Middle East

Three Interviews Regarding Palestine

Builders work on a construction site in Ramallah, Palestine.

Dr. Aziz Dwaik, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and member of Hamas

Q. When were you arrested and in what circumstances? Was it because of your affiliation with Hamas?

A. The 2006 elections took place, and we took up our posts some time in March that year. Just before that, all the members of parliament and many of the newly appointed ministers suddenly found themselves under arrest. Five weeks previously, Gilad Shalit was arrested in Gaza, and the Israelis claimed they were rounding us up in order to put pressure on Hamas to release Shalit.

We were in the West Bank and had nothing to do with the event in Gaza. In my opinion, the main reason for the arrests was not Shalit, but the election result. The Israelis, the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. and all the others thought that we might at most win one third of the seats in Parliament. We got the majority and that very much upset and angered them. The elections were unbiased, objective and fair. Everyone said so. They did not like the result, so they disregarded the whole process.

I was declared "wanted" for almost 37 days, and I went into hiding, never sleeping in my own home. One day, I tried to walk in the streets in daylight and people recognized me, so I gathered that there was no way to hide any longer. I went home and that night they came to arrest me in a very humiliating manner, not at all taking in consideration that I am the Speaker of the Legislative Council, and with no consideration to my family. I was kept in prison for three years.

Q. During your time in the prison did you have any legal support or any other support from the Palestinian Authority (PA)?

A. This is a hard question to answer. The Palestinian Authority did not welcome us on board. So any action that put an end to our activity in the Parliament was welcomed by many, among them the Palestinian Authority.

Q. To this day, Hamas members and affiliates are a target for attack. Is it solely an Israeli action or a joint PA/Israel action ?

A. At this point in history, I don't like to say that this was a joint venture, even though the PA did not react as it should when Members of its own Parliament were being imprisoned by Israel. The suspension of the Palestinian Legislative Council is no less than an act of sabotage and a disruption of Palestinian internal politics, the normal processes of any democracy. I waited for what I expected to be a strong reaction from Abu Mazen. I thought he would refuse to talk to the Israelis as long as our Members of Parliament were in Israeli jails. I was hauled in shackles in front of the Israeli military court twice while Abu Mazen sat with the then Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, enjoying tea and fruits.

Q. Was it a coincidence?

A. I don't think so. Abu Mazen was angry at me, whereas the crime committed by the Israelis escaped any kind of reproach. 

Q. You mention elections and democratic processes: how are these developing in both Gaza and the West Bank?

A. We are progressing, but have not yet arrived at maturity. We are trying to establish our institutions, but the next day the Israeli planes come and destroy the buildings, even targeting those involved and so on. Our experience is very rich in organizing democratic elections for posts in universities or local municipal councils. Palestinians are aware of the importance of political progress and the need to see power change hands between political parties. But the fact is democracy has to be established from the inside, and we need time to educate our society in order to advance our experiment in aspects of democracy such as free and transparent elections.

Q. Can you bring an Islamic edge to politics? How is it translated into politics?

A. We bring ethics to politics, and people know us and the way we lead our lives: personal and group example is very important. We show people how clean our hands and our pockets are. As Hamas, our views are moderate and at all points we seek to engage everyone in dialogue that can lead to positive reform for the society.

Q. Would you positively engage with everyone, Washington, D.C. included?

A. In 2006 we suggested to the Europeans and Americans alike that we have our own perception for the whole issue, but let us sit down and discuss it, because we have something to add. But nobody listened to us. Why don't they open the doors of the Parliament to me as the Speaker and let me address their questions? 

We had meetings with different European representatives but they were very much afraid to have them in the open air so these had to take place either in backstreet offices or in their home countries. The United States is not promoting democracy but hypocrisy. The west as a whole is treating Israel as if it were above any laws, including international laws. These are the two main problems.

We have no objection to holding talks. But you simply cannot talk to someone who is totally biased in favour of the occupier and who looks down on us. We simply pointed out that the Israelis were oppressed in Europe, but that they had become the oppressors in Palestine.

