Alternative Palestinian Agenda
Interview with Nasser Abufarha
Nasser Abufarha is the founder of the Alternative Palestinian Agenda, an organization based in Madison Wisconsin promoting a new vision for peace in the Middle East. (www.ap-agenda.org) Nasser was interviewed by Chris Meyer for the Palestine Chronicle regarding his thoughts on the Middle East conflict.
CHRIS: Good afternoon Nasser Abufarha, and thank you for giving this interview to the Palestine Chronicle.
NASSER: Thank you, Chris.
CHRIS: So what happened to the Oslo Peace Plan?
NASSER: I’m not sure we can call the Oslo process a peace plan. The results in Palestine have been anything but peaceful.
Oslo never addressed the legitimate concerns of the Palestinian or Israeli people. It was just a political arrangement between the Israeli and Palestinian power structures designed to calm the conflict and give the appearance of progress.
Under Oslo, the Palestinian Authority implemented Israeli law on the Palestinian people and developed layer upon layer of security apparatuses, which choked the Palestinian economy. All this was done with the coordination and facilitation of the Israeli government. The arrangement was much like South Africa’s apartheid.
CHRIS: So Oslo set up an interim agreement that bought the Israelis time to proceed with their own plans?
NASSER: It bought the Israelis time and averted the international pressure created by the seven years of the first Intifada. The Israelis did not come to the peace conference willingly. They came kicking and screaming. Shamir was forced into Madrid, but the Israelis found a way out in Oslo.
The United States was not the only one that insisted on excluding the PLO leadership from formal negotiations. The Palestinians themselves in the West Bank and Gaza were frustrated with the failure of Arafat and the traditional PLO leadership in Beirut and in Jordan before Beirut.
Grassroots Palestinians produced a collective leadership headed by Haider Abdel Shafi from Gaza that went to the Madrid Peace Conference with a delegation of twenty people. When this delegation from Palestinian civil society proved to be too strong, sane and reasonable to be easily manipulated by the Israelis, the Israelis struck a deal behind the scenes with Arafat in Oslo.
CHRIS: What was the generous offer that was made by Barak at the end of Clinton’s Presidency?
NASSER: The Palestinians were desperate for any hope of peace. After seven years of Intifada, they were tired, not giving up – but tired. If there had been any hope of a reasonable peace, the Palestinians would have reacted positively.
To be frank, generous offers won’t work here. Bartering won’t work either. This is a peace process - a political process. There are real issues upholding the conflict that need to be resolved. This is not a deal that you can strike in backroom negotiations.
All this talk of a generous offer, whether it’s 80 or 90 percent of the West Bank, is nonsense anyway. In reality, only about 40 percent of the West Bank was being discussed. Sharon had made a similar offer prior to Oslo in his capacity as a minister in 1992, when he came up with the Allon plus plan, which gave Palestinians autonomy in the urban areas and annexed the rest of the territories.
This so-called generous offer by Barak followed the same guidelines. The only difference is that just 10 percent gets annexed for Israeli settlement blocks. The rest of the territories are classified as forest reserves, lands leased to Israel by the Palestinian Authority, or security zones.
As far as Palestinians are concerned, the areas where we can actually conduct our lives are still the same 40 percent. Under these conditions, it is not a generous offer even if someone claims it is 100 percent of the West Bank.
CHRIS: Was it Jeff Halper, who described this scenario as a giant prison, with the land chopped up into cells and guards at all the checkpoints?
NASSER Absolutely! I lived in the West Bank during the Israeli occupation and also later during the so-called Oslo Peace Process. There were more checkpoints after Oslo than there ever were under the previous occupation.
Under the early years of occupation, we were relatively free to move within the West Bank and were not cut off from the rest of the world. We could still conduct business. At the end of the occupation and during Oslo, we felt our world shrinking. Soon we could only go from the village to Jenin. Then we could hardly leave the village.
Under Oslo each checkpoint required an Israeli checkpoint for one side and a Palestinian checkpoint for the other. In the city of Jenin alone we went from one checkpoint before Oslo to ten after Oslo, two at each of the five main entries to the city.
Furthermore, the landscape was chopped up into zones A, B and C, and communities were divided. This caused frustrating economic failures, because goods and services could not be easily exchanged.
CHRIS: How does US support for Israel affect the peace process?
NASSER: The United States is the main financer of Israel and could certainly influence Israel’s actions if it really wanted to.
