Ramallah Diary
5 May 1998
"Goodbye Nizar Qabbani"
Photo: Nizar Qabbani

A recent question I was asked in an e-mail, about the use of the word "colonies" to describe Israeli communities inside the 1948 borders really got me thinking.

It seems a fair enough description seeing as the people are not indigenous, the land is not theirs, their culture is not Middle Eastern, and their desire is to see the present inhabitants gone, silent and confined, or as their cheap labour.

The point I want to make in writing this is one I tried to make at the UN NGO conference in Geneva, last August. There, we kept talking about "East Jerusalem" as the capital of Palestine, and "the Gaza Strip and West Bank including East Jerusalem", instead of simply just "Palestine".

Although I use the terms myself when talking about these areas, in this Nakba year what is becoming more and more glaring is how much ground we have over the years ceded to the Israeli version of reality.

Why do we talk about East Jerusalem? Was West Jerusalem not Palestinian?

Why are Haifa or Yaffa not referred to as "occupied territories"?

Why are we not talking about Palestinian autonomous areas in Haifa or Yaffa?

By "meeting the Israelis halfway" before they have agreed or demonstrated that they are prepared to do the same, we have been reduced to a situation where half-way is now three-quarters for them and one-quarter for us. And this remaining quarter is still being negotiated.

Does no one remember the gracious Palestinian call for a state in this partial remenant of historical Palestine? These days we are prepared to argue about how much of the West Bank and Gaza is for Palestinians.

Why do I never hear about Palestinian Authority officials talking about restitution? Not just mentioning it once, but incorporating it into their general list of demands, every time CNN or ABC fawn after them?

Israel needs to pay for 1948, for 1967, for the Intifada, for September 1996, for every demonstration in which it opened fire with live ammunition, for PR-friendly "rubber" bullets, and for every piece of land confiscated to create a settlement, a colony, in the midst of Palestine.

Israel raised the issue itself. Now, where is the Palestinian Swiss Bank issue? The Israeli Knesset, which passed a law against offering restitiution to Palestinians, is inviting us to make the case. Isn't it about time?

Of course, none of these payments should have anything to do with recognising the existing status quo.

I am rather talking about 'interest' for the 'rental' of land, compensation for the years Palestinians could not develop their land and were prevented from developing the land they had, for their stress, for their tears, for their illnesses, for their diseases, for every looted gold bracelet from a 1948 house, for every day a refugee was made to spend dreaming, for every martyr, for every lame child, and for every uprooted olive tree.

Then we can begin to talk about 'return' and 'land'.

Instead, we have the CIA, Shin Bet and Preventative Security regularly meeting in Ramallah to discuss how to fulfil Israel's security needs while Israel continues these acts of confiscation and violence.

And Palestinian land dealers, defined "collaborators" for selling land to Jews, are tortured and killed, while those that signed away the birthright of a million Palestinian refugees and their descendents are called "negotiators."

The war of words is the main arena the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been fought and lost in, and we still don't have a high-quality Palestinian English-language newspaper.

No hard hitting, well-funded news websites to compete with the likes of the Jerusalem Post, supposedly the "sixth most popular news website in the world." There really must be a famine of truth in the world if that is true.

In fact we can't even get Diaspora Palestinians to invest in Nakba activities. Virtually all the finding is coming from the Europeans, who were amongst those that created the Palestine problem.

Never mind anyway, as most of us who think the Nakba important enough to commemorate only started our activities this year. Without money, we are like the chef trying to hold onto all his plates in Sesame Street.

Hey! At least we have Sesame Street here in Israel/Palestine although I can't imagine it will do anything apart from try to convince Palestinian and Israeli children that the problem is only in their heads. While the parents of one set of offspring go off to shoot at Abdullah Bird's and Mohammed the Grouch's parents during their reserve duty.

Marking Israel's 50th anniversary, Al Gore said that, "In Israel, Americans see a reflection of our own heritage, our own struggle for freedom and the right to live in peace with security." And a strange and inexplicable stomping all over the natives in the two lands, also springs to mind. "If someone ever wondered," said Bill Clinton, "if there was a place in the world where it was possible to enjoy freedom and strenuous honest arguments, 24 hours-a-day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, he should fly to Israel". And find out that at least the bit about arguments is true.

But let's not blame Al Gore or Bill Clinton for the situation, after all, they're just dancing to the tune of the loudest pipes. And let's not blame Steven Speilberg for not making a movie about Al-Nakba, when we have something like $100 billion dollars of capital available in the same Palestinian Diaspora whose tragedy we seek to commemorate.

Palestinian universities, the future of Palestine in their hands, can't pay their staff through lack of funds.

Palestinian NGOs go begging to the embassies of the historical perpetrators to raise the funds to commemorate the acts they suffered at the hands of the colonial fathers of these same representatives.

Seeking funds from historical agents of disaster to the Palestinian community pushes us towards compromise. I speak of realities here, from this holy ground. Those that rush to publish information of confiscated Jewish Second World War properties are standing before Palestinians and saying, "Can you rephrase this?", "Do you mind working with...?", "Can you change this...?".

They fund Palestinians to buy the right to control their message before someone else does and they fund Palestinians to appear "fair" and "balanced".

Meanwhile, Palestinian Diaspora-funded high-rise buildings cast a dark veil over the face of the formerly named "Bride of Palestine." Today Ramallah looks more and more like the "Whore of Palestine" every day, her bleeding heart - the Manara - hemmed in by cigarette billboards on every rooftop.

