in a part of town called al-mukhayim or the camp. Yet, this 'camp' is actually now an urban ghetto. The downtrodden from all over Syria settle there. I remember I was having a conversation with one of my friends about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As he praised Hezbollah and proclaimed the rights of Palestinians, he cautioned me about going to mukhayim: "Be careful over there, you cannot trust them." I asked him, "Who can't I trust?" He replied coldy, "The Palestinians, they're all thieves."

It is an attitude repeated - and driven by different factors - across the Arab world. In Kuwait, after the PLO expressed support for Saddam's invasion, it was the 400,000 rank-and-file Palestinians who had been living in the country for years who suffered, expelled en masse. In Iraq, twelve years later, the Palestinians who had been there for decades were forced to relocate to desert camps after the US invasion and subsequent attacks by Iraqi groups. Until now, Palestinian populations in Arab countries have been viewed - somehow still after 60 years - as transitory and otherworldly. The blood brother is not so sanguine when he's next door.

Then, this past week, there was a surprise to confound the paradigm that had been in place for so long. Lebanon agreed to expand Palestinian social and civil rights in an unprecedented move after 60 years of stagnation. The 'Bad Palestinian' was acknowledged as part of the society he actually lived in. Time will tell if Lebanon expands these reforms to include wider property rights or even a path to permanent residency or citizenship; certainly, any final status agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis will have an element of local integration of Palestinian refugees in their countries of residence, and Arab governments would do well to prepare for that reality.

This dichotomy of views toward the Palestinian population has simmered under the surface, emerging in destructive ways and rarely in healthy and constructive dialogue. Lebanon this week has offered the first salvo in a new conversation about the Palestinian in Arab society. Hopefully it will not be the last.

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