For the most part, the Clinton Administration did not act in the United States’ interests, but followed Israel’s lead. This was true during the Oslo process as well as later at Camp David, which proved to be a complete failure for both Israel and the United States. This failure has caused increasing resentment of the United States in the Middle East.
At the beginning of the current Bush administration, the US took a hands off policy in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, because it saw that Clinton had failed so miserably. But Israeli policies soon intensified the conflict, and the Bush administration was compelled to engage.
At first Bush tried to be firm with the Israelis. During the invasions of Palestinian towns by Israeli forces, Bush told Sharon to withdraw “now!” Instead of withdrawing, Sharon came to the United States and explained to Bush that Israel is really in charge. Congress confirmed this by giving Israel two astonishingly favorable votes of confidence in the House and Senate.
What is new here is that Israel has now acquired the support of the Christian Fundamentalists, which are strong and growing in the Republican Party. The Fundamentalists believe in Biblical prophecies and look for the United States to fulfill them. These things include: war in the Middle East, the rebuilding of the Temple Mount and Israel’s reconquest of all of Palestine.
This is why Sharon has received so much US support even though American Jews are normally more liberal and would prefer the labor party.
CHRIS: Perhaps an additional 14 billion dollars worth of support this year alone!
NASSER: Exactly. Israel now has the Christian Right from the Republicans to go along with the Zionist trend among the Democrats. They have Congress all sewn up and much of the Administration too.
CHRIS: Does Israel have a problem talking about fixed or permanent borders, and should neighboring countries be nervous about this?
NASSER: In Israel’s internal documents before their treaty with Egypt, the Egyptian frontier is called a cease-fire line. After the treaty with Egypt, it became an international border.
What’s interesting is that the cease-fire line along the Jordanian border was also called a cease-fire line, but after the treaty with Jordan it just turned into a treaty line with the date of the treaty. The Israelis did not turn it into an international border.
So yes, Israel has not declared what its international borders are, whether it is with Palestine, Jordan, Syria or Lebanon. It calls them either treaty lines or cease-fire lines and gives the date. Obviously that tells us something about Israeli intentions.
As far as Palestinians are concerned, Israel does not officially recognize any Palestinian territories whatsoever.
CHRIS: I read an Israeli discussion of UN resolution 242, in which the Israelis tried to get out of retreating back to the 1967 cease-fire lines by saying that the 1967 lines were never safe and secure borders as required in the UN resolution.
NASSER: Well, they are not.
CHRIS: The Israelis’ point was that since there was no border to retreat to, Israel didn’t need to pull out of the West Bank at all.
NASSER: I don’t think of them as a border either, because these 1967 lines are the results of war. They separated people from their families, property, cultural centers, and all sorts of community life. They do not reflect reality for the people under occupation.
I agree with the Israelis. The 1967 cease-fire lines are not defensible borders. The Jordan River isn’t defensible either. The best defense is making peace, not fortifications. Man-made walls can be penetrated by man. All of Israel’s armies have not stopped people from getting into Tel Aviv or Haifa and waging war upon Israelis. Even if Palestinians are transferred out of Palestine, it will not stop attacks on Israel. Ballistic missiles are still hard to shoot down. All of Israel’s military skill is nothing without peace with her neighbors.
CHRIS: What is the impact of Israeli water use on neighboring countries?
NASSER: Israeli water use in general is more that 4 times as much as the neighboring countries, but I don’t see a water crisis so much as a water distribution crisis. We have a good supply of ground water coming from Syria. The question is: who has water rights?
Palestinians are laboriously hauling in water on tractor tanks and filling home-based wells. Palestinian farmers cannot dig for water on their own lands without a license, and yet, there are no procedures for getting a license. The only water farmers have is from wells that were drilled before 1967. As you can imagine, many of these wells have dried up. To water their crops, farmers are forced to dig wells illegally and hope the Israelis won’t catch them.
This issue must be resolved. It compels many village communities to rise against the Israelis, because water is life to them. By denying water, the Israelis are denying life.
CHRIS: Whatever happened to the Pan-Arab movement?
NASSER: The region receives a lot of international attention because of its resources, especially oil. The gulf state leaders have been happy with their oil revenues, and will not part with it for any amount of Arab unity. There was a push for Arab unity during Gamal Abdul Nasser’s time, but it was more political than economic.
Arabs still live in a colonial era. They missed the kind of national liberation that most of the world went through in the 50’s and 60’s, because they still have this virtual colony called Israel on their shores that continues to oppress Arab people and steal their lands – with impunity.
