Interview: Mazin Qumsiyeh on popular resistance and breaking the spell of fear

16 June 2011

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Israeli forces have repeatedly harassed and detained Mazin Qumsiyeh during protests against the wall and occupation in al-Walaja village.

(Oren Ziv / ActiveStills)

In his latest book Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment, Mazin Qumsiyeh counters the conventional wisdom promoted by the Israeli propaganda machine and the mainstream Western media, which conflates the Palestinian struggle against occupation with “terrorism.” Qumsiyeh, a former professor of genetics who taught at Yale and Duke universities, returned to his native village of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem in the occupied West three years ago. He currently blogs at Popular Resistance. The Electronic Intifada contributor David Cronin interviewed Qumsiyeh about his new book and activism.

David Cronin: You were arrested in May in the West Bank village of al-Walaja. I’ve seen a video on YouTube, in which — a moment before the arrest — you are pleading with Israeli soldiers not to use violence against peaceful protesters. What were the circumstances that led you to make that appeal?

Mazin Qumsiyeh: I saw a group of soldiers run up a hill and grab a young guy and start beating him. They were using pepper spray against his head and mouth, even though he didn’t do anything. I walked a few steps so that I was close to him, then they pushed me down.

The accusation that was leveled against me was that I had participated in an illegal demonstration. But it was the presence of soldiers there that was illegal, not the presence of people in the village of al-Walaja.

DC: What happened after your arrest?

MQ: For 24 hours, I was taken to various detention facilities in different places. It was 24 hours of harassment and without any sleep. That was the biggest part of it. When I finally got to the actual prison [Ofer], the prison itself was not that bad in terms of treatment. They tried to get me to sign a paper saying I was not mistreated. I said: “I’m not signing any papers. Go to hell.”

DC: How many times have you been arrested?

MQ: It depends how you define “arrested.” Israel can hold you for hours and hours, days and days, without [charging] you. I have been arrested [and] charged three times. In terms of detention [I have been held], maybe 10 or 12 times.

It has always been for short periods of two days, things like that. When I get arrested, the Israeli government gets thousands of letters, hundreds of inquiries. Palestinian young people, who don’t have the kind of international network that I have, tend to be mistreated more and can be kept in administrative detention for months.

DC: After living in the United States for 27 years, you returned to Palestine three years ago. Why did you decide to go home?

MQ: It was a question of where I could be the most useful [to the Palestinian struggle]. Up to three years ago, I felt I could be more useful outside Palestine. Then, my feeling was that I could be more useful in Palestine. It was a subjective feeling, rather than an objective or scientific feeling.

DC: In your latest book, you explain how both nonviolent resistance and armed struggle involve sacrifice and that neither is risk-free. You appear, though, to have a preference for nonviolent resistance. Can you explain why?

MQ: Whether one uses armed struggle or nonviolence, the aim has to be to liberate oneself. Nobody engages in these things because they love to do these things. My own personal judgment is that the moral issue must enter into the equation. Of course, other people may have a different judgment. And while I respect their backgrounds, I also respectfully may disagree with the tools used.

DC: You have documented how the history of Palestinian resistance has been overwhelmingly nonviolent. What do you say, then, to those Western journalists who tend to regard Palestinian resistance as synonymous with suicide bombing?

MQ: Every anti-colonial struggle, every uprising has been a mixed bag. In South Africa, there were incidents where blacks engaged in horrific acts as individual human beings. But to characterize the Soweto Uprising by saying it was violent and involved “necklacing” [placing tires around the necks of suspected informers and burning them alive] is wrong and crude and reprehensible. You cannot make such generalizations.

DC: You have argued that Jesus Christ may have been the first Palestinian political martyr. Why do you say that?

MQ: Jesus Christ was born in a land called Palestine. He spoke Aramaic, which predated Arabic. He was certainly killed because of his nonviolent resistance.

DC: What is your message, then, to Christian Zionists?

MQ: They must be reading a different Bible to the one I’m reading. Even the Old Testament says the promise of a good life has to do with a moral position, with obeying God and obeying the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.”

If you do something horrible, how are you deserving of a piece of land? That is totally a contradiction of the sense of morality and justice, that religion is supposed to be about. Is it Judaism to use white phosphorous on unarmed civilians or to kill hundreds of them?

Christian Zionism is an oxymoron. You cannot be a Zionist and a Christian at the same time, in my humble opinion.

DC: You have called the diplomatic initiative to have the United Nations recognize a Palestinian state this coming September dangerous. Please explain.

MQ: Activists and human rights defenders around the world should be very wary of the so-called September initiative. The idea of recognizing a Palestinian state on 1967 borders is fine if it is accompanied with a declaration recognizing the rights of Palestinians. But there is no mention of rights in the way it is being discussed at the moment.

Nowhere in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does it say that Palestinians have a right to raise a particular flag. But it does say we have the right to free movement, we have the right to land, we have the right to be treated equally.

DC: You have outlined parallels between how the issue of Palestinian statehood is being handled and the behavior of the South African government during the apartheid era. In particular, you have drawn an analogy to the type of Palestinian state now being envisaged with the supposedly self-governing Bantustans that the apartheid government established for blacks in parts of South Africa and South West Africa. Can you summarize those parallels?

MQ: Of course, every historical situation is unique but we do have similarities with apartheid South Africa. South Africa said “we do want to recognize South African Bantustans as states” and even approached the United Nations and said “we recognize the Bantustans as states.” For the same reasons, [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu has said “fine, we can have a Palestinian state under certain conditions.”

What the West might be doing is aiding and abetting the notion of apartheid, putting [the Palestinian] people in Bantustans and saying “we recognize you as a state but without the rights to free movement, resources, land, any basic rights.”

DC: What’s the most shocking thing you have seen?

MQ:: The most shocking thing that one cannot ever get accustomed to is the crude racism, the sense of superiority the Zionists have over us. That is always the root of the problem, the sense that God has chosen them and that they have the rights to the land. From this emanates lots of things: land confiscations, the wall, ill-treatment of prisoners.

DC: What role should people of conscience internationally play in resisting the occupation?

MQ: Obviously, Western governments are colluding with Zionism. They have been partners in this crime against humanity going back to the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration [early twentieth century decisions by Britain and France on carving up the Middle East and endorsing Zionist colonization, respectively]. And fully-fledged partners, not merely puppets.

Howard Zinn said “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” So for the public in Australia or America, being neutral means literally colluding with the occupiers. They have to chose: collude with war crimes or get off the train and engage at a human level to correct this.

One of the first duties of activists is to speak truth to power. This is always repeated ad nauseam in the human rights community, so go do it. People need to break the spell of fear. Once they believe in their own hearts they can do things, then nothing is impossible. That is what the Egyptian people taught us in Tahrir Square.

David Cronin’s book Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation is published by Pluto Press.