Palestine lives quietly in Arab-Americans' hearts
New York — ON the wall of a Brooklyn grocery store is a picture of a dove drawn in the black, green, red, and white of the Palestinian flag. ``Palestine Lives,'' the caption says. Underneath someone has written ``IMMORTAL.'' This is a neighborhood where the nightly newscasts showing violence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip strike a responsive chord. Many of the viewers are Palestinians who were born in the Israeli-occupied territories and have their own stories to tell.
There is the agony of the Jerusalem-born owner of a grocery store. ``Already four people in my family are in jail,'' he says. He does not know what they are charged with. ``You can go to jail for looking at a soldier,'' he says.
Another store owner tells of his wife's humiliation. On a recent visit to see relatives on the West Bank, she was strip-searched by Israeli officials, even though she was traveling on an American passport. ``She had to go with the Palestinians and be naked. They took her shoes,'' he complains. ``Why don't they get out,'' he yells at a reporter.
Then, there is a similar lament from a customer in the store. He criticizes Israel for welcoming Jews from all over as citizens without extending the same hospitality to Arabs. ``I was born there and I can't stay two weeks,'' he says. Muhammed Silwadi agrees. A Palestinian who wants to move back to his birthplace, he complains that ``Jews from Ethiopia get more rights in my country than I do. My country is Palestine,'' he stresses, ``not Israel.'' Recently, Mr. Silwadi returned for a month when his mother died, but he says he was refused permission to stay.
Because of such personal travails, the Arab-American community here does not have high hopes for Secretary of State George Shultz's efforts toward settling the unrest in Israel's occupied territories.
This past weekend, in the first gathering of Palestinan-Americans since the current uprising began, 1,500 Arab-Americans met in Washington at the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee's (ADC) national convention. The uprising, in which at least 85 Palestinians have died, was a prime topic of discussion, and on Sunday conventioneers demonstrated outside the White House.
But most of the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Palestinians living in the United States in such cities as New York, Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco are enduring the turmoil quietly.
Nabil Abraham, a second-generation Palestinian-American and author of ``Arabs in the New World,'' says the Palestinian population is less vocal than the American Jewish population, for a number of reasons. ``Immigrants are notoriously scared,'' he says. They may not be comfortable with the language or they may feel unsure of their status. In some cases, the Palestinians here are not American citizens and do not want to compromise their chances for citizenship. Furthermore, he says, ``Palestinians are primitive in their organization.''
Finally, Arabs are sometimes associated with terrorism, Mr. Abraham says, and Arab-Americans often wish to avoid the insecurity and harassment they expect will come of drawing attention to their heritage. Palestinian leaders complain that as soon as they form an organization, it attracts the attention of the FBI.
Last weeks's bus hijacking in which three Israeli civilians and the three Palestinian attackers were killed is a reminder to the Arabs of the tenuous nature of public opinion. Faris Bouhafa, an ADC spokesman, says the hijacking might serve to shift public opinion away at precisely the time when Palestinians were gaining sympathy.
``As much as I personally regret anybody getting killed,'' says Mr. Bouhafa, ``you have to balance [the deaths of the three Israelis] with the Palestinians who have all been killed in the last few months.'' He notes that when Israeli soldiers kill Palestinians, ``it's not called a terrorist act.'' Bouhafa is quick to defend Palestinian actions, expressing concern for their public image. Yet readers' letters in all major newspapers and advertisements placed by American Jewish groups indicate a swing toward the Palestinian side of the conflict.
Even so, the Arab-American shopkeepers along Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn are cautious. ``Call me Jack,'' one suggests. ``Say my name is Z,'' another says. They fear that publication of their names may endanger their families living in the occupied territories.
``Nobody in the Israeli government wants peace,'' complains the owner of a store crowded with Arabic videotapes, Middle Eastern groceries, and Palestinian flags. A Palestinian who has been in the US for 20 years, he says if peace comes, the Israeli government will no longer enjoy the substantial funding it now receives from the US.
But Sam Moustapha, a Syrian who works in his family's Brooklyn grocery store, is more optimistic about Mr. Shultz's shuttle diplomacy. ``Any effort is welcome to stop the bloodshed,'' he says. ``The uprising is the only answer right now.''
Standing behind a cash register with the letters PLO scrawled across it, a store owner cites the Dec. 3 closing of the Palestine Information Office in Washington as evidence of the US government's anti-Palestinian position.
``Israel has too much influence in this country,'' says a Jerusalem-born Brooklyn store owner. The conflict between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, he says, is to create the impression that Israel is a democracy with open dispute among leaders. ``They're very shrewd,'' he says.
While he dislikes the Israeli government, the shopkeeper also seems dissatisfied with Yasser Arafat's role as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. ``I wouldn't let him run my store,'' he says. But he acknowledges that Mr. Arafat has become a rallying symbol for the PLO.
He thinks Shultz is mistaken in looking to Egypt or Jordan as partners in negotiations. ``It's not in their hands,'' he says.
Bouhafa, the ADC spokesman, agrees, saying the United States ``continues to mirror Israeli policy'' by looking for ``surrogates'' instead of dealing directly with the PLO. He says the conditions required before the US can serve as a legitimate middleman are ``the recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination, the acceptance of the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the willingness to negotiate with the PLO.''
``When the US decided it was time that we get out of Vietnam, we sat down and talked to the Viet Cong,'' says Isa Hassan, a Michigan pharmacist who has been in the US since 1962. He says the current Israeli situation is a parallel one in which Israel must negotiate with the PLO.
Mr. Hassan is active in an organization of Palestinians who trace their origin to the predominantly Christian town of Ramallah in the West Bank. The group, formed in 1952, began as a social organization, Hassan says. But since the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, there has been greater emphasis on educating the youth about their ethnic heritage.
Hassan speaks with pride of the time four years ago when he traveled to Tunis to meet Arafat. He maintains that the leaders of the movement are not involved in an Arab-vs.-Jew conflict, but instead in a clash between Arabs and Zionists. ``We are not asking for all of Israel,'' he says. ``We are not trying to throw the Jews into the sea.''
But it is rocky ground for such moderate views. One reminder is Abdullah Ibn Abdul Samed who says the end is coming for the Jews. A Muslim who divides the world into believers and nonbelievers, he says, ``The Muslims will fight the Jews.'' He believes both sides would continue to fight if a compromise were arranged, explaining, ``There is no solution.''