For its part, the US finds itself compelled to suppress Arab democracy, because democracy would lead to popular support for Palestinians. The Algerian elections were overturned, and the old government was restored to power. Monarchs and other authoritarian regimes are being supported in this day and age!
This suppression of Arab self-expression and democracy comes from concerns over the security of Israel. You cannot move ahead with economic and political development in the region until you address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
CHRIS: I remember hearing General Wesley Clark explain to a Congressional committee that we’ve removed the threat of Pan-Arabism both politically and economically, but we still need to watch out for an emotional backlash.
NASSER: I think the western powers’ actions are encouraging more than just Pan-Arabism. They are reviving a kind of Islamic imperial rule in the region. You now see radical organizations that are recruiting people all around the world. That is probably even more of a threat to the West than Pan-Arabism ever was.
CHRIS: Are we seeing the militarization of Israeli society?
NASSER: Israeli society has always been militarized. The image of Israel’s founders in their cultural narrative was that of the soldier-farmer. This has an enormous impact on how Israelis think, and it effects the American Jewish community as well.
This keeps the military generals in power. Israeli leaders carefully groom grand narratives about their soldier-farmer backgrounds in order to stay in power. Generals from the Kibbutzim, like Sharon, Barak, and Rabin, have been leading the country ever since its establishment.
CHRIS: Is it safe to say that a successful military career is your meal ticket to success in public and private life in Israel?
NASSER: Yes. There are other opportunities in private life, but in Israeli political life every candidate must come from a military career. No one from an intellectual or university background, who might actually help develop the country, would be successful in politics. The one who projects this image of the great soldier gets elected.
CHRIS: Does Israeli law implement racist policies?
NASSER: If it’s policies against the Palestinian Israelis in particular – Yes. There is also some discrimination against Oriental Jews from Arab countries and Iran, but the main discrimination is against the Palestinian community in Israel.
Israel divides non-Jewish citizens into different regional communities and then subdivides those communities further into Muslims, Christians and Druse, each with their special treatments, and yet all of them are equally entitled to Israeli citizenship.
Being entitled to citizenship does not mean equal rights. It is deceiving to say Israeli-Palestinians are citizens. That would imply they are equal citizens. They are semi-citizens. They don’t have the same rights or entry to the society, because Israel declares itself a Jewish State, and they are not Jews.
Israel is a state for the Jews of the world and not for the people, who actually live there. Twenty percent of the population is Palestinian, and that designation denies them an equal footing in society.
Palestinian intellectuals have a hard time in Israel now, because anyone who argues for a country with equal citizenship runs counter to the sacred concept of a Jewish State.
If Israel is going to become democratic, it needs to be redefined as a state that represents all of its citizens. Yet making this argument alone can disqualify you from public office.
CHRIS: Denial of military service closes a lot of doors too, doesn’t it?
NASSER: Yes, a lot of doors are open to people who have served in the military, but Palestinians are not allowed to serve in the army, while military service is mandatory for Jews. Obviously, people are not equal in the eyes of Israeli law.
These racist policies extend into the educational system. Israeli schools only teach Jewish history and nothing about Palestine or the Arab world. There is no Palestinian flag, holidays, national arts or culture. This judeo-centricism denies the Arab twenty percent of the population participation in educational and cultural processes. It stifles political representation and job opportunities.
Of course, the Palestinian Israelis don’t really feel like a part of the state. They take this citizenship as a necessary evil, because they have to have it.
When the people in the Golan Heights didn’t want to have Israeli citizenship, they went on strike. The Israelis surrounded cities in the Golan Heights, starved them for 2 months and said they would have to carry ID cards.
This is not the kind of citizenship that Palestinians are happy about, nor is it true citizenship. It is a form of incarceration within the state of Israel.
CHRIS: One thing that comes to my mind also is the right of return. Jews can immigrate from anywhere anytime, but Palestinians are not allowed to return in spite of UN resolution 194.
NASSER: Yes, the Israelis have been in violation of 194 and 181 since 1948. The majority of the Palestinian population, 760,000 people, was expelled in an ethnic cleansing campaign in 1948. Over 420 villages were evacuated and destroyed. Eleven cities were also evacuated and allotted to Jewish immigration.
These Palestinian cities are now the major cities of Israel: Haifa, Jafa, Aker, Ramla, Beit Sheba, and Tiberius. The whole infrastructure of these cities: schools, hospitals, factories, shops, homes and apartment buildings, was allotted to Jewish immigration.
