Envisioning a better future: Activist Mazin Qumsiyeh interviewed

Mazin Qumsiyeh

Mazin Qumsiyeh is a tireless activist for Palestinian human rights who returned to his hometown of Beit Sahour in the Israeli-occupied West Bank last year and now teaches at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities. The author of Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle (2004), Qumsiyeh is both a human rights activist and a scientist who has a lengthy list of publications on genetics to his credit. The Electronic Intifada contributor Ida Audeh met with him in April and discussed advocating the Palestinian cause in the United States and his impressions about the current direction of the Palestinian struggle.

During the 29 years he lived in the United States, Qumsiyeh earned masters and doctoral degrees; taught at several prestigious universities, including Duke and Yale; co-founded activist organizations (Al-Awda, the Palestinian Right to Return Coalition and the Wheels of Justice Tour — a traveling tour bus that stops at different communities to educate them about Palestine and Iraq); and was a board member for numerous organizations. Since the mid-1990s, he has maintained email lists that focus on human rights and international law. His weekly postings now reach approximately 50,000 individuals and include reports of events and comments that are informed by a deep understanding of common struggles in other parts of the world. An optimist who advocates “having joyful participation in the sorrows of this world,” he includes in every e-mail at least one action that the reader can take to make a difference.

Ida Audeh: How would you describe the evolution of perceptions of the Palestinian question and advocacy efforts over the 29 years in which you lived in the United States?

Mazin Qumsiyeh: When I went to the US in August 1979, my impression was that the Zionist narrative was dominant in the churches, the synagogues, the media, community centers, everywhere. There were only a few heroic voices of opposition — people like Edward Said, Naseer Aruri and Elaine Hagopian — who influenced me a lot in those early years. They really envisioned changing perceptions by speaking about human rights and international law and actual facts on the ground. Things have changed significantly over the years as more people became informed and educated. Nonprofit organizations have been set up and people are doing good work, including meeting with their congressional representatives.

IA: There has been undeniable progress, but are we doing what needs to be done?

MQ: The question I would ask is, are we doing enough? Of course not. Are we doing well? I think we are doing fairly well. We are moving in the right direction, I’d say that that’s probably more relevant than anything else. It is not easy. We are faced with an enemy that is very well organized, well financed, and well entrenched into the system of Western government, as we saw most recently in the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, where the representatives of the US, Canada, Australia and white European countries walked out of the conference hall when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke. Those are the countries where the work needs to be done. The question for me is what can I do, and where do I fit as an individual. I don’t want to change the world, I just want to push in the direction of justice and human rights.

IA: Dealing with Zionist opposition is straightforward in some ways, because one knows what to expect. But liberals argue the “need” to establish good faith by engaging in dialogue with those whose political values in many instances are hostile to our own.

MQ: Within the so-called liberal peace-oriented movement, there are lots of Zionists with a tribalistic form of nationalism that they hide very well. They claim that they are for peace and for justice and a two-state solution, but when you scratch the surface a little bit, you find that they are racist. One simple test to ask is about the right of return for Palestinian refugees. That immediately exposes what they really think.

That’s one aspect. The other aspect is best described by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he chides white liberals for always counseling patience. Their kind of liberalism is paternalistic and colonialist. It says, “If you just listen to us, if you denounce terrorism and do this or that, then maybe some time in the future, we will have it in our heart to make pressure to … achieve some justice for the Palestinians.” As Martin Luther King Jr. said, I am getting impatient and don’t want to waste too much time with that.

IA: In the US, much of the focus of Palestine advocates is on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (referred to by Palestinians as the 1967 occupation). Should we instead emphasize the nature of Israel itself and the racist laws that Palestinian citizens of Israel are subjected to?

MQ: I argue in Sharing the Land of Canaan that the focus on the 1967 occupation is really the wrong focus, because it goes down that slippery slope of justifying what happened before. We should be talking not about occupation but about colonization, which started much earlier than 1967. There is really no difference between what happened before 1967 and after 1967.

IA: I was reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, and she describes the Israeli economy as being pretty healthy despite the global recession, in large part because of the number of Israeli companies with a “security” focus.

