Abstract: This brief paper will revolve around five questions. Is the experience of ending occupation in Asia and the Pacific of any relevance to the Palestinian struggle? Is the experience of nation-building in Asia and the Pacific relevant to the Palestinian struggle? What is it that makes the Palestinian struggle such a unique challenge for humankind? How can the rest of the human family help the Palestinian people end the agony of occupation? What is the special role that civil society in Asia and the Pacific can play to bring occupation to an end?
This brief paper will revolve around five questions. Is the experience of ending occupation in Asia and the Pacific of any relevance to the Palestinian struggle? Is the experience of nation-building in Asia and the Pacific relevant to the Palestinian struggle? What is it that makes the Palestinian struggle such a unique challenge for humankind? How can the rest of the human family help the Palestinian people end the agony of occupation? What is the special role that civil society in Asia and the Pacific can play to bring occupation to an end?
Relevance of ending occupation in Asia and the Pacific
The experience of the people in Asia and the Pacific in ending alien occupation has very little relevance to the Palestinian struggle. We shall take two examples from the colonial period. The Dutch ruled the Indonesian archipelago for centuries before the Indonesian people rose up against the colonial power. The opposition to Dutch colonialism was both peaceful and violent. In spite of their cultural diversity, Indonesians achieved a remarkable degree of unity in the course of their struggle for independence which was proclaimed on the 17th of August 1945.
Indians fought British rule over the sub-continent for a number of decades before India became independent on the 15th of August 1947. The Indian struggle was largely peaceful though there were acts of violence at various stages. Compared to Indonesia there was less unity in the Indian independence movement mainly because of the split between sections of the Hindu community on the one hand and a segment of the Muslim community on the other.
The commitment displayed by both Indonesians and Indians in their struggle against colonial rule would have some meaning for the Palestinians as they continue to battle Zionist occupation. Palestinians could emulate the Indonesians by enhancing their unity. Perhaps they could learn a thing or two from India’s non-violent quest for independence but this is where the differences begin to emerge. One of the reasons why Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful resistance against the British worked was because a significant segment of the British public began to feel from the nineteen thirties onwards that British colonial rule over India had no moral legitimacy. The self-righteousness that signifies Zionist dominance over Palestine and permeates Israeli society is in stark contrast one of the formidable psychological forces that sustains occupation.
This brings us to a whole gamut of differences between colonial occupation of various countries in Asia and the Pacific and Zionist occupation of Palestine.
One: though Zionism was strongly influenced by nineteenth century colonial Europe and subscribed to some of the leading myths of the ideology of colonialism such as the superiority of Western civilisation and the inferiority of non-Western cultures, it would be a little simplistic to establish a direct equation between the two. What we are implying is that opposing Zionism is not exactly the same as fighting an alien colonial power. Because the millennial quest for a ‘Jewish homeland’ in Palestine is integral to Zionism, the struggle of the Palestinian people has become more complicated.
Two: this means that the Zionist entity called Israel stands in a slightly different relationship to the victims of its occupation than the coloniser vis-a-vis the colonised. Unlike the colonial powers of old, who exploited the wealth of their colonies and extracted their surplus for the benefit of the upper stratum of their societies but had no intention of remaining in their colonies forever, Zionist Israelis who see themselves as a people returning to their home after ‘a pause’ of two thousand years, have no intention of leaving. This is a fact that Palestinians struggling against occupation have to take into account.
Three: apart from their dogged determination to stay put whatever the costs and consequences, Israelis and Israel have been buttressed and fortified by the overwhelming power of the United States. The military, political, economic, cultural and media clout of the world’s only superpower, mediated through the extraordinary influence exercised by Zionist lobbies in the US, has been a boost and a boon to Israel. This has been further reinforced by the massive moral and material support that Israel receives from Europe—a Europe that has never ceased to hang down its head in guilt and shame for the Nazi holocaust against Jews during the Second World War more than sixty years ago. This is why fighting Israeli occupation is much more difficult than opposing colonial rule in the past. The Palestinians and other Arabs such as the Syrians and the Lebanese, parts of whose territories are also occupied by Israel, are pitted against US hegemony in particular and Western dominance in general.