This tremendous Palestinian loss is called the catastrophe, Al Nakba. It started the Israeli conflict.
Peace processes have failed because they ignore this history. The descendants of these refugees are now the main force in the Palestinian struggle for liberation and comprise a majority of the Palestinian people. They cannot simply be ignored.
We now have refugees crammed into a corner of Palestine called the Gaza Strip at a concentration of 4000 people per square kilometer, while the neighboring area between the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, their former homeland, only has about 20 people per square kilometer.
After 50 years of conflict we cannot return everyone to their exact former properties, but there is definitely room in Israel to accommodate them. Our Palestinian Agenda Peace Proposal provides the details. Look it up on the website at www.ap-agenda.org and see how it can be done without disturbing the current Israeli living arrangements.
This is a major part of the conflict. It is not a chip on some poker table, but must be fairly resolved to advance the peace process.
CHRIS: And Israeli immigration laws?
NASSER: Israeli immigration laws are clearly racist. Any Jew, who has never been to Israel and has no relatives in Palestine, can move to Israel, but Palestinians, who had families that lived in Palestine prior to 1948, cannot. A Palestinian living in the West Bank or Gaza goes through hell to get an ID card for his son, if the son was born outside of Palestine. It is often denied.
CHRIS: What can you say about suicide bombings?
NASSER: I do not approve of the indiscriminant killing of civilians anywhere, not in America, Israel nor Palestine.
Palestinians have an excellent record of peaceful resistance. We had seven years of Intifada in the 80s and 90s without suicide bombings followed by an international call for a peaceful resolution. So how did things change?
Israel continued its oppressive occupation of the Palestinians and continued to deny the Palestinians the right to exercise their self-expression. The Palestinian state that Israel was willing to recognize is a state that is crippled by restrictions that would transform the state authority into a population containment agency instead of a state that would help Palestinians realize their potential.
The major motivation of suicide bombings is desperation with the Israeli occupation and the uneven struggle of Palestinian civilians against Israeli soldiers, who terrorize whole neighborhoods with helicopters, tanks and gunfire.
This creates horrible frustration that must be released, one way or the other. Condemning suicide bombings or calling it a bad tactic is not going to stop it. We have to look at what drives young people to such acts and find ways to prevent their motivations.
These violent acts represent modes of communication to their actors when other modes of expression have failed. We need to create and allow room for alternative means of communication. Israeli authorities are leaving no room for rational means of communication.
To the groups that organize it and the individuals that carry it out, this violence asserts identity. We must allow room for identity expression so that individuals and groups are not compelled to resort to violent means to express it.
The best way to end these tragic acts, and this is a real tragedy for both Palestinians and Israelis, is to remove the primary motivation. End the brutal Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian territories and allow for Palestinian self-expression.
CHRIS: I was in Eau Claire not long ago at a human rights lecture with Senator Russ Feingold (D Wisconsin) and a representative from Amnesty International. Throughout the presentation, they reviewed almost every country that has human rights violations except Israel. My question is, how serious are Israel’s acts of state terrorism and human rights abuses?
NASSER: They are very serious, some of the worst in the last few decades.
We hear a lot about Palestinian violence in the media, but consider this:
In the 1970’s Palestinians elected their own mayors in West Bank cities. The Israelis didn’t like this and plotted to kill the mayors. One morning all of the mayors’ cars blew up. Some of them lost limbs and some died. A few survived.
Later in the 80’s, the Israelis dismissed the elected mayors and appointed their own in Palestinian cities. In my hometown of Jenin, we actually surrounded the house of the appointed mayor until Israeli helicopters came and rescued him. Then the Israelis armed the new mayor, gave him bodyguards and forced him on Jenin again.
So we called for a strike, and the main bus station in Jenin, which services the 65 surrounding villages, shut down. Israel bulldozed the bus station and told us we could only have it back after we paid for the bulldozing, repaired the station and agreed to obey the new city hall.
That was the early 80’s, when human rights abuses were still at reasonably tolerable levels.
CHRIS: Yes, but I’m thinking of snipers, mass abductions, torture, etc.
NASSER: Yes, of course. I have not lived in Palestine the last few years, when things have gotten worse. But I have lived through times when 500 students in my school were gathered in the schoolyard and beaten.
One-day about 7 soldiers came into my high school classroom and started beating us up to get us to go outside. When I looked down the long corridor, I saw I would have to run through rows of soldiers with sticks. It was hell behind me and hell in front. I ran for my life through those sticks, and a lot of them hit me.
