Where are our Palestinian voices?

The next generation are doctors and lawyers. They are bright and engaging, yet remain invisible in public life
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The Independent Online

First, may those be cursed who said that Arafat was a "dog" on the day he died. His ultra-Zionist enemies revealed their own depravity making such comments. And it was right that Mandela reminded the world that a man who gave 35 years plus to a just cause deserved a little more respect, particularly after the last three years when he was ignominiously holed up in a wrecked compound in Ramallah, a symbol of his wrecked dreams, and held there by Israeli tanks.

First, may those be cursed who said that Arafat was a "dog" on the day he died. His ultra-Zionist enemies revealed their own depravity making such comments. And it was right that Mandela reminded the world that a man who gave 35 years plus to a just cause deserved a little more respect, particularly after the last three years when he was ignominiously holed up in a wrecked compound in Ramallah, a symbol of his wrecked dreams, and held there by Israeli tanks.

The Palestine Arafat envisaged was a progressive one, not defined by religious identification. He himself married a Christian and ensured Christians were able to be among the most effective activists promoting Palestinian rights and institutions. They include the impressive politician Hanan Ashrawi, who was heartily applauded by more than a thousand people in London recently when she spoke on the primacy of human rights and accountability for her emerging civil society and the misguided Israeli administration. The much missed writer Edward Said, gave the cause intellectual and moral energy. He was also born a Christian as was Afif Safieh, the current Palestinian General Delegate in the UK. This suave, sophisticated intellectual, admired by progressive politicians (and rabbis too), wrote a moving elegy for his Arafat in which he described him as "the Palestinian De Gaulle, the architect of the resurrection of our national movement in the mid-Sixties and its locomotive for almost 40 years".

But Yasser Arafat was also the fighter, the leader who waylaid the Palestinian struggle and turned his domain into an atrophied, stifled, violent and corrupt entity which revolted the most committed supporters of Palestinian rights. Those of us who have long followed the tragic story of these dispossessed people have been dismayed, fearful and at times enraged at Arafat's incompetence and megalomania.

With Bush now in power for another four years, manifest bias in favour of Israeli policies is set to continue, whatever Tony Blair may be hoping for from his best friend. It is time for a new beginning, radically different strategies, and a more global approach to this intractable problem, the open sore which the world now needs to be seen to. And for this new direction to be mapped out, the role of the Palestinian Diaspora is the key. The battles of the world - from Chechnya to Kashmir - are increasingly played out in the corridors of power in the West.

As in the case of so many troubled countries, the best and brightest citizens of those places are found away from their homelands contributing to other societies instead of their own. Who can blame them? With one short life, few are willing to give it over to real and damned hard political endeavours. But with the world as terrifyingly unbalanced as it is today, Palestinians abroad are needed by their country to wake up to their responsibilities.

All around the world these Palestinians have settled, made good - very good in some cases - mainly by going into business. There are millionaires from this community in Brazil, South Africa, the USA, Canada and the UK. But unlike many other immigrant groups, they have not used their money to gain influence in political parties. Like other Arabs, they keep their heads down says Mustafa Karkouti, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs, who set up the Arab Labour Group a few years ago encouraged by Labour MP friends: "We wanted them to get involved in any political party, to join, to contribute to the process. But the response was dismal".

In the USA, where Arabs have had a longer presence, there are now some admired lobbyists coming up - Khalil Jahshan, for example, the vice-president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who is proving himself a consummate operator who can shift perceptions on the Middle East. That needs to happen here too.

Very few Palestinians have chosen to go into professions where they can effect change. Those that have are very effective. There is one judge, the only Arab judge in Britain, who happens to be a Palestinian, Eugene Cotran, and now one QC, Michel Abdel-Messih. Karma Nabulsi, fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford is an excellent advocate for the Palestinians. The journalist, Abdel Bari Atwan, is passionate about his homeland and frequently appears in the media but to date there are no Palestinian journalists employed by the mainstream British media.

The next generation are now doctors, city dealers, lawyers and when I meet them at gatherings, they are bright and engaging and yet they remain invisible in public life. Why is this the case? Chris Doyle, director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, and Karkouti both think one problem is the notion of return. These immigrants have not wanted to put down roots in the places they have moved to because to do so would be to accept that there will be no going back in glory to the recovered homeland of their myths. They cannot allow themselves to get embedded and kill the sacred hope which they feel bound to keep alive. Hence the collective psychology of a people merely biding time, a people in transit forever.

There is also the problem of internal strife among Palestinians, even in Britain - they cannot work together. And they have transported Arab weaknesses to contaminate the possibilities - sexism, worship of status rather than merit, old scores, an inability to move into the 21st century.

The young have watched their parents sinking into these marshlands and most have decided to hop off into a life of personal success. Better to prosper at Morgan Stanley than to lose themselves in interminable quarrels over Middle Eastern politics. To give them their due, some have got involved in NGOs which provide help to their people through education and health projects. Others freely donate vast sums of money to help the refugees and other victims of the occupation. But these activities cannot reshape the world and that is what is now desperately required.

There are outside obstacles, too, says Doyle: "Palestinians have to overcome the pro-Zionist lobby which has been active here for a hundred years. Many Israeli supporters are well entrenched in the British establishment. There are more Arabs in this country than Jews and yet there are no Arab MPs, no Arabs in the Lords. Arabs may not be knocking on the doors of those in power, but neither are they being invited". But it is also true that British public opinion is overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian, and it is senseless defeatism to weep in silence or to resent the successful infiltration of other groups. Palestinians and other Arabs have to learn how others have acquired the skills, contacts, allies, niceties, respect which then begin to shift politics in their favour. They have the money and the ideas, but not yet the finesse and cunning to make things happen for them.

Nothing changes unless you persistently, tenaciously make demands of the society you live in. Not that long ago there were no blacks and Asians anywhere in positions of power and influence. They refused to be defeated and have succeeded in slowly and painfully forcing doors slightly open. For Arabs, this challenge is only just beginning to be taken up. They have much catching up to do - Palestinians most of all as their just cause today is arousing so many around the world.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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