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How Long Must We Wait, Mr President?

The continued building and expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank of Palestine, even in the face of protestations from the international community, is further proof of Israel’s intention to expand its borders and ethnically cleanse the occupied territories of Palestinians village by village and mile by mile, utilising that well worn Zionist tactic of creating ‘facts on the ground’.

For many years the accepted wisdom among interested parties has been that while Israel could continue to thumb its nose at the United Nations, international law, and the condemnation of European and the Arab governments over its policies of occupation, expropriation, and apartheid, it would not be able to ignore the will of a US administration if and when one were ever to materialise which decided on a more balanced approach with regard to this seemingly intractable conflict.

With the arrival of a new administration in the White House at the start of 2009, and the new incumbent’s declared intention to recognise both in word and deed the plight of the Palestinians, it finally appeared as if the prayers of the Palestinians, the Arab world, and informed public opinion around the world had been answered. After all, and without question, this president was unlike any previous we’d seen enter the White House. Here was a man who’d spent time in the company of the likes of Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi. Here was a president who’d taken the time to acquaint himself with the history and the politics from an Arab perspective, who’d spoken at various Arab-American dinners and events during his rise to prominence and public office in the state of Illinois.

In other words, the new president not only understood the issue, he’d received a thorough education in the history of Palestinian dispossession which lay at its root. For a US administration to be led by such a man was truly unique, and so it was little wonder that his election proved the catalyst for the unleashing of new mood of hope and expectation throughout the Arab world and beyond.

And thereafter the world, intoxicated with this hope and expectation, waited for the president to intervene. Finally, we believed, justice was about to be accorded to a people who for 60 years had only known calumny and cruelty, who’d suffered not only a concerted attempt to remove them from the page of history via the most wanton, barbaric, and systematic programme of ethnic cleansing in our time, but who’d suffered while the so-called civilised and democratic world remained silent.

And we waited.

And then came Israel’s assault on Gaza, this tiny strip of overcrowded land which offered no respite or escape from the missiles and the bombs. And in response the world erupted in protest, angry and grief stricken over the plight of a people who, once again, were being pulverised for daring to be Palestinian and for refusing to remain on their knees. And as the children burned we waited for the newly elected president, soon to be installed in the White House, to make a public statement which chimed with the world’s anger, which lived up to the promise of a presidential campaign in which lofty words of hope had rung out.

But the statement didn’t come. Instead, the newly elected president, our new hope for change, wrung his hands, citing constitutional protocol, citing it even as the children burned.

And afterwards the world moved on. And when it did we continued to wait.

And then a few months later came the president’s first keynote speech to the Arab world, the most anticipated speech by an American president in many a year. In Cairo, with his genius for oratorical flourish in full display, our new hope for justice voiced his respect and admiration for the Arab and Muslim world. He paid tribute to its many contributions to civilisation, lauded its philosophers and its writers, recognised its achievements as the home of algebra and calligraphy, its innovations in fields as varied as architecture and jurisprudence. He even acknowledged the Arab world’s rightful status as the bridge to the European Enlightenment.

Then, with the audience in the hall and around the world entranced, the 44th president recognised the suffering of the Palestinian people in the present, the legitimacy of their struggle for statehood, dignity, and human rights. He drew comparisons between their struggle today and the black civil rights struggle in his own country of yesterday. And as we listened some even forgave his silence over Gaza, while others ignored his naivety in exhorting the Palestinians to turn away from violence in the face of tanks, bulldozers, and helicopter gunships.

And then Netanyahu and Likud won an election and were returned to power in Israel. And now, surely, change was inevitable. Now at last as schism would open up - between a man in whom faith in a world predicated on justice and universal human rights had been placed, and a man synonymous with the exceptionalism, racism, and crimes against humanity which belonged to a darker, crueller age.

Could those initial conflicting public statements on the settlements herald that shift in US-Israeli relations we’d been expecting? Could the fact that a US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had seen fit to voice her public disapproval of the line taken by the Netanyahu government in continuing to expand and build on land stolen from the Palestinians, could this presage the sanctions, the freezing of aid, the end to the sale of the US weaponry and military equipment deployed against civilians which the world had long been waiting for? Could it be that Israel might at long last be forced to accede to the tenets of international law?

And, still, we waited. And as we did we watched as more Palestinians were evicted from their homes, as the wall continued to encroach on Palestinian land, and as the tears increased. And surely now, we thought, it won’t be long before words of condemnation are backed up with deeds.

But as we continue to wait the settlements expand, the evictions go on, and the checkpoints remain.

And, so, the question is Mr President – how long must we wait?