January 19, 1996
Web posted at: 12:40 p.m. EST (1745 GMT)
From Correspondent Jerrold Kessel
RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- On the threshold of their first national elections, many Palestinians believe their country is now being born. But the long, arduous struggle to gain universal recognition as a separate nation is not over yet.
At the tail end of the first World War, Britain's General Allenby marched into Jerusalem backed by the Balfour Declaration. That declaration, which recognized the right of the Jews to rebuild their ancient homeland in Palestine, was later endorsed by the League of Nations.
But the Balfour Declaration said nothing about the indigenous Arab population -- except a reference to respect for civil and religious rights -- and certainly gave no mention of any national aspirations the Arabs might have had.
The seeds of Palestinian national consciousness sprouted in response to the British colonial presence and the expanding Jewish population. And in November 1947, the United Nations voted in favor of partitioning Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, a defining moment for Palestinians who rejected division of the contested Holy Land.
"The partition and the Israeli war of independence was actually a major awakening point for the Palestinians, to recognize a sense of nationhood," said Adel Darwish, a Middle East historian.
Uncertain how they fit into the general Pan-Arab confrontation with Israel, Palestinians spent the next two decades in limbo. But Israel's crushing military drive in 1967 bested united Arab armies while pushing the Palestinian- Israeli confrontation back to center stage.
"In a sense, the results of the 1967 war resurrected the Palestinian issue in its original dimensions, which was the direct clash between Jews and Arabs over this piece of territory," said Mark Heller of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies
After the war, Palestinians began defining themselves in terms of the enemy -- Israel. There were the first inklings of resistance within the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, but the focus shifted beyond. The newly created Palestine Liberation Organization emphatically took up the cause, and the organization's military and political power grew under Yasser Arafat.
The PLO's accumulating strength brought confrontation with Jordan to a peak, when the more radical PLO hijacked Western airliners to Amman. The battleground increasingly moved to international arenas as the Palestinians launched an array of terrorist actions.
And then in 1972, Palestinian terrorists shook the world with a brazen attack on Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.
"This was the first time that the world started to understand that there is a problem," said Palestinian authority Faisal Husseini. "In the beginning we thought that the right is more important that the might. We found that this is not the case."
In the wake of a general Arab-Israeli war in 1973, the PLO edged toward political recognition of Israel by proposing a "two state" philosophy. But with the PLO's main base now in Lebanon, the battling continued until Israel's 1982 war in that country. Israeli forces dispatched the Palestinian fighting forces, sending their leaders into more distant exile in Tunis.
"There was an organic PLO and a hierarchical PLO," said Albert Aghazarian of Bir Zeit University. Organic meant a sense of identity and that was the strength of the PLO."
With the PLO's leaders far from the center of the problem, the flame of the Palestinian struggle was re-ignited at the grass roots level by those in direct contact with the Israelis. The so-called "children of the stones" mounted the Intifada, lifting the burden of Palestinian consciousness to a different plane.
Israeli perceptions were also readjusted in the process.
"It forced the bulk of the Israelis grudgingly but nevertheless unavoidably to come to the conclusion that there really was no way out of this except by coming to grips with the fact of a Palestinian national identity," said the Jaffe Center's Heller.
Building on pride and acceptance of the reality of Israel, the Palestinian leadership swung toward a political solution. And with the United States pressing hard, Israeli and Palestinian representatives met formally for the first time to discuss peace. But some wonder if that could have happened earlier.
"The Palestinians themselves in 1974 and 1975 missed a wonderful opportunity with (Egyptian) President Sadat at the Mena House talks in Cairo with Henry Kissinger," said Darwish. "The Palestinians could have had much more than they have now with hardly any of the Jewish settlements of the West Bank had they accepted that the Americans and the Egyptians really meant peace, not meant a conspiracy against them."
But Faisal Husseini has a different historical perspective.
"It was the Intifada which returned back this confidence of the Palestinians that we can face Israel, that we can accept the challenge," he said, "that we are in the position not only to ask the Israelis and to give, but also to have from them and give them."
A new sense of shared interests underlined the famous handshake on the White House lawn in September 1993. It opened the way for the return to Gaza and the West Bank of the PLO leadership and its fighting cadres, and for Yasser Arafat to be able to proclaim -- symbolically from atop the former Israeli military bastion in Ramallah -- that on the horizon he could almost literally see the prized walls of Jerusalem.
Arafat's opponents charge that he has settled for too little -- that he has given up on the dream of all Palestinians being able to return to their historic homeland. But the PLO leader contends that he already has more than seemed realistic at the start of this decade -- and that by the end of the 1990s, consolidation of the gains into a fully fledged state could be more than a dream.
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