Cigarette adverts also appear in the Arabic newspapers, who refuse to accept advertisements for the non-lethal, home-produced Palestinian Taybey beer. Thus, they appease the Muslim community while making money out of the same community (and of course Palestinians of all religions) that suffers health problems and the financial drain of addiction.

I remember someone pointing out one advert to me. It was simple. It had a picture of the box. It said just three words: "The American Cigarette". Another: "The Taste of America".

Seemingly this nationality alone is enough to convince us to destroy ourselves. It must be good, it's American. And so many Palestinians dream of going to work and live there (from here) while despising those that return from there (to here), making them cultural refugees in their own land.

I smoke. I'll give up one day. But to imagine, in the meantime, using an official position such as that of a municipality to open the door to that which despoils and harms for the sake of a few bucks for me and Uncle Sam?

"The taste of America" which I recall is the taste of Federal Laboratories teargas supplied to Israel at least as an indirect (if not direct) part of US aid.

And the taste of blood on Ramallah hospital walls during the September 1996 clashes while US-made Cobra helicopters shot at civilian homes.

A single U.S. funded M-16 bullet in the heart of Birzeit student Abdullah Saleh, and the Israeli soldier that shot him went home to sleep soundly that night, never even asked to justify. Nor to explain. That for me is the taste of America, whose leaders dare to describe Israel as "a democracy" in a country where only a Jew has real rights. Welcome to Palestine.

What is the taste of America if it is not the taste of oppression? The taste of military exports to third world countries, who probably wouldn't have the civil unrest they do if the exports fed, instead of killed, their people.

And yet we idolise America! Could it get much sadder? We idolise America like we idolise Israel.

(An idol doesn't have to be something that we like, just something we volunteer control of ourselves to, and in this field there is no fence.)

We blame that to which we have become ensnared on everything but ourselves. At this point in Palestinian history, Palestinians and those like myself who work on the Palestine issue - both here and outside the country - have never looked sicker.

The Israelis have the international community believing that being politically incorrect to the Israeli State is a greater crime than their ongoing repression, caging and dispossession of the Palestinian people.

God help you as a Western leader if you do not condemn a suicide bombing in terms that suggest the perpetrators are vermin, cowards, animals, or inhuman. Meanwhile, you are "concerned" about the "unhelpful policies" of Israel that "slow down the peace process". You all but put him on the bus yourselves.

And in our actions, in response to this major Israeli victory, above all I see a self-serving nature. All this money? All this potential to achieve real gains with Palestinian Diaspora talent and resources? All the opportunities to build powerful new bridges of international solidarity such as those that existed between the world and the Black South Africans? And what do we do?

We invest in the worst parts of Western culture - tall buildings, expensive and tastless restuarants, and burger bars - all stages on which to whine because the Israelis and Jewish people worldwide learned the more important lessons very well. And now, when we still can learn, we refuse to learn. We continue to blame, we sulk, and we repeat the sins for which we judged our forefathers.

Nizar Qabbani passed away in these past few weeks, which makes me sad. A Syrian poet whose few poems I did read moved me in an unusal way. This extract from one, about the corruption of the PLO leadership in exile, viewed through the lenses of a newly exploding Intifada, speaks of more than just the Palestinian leadership of today. It speaks to each one of us, individually. It nails us to a piece of land called "Palestine" and asks why we consider it real estate and why we despise history so much? How quickly we give ourselves away, like Ramallah the whore.

This poem was always about the misuse of power. We too have power, and we can choose to weild it to change things for the better or we can chose not to.

How clean are we in the shameful light of 50 years of inaction since the Palestinian Nakba? How clean are we when stood next to the hatred and insolence of a third generation refugee camp youth? Are we not every bit as repulsive as that which caught Qabbani's pen on fire..?

"Like mussels we sit in cafes 

one hunts for a business venture 

one for another billion 

and a fourth wife 

and breasts polished by civilisation. 

One stalks London for a lofty mansion 

one traffics in arms 

one seeks revenge in nightclubs 

one plots for a throne, a private army, and a princedom.  

Ah, generation of betrayal 

of surrogate indecent men, 

generation of leftovers, 

we'll be swept away 

- never mind the slow pace of history - 

by children bearing rocks."

Goodbye Nizar Qabbani! I never met you. I never read your poems in your native tongue. I only ever saw two or three of them. But I will miss your words like the morning sun after a long, dark night.

               'We want an angry generation

               To plough the sky

               To blow up history

               To blow up our thoughts.

               We want a new generation

               That does not forgive mistakes

               That does not bend.

               We want a generation

               Of giants.'

Nigel Parry

Ramallah, Palestine, 5 May 1998.


This diary entry was widely distributed on the Internet via e-mail and resulted in a huge amount of mail from Palestinians around the world, expressing grief at their collective loss as the 50th anniversary of the Nabka ("Catastrophe") approached and spoke of the difficulties in persevering during the current period.

It was later republished in the English version of People's Rights magazine, a newsletter by LAW, the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment. I allowed LAW to do this on the condition that it was also published in the Arabic version of the magazine. Both language versions are distributed in Palestine.

To my dismay, LAW went ahead and published it in the English magazine only, a common practice in Palestine, where the same criticism written in Arabic and English results in very different reactions. The Palestinian Authority reacts very badly to criticism in Arabic, while the same words in English are either ignored or tolerated.

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