Of incomparable comparisons: the Palestinian cause and the question of Western Sahara

Western Sahara

For decades, the Polisario Front and activism akin to the subversive movement have instrumentalized the Palestinian cause for their secessionist purposes. Nevertheless, these are two incomparable issues. To attempt to compare the difference between the former Spanish Sahara and the Palestinian question is insulting to say the least. And it is as insulting to Palestinian citizens as it is to Moroccans, ergo the Saharawis. It is tendentious to suggest similarities in these two matters, though this is one of the usual strategies deployed against Morocco by Algeria's services, specifically its propaganda apparatus. 

An initial relationship or comparison between the Palestinian question and that of the former Spanish Sahara was recorded in the left-wing Moroccan magazine Souffle (Issue 19, 1970). There was an article on Western Sahara in which, according to various sources, the young El Ouali Mustafa Sayed, 22 years old, was a Moroccan student who was a member of the Communist Party before becoming one of the founders of the Polisario Front. This article warned that "Western Sahara, a colonial fact, is becoming an imperialist fact", and highlighted the growing cooperation between Washington and the Franco regime in Spain, with strategic plans between Spanish capitalism and the French banks controlled by big American capital that made Western Sahara a factor in international imperialist greed with a double objective, economic and military. According to the columnist, imperialism needs a base in the western part of the Arab world, since Israel is not sufficient to control the revolutionary movements and anti-imperialist uprising that had shaken the Arab nation since 1965. The document referred to clearly states that "the Arab motherland is one and indivisible" and emphasizes with the subtitle: "The Western Sahara Arab land". Another statement refers to the fact that Palestine and Western Sahara "can only hope for the common salvation of millions of maquis who will all be Arabs, from the Gulf to the Atlantic: the same solution to destroy the two Israelis together". "Palestine or Western Sahara cannot expect the common salvation of millions of maquis who will be all Arabs, from the Gulf to the Atlantic : one and the same solution to destroy all the Israelis".   

The comparison obviously alludes to Israel-considered a spearhead of imperialism in the eastern part of the Arab world by occupying the Palestinian territories-and to the Spanish colonial presence in the Sahara as a spearhead of imperialism in the Maghreb. This is the first and only comparison, from an ideological perspective, made by the founder of Polisario in the 1970s. After the capture of Algeria and Libya from the Polisario Front, the Polisario flag was created: a flag that plagiarises the design and colours of the Palestinian flag. This was certainly not an innocent mistake. It is a propaganda campaign launched for a specific purpose: to confuse and install a message. The only difference between the Palestinian and the Polisario flags is the red star and the crescent that added the second one inspired by the symbols of the flag of the Algerian Republic. 

Campamento de refugiados de Smara en la provincia argelina de Tinduf
AFP/FAROUK BATICHE - Smara refugee camp in the Algerian province of Tindouf

Since then, its militants, like-minded media, activists and sympathizers try to install a story based on a fabricated myth that highlights the "similarities" between the issues of the Sahara and Palestine. Only that it replaced Spain-"in the service of imperialism", as the aforementioned document referred to-with Morocco, describing the Maghreb kingdom as expansionist and in the service of imperialism, forgetting its own statement that "the Arab homeland is one and indivisible" and that Western Sahara is part of that Arab land.

Over time comparative terminology was added to the propaganda on the subject of the Sahara that would make sense if it remained under the Spanish administration. As a result, they speak of "occupied territories" or the "wall of shame". Why do they do this? Because the cause of Polisario is so marginal that it needs to be sheltered in the shadow of a popular and widely known and supported cause. It was convenient for them to take refuge in the Palestinian cause, which enjoys international solidarity. The Polisario, Algeria and Libya did not consider it extremely ignoble to instrumentalize the Palestinian cause by equating it with their fictitious cause directed and supported by the Algerian regime and sponsored for a time by Gaddafi? Palestinian representatives have even had to clarify in various countries that they do not support the cause of the Polisario and that the only cause that encourages the Palestinian authorities is Palestine.

A few months ago I read the article signed by Alejandro Salamanca entitled "Western Sahara, the great forgotten", which was published on 11 June in the Spanish digital newspaper Atalayar. The article is notable for the number of erroneous statements, among them that "the situation of the Sahrawi refugees is objectively much worse than that of the Palestinians". It should be pointed out that those solely responsible for the misfortune of the Sahrawi "refugees" are, on the one hand, the military regime of Algeria and, on the other, its Polisario, which controls the population. Morocco is in no way responsible, nor is Spain for what is happening outside its borders and, specifically, inside Algerian territory. 

Campamento de refugiados de Boudjdour en Tinduf
REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA - Boudjdour en Tinduf refugee camp

It should be remembered that it was the political-military organisation that falsely claims to represent these victims that led them into this regrettable and failed adventure, without any legal mandate or legitimacy expressed through voting at the polls but based on revolutionary and totalitarian force.

