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The Human Tragedy of Palestine: Olfat Mahmoud's Tears for Tarshiha

Launch of Tears for Tarshiha, by Olfat Mahmoud with Dani Cooper and Helen McCue (Wild Dingo Press 2018), Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, 26 July 2018

I defy anyone with even a shred of common decency or humanity not to be touched by this book. I guess we have all read or heard over the years many accounts of that sense of yearning, aching loss for their homeland felt by the millions of displaced and exiled Palestinians around the world. But I have never seen or heard that despair explained better, or expressed more movingly, than by Olfat Mahmoud in her lament for her lost Tarshiha, the Upper Galilee village of her parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents from which her family was driven out at gunpoint in 1948, and to which – as a stateless refugee still – she has never been able to return.

Take, among many passages, just this one, describing herself as a young girl in 1970 helping spring-clean her grandmother’s mud-brick house – in one of the teeming maze of narrow alleyways in the Burj Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, where Olfat has lived nearly all her life, and whose experiences there, both horrifying and heart-warming, are the core of her book:

Under my grandparents’ bed I found a small box containing nails, a hammer, and a large rusty key. When I saw it I asked my grandfather, Abu Ahmad, ‘What’s this old rusted key for?’ My grandfather answered simply, ‘It is the key to our house in Palestine’. I laughed and said with all the hurtful innocence of youth, ‘What house! Your land is occupied. The house is not yours anymore.’ My grandfather and grandmother became very angry. Abu Ahmad grabbed the box from me, berating me. ‘Don’t you know what this means? This is the key to my home. This house here in this miserable camp is not my real house. My house in Palestine is the one I inherited from my parents and my grandparents and where I have fields and crops and animals. This is not my place.’ At that moment, I felt so ashamed by the hurt I had caused them – I think it was then that I truly understood at last the terrible suffering their exile caused; and a deep sorrow I could never express, lodged in my soul. [pp 35-36]

Of course Olfat did learn how to not only feel but express that sorrow, and over the last two decades – since the death of her parents – in countries around the world, and at the United Nations in New York, she has been a passionate, compassionate and articulate voice for Palestinian refugees, arguing above all for the right to return home.

Her personal journey has been an extraordinary one – from feisty schoolchild and teenager to wife and proud mother; to trained nurse and nurse trainer, living and working incredibly effectively and bravely through the carnage of the murderous assaults on Burj Barajneh and the neighbouring Sabra Shatila camp by Lebanese militias in the 1980s; to NGO director – of the Palestinian Womens Humanitarian Organization, founded with the support of Helen McCue and Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA (Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad) whose wonderful role I will come back to; to internationally recognized peace activist; to lecturer in womens studies and proud possessor of a doctorate – not the medical one she dreamed of being as a teenager but which circumstances denied her the chance of becoming, but a PhD in Psychology from Beirut Arab University.

Of all the experiences Olfat describes in her book, the most scarifying are her accounts of living and working through the militia assaults, occupations and sieges of the 1980s. Take her account of the first day of what became the month-long siege of Burj Barajneh by the Amal militia in 1985, when she arrived at the Haifa medical centre there:

Before me was a nightmarish scene. There were bodies and blood everywhere. More than 100 dead and wounded lay there with family members beside them. I had already been through many years of war, but never had I encountered such carnage. There were young boys, children and women, all screaming and crying, blood covering their heads or abdominal wounds. Some had shattered limbs in grotesque positions. Relatives were quietly praying, others were crying out for help. Scattered among the wounded were people who were obviously dead. It was an unbelievable and indescribable scene of human suffering. [p123]

I cannot explain how I felt that day. It felt as if a part of me died in that moment. Never before had I been faced with such a shocking dilemma. I felt terribly guilty; who was I to decide these critical matters as to who we should treat first; who we should save. It was sickening making such life and death decisions knowing that every moment counted. I had dealt with many things, but I had always been able to help the wounded, to do something. And now for the first time in my life, there was nothing I could do for my people. [p125]

I was privileged to see for myself what Olfat Mahmoud was able to do for her people when, as Foreign Minister in 1992, I yielded – happily not for the first or last time – to the blandishments of Helen McCue to visit the Palestinian refugee camps in the course of an official visit I was making to Lebanon. I’m a bit surprised to read in Olfat’s book [p166] that I was in fact the first government minister from any country to visit the camps since 1948, and that my visit was ‘an extraordinary moment for camp residents and is still remembered today’.