If there are few parallels between ending colonial occupation in Asia and the Pacific and the Palestinian quest for self-determination, are there any similarities between post-colonial occupation and what is happening in Palestine today? The best known example of post-colonial occupation in the region would be US aggression against the people of Vietnam and Indo-China in the sixties and early seventies. Using brilliant guerilla tactics, the Vietnamese people showed indomitable courage in repelling the aggressor. Vietnam’s astounding victory was a colossal defeat for US imperialism.
The people of Palestine have also demonstrated admirable courage, perseverance and tenacity in confronting Zionist occupation. But they are not fighting the US directly. The US as a military power is not occupying their land. The Vietnamese expelled occupiers who had no religious or cultural or emotional attachment to their land. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are facing an adversary who sees the blessed land of Palestine as his God given gift!
From these examples of occupation in colonial and post-colonial Asia and the Pacific it is obvious that the Palestinian situation is markedly different.
The nation-building experience
The experience of nation-building in Asia and the Pacific is even less relevant to the Palestinian situation. It is perhaps a misnomer to talk of the relevance of the region’s nation building experience to Palestine when Palestine is still an occupied land. It is only possible to build one’s nation if one enjoys a certain degree of political independence and exercises some sovereignty— as most societies in Asia and the Pacific do. When you are under the heel of the occupier you are in no position to shape your own politics or economics or culture even though we acknowledge that in an increasingly globalised world, nation-states have limited scope to chart their own destiny.
Perhaps we mean something else by ‘nation-building’. Perhaps what we have in mind is the ability of certain states in Asia and the Pacific to forge a united nation through some sort of power sharing arrangement among their ethnically diverse communities. Malaysia’s relative success in this area, some have opined, is worthy of emulation.
Here again, the Malaysian experience is of no relevance to the Palestinian-Israeli situation. In the case of Malaysia, the indigenous Malays, for a variety of reasons, acceded to the accommodation of what were then immigrant non-Malay communities following the end of the Second World War. As a result of this accommodation, Malays began to share political power with the non-Malays while they remained at the core of the political system. The indigenous Palestinians, on the other hand, with a long and unbroken relationship to their land were evicted from their homes, dispossessed and oppressed by immigrant Zionists from Europe who were hell-bent on establishing their power at the expense of the Palestinians. The Palestinians today are utterly powerless while the Zionists are going all out to maximize their power. When there is such asymmetry of power how can one even think of power sharing?
For some of the advocates of power sharing, the root of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict lies in the different religious identities of the Israelis and the Palestinians. So it is imperative, in their view, to build bridges between Jews and Muslims. While bringing different religious communities closer together is important in itself, the bridge building solution does not deal with the crux of the matter. For the underlying cause of the conflict are land and the usurpation of land. To put it starkly, there will be no peace between the people of Israel and the people of Palestine unless the critical question of the dispossession of the Palestinian people is addressed in an honest and sincere manner.
Because dispossession is at the heart of the conflict it serves no purpose to seek inspiration from nation building efforts in Asia and the Pacific.
A unique challenge
It is dispossession which makes the Palestinian struggle unique in our day and age. Dispossession — to be stripped of what you had possessed: your land, your identity, your dignity, your honor—- generates more pain, more suffering and more anger amongst its victims than mere occupation. To appreciate the difference, Iraqi land has been occupied but the Palestinian people have been dispossessed.
To grasp the depth and breadth of Palestinian dispossession one has to come to grips with five dimensions of the phenomenon. One: as we have alluded to, the time-honoured link between the Palestinian people and their land. It is partly because of their deep rooted indigenousness— going back three thousand years at least— that dispossession is so traumatic.
