ON whichever side we may be on, it seems almost impossible not to be emotional about the Palestinian issue. The sources of these emotions may vary, from identification either with the Palestinian or Israeli side, or simply from the sheer frustration at the unjustness of the situation.
What’s clear is that amidst the emotion, there is a lot of fuzziness about the real issues, and much inconsistency on principles. In particular, would all Malaysians who advocate Palestinian human rights apply this principle within Malaysia? Would those who decry the treatment of Palestinian refugees, for example, also be as indignant at the treatment of refugees in Malaysia?
Palestinians and Orang Asli
On 26 May 2010, the Federal Court recorded a settlement that effectively recognised the native title rights of Orang Asli. The Temuans of Kampung Bukit Tampoi fought in court for 14 years to gain compensation for the land that was taken from them for the construction of a highway to KL International Airport. They argued that the compensation they received, which was only for the crops and orchards they lost, was insufficient because they had also lost the land that they had lived on for centuries. The Federal Court agreed with them, and thus set a precedent for Orang Asli to claim their native title rights over their customary or adat land.
Those who believe in justice, including myself, welcomed this landmark decision. We cannot dispute that Orang Asli have been here since long before any of our ancestors even thought of packing their bags to move to Malaya. Neither can we dispute that Orang Asli are now a marginalised minority in their own land, beset with many social and health problems, perhaps only slightly better off than Australian Aboriginals.
But here is where the compartmentalisation begins. There are many Malaysians who would argue in support of the rights of Palestinians to their own land. But would they ever apply the same principles to Orang Asli or to any other indigenous peoples within our own country, whose lands are being encroached on, if not occupied by others? I suspect not.
On the other hand, there are probably also those who, while defending native rights to land, have no sympathy for the Palestinians’ own rights to their land. They’d cite historical “facts” that the Israelis (and there seems to be no differentiation between Israelis and Jews) had been there for some 2,000 years as the basis for their claim to the land. Even if this “fact” were true, and regardless that Israel as a state only came into being in 1948, does this justify more recent confiscation of land from people who have also been there for centuries?
Myth of the “native”
Today, many countries are made up of “natives” and migrants. And in many of these, native peoples are often violently displaced by migrants (the New World particularly comes to mind). But after some time, this mixture of peoples becomes irrefutable fact.
This is why calling fellow citizens “pendatang” is so reprehensible. If long-term claims to land are the only moral criteria for citizenship rights, then everyone except Orang Asli and indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak must vacate our country. In fact, every non-Aboriginal must vacate Australia, every non-Native American the US and Canada, and every non-Maori, New Zealand.
On the other hand, as the Australian political scientist Prof Dennis Altman points out, “The majority of Israeli Jews [today] are born in Israel. To deny that Israel is their homeland is equivalent to arguing that all non-indigenous Australians should leave, not a position I have ever heard from even the most passionate local opponent of Zionism.”
The idea that a homeland should be reserved for a people by virtue of their race and religion should be repugnant to all who believe in democracy and human rights, especially here in Malaysia. Yet that is exactly what Israel is – every person of the Jewish faith anywhere in the world is entitled to Israeli citizenship.
The Passover Seder, the ritual that marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, always includes the refrain “Next year in Jerusalem”, a phrase which disturbs Altman. “We could, after all, settle in Jerusalem next year,” he notes, “but many Palestinians who desperately want to return to their ancestral homes cannot.”
And while many sympathise with the plight of Palestinians forced to live in refugee camps for generations, in Malaysia there seems to be no recognition that we even have refugees within our borders. On the other hand, one also wonders if those who work on the refugee problem in Malaysia feel any resonance with Palestinian refugees. At least our refugees have some chance of resettlement in a third country; Palestinians do not.
Problem of democracy?
Then there is the problem of Hamas, which many claim to be the main obstacle to peace and therefore the justification for the continued blockade of Gaza. But this is the problem with democratic elections: sometimes people vote for those we personally don’t like because they like the alternative even less. Just as many Malaysians voted for the untested Pakatan Rakyat in March 2008 because they cannot stand the Barisan Nasional; this is what happens in democracy.
Or, as Altman again points out, “If we are to praise Israel for its democratic system, which gives a racist party – Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – veto power over a potential government, how do we dismiss elections that give power to Hamas, despite its undoubted support of terror?” A further irony is that Datuk Ibrahim Ali is probably the ideological twin brother of Lieberman, now Israel’s Foreign Minister.
The point is that, when it comes to Palestine, so many parties are inconsistent, selectively choosing to apply human rights principles where it suits their specific agendas. But if there is to be a universal standard of human rights, then all sides must adhere to it, regardless of race and religion. And when analysed calmly and rationally, the struggle for Palestine is about land, not religion. The greatest injustice is for all sides to fall for that red herring.
Marina Mahathir is an activist, writer, and blogger who constantly needs more outlets to vent because there is never a shortage of issues to vent about.
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