The visit certainly made an indelible impression on me. I remember vividly wandering through the warren of alleyways with their extraordinary tangles of electricity wires and water pipes overhead, past and through the war-ravaged buildings, and meeting many of the extraordinary men, women and children doing their best to live decent and dignified lives within them in a country that refused to accept them as citizens or allow them to acquire the professional qualifications of which so many were capable.

And how could I forget visiting Olfat herself and the APHEDA women’s project, accompanied – at the Lebanese government’s insistence, certainly not mine, by a detail of incredibly nervy and trigger-happy soldiers – when, climbing the narrow staircase to her office, an almighty crash sounded on the landing below us, leading all the jumpy soldiers to swing their rifles in unison only to discover that it was a clumsy antipodean, me, who had knocked a big clay pot off its perch on a landing, sending it crashing two floors below.

Some of the real heroes of Olfat’s story are indeed APHEDA, and its inspiration and driving force from the outset, Helen McCue who – along with Dani Cooper (whose excellent book on the 30-year history of the organization I had the pleasure of launching at the ACTU Congress three years ago) – drew on her decades of close friendship with Olfat in working with her to shape and craft her recollections into the tremendously readable book we are launching today.

The APHEDA story began with Helen McCue working as a young nurse for the WHO with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Driven by a passion for social justice, having the gut-wrenching experience of seeing at first hand the aftermath of the horrific Sabra-Shatila massacre in 1982, and excited by the election of the Hawke Government in March 1983, she conceived the idea of a trade union based international aid organization that could harness the values and skills of Australian workers to deliver not just transient emergency relief, but education, training and real social justice for those in crying need of it. With strong support from the new ACTU President, Cliff Dolan, the ACTU Executive endorsed the idea in December 1983 and the new organization was born in 1984.

Helen McCue was not only APHEDA’s founding mother, but its first Executive Officer, from 1984 to 1990. She then worked back in the field as a regional adviser in South Africa and the Middle East for another four years – and for all that she did then, and has done since for Indigenous people, refugees and Muslim women, deserves, as I have said before, to be recognized as a living national treasure.

APHEDA itself, known since 1997 as Union Aid Abroad-APEDA, has never been the biggest, or the best funded, or the most visible, or had the most staff of the Australian non-government aid agencies. But it can rightly claim to be distinctive – in the intensely collaborative way in which it has always worked on the ground; in the sustained quality of its achievement in local grass roots empowerment; and in the way in which it has always focused on projects that started small but could be scaled up to national, and sometimes international, level when their worth was proved; and perhaps above all in its willingness to get into high risk political situations where many other aid angels have feared to tread.

APHEDA has been there when it mattered, not only in Palestine, beginning with Olfat and the training of nurses in Australia in 1984, continuing in multiple ways ever since, through all the crises and trauma that have beset the West Bank and Gaza; not only in South Africa, working with the ANC through the crucial transition period from the mid ‘80s to the mid ‘90s; but in Eritrea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma/Myanmar, New Caledonia, East Timor, Bouganville, the Solomons, Aceh and in many other places as well. And working as well not just on narrowly focused local projects, but big thematic issues – from HIV/AIDS to asbestos, from child labour to disability to climate risk mitigation – always with the needs of ordinary people doing it hard at the core of its concerns.

Although APHEDA, in my experience as a minister and observation since, has always been a consummately professional organization totally dedicated to its humanitarian mission, its identification with the trade union movement, and its willingness to become involved in high political-risk situations, has meant that it has periodically, throughout its history, incurred the hostility of Coalition ministers and governments.

