The Final Dispossession of the Palestinian People

EDWARD W. SAID

September 10, 1993|By EDWARD W. SAID

The ''historical breakthrough'' announced by the PLO and the Israeli government signals a new phase of reconciliation between two enemies. It also leaves Palestinians very much the subordinates, with Israel still in charge of East Jerusalem, settlements, sovereignty and the economy.

Although I still believe in a two-state solution peacefully arrived at, the sudden peace plan raises many questions.

The plan is unclear in its details, plain enough in its broad outlines. Israel will recognize the PLO. It will allow ''limited autonomy'' and ''early empowerment'' for Palestine in the Gaza Strip -- one of the most miserable places on earth -- and Jericho, a small West Bank town. But how much land is Israel going to cede for peace?

For the more than 50 percent of Palestinians not resident in the occupied territories -- 350,000 stateless refugees in Lebanon, twice that number in Syria, many more elsewhere -- the plan may be the final dispossession. Their national rights as people, solemnly confirmed and reconfirmed for years by the United Nations, the PLO, the Arab governments, indeed most of the world, now seem to have been annulled.

The deal smacks of the PLO leadership's exhaustion and isolation and of Israel's shrewdness. Many Palestinians are asking themselves why, after years of concessions, we should be conceding once again to Israel and the United States in return for promises and vague improvements in the occupation that won't all occur until ''final status'' talks three to five years hence, and perhaps not even then.

We have not even had an explicit acknowledgment that Israel will end the occupation, with its maze of laws and complicated punitive apparatus. Nothing is said about the 13,000 political prisoners who remain in Israeli jails. And can the Israeli army march in at will?

Whatever plan may be signed, it must reaffirm that Palestinians have a right to freedom and equality and will concede nothing from that right. Above all, Palestinians now must have the widest possible say in their future, as it is largely about to be settled, perhaps irrevocably and unwisely. It is disturbing that the National Council has not been convened, and that the appalling disarray induced by Yasser Arafat's methods has not been addressed.

Two weeks ago the only really independent members of the PLO Executive Committee, Mahmoud Darwish and Shafiq al-Hout, resigned in protest; a few more are said to be considering the move. Mr. Hout said that Mr. Arafat had become an autocrat whose personal handling of Palestinian finances was a disaster and worse. I count no more than five people holed up in Tunis, including Mr. Arafat, who, with little legal background or experience of ordinary civil life, have hatched decisions affecting almost 6 million people. There has been no consultation to speak of.

In the territories, the occupation has been getting worse, and this after 10 rounds of fruitless negotiations. When I was there this summer no one I spoke with failed to make the connection, blaming Mr. Arafat and the delegation members in equal measure. Then in August three leading negotiators resigned, bewailing Mr. Arafat's undemocratic methods. They were subsequently brought back into line, leaving the respected Gaza leader and delegation head Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi alone to issue statements calling for ''reform and democracy.''

With the PLO decomposing and conditions in the territories abysmal, this summer marked the worst internal crisis for Palestinians. That is, until Mr. Arafat fled into the Israeli plan, which in one stroke rids the Israelis of an unwanted, insurrectionary problem that Mr. Arafat must now solve for them.

No political settlement of a long and bloody conflict can ever fit all circumstances. To be recognized at last by Israel and the United States doesn't answer Palestinian needs or solve the leadership crisis. Our struggle is about freedom and democracy; it is secular and, for a long time -- indeed, up until the past three years -- it was fairly democratic. Now Mr. Arafat has canceled the intifada unilaterally, with the possible result of further dislocations, disappointments and conflict for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Edward W. Said, a former member of the Palestine National Council, is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. This article is adapted from a longer piece published in The Nation.

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