Q. Is there any truth to the rumour that Hamas wants to take over West Bank?

A. We have assured our brothers in Fatah that nobody is thinking for one moment of going against them or our people. Frankly speaking the Islamists are very sensitive to the demands of the people, as they legitimized us, and we don't want to add any more burden to their lives.

Shawan Jabarin, director of Al -Haq (www. Alhaq.org), a nonprofit organization in Ramallah

Q. What kind of projects is Al Haq engaged in?

A. Al Haq is a human rights organization, the first in the whole of the Middle East, not just in Palestine. It was founded in 1979 by a group of Palestinian lawyers. The main aim is to protect human rights and to respect the rule of law in the Palestinian occupied territories, East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza. We do so by different means and techniques.

Q. How do you describe yourselves as an organization?

A. We are an advocacy organization more than a research centre. Any publication or press releases we produce are to help support our advocacy work. We depend on information gathered in the field about human rights violations committed either by the Israeli occupying force or the Palestinian side. In 1994, when the Palestinian Authority was established, we became a bird that covers with its wings both the Israeli and Palestinian actions. We have eight field-workers in total, six people in West Bank and two in Gaza, a representative in Brussels, and we have a legal department with local and international staff and partnerships to help us carry out our activities. We advocate at the E.U., ONU, as well as at a local level. Next we have plans to carry out our advocacy work in the United States.

Q. What does your work include? Do you take individual cases?

A. On the local level we gather information about arbitrary arrests, torture, the closing down of non-profits, any violations that touch upon the freedom, liberties and basic human rights of people. We are more geared towards changing policies, but if a specific case represents a trend, then we'll take it. Also, we try to integrate the human rights standard in Palestinian legislation.

Q. Is that working?

A. Even with the freeze of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) we have been successful at introducing human rights principles into draft laws. Without the PLC, the laws are released by presidential decree. We mostly work on two tracks, local and international. We go after those that commit crimes and while this is not a goal in itself, we do it more from a preventive perspective than a punishment one. The crimes that go without punishment are likely to be repeated, regardless of who the perpetrator is.

Q. Can you give me an example?

A. For instance we build up files of crimes committed by Israeli military commanders and others responsible for crimes of war, crimes against humanity. We bring the cases before domestic judiciary in Europe or elsewhere. Israel's is a hopeless legal system when it comes to Israeli crimes, but very effective regarding non-Israelis. This is not just our conclusion. It is the conclusion reached by Israeli organizations as well. The Israeli judiciary is like a rubber stamp on the Israeli executive authority, just to legitimate illegal practices and actions. That door is closed for us: so we're looking for other doors.

With the crimes committed by the Palestinian side we can submit the case here, except when it's a crime of torture. Israelis crimes can be designated international crimes because they are the occupier power, but we can take Palestinian criminals to court.

Those that have been tortured by the Palestinians, if they are courageous enough and want to submit a file against this or that leader of the security forces, we will advocate on their behalf to change policies. We sent a letter signed by fourteen organizations to the E.U., to Catherine Ashton, to ask the E.U. to make their financial support to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and specifically to the security forces, conditional, if they do not act in accordance with Palestinian law and internationally sanctioned principles. 

The majority of crimes are committed by the Israelis killing people, expanding the settlements, illegal expropriation, movement restrictions. All these have a quite astounding effect on daily life in Palestine. However, we are not ignoring Palestinian trespasses either.

Q. Do you see cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian security forces?

A. The security coordination between PNA and the Israelis pays little respect either to Palestinian law, or to international legal principles. This leads to situations where, when the Palestinians release some people, the Israelis promptly arrest them or vice versa. Such arrests are political, and some people are detained for months or years on end. There is an understanding to go after specific people, mainly from Hamas. 

