BEIRUT — While a series of really serious new dangers like ISIS’ atrocities, the wars in Yemen, Syria and Libya, fighting in and near Lebanon, Iranian-Arab tensions, and an erratic governance transition in Egypt occupy the minds of most people around the Middle East, let me be the quiet voice that whispers in the ears of Middle East watchers: This Friday, May 15, marked the 67th anniversary of the 1948 Palestinian exile and displacement, which occurred as a result of the creation of the state of Israel. That fact matters still today, and we ignore it and its consequences at our peril.
It is relevant to recall this fact alongside the many other pressing issues across the region because of the many direct and indirect links between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and those issues. This conflict remains the oldest and most radicalizing and destabilizing force in the Middle East, and its consequences continue to ripple through the region in real and measurable ways. This goes against the predominant mindset in the United States east coast and Israel, where presumptuous political and thought leaders routinely repeat the refrain that what happened in 1947-48 happened a long time ago, and the Palestinians and Arabs should get over their defeat and get on with their lives, and do something modern like emulate the lifestyle of Dubai.
Well, the facts of human nature and history suggest otherwise, and this is the moment every year when we should remember this. Forcibly exiled people, as Jews and Zionism remind us, will always strive for repatriation in their ancestral homeland, rather than seeking refuge or escape in wondrous commercial malls. The 1.5 million Palestinian Arabs of 1948 are now around 12 million, according to official Palestinian statistics. There is no mall big enough to accommodate them, so they continue to seek justice and a fair political resolution of their conflict with Israel and Zionism.
We should also ponder the corollary point that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict in an equitable manner that satisfies the legitimate national rights and needs of both sides would quickly help reduce the feverish pace of spreading turmoil and violence across the Middle East. On this day of commemoration — when Israel continues to expand its settlements in occupied Arab lands, shoot and jail Palestinian children under the age of ten years old, and (with Palestinians) is the object of a preliminary investigation for war crimes by the International Criminal Court — we should anticipate that a resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict could reverse this pattern of rippling conflicts we have witnessed since the 1930s, when Zionist-Arabist tensions and clashes first surfaced in British-ruled Palestine. The earliest communal confrontations between Palestinians and Jewish Zionists expanded in the 1940s into a full-fledged nationalist battle. The creation of Israel in May 1948 quickly transformed the local dispute into the wider Arab-Israeli conflict; today this has expanded further into even wider domains that include Iranian-Israeli and Turkish-Israeli tensions and threats, and antagonisms between the state of Israel and dozens of other countries and societies around the world who support the Palestinians.
A peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict that is legitimated by popular consent on both sides could steadily roll back these rippling concentric circles of confrontation, including with the three parties the Israelis see as their most serious foes today: Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas. A credible and equitable peace agreement would also immediately spark serious counter-ripples of economic expansion, investment, trade, tourism, technological and manpower exchanges and development, and positive regional cooperation in critical issues like water, energy, security and environmental safety. Tens of thousands of new jobs would materialize for hopeless young people in the region who are easy pickings for extremist movements; militant movements of both Israelis and Arabs would whither as their fear-based popular support declines among populations more motivated by hope, justice and a normal life.
Also, resolution of this conflict would positively impact internal political conditions in Arab countries, reversing the trends since 1948 when Arab autocrats and military dictators used the defense of Palestine as a recurring excuse to seize power, deny democratic development, and waste hundreds of billions of dollars on security systems that neither saved Palestine nor achieved internal Arab order — judging by the Arab popular revolutions and widespread civil wars of the past four years. Excessive military spending was one reason for the lack of sustainable, equitable socio-economic development in many Arab countries, leading to the tens of millions of poor, vulnerable citizens who finally rebelled against their governments.
The inability of Arab leaders to stop the Israeli conquest and continued colonization of Palestine, and the recurring Israeli attacks against Palestinian and other Arab lands, was one of several humiliating factors that contributed to the loss of credibility and legitimacy of many Arab regimes in the eyes of their own people.
Popular sentiment across the Arab world strongly supports the rights of the Palestinians and opposes Israeli policies, as polling evidence now routinely confirms, even though Arab leaders do not always reflect these views.
The decades of lack of resolution of the Palestine issue have contributed to the dire condition of the Arab world today, and wider regional tensions with Israel. This is a good moment to remember that 12 million Palestinians, like exiled European Jews a century before them, insist on justice and a normal life, and will keep struggling to achieve those legitimate goals, through reasonable political compromises or through the use of force if necessary. This, as Israelis and Palestinians alike have affirmed for a century now, is what humanity is all about.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Follow him on Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 16 May 2015
Word Count: 925