There are not a lot of Yale undergraduates who grew up in the Arab world, maybe 10 in total. The list is painfully short. I am one of them — I grew up in Lebanon but I am of Palestinian heritage. There are so few of us, it is hard to keep our voices heard above the din of the mass media. Still, I will try to share with you my perspective, the perspective of someone who has experienced life on the other side of the barbed wire.
In 1948, the Jewish people created what they hoped to be a safe haven for themselves — a homeland in Palestine –but it came at an exorbitant price: the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were living there, who became refugees in other Arab nations and elsewhere around the globe. The Jews gained a homeland; the Palestinians lost one.
My grandfather was one of those people: studying at the American University of Beirut at the time, he would never be able to return to his home. When the Oslo Peace Accords were signed, and my grandparents returned to live in Gaza, I visited our family’s house with my grandfather. I stood there, looking at the boarded up windows and the untended gardens, watching my grandfather cry. He had not seen his home in 50 years — his experience was beyond comprehension. Scattered, the Palestinians struggled to regain a nation of their own; a struggle the Jewish people were all too familiar with. In the early 1990s, the Israelis and Palestinians, after fighting for so long over the land of milk and honey that they both called home, agreed to an experiment: to attempt to live together.
But over the last few years, the experiment has quickly fallen apart. The proposal that once envisioned an autonomous Palestinian state was repeatedly mocked as the Israelis continued to build settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, lands designated as Palestinian under international law.
A state cannot be autonomous and sovereign if there are areas within it under the control of a foreign military. The Oslo Peace Accords envisioned a tunnel that would allow cars to pass underneath the Israeli territory to reach the Palestinian border and thus preserve Palestinian autonomy. I remember seeing signposts for the unfinished road during my first trip to Palestine, when hopes were still high; it was called the “Safe Highway.” The plans were never realized; anyone who wanted to visit Gaza had to switch taxis at Erez — the border between Israel and Gaza — walk a mile with their luggage, undergo a thorough searching, and then get into another taxi that could take them into Gaza, all under the watchful eye of Israeli snipers.
Nor can a state be sovereign if it does not have control over its own borders. The Israelis kept a tight reign on the borders, dictating what would be allowed in and out of Palestinian areas. I remember my grandmother telling me about how cartons of strawberries were piled on street sides, prevented by the Israelis from being exported out. The nascent Palestinian state had no industry; Palestinians could not even manufacture jam or other food products. So the strawberries wasted away — the fruits of Palestinian labor rotting before their very eyes.
A nation cannot call itself a nation if its people are not allowed to return to their homeland. Denying the 5.5 million Palestinian refugees the right of return, a right contested by the Israelis in the negotiations, would be tantamount to denying the experiences of two-thirds of the Palestinian population, a group which has been left out of the Oslo Peace Accords and any other model for Palestinian statehood advanced by Israel.
In the face of these facts, the Palestinians have slowly lost their faith in achieving peace with Sharon and his government, and the recent intifada is an expression of their disillusionment. There can be no negotiations when the tables are lopsided, when promises are retracted, when superior arms are used to enforce a continued form of colonization labeled as peace. There can be peace only when parties enter as equals, when right can exist in isolation from might.
Ramallah was a burgeoning cosmopolitan center in the Palestinian lands, their hope for a new nation after years of diaspora. Two days ago, it was turned into a ghost town. In Wednesday’s Financial Times, there was a picture of four Palestinian women looking at the wreckage that once was the city of Ramallah. In the background of the picture was a little sign: “Checkers.” Checkers is a fast-food restaurant where your average American would feel very at home — it serves hamburgers, fries and coke, trademarks of the American lifestyle.
The windows of the restaurant were shattered; rubble lined the streets. I used to eat there.
The people of Palestine are coming to grips with the reality that is being imposed on them by their oppressors: the Palestinians have not been offered a fair chance at peace. The Israelis are coming to grips with a reality of their own: colonial subjugation will be met with resistance. With this, the profile of the suicide bomber has changed. It is no longer the religious fundamentalist driven by heavenly rewards. The suicide bombers are young and old, educated and illiterate, women and men, but they are bound by at least one thing: they face a militarily superior colonizing power and their situation is desperate — they have nothing left to lose.
Omar Christidis is a sophomore in Morse College.