“They Build A Wall, We Figure A Way To Go Over It”: Two Palestinians Look Ahead To A Rights-Based Framework

Rima Najjar
Aug 8, 2020 · 9 min read
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Palestine: A Rights-Based Framework”, featuring: Diana Buttu & Osamah Khalil, and moderated by AMP Education Coordinator Tarek Khalil.

What Palestinians need most at this point in their history is a sense of urgency, clarity, a path forward, hope and resolve.

That’s exactly what Diana Buttu, former legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Osamah Khalil, associate professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, provided in discussing the topic “Palestine: A Rights-Based Framework” at a webinar hosted by American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) on 7 August, 2020.

The focus around which everything else in the discussion swirled was the destructive role the Palestinian Authority continues to play in Palestinian affairs because of the PA’s regressive mindset.

Listening to the two speakers, I was forced to abandon the shred of lingering wishful thinking I’ve had vis-à-vis the PA and gained a glimmer of clarity and hope regarding a future vision, despite a couple of nightmarish scenarios that Osamah Khalil rolled out at the end.

“Palestinians should not be shy about our rights. We shouldn’t have to go hat in hand and say, please sir, please give me a state, treat me like a human being.”

The speakers lambasted the PA for being undemocratic, for its lack of accountability, its fossilized vision, its refusal to engage grassroots leadership, its cynical use of the rights-based approach as a threat — to pressure Israel into negotiations— rather than to use it to fight for Palestinian liberation.

They also pointed out that the PA has consistently ignored or maligned ’48 Palestinians, never recognizing that they are the core of the Palestinian polity in an equal-rights framework. Most egregiously, in its desperation and bankruptcy, the PA also put the sacrosanct Palestinian right of return on the chopping block, i.e., the negotiating table.

“We haven’t seen any change and there hasn’t been even any change of thinking, because time has stood still for them.”

The PA is seemingly blind to the fact that the partition of Palestine over which they are still hoping to negotiate has already evolved into one apartheid Israeli state. There is a one-state reality on the ground right now, an apartheid reality. Any negotiated state is not going to be sovereign with border control. It will be barely autonomous; it won’t be contiguous or viable. The best Palestinians can achieve through negotiations are South African-like Bantustans.

Diana Buttu’s vivid description of the PA’s willful arrested development summed up the miserable situation:

It’s as though time has frozen for the people in leadership. It’s as though nothing has happened over the course of the past 27 years, as though we haven’t seen a tripling of the number of settlers from 200,000 to now 700,000, as though we haven’t seen a wall that cuts and takes up so much Palestinian land, that there aren’t 500 checkpointss and road blocks that are in place. They [the PA] still use the same logic as was used in the 90s and then later on in the early 2000s, as though time has not moved on and as though regimes in the US haven’t moved on, and so this is for me, living here, one of the most frustrating elements in that we are now … Abu Mazen [Abbas] was elected in January of 2005; we’re close to the end of 15 years of him being so-called president and we haven’t seen any change and there hasn’t been even any change of thinking, because time has stood still for them.

Osama Khalil emphasized the regressive nature of the PA’s political position: “Even if in 1999, you wanted to delude yourself and say it [the Oslo arrangement] is the embryo of a Palestinian state, at this point in 2020, it is the exact opposite, and that is actually preventing us from moving towards a rights-based framework.”

“What we need is to rethink the kind of liberation movement we want from the ground up, both inside and outside Palestine.”

He was scathing about the hankering of the PA to return to the framework of The Quartet (the four countries involved in mediating the Israeli–Palestinian “peace process” beginning in 2005), when money flowed for “development” projects and lined the pockets of many, when the PA basked in empty titles and travel privileges:

The PA won’t even embrace BDS; they give it lip service. In fact the Palestinian ambassador to the UN was actually dismissive about BDS the other day … “small tactics; we’re focused on big strategy.” The big strategy is to go back to The Quartet! That’s your big strategy? Mabrouk. Really, you should be proud of yourself. Let’s go back to 2005 to The Quartet, right? Because it has achieved so much and because you think that Boris Johnson is going to help you? Or you think Russia is going to be able to counter balance the US? This is ridiculous thinking; this is childish, frankly. It prevents us from looking at how deeply embedded the PA is in the occupation system, in the apartheid system and the benefits they get from it, and it prevents the Palestinians from actually moving forward.

Next came the million-dollar-question: When you no longer have a liberation movement that can achieve goals of liberation, what do you move toward?

Osamah Khalil elaborated on the question itself as follows:

What we need is to rethink the kind of liberation movement we want from the ground up, both inside and outside Palestine. What rights do we want? We need to abandon partition logic and negotiation logic. The Palestinians accepted a compromise; it was forced on them effectively by the international community, especially the United States and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union; they all told them that’s the only game in town at this point. And that compromise has proven to be a Trojan horse, because what effectively happened is, they [the PA] got wrapped into this negotiations game. Come negotiate; and then we’ll keep negotiating for the next 25 years. And that’s effectively where they are today; let’s keep negotiating about these increasingly smaller pieces of the pie, and smaller and smaller rights and smaller and smaller freedoms. So, the question is how do you step out of that box?

