Saturday, September 25, 2010

Reparations for the Palestinians (Edward Said 1999)

[In remembrance of Professor Edward Said, I contributed this transcript for Democracy Now!]

Amy Goodman: Well, as we come to the end of the century, we’re going to take a look at reparations movements around the world. The historic agreement between the organizations that represent slave laborers—the German government, German corporations—follows on the heels of settlements with Swiss banks and the Swiss government, also, which held the money of victims of the Holocaust. Well, we’re going to take a look at reparations movements in other parts of the world and for other populations. Later in the show, we’ll look at the fight for reparations in the Native American community in this country as well as the fight for reparations for African Americans, descendants of slaves. 

But we’re going to start on the issue of Palestinians in a movement to compensate a people displaced by the formation of the State of Israel in the 1940s. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat says he’s unhappy with the progress of current talks with Israel and will declare an independent state next year, possibly even before the September 13 deadline for a final peace agreement with Israel. According to Arafat, the main dispute with Israel is still the issue of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where Palestinians hope to establish a state. Negotiations over a framework agreement are deadlocked over the Palestinian demand that Israel freeze all settlement construction, a demand Prime Minister Barak of Israel has so far refused. The two leaders are to meet this week to try to resolve the issue.

But these do not go to the overall issues of reparations. And right now, we’re joined by Professor Edward Said. He’s university professor at Columbia University, teaches comparative literature, and among his other books are Peace and Its Discontents, Culture and Imperialism and his own memoir Out of Place. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Edward Said.

Edward Said: Thank you very much, Amy.

Amy Goodman: Well, Professor Said, let’s begin on this issue of reparations. You’ve, I’m sure, been watching as the Jewish organizations have been negotiating with the German government, this, against the backdrop of the US government supporting these negotiations for reparations for Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. What about Palestinians? Where does the reparations movement stand today?

Edward Said: Well, let me just say first that I support the reparations movements around the world. I mean I think it’s the least that can be done to mitigate the enormous amount of suffering that went into, whether it was imperialism or colonial outposts or genocide or mass displacement of people, occurring in the name of progress or ethnic cleansing or whatever you want to call it. And I think, you know, it shouldn’t be invidious. I think there should be a broad principled work that people who have suffered at the hands of identifiable oppressors ought to be entitled and are entitled to recompense.

Just one word about the Jewish reparations, because they are very important for Americans, I think, to understand. According to Norman Finkelstein and Alex Cockburn and CounterPunch, a recent issue of it, the problem isn’t settled by simply going after Swiss Banks and German corporations, because it’s estimated that a good half of the money that was smuggled out of Germany by Jews who were—out of Europe, by Jews who were targeted—came to this country. And I would certainly support a movement for the investigation of US banks holding holocaust victims’ accounts and have yet not been investigated. So, I think, across the board, it’s an important thing.

 Now, in the case of Palestinians, there has been no appreciable momentum or movement of any sort officially by either the PLO or the Israeli government or the US to go over what, in fact, the UN has ruled since 1948 Palestinians are entitled to. Namely, compensation and/or repatriation. The PLO, to my knowledge, has no serious accounting on its own of what was lost in 1948. 

There have been independent Palestinian researchers, beginning with Sami Hadawi in the 50s, who has all the village statistics and compiled an impressive record of several billion dollars of losses, now amounting to probably 90 to 100 billion dollars in 1948. These have yet to be acknowledged by Israel, which declared them all alien property in 1949 and 1950, and simply took them over in the name of the Jewish people.

Others—a Palestinian researcher, Salman Abu Sitta, has also done similar work on his own. But the impetus for all this comes—it has to be noted—not from the PLO, which is now, in my opinion, a victim of the bipolar or tripartite negotiations with Israel, the United States and the PLO and it’s committed to the terms of that agreement—but rather from refugee communities. And it’s important to know that most Palestinians today are refugees, in other words. The demography of the situation is that more people live outside Palestine—refugees or descendants of refugee—than inside.

