Maen Rashid Areikat, who is the Chief PLO Representative to the US, has marked the 45th anniversary of the Six Day War with an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), where he asserts that “The Time for a Palestinian State Is Now.”
I largely agree with the concluding statement, where Areikat argues:
“It is in Israel’s vital interest to come to a complete resolution of the conflict between it and the Palestinian people sooner rather than later, relieving the weight of this tragic conflict from both of our peoples’ shoulders.”
However, pretty much everything else that Areikat writes in his relatively short article illustrates in my view why it is unfortunately unlikely that this conflict will be resolved any time soon.
The first part of Areikat’s article is taken up by what he describes as Palestinian achievements under an occupation that “only grew more inhumane with each turn of the year.” Areikat then invites his readers: “Imagine what Palestinians would accomplish if they were freed from the current constraints.”
The problem with this call to imagine a bright future for Palestine is that whatever the constraints imposed by the Israeli occupation, Areikat’s article illustrates all too well that the Palestinians are in no way ready to give up one all-defining and entirely self-imposed constraint: the idea that their identity centers in one way or another on being the long-suffering victim of a cruel and militaristic Israel which stands against everything that is good and right – and the implication is inevitably that everyone who is as good and right as the Palestinians must stand against Israel.
Thus, the PLO delegation’s stated dedication to “educational efforts aimed at fostering a better understanding of Palestine and Palestinians amongst the American public at large” is obviously viewed by Areikat and his staff as requiring them to present Israel in starkly negative terms. It’s the same simple calculus that inspires much of the so-called pro-Palestinian activism: you will have a “better understanding” of how wonderful the Palestinians are once you understand just how utterly depraved the Israelis are…
Accordingly, the delegation’s website currently features – in addition to what is described as “Op-Ed by Ambassador Areikat” – two statements about the anniversary of the 1967 “naksa” (i.e. the setback of Israel’s victory) and the 1948 “nakba” (i.e. the catastrophe of Israel’s establishment), supplemented by a report on a BBC poll that shows Israel as ranking third among nations perceived as having a negative influence on the world; additional offerings include monthly reports monitoring supposed Israeli incitement.
Areikat’s WSJ op-ed provides yet another variation on the implicit theme of a struggle between the Palestinian forces of light and the Israeli forces of darkness. Echoing the usual propaganda of anti-Israel activists, Areikat breezily claims that “Israel has hailed its victory as divine providence, a testament to its superiority that kindled a misplaced sense of entitlement for regional hegemony.” Areikat then claims that Israel’s military rule over the territories occupied in the wake of the war “only grew more inhumane with each turn of the year.” But according to him, the Palestinian faced all this in the most admirable way imaginable:
“Palestinians […] forged ahead to take charge of their own fate and reclaim their rights with determination and zeal. A relentless pursuit of education and self-empowerment became our telltale sign. Widely recognized as hard-working, educated, resourceful and entrepreneurial, Palestinians became the preferred candidates by employers across the Arab world and wherever else they migrated in search of opportunity.”
While Areikat wants his readers to imagine Palestine on the basis of this glowing picture, the glow quickly fades when the pathos-laden narrative is replaced by historical facts.
It is perhaps instructive to start with Areikat’s own official biography, which states that he was born on “October 12, 1960 in Jericho in the occupied West Bank.” However, in 1960, very few Palestinians would have regarded Jericho or the West Bank as “occupied.” After all, in late 1948, a group of Palestinian leaders had officially asked for the incorporation of the West Bank into the Jordanian kingdom, and Jordan annexed the area in April 1950. (An English translation of an interesting Knesset debate on this issue in May 1950 is available here.) The annexation also meant that the people living in the West Bank — as the area was then named by Jordan — became Jordanian citizens. Anis F. Kassim, an international law expert and practicing lawyer in Jordan, explained in an interview published in February 2011 by the Electronic Intifada (which, incidentally, is listed among the useful links on the website of the PLO delegation):
“on 20 December 1949, the Jordanian council of ministries amended the 1928 citizenship law such that all Palestinians who took refuge in Jordan or who remained in the western areas controlled by Jordan at the time of the law’s entry into force, became full Jordanian citizens for all legal purposes. The law did not discriminate between Palestinian refugees displaced from the areas that Israel occupied in 1948 and those of the area that the Jordanian authorities renamed the West Bank in 1950.”
So Maen Rashid Areikat was born in what most, if not all, residents of the West Bank – all of them Jordanian citizens – then regarded as a part of Jordan. It was only in July 1988 that Jordan ceded its claims to the West Bank in favor of the PLO – using the opportunity to deprive West Bank residents of their Jordanian citizenship. As Kassim put it:
“more than 1.5 million Palestinians went to bed on 31 July 1988 as Jordanian citizens, and woke up on 1 August 1988 as stateless persons.”