The only thing I see with Israel is that they have a lot of military strength and they have a lot of diplomatic strength, and that core of strength that we have, it doesn’t exist among them.”

Aware that the power differential is not in Palestinians’ favor, Osamah Khalil warned that “time is not on our side.” Diana Butto, though, was ultimately optimistic in the future and in the ability of Palestinians to create inclusive and altogether new structures to replace those corrupted by the PA and the false promise of Oslo. She spoke movingly of

the strength of us as people. They tried to extinguish us from the surface of the earth. We were on the brink of national extinction in 1948. And the fact that here we are, 72 years later, and Israel is still contending with us as people just shows you how strong we are. I often say it’s not that I want to be strong; they forced us to be strong. You just have to look at what life is like here in Palestine. Israel puts up a check point, we figure a way to go around it. They build a wall; we a figure way to go over it. Whatever it is they are putting in our way, we are willing to face and confront these people to make sure we are able to survive and thrive. I have full faith in us as people, as individuals, as a collective. That’s where I get my optimism. I look around and I see the most amazing people in the world living in Palestine and surviving in Palestine and doing the absolute impossible to make sure that their lives are whole. And for me, I don’t see that when it comes to the Israeli side. The only thing I see with Israel is that they have a lot of military strength and they have a lot of diplomatic strength, and that core of strength that we have, it doesn’t exist among them. So, am I optimistic? Absolutely. I just don’t know when it’s going to happen, but I know it will happen.

“I think once we start doing that, once we move away from [asking] what are land transfers, what piece of the desert can you give us in the Negev in exchange for what? Maali Adumim? I think then we can actually start thinking about what unifies us as a people, all the differences, and how we get to a rights-based framework.”

Osama Khalil’s concluding remarks embraced what Butto said above and added two nightmarish scenarios “that kept him up at night:”

1. He pointed to the overtly right-wing shift of Israelis and their government. “Israelis say now that expulsion is a solution.” A majority now are saying openly (as polls show) they favor the expulsion of ’48 Palestinians from Israel. Up to this point, Israel has relied on creeping annexation and on self-transfer of Palestinians; by making life miserable for them, they will leave. When self-transfer doesn’t work, we now return to the original model, which is expulsion; Israel did that from 1947–1950 and again in 1967 (expelling another 200,000), and now we are seeing increasing numbers of Israelis saying, expel them; that’s what we favor.

2. The second scenario is what’s happening right now, which is Mahmoud Abbas is sick, he’s old and he’s not going to be around much longer. And so what we are seeing Israel doing is what you could argue is a further partition policy. Gaza is separated from the West Bank. Jerusalem is separated and within the West Bank we’ll see subcontracts to different warlords, creating outrageous security services. More money is spent on security in Israel than on health and education combined. And that scenario will be enforced by Israel and the United States. So, what they will do is play these warlords off each other in the way they did during the occupation from 1967–1993 with local collaborators. That’s happening right now on the ground. The preparations for that are underway. Palestinian administration sub-contracted to war lords.

“It’s taken 20 plus years for Peter Beinart to realize we are human.”

“The only alternative (to the nightmarish scenarios above and to the PA’s bootless groveling) is equal rights for all, and that means equality, full civil rights, the right to create political parties, the right to full participation in society, and we can focus on everywhere else it’s been done, look at the models available,” Osamah Khalil said. He went on:

One thing we should avoid is the negotiator’s mentality; this is something you will see in some of the proposals floating around –well, how do we make Israelis more comfortable with us? It’s not our job to make them comfortable with us. We are human beings. We have rights as human beings.

I welcome Peter Beinart’s article and his evolution. At the same time, there is a point of it I find troubling; it’s taken 20 plus years for Peter Beinart to realize we are human. That’s a problem. There is anther problem here and that is in the discussions around Beinart’s article — Palestinians have been erased yet again — where this becomes about, oh how did you finally come to the conclusion that Palestinians are human? How are you living with that?

My friend Ali Abunimah makes this point: Palestinians should not be shy about our rights. We shouldn’t have to go hat in hand and say, please sir, please give me a state, treat me like a human being. John Lewis, the great civil rights leader who just passed away, one thing he was known for was actually being at the forefront. Others tried to moderate John Lewis, the elder statesmen in the movement, including MLK, Jr. We should not be shy about the fact that we have rights and we are human. These are basic demands.

I think once we start doing that, once we move away from [asking] what are land transfers, what piece of the desert can you give us in the Negev in exchange for what? Maali Adumim? You take 3/4s of the West Bank and you want to give us a landfill or the Negev. I mean come on. Once we start getting past the partition mentality and the subcolonializing, suborientalizing us, I think then we can actually start thinking about what unifies us as a people, all the differences, and how we get to a rights-based framework.

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Rima Najjar is a Palestinian whose father’s side of the family comes from the forcibly depopulated village of Lifta on the western outskirts of Jerusalem and whose mother’s side of the family is from Ijzim, south of Haifa. She is an activist, researcher and retired professor of English literature, Al-Quds University, occupied West Bank.

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