The last point, tragically, and in my opinion unforgivably, the Oslo agreements make quite clear that the PLO and Israel have agreed to ignore another form of oppression to Palestinians. Namely the expense to Palestinians of occupation: the houses destroyed, the villages annexed, the lands taken over. You know, the huge amount of suffering imposed on the population. There was a kind of blank check, sort of forgiven to the Israelis by Yasser Arafat. In my opinion, it’s impossible to understand it. But Israel has, takes no responsibility for what it has done, for example, in the total destruction of the economy of Gaza in the years since 1967. So, things, I think, are in a very bad moment for the Palestinian reparations movement.

Amy Goodman: Professor Edward Said is a leading Palestinian, he is a university professor at Columbia University in New York, where he teaches comparative literature, has written numerous books about the Middle East. Can you talk more about what you think are the strategies that the Jewish groups have successfully used, that the Palestinians have not been able to employ?

Edward Said: Well, I think the most important is making of inventories: the compilation of lists that are done with a systematic modern attitude that leaves no stone unturned. Now, that drives to a certain degree from political power. I mean it’s impossible to imagine the Jewish reparations achievements without looking carefully and admiring in many ways the power of individual Jewish communities, whether in Israel or the United States and elsewhere in Western Europe.

So, I think that’s the first step: to be able to sit down and authoritatively claim, not just attention which is very important, which we haven’t done, but also claim specific properties. And the PLO, which is the only official body that represents or is supposed to represent Palestinians, has never done that. It has never said, “We have a list which we are going to put at the center of the negotiations because our society was entirely destroyed." 780,000 people in 1948 were ethnically cleansed. I mean even Israelis agree to that. And “here’s the bill. And you have to fork up the amount of money that was lost, the interest accrued in the fifty years since that time.” I think that’s what..I mean that’s the first step that has to be done.

Secondly, of course, it has to become a central agenda item. In your own broadcast, you pointed to the fact that Yasser Arafat, a principal goal which he is threatening to execute, you know, to implement any day now, is to declare a Palestinian state. He doesn’t care about the enormous amount…even if he got a Palestinian state in what’s left of Gaza and the roughly 22 % of the West Bank that he’s going to get, that would still amount to less than about 18 or 19 percent of historical Palestine, which we all lost in 1948. So, it’s quite clear that a clearly stated goal and a central negotiating posture around the issue of reparations is the first step that both the American Jewish community did and what Palestinians need to. And we haven’t done it.

Amy: Do you see any coming together of the two communities over this issue? I mean certainly the Jewish organizations have learned a lot (Said: Yeah.) in their organizing and strategizing. Later in the show, we’re going to talk about Native Americans reparations and then with John Conyers, the Congress member, about reparations for descendants of slaves.

Edward Said: Well, you bring up something very important. I take it what you mean by two communities, you mean Israeli or Jewish and Palestinian. But of course, what I thought of immediately is Palestinians inside Palestine and the refugees outside, who are really two communities also. But you raise a very important point and that is, it seems to me more effort has to be spent, expended on persuading Jews and Israeli Jews—I mean Jews in Diaspora and Israeli Jews—what profoundly direct and perhaps tragic, if you want to call it, responsibility Israel bears for the depredations that were visited upon the Palestinians.

In other words, unless there is a worldwide awakening to consciousness and conscience and some sense of responsibility for what happened, we’re not going to get anywhere because in the first place, you have to get a public and official acknowledgment, from wrung out of Israel, that it was responsible for the dispossession of Palestinians.

And, as I say, one of the major negotiating flaws in the PLO and Arafatian strategy has been not to concentrate on that but rather to concentrate on winning some elusory little statelet that has simply no sense. I mean it will have no sovereignty to speak of. It will be discontinuous and it will be totally dominated by all that is feeding the fantasy of Arafat that he wants to become a leader instead of thinking about the well-being and the history of his people which is totally saturated in dispossession, tragedy and fantastic loss.

So, I mean one has to give credit to Jewish leaders for sensing their responsibility and transacting it, so to speak, in negotiations. The Palestinians leadership is not up to the task. And that’s why I think, whatever movement is going to come, it’s going to come from the refugee groups, Diaspora, which is now forming itself, girding its loins so to speak, organizing itself to press the claims whether at the International Court, at the UN, etc.

Amy: Well, Professor Said, I want to thank you very much for joining us.

Said: Thank you.

Amy: Professor Edward Said, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. Among his books, Peace and Its Discontents, Culture and Imperialism and his memoir Out of Place.


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