Q. Is there a special cooperation framework?

A. There is the Oslo agreement, with its military and civil coordination aspects. We don't have a detailed written agreement. Maybe something like this exists, but if so, it is confidential. Then there is also a day-to-day form of coordination. Again, we don't know the specifics, the mechanism. But only a few weeks ago, the Israelis declared that the Palestinian security forces were taking leading roles in whatever coordination is going on, and that they are first class. They praised them.

Q. How do you feel about it? Do you find it strange?

A. More than strange. The occupier acts solely according to its own self-interest and to have some Palestinians helping them... I can only feel pain and mixed feelings. 

Q. Are you asking for reform of the political system?

A. To sustain an authority under occupation is a difficult and complex matter. There is no example in history like ours, with maybe the exception of France during the second world war, under the Vichy regime, when the Nazis established a national government there. The occupier controls every single aspect of our lives. The Palestinian Authority (PA), it appears as if it is responsible for the Palestinians, but then the occupier is the one who decides on everything.

Even legally, we have ambivalent views about it. They have taken the responsibility of the occupier towards the health services, economy, social aspects etc. and put it on Palestinian shoulders. But the occupation continues. So what exactly is the PA? A subcontractor? Or a sovereign authority – in which case it is their obligation to fulfil their duty? I will give you an example, freedom of movement. Even the Palestinian president and the cabinet ministers cannot move from one place to the other without first asking permission from and then coordinating with the Israelis. Yet, the PA issues Palestinian passports and IDs. They then hand the data to the Israelis, and the Israelis have to approve them or not. 

Q. You are saying that the Palestinians can make a recommendation but not take a decision.

A. They cannot decide. When you go into all the details, and see how this mechanism functions you begin to understand its complexity. 

Q. What type of democracy, then, is it possible to have?

A. That is what I ask myself from time to time, for what, to get what? To have a local, democratically elected administration? Yes, that too matters. But the main issue is the occupation. The occupation means that you cannot practice self-determination. You actually have no say, in anything. 

Q. Nonetheless, the process in itself matters.

A. The process can be frustrating, as there is no fulfillment of national goals. People choose the mayor, and the mayor wants to build a football stadium. That will happen if the Israelis agree. If he wants to bring a team in from outside, it is not a Palestinian decision, so the local administration that reached its position through democratic processes is subject to extreme limitations. I am on the board of a health organization and they want to build a centre for breast cancer in cooperation with a Swiss entity. One of the discussions was to bring some equipments for radiation treatment, for chemotherapy. The problem is that this is forbidden in the territories. We can't have such equipment in hospitals or centres. For such cases, you must transfer patients to Israel or outside. So, there is no control over the basic human rights that touch our lives.

In 2006, we had a great democratic experience. Fair, transparent elections and everyone agreed that they were an example. When the Israelis, Americans and Europeans refused to recognize the results and deal with Hamas, they assassinated not only a process, but the very values that stood behind it.

Is there a logic here? There is none.

Q. That must have had a major impact on the society

A. The majority of people may well not vote next time. They saw that elections and democracy are decided from outside. They can agree to vote for this or that party, but there is no respect for the outcome. They feel powerless. The lesson was that they can make a change through voting but the change will be ignored. 

Q. Was this the message from Israel?

A. They want to shape opinion, to change people's mentalities. And here I have a big question. Are they West and Israel alike indeed serious when they speak about democracy? Democracy, after all, is not just rhetoric. It is a principle, a practice and it has results. People are now suspicious although they have not given up. 

Q. Is there an alternative? Some other road to take?

A. As Palestinians, under occupation we have to abide by the democratic norms, to elect and select our representatives.

Q. Are Hamas members under threat of arrest or imprisonment both at the hands of Israelis and the Palestinian Authority?

A. Hamas ran in the elections under the slogan "Change and Reform," and the Israelis accepted them as did the whole international community. When they won, and once (Gilad) Shalit had been taken, Israel's spokesman, Beniamin Ben-Eliazer, said that they would teach those people a lesson and show that they are much better at taking people hostage. So it started. That same night they arrested the majority of Hamas Members of Parliament, and they were taken hostage. If you arrest someone and you condition his release on other aspects, this is a hostage-taking situation in international law. Afterwards, the Israelis tried to legalize the arrests, and they brought them in front of the military courts, charging them with their political affiliation to Hamas. This is the game they play, no fair trial, no justice.

