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MIDDLE EAST

Will Palestinians Go the Way of Native Americans?

April 21, 2002|LAILA AL-MARAYATI | Laila Al-Marayati is a Los Angeles physician and spokesperson for the Muslim Women's League.

While in Monterey last week, I was drawn to a mural alongside a bike path. It depicted the history of the region, starting with images of the Native American tribes indigenous to the area and continuing from there. Looking around, I saw no one who resembled the members of those early tribes, long wiped out by disease, starvation and the abuses of early California settlers. It suddenly occurred to me, as a Palestinian American, that some day, years from now, my history and heritage could be reduced to images on a wall for tourists to admire--in Jerusalem, perhaps. Renewed attempts by the Israeli army in recent days to eradicate whole villages in my father's native Palestine made me wonder if the mural before me foreshadowed the future.

Back in my hotel room, I turned on the television for the latest updates. On every channel, pundits justified Israeli incursions into the West Bank. The resulting slaughter got barely a mention. The Israelis are acting in self-defense, the commentators said. If Americans were subject to suicide bombings within their borders, wouldn't they do the same? But these rationalizations have become an endorsement of collective punishment.

Today, most Americans do not believe that the decimation and expulsion of entire Indian tribes in response to "terrorist" attacks against wagon trains was justified. But, as one caller to a syndicated radio program suggested, since we're not about to give anything back to the Indians, why should the Israelis be expected to return stolen land to the Palestinians?

Why? Because we live in a different time and place. The U.S. government could not massively displace Native Americans now, in a time of blanket media coverage, international and civil rights law. We would become worldwide pariahs for committing such egregious human rights violations against an indigenous population. Fortunately for expansionists, such pressures were not at play 150 years ago. America is what it is, and now we draw pictures on the wall, set up special museums and publish politically correct textbooks to tell the truth and lament the sins of our forefathers. Revenues from lucrative casinos notwithstanding, many of today's Native Americans struggle with poverty, alcoholism, joblessness and other social ills. Attempts at reparations have been woefully inadequate.

At a meeting in Washington, D.C., a pro-Israel conservative once told me that the Palestinians just have to accept defeat, because in this world, "there are winners and there are losers." In other words, the sooner the Palestinians admit that they have lost, the better. Let Israel annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip and confine Palestinians to reservation-like towns. Eventually, curious onlookers from Israel and elsewhere could come to observe the "natives" in their "natural habitat," sample their cuisine, maybe volunteer in social-service or education programs and leave satisfied with themselves.

Years from now, perhaps, fits of consciousness-raising might result in books about the deliberate Israeli destruction of Palestinian society. Scholars and collectors would covet Palestinian embroidery, which has an appeal similar to the fine artifacts made by American Indian tribes. Preserving and valuing artifacts would be seen as proof that Palestinian contributions were finally being recognized. Superficial celebrations of Palestinian culture would masquerade as displays of respect for the Palestinian people, absolving Israelis of the responsibility to do anything meaningful and truly conciliatory, like enabling Palestinian families to return to their homes (for which they have legal deeds) in places like Haifa, Jaffa or Jerusalem.

Palestinians today are resisting attempts to transform them into an anthropological curiosity. It seems like time is not on their side. Illegal settlements continue to be built on their land. The institutions of civil society are being dismantled or destroyed as Israel has reoccupied the West Bank and Gaza, and the U.S. government, unwilling to seriously pressure Israel, acts as an accomplice to the crime. Even U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's recent visit ended without condemnation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's goal of bringing the Palestinians to their knees to force a surrender.

Like their Native American counterparts, the Palestinians are a proud people who will fight until the bitter end. They will use whatever means they have at their disposal, with no champions other than each other. Perhaps this conflict will end like others before it, where the stronger party subjugates the weaker into complete submission.

Or perhaps not. Today, satellite television and the Internet expose these current atrocities to the world in real time. In response, people of conscience who reject apologists for the brutal Israeli occupation, people who refuse to accept the "inevitable" defeat of Palestinian resistance and realize that the loss of a people diminishes us all, must intervene and make a difference. Maybe this time the history books will tell a different story, and, instead of showing my children pictures of their ancestral homeland, I will be able to take them there.

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