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Another Terrorist Bombing: Remembering the Semiramis Hotel
Margo Schulter
January 2003

The desperate need of Palestine/Israel for binationalism and multiethnic democracy is dramatized by the horrors of two terrorist attacks against innocent civilians occurring exactly 55 years apart.

While the world was shocked by the human bomb attacks in Tel Aviv on 5 January 2003, we would do well to remember also the fateful terrorist bombing of the Semiramis Hotel in al-Quds/Jerusalem on 5 January 1948.

The bombing of the Semiramis, carried out by Zionist terrorists of the Haganah, was one of the first acts in the campaign of ethnic cleansing known as al-Nakba, the Palestinian Catastrophe of 1947-1950, in which about 800,000 Palestinian Arabs were expelled from their homes by terrorism, house demolitions, explicit military orders, and outright massacres. Today, the physical and structure violence of the Nakba continues within Israel's 1948-1949 borders (the "Green Line"), in the 1967 occupied territories of East Palestine (the West Bank) and Gaza, and in the refugee camps of the Palestinian diaspora.

More specifically, the bombing of the Semiramis was one bloody scene in the campaign to "cleanse" the City of Peace of its Palestinian population, an effort which three months later culminated in the most notorious massacre of the 1948 war at Deir Yassin. On 9 April, terrorist forces of the Irgun Zvai Leumi ("National Military Organization") and Lochmei Herut Israel ("Fighters for the Freedom of Israel") or "Stern Gang," invaded the peaceful village and murdered an estimated 250 women, men, and children. The Haganah ("Defense"), soon to become the core of the official Israeli Defense Forces, lent its support -- as the IDF would to the Falangist forces who carried out the massacres at Sabra and Chatilla on 16-18 September 1982.

Both the bombing of the Arab-owned Semiramis Hotel on 5 January 1948, which killed 20 people including the Viscount de Tapia (the Spanish Consul), and the massacre at Deir Yassin, were violations of the Peace of al-Quds/Jerusalem, declared by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 (29 November 1947) to be an international zone. The attack on an Arab-owned hotel, and the reign of murder and sexual assault visited upon a Palestinian Arab village noted for its friendship with immigrant Jewish neighbors and avoidance of conflict,
were intended to send a simple message: "No Arab is safe in Palestine!"

Zionist military and paramilitary forces made the message very explicit both through "whispering campaigns" to induce panic flight, and in open announcements to besieged Palestinians: "Leave before your fate becomes that of Deir Yassin!"

Today, 55 years later, an estimated 5.5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendents inherit the bitter legacy of al-Nakba, a heritage of displacement, dispossession, and Israeli apartheid exclusion. In places like the refugee camps of Gaza and East Palestine, many of these people live in the most abject poverty -- although there is plenty of room for them to be leading normal and indeed joyous lives in their ancestral towns, villages, or districts within the Green Line. Open fields, abandoned village sites ripe for rebuilding, and largely deserted urban eighborhoods inviting renovation await them. One main barrier blocks their way home: the ugly face of Israeli apartheid as it has been practiced for more than half a century.

Growing up in these illegal and dehumanizing conditions, and often brutalized by the acts of the Israeli Occupation Forces and paramilitary "settler" terrorists, some young Palestinians are driven to the desperation of suicide bombings. These attacks against civilians are indeed unjustifiable and criminal, but all too readily understandable. As the Palestinian scholar Nasser Abufarha has said, the young people who see no choice but to turn their own bodies into bombs are "dying to live," grasping for some form of struggle that might liberate their people. The source of this violence is apartheid oppression -- as also in the South Africa of the 1980's.

One is tempted to paraphrase Victor Hugo: the law of nations, in its impartial majesty, forbids governments armed with helicopter gunships and their victims armed only with stones and homemade explosive belts from engaging in attacks on civilians.

Thus the trail of violence, the saga of al-Nakba as a continuing Trail of Tears, leads from the bombing of the Semiramis Hotel on 5 January 1948 to the bombing of Tel Aviv on 5 January 2003.

The human consequences of such terrorist bombings are much the same regardless of the national identities of the bombers or their innocent victims. The 20 people killed at the Semiramis, and the 22 people killed in Tel Aviv, are indeed victims of criminal acts carried out in violation of international humanitarian law, along with the many wounded in such attacks and their traumatized families and friends.