And, just to show that there are no similarities or comparisons between the two issues, add that Israel has rejected the return of the Palestinian refugees despite UN General Assembly resolution 194 adopted in December 1948 which establishes the right of return. In contrast, Morocco considers all the Saharawis to be an integral part of the Moroccan people, that is, full citizens. It is not for nothing that Saharans have been returning for over three decades, disenchanted with "revolutionary" life and the totalitarian experience. Many have had to flee from Algerian territory, evading the strict controls of their jailers. What is emotional and moving is to see how they acquire all their rights once they enter the Moroccan territory. Among the thousands of returnees there is a significant number of the former founders of the Polisario, including some visible heads of the so-called "SADR Government", namely   

Omar Hadrami: he is one of the notable founders of the Polisario. He was a political commissioner and also a member of the military general staff of Polisario, also responsible for the military security of the Polisario Front. In 1989 he returned to Morocco and has since been appointed governor in various provinces.

Guejmoula Ben Abbi: was captured by Polisario at the age of 14 and sent to Cuba to study. She was the president of the women's branch of Polisario, known as the "Union of Saharawi Women". In 1991 she returned to Morocco. She has been a member of the Royal Consultative Council (CORCAS). She ran for election and won a seat in Parliament. He is a member of the PPS bureau (Party of Progress and Socialism and Moroccan Communist Party). 

Brahim Hakim: was a founding member of the Polisario and a prominent member of its political bureau, known as the most active "SADR Minister of Foreign Affairs" for ten years, he was also Minister of Information. In 1992 he returned to Morocco and was appointed itinerant ambassador in charge of the Sahara issue.  

Mustafa Barazani: in 1976, at the age of 18, he joined the Polisario Front. He became political commissioner of the army and later commissioner of foreign relations. He formed part of its political bureau. In 1991 he returned to Morocco and was appointed ambassador.

Bachir Edkhil: Founding member of the Polisario. He was its representative in several countries and before different organisations. He returned to Morocco in 1992, and does not hold any position of political responsibility. He has privileged his independence, maintains a critical eye and a notable career as an activist in Moroccan civil society, and presides over a cooperative, among other collective initiatives, as well as personal endeavours.  

Lahbib Ayoub: former military chief of the Polisario, nicknamed General Giap. One of the most prominent historical leaders of the movement, he was a permanent member of the Polisario General Secretariat, "minister of the occupied territories", left Polisario and returned to Morocco in 2002. In Morocco he is dedicated to his personal activities and individual initiatives.

Hammati Rabban: appointed Polisario Minister of Justice from 1986 to 1988 and from 1995 to 1999, also Minister of Religious Affairs. The last position was minister delegated to the Prime Minister. He returned to Morocco in June 2005.

Ahmedou Ould Souilem: was Polisario's representative in several countries. His last position as a separatist was in 2007 when Mohammed Abdelaziz, SADR President and Polisario Secretary General appointed him as Minister Counsellor to the Presidency. Two years later he travelled to Madrid with his Algerian diplomatic passport and from there returned to Morocco. Shortly afterwards he was appointed Moroccan ambassador to Madrid.

Campamento de refugiados de Bojador, cerca de la ciudad argelina de Tinduf en el territorio en disputa del Sáhara Occidental
AFP/FAROUK BATICHE - Boujdour refugee camp near the Algerian city of Tindouf in the disputed territory of Western Sahara

The above is only a brief record that denies the ignorance of some articulators. A dispassionate look at the Sahara dispute would show that Polisario's dissidence has been growing for at least three decades and, for years now, the undeniable trend has been for the subversive movement to defect, either to return to Morocco or to settle in other countries. And, let us note a not insignificant issue, the marginal proportion, quantitatively speaking, that advocates separatism from Morocco does not leave Morocco to join the ranks of Polisario in Tindouf. No independence movement, which is a collective that is really fighting against colonialism, has had such a high number of defections from its ranks.

Dissidents that hurt Polisario and do not help its cause because many have been high ranking officials and founders, not only grassroots militants, but of the highest hierarchical level: more than five "ministers", numerous "ambassadors", the most important military leader and most of its founding members. With an incentive to discredit Polisario: all, without exception, have publicly acknowledged that Polisario is a hostage of Algeria. In other words, the Polisario Front is dependent on the military regime in Algiers at all levels and is at its service. Polisario takes orders on Algeria's instructions and therefore holds an absurd and inconsequential position that prolongs the suffering of tens of thousands of citizens. 

Allow me to remind you that Israel, with which attempts are being made to compare Morocco, does not accept the return of those who have taken up arms. What has Rabat done? It promoted a policy of returnees, without reprisals-with all the impunity for the Polisario's leaders and perpetrators, and this is an issue that the returned Sahrawi victims often resent. Morocco gave them the opportunity and all the guarantees to participate actively both in the local and regional development of the Sahara, and at national level in all political and institutional bodies. While the Saharawis who have been victims of human rights violations within Morocco during the years of lead have been like the rest of the Moroccans victims of abuses compensated for the damages suffered and among these we can mention Aminatou Haidar, a prominent activist and member of the Polisario who currently lives in El Aaiun. 