MQ: Israel is now the biggest exporter of conflicts in the world, in my opinion, surpassing even the United States. For example, the Sri Lankan government uses Israeli weapons and expertise against the Tamils, committing massacres even as we speak. And Israel profits financially. The Israeli economy is booming because it is based on the export of weapons and conflict. In addition, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip nets Israel billions of dollars each year. Approximately 40 to 45 percent of all humanitarian aid into the Occupied Palestinian Territory ends up in Israeli hands. This is documented by a series of publications and research on the economy of the occupation by Israeli researcher Sher Hever of the Alternative Information Center. The occupation is big business.

IA: Since 2003 I’ve visited Palestinian towns and villages in the path of the wall, and someone once told me that each village has its own personal tragedy. How would you describe Bethlehem’s tragedy?

MQ: The West Bank has Israeli-imposed colonial settlement infrastructure like roads, sewage systems and electric grids. This is built on top of an existing Palestine, an existing group of villages and towns in the West Bank have that been receding into the background over the past 42 years of occupation. The wall makes this literal and concrete, physically removing shrinking Palestinian areas from the landscape and making those that remain into ghettoes and prisons. In the case of Bethlehem, each cluster of villages gets turned into a ghetto with one exit and entrance only to this village or cluster of villages. There are more than 30 such cantons now in the West Bank. In the Bethlehem area, for example, the villages of Nahalin Bettir, Wadi Fukin and other places that are close to the green line [the 1949 armistice line marking the boundary between Israel and the West Bank] are isolated and surrounded by settlements. The Bethlehem district, which includes Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, is surrounded by walls and settlements from the north, the west and the south. There is an area to the east, called Ush Ghrab, that the settlers would like to take over. If they succeed, there will be settlements on all four sides. Right now the Bethlehem district has only one entrance and exit going to the north of the West Bank and another going south to Hebron. So if those access points are shut off, people won’t be able to move anywhere.

IA: Many argue that the Palestinian Authority (PA) functions as a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation. Do you see any positive role that the PA can play? Should we be taking to the streets and demanding its resignation?

MQ: [The late Palestinian thinker] Edward Said described the Oslo process [of the mid-1990s] as the worst thing that happened to the Palestinians since the beginning of the Nakba. The Oslo process put in place this slippery slope of endless negotiations while Israel creates facts on the ground and legitimizes Israel’s racist structure, institutions, mechanisms and racist demands for its own security at the expense of Palestinians’ basic human rights. Even Amnesty International attributed the failure of Oslo to the fact that it ignored human rights. In any case, Oslo is finished. It was supposed to last for five years, from 1993 to 1999. It expired 10 years ago. We need to reevaluate what happened.

Whether we really need a PA or not is another issue. I for one would prefer no PA, because you cannot have one under occupation. It’s a misnomer. What we have is more like prisoners being allowed to elect their prison representatives in negotiations with the jailers. One accommodating side is like the village leagues [of the 1970s] in some sense. Other prisoners elect tougher reps to the authorities. In my opinion, dismantle the Palestinian Authority and say to the international community, we are done with this process that started in Oslo. What you need to do is implement international law and take responsibility for boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel until it complies with international law and basic human rights. After Israel complies, we can create our own institutions, which can then negotiate with Israel.

IA: After the dispossession of historic Palestine in 1948, many Palestinians were dependent on handouts from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, and today tens of thousands are dependent on foreign aid through PA salaries. How do we overcome this situation, which puts us at the mercy of foreign donors and their agendas?

MQ: It is inevitable that people will experience pain if they want their freedom. Although tens of thousands of families depend on salaries from the PA, they still remain a minority of the Palestinian population. The majority of the population are not receiving any salaries, and those people should rise up, and even those who do receive salaries will tell you that they are willing to sacrifice if others do.

[As for the matter of us turning against each other to secure the flow of aid,] that’s where leadership is important. If we had decent leadership, they could go to Arab and other countries that want to support us and say that we want to establish mechanisms whereby our people are independent of this. I am sure they could have done it. But it requires leadership instead of these spineless negotiations that end up perpetuating a cycle of colonization and impoverishment and dependency, which reinforces the occupation and colonization.

IA: Do you see any role for the Palestinian political factions?

MQ: We don’t have much choice. Fatah and Hamas have large popular backing, and we have to work with all existing factions. We need to educate them, we need to encourage them to adopt changes.

IA: Can you comment on the one-state solution versus two-state solution debate?