We are seeing another such episode right now, with the suspension by DFAT last month of APHEDA’s multi-million dollar program in Palestine, following its posting of a Facebook statement of condolence regarding an aid worker killed in the recent Gaza protests. The man in question had been a former employee of the Maan Development Centre, with whom APHEDA, with Australian Government funding, has worked productively, for three decades. Despite the absence of any financial or other direct link between him and APHEDA, the website posting was enough for its whole program to be shut down pending a complete government audit. I have asked DFAT to complete that audit as expeditiously as humanly possible, but who knows in the present political environment how long that will take, or what the outcome will be, given that it was reported yesterday in The Australian – so it must be accurate – that Foreign Minister Bishop has also reportedly cut $10 million in annual direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, despite receiving an emphatic assurance from Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki that the money would never be used to support the families of terrorists.

This is all of a piece, of course, with the longstanding reflex support of Israel, and jaundiced scepticism of everything Palestinian, that has characterised Coalition policy from the beginning (and I have to say has not been entirely absent from my own side of politics, particularly here in Victoria) : manifested most recently in Australia’s appalling vote in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva against establishing an independent commission of enquiry into the recent Gaza massacre, standing alongside only the United States – two out against effectively the whole international community.

Like I guess most Australians, I started out myself as a reflex supporter of Israel, seeing its creation as the righting of the monstrous wrong done to the Jewish people in the Holocaust. But I came to realize during my student days in the 1960s – largely as a result of reading Maxime Rodinson’s pathbreaking and enormously influential Penguin Special Israel and the Arabs, which some of the grey-hairs here may remember, then reinforced by my travels soon thereafter in both Israel and the Arab world – that the righting of that monstrous wrong could never justify the grievous wrong done to the Palestinian people who themselves bore no responsibility whatever for the Nazi crimes.

I have for a long time believed, and argued – as Foreign Minister, and as head of the International Crisis Group for ten years when I was closely involved in Middle East peacemaking efforts – that as a simple matter of natural justice and natural human decency that the Palestinians’ desire for independent statehood must be recognized. But always from the position that a just resolution of the Palestinian issue is not only in the interests of Palestinians, but Israel itself. In continuing to drag its heels on everything that would advance such a resolution, and now with the new Nation-State Law moving the country ever more inexorably down the path toward becoming an overt apartheid state, Israel and those who support its current leadership are not only standing against the tide of history, but acting against its own founding ideals, and creating a mass of problems for its own longer term security and well-being.

The tragedy now, for everyone in the region, but above all for the millions of displaced, exiled and stateless Palestinian refugees like Olfat Mahmoud, is that – 70 years on from 1948 – we are as far away now as we have ever been from a just, sustainable and mutually acceptable solution to the Arab-Israeli problem.

The intention of the UN in 1947, which was defensible in the circumstances of the time but was of course never likely to win easy Arab support, was to accommodate both Jewish and Palestinian nationalist aspirations by creating Jewish and Palestinian states side by side, with new sovereign boundaries but with no one physically dispossessed and full citizenship rights for the minorities that would be left in each new state. That fell apart with the terrible war of 1948 and the conflict which continued through the intervening years to erupt again in 1967.

After the 1967 war there was a solid foundation for a new start, on the basis of land for peace, laid down in UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338, calling for Israel to withdraw from the territories it had occupied, and for both sides to recognise each other’s “right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries free from threats or acts of force”. The tragedy of all the years since 1967 is that it has proved simply impossible to deliver on that deal.

The hardest single issue to resolve for those of us who, like me, have strongly supported a two-state solution is that of the right of return – for which Olfat passionately argues throughout this book, as she has throughout her life. It is impossible to argue against her on the fundamental moral issue – the forced dispossession of Palestinians from their homeland was indefensible at the time, and has remained indefensible since. No one has ever made that case more effectively than she does in Tears for Tarshiha.

But I think we all have to acknowledge the overwhelming practical reality that Israel is never, ever going to accept the unrestricted, unconditional return of all those who were dispossessed, let alone the generations to which they have given birth since, and there is no mood whatever – including anywhere in the Arab or Islamic world – to force them to do so. A one-state solution, to which many are now turning in despair at the present impasse, might conceivably improve conditions for Palestinians now living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, but it is hard to believe that Israelis will not fight to the death to preserve their state’s Jewish identity. They will opt for outright apartheid rather than accept Palestinian majority rule, and will be more determined than ever to close their borders against the return of the dispossessed who would guarantee that majority. And I find it difficult to see anyone in the wider world fighting to stop them.

