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Migrant Boat Tragedy Highlights Greater PLO Role

The migrant boat tragedy near Malta on Oct. 16 has rekindled the old Palestine Liberation Organization's role as the representative of all Palestinians, including refugees.
A rescued migrant sits in a corridor while waiting to undergo preliminary medical tests at Mater Dei Hospital in Tal-Qroqq, outside Valletta, October 12, 2013. Italian calls for Europe to do more on the migrant crisis grew on Saturday and Malta's prime minister said the Mediterranean was becoming a "cemetery" after another boat sank off Sicily, killing dozens more people. Italian and Maltese navy ships recovered 34 bodies and rescued 206 migrants after their boat sank about 60 nautical miles south of Sicily

The Mediterranean island of Malta has a colorful history in the region. Malta has been described as an open-air museum. Tourists visiting the island can retrace the footsteps of St. Paul or see where the Knights of St. John fought their most famous battles.

Many crusade missions to Palestine began on this island, and it has become famous for its Knights of Malta — the order calls itself the "Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem.” Today’s Jerusalem still has many traces of the Knights of Malta.

It was not surprising, then, to see Hanan Ashrawi meet with Maltese officials in Jerusalem after the tragedy of the migrant boat that capsized near the island on Oct. 16, after being caught in high waves, and discovered by the US Navy. At least 128 migrants, including many Palestinians, were among those rescued. Malta’s prime minister stated that the Mediterranean Sea is quickly becoming a cemetery of migrants.

The choice of Ashrawi was no coincidence. Ashrawi, a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee member, was chosen by the Palestinian leadership to meet with a visiting Maltese delegation to Palestine because of her connection to Jerusalem and her Christian faith.

Ashrawi met top Maltese officials and thanked them for their efforts to rescue the boat migrants. But it was the current status of Jerusalem that was discussed at length at the meeting. In a news release issued by the PLO’s cultural department, which Ashrawi heads, details of the PLO officials' criticism of Israel’s policies in east Jerusalem were outlined.

“It is evident that the current Israeli government is more supportive of the systematic ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem and the annexation of the West Bank rather than of peace and justice. Jerusalem and its people continue to be besieged by checkpoints, apartheid walls and settlements, while Israel fails to comply with signed agreements, terms of reference and international law. In addition, Israel has refused to reopen Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem, particularly the Orient House — headquarters of the PLO and the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid [peace] talks — the Chamber of Commerce and other Palestinian institutions.”

Ashrawi's meeting with Maltese officials also focused on the role of the PLO toward the entire people of Palestine. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics said that as of May 2013, Palestinians worldwide number 11.6 million. Of those, nearly 400,000 are refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic. Palestinian refugees to Syria have been caught in the ongoing civil war in the country. Refugees living in one of the biggest Palestinian refugee camps have been worst hit. The Yarmouk camp, which has a population of 130,000 according to UNRWA, has suffered death and destruction due to the fighting between loyalist and rebel Syrian groups.

Lebanon has limited the influx of Palestinian refugees from Syria, while Jordan has completely banned their entry, adding to the crisis facing Palestinian refugees from Syria.

The PLO’s return to paying more interest to the status of Palestinians around the world is also a reflection of the lack of faith in the current peace process. As the talks fail to produce the anticipated results, many expect that the PLO's role as the guardian of all Palestinians will grow, returning it to pre-Oslo period levels.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the PLO was primarily an organization of refugees. The two-state solution offered Israel a chance to be legitimized with a much reduced implementation of the right of return. If the PLO goes back to being primarily an organization of refugees seeking return to historic Palestine, the nature of Palestinian-Israeli relations will diametrically be changed.

Daoud Kuttab is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab

Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that Hanan Ashrawi visited with officials in Malta, instead the meeting took place in Jerusalem. This has been corrected. 

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