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What Justice for Palestinian Arabs?

Let’s all listen more closely

The recent decision by the General Assembly of the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state as a non-member observer was a tremendous public relations victory for the Palestinian Authority. But it improves nothing on the ground for the Palestinians.

Israel immediately announced plans to build another 3,000 housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, in retaliation for the Palestinian Authority’s circumventing the negotiation table and going straight to the UN.

Ironically, the vote came on the 65th anniversary of the UN’s proposal to create two states where Israel and the Arab territories now lie. Jewish leaders accepted the plan. Arabs living on the land had no voice—instead, the Arab nations rejected the plan. In later years the Palestinians did negotiate with Israel for a two-state solution, but it has all come to naught.

Today, the West Bank has such an intricate network of Jewish settlements that many experts on both sides doubt that it’s possible anymore to create a viable Palestinian state on the remaining land. Lately, many leaders have been revisiting the one-state solution. But the problem for Israel is that if she were to annex the West Bank and grant citizenship to its Arab residents (and especially if Gaza and its1.5 million Arabs were somehow added to the deal), it wouldn’t be long before the democratic process turned Israel/Palestine into the world’s twenty-third Muslim-dominated state.

As a journalist I have traveled to the Middle East five times over the past 30 years and have written extensively about the Arab-Israeli conflict. I would like to share some insights that you won’t find in the mainstream media these days.

When I was a reporter with the Buffalo News, I traveled to Jordan in 1985 and interviewed Palestinian refugees about the loss of their homeland in 1948. My findings made for an award-winning series in the News. (I also did a full-page article for the Jerusalem Post, which was unable to get an Israeli reporter into Jordan because the two countries were still technically at war.)

In a refugee camp in Jordan, just a few miles from the Syrian border and the Golan Heights, I found an eagerness for peace with Israel. But through my United Nations sources in Jordan, I also discovered an obstacle to the peace process that has seldom if ever been mentioned elsewhere in the media, to this very day:

Only 10 percent of Palestinian refugees have ever lived in Gaza or the West Bank—and the other 90 percent want to return only to Israel proper. This is particularly true of Palestinians living in Jordan, where they now make up 70 percent of the population but haven’t been able to topple the Bedouin regime.

I went to Jordan in early 1985, after Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization had offered to make peace if Israel would withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, making room for a Palestinian state. Once a part of Israel in Old Testament times (and known as Samaria and Judea), those territories were captured by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967. Since then, Israelis have been building Jewish settlements there, in the midst of more than two million Arab residents.

Palestine Monitor: Exposing Life Under Occupation reports that more than 270,000 Jews live in 121 settlements in the West Bank, and more than 190,000 other Jews have moved to East Jerusalem. (Israel recovered Jerusalem in 1967 for the first time in 2,000 years, annexed the city and declared it to be its capital once again.)

The PLO’s land-for-peace offer was allegedly designed to satisfy the more than three million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan and elsewhere around the world. They would then move to the new state of Palestine. The obstacle that I “discovered”—although the UN and the Arab and Israeli peace negotiators were silently aware of it—was that 90 percent of the Palestinian refugees still wanted to move back to Israel proper, and nowhere else, as a condition of laying down their arms and making peace with the Jewish state.

The Israelis, then, were being asked to sign away the heartland of ancient Israel in return for a promise of peace that the PLO leadership knew it couldn’t possibly keep. I predicted that the 1993 Oslo agreements would fail.. And today the Arab-Israeli peace process lies dormant.

Since then I have written about Palestinian refugees extensively, most recently in my book, The Red Heifer: A Jewish Cry for Messiah. Palestinian Arabs figure prominently in my book. It’s about the current search in Israel for a special breed of cow whose ashes are needed for a purification rite in order to rebuild the Temple and bring the Messiah. Without following that biblical command in Numbers 19, no defiled priest was permitted to enter the Tabernacle. And today, no religious Jews may climb up to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple without being purified with the ashes of a red heifer..

