Waiting for another Saladin?
PALESTINE. That's the word that comes to mind to describe the eventful life and times of Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi. Born in 1944 in Nablus at the height of the Palestinian displacement or Nakba (catastrophe) as they call it, like many of his generation, Abdul Hadi's life has run parallel to and epitomizes his people's relentless struggle for freedom and identity.
His quest for self-expression, fulfillment and career choices have closely been interwoven with the struggle of the Palestinian people to find their own voice and dignity. A Ph.D. from the UK's Bradford University and a fellow of the prestigious Harvard University, Abdul Hadi has devoted his entire life to the cause of Palestine, and promoting a clear, historical perspective and understanding of the complex issue around the world.
He has spoken and written extensively on the Palestinian sense of loss and homelessness and on finding lasting solution to the long festering Middle East conflict. He has served in key positions in Palestinian territories and Jordan where he co-founded Al-Fajr newspaper in the 1970s and wrote his first book, The Question of Palestine and Peaceful Solutions.
In 1977, he founded the Arab Thought Forum, devoted to offering intellectual leadership to Palestinian institutions and people. In 1987, he founded the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) in Jerusalem where he's currently based. The most critical and path-breaking contribution of the PASSIA as well as that of Abdul Hadi so far has been the seminal tome, 100 Years of Palestinian History: A 20th Century Chronology. Beginning in 1900, the book profiles the most important century in the Middle East's history -- and that of the world -- to capture its turning points, highs and lows and watershed episodes like the decision of world powers to carve out a Jewish state out of Palestine, the displacement of the Palestinians and all the tragedies and developments in the nation's history in all their complexity and poignancy.
The outcome of years of research and hard work, the book chronicles the evolution of Palestine and the Palestinian journey through the 20th century. Drawing on a vast array of memoirs, archives and rare, historical photographs, the book is a must-have for everyone keen to understand the world's most complex region and conflict and what makes it so.
I had the pleasure of meeting Hadi when he visited Dubai some time ago for a lecture where he talked about the Palestinian question, the future of his people and of course the labor of his love, One Hundred Years of Palestinian History.
"This is not a historical book in an ordinary sense. Hundred Years of Palestinian History is a chronicle of events that have not just influenced the Palestinians but have impacted the region and world history," he told me.
Palestine and the Palestinian-Israel conflict are often presented within the timeframe of other histories, the 'Arab awakening,' or the Ottoman or British empires. Hence, the Palestinian recorded history is frequently forced into distorted patterns, drawing guidance and significance from often misleading sources.
Another weakness of such histories is individualism of the narrative. Historical memoirs and correspondences, fascinating as they are, they offer only the smallest and most subjective of windows on the enormity of a people's history. This illustrated chronicle, however, attempts to make a worthwhile contribution to the preservation of Palestinian history and identity by recounting the decades of struggle for freedom and justice through people's accounts.
Talking about the present, Hadi isn't very excited about the current lot of Palestinian leadership. "The present crisis of leadership has deepened in the post-Arafat era with the rise of "representatives" and not leaders. They represent factions, rather than the people and their cause. This has resulted in the second Nakba for the Palestinian people, dividing them geographically (Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Diaspora), ideologically (secular versus religious) and politically (negotiation or resistance), thus shaking everyone's identity," he argues. Hadi identifies the process of Palestinian dispossession at four levels:
-- The international community's complicity in transferring the Jewish question from Europe to Palestine, its continuing support for Israel, and its failure to enforce international law to protect Palestinian rights.
-- Israel's relentless colonization of Palestinian land, endless atrocities against the Palestinians, constant violations of international law and human rights, and its failure to implement the UN Resolution 194 on the return of refugees as well as its violation of all agreements with the Palestinian leadership since Oslo Accords of 1993.
-- The Arab leaders' political hypocrisy, their cynical use of the Palestinian tragedy as a manipulative tool in local, regional and global politics, and the tangled web of inter-Arab alliances and rivalries that prevents it from meeting their responsibilities toward their Palestinian brothers.
-- Palestinian society's own internal conflicts, wavering loyalties according to events and priorities, infiltration and influence by their Arab brothers and foreign actors including Israel, and leadership crisis characterized by a lack of strategy, bitter factional rivalry, and a priority on political survival; and most painfully for Palestinian society, the fragmentation of the proud, deep-rooted Palestinian identity.
Understandably, the Palestinian ideologue isn't very excited about the so-called peace process and its future.
"The US Administration raised high expectations for a peace settlement, especially after President Obama's Cairo speech on America's relationship with the Muslim world. George Mitchell's subsequent mission could not meet those expectations because of the Israeli refusal to end its settlement enterprise in Palestinian territories, leading the proximity talks to nowhere. Nevertheless the Palestinian leadership, under intense US pressure, had to accommodate Obama's request for direct talks."
He believes that the new US strategy takes into account the lessons of the July 2000 Camp David talks and does not aspire to reach a "historic deal" to end the conflict, but to establish a process under the banner of "negotiations" toward normalization of Palestinian-Israeli relations as well as Arab-Israel ties. This promotes a 'regional security scheme,' which embraces Israel and the Arabs while isolating Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. The result is a strong exclusive American presence in the Middle East with an agenda comprising three 'baskets': Politics, security and economy. Other players including the EU and the other Quartet members are becoming an extension to this agenda, if not followers.
Hadi voices the pain and frustration of is people when he says: "Ordinary Palestinians are exhausted and tired of empty slogans and rhetoric with no national agenda and consensus. We need a new generation of representatives with a new agenda for the people and their cause."
He cautions against looking at the Palestine question through a religious or only Arab-Islamic prism. "It is dangerous to see the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a religious conflict. It has been and should continue to be tackled as political national struggle for self-determination, freedom and independence for the Palestinian people on their own soil. For more than 100 years, Palestinian identity did not "melt" in any regional or international pot but has succeeded in maintaining and cultivating its roots, culture, history, monuments, and symbols on the Palestinian soil."
So given the long history of crippling dispossession, occupation, persecution and Palestinian helplessness in the face of tyranny, does he see light at the end of the tunnel?
"It's true that the peace process or the so-called two-state solution isn't going anywhere. The Gaza Strip is increasingly becoming an "Egyptian problem" cut off as it has become from the rest of Palestine. Jerusalem is turning into a closed city under exclusive Jewish control, totally changing its face and historical character, and over 60 per cent of the West Bank is controlled by the settlers assisted by the Israeli government. All this leaves the Palestinians locked in an Apartheid system, very much similar to that of South Africa. But we cannot afford to give up hope. We will continue to struggle for our rights and what justly and rightly belongs to us."
Holding his three fingers and in characteristic Arab fashion, he jabs the air: There are three ways this conflict could unravel: Evolution of the current Apartheid Israel into a bi-national state with continuing Israeli military ghettoes and Palestinian subjugation and bleeding with no one to heal their wounds; Algerian model where a leader based in Paris ended hundred years of French colonization by triggering a national revolt with one million lives being sacrificed; arrival of a leader like Salahuddin Ayyubi (Saladin the Great) to end hundred years of crusades and liberation of Palestine and Palestinians.
Only time will tell what destiny has in store for the Palestinians and Middle East. But free-spirited people do not wait for time to shape their destiny. They take charge of their destiny and create their own future.
Aijaz Z. Syed is a Gulf-based commentator.
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