I’ve now reached an age where I wonder if I’ve lived too long. This week we observe the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. In my classes at Georgetown University, I’ve just realized that I can’t ask the students in my first-year Anthropology course where they were when the planes hit the towers. They were in diapers when hijacked passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the U.S. has been in Afghanistan since they were just learning to walk. In my anthropology of human rights class this semester, I am discovering that I need to explain a lot of political complexities and provide considerable historical context to explain the wider meanings of this day in a way that they can relate to. I have to keep in mind that such things as the non-aligned movement, the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the first Intifada are indecipherable mysteries that have little or no meaning in their lives. So much has happened, yet nothing has really changed.
Witness the return of John Bolton to government officialdom. He might have aged, but his moustache and political ideologies remain as ridiculous as ever. Yesterday’s news reports featured the visage of John Bolton announcing that the U.S. Government has decided to shutter the Palestine Mission to the United States on the grounds that the PLO is obstructing peace with Israel. (This announcement came in the context of Bolton’s ongoing war against international humanitarian law. He is quite angry that the PLO wants to involve the International Criminal Court in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).
It’s déjà vu all over again, I thought, as my mind flashed back to March 1988, when Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) urged the closure of the PLO office in Washington, DC as the first Intifada surged, bringing unprecedented and intense media attention to the suffering of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. I was an impassioned and idealistic twenty-something then, just starting my first post-graduate school job in Washington, DC at an international educational non-profit organization. By April of 1988, I had become a member of a committee of individuals chosen by the PLO mission to carry out their work to educate and inform the American public of the experiences of the Palestinian people under occupation, even as the Reagan Administration strove to silence Palestinian officials and narratives in the United States.
The first time I went to the PLO Mission office on K Street in Washington, DC, a bunch of young men were sitting in the lobby watching a small television set in deep and silent concentration. An older Irish man, the driver for the PLO representative, noted my red hair, and took me aside, gave me a hug, and started calling me “Irish.” I thought the young men must be watching news footage of protests on-the-ground in the West Bank or Gaza. No: they were watching a popular American daytime soap opera and were quite upset about the plot developments. They were a fun group of young guys, and ordered us a lovely lunch of falafel, hummus, and tabbouleh, then offered us delicious Turkish coffee afterwards. Our committee met that day, and many others as the weeks and months flew by, and decided that we needed to keep the dignity and suffering of average Palestinian people front and center in the American imagination despite the Republican party’s and the pro-Israel lobby’s denial of the Palestinians’ permission to narrate their own story just as the entire world was finding it so compelling.
I was tasked with doing research on international humanitarian law and U.S. foreign assistance law in relation to the Palestinians’ rights. It did not take long to learn about, and feel outrage over, the numerous violations of domestic and international laws meant to protect the Palestinian people. On the weekends, I did extensive research and writing about the dangers of breaking domestic and international law, which certainly served me well two decades later when I served as the North American Coordinator for the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre as they sought legal redress in Belgian courts under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction, a legal endeavor quashed by John Bolton’s friend, Donald Rumsfeld, in the summer of 2003.
Our committee came up with an idea for an advert campaign on D.C.’s public transportation system, featuring informative posters with themes such as “One Yardstick for Human Rights” and “Israel is Breaking Bones and Breaking Laws.” The city’s transportation authority decided that the posters would be too political or inciting, so we had to give up on that project, and turned our attention to reaching out to key decision-makers and policy-shapers instead. By the end of 1988, our committee had held numerous meetings with officials at the State Department, worked with retired and sympathetic U.S. diplomats, and helped the Episcopal Church of Washington, DC to organize public education seminars about the first Intifada’s goals.
Not only was there considerable public hunger for more information about the Palestinian men, women and children that Americans were seeing bravely confronting the Israeli Army every night on their TV screens, but Israel had a formidable public relations weapon in the form of a young and telegenic Binyamin Netanyahu, who clearly understood how to use American mass media to get his government’s points across. Every night he asserted that the IDF had to be brutal, appealing to Americans’ law-and-order ethos, because “Israel is living in a tough neighborhood.”
In November 1998, Yasser Arafat had spoken the magic words–that the PLO would recognize Israel, and on December 14, 1988, the incoming Bush Administration announced it would open a dialogue with the PLO. Three weeks later, I found myself on a plane headed to Tunis as part of a non-governmental delegation on our way to meet with Yasser Arafat and PLO officials, sitting next to Sen. George McGovern, whose presidential bid my parents had campaigned for in 1972. After two days lounging around at a deluxe seaside resort in Sidi BouSaid, we finally had our meeting with Arafat and a handful of high-ranking PLO officials at 3:30 a.m. one Wednesday morning. Arafat was engaging, charming, and in high spirits. His officials were stony-faced and quiet as we attempted to tell them how important it was to speak to average Americans and to bring the real stories of Palestinians to the American public.
The next day at lunch, some of the Palestinian American members of our committee and I sat around a table joking darkly about how little of our message seemed to get through to the high command of the PLO, who were much more interested in their new contacts with high-ranking American officials. Informative and educational outreach campaigns to average Americans did not seem to interest them. We began imagining a future Palestinian state with the PLO old guard in charge, coming up with names of officials like “Muhammad Kaslaan [“Lazy”], Minister of Energy,” and “Fawzi al-Jahil [“the Stupid”], Minister of Education…..” Within a year, it became clear to all of us that the PLO in Tunis and the children of the stones in Gaza, Hebron, and Ramallah were not exactly on the same wavelength, and that the PLO might squander the valuable political and moral capital that all of these young martyrs had given them.
That was thirty years ago. Yasser Arafat and Sen. McGovern are now gone, as are the children of the stones, the second iteration of the PLO mission in Washington, DC, the Twin Towers, tens of thousands of American, Palestinian, Afghan, Syrian, and Iraqi lives; and any semblance of sanity in U.S. foreign policy. But John Bolton, Sen. Grassley, and Bibi Netanyahu are still here, working hard, day and night, to ensure that the vicious cycles of history continue to repeat themselves in the Middle East. So much has happened, yet nothing has really changed.