April 8 is my birthday. Thirty-five years ago, today, I was born in Beirut. Then, the city was a thriving cultural capital. Then, the West Bank and Gaza were not under Israeli military occupation. Then, my relatives and their friends could easily travel from Lebanon to the Muslim and Christian holy sites, Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, without even a passport.
Today the world is very different. The tragedy that has befallen the people of Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria has severely damaged the Arab people é wreaking havoc in our lives and our economies. And for the past 10 days, Israel’s televised onslaught against the Palestinian people has united the Arab world behind Palestine and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat like never before in my adult life.
Demonstrations in solidarity are burgeoning across not only Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, but even the people of Dubai, Bahrain and Kuwait are rising up in opposition. The question is, given their grievances, can the people of the Arab world chart a successful path to justice and peace? Can they successfully use their hearts and minds to shape the world?
The Arab world is a vastly different place today than it was in 1967 when Israel defeated the Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian armies, conquering the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. The Arab world now has a level of literacy and interconnectedness unparalleled in its history. Arab satellite TV channels spread across the region, connecting people and their sentiments, dramatically reducing the ghetto-ized mentality that has afflicted the peoples of the region since the time of colonialism. E-mail and mobile telephone popularity is skyrocketing, also connecting people and their feelings.
And economic progress has transformed a largely illiterate and impoverished region. For the majority of Arab countries, in the past decade alone, the percentage of children dying before their fifth birthday has fallen drastically, to about 3 percent. And the percentage of children enrolled in primary school has skyrocketed to between 90 percent and 99 percent. This looks nothing like the fragmented, poor and illiterate Arab world I was born into.
The past 10 days have seen remarkable, heartfelt and intelligent expressions of solidarity along with clever uses of technology to express outrage at Israel’s illegal and inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people.
Sizeable vigils and demonstrations have taken place outside parliaments, embassies and United Nations offices across the Arab world, demanding protection for the Palestinian people. Some students are starting to write letters to the editor and articles to major publications.
And on Friday, the Jordanian government held the nation’s largest-ever fund-raising telethon. Even the mobile telephone company got in on the act, sending text messages to cell phone users to advertise the event. The event netted at least 9.5 million Jordanian dinars ($13 million) for emergency aid for the Palestinian people. While $13 million may not seem like much, for a poor country like Jordan it is actually of gargantuan proportions. In one day, the Jordanian people donated a larger portion of their GDP to Palestine é between 0.15 percent and 0.2 percent é than the US annually gives in economic aid to the whole world é 0.1 percent. Indeed, about $2.50 for every man woman and child in Jordan is a lot for a country with per capita GDP of $1,500 per year.
The event was significant because it enabled the population of Jordan to directly help the besieged Palestinian population and dramatically demonstrates to the world é particularly, Israelis, Americans, Palestinians and other Arabs é that Jordan is willing to make truly great sacrifices for Palestine in a nonviolent and non–hateful manner.
This dignified, compassionate and intelligent expression of solidarity follows on the Beirut Arab summit, which presented a unified offer of negotiations for peace to Israel. In recent years, there has been other progress in the Arab world’s approach as well. For example, the people of Palestine, long walled off by the Arab boycott of Israel, have been reconnected to their brethren and finally allowed by Arab governments to travel to the majority of the Arab countries despite Israel’s ongoing occupation. But in recent days there have also been hateful, un–strategic expressions which the people of the Arab world must learn will not serve their cause. While many Arab demonstrators are demanding intervention and protection for the Palestinians, others succumb to hateful calls for Arab armies to attack Tel Aviv or for more suicide bombings.
Such violent expressions are not only disastrous because the human heart gives in to hatred, but because they reinforce the Western Orientalist stereotype that Arabs are killers and terrorists. We are not, and we should be smart enough by now not to play into the hands of those who seek to demonize us.
Throughout history, wars have indeed been won by force, but vastly weaker peoples have rarely brought themselves dignity and freedom solely through military means. The people of the Arab world é through their increasing literacy and access to satellite TV and the internet é should have realized that calls to bomb Tel Aviv probably won’t help their cause. But letter-writing campaigns to American newspapers, or nonviolent expressions articulating a pragmatic policy that those they are trying to influence could actually endorse, can have an impact.
American Adam Shapiro recently risked his life by escorting medical aid workers to Arafat’s besieged compound. His Jewish American family has since received death threats from extremists over their son’s bravery. The people of the Arab world will need to embrace similar creative, dignified and savvy approaches to ending Israel’s occupation if they are to succeed.
Those in the Arab world who call for more attacks against Israeli civilians need to learn that their voices will not help end Israel’s occupation and will not help the Palestinian people. Instead, it is leaders like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi é who used forceful nonviolence to confront oppression é whose names will be remembered as courageous leaders.
The success of the Arab people’s struggle for democracy, justice and peace will depend on whether they channel their creativity and newfound interconnectedness into a visionary, pragmatic message that the world is ready to hear.
Hady Amr was formerly the National Director of Ethnic American Outreach for Al Gore’s presidential campaign and served in former President Bill Clinton’s Department of Defense at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. Amr is currently an independent consultant who divides his time between Arlington, Virginia and the Arab world. He writes for The Daily Star (Lebanon) and permitted Media Monitors Network (MMN) to publish this commentary.