When I got to the schoolyard, I found 60-80 more soldiers. They kept hitting me and telling me to go over and lie on my stomach...on my stomach...on my stomach! I finally gave up and got on my stomach, but they continued beating me and broke a few ribs. After they had beaten us the whole day in the schoolyard, we were instructed to run in front of their army jeeps to the military headquarters, which was about 2 miles away.
CHRIS: With broken ribs?
NASSER: With broken ribs. We had to run in front of the jeeps as fast as we could. Each jeep took about a dozen kids, and soldiers were shooting along the road in front of the jeeps.
CHRIS: To keep you in front of the jeeps?
NASSER: Yes. At the headquarters, we were searched at the gate by military personnel, who were trained for torture. They punched us in the stomach and knocked us on the head. Kids were bleeding. The time spent waiting to be beaten again was more stress than the beating itself.
Then we were taken inside and held in a lockup. I made a point of walking over people to go in the middle of the pile of students. I didn’t want to be on the edge, because people on the edge kept getting hit with sticks. Many other times soldiers came and took me out of the classroom.
Once, when I was actually living in the US and was just visiting my family, I was awakened by a dozen soldiers in my room at about 6:00 in the morning and taken to the center of the village. I found the whole village collected there, and all the men were being humiliated. It was uncalled for. The village had done nothing.
Another time soldiers came to arrest me from my house, but didn’t find me. They took my father instead and told my mom that I would have to go to the military office so that my father can come home.
This is what my life was like. At least back then they didn’t have so many assassinations.
Now they know that if they want someone, they can just blow him up in a car in the market and kill innocent bystanders as well. They assassinate people just for political activities. I could be assassinated for my political expression.
Even Palestinians, who actively oppose violence, are not safe. The Israelis know this is not just a military struggle, but a political one as well. They will kill anyone who could change the political picture in favor of the Palestinians.
CHRIS: There is a book coming out on Jenin called “Searching Jenin,” edited by Ramzy Baroud of the Palestine Chronicle. It is filled with eyewitness accounts from journalists and people who were there last spring. I wonder if you could touch on what happened at Jenin?
NASSER: Well, I am from Jenin, and it was tough to watch the city being destroyed. Jenin is a very vibrant, productive city surrounded by 65 villages. Traditionally it has been the breadbasket of Palestine. Jenin’s fields and orchards continue to produce most of the food for Palestine. Jenin’s people are very dedicated and hard working. Life in Jenin is mostly centered around agriculture and related trades.
CHRIS: Does the fact that Jenin is the breadbasket of Palestine make it a target for the Israelis?
NASSER: Sure, if you choke Jenin, you choke Palestine.
Israel has had a hard time controlling Jenin, because Jenin doesn’t have a very bureaucratic tradition. Strong grass roots leaders tend to have more say than the city administration.
The Israelis resent this independence and have subjected the city to a lot of collective punishment. The refugee camp in Jenin was destroyed, and when the population in the camp moved to other buildings, those buildings got hit and destroyed as well.
This camp is very close to the Israeli border on a slanted hill looking west and northward, so the residents of these camps can view all their old homes from their windows. This presents a very live picture to the people of these camps. Most camp residents are from the villages around Haifa.
The city of Jenin has suffered greatly too. My brother’s shop and the major bread bakery in Jenin were destroyed. A very old and traditional candy shop in the center of Jenin was destroyed with a tank shell. Of course, a candy shop is a candy shop, not an armaments factory. Many offices were hit as well.
The city suffered a deliberate campaign of destruction, which is the Sharon policy. Sharon thinks he can control us with this brutality, but it just intensifies Palestinian resentment and makes a political settlement that much harder.
CHRIS: It has often occurred to me that we Westerners cherish the soil, the rocks, the stones and the architecture of the holy land. It makes us feel warm inside, but somehow we disregard the people and the culture that actually lives there, which is really the richest and most valuable thing. I don’t understand it.
NASSER: Thank you for bringing this up. Yes, everyone has a right to cherish the soil, the stones, the buildings, the landscapes, the hills and the rivers. We cherish them too. I just hope people remember these places are also homes for human beings.
Our culture is a continuation of the culture that existed in biblical times. This history still exists in many places. We have churches from those times in villages that outsiders have yet to discover, and life exists around them. We would be happy to share this life with those who cherish it, but we would like them to respect our ways, too. We are not trying to keep the holy land for ourselves alone. The land is holy for all those who consider it holy, but that holiness should not deny us our right to live the way we choose.