Q. And you still have the Parliament closed.

A. We called on Fatah to let the Parliament function but until now they have refused. Because the majority of legislators are from Hamas they think it would be in Hamas' hands but this is serious, not a political game. In Gaza, it functions, it has meetings, sessions, it is drafting laws. This is actually widening the gap between West Bank and Gaza. If you want to unify the legislation later on, the longer this division goes on the harder it gets. 

Q. Are the Palestinians politicians aware of these consequences?

A. They are aware but they are not paying any regard to it. 

Q. Do you have any realistic hope of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas before moving forward with the now stalled peace process?

A. For this year or even 2012 I have little hope. Ask Dr. Aziz Dwaik (speaker of Parliament and Hamas legislator) maybe he will tell you something to strengthen our hope. The internal division makes our case weak in negotiations and the Israelis know it too well. And they use it.

Q. And the peace process?

A. If there is enough political will at the international level, they can solve it. The United States supports Israel unconditionally and the international community at large has no serious plan to put forward. If that does not change, I have no hope in finding a solution even in the next five or ten years.

Dr. Husam Zomlot, Fatah Party, Foreign Affairs Department

Q. How is Fatah's reform going?

A. The sixth Bethlehem conference from last year was a milestone. We had a newly elected leadership, and for the first time ever there was a division of leadership responsibilities convened inside Palestine. That carries with it the political symbolism that we are on our way in, not out. We are part of the new structure. We are meeting in the department which is like the foreign ministry of Fatah, led by Dr. Nabil Shaath who is an expert in international relations, as he was foreign minister for 14 years. So a lot has been done and a lot more is being planned.

At the organizational level we are moving in the right direction. There is a famous saying that the 1000 mile journey starts with the first step, but some forget to mention that the first step itself has to be in the right direction. So here we are.

Q. Why is Fatah not able to revive itself at the popular and political level if at the organizational level is doing so well?

A. The problem is political rather than institutional. Fatah is doing better than it did. There has been development that is progressive and good. But Fatah has had to change its skin and adapt to new realities. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, it conducted the Palestinian armed struggle, led the PLO and the PA.

What began with revolutionary energy, then was channeled into the peace process with the aim to establish an independent Palestinian state. When the Oslo agreement failed together with all other attempts at peace, without anything to show for it - no sovereignty and no statehood, all of this had to take its toll on Fatah, in terms of both its internal dynamics and its political impact.

Q. Did it take a toll on its ideology?

A. Fatah was not really an ideological party to start with. It is a national movement that believes in the ability of our internal resources to liberate our land. I don't like the word secular, but it is a party that believes in an open society and a democracy and uses all available platforms to attain our rights.

One of Fatah's main features is its ability to create its political outlook based on national identity. It is the most inclusive and tolerant party, moved by principles of universal freedom and socialism. Fatah is part of the international socialism club. Fatah is not only about Israel. Fatah is about the Palestinian state and how we want to see this state coming about. This is our driving force and we really want to see a national front put in place to seek our rights and implement the values we believe in.

Q. Did Fatah's values erode in the years it governed?

A. In the period that followed Oslo, the fact that Fatah was in charge of the negotiations with its cadres in a way absorbed by the Palestinian Authority, meant that its institutions were weakened. It was designed to do one thing and when that failed, the process consumed a lot of its political capital, both inside and outside Fatah.

Q. Weren't there any other achievements to capitalize on even if the peace talks did not lead anywhere?

A. Of course, there were and we have to point to the last few years' achievements. We have a leader, president Abu Mazen that has gained unprecedented international credibility, because the man is honest and says in public what he is saying in private. And he means what he says. This credibility is an important factor and it has carried a lot of weight in gaining the recognition that our state has received from many Latin America and other countries. His government, meanwhile, is using this international momentum to build institutions, to strengthen them, to provide services to the people and so on.

