As Israelis prepare to celebrate Independence Day in May, Palestinians commemorate what they call the nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948. Last month, a prominent leader of the Palestinian liberation movement reflected on the Palestinians' mass exodus nearly seven decades ago in an exclusive interview with me last month in Amman. The events of 1948 did not inspire him to join Egypt, Syria and Jordan's war against the newly declared State of Israel. Nor did it force him to flee his home, as it did for hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish citizens of the former British Mandate Palestine. At the time, Nayef Hawatmeh was only 10 years old.
A Jordanian of Christian heritage living in Amman, Hawatmeh was glued to the news — in those days that meant listening to the radio — while out his window he watched dazed people wandering into the city from the west, carrying children and a few belongings. They had planned to be gone only a short while, he reminded me. Hawatmeh saw wounded soldiers returning from the front, soundly routed. And he wanted to help. "I went to serve soldiers who were housed in hospitals in Amman and in military hospitals in Zarqa," he told me. The eager boy joined up with other tweens in the streets, chanting, "Jeneduna! Jeneduna lil huddud!" a phrase that in English means, "Arm us! Arm us! Send us to the borders [to fight]!"
Though he didn't directly suffer its consequences, the nakba gave birth to Hawatmeh's political consciousness. Like many middle-class Jordanian families, the Hawatmehs felt the impact of war. When conflict arrives at your doorstep, basic goods such as food, fuel and medical services go first to the military. And when Israel achieved a rousing victory in the 1967 war roughly two decades later, Hawatmeh responded by founding the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Serving as its secretary-general, he has led the organization's political wing ever since.
The group also had a military wing. In the 1960s, armed resistance was de rigueur from Vietnam to South Africa to South America. Palestinians followed suit. Their early resistance movement had three prominent factions: Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, headed by George Habash; and the DFLP, founded by Hawatmeh. Of the three men, Hawatmeh is the only one still alive.
The Road to Social Justice
Hawatmeh leaned back in his chair in the inauspicious, third-floor office that his loyal team rents away from the busy streets of downtown Amman, and he looked back on the days of his awakening.
"We were kids. We didn't really know what it meant to be sent to the front. We were moved by our emotions and high sense of ethics and a belief in the will of the people that we felt all around us. Awareness of what it really takes to create a political ideology combining democracy and social justice with a profound and practical vision? That came later, as university students."
Some of us reach political consciousness in our teens and early 20s. Some of us engage eagerly, others more reluctantly. Some are compelled to take action; others realize their lives are called elsewhere. For Hawatmeh, the road to social justice began early on and there was no turning back. Now, at age 81, after numerous arrests (beginning with imprisonment in Jordan at age 14 and again in Iraq in 1958 for abetting anti-government movements), after founding a Marxist branch of the Palestinian resistance movement that views upper-class Zionists as the enemy rather than working-class people, and after unsuccessfully proposing a two-state solution as early as 1974, he sees how much has not changed.
The stagnation is largely due to the divisions that continue to separate the nations and tribes of the region. The postwar aspirational concept of an "Arab nation" never gained traction. Independence from British, French, Italian and Ottoman colonial masters dissolved into failed democracies, dictatorships and monarchies. Today's discord among the Gulf states, the Levantine countries, North African nations and states on the Arabian Peninsula is as political as it is religious; as left as it is right. It's as personal as it is national, and as pro-West as it is not. "Divided we fall" is more than just the chorus of a popular song in these parts.
Hawatmeh pursued a unified ideology amid the mayhem.
"I realized that all Arab nations needed to get rid of their historical backwardness and to fight for independence and social justice. They needed an ideology that combined tackling social justice issues, fighting against class discrimination, preserving people's freedoms in the region, and finding a solution to the Palestinian cause. It's a matter of connecting the dots."
Today, with the rise of the Islamic State and al Qaeda, the splintering of rebel factions in Syria, the revolution in Yemen, the increasing oppression of minority religious groups, and the numbers of internally displaced persons and refugees soaring far beyond the historical boundaries of the Ottoman Empire and colonial mandates, those dots are more complicated to connect than ever.
Turning Weapons Into Scythes
The octogenarian activist recognizes that armed resistance is not today's solution. He knew it was not yesterday's answer, either. And his strategies and predictions have shown consistent clarity. For example, the early Palestinian resistance movement was built on the demand for the return of all land and all displaced people to their ancestral homes. But the DFLP rejected this all-or-nothing approach.
