Lord Chesterfield, the 18th century British man of letters and acclaimed wit, put it well when he talked about the contempt you evince towards a man after you add insult to the injury you had already inflicted on him. “There’s nothing that people bear more impatiently or forgive less than contempt”, he wrote. “And an injury is much sooner forgotten than an insult.”
When United States President Donald Trump last month recognised occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, thus breaching long-held international consensus and several United Nations resolutions, the act represented a grievous injury to Palestinians. But then last week, the insult followed when the US State Department drastically cut its contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a group that provides much-needed aid to impoverished Palestinian refugees whose homeland was dismembered in 1947 — all thanks to a UN resolution that the US, by twisting arms in the General Assembly at the time, was instrumental in seeing passed.
So why did the US government adopt such a mean-spirited posture?
The UNRWA Commissioner General, Pierre Krahenbuhl, who was in Washington last November on an official visit, said that in meetings he had held at the White House and the State Department, officials there “confirmed very strong recognition of UNRWA’s role — for our performance, for our accountability, for the robustness with which we addressed certain issues [of our organisation’s] neutrality”. So he could see no reason for a “change of heart” by the US government other than pique at how the General Assembly recently voted overwhelmingly, in defiance of American diktat, against President Trump’s decision to recognise occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
In short, the new administration appears to believe that the rebuff it got from the international community was a challenge (“We are taking names”, was the hollow threat the US ambassador to the United Nations hurled at recalcitrant member states) calling for a response. The response? Hone in on the most vulnerable segment in Palestinian society — Palestinians living in refugee camps run by UNRWA, camps that house the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised victims of the Nakbi.
And lest we forget, the funds withheld ($60 million out of $125 slated as a contribution, but enough to make a difference) are chump change when compared to the deal negotiated in September 2016 to give Israel $38 billion (Dh139.76 billion) in military aid over the following ten years, rendering unsuspecting American tax payers bigger contributors to Israel’s defence budget than Israeli tax payers.
There is no surer sign of the decay in the moral standing of a nation than to see it heap contempt, insult and injury on a stateless people like the Palestinians, who have been robbed of every sheltering refuge in their lives, thereby exacerbating their grief and destitution.
Then came, earlier this week, the visit to the region by US Vice-President Mike Pence, who was not only refused a meeting with the Palestinian president but also refused a visit to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus — not quite, as we say, the slap of the century, but certainly a telling snub to a devout evangelical Christian whose messianic views accord with Israel’s far right. (The man is so dismally uninformed, so comically removed from what we think of as reality in our part of the world as to be unaware that Arab Christians, especially Palestinian Christians, are also Arab — so much so that last Saturday he was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “If I have a message to Christian communities across the wider Arab world, it is this: Help is on the way”.)
Addressing the Israeli Knesset, Pence asserted that not only was Jerusalem “off the table” in future negotiations, but that “our administration will advance its plan to open the United States Embassy [there] and that United States Embassy will open before the end of next year”. This, predictably, prompted rapturous applause. And so it went with the love fest.
For its part, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), which appears to be in its political twilight by almost any measurable account, is immobilised, with the number of Palestinians who hold out hope that it can achieve a solution to their grievances progressively dwindling. Despite the fiery speech that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered at the gathering of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council in Ramallah on January 14, where he derided US President Donald Trump’s putative “deal of the century” as “the slap of the century”, he shied away from suggesting that the PNA will terminate its security cooperation (read, clamp-down on dissent) with Israel or disband the authority itself, an act that could turn the tables on the Zionist entity in Palestine by raising the costs of its military occupation in blood and treasure.
Let’s face it. For the PNA, it is now an either-or, a choice between two negatives: Stay in the West Bank, eat humble pie, take it on the chin and schlep along, hoping for a silver lining to magically appear out of nowhere; or disband, lift anchor and sail away, leaving its own people to deal with their own problems, in their own way, relying on their own teleological resources and cultivating their own allies in the international community. A heavy task to take on? Yes, but it is the lesser negative.
At least, that way, when this chapter in Palestinian history is written, historians will not say Palestinians had opted to be mendicants with begging bowls waiting for unhinged or, alternately, messianic American leaders to determine for them a lowly status in the global dialogue of cultures and an equally lowly status among free men and women who inhabit this earth.
The right to be equal and free comes with a price tag — ask any formerly colonised people about that, all the way from Ireland to Vietnam.
To be sure, Palestinians are no strangers to the group ecstasy, as it were, that accompanies a struggle for national liberation, the act of “throwing off” (the English for “intifada”) your oppressor and scrubbing his grime off your body and soul, a time when those engaged in that struggle become collectively possessed by a vitalised frame of mind. Everything has meaning, pattern. All of which beats the enervating years that followed the arrival of the PNA in Palestine in 1994.
So once more into the breach, dear friends, once more.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.