MQ: People have to understand the implications and ramifications of support for two states and for one state. We should start with the premise that human rights are inalienable, that there is no compromise on human rights. This means that supporting a two-state solution does not entitle you to oppose the right of return. To do so would be an unacceptable selling out of human rights based on political considerations. If you support two states and also support the right of return, then that’s fine by me. Studies by Salman Abu Sitta and others show that most of the villages from which Palestinians were expelled are still empty; people could return to them.

On every level, ranging from the environment, to population growth, to natural resources like water, to theology and ideology — on every issue that you look at, the possibility and the probability and the desirability of the one-state option far surpasses that of the two-state solution. People frequently cite the two-state option as more achievable, when in fact the likelihood of a truly sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza is infinitesimally smaller than the possibility of a one-state solution. When you talk about two states, are you talking about two sovereign states, with equal rights and responsibilities? Or is it a Bantustan called Palestine and a Jewish state that is nuclear, armed to the teeth, and controls natural resources, air space and so on? If it is the latter, which is what most Israelis seem to support, then that is not a viable solution. If it is the former, most Israelis do not support it and will never support it. If I were in their shoes, I am not sure I would support it; I would support one state because it would enhance my security and be better in every way.

IA: Official discourse on the two-state option makes reference to a territorial swap, which means Israel relinquishing the Palestinian-populated Galilee area in exchange for the settlement blocs in the West Bank. What would that entail?

MQ: This is part of the reason why a two-state option cannot be successful. The Palestinian vision of two states consists of sovereign Israeli and Palestinian states. But for Israeli supporters of a two-state option, there would be something called a Jewish state, which is based on Jewish supremacist ideology and a Jewish majority running state affairs and a minority that (if it is allowed to remain) would be subservient and would be discriminated against. The Palestinian state would also be subservient as a state to the Jewish state and would have no control over its borders or its air space or its natural resources. From a Palestinian and human rights perspective, this is not acceptable.

IA: Is Palestinian society sufficiently mobilized to prevent a sellout of our rights from happening?

MQ: History offers no guarantees. Our situation could turn out like that of the Native Americans, where the probability of them reclaiming their ancestral lands is minimal to zero. Or there is Algeria, where fourth- or fifth-generation French settlers had to pack up and go back to Europe after one million Algerians lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and liberation from the French. In South Africa, the whites were integrated into society, and one person, one vote became a one-state solution. … I prefer the South African model because it opens the possibility for coexistence and a more durable peace. It is not based on total subjugation of the natives or on total removal of the colonial settlers. The South African model is not ideal, there is still economic apartheid, but at least it eliminated political apartheid and it opens the possibility for a struggle for economic justice and the opportunity to achieve economic justice without violence. … Although I cannot predict the future, I am optimistic, I think we are moving in the right direction despite the obstacles and despite the physical and metaphysical walls.

IA: Why are you optimistic?

MQ: The Zionist project started out in the middle of the 19th century with support from Britain, and the first Zionist colony in Palestine was established in [1878]. The original Zionist plan included establishing a Jewish empire in the Middle East from the Nile to the Euphrates. That was the goal of most Zionists who advocated a political Zionist project in Palestine. And now, almost 130 years later, that project has failed to achieve a fraction of that goal. From the River Jordan to the Mediterranean, there are 5 million Palestinians. When the Zionist project started in 1880, there were maybe less than 500,000 or 600,000 Palestinians living here. So there is natural increase. And then there are another 5 million Palestinians outside Palestine, and they are doing great work. [Israel’s first prime minister, David] Ben Gurion’s statement that the old would die and the young would forget has been proven at least half wrong. The old do die, but the young never forget. That’s why I believe that there is cause for optimism.

Every day in Palestine, I witness hundreds of instances of brilliant actions. [Besides] the usual forms of resistance, even breathing the air here, having a married life or going to school are all forms of resistance, because we are not wanted in our own land. I find that ingenuity in resistance, the ability to persevere — what we call sumud — to be tremendously inspiring. Our people are able to continue their lives despite the incredible odds arrayed against them and not only to persist but also to find some measure of success. As the graffiti on the wall says, to live is to resist.

Ida Audeh is a Palestinian from the West Bank who lives in Boulder, Colorado. Her op-eds and articles have been published by the The Rocky Mountain News, The Daily Camera, The Electronic Intifada, Countercurrents, and Counterpunