Of Hajah Zainab – Is Palestine still the central issue for Arabs?

(Image: Ramachandra Babu, Gulf News)

By Ramzy Baroud

Palestine is increasingly absent from Arab consciousness, at least at the official and media levels. For years, the discussion has veered elsewhere, to other regions and various other concerns, as Arab regional alliances are no longer driven by the ‘question of Palestine.’

Whether one blames that neglect on the so-called Arab Spring, or explains it in context of regional rivalry, the facts cannot be negated or even ignored. “Palestine no longer tops the agenda of most Arab intellectuals,” a dear Saudi friend and respected writer told me recently. “But the few of us who remain, will continue to fight for Palestine,” he insisted.

That assessment confirmed my own reading, and that of many others regarding the dwindling significance of Palestine in current Arab political discourse. The oddity is that although Palestine has been pushed to the back of the line — now crowded with wars and conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere — it in fact remains the single most important prerequisite for peace and stability in the region.

That peace and stability is not merely a moral imperative to end decades of Israeli colonialism and military occupation; but Israel has proved to be the most common threat to the region. Its past and present are laden with military aggression, occupation and constant interventions in other countries’ affairs. Thus, the ‘question of Palestine’ is in fact the ‘question of peace’ in the entire Middle East region as well.

But how did we get here, to the point where Palestine is no longer the primary issue? Is this a question of history, the Arab Spring, or regional rivalry?

We are all Hajah Zainab

At the age of 21, I crossed Gaza into Egypt to pursue a degree in political science. The timing couldn’t have been worse. The Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990 had resulted in a US-led international coalition and a major war, which eventually paved the road for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was told that Palestinians were ‘hated’ in Egypt because of Yasser Arafat’s stance in support of Iraq at the time. I just did not know the extent of that alleged ‘hate.’

It was in a cheap hotel in Cairo, where I slowly ran out of the few Egyptian pounds at my disposal, that I met Hajah Zainab, a kindly, old custodian who treated me like a son. She looked unwell, wobbled as she walked, and leaned against walls to catch her breath before carrying on with her endless chores. The once carefully-designed tattoos on her face, became a jumble of wrinkled ink that defaced her skin. Still, the gentleness in her eyes prevailed, and whenever she saw me she hugged me and cried.

Hajah Zainab wept for two reasons: taking pity on me as I was fighting a deportation order in Cairo — for no other reason than the fact that I was a Palestinian at a time that Arafat endorsed Saddam. I grew desperate and dreaded the possibility of facing the Israeli intelligence, Shin Bet, which was likely to summon me to their offices once I crossed the border back to Gaza. The other reason is that Hajah Zainab’s only son, Ahmad, had died fighting the Israelis in Sinai.

Zainab’s generation perceived Egypt’s wars with Israel, that of 1948, 1956 and 1967, as wars in which Palestine was a central cause. No amount of self-serving politics and media conditioning could have changed that. But the war of 1967 was that of unmitigated defeat. With direct, massive support from the US and other western powers, Arab armies were soundly beaten, routed at three different fronts. Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank were lost, along with the Golan Heights, the Jordan Valley and Sinai.

It was then that some Arab countries’ relations with Palestine began changing. Israel’s victory and the US/West’s unremitting support convinced some Arab governments to downgrade their expectations, and they also expected the Palestinians to do so, as well.

Egypt, once the torch-bearer of Arab nationalism, succumbed to a collective sense of humiliation and, later, redefined its priorities to free its own land from Israeli occupation. Without the pivotal Egyptian leadership, Arab countries were divided into camps, each government with its own agenda. As Palestine — all of it — was then under Israeli control, Arabs slowly walked away from what they once perceived to be the central cause of the Arab nation.

Eventually, Egypt fought and celebrated its piecemeal victory of the 1973 war, which allowed it to consolidate its control over most of its lost territories. A few years later, the Camp David accords in 1979 divided the ranks of the Arabs even more, while granting the most populous Arab state a conditioned control over its own land in Sinai. The negative repercussions of that agreement cannot be overstated. However, the Egyptian people, despite the passing of time, have never truly normalized relations with Israel.


In various Arab countries, a chasm still exists between the government, whose behavior is based on political urgency and self-preservation, and a people who, despite a decided anti-Palestinian campaign in various media, are ever determined to reject normalization with Israel until Palestine is free.

Unlike the well-financed media circus that has demonized Gaza in recent years, the likes of Hajah Zainab have very few platforms where they can openly express their solidarity with the Palestinians. In my case, I was lucky enough to run into the ageing custodian who cried for Palestine and her only son all those years ago. Nevertheless, that very character, Zainab, was reincarnated in my path of travel, time and again. I met her in Iraq in 1999. She was an old vegetable vendor living in Iraq’s Sadr City. I met her in Jordan in 2003. She was a cabbie, with a Palestinian flag hanging from his cracked rear-view mirror. She was also a retired Saudi journalist I met in Jeddah in 2010, and a Moroccan student I met at a speaking tour in Paris in 2013. After my talk, she sobbed as she told me that Palestine for her people is like a festering wound.

So, did the Arabs betray Palestine? The question is heard often, and it is often followed with the affirmative, ‘Yes, they did.’ The demonizing of Gaza in some Arab media, the targeting and starving of Palestinians in Yarmouk, Syria, the past civil war in Lebanon, the mistreatment of Palestinians in Iraq in 2003 — these are often cited as examples of this betrayal. Some insist that the ‘Arab Spring’ was the last nail in the coffin of Arab solidarity with Palestine.

I beg to differ. The outcome of the ill-fated ‘Arab Spring’ was a massive let-down, if not betrayal, not just of Palestinians but of most Arabs. The Arab world has turned into a massive ground for dirty politics between old and new rivals. While Palestinians have been victimized, Syrians, Libyans, Yemenis and others are being victimized, as well.

Most likely, Hajah Zainab is long dead now. But millions more like her still exist and they, too, long for a free Palestine, as they continue to seek their own freedom and salvation.

-Dr Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, media consultant, author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.

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