CHRIS: What is this demographic question that keeps coming up in Israeli politics and how does that effect the way the government handles populations?
NASSER: I am dismayed that this has become an acceptable issue in the main public discourse.
Unfortunately, many Israelis think it threatens the Jewish character of Israel, if there are more Arabs than Jews. Given that Palestine started with a majority of non-Jews, and Israel still has a large number of them, this Jewish character can only be maintained with discrimination and racism. This is outrageous and a major part of the conflict.
We need democratic processes that are for everyone, not that guarantee one group’s majority. You cannot put a cap on a certain population.
CHRIS: But we keep hearing that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. When I hear that, I think about the huge numbers of Palestinian people who have absolutely no rights. How can the world actually believe that Israel is a democracy?
NASSER: Yes, South Africa was democratic for the whites. Israel is democratic for the Jews.
CHRIS: Do you think there might be an upcoming conflict between the European or Ashkenazi Jews and the Oriental Jews?
NASSER: I don’t think there is an upcoming conflict, but I think the Oriental Jews have been denied space in the political discourse. I see them entering politics now with a lot of creativity, new thought and strength. Among the native Israelis, they comprise a majority, but for the most part they have been absent in the political system. Politics has been dominated by European Ashkenazi Jews.
The Oriental Jews now have right wing movements as well as progressive movements that are seeing the discrimination they have been subject to all these years. Some Oriental Jews are aware of the cultural overlap that exists between themselves and the Palestinian Arabs.
CHRIS: Could Oriental Jews become a potential ally for Palestinians as they gain strength?
NASSER: I think they could become a major player in a different discourse, one of openness instead of exclusiveness. There is a new coalition called the rainbow coalition that is still mainly intellectuals, but has some elements of grass roots support.
There has been interaction between us and Oriental Jews, especially in the late 90’s. They have Arabic parties. Arabic singers come to their weddings and funerals. Palestinian Arabs can only afford to live among the Oriental Jews in a Jewish neighborhood.
This interaction will grow, because we come from the same culture. We will see how this develops as Israel becomes more Middle Eastern, instead of trying to associate itself with European culture.
CHRIS: What about Israel’s wanton destruction of Palestinian agricultural assets? Isn’t this counter productive even for Israelis?
NASSER: It is very counter productive. There are a few instances where Israeli firms that are benefiting from us have actually protected Palestinian production. A village called Berqin south of Jenin produces peppers and cucumbers that an Israeli company from Tiberius pickles and cans. Even when Jenin was being attacked by hundreds of tanks, the Israeli firm managed to get their trucks to Berqin to pick up the peppers and cucumbers.
CHRIS: Business comes first, right?
NASSER: The Israeli government obviously found a way to accommodate this company, but for the most part the Israelis have hurt the Palestinian agriculture tremendously.
During the last confrontation people were starving in the cities, while farmers had to throw away produce because they could not reach the cities. It hurts the farmer, the vendor and the man in the street, who needs to eat.
CHRIS: It sounds like there is a growing Palestinian crisis in the urban areas. How long can the world sit back and not react?
NASSER: All the world needs to do is break the siege. We don’t need flour, cheese or any handouts like that. We have the produce. I tell NGO’s and other sources of foreign aid, “break the siege and you will feed a lot more people.”
CHRIS: In your opinion is the International Divestment Campaign against Israel a viable and useful way to put some pressure on Israel?
NASSER: Absolutely. I don’t think this would put pressure on Israel tomorrow, but take a look at South Africa. It took a long time, but it is useful, and it works.
Divestment campaigns will never change Sharon or Netanyahu’s opinion about the Palestinians, but they will work if they culturally isolate Israel. You eventually end up with a generation of Israelis that are frustrated with their isolation from the world community, just like in South Africa.
This will promote a social and economic transformation within Israel. To help this transformation along, the Palestinians will have to engage the Israeli public with clear and reasonable political options, but there must be this international pressure as well, or Israel will feel no need to accommodate us.
CHRIS: There has been a lot of call for fresh Palestinian leadership to come up with a creative solution to these problems, and of course, you started the Alternative Palestinian Agenda to develop just such a plan. I was wondering if you could give us an overview of your peace proposal.