Q. In the process of consolidating institutions how do you explain the fact that one pillar of any state, its Parliament, has been closed down?

A. This is different, and is the exception not the rule. Because of the serious political crisis and because of what Hamas did in Gaza, we do have a stand-off. But this is not something that happened without reason.

Q. Is there a willingness to change these circumstances? If so, will we see progress soon?

A. Fatah's strategy in recent years has been to regain its foothold and put its weight behind the negotiations. That did not work because the Israelis did not want it to.

Q. So where to from this point?

A. Without a change in this grave imbalance of power, we're not going to get anywhere. We have the non-violent struggle that is a tool to pressure the occupation on the ground. We have the international movement that puts pressure on Israel to end the occupation, and there are sanctions and boycotts.

National reconciliation is also a priority. Without this, we will be in a much weaker position vis-a-vis Israel. We need to reconcile and then agree on a political system, reforms etc. to agree on how to disagree at least, or else we will be wasting our time. So this freeze on some of the institutions is not an institutional deficiency but a political problem. The institution-building, meanwhile, is part of a broader strategy. It helps us prepare for statehood, to turn that into a fait accompli on one hand, and to have the support of the people on the ground, on the other.

Q. When you speak of a change within the political arena what do you have in mind?

A. National elections at all levels, as soon as possible. This is the legitimacy we need from our society and we have to renew it. President Abbas said this several times and he invited Hamas to accept a new round of elections. They say they have not really governed since 2006, so we should start counting from a different point in time. But in private, some powerful segments in Gaza are rather comfortable and since the election outcome might be at their expense, they prefer things to remain as they are.

Q. What is the next step?

A. Resume dialogue. The talks between Hamas and Fatah are ongoing. There are obstacles posed in the security arena. Hamas wants a quota, treating it as a distribution of power and saying that they want X percent control over security arrangements. But that you don't have anywhere in the world. The security forces are apolitical and they have to stay that way. Fatah representatives have been flexible in terms of trying to incorporate Hamas elements into the security forces in Gaza. But in West Bank, that is not possible. We should not have to link the security file to the political situation. Hamas has a lot to prove vis-a-vis political opponents, civil society and the way they want to govern.

Q. Is Fatah willing to share power with Hamas or any other party?

A. Yes.

Q. Any hope to resume the talks with Israel?

A. We have reached the point where we believe that the present coalition and maybe a large percentage of the Israeli political elite is not interested in peace. The Israelis deploy a matrix of strategies and policies that lead to the impossibility of having two states.

By continuing to change facts on the ground through the ongoing building of settlements, the wall, the checkpoints, they use the negotiations as well as the breaks in negotiations simply to further all these. It is better not to negotiate when there is this underlying bad faith. This is a game of deceit: basically, they are intent only on deepening the occupation. Many of us have hoped against hope, but now we raise our hands and voices and have said, enough is enough.

Q. This is why you're appealing to the international community to recognize the state of Palestine.

A. Of course.

Q. However, without Israeli recognition not much will change.

A. Israel is one actor, very influential to be sure, but not the only one. Without an end to the occupation nothing can really progress. Still, there are ways and means to attain rights.

There are two very important things to keep in mind about Palestinians. First, we call for a two-state solution. Israel, meanwhile, tries to enforce one-state - one government controls the whole land. Based on international resolutions we seek a state with the '67 borders and East Jerusalem as capital.

Secondly, having tried all other means we now have a non-violent, mass movement to bring about change, like in India or in South Africa. Since we want the two-state solution and we use non-violent means, international law, its support and legitimacy is vital to us. The message to the Israelis is clear: don't you dare think that the lack of negotiations allows you to do whatever you want. We will boycott your policies and intentions and with enough international consent building up in support of our rights, change will come, even if not immediately. We see a lot of support for us and the opposite for Israel.

