By Hanan Ashrawi
June 5, 2017
On June 5, 1967, I was a student at the American University of Beirut majoring in English literature. That morning, I woke early to finish a research paper on James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” As had been my habit, I turned on the BBC News. I discovered, to my horror, that war had broken out back home.
Word soon reached me and my sister Nadia, who was also a student in Beirut, that our house in Ramallah had been shelled, and the fate of our family was unknown. For a week, we were gripped with shock and anxiety, alleviated only when our sister Muna, then in the United States, was able to contact the American Consulate in Jerusalem and relay the information to us that our family was safe and our house was still standing.
Like other parts of historic Palestine, however, our hometown was then occupied by the Israeli military. It took my father more than six years to get the family reunification permit that enabled me to return home.
That week in June marked the start of an intensely personal journey, linking our parents’ story to my own trauma of 1967. In the war of 1948 that led to the founding of Israel, my parents — along with thousands of others, all Palestinian Muslims and Christians — had been driven out of their home in Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, where my father was then stationed as a doctor in the Palestine Army.
In total, about 800,000 Palestinians were dispossessed and expelled. Because of the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948, those Palestinians and their descendants are refugees scattered across the region and the world, dreaming of their right to return. Many still have the keys and deeds to homes in Palestine.
My parents briefly took refuge in Amman, Jordan, before returning to my father’s ancestral home in Ramallah, where my earliest childhood memories begin. What I remember from those days is my parents’ generation’s sense of collective loss and insecurity.
What took place nearly 20 years later, in 1967, was not the Naksa, or setback, as the leaders of other Arab countries called it, but a resounding defeat, another disaster of tremendous proportions. June 1967 ushered in half a century of oppression, injustice and the captivity of an entire people. For me, the occupation brought with it an immense burden, but equally a sense of challenge and responsibility.
My own return to Ramallah via Jordan in 1973 was an ordeal, culminating in a prolonged interrogation, a strip search and the confiscation of my belongings by the Israeli Army. I arrived to discover that the landscape had changed — and the mind-set of the people with it. Under a harsh regime of military checkpoints, arbitrary arrests, deportations, home demolitions and sheer intimidation, Ramallah was no longer the “bride of Palestine,” as it had once been known, but a violated city.
In those days, Israel had banned the Palestine Liberation Organization from the occupied territories, but those of us who participated in the political leadership of the first intifada, which began in 1987, prepared a document calling on the P.L.O. to take the initiative and detailing a “peace offensive” based on international law. During a meeting in Algiers in 1988, the P.L.O. agreed to the principle of partition. Not long afterward, the organization settled for 22 percent of historic Palestine in hope of peace. The enormity of the sacrifice, and the magnitude of the compromise, has never been fully appreciated by the international community.
Today, Palestinians are left in control of barely 18 percent of the occupied territory — which means just 18 percent of that 22 percent of historic Palestine — because of continued Israeli settlement construction and land theft. There are some 650,000 settlers now living on Palestinian land, in violation of international law. Some of them are among the most radical and violent elements of Israeli society, yet they are powerful partners in a coalition government that is easily the most hard-line, racist administration in the history of Israel.
The results are evident in East Jerusalem, which has been subjected to a triple siege of settlements, military checkpoints and a separation and annexation barrier that is, in effect, an apartheid wall. As Israel pushes out the city’s Palestinian residents by harassing them, confiscating their ID’s, demolishing their homes and denying them services, the whole history of Palestinian presence in Jerusalem is being systematically erased.
The Gaza Strip has been turned into a huge prison camp, where 1.8 million Palestinians are subjugated in dire living conditions. Although Israel withdrew its occupying forces in 2005, it maintained a suffocating blockade by air, sea and land. Gazans have endured a series of Israeli military assaults that have left thousands dead, a majority of them civilians.
The occupation has imposed on Palestinians a system of economic dependency, with all transactions subject to Israeli whim. Israel also controls all the natural resources of the West Bank, including the water supply, and allocates just 14 percent of the aquifer’s water to Palestinians, while the rest is appropriated by Israel and its settlements. While most Palestinians in towns, villages and cities like mine can barely get drinking water, let alone water for their crops, Israeli settlers lounge by swimming pools and on watered lawns.
We Palestinians must also contend with daily humiliations and inconveniences caused by the restrictions of movement and services imposed by Israel’s control of borders and the settler-only roads and infrastructure that carve up the West Bank. The majority of Palestinians who do not have Jerusalem ID’s are forbidden to enter occupied East Jerusalem. Even though I have a Jerusalem ID, it takes me at least an hour to travel through several checkpoints from Ramallah to Jerusalem to visit family. This used to be a 15-minute trip.
Resistance comes at a high price. Nonviolent and peaceful protests are met with violent responses and punished by excessive prison sentences. In the five decades of occupation, many hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been killed, even children, when they stand up to soldiers with guns.
Palestinians desire peace, but peace cannot exist as long as the occupation and the denial of Palestinian rights continue. We have been engaged in a peace process since 1991, when we first met with Secretary of State James Baker. In that first encounter, the Palestinian delegation raised a host of issues, including human rights abuses and settlement construction. Secretary Baker assured us: “Begin negotiations and the settlements will stop.” Neither his, nor any American administration since, has made good on that promise.
From its inception, the peace process served to promote Israel’s interests and security, not to recognize the Palestinian people’s rights and humanity, nor to guarantee an independent state. During my negotiations with the American delegation, I heard repeatedly that the “special relationship” between Israel and the United States would always prevent any kind of accountability for Israel, let alone the adoption of any sanction. We Palestinians, on the other hand, constantly had to prove our seriousness of intent, and often faced threats and blackmail.
We asked the Americans for their own vision for peace, but we never saw any American document before it had been cleared with the Israeli delegation. Ultimately, Israel got incentives and inducements rather than blame when it undermined the process, reneged on agreements or redefined the parameters by creating new facts on the ground.
As President Trump takes on the challenge of making a deal, he must draw the proper conclusions from the failures of the past. That involves a recognition that ending the occupation and respecting Palestinians’ inalienable rights are central to any peace agreement.
As I recount this history, I am reminded of an incident during the first intifada in 1987. As I was leaving our house in Ramallah with friends to take part in a demonstration against the occupation, my daughter Zeina, who was 6 at the time, asked if she could come. I refused, explaining that it was too dangerous and she was too young.
“But by the time I grow up,” she pleaded, “the occupation may have ended and there’ll be no more demonstrations.”
Instead, my experience of living under occupation has become the reality, too, for my daughters, and even my grandchildren. The Israeli authorities revoked both of my daughters’ Jerusalem ID’s, which prevented them from living in their homeland and deprived me and our family of the joy of being part of our grandchildren’s lives.
Every Palestinian generation inherits the yearning for freedom from the previous generation — and the struggle to achieve it. We will continue to seek a just peace that will provide future generations with the historic redemption that should be theirs.
Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian lawmaker and a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, is the author of several works of literary criticism and the memoir “This Side of Peace: A Personal Account.”