"Our program called for a political settlement between our people and the Israeli people: a two-state solution on the borders of June 1967, and the [gradual] right of return for our people. During that period all other [PLO] organizations were still calling for the old program from 1948, saying that we must free all of historical Palestine. They opposed what we were calling for. From the beginning, I called the Israelis and told them 'come so that we can turn the weapons to scythes.'"
As is customary in the region, Hawatmeh's assistant refilled our tea, nodding in approval.
Ironically, a failed operation in 1974 for which the military wing of the DFLP took responsibility led to temporary agreement among the Palestinian factions. A letter from the Palestinian guerrillas who died in the attack alongside Israeli civilians was presented at a Cairo meeting of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) that June. "The commandos in that letter asked the PNC to adopt the new national program that the DFLP had put forward. Everyone stood up in respect and that helped push a unanimous agreement on the new national program."
But within two months Hawatmeh's two-state suggestion had crumbled. Iraqi officials persuaded Palestinian leaders to drop the revised plan, and armed conflict against Israel continued. Demands for the return of Palestine upended a phased approach toward peace.
"And they built a new front called Jabhat al Rafd (Rejection Front), which was led by Iraq during that time and included George Habash and General Commander Ahmed Jibril from the Popular Front and the National Struggle Organization, as well as a number of Iraqi Baathist organizations, and a number of Arab liberation movements."
The Rejection Front expanded in the wake of the Camp David and Oslo accords to include political groups from Syria and Libya. But divisions within the Palestinian leadership persist today as Fatah and Hamas battle for political supremacy while Jewish settlements expand and refugees despair. Sources in Amman are aghast at the scale of corruption among Palestinian leaders, while sources in the Palestinian territories are in anguish.
Divided we fall.
Playing to Lose
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, Palestinian leaders split again. Unlike Arafat, Hawatmeh opposed the invasion. He foresaw Iraq's destruction, should it fail to withdraw from Kuwait. "I knew this would result in war." He met with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, connecting the dots between Iraq and the Palestinian territories. The president told him, "Comrade Hawatmeh, I'm determined to reach Jerusalem, but do not put walls in my way by asking me to withdraw from Kuwait. I cannot do that." Jordan's King Hussein also stood by Iraq. In a meeting with the monarch, Hawatmeh insisted, "Occupying Kuwait would mean the death of Iraq. And that is what happened."
In 1994, Hawatmeh opposed the Oslo Accords as well, predicting that the complicated new administrative jurisdictions in the Palestinian territories (Areas A, B and C) would allow the stalemate between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to endure, leaving Palestinians neither citizens of a Palestinian state nor of the State of Israel.
Hawatmeh's call to connect the dots was prescient. The fracturing of relations in the region, based on religion, politics, family ties, access to resources and alliances with Iran, Russia or the United States, leads straight to chaos and misery for the majority of ordinary people who become victims of foreseeable violence. The elderly statesman urges today's leaders to put aside partisanship for the benefit of the people, to end hostilities, and to use their common language, Arabic, to coalesce and cooperate rather than inflate the discord that stems from capturing the flag.
"We should listen to him," affirmed a Palestinian activist when I told her I had interviewed the DFLP leader. "He knew Oslo would lead to the current fragmentation we suffer. He knows what failed in the past and has a consistent vision for the future."
"We say the foreigners ruined us," pointed out a promising young Jordanian writer atop the 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater of ancient Philadelphia — today's Amman — not far from where Hawatmeh and I talked. "We say 'they threw us away.' But really, after what they did, we had options laid out like a game of chess before us. And instead of playing smart we broke our own pieces. We shattered ourselves. It's time to take responsibility."
A senior citizen standing at the edge of a future he'll likely never see, Hawatmeh rues roads not taken.
"More than once during these past 50 years when the Arab front was unified we might have reached a comprehensive solution for the Palestinian question, for the region as a whole, and our relationship with Israel. However, oppressive Arab regimes have wasted these opportunities."
And yet, at that precipice of tomorrow, he holds out hope. Years have blessed him with perspective.
"Our struggle has resulted in a lot of positive outcomes for the Palestinian people and their rights. Now Israel cannot ignore the Palestinian people, neither can the Arab region, nor the international community. We have formed a national character and an identity for the Palestinian people."
And that's a step toward bridging the divide.