NASSER: Our agenda breaks away from traditional proposals that call for a Palestinian state as endorsed by Jimmy Carter. I think a Palestinian State on the West Bank and Gaza would fail, because it does not address all the issues. Conflict resolution is not a matter of bargaining, but of finding, exploring and addressing the real issues. We have to think outside of the box to do this.
Our proposal reconfigures the landscape of Palestine/Israel into two states based on where the Palestinians and the Israelis actually live. Where there are a majority of Palestinians, that would be Palestine. Where there are a majority of Israelis, that would be Israel. Where vacant areas can easily sustain a higher population density, that would be space for the returning refugees.
Both states would be in a Federal Union. This is very important, because we Palestinians look at the whole of historic Palestine as Palestine, and the Israelis look at the same thing and call it Israel. This is a reality that we cannot ignore.
By having two states, we are reserving spaces for those two identities to express themselves freely. By having a Federal Union over the states, we allow for freedom of access and combined ownership of all the land.
Since Jerusalem is full of religious and historical affiliations for both states, it would have its own council and be the capital of the Federal Union. Each state would have its own legislative councils, national holidays, flag, language, educational system, and police force and be under a Federal Parliament and a Senate residing in Jerusalem. A unified army would defend the border of the entire a Federal Union, which would comprise all of historical Palestine.
The key to this proposal is it resolves all issues of the conflict. Palestinian issues include: the right of the refugees to return, the end of the occupation, the allocation of resources, the demographic crisis in the Gaza Strip, the democratic crisis of Palestinians in Israel and the general freedom of self-expression. Israeli issues include security as well as their own freedom of self-expression.
If you resolve the Palestinian issues by providing a Palestinian state of sufficient size, you simultaneously resolve internal security issues for the Israelis, who no longer need an army to terrorize Gaza, Nablus and Jenin. Likewise, external threats to Israel’s security like Syria, Libya or Iraq are removed, since they were based on the conflict with the Palestinians. Finally, the Israeli and Palestinian issues of self-expression are resolved by providing them with their own states. That, in a nutshell, is the proposal. It works by bringing genuine peace, a sustainable end to the conflict!
Other peace processes fail, because they do not fully address all the real issues of the conflict. At best they tend to strike a deal similar to Sadat’s peace treaty, that ended open hostilities, but did not lead to any meaningful engagement between the Arab world and the Israelis.
At the moment, I don’t think any Palestinian leader could support such a simple end to hostilities even if they wanted to. If you keep 1.2 million Palestinians crammed into the Gaza Strip, this will continue to inflame conflict. If you keep the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria, then organizations will emerge there and make war against Israel. The history of the conflict proves it is not just a matter of the Israeli government striking a deal with whatever Palestinian leader is convenient.
CHRIS: Can the United States really be an honest broker in the conflict?
NASSER: I think a grass roots engagement between the Palestinian and Israeli civil societies is best. I am not very hopeful about the initiatives of the current US or Israeli leaderships, because larger political issues get in the way.
For example, the United States is making a big mistake by constantly giving in to Sharon. This will destabilize the region tremendously and is pushing groups to a radical stance against the US that could organize at the global level. Bush tried to lead, but failed because of Israeli political power in the US Congress.
CHRIS: What role does Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have to play in the peace process at this point?
NASSER: Arafat is guided by his own survival. Whatever helps him cling to power, he will do.
When the Palestinian Authority [PA] came into Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza, many of our healthy grass roots institutions vanished, because the PA assumed their role. The Palestinian Authority appointed leaders and village councils and severely damaged our grassroots political process.
Now that the PA has been installed, we may have to work with them, but we should not be fooled that the PA always operates in the interests of the people. The PA needs to be pressured to help redemocratize and revitalize our civic institutions. We need popular city councils that are truly responsive to the city’s needs.
This is nothing new to us. We don’t need to reform. We certainly don’t need lessons in democracy. We just need to revive the long history of collective action that we have always had.
CHRIS: What will become of organizations like Hamas?
NASSER: Everything is subject to change. Hamas has some social programs that are very violent because these are violent times. When peace comes, there will be no call for violence. I suspect Hamas will reform if it wants to sustain itself, otherwise it will shrink. The peace process will carry it’s own momentum.
CHRIS: What are the Israeli Refuseniks trying to tell the Israeli government and the Israeli people?
NASSER: There are definitely people in Israel who are not happy about what has been going on in the Occupied Territories. The Army personnel that refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza are demonstrating their disapproval of Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza.
