A neglected bridge for peace in the Middle East
Editor's note: Hatim Kanaaneh, a Palestinian physician and author, has had several speaking engagements in Honolulu this month. He wrote this commentary for the Star-Bulletin.
Few doubt the centrality of justice for the Palestinians in any peaceful resolution of all Middle East conflicts. It has been said that nowadays a person's stand on the rights of the Palestinians is the test of his or her humanity. The underlying cause of their plight is best summed up by the Palestinian lawyer and author Raja Shehadeh in his book "Palestinian Walks" as follows: "Perhaps the curse of Palestine is its centrality to the West's historical and biblical imagination."
For four decades I have attempted to call to the attention of concerned parties the potential contribution of my little-known and often misunderstood community that is nonetheless key to understanding the Arab-Israeli conflict, the near one and a half million Palestinian citizens of Israel since its establishment. For obvious reasons we have a strong vested interest in peace. Yet, the Zionist state system has methodically denied us any potential rule as a bridge for peace. On the contrary, we have been relegated to second-class citizenship in Israel's apartheid system.
In my book of memoirs, "A Doctor in Galilee: The Story and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel," I attempt to give a taste of how it feels to live this experience. The memoir arises from my struggle as a physician to bring the benefits of public health and community development to my people.
I was born in 1937 in rural Galilee at the height of the Palestinian peasant uprising against the British Mandate for its sympathy with and accommodation of the designs of the Zionist movement on their land. On my 11th birthday, Israel officially declared its independence, marking the Palestinian Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe. The vast majority of Palestinians from the area of the new state became refugees in neighboring Arab countries. Their towns and villages were systematically razed or their homes occupied by Jewish immigrants. We, the few Palestinians who remained on their land, found ourselves on the wrong side of the border, a leaderless and alienated minority in an enemy state. For 18 years we were placed under oppressive military rule that sapped our community of any remaining vigor or resources.
As subsistence olive farmers, my family sacrificed much to put me through high school in Nazareth. Two years later, in 1960, I struck out to study medicine in the United States. In 1970, having obtained Harvard degrees in medicine and public health and turning down several lucrative offers in America, I returned with my Hawaiian wife, a teacher, to the Galilee and found employment with the Ministry of Health in my field of specialty.
The dearth of physicians in my region forced me to double as solo village general practitioner. I found my public health work unproductive in light of state systems openly hostile to Palestinian citizens. I started searching for a way around the discriminatory and antagonistic governmental system in which I worked. After a decade of lost effort, I and three other disgruntled local physicians established a nongovernmental organization, the Galilee Society, dedicated to improving the health and welfare of the Palestinian minority within Israel. This NGO became the conduit for my professional endeavors actively challenging the system of which I was formally a part. We used the NGO service sector as a means of consciousness-raising and community mobilization; we reached out to international circles and built alliances with like-minded minority rights activists abroad; and we confronted the Israeli military-industrial complex, demanding environmental protection of the Galilee. Eventually, the health ministry, under Ehud Olmert, ejected me and I became persona non grata in my former professional home. Later I found myself out of a job at the Galilee Society as well, the institution I created and led for a decade and a half. On my way to retirement I then served briefly as a consultant to UNICEF's mission to the Palestinian National Authority before returning to my home village to establish a center for child rehabilitation, which I successfully transferred to others.
Still, I find that my efforts and those of other committed citizens, both Palestinian and Jewish non-Zionists, have had little effect in terms of attaining equality. And public opinion surveys show the clear majority of our Jewish co-citizens approving of our banishment out of the country. The persistent confiscation of our land for the benefit of the majority Jewish population, justified by some three dozen specifically formulated laws, has been "our" state's major means of impoverishing our community, economically, politically and culturally. Official statistics show us at a great disadvantage compared with recently arrived Jewish immigrant groups, even those from Third World backgrounds. And public opinion surveys show the clear majority of our Jewish co-citizens approving of our banishment out of the country.
It is worth repeating that we are not talking here of the Palestinians under the harsh military occupation in the West Bank or in the mass prison of Gaza. Rather we are the indigenous population of the land who survived the Nakba, and stayed in their homes to be incorporated among the first citizens of Israel.