Just a few years later, in the framework of the Oslo process of the 1990’s, Jericho was, together with Gaza, designated to come under the administration of the newly established Palestinian Authority (PA) – indeed, the relevant agreement of April 1994 is also known as the “Gaza and Jericho First”-agreement, and it was in Jericho that Arafat was sworn in as head of the PA. Jericho is now one of the 16 administrative districts ruled by the PA.
One could be tempted to wonder if the establishment of the PA is one of the developments that motivated Areikat to claim that Israel’s occupation “only grew more inhumane with each turn of the year.”
But there are more inconvenient historical facts that Areikat prefers to ignore. As Ephraim Karsh highlighted in an essay published 10 years ago, the supposedly “inhumane” Israeli occupation brought “astounding social and economic progress” for the residents of the former Egyptian- and Jordanian-ruled territories:
“At the inception of the occupation, conditions in the territories were quite dire. Life expectancy was low; malnutrition, infectious diseases, and child mortality were rife; and the level of education was very poor. Prior to the 1967 war, fewer than 60 percent of all male adults had been employed, with unemployment among refugees running as high as 83 percent. Within a brief period after the war, Israeli occupation had led to dramatic improvements in general well-being, placing the population of the territories ahead of most of their Arab neighbors.
In the economic sphere, most of this progress was the result of access to the far larger and more advanced Israeli economy: the number of Palestinians working in Israel rose from zero in 1967 to 66,000 in 1975 and 109,000 by 1986, accounting for 35 percent of the employed population of the West Bank and 45 percent in Gaza. Close to 2,000 industrial plants, employing almost half of the work force, were established in the territories under Israeli rule.
During the 1970’s, the West Bank and Gaza constituted the fourth fastest-growing economy in the world — ahead of such “wonders” as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Korea, and substantially ahead of Israel itself. Although GNP per capita grew somewhat more slowly, the rate was still high by international standards, with per-capita GNP expanding tenfold between 1968 and 1991 from $165 to $1,715 (compared with Jordan’s $1,050, Egypt’s $600, Turkey’s $1,630, and Tunisia’s $1,440). By 1999, Palestinian per-capita income was nearly double Syria’s, more than four times Yemen’s, and 10 percent higher than Jordan’s (one of the better off Arab states). Only the oil-rich Gulf states and Lebanon were more affluent.
Under Israeli rule, the Palestinians also made vast progress in social welfare. Perhaps most significantly, mortality rates in the West Bank and Gaza fell by more than two-thirds between 1970 and 1990, while life expectancy rose from 48 years in 1967 to 72 in 2000 (compared with an average of 68 years for all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa). Israeli medical programs reduced the infant-mortality rate of 60 per 1,000 live births in 1968 to 15 per 1,000 in 2000 (in Iraq the rate is 64, in Egypt 40, in Jordan 23, in Syria 22). And under a systematic program of inoculation, childhood diseases like polio, whooping cough, tetanus, and measles were eradicated.
No less remarkable were advances in the Palestinians’ standard of living. By 1986, 92.8 percent of the population in the West Bank and Gaza had electricity around the clock, as compared to 20.5 percent in 1967; 85 percent had running water in dwellings, as compared to 16 percent in 1967; 83.5 percent had electric or gas ranges for cooking, as compared to 4 percent in 1967; and so on for refrigerators, televisions, and cars.
Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, during the two decades preceding the intifada of the late 1980’s, the number of schoolchildren in the territories grew by 102 percent, and the number of classes by 99 percent, though the population itself had grown by only 28 percent. Even more dramatic was the progress in higher education. At the time of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, not a single university existed in these territories. By the early 1990’s, there were seven such institutions, boasting some 16,500 students. Illiteracy rates dropped to 14 percent of adults over age 15, compared with 69 percent in Morocco, 61 percent in Egypt, 45 percent in Tunisia, and 44 percent in Syria.”
While it would probably be too much to expect Areikat or any other Palestinian official to acknowledge the facts listed by Karsh, the apparent Palestinian determination to demonize Israel can only cast a shadow on how we imagine the Palestinian state. What will happen with all the hatred against Israel that Palestinian officials like Areikat stoke even when they try to conjure a future Palestinian state in the brightest colors?
Palestinian officials don’t really have an answer to this, and that is arguably one reason why so far no Palestinian leader has been willing to accept the offers of statehood presented to the Palestinians at several occasions: anyone seen as responsible for negotiating a compromise with Israel has to fear for his life.