Two: in contrast to the legitimacy of the Palestinian claim to the land, Zionist justifications for annexation and occupation are flawed. While the yearning for a Jewish homeland is understandable, given the community’s exile and persecution in Europe right up to the middle of the twentieth century, the arguments put forward by Zionists to legitimise their conquest of Palestine and their subjugation of the Palestinian people will not stand up to scrutiny. How can a people living in Europe for centuries who had lost all connections to Palestine claim that they have a right to the land simply because that is where Jewish kingdoms existed once upon a time? If that is the basis for establishing states, if all of us started to lay claims upon those portions of the planet where we were, or where we were supposed to be, two thousand years ago, one can imagine how chaotic the world would become! In any case, is there incontrovertible historical evidence to support the Zionist contention that there were exclusive Jewish kingdoms in antiquity? Isn’t it true that historical Palestine was always a land where conquerors and the conquered from different communities— including Jews— intermingled with one another? Or, are we all expected to endorse a belief held by many Jews and some Christians that God had bequeathed Palestine to the Jews, His chosen people? Since Zionist claims to Palestine are morally and intellectually indefensible, dispossession becomes all the more painful for the Palestinians.
Three: what has made it even more painful is the manner by which the Zionists usurped and annexed Palestine. From dubious purchases of parcels of Palestinian lands to expulsions of entire Palestinian communities to large scale massacres of Palestinian freedom fighters, the Zionists have today gained total control of the whole of historical Palestine. The military superiority of the Israeli state has been a crucial factor in the dispossession of the Palestinian people.
Four: this dispossession — as we have observed—has become a tragic reality largely because of the protection and patronage of the US and, to a lesser extent, Europe. It is significant that the dispossession of a people has brought into being a nation which is sometimes perceived as a Western outpost in the strategically vital, oil-rich Middle East. There is no precedent in contemporary history of how one civilisation has through design implanted a state in the midst of another civilisation with an entirely different religious culture in order to perpetuate its interests.
Five: if Western power embodied in the global system is partly responsible for the dispossession of the Palestinians, then the betrayal and the connivance of Arab governments is one of the principal reasons why the Palestinians have not been able to liberate themselves from their subjugation. Almost every Arab government in the last few decades has at some point or other acted in a manner that is detrimental to the Palestinian cause. It is this — the proverbial stab in the back— that has aggravated the pain of dispossession for the Palestinian people.
If we reflect upon the five dimensions of dispossession we would realise why the Palestinian struggle for independence and national sovereignty is such an uphill battle. Few other people in history have been faced with such monumental obstacles. This is why comparing the Palestinian struggle to yet another heroic quest for freedom — the anti- apartheid movement of South Africa — does not really do justice to the former. The anti-apartheid movement did not have to contend with a foe who is convinced that it has a divine right to the land. Neither did it have to confront a hegemonic global power structure which has a direct stake in denying its victim the justice that is it is due.
Helping the Palestinians
Telling the whole world the truth about the Palestinians— in essence the truth about their dispossession— is the greatest service that global civil society can render the Palestinians. A lot of people out there do not know about the nature and extent of Palestinian dispossession. The good citizens in the democracies of Europe and North America should be our primary targets. The reason is obvious. It is support from these two continents—we have shown — which helps to sustain the power of Zionist Israel.
In telling the truth, there are three important messages we may want to convey. One: the tragic story of dispossession which as we have seen puts the whole Palestinian issue in perspective. The telling of this story must also include an honest appraisal of Zionism and Israel.
Two: we must also make a lot more Americans and Europeans aware of the huge sacrifice that the dispossessed Palestinians are prepared to make for the sake of peace. What does one mean by this? In 1988, the Palestinian leadership took the painful decision of accepting the idea of a two state solution. In other words, the leadership was prepared to yield seventy eight percent of historical Palestine to Israel if Israel was willing to withdraw from the territories it had conquered in 1967, namely the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem would be the capital of the future Palestinian state. Palestinian refugees should also be allowed to return to Israel and the yet to be born Palestinian state. Though the present Hamas leadership has yet to accept the two state solution, a sizeable segment of the Palestinian population endorses it. Arab governments also backed the proposal at their Beirut Summit in 2002. So did the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) at the Kuala Lumpur Summit in 2003.
