10/26/2013 10:20 am ET Updated Dec 26, 2013

Defending Palestinian Human Rights, the Key to a Just Peace

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are meeting in the latest chapter of the decades-long saga of on-again, off-again peace talks. With no leaks, and even less optimism, there is no shortage of speculation as to how the talks are going or whether any agreement is even possible.

Here in the US, supporters of the Palestinians are engaged in a sometimes heated but rather pointless debate as to what the "deal" should include or whether no deal is the best outcome -- since that, it is projected, might lead inevitably to a one-state solution. This entire discussion is not only unedifying, it is a waste of energy and a cop-out.

This is not to say that the outcome doesn't matter. Rather it is an acknowledgment of the fact that the ultimate resolution of the conflict won't be impacted by the our debates. Instead of exhausting ourselves arguing about what we can't control, we should be focused on what we can do to shine a light on the daily injustices visited upon Palestinians and mobilizing support for those whose human rights are being abused. It is here that an impact can be made.

There are human rights groups in Israel and Palestine that are engaged in this effort. They are documenting: cases of land confiscation and home demolitions; prisoners held without charges or trial; instances where vigilante gangs of settlers have desecrated mosques, cut down olive trees, beaten or killed Palestinian youngsters; and where the military has used collective punishment, excessive force, or acted to humiliate Palestinian civilians.

The victims of these illegal and immoral behaviors deserve our attention. Their cases should be adopted, their names need to be known, and they should be supported until the injustice ends.

Thirty-six years ago we formed the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC). Because none of the existing human rights groups would adopt Palestinian cases, we took it upon ourselves to adopt individual cases of Palestinians who: had been tortured; had their homes demolished; had been detained for prolonged periods without charges; or expelled from their homeland.

Back then, in the American discussion about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Israelis were understood to be full human beings, Palestinians were not known. Americans knew Israelis as real people who had hopes and fears. Palestinians, on the other hand, were an abstraction with whom most Americans could not identify. And so Palestinians were presented either in negative stereotypes, or merely as a problem to be solved. We hoped to remedy this, by putting a human face on the Palestinian people.

Many of the Arab American and Palestine support groups that existed back then were engaged, like now, in endless arguments about issues over which they had no control: which "political line" was the most correct or what should be the form of governance for the future Palestinian state.

And back then, much of the American liberal left was largely silent on Palestinian issues. Those that were engaged, focused their efforts on setting up "dialogues" in the vain attempt to promote reconciliation between Arabs and Jews.

When the PHRC came into existence, we were denounced by both groups. On the one hand we were told that we had "sold out" because we ignored the ideological debates and weren't "pure" enough. The peace groups kept us at an arms-length saying that by challenging Israel's behavior we made Jewish groups defensive and uncomfortable, thereby frustrating the effort to create a "no fault" dialogue.

More than three decades later, the situation is much the same.

The debate over one or two states rages on the one side, while liberals, who by now have embraced the notion of a two state solution, continue to shy away from any controversy and refuse to address Palestinian human rights. The former effort is wasted time and energy. The latter is an abdication of morality. Meanwhile Palestinians are still unknown and their rights are still violated.

As long as Palestinians are not known, the American discourse about peace will remain hopelessly one-sided. When Israeli humanity is presented as confronting the Palestinian "problem" -- guess who wins. If Americans can't see or identify with the Palestinians: who lost their homes and lands; who were humiliated at check points in front of their children; or who were abused and denied basic rights as prisoners -- then all they will care about is how to insure security for Israelis.

To correct this situation, what is required is an embrace of justice and human rights, or as one of my early mentors, Dr. Israel Shahak (founder of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights) would say "to fight for equal rights for every human being".

Whether there will be one state or two states will be decided, if it even can be, by the negotiators. But meanwhile, what of the victims? Who will speak for them? Who will give those who suffer the hope that their cries for justice are heard? And who will inform the US public that it is not only Israeli humanity that is threatened by the absence of peace? In fact, it is Palestinians who have paid and continue to pay an enormous price.

Recognition of this reality is a key ingredient in the search for a just peace, because only when Palestinians are known and their rights are fully recognized will the US feel the need to press for balanced peace that recognizes the rights and needs of Israelis and Palestinians alike.