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Of bombs, statelessness, ethnic cleansing and bird sanctuaries

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Palestinian children in Old Jerusalem

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There is a chance Prime Minister Harper, on his way to the Western Wall in Old Jerusalem, walked right by Ali M. Jiddah, perched at his usual spot in Café Rimon, just inside East Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate.

Jiddah’s business card describes him as "An Afro Palestinian Alternative Tour Guide" and the Prime Minister might have found a chat with him to be at least interesting, if not enlightening.

The Afro Palestinians, Jiddah says, are descended from sub-Saharan black African pilgrims who settled in Jerusalem in the time of the British Mandate (the 1940s). Other research shows that there have been Africans in Palestinian territory for much longer, going back many centuries.

Jiddah is himself ambivalent about his status, and feels not as fully accepted by the Palestinian majority as he would like. At the same time, he says some Israeli soldiers have treated his people shabbily, telling them they were foreigners, and not real Palestinians.

All this did not stop Jiddah from becoming politically active. He was a member of the secular, Marxist, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and spent 17 years in an Israeli prison for his part in a bombing incident.

The PFLP is part of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) -- the second largest group in the PLO coalition, in fact, after Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah -- but it is decidedly unenthusiastic about the current peace process, the aim of which is the so-called "two-state solution."

As Jiddah expresses it, the Popular Front favours a single, non-racial, non-religious state, encompassing both Israel and the occupied territories, in which both Jews and Arabs would have full rights.

Jiddah does not hold out much hope for that outcome, but he thinks the current peace process is a dead end, because "Abbas has already given up so much."

"I think we are heading for a third Intifada," Jiddah says, shrugging mournfully. That prospect does not make this one-time convicted terrorist happy. It seems he prefers the quiet life these days, working in his corner of the tourist industry and enjoying Café Rimon’s superb coffee.

In Stephen Harper’s worldview -- where if you even suggest that Israel’s management of the occupied territories resembles Apartheid you are an anti-Semite -- Ali and his radical views are truly beyond the pale. But Ali could not be called an anti-Semite. He bears no animus toward Jews, whatsoever. He insists, in fact, that he knows many progressive Jewish Israelis and gets on well with them.

As a movement, the PFLP is quite disdainful of ethno-religious politics. It does not approve of Hamas and other Islamic fundamentalist groups, and sticks by the non-racial, socialist creed of its founder, the nominally Christian medical doctor, George Habash.

When asked if he has visited other countries in the region, or elsewhere, Jiddah explains that he, like other East Jerusalem residents is, in many ways, stateless. The Israeli authorities give him, and others born in East Jerusalem, identity papers. But they consider them to be citizens of Jordan. From the 1948 partition to the 1967 War, East Jerusalem was in Jordan.

The result is that Jiddah and many other East Jerusalem-ites cannot get passports, and cannot move around easily.

Birds and Bedouins

Naming part of an environmental bird sanctuary after a Prime Minister who has gutted his own country’s entire environmental protection system may seem like the height of irony.

But that is not why Canada’s National Council of Canada-Arab Relations (NCCAR) objects to naming Israel’s Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary after Stephen Harper.

NCCAR says the bird sanctuary sits on territory from which Palestinian Bedouins were "ethnically cleansed" in 1948, and cites the work of Israeli historian Benny Morris to support that argument.

Morris’ book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, published in 1988, "caused a sensation," in the words of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The book "made mincemeat of the official Israeli version of events that said Palestinian refugees had fled their homes of their own accord..."

"Morris showed," Haaretz reported, "that the Palestinians who fled their homes between 1947 and 1949 did so largely due to Israeli military attacks."

The Bedouins eking out a living in the swamps of the Hula Valley were among those thus "encouraged" to leave. In his book, Morris quotes witnesses who said they saw how Israeli forces blew up many of the Palestinian Bedouin homes in the Hula Valley.

The whole area was to be settled by Israeli Kibbutzim and farmed. There are still prosperous farms in fertile parts of the Hula Valley; but today a good part of the Valley has been returned to something resembling a natural state.

The Bedouins who lost their homes have never been compensated.

Be careful whom you quote

There is a sad and ironic footnote to this 1948 "ethnic cleansing" story.

Morris gained virtual pariah status in Israel for telling that story.

"I was treated like an enemy of the state...I was ostracized," he told Haaretz in 2009. "I wasn’t invited to conferences and, of course, I wasn’t offered a university position. It was a tough time. I couldn’t support myself and my family. For six years I had no job ... I lived off loans from friends ... In 1991 I was fired by the Jerusalem Post, which was taken over by right-wing millionaires ‏(including Conrad Black‏), who dismissed all the paper’s left-leaning veteran staff."

But Morris' own position changed over time. After the spate of Palestinian terror attacks in 2000, and the failure of the Camp David peace talks of that same year, Morris started adopting a much harder line. He even referred to the need to "put the Palestinians in a cage."

"I may have gone a little overboard," Morris admitted to Haaretz in 2009, but then added. “ ...although I still stand behind what I said. I said that the Palestinians should be put in a cage so they won’t be able to get here to place bombs in buses and restaurants. The word 'cage' did not go over well and perhaps it was the wrong word to use. Of course, I meant fenced off."

More surprising from a historian who risked everything to tell the story of the expulsion of many Palestinians in 1948 was this comment from Morris:

As for the refugee situation, I still maintain that it was a requirement of the reality. Since the Palestinians tried and intended to destroy us, and their villages and towns served as bases in wartime, the winning side had to take over villages and expel populations.

Morris even added: "Massacres are always reprehensible, but the Jews behaved much better than other nations in similar circumstances."

NCCAR may want to think twice before quoting Morris in the future.

More removals in 2014 -- but others still worry about persistent anti-Semitism

In the meantime, today, in 2014, Israel continues to move settlers into occupied territory at a rate few understand, and continues to displace people within Israel proper.

Right now, thousands of Bedouin villagers in the Negev are vigorously contesting efforts to remove them. Those implementing these removals justify them as part of an effort to prevent the "creation of Arab territorial contiguity."

We, in North America, have much experience in such matters. See under: "First Nations, history of."

Some Jews in Canada might even feel deeply uncomfortable with these apparent abuses of basic human rights.

But they are more worried about other outrages. For instance, there are the many borderline anti-Semitic cartoons that have appeared lately in Europe and the Middle East, showing President Obama and the United States Congress being manipulated by the sometimes crudely caricatured "Jews."

And some Canadians, both Jews and Gentiles, are vexed that, amidst all the concern over refugees and forceful removals, few remember the massive ethnic cleansing of North African and Middle Eastern Jews that took place during several decades following 1948.

There will be more on all that, in part two of this story, coming soon...

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Ali M. Jiddah, 'Alternative' guide in East Jerusalem

Photo: Ali M. Jiddah, 'Alternative' guide in East Jerusalem

Photo: Martha Plaine

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