Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, scholar, and activist, spoke about the ongoing struggle between Israel and Palestine on Thursday evening. She highlighted problems with their current relationship at the negotiating table and the rhetoric that has repeatedly impeded progress so far.
Ashrawi served as a member of the Leadership Committee and as an official spokesperson of the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace process, starting with the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991. She was later elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council representing Jerusalem in 1996, and was re-elected for the "Third Way" bloc ticket in 2006. Making history as the first woman to hold a seat in the highest executive body in Palestine, she was elected as member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 2009.
The Islamic Civilization and Societies Program and the Middle Eastern Islamic Studies Student Association (MEISSA) hosted her talk at Boston College, which was the first lecture in the Omar Aggad Memorial series. Aggad, a prominent Saudi Palestinian businessman and philanthropist, is also the namesake of the Omar A. Aggad Travel and Research Fellowship, which provides funds for BC students to travel to the Middle East to study, with a special emphasis on learning about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Ashrawi began by thanking Aggad, who passed away last February, for his work in inspiring a new wave of activism and hope for the future.
"Unfortunately Omar did pass away, but not before he managed to pass on to his children, the younger generation, a sense of belonging and a sense of commitment and a sense of responsibility and humanity," she said. "Even though they all may eventually pass, as we all must, the young will carry on. We will persist, and I don't think that with such people we will just go gently into the night."
She pointed out that last year marked several major anniversaries for the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. The Balfour Declaration, Britain's original call for land to be allocated to the Jewish people through Palestine, was issued in 1917. In 1947, the United Nations passed its Partition Plan for Palestine, which recommended the creation of independent Arab and Jewish States, to the objection of the body's Arab nations. 20 years later, the West Bank and East Jerusalem fell under Israeli occupation and control following the Six Days War.
"We were told we didn't exist as a nation or as a people," said Ashrawi. "And of course, in the public discourse, we were reduced historically to the Aristotelian dualism of pity and fear. We were either the pitiful refugees or the fearful terrorists."
Ashrawi drew on this long history to diagnose the power politics that have obstructed the peace process. In her view, the dramatic imbalance between the two parties has prevented any negotiations from becoming productive.
"The first problem was the forced assumption of symmetry," she said. "Where people dismissed or ignored the power disequilibrium between occupied and occupier. This is not a border dispute or a conflict between two equal parties. This is a situation of enslavement and captivity of a whole nation."
She argued that the nature of bilateral negotiations only enforces this misconception by portraying that the hurdle is getting Israel and Palestine to talk to each other, rather than addressing the nature of their relationship. She cited the Geneva Convention, which says that you cannot force people under occupation to sign an agreement with the occupying force.
"So we ended up being the only people on Earth told to ask an occupier permission to be free," she said.
Although third party involvement could provide a solution, she decried America's presence for tipping the scales more in favor of Israel. She pointed to the Trump administration's recent decision to recognize Jerusalem Israel's capital as a recent example, as well as the long list of vetoes against United Nations resolutions as an enduring one.
Ashrawi also characterized the frame of the debate as biased against Palestine, with Israel receiving rewards for joining the talks while Palestinians are constantly put under probation-like pressure to prove good faith. Consequently, Israel isn't incentivized to truly compromise.
"Our standing is defined in terms of our relationship with Israel," she said. "And that's why when you talk about security it's only for Israel."
On the slip side, she sees even nonviolent actions by Palestine as immediately condemned. The Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement, which aims to place international economic pressure on Israel, has often been criticized, despite similar tactics being used successfully against Apartheid-era South Africa.
The religious rhetoric surrounding the conflict, both in Israel and in America, also makes discussion harder. In her eyes, it pushes the debate to the extreme, to a point where negotiating would be seen as unnecessary.
"The ultimate power play, of course, involves the ultimate power. The guise of absolutist, ideological claim, divinely ordained or sanctioned," Ashrawi said. "When you claim that, then of course, absolute right leads to absolute wrongs on the other side. There is no solution."
Ashrawi hopes that moving away from the ideological and religious dimensions of the debate will offer a more stable path forward for peace talks.
"This has to be resolved on the basis of political, legal, moral, human terms," she said. "There is no other solution. There's not even a military solution. Because the strongest army and a country that has nuclear weapons cannot defeat the will of a people who are bent on being free."