Three: at the same time, the West should be told in unambiguous language that Israel is not really interested in a two state solution along the lines envisaged here. It will not allow East Jerusalem to become the capital of a future Palestinian state. It is totally opposed to the return of any Palestinian refugees to any part of present day Israel. All that the Israeli government will concede to the Palestinian people is the establishment of some sort of ‘bantustan’ in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, under its effective control.
The people of North America and Europe— especially the citizens of the US— should persuade their governments to coerce the Israeli government to abandon its bantustan scheme and instead embrace the two state solution that Palestinians, other Arabs, many Muslims and most people of the world want. This is the greatest challenge before civil society in the West. Can civil society in the West make a campaign for a two state solution its most important agenda for 2007?
If such a campaign can be organized on a mammoth scale, along the lines of the ‘make poverty history’ campaign, in a number of North American and European cities throughout 2007, it would be a tremendous boost to the Palestinian cause — and the cause of world peace.
Civil Society in Asia and the Pacific
While it is the commitment of civil society in North America and Europe to the Palestinian cause that really matters, civil society actors in Asia and the Pacific also have an important role to play. This is especially so in view of the rapid rise of China as a global economic power and the increasingly significant presence of South Korea in the regional and international economy. There is also the other East Asian economic giant, Japan, which continues to exert a great deal of influence upon the global economy as the world’s number two economy. For all these reasons — as economic power, which will inevitably be accompanied by political power, shifts to Asia—civil society should pioneer efforts to put the Palestinian cause on the radar screens of the peoples and governments of the region. This can be done in many ways.
One: there should be a massive endeavor to produce television documentaries and films, radio programs, books, magazines and newspaper articles on the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice in all the indigenous languages of Asia and the Pacific. A cursory survey of current information on Palestine in say Chinese or Japanese or Korean or in Thai or Tagalog or Fijian would reveal that there is a woefully pathetic dearth of good visual or audio or written materials on the subject. In telling the truth about Palestine in the languages of the region, civil society groups may want to bear in mind the three critical messages highlighted in our paper, namely, the extent of Palestinian dispossession, the magnitude of Palestinian sacrifice and the depth of Israeli antipathy to a just two state solution.
Two: in carrying these three messages to the people of Asia and the Pacific in their own languages, civil society groups in the region should establish effective and extensive networks among themselves and with other groups and networks in other continents campaigning on behalf of the Palestinian cause. This was one of the proposals in the Putrajaya Action Plan adopted by the ‘Peace in Palestine’ conference held in the Administrative Capital of Malaysia at the end of March 2005. One hopes that this UN conference on Palestine held in Kuala Lumpur will inspire the Malaysia based International Center on Palestine for Civil Society in the South (ICPCSS) to implement this and other ideas contained in the Plan.
Three: civil society groups in the region campaigning on Palestine should also open communication lines with legislators, civil servants, diplomats and government ministers. The objective would be to persuade governments in Asia and the Pacific to be more active and involved in the peaceful, diplomatic quest for a two state solution. In this regard it is worth remembering that there was a time from the fifties to the seventies when great Asian giants such as China, India and Indonesia were vocal champions of the Palestinian cause on the international stage. The decline of nationalism in the post-colonial era, the collapse of the socialist experiment with economic transformation in a number of Asian countries, the concomitant expansion of global capitalism from the nineties onwards, and most of all, the accompanying ascendancy of American global hegemony have modified Asian elite perspectives on Palestine. From vocal champions of the Palestinian cause, the governments of China, India, Indonesia and other countries in the region have become muted advocates of a just cause.
Now we may be at another turning point in the power relationship between nations and regions. American hegemonic power is on the decline. With it Zionist Israeli influence will diminish. As a self- confident Asia finds its feet we hope that it will turn its gaze towards Palestine. We pray that an Asia that is not burdened by Zionist and Israeli lobbies will be able to expedite the implementation of a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The tragedy of Palestine began in twentieth century Europe. Perhaps it is in twenty first century Asia that that tragedy will finally come to a close.
Paper presented at the United Nations Forum of Civil Society in support of the Palestinian People in Hotel Istana on 17 December 2006.