We are encouraged when we see this within Israeli society. The more peace movements there are in Israel, the stronger the Palestinian voices for peace become, because they have more positive things to point to in Israeli society. We congratulate the Israeli people for these important developments.
CHRIS: How important are Israeli voices for peace, like Jeff Halper, Ilan Pappe, Uri Avnery and Tanja Reinhart? Are you able to engage with them?
NASSER: Yes, we are engaged with some of these people, and they are important, but we must be careful not to focus solely on Israeli activists. We need to engage all sorts of dimensions within Israeli life. The main thing is to engage.
Some people, like Ilan Pappe, Ori Yiftachel and Lev Greenberg, engage because they support genuine peace efforts, like our proposal and variations of it. Others are engaged because they see no light...
CHRIS: And they want some light!
NASSER: Yes...they want some light! So all of these people are important. As long as people see a need for engagement, the engagement will carry its own momentum. Again, it is important to involve all kinds of Israelis, and not only those who think exactly like we like do. We want to end the conflict with the Israelis as a whole. This is the only way to achieve a robust resolution to the conflict.
CHRIS: What do you see as some of the benefits of genuine peace? What is the carrot for Israel?
NASSER: The carrot for the Israelis is that they get to stay in the Middle East. I think many Israelis are missing this point. Yes, they have American and European support at the moment, but they are not in Europe, nor in North America. What Israelis really need is acceptance in the Middle East, and there is not even a glimpse of that now.
From the historical perspective Israel is a newcomer in the Middle East. For Israel to become truly normalized in the region would be an enormous historical accomplishment, if it happens. Most of the region currently looks at Israel as an artificial implant maintained by external supports. Once those supports are removed or dry up, Israel will cease to exist.
As long as the desire to remove Israel exists, Israel is in danger, and its chances of survival are historically very slim. Genuine peace would help Israel normalize and gain acceptance in the region. This is what Israel really needs, not more weapons or billions of dollars from America.
Zionism is not bringing Jews the security it had promised them through the establishment of the Jewish state. The threat to Jewish society just moved from Europe to the Middle East. This conflict needs to be resolved in a way that brings more life and acceptance to the Jewish community. This can only be done through a genuine process of peace, not through military superiority, power politics or backroom deals.
CHRIS: What would your average Israeli citizen think if he or she were to live incognito with a Palestinian family in the occupied territories for a week?
NASSER: Obviously anybody who lives under the conditions of the occupied Palestinian areas would finally understand what occupation really means, and that would shed a different light on how to resolve the conflict.
I don’t think any Israeli would accept living under those conditions and would soon justify any means of resistance. As Ehud Barak himself said, “If I were a Palestinian, I’d also join a terror group.” He should know.
CHRIS: Historically can we say that Jews, Moslems and Christians lived together in Palestine in peace for centuries before this last twentieth century?
NASSER: Reasonable peace, yes. Just like anywhere else, some rulers have been more just than others, but in general the area has accommodated various faiths.
There have also been many transformations. We are mostly Moslems now, but we were Christians before we were Moslems, and perhaps Jews before that. We were ruled by Byzantines, the Israelites, different Islamic rulers and the Ottoman Empire. These are the normal and healthy dynamics of our history, and we do not regret any of them.
Now we identify ourselves as Palestinian Christians or Moslems, and I think we should be accepted for who we are, just like we allow the Israelis to identify themselves as Israelis.
CHRIS: Does the Middle East possess the talent, culture and resources to survive as a regional entity?
NASSER: Absolutely! We have plenty of resources, and we have been surviving all these years. There is nothing new to life. We can get along without any donations or charity. Remember, life in this area goes 5000 years back. It has been a vibrant culture through countless civilizations and continues to be vibrant today.
The current conflict in Palestine is not ancient. What is ancient is the recorded history of civilization in the region. I am sure there have been many cultures in other parts of the world where similar numbers of historical conflicts have occurred. They just were not as thoroughly documented.
We will move beyond the current conflict and establish a normal life again.
CHRIS: What can we as citizens of the world do to help promote peace in the Middle East?
NASSER: You can engage! The more people are engaged in the peace process, the more effective it becomes.
It is important to both Palestinians and Israelis for their narratives to be believed by the world community. The more involvement there is from the world community, the closer our respective narratives will have to match the world’s common consensus of reality.
This international engagement will help keep both sides honest, and this honesty will go far towards resolving the conflict.
CHRIS: Thank you Nasser Abufarha for this interview.
NASSER: Thank you, Chris. It has been a pleasure.