DOHA, Qatar — No other national struggle in the world has assimilated itself, or has been inadvertently assimilated, to symbolize so many things to different people as has the Palestinian struggle. And yet, despite the intricate layers of sense and understanding that have sought to encapsulate the Palestinian struggle, Palestine itself lingers in the world’s consciousness merely as a symbol.

Palestine is the last domicile for those seeking deliverance, and the ultimate place next to heaven for those in quest of salvation. There, it has been written that the tireless hunt for spiritual quintessence shall come to an end; the armies shall meet there, once more; they shall fight in the name of God, an Armageddon not like any other, of which victory has already been promised to the righteous.

Palestine has also been a rally cry for the dispossessed and for the aspiring underdog. Its letters have been inscribed in blood on prison walls throughout Israel and the Arab world as a promise of victory or as a lamentation of defeat. When anti-globalization activists take on neoimperialist institutions, they raise a Palestinian flag, and when Venezuela’s poor brought Hugo Chavez back to power on April 14, 2002, a Palestinian flag also swayed.

Palestine also had its fare share of political exploitation. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein fought his Iranian foes, the most cruel and costly wars, in the name of Palestine, and in the name of Palestine Iran fought back. Arab nations have long hidden behind liberation-of-Palestine slogans to excuse their ineptitude and to rationalize their oppression.

And in the United States, Palestine takes on a plethora of unique and often deadly meanings. It’s a prophecy waiting to be fulfilled and a market for politicians wishing to sell their will to the highest bidder. It’s a major and everlasting news headline that, despite its ominous presence, seems to teach and evoke nothing except the intentional misrepresentation of the facts.

As for Palestine the reality — the suffering, the loss, the hopelessness and hurt, the refugee camps, the checkpoints, the expanding settlements, the encroaching Israeli wall, the ruined lives, the packed prisons, the anger and prevailing sense of betrayal, the desperation and human bombs, the shattered economy, the bulldozed orchards, the 50 years-long fear of the future — seems to be the least relevant point.

Symbolic Palestine — Palestine the dream — has for long hijacked Palestine the reality. Thus when Palestine is discussed, examined and scrutinized, the frame of reference is hardly the one invoked when any other similar conflict is discussed. Its resolution is rarely seen pertinent to international law or human rights and is barely understood — as it should be — in terms of power and strategy. Rather it’s a subject of flared imaginations, religious fantasy and fictitious constructs.

This realization was my initial thought on the International Conference on “Peace in Palestine” held in Malaysia at the end of March. I addressed the conference, and so did many other human rights activists, academics and religious scholars.

The conference was organized by Peace Malaysia, an umbrella group of more than 1,000 civil society organizations, and was attended by over 500 civil society activists from 34 countries. On the last day of the conference, an action plan of 10 points was drafted and approved. The goal was to engage and enlist civil societies around the world in the attempt to take on Israel for its defiance of international law and denial of Palestinian human rights as well as legal rights.

Despite the lucidity of the stated goal of the gathering and the straightforwardness of its Action Plan, the conference itself was an embodiment of Palestine the dream, not the reality.

The Malaysian government’s heavy involvement in the conference, for example was a political message, and a Malaysian message at that. It was an attempt to claim the country’s status as a leading Muslim country with many vested interests in the affairs of the Muslim world. But it was a message to the U.S. as well. Allowing Israeli citizens (delegates to the conference) to cross the Malaysian border, for the first time ever, was a subtle assurance that Malaysian politics is different. It’s not the kind that espouses the Bin Laden-type activists. It’s peaceful and modern. Just like Malaysia itself.

There were also the Israeli delegates who, despite their declared progressiveness and clarity of their peace message, seemed more consumed with the “Jewish identity” of Israel, its “demographic needs” and its imminent “destruction” as a result of a one-state solution than with the justness of the Palestinian struggle and what that justness entails apart from Israel’s racist needs and wishes.

Also present was the interminable debate over violence and nonviolence as a means to curb the occupation, a debate that remained detached from the reality on the ground, and solely motivated by ideological principles and spiritual dogmas.

One cannot and must not undermine the efforts of the inspiring activists whose awareness of the Palestinian reality on the ground is unmatched and whose sincere efforts to achieve peace with justice in Palestine translate to more than a few heart-rending words and phrases, but steady action and unequaled readiness to labor and even sacrifice for their beliefs.

However, it’s this wrestle between the real as opposed to figurative and abstract awareness that shall define the course of action that is likely to follow. If Palestine continues to be understood — or misunderstood — outside its proper frame as a national struggle for rights within the appropriately corresponding international context, then little can be expected from any attempts to remedy its ailments.

It is time to distance Palestine from further interpretations and understand it as it is. Otherwise, Palestine, its people and conflict shall be confined to the ever-augmented edifices of rhetoric with no connection to the real aspiration of a real people with real demands, awaiting justice and a moment of peace.

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