Posted on February 24, 1997 in Washington Watch
The year was 1971 when I first traveled to Lebanon to pursue research for my doctoral dissertation. During my visit I spent considerable time in Palestinian refugee camps meeting with people who up until that time had existed for me as an abstraction.
For days I catalogued stories and recorded vignettes of my visit. I heard powerful testimonies of the expulsions of 1948. Families showed me photographs of lost homes and loved ones and other treasures that had survived their flight into exile.
Five years later I founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. I worked closely with Felicia Langer and Israel Shahak two legendary Israeli human rights activists. Our efforts exposed Israeli violations of Palestinian rights previously unknown in the U.S.: systematic torture of prisoners, cruel acts of humiliation designed to degrade Palestinian leaders, forced expulsions of leaders, demolition of homes and villages, expropriation of lands, and destruction of orchards, arbitrary mass arrests, and harsh acts of collective punishment against entire communities.
And there were other outrages: the deliberate shooting down of a Libyan airliner killing all seventy three passengers, the bombing of an Egyptian kindergarten, the repeated mass bombings of and then invasion and occupation of the south of Lebanon. And still other too numerous to mention.
In 1981, there was the bombing of the Fakhani neighborhood in Beirut, which resulted in the killing of over 380 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. This was followed by the “Bitter year of 1982.”
1982 witnessed both the “Iron fist” in the West Bank and Gaza and the Israeli onslaught against Lebanon culminating in the effort to strangle and destroy the infrastructure of West Beirut. Finally the devastated city was entered and pillaged and its inhabitants brutalized.
From there it was but a half decade to the intifada with its “broken bones” and mass arrests and then the beginning of peace talks.
Three years into peace, the refugees in Lebanon still sit in their wretched exile. Lebanon is still occupied and periodically brutalized and in the West Bank and Gaza there is still confiscation, settlement building, and now economic strangulation.
I recap those horrors not to argue against the peace process—but to highlight one of its missing dimensions.
It is central to the success of these negotiations that we remember the horrors that have affected the lives of so many Palestinians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Syrians, and Egyptians.
Abstract formulas can be negotiated and agreements can be signed. But at the end of the day for peace to be real the personal pain of individuals must be addressed.
Palestinian pain, Lebanese pain, etc. must be on the negotiating table and weighted in the process.
It can not only be the Israelis who negotiate standing in front of the accumulated suffering of their people.
Israelis collected reparations from Germany and now the World Jewish Congress is demanding restoration of lost Jewish wealth from Swiss banks. In Poland, Jews will now be able to reclaim land confiscated from them during the World War. In Bosnia there is a war crimes tribunal and in South Africa a commission on reconciliation meets to hold accountable those who committed atrocities under apartheid. The U.S. demands and wins sanctions against Libya and passes legislation threatening to punish any country that does business with Cuba on the grounds that Americans of Cuban descent had property confiscated illegally by the Castro government.
All of these actions are deemed justified on the basis of past suffering and the demand that someone be held accountable for unjust deeds. For there to be reconciliation, however, it is not always necessary that individuals be punished. The South Africa model, for example, requires only that the guilty be identified and ask forgiveness.
But if, and this is the troubling reality in the Arab relationship with Israel, there is no remorse, no acknowledgement that wrongs were committed, then how in the end can there be reconciliation.
There is asymmetry in the Arab-Israeli relationship. Israel has greater military power and, given the support of the U.S., greater political power. But Israel also wrongly assumes that it has greater moral power in that it negotiates as the sole victim seeking assurances and security. It is unconscionable that the Arab world has not made a substantial effort to challenge this Israeli view.
There must be peace and peace can only be based on negotiations. But negotiations must be based on mutual respect and reciprocity.
Arabs must acknowledge the pain and insecurity of Israelis especially that for which they are directly responsible. Arabs must simultaneously demand that Israel and individual Israelis recognize their responsibility for the Arab suffering they have caused.
It is fascinating to observe that when Israelis speak of the tragedies that have befallen them they give specifics; names and faces. They have the names of those who were blown up in the bus in Tel Aviv and those who were killed in Ma’alot or in Munich. There is even a memorial in a Jewish settlement in Hebron with the pictures of the Jews who were killed in that city in 1929.
But who among the Arabs, except for the families directly affected, remember even one name or one face of an Arab killed in past atrocities.
If Arabs do not demand remembrance and accountability then who will? There ought to be in front of us at all times the faces of families who lost loved ones in Fakhari, in Sabra and Shatila, in the al Ibrahimi mosque and in Qana (and all the others before and after), or the prisoners who were sexually and physically abused, or the families that suffered from expulsion, loss of land, and destruction of their homes and all of the other who suffered personal pain and indignity.
They, in a real sense, ought to be our strength. It is to them that we must be responsive and it is by them that we will be held accountable.
I do not recommend that we wallow in the past or create a religion of our traumas. But how can we move forward, with a constituency in pain, if we do not address their pain and seek, on their behalf, to resolve their pain.
If Cubans, Bosnians, South Africans, and Jewish lives and suffering matter enough to be remembered, then Arab lives must matter as well.
The Israelis can not be allowed to do what they did after the recent revelations of mass graves of massacred Egyptian prisoners of war following the 1973 war. Their argument that to raise such an issue was contrary to peace is unacceptable on moral, legal, and political grounds.
If we are to lead our people into peace and reconciliation, we must know that our constituency is in pain. To ignore this reality does an injustice to the memories of those who suffered and to those who still carry their suffering. And to ignore this reality gives the Israelis a false sense of peace—as if only their suffering is real and there is no one who will hold them accountable for their deeds.
This was meant, in part, to be an answer to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who asked during his recent visit to Washington, why so many Arabs still held Israel to be an enemy. He called on Arab leaders to launch a reeducation program to teach acceptance of Israel and reconciliation.
I agree with the Prime Minister’s notion that reconciliation is essential for peace, but with out an acknowledgement of injustices and a commitment to end the suffering, his call tragically, is a hollow one.
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