Written by CAMERA intern and Israel trip participant Lilia Gaufberg
“The Palestinians are not ripe right now for a state, and they are certainly not in a position to start building a state.”
Bassem Eid let the power of these words hang in the air. He cleared his throat, adjusting his glasses. He had an unassuming, modest presence, and gave the impression that he was an ordinary, hard-working man. However, he realized how much weight his words carried. The members of CAMERA’s Student Leadership Mission to Israel nodded vigorously in agreement, many scribbling in their notebooks. Bassem, an Arab-Israeli who identified himself as a Palestinian, had a narrative that fit the bill of the ‘quintessential Palestinian refugee’ for whom so many people and groups claim to be advocating. However, Bassem stood in front of this room full of college students and told them that to create a Palestinian state under current conditions would be to deny Palestinians any chance of enacting positive change in their circumstances.
Bassem was born in East Jerusalem, and spent his entire childhood and much of his adulthood in UNRWA’s Shuafat refugee camp. During the first intifada, which began in December of 1987, Bassem served as a prominent field researcher for B’Tselem, an Israeli organization that serves to keep a record of human rights issues and violations in the disputed territories. This work led Bassem to found the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group in 1996. The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) kept track of human rights violations against Palestinians, regardless of whom these violations were committed by. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas were found by PHRMG to be two of the largest breachers of Palestinian human rights. PHRMG, however, fell short on funding due to the fact that the organization did not always invoke criticism or blame of Israel for the Palestinian’s condition. Bassem expressed his frustration at this, clearly baffled by the fact that his work could be pushed off to the side because it did not fit into a neat little narrative of Palestinian suffering at the merciless hands of Israel. After PHRMG fell through, Bassem began writing, and is now a frequent contributor to journalistic outlets such as the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel. In his recent Times of Israel essay entitled “We Palestinians hold the key to a better future,” Bassem expresses his idea that “the answer is to live in peace and democracy, side by side with Israel. We (Palestinians) missed many opportunities to do that. We missed it in 1947 when Arab regimes encouraged us to refuse the UN partition plan. We missed it between 1948 and 1967 when we refused to create a state next to Israel. We missed it again every time after that when we refused a two-state solution presented to us.”
Bassem’s words got me to thinking, and I listened intently as he expressed his frustration at organizations such as the United Nations. World entities such as the United Nations and the European Union, whose stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are constantly tainted with harsh, unjustified anti-Israel sentiment, do not have the Palestinian’s best interests at heart; instead, they strip the Palestinian leadership of agency by putting all of the blame on Israel, and do not hold them responsible for their own mistakes and mishaps. This, in turn, denies the Palestinians under PA and Hamas rule any ounce of self-determination by essentially telling them, over and over again, that the key to a better life is out of their hands, and that they have no control over their situation.
Bassem was also deeply critical of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), and rightfully so. UNRWA is an organization whose self-proclaimed mission is to provide assistance and support to approximately five million Palestinian-Arabs that hold refugee status. UNRWA is the sole organization under the United Nations umbrella that focuses on a specific group of refugees, and many who claim to support Palestinian rights see UNRWA as having a noble cause; however, UNRWA leaves many Palestinians, along with their children and grandchildren, imprisoned in a permanent refugee status by treating them differently than other refugees, consequently stripping them of the feeling that they are full citizens of the world, and convincing them that they will be eternally helpless until a Palestinian state is born and Israel is wiped off the map. Bassem, having grown up in UNRWA’s Shuafat refugee camp, was left hanging, along with the other refugees in the camp, on empty promises of the ‘right of return’ to pre-State villages that are no longer in existence. Bassem writes the following in his 2014 article in the Jerusalem Post entitled ‘Proud Palestinians must lead the fight to reform UNRWA’: “UNRWA, to continue its operation, depends on death and the visual suffering of five million Palestinians who continue to wallow in and around UNRWA facilities…The more Palestinians suffer, the more power goes to UNRWA…”
Organizations like UNRWA do nothing but perpetuate the paternalistic narrative that the Palestinians are nothing but victims who will not be able to make anything of themselves without the so-called charity of the world. The drawn-out refugee status of many Palestinians is also often used as a bargaining and bartering tool by Arab leaders in order to play into their own agenda and to demonize the Jewish state.
In the Palestinian Authority, civilians are given steady doses of indoctrination; Abu Mazen, better known as PA President Mahmoud Abbas, is in the tenth year of what was supposed to be a four-year term, making Palestinians in PA-controlled areas in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) under the rule of a dictatorial kleptocracy. This excuse for a leader steals billions of unaccounted-for dollars from international funds, and sits on this pile of money while his people are left voiceless and powerless. While Israel has shown, time and again, that it is willing to make concessions and to work with the PA in order to find a peaceful solution to this drawn-out conflict, Abbas rejects all of Israel’s efforts, refusing to settle for anything less than “100%”. Mahmoud Abbas fools his people into thinking that they will one day be able to return to villages that no longer exist, which is simply an illusion and gives these people a false hope.
Although Hamas and Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority, are two differing organizations that actually strongly oppose each other, they both use the same tactics of indoctrination and incitement; whether they realize it or not, Hamas and Fatah are both branches of the same toxic tree, and Bassem argued that the Palestinians are arguably even worse off under Hamas’s rule than under Abbas’s. Hamas has never taken into consideration the interests of its own people, and is the sole obstacle in front of the building of Gaza into a cohesive and productive state. In school, Gazan children are fed a steady diet of hatred towards Israel, glorification of the holy war, or jihad, and belief in the destruction of the Jewish state and of the Jewish people. Hamas is building their military capabilities on the suffering of their own people, taking advantage of misguided efforts by the world to help the Palestinians by stealing international aid in order to increase their fighting power. Any normal country uses its rockets and weapons to protect its own people, while Hamas does the exact opposite, storing rockets and artillery under schools, hospitals, and homes, and severely punishing any Gazan who protests this. The people living in Gaza, particularly children, are also used as human shields for the sole purpose of putting Israel in the impossible position of having to choose between protecting its own citizens and preserving the lives of Palestinian civilians. How can an individual who is essentially used as an insurance policy for Hamas’s war against Israel feel that they are worth anything more than how their so-called government treats them?
Bassem ended his lecture on a positive note, expressing that Arab-Israelis, many of whom, like himself, identify as Palestinian, are, fortunately, in the polar opposite situation from their brothers and sisters in the West Bank and Gaza. They are privileged to be living in Israel, a democratic society in which they have social and economic mobility, freedom of speech and religion, and in which they can build a full life for themselves and for their families. There are Arab-Israelis serving on the supreme court, in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), and who are the principals of schools and the leaders of organizations that work to bring about positive change. Bassem Eid is a perfect example of how freedom in every definition of the word is the key component to helping individuals advocate for themselves and for what they believe in, and how the current ‘Palestinian condition’ of inescapable victimhood is not inherent to identifying as a Palestinian.