The controversial red heifer movement is of critical concern to Palestinian Arabs, because the Muslim Dome of the Rock now stands where the Temple once stood, raising fears of a regional war if an authentic red heifer is found. In recent years several candidates have been identified but later disqualified. The intensive search goes on, and a genuine red heifer surely will be found in our time. The Talmud predicts that the next red heifer will herald the Messiah!

In my book I quote many Palestinians to illustrate another obstacle, this one ancient,

that Israelis now face in fulfilling their own nation-building dream. The Zionist dream was not only returning to their ancestral land, which they did in 1948, but also enjoying peace with all nations—forever.

The Jewish people were commanded in the book of Exodus: “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.” Israel, then, must find a way of dealing justly with the Palestinian Arabs, starting with those living in the West Bank.

Gaza no longer has Jewish settlements. Israel unilaterally dismantled them and moved 8,000 Jewish settlers out in 2005. In 2006 Hamas defeated Fatah in democratic elections in Gaza, and in 2007 Hamas forced Fatah out of Gaza in a bloody mini-civil war. Hamas, a radical Islamic party supported by Iran, refuses to recognize Israel or to negotiate for a two-state solution. The recent truce between Hamas and Israel was brokered through Egypt acting as a third party.

Fatah retains control over local Palestinian matters in the West Bank, and it was the Palestinian Authority, under Fatah, that recently won non-member observer status at the UN.

Now, there are another 1.5 million Palestinian Arabs who are seldom if ever mentioned in the media. They live as citizens in Israel proper because their families didn’t flee in 1948. Although they resent living as a minority in a Jewish state, most of them say they would rather live in this imperfect democracy than live under the secular Palestinian Authority, which is corrupt, much less under the Islamic rule of Hamas.

As a member of the Justice and Peace Commission, I feel a special calling to continue my 30-year exploration of the Palestinians’ plight. My Sunday magazine article in the Buffalo News, which reached 300,000 households, told the stories of several Palestinian families living in Western New York and longing to return to “Palestine.”

The families that I’ve interviewed locally, as well as in Jordan and Israel, have impressed me with their heartfelt desire to live in peace with Jewish neighbors, no matter where. It is the Islamic radicals across the Arab world who want to see Israel disappear from the map.

I became convinced that Arabs are not innately anti-Semitic when I was in Jordan, traveling with an American Jewish friend—at no time did I detect any animosity toward him (as long as he wasn’t moving to Israel or the West Bank).

Whenever I return to Jerusalem, I always drop by Munir MaTouk’s falafel stand, just inside Jaffa Gate in the Old City. The last time my wife Shirah and I were there, this Palestinian family insisted on taking us inside their little stall to a private back room, where they sat us down and treated us like royalty.

“God wants us to be one,” Munir once said of the Arabs and Jews. “But God is all alone now.”

Among my Palestinian sources for The Red Heifer was Samira Khatib of Blasdell. Her family is from pre-1948 Jerusalem and she enjoys both US and Jordanian citizenship. (In Jordan, I also interviewed her cousin, a former PLO fighter.) A poetess, Samira has traveled throughout the Mideast as a political writer, even interviewing the late Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Her moods today can swing from sublime to shocking.

The poetess can speak of her love for God—“Sometimes in a field, I feel so close to Him, that’s how beautiful He is.” But suddenly she can paint an apocalyptic picture—“A lot of Palestinians can reach despair and decide we are not going to die in vain; then every oil well in Arab countries is going to be exploded. . .we’ll explode the whole world if you don’t listen.”

Let’s all listen more closely.

Anthony Cardinale is a longtime Buffalo journalist and playwright. His comedy Jimmytown! won the Emanuel Fried Award as outstanding new play of the 1996-97 season in the Buffalo Theatre District. The script of his play, The Red Heifer, won the David R. Fendrick Theatre Award in 2002. His new book, The Red Heifer: A Jewish Cry for Messiah, is available on line at

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