So we keep being forced back to the kind of compromise solution to the right of return, within a two-state solution framework, that has been discussed over and again – with agreement almost within reach at Camp David in 2000 but proving totally elusive ever since. Yasser Arafat described the essential character of that compromise in the New York Times in 1992: ‘We understand Israel’s demographic concerns and understand that the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a right guaranteed under international law and United Nations Resolution 194, must be implemented in a way which takes into account such concerns’.

I understand perfectly that Olfat and most Palestinian refugees would have enormous difficulty in accepting anything short of a completely unrestricted right of return. But one way of at least beginning to address Palestinians deep and totally justified sense of injustice without significantly affecting Israel’s demographic balance would be the formula proposed by my own International Crisis Group, as one element in a very comprehensive two-state solution, and which generated a lot of international support when we proposed it in 2002: expansion and continuation of Israeli family reunification and humanitarian programs, combined with major financial compensation and resettlement assistance to refugees, giving them the options of relocation to Palestine, relocation to lands within Israel proper that will be swapped with the state of Palestine, rehabilitation in present host countries and relocation in third countries. Obviously not perfect, but not impossible to implement with strong political leadership and goodwill, and better than the hopelessly unresolved and endlessly miserable situation that continues to exist now.

If the core refugee issue can be somehow resolved, the other outstanding issues could readily fall into place. Jerusalem can be shared, sensibly, as a capital of two cities. It is entirely possible to draw a border that allows most of the Israeli settlers, who are concentrated in urban centres close to the 1967 boundary, to stay where they are and gives the Palestinians a contiguous and viable state of the same size as that occupied in 1967. Security arrangements can be found acceptable to both, dealing with threats old and new. The conflict can be ended and two states for two peoples can exist side by side in peace.

But what continues to be missing is the political leadership – above all now on the Israeli side – which can deliver any of this. No Israeli leader since Yitzhak Rabin has shown anything like his far-sighted vision, commitment and capacity to deliver a negotiated two state solution: there has been simply no-one of his calibre, with Bibi Netanyahu being the worst of them all. My judgment of Rabin is shared by many, but in my case is reinforced by a meeting I had with him as Australian Foreign Minister in Tel Aviv in 1995 that will remain forever etched in my memory. Putting to him the case for rapid implementation – all the way through to negotiated acceptance of Palestinian statehood – of the recently concluded Oslo peace accords, I concluded my pitch by saying, no doubt with a little more cheek than was appropriate for the occasion, ‘But of course I’m preaching to the converted.’ Rabin paused for a moment, gave me a little half-smile, and replied: ‘To the committed, not the converted.’

That remark to me conveyed, with poignant economy, a wealth of meaning. For all his deep emotional attachment to the idea of an Israel embracing all of historical Judea and Samaria, from which he would never be converted, Rabin knew that the only way he could achieve a democratic Jewish state, secure behind viable borders, was by accepting a Palestinian state alongside it, feeling equally secure and viable, sharing Jerusalem as a capital, and with a mutually acceptable solution being found for the enormously sensitive issue, for both sides, of Palestinian refugee return. It was for that commitment that he was murdered three months after I met him by a right-wing Jewish extremist, and his death was a catastrophe from which the peace process has not recovered to this day.

Had Yitzak Rabin not been assassinated, I think we would long since have had an end to the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and Olfat Mahmoud would long since have been able to realise her dream of seeing Tarshiha, even if not being able to reverse history enough to use that key to open the door of her grandparents’ house. But we are where we are, and there is no alternative but for current and future generations to continue the struggle.

In doing so it is crucial that they understand completely the scale of the wrongs that need to be righted and the injustices that need to be compensated, and that they be informed of and inspired by the struggles of those who have gone before them.

In all of this they could have no better guide than this wonderful warrior for justice, Olfat Mahmoud, and the book that she, with the support of the equally wonderful Helen McCue and Dani Cooper, and all the highly professional folks at Wild Dingo Press, have now produced – and which I am now delighted to declare duly launched.