Q. Where is the U.S. in all this?

A. We have had problems with the U.S. and that is no secret. Our main problem is that for the last 20 years, since the start of the peace process in Madrid, the U.S. has sided almost completely with Israel. Its involvement at that time was meant to help both sides reach an agreement. The United States is no longer talking about its role in that capacity. Its involvement shifts to reflect the U.S. interest. Now, according to General Petraeus this conflict costs more and more American lives.

There are also changes within the Jewish community in America. The appearance of J Street is not accidental. There are the liberal Jews that side with the civil rights movement and then the Orthodox that focus on the fundamental side of Judaism. There is also displeasure with Israel's actions in academic circles and so on. But there is still a huge task to be carried out as far as the Congress is concerned to defend the rights of the Palestinians and to transform that from a burden into an asset.

Q. Do you see any transformations within the Israeli society?

A. Slowly but surely they have been shifting for several years now towards the right. The society is lacking leadership and any political movement of the centre left. The Labor party appears to have lost its ground, Kadima is not really presenting itself as an alternative...

Q. Is there a vacuum?

A. There isn't a vacuum, but the space has been filled up with right wing movements. What is lacking is a party to mobilize the people and draw them away from a fundamentalist right wing towards more moderate trends.

Q. Any idea why or how that happened?

A. Ehud Barak started a hopeless trend that has led to today's situation. After 2000 Camp David talks, when all failed to reach a final agreement and now the facts are known—his offer was petty and no Palestinian would have accepted it—Barak said that he had no partner. So they aimed bullets at Palestinians, built walls and decided to live by the sword. The political rightist movements thrived on that and Barak lost and his party lost and everyone else lost. Also, the Russian Jews that emigrated less than two decades ago were not fully integrated into Israeli political life and they turned into an extreme right-wing movement. I am not an expert on that so I don't know the exact reasons of why they went to the right. Maybe it is their background, the imperialist structure. Whatever it is they don't have a politics that knows what compromise looks like.

There are three strong segments within the Israeli society: the Russians, the ultra-extreme nationalists like Uzi Landau that consider us to be the occupiers as they believe in Eretz Israel, the Shas party and the religious movement. And between these three who is there to engage with on what common ground? What we mean by peace is an end to occupation and that we live side by side as equal partners. What they mean is the status quo.

I was reading an interview recently with one of the settler leaders in the Golan Heights. He was asked if he does not want to live in peace. He said that he has been living in peace for forty years now and doing good business. When you have a privileged nation in a situation with massive violations and injustice, the privileged party will not give up its privileges voluntary. And they are so privileged that they have 30 times our income. Per capita in Israel is around $30,000 and ours is around $1,000. They consume 80 percent of the water in West Bank, let alone from the Jordan river - eight times more than the whole population of West Bank.

Furthermore, thanks to our success in institution building, and now I am referring to Palestinian efforts in the field of security, Ehud Barak said that 2010 was the quietest year in the history of Israel, as well as the best year for tourism.

Q. So you are helping them?

A. The ability to impose and maintain law and order has helped them to have an economic boom, yes. So their situation is very comfortable. If you sit in Tel Aviv, laying on the beach, getting a tan and you enjoy a huge income, nothing is threatening you. You have the wall, and you give the soldiers the task of shooting at the Palestinians so that they are the ones going through a dehumanizing process to the point that they treat us like animals. But such an unequal system is not sustainable in the long term. They are running against the current of history, and universal human rights. They need, one day soon, to take a deeper look at reality.

Israel has managed to portray itself as the miracle in the desert, as the only democracy in the Middle East in the sea of barbarian Arabs who want to attack it. In the age of Internet, with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, multimedia and so on you cannot continue with this blatant propaganda.

Q. Are the Arab states helping your cause?

A. The Arabs do help and they are the biggest contributors to our budget. But they could play a more assertive role and we need to work on that.

These interviews were originally published by openDemocracy: www.opendemocracy.net.

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