Soldados del Frente Polisario están en la entrada del quinto sector de la base de Bir Lahlou, Sáhara Occidental
REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA - Polisario Front soldiers are at the entrance of the fifth sector of the Bir Lahlou base, Western Sahara

The Polisario is responsible for having dragged the Saharawi population into a situation of misery and suffering, generating a human drama and making this a profitable business. The camps are a showcase for economic and political marketing, it traffics in the aid and to obtain more dividends in its macabre business it has not hesitated to inflate the figures of the number of refugees to the countries and agencies that send them aid.

Aid that is constantly diverted by those responsible for the Polisario and the Algerian regime to be sold on the black market. That is why they have systematically refused to allow the UN to census and identify the population because that would enable it to know the exact number of refugees. Of the Saharawis who have lived in Tindouf, many claim that the real population of Saharawis in the camps is no more than some 40,000 people, but Polisario claims that there are over 200,000, while insisting that the electoral body-to determine the future of the Saharawas only 85,000 voters including the entire population of the territory that represents the majority. And he alternates his appeal for aid to be sent to the population living in extreme poverty with efforts to arm themselves and display their costly warrior potential in constant parades and military manoeuvres with a well-fed, well-clothed and well-equipped soldier, unlike the population living in total misery. Not only does it display military personnel carrying rifles and machine guns, but it also parades modern tanks and well-armed armoured cars and state-of-the-art missiles. With less military investment it could put an end to the situation of misery of the Saharawis it keeps in the camps, instead of assigning blame to Morocco and Spain, depending on the circumstances and on the basis of a primary and childish behaviour that prevents it from assuming responsibility for the whole disaster of more than four decades, a cynical manoeuvre to manipulate international opinion. What guarantees do international donors have that their generous aid is not diverted to the purchase of sophisticated weapons?

For years the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and other countries have been forcing Algeria and Polisario to stop using refugees-and their misery, which they cause-in their conflict with Morocco. It is necessary to separate the political-military from the humanitarian and thus break the communicating vessels. The issue of the refugees-who are not refugees because they do not have any documents to corroborate it-is a humanitarian issue that should be completely separated from the political dispute between the parties involved in the conflict. This requires, first of all, that the rules of international humanitarian law, especially the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, be applied to Algeria as a host country. Secondly, it must enforce the United Nations Security Council resolutions on the census and identification of the Tindouf refugees. It is not conceivable that for nearly half a century aid has been sent to refugees through Polisario, a political-military organisation involved in terrorist acts, without anyone really knowing how many people they have under their control and whether they are all from the disputed Western Sahara and how many from the Algerian Sahara. 

Miembros del Ejército de Liberación Popular Saharaui desfilan con las banderas del Frente Polisario durante una ceremonia para conmemorar los 40 años de la proclamación de la República Árabe Saharaui Democrática (RASD) en el territorio en disputa del Sáhara Occidental
AFP/FAROUK BATICHE - Members of the Sahrawi People's Liberation Army parade with the flags of the Polisario Front during a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in the disputed territory of Western Sahara

Furthermore, in accordance with refugee law, it must be ensured that the population controlled by Polisario can express itself freely and decide its future. Those who wish to return to their homes in the Sahara should be able to do so with the help of humanitarian organisations to ensure their return, those who prefer to relocate to another country should be able to do so, and those who choose to remain in Algeria should be able to do so. The host country must facilitate the conditions for Sahrawis to live as full citizens, with access to work, housing, a dignified life instead of intentionally exposing them to human misery for calculated political ends. 

Without ignoring or minimising the obvious problems that exist at a general level in Arab countries, in relation to freedom of the press and of expression, nor should we allow separatist propaganda to impose its falsehoods as revealed truths. The Saharawis have freedom of expression in Western Sahara. In fact, pro-Polisario activists like Aminatu Haidar, together with others and others in the hierarchy of the Polisario, live in the Sahara and say what they want, even though many times in their secessionist activism the truth is not told. Let's see if in Tindouf the Saharawis will ever be able to express their criticism without being repressed and imprisoned for treason. It remains to be seen whether the UN will dare to ask the Saharawis in Tindouf if they want to return to Western Sahara or prefer to remain on Algerian territory. 

Finally, Algeria as a host country must comply with international conventions concerning humanitarian law. Separating the humanitarian problem from the political problem would free thousands of people from continuing as hostages, suffering from a conflict that has lasted for decades without a solution and of which it is unknown how many more will last given the stubbornness of Polisario and the excessive ambition of the military regime in Algiers.