In repudiating such acts of physical violence, we should also challenge the structural violence which breeds these acts of inhumanity: in Palestine/Israel, the 55-year reign of Nakba oppression and occupation which must be replaced by multiethnic democracy.

There is a dynamic alternative to both the physical and structural violence of al-Nakba: a Binational Civil Rights Movement using the weapons of nonviolent resistance to confront Israeli apartheid within the Green Line (1948 territories) as well as in East Palestine and Gaza (1967 territories) and around the world.

This must be a Global Civl Rights Intifada, struggling for binational democracy throughout Palestine/Israel and full implementation of the sacred and inalienable Palestinian Right of Return through all nonviolent means necessary.

The world should learn that al-Nakba was and is above all a conspiracy to deprive the Palestinian people of their civil and human rights as guaranteed by international instruments such as UNGA 181, which requires any state formed in historical Palestine to enact a democratic Constitution "[g]uaranteeing to all persons equal and non-discriminatory rights in civil, political, economic and religious matters."

Further, UNGA 181 requires any such state to make a solemn Declaration including provisions for "religious and minority rights" such as the following: "No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants on the ground of race, religion, language or sex." All persons "shall be entitled to equal protection of the laws."

These civil rights provisions adopted by the United Nations in 1947, and lent yet more moral weight by the experiences since of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA and the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa, have been violated by Israel since its founding in 1948. Invidious acts of Israeli apartheid legislation such as the Absentee Property Law of 1950 are an outrage to the basic standards of decency embodied in UNGA 181, including provisions specifically protecting minority property rights.

In my view, UNGA 181 was tragically wrong in attempting to impose partition on Palestine and the Palestinian people without their consent -- but profoundly right in declaring the elementary civil and human rights standards which must serve as the foundation for any just settlement.

In crafting such a settlement today, the dilemma is how best to reconcile two principles. The first is the South African principle of "One Person, One Vote, One Country," or multiethnic democracy. The second is the binational principle of "One Land for Two Peoples," with Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews free at once to affirm their own national identities and to evolve new and common cultures.

One of the most attractive solutions to this dilemma is a unitary state of Palestine/Israel subdivided into possibly about 15 cantons, each with something like 500,000 people, as proposed by the scholar Emile Nakhleh. While a federal Parliament could be elected on the principle of "One Person, One Vote," for example, with countrywide proportional representation of parties, the cantons would reflect the geographical and demographic diversity of the country. Following the Swiss model, citizens would be free to move from one canton to another, thus encouraging a culture of common citizenship.

Such a canton solution can meet the needs of Palestinian-Israeli democracy on three levels.

First, on the binational level, some cantons would be predominantly Palestinian Arab and some predominantly Israeli Hebrew, while others would be highly mixed. Local communities and cantons would be free to manage their own affairs, subject always like the federal government to the imperatives of nondiscrimination and universal human rights (no death penalty, extrajudicial killings, or torture).

Secondly, the cantons could represent more generally the varied forms of multi-ethnic diversity in Palestine/Israel: for example, the special cultural traditions and interests of Bedouins, or of Arab Jews.

Thirdly, the cantons could enrich the lives of citizens by introducing an element of decentralization which is healthy for any democracy.

To reflect on the heritage of al-Nakba, the cycle of violence leading from the Semiramis Hotel in al-Quds/Jerusalem to the carnage on the streets of Tel Aviv, and from Deir Yassin to Jenin, is to commemorate some of the most terrible acts of which humankind is capable. Yet our response should be not despair, but renewed resolution to move the situation from barbarism to binationalism and multi-ethnic democracy.

We must reach out our hands to the young Palestinian refugee who embodies the hope and pride of a nation in exile and can see no alternative to desperate violence -- and also to the Israeli administrator or citizen who can see no alternative to continuing the structural violence and apartheid which has ravaged the region for 55 years. There is a better way: the way of uncompromising nonviolent struggle, and the roadmap of Palestinian Return and Peace Through Integration.

As a Jew, I have a favorite motto about al-Awda (the Palestinian Right of


"Never again" for Palestinians, or Jews, or any other people: what is done to one is done to all. That is the lesson of the last century, and in the 21st century let us act accordingly.

In peace and solidarity,

Margo Schulter

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