Palestinian Leader Haidar Abdul Shafi on his People’s Plight

I found this speech by Haidar Abdul Shafi in the Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Protest, edited by Brian MacArthur (London: Penguin 1998). Mr Shafi was the leader of the Palestinian delegation to the 1991 peace conference in Madrid. Although it’s a quarter of a century old, it’s still very relevant as the Israeli state, under Netanyahu, is still going ahead with its decades-long policy of oppression, deportation and the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinians. This is despite the protests and campaigns by human rights activists across the world, including many Jews, including Israelis. I’m putting it up here, as this is the real reason behind the allegations of anti-Semitism directed against members of the Labour party, and the continuing libel that Labour has a problem with Jew hatred. The people libelled as anti-Semites aren’t. They even include Jews and people, with a long history of anti-Fascist, anti-racist campaigning and activism. They are being denounced as anti-Semites as a shameful attempt to discredit them and so rule criticism of Israel off-limits.

Here’s the speech.

We, the people of Palestine, stand before you in the fullness of our pain, our pride, and our anticipation, for we long harboured a yearning for peace and a dream of justice and freedom. For too long, the Palestinian people have gone unheeded, silenced and denied. Our identity negated by political expediency; our right for struggle against injustice maligned; and our present existence subdued by the past tragedy of another people. For the greater part of this century we have been victimised by the myth of a land without a people and described with impunity as the invisible Palestinians. Before such wilful blindness, we refused to disappear or to accept a distorted identity. Our intifada is a testimony to our perseverance and resilience waged in a just struggle to regain our rights. It is time for us to narrate our own story, to stand witness as advocates of truth which has long lain buried in the consciousness and conscience of the world. We do not stand before you as supplicants, but rather as the torch-bearers who know that, in our world of today, ignorance can never be an excuse. We seek neither an admission of guilt after the fact, nor vengeance for past inequities, but rather an act of will that would make a just peace a reality.

We speak out, ladies and gentlemen, from the full conviction of the rightness of our cause, the verity of our history, and the depth of our commitment. Therein lies the strength of the Palestinian people today, for we have scaled walls of fear and reticence, and we wish to speak out with the courage and integrity that our narrative and history deserve. But even in the invitation to this peace conference, our narrative was distorted and our truth only partially acknowledged.

The Palestinian people are one, fused by centuries of history in Palestine, bound together by a collective memory of shared sorrows and joys, and sharing a unity of purpose and vision. Our songs and ballads, full of tales and children’s stories, the dialect of our jokes, the image of our poems, that hint of the melancholy which colours even our happiest moments, are as important to us as the blood ties which link our families and clans. Yet, an invitation to discuss peace, the peace we all desire and need, comes to only a portion of our people. It ignores our national, historical and organic unity. We come here wrenched from our sisters and brothers in exile to stand before you as the Palestinian under occupation, although we maintain that each of us represents the rights and interest of the whole.

We have been denied the right to publicly acknowledge our loyalty to our leadership and system of government. But allegiance and loyalty cannot be censored or severed. Our acknowledged leadership is more than [the] justly democratically chosen leadership of all the Palestinian people. it is the symbol of our national unity and identity, the guardian of our past, the protector of our present, and the hope of our future. Our people have chosen to entrust it with their history and the preservation of our precious legacy. This leadership has been clearly and unequivocally recognised by the community of nations, with only a few exceptions who had chosen for so many years shadow over substance. Regardless of the nature and conditions of our oppression, whether the disposition and dispersion of exile or the brutality and repression of the occupation, the Palestinian people cannot be torn asunder. They remain united – a nation wherever they are, or are forced to be.

And Jerusalem, ladies and gentlemen, that city which is not only the soul of Palestine, but the cradle of three world religions, is tangible even in its claimed absence from our midst at this stage. It is apparent, through artificial exclusion from this conference, that this is a denial of its right to seek peace and redemption. For it, too, has suffered from war and occupation. Jerusalem, the city of peace, has been barred from a peace conference and deprived of its calling. Palestinian Jerusalem, the capital of our homeland and future state, defines Palestinian existence, past, present and future, but itself has ben denied a voice and an identity. Jerusalem defies exclusive possessiveness or bondage. Israel’s annexation of Arab Jerusalem remains both clearly illegal in the eyes of the world community, and an affront to the peace that this city deserves.

We come to you from a tortured land and a proud, though captive people, having been asked to negotiate with our occupiers, but leaving behind the children of the Intifada, and a people under occupation and under curfew who enjoined us not to surrender or forget. As we speak, thousands of our brothers and sisters are languishing in Israeli prisons and detention camps, most detained without evidence, charge or trial, many cruelly mistreated and tortured in interrogation, guilty only of seeking freedom or daring to defy the occupation. We speak in their name and we say: Set them free. As we speak, the tens of thousands who have been wounded or permanently disabled are in pain. Let peace heal their wounds. As we speak, the eyes of thousands of Palestinian refugees, deportees and displaced persons since 1967 are haunting us, for exile is a cruel fate. Bring them home. They have the right to return. As we speak, the silence of the demolished homes echoes through the halls and in our minds. We must rebuild our homes in our free state. (pp. 427-9).

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