At the age of 21, I crossed Gaza into Egypt to pursue a degree in political science. The timing could have not been worse. The Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990 had resulted in a US-led international coalition and a major war, which eventually paved the road for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. I became aware that Palestinians were suddenly ‘hated’ in Egypt because of Yasser Arafat’s stance in support of Iraq at the time. I just did not know the extent of that alleged ‘hate.’
It was in a cheap hotel in Cairo, where I slowly ran out of the few Egyptian pounds at my disposal, that I met Hajah Zainab, a kindly, old custodian who treated me like a son. She looked unwell, wobbled as she walked, and leaned against walls to catch her breath before carrying on with her endless chores. The once carefully-designed tattoos on her face, became a jumble of wrinkled ink that defaced her skin. Still, the gentleness in her eyes prevailed, and whenever she saw me she hugged me and cried.
Hajah Zainab wept for two reasons: taking pity on me as I was fighting a deportation order in Cairo – for no other reason than the fact that I was a Palestinian at a time that Arafat endorsed Saddam Hussein while Hosni Mubarak chose to ally with the US. I grew desperate and dreaded the possibility of facing the Israeli intelligence, Shin Bet, who were likely to summon me to their offices once I crossed the border back to Gaza. The other reason is that Hajah Zainab’s only son, Ahmad, had died fighting the Israelis in Sinai.
Zainab’s generation perceived Egypt’s wars with Israel, that of 1948, 1956 and 1967 as wars in which Palestine was a central cause. No amount of self-serving politics and media conditioning could have changed that. But the war of 1967 was that of unmitigated defeat. With direct, massive support from the US and other western powers, Arab armies were soundly beaten, routed at three different fronts. Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank were lost, along with the Golan Heights, the Jordan Valley and Sinai, as well.
It was then that some Arab countries’ relations with Palestine began changing. Israel’s victory and the US-West’s unremitting support convinced some Arab governments to downgrade their expectations, and expected the Palestinians to do so, as well. Egypt, once the torch-bearer of Arab nationalism, succumbed to a collective sense of humiliation and, later, redefined its priorities to free its own land from Israeli Occupation. Without the pivotal Egyptian leadership, Arab countries were divided into camps, each government with its own agenda. As Palestine, all of it, was then under Israeli control, Arabs slowly walked away from a cause they once perceived to be the central cause of the Arab nation.
The 1967 war also brought an end to the dilemma of independent Palestinian action, which was almost entirely hijacked by various Arab countries. Moreover, the war shifted the focus to the West Bank and Gaza, and allowed the Palestinian faction, Fatah, to fortify its position in light of Arab defeat and subsequent division.
That division was highlighted most starkly in the August 1967 Khartoum summit, where Arab leaders clashed over priorities and definitions. Should Israel’s territorial gains redefine the status quo? Should Arabs focus on returning to a pre-1967 situation or that of pre-1948, when historic Palestine was first occupied and Palestinians ethnically cleansed?
The United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 242, on November 22, 1967, reflecting the US Johnson Administration’s wish to capitalize on the new status quo: Israeli withdrawal “from occupied territories” in exchange for normalization with Israel. The new language of the immediate post-1967 period alarmed Palestinians who realized that any future political settlement was likely to ignore the situation that existed prior to the war.
Eventually, Egypt fought and celebrated its victory of the 1973 war, which allowed it to consolidate its control over most of its lost territories. A few years later, the Camp David accords in 1979 divided the ranks of the Arabs even more and ended Egypt’s official solidarity with the Palestinians, while granting the most populous Arab state a conditioned control over its own land in Sinai. The negative repercussions of that agreement cannot be overstated. However, the Egyptian people, despite the passing of time, have never truly normalized with Israel.
In Egypt, a chasm still exists between the government, whose behavior is based on political urgency and self-preservation, and a people who, despite a decided anti-Palestinian campaign in various media, are as ever determined to reject normalization with Israel until Palestine is free. Unlike the well-financed media circus that has demonized Gaza in recent years, the likes of Hajah Zainab have very few platforms where they can openly express their solidarity with the Palestinians. In my case, I was lucky enough to run into the aging custodian who cried for Palestine and her only son all those years ago.
Nevertheless, that very character, Zainab, was reincarnated in my path of travel, time and again. I met her in Iraq in 1999. She was an old vegetable vendor living in Sadr City. I met her in Jordan in 2003. She was a cabby, with a Palestinian flag hanging from his cracked rearview mirror. She was also a retired Saudi journalist I met in Jeddah in 2010, and a Moroccan student I met at a speaking tour in Paris in 2013. She was in her early twenties. After my talk, she sobbed as she told me that Palestine for her people is like a festering wound. “I pray for a free Palestine every day,” she told me, “as my late parents did with every prayer.”
Hajah Zainab is also Algeria, all of Algeria. When the Palestinian national football team met their Algerian counterparts last February, a strange, unprecedented phenomenon transpired that left many puzzled. The Algerian fans, some of the most ardent lovers of football anywhere, cheered for the Palestinians, non-stop. And when the Palestinian team scored a goal, it was if the bleachers were lit on fire. The crowded stadium exploded with a trancing chant for Palestine and Palestine alone.
So, did the Arabs betray Palestine? The question is heard often, and it is often followed with the affirmative, ‘yes, they did.’ The Egyptian media scapegoating of Palestinians in Gaza, the targeting and starving of Palestinians in Yarmouk, Syria, the past civil war in Lebanon, the mistreatment of Palestinians in Kuwait in 1991 and, later, in Iraq in 2003 are often cited as examples. Now some insist that the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ was the last nail in the coffin of Arab solidarity with Palestine.
I beg to differ. The outcome of the ill-fated ‘Arab Spring’ was a massive letdown, if not betrayal, not just of Palestinians but of most Arabs. The Arab world has turned into a massive ground for dirty politics between old and new rivals. While Palestinians were victimized, Syrians, Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis and others are being victimized, as well.
There has to be a clear political demarcation of the word ‘Arabs.’ Arabs can be unelected governments as much as they can be a kindly old woman earning two dollars a day in some dirty Cairo hotel. Arabs are emboldened elites who care only about their own privilege and wealth while neither Palestine nor their own nations matter, but also multitudes of peoples, diverse, unique, empowered, oppressed, who happen at this point in history to be consumed with their own survival and fight for freedom.
The latter ‘Arabs’ never betrayed Palestine; they willingly fought and died for it when they had the chance.
Most likely, Hajah Zainab is long dead now. But millions more like her still exist and they, too, long for a free Palestine, as they continue to seek their own freedom and salvation.