Aref Assaf: Palestinian Americans Unite

By Aref Assaf

First, Fatah vs. Hamas and the winner is Israel. Now it is the ATFP vs. Al-Awda et al., and the loser is the Palestinian cause. Much has been said about the seemingly unbridgeable divide between the tactical and strategic objectives of Fatah, the largest Palestinian politic group and Hamas, the Islamic organization with its power dominating the Gaza Strip landscape.  But here in the US, a potentially explosive confrontation is pitting not only two dominant Palestinian American organizations, but and more importantly two irreconcilable political platforms.

The perceived relationship between Hamas and Fatah and their respective supporters in the U.S. warrants some commentary especially in light of recent charges from both camps that the other side is not fit to represent Palestinian interests and aspirations.

Arguably, the Palestinian- American community, estimated to be around 450,000, is at a perpetual crossroad. Increased divisiveness amongst the community and the many organizations which claim to represent their interests is no longer discussed behind doors. It has sadly spilled over into the public domain and if not well managed, such infighting could only further delegitimize the community as it seeks to leverage U.S. Middle East policy.

The Palestinian American community never reached political maturity until after the 1967 War which culminated in the defeat of the Arab states and Israel occupying all of Palestine plus other Arab territories. The first instances of a unified and vocal voice speaking on behalf of the Palestinian people’s plight were through the Arab American Graduates (AAUG), headed mostly by scholars and educators chief among them were the late Edward Said and Hesham Sharabi. Concurrently, a more grassroots effort was taking shape under the umbrella of the Palestinian American Congress (PAC) and several student groups, which relied for its legitimacy on grassroots support and later on funding and political recognition from the PLO. Over time, both the AAUG and the PAC lost their mandate due primarily to internal factionalism. Attempts to salvage PAC, while sincere, have eluded most enthusiastic and committed Palestinian American patriots.

Several organizations have sprung up to fill the void. Their mandate can largely be defined along their political agendas relating to a final solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. One group advocates for the two-state solution with some agreed upon resolution to the refugee problem. The other, calls for the one-state solution and adamantly advocate for the return of all Palestinians expelled by Israel in 1948. The philosophical skirmishes between the two approaches are significant and have serious political and practical implications.

Prominent among these organizations are the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) and Al-Awda organization. Although skirmishes were taking place over the last four years, two articles, published by ATFP and Electronic Intifada (EI) respectively, pushed the matter to the surface. It may be a simplification to surmise their arguments as desiring to debase the other entity and, if successful, to claim unilateral representation of the Palestinian American voice. But this approach is needed as a staring point from which further commentaries can be deduced.

Undoubtedly, one gets the impression that  the two organizations are now engaged in public accusations campaign of the other’s ‘betrayal’ of  the aspirations of the Palestinian people and that each wishes us to believe that they have a hold on what is in the best interests of the Palestinian people. Each side forcefully denies the other of having the right to speak for the Palestinian people. Character assassinations, farfetched allegations and name calling permeate the entirety of the conflicting claims.

Our hope is for a serious reconciliation to prevail between the different organizations.  Experience, sadly, portends a more dismal alternative. Perhaps a third entity is needed not to replace the ATFP and Al-Awda but to mediate between them. We need to build on the great strides achieved by both organizations and their many supporters. Al-Awda, as a grassroots organization has achieved important milestones in mobilizing students, and building alliances with other anti-war- pro-peace groups, and the important vocal support of scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Finkelstein, among others. 

The ATFP has in a short period, attained unmatched access to government officials and the support of many influential Palestinian Americans. While both groups may continue to separately promote both their substantive and subjective agendas, the litmus test will be fashioned not on either entity attaining access to government officials’ ears but and most pivotally, on their ability to shape public policy to help define the frame of reference and ultimately the official polices of our government. Their success will also be measured by each organization’s ability to marshal popular support amongst the Palestinian American community.

We pray for a new consensus to be developed which will embody the political and national narrative of the Palestinian people- mindful of the truism that we as American Palestinians do not represent the entirety of the Palestinian landscape. The complexity of the Palestinian struggle deserves the serious intellectual and committed leadership of the diverse Palestinian backgrounds and viewpoints. Arguably there has to be enough room on the table for a multiplicity of views and interpretations. But general agreements on both tactics and long range objectives must be continually nurtured. It is not sufficient, however, that we agree on how to resolve the Palestine issue. It is equally imperative to mainstream our struggle by rendering its success a tangible benefit to the American people. America’s foreign policy is rarely about promoting morality; it is about promoting and protecting perceived interests. Our insurmountable task then is to convince the American people, and those who represent us in Congress, that there is a direct and a tangible link between our nation’s security, economic and political, and a just resolution to the Palestine Israel conflict. I believe we have both the human and logistical resources plus a morally just cause to attain this goal.

Meanwhile, we must continue to shoulder the unenviable responsibility of guiding our American government to pursue a peaceful and just settlement- and from this burden we cannot escape. While infighting is an inherent human quality as the results may yield better offspring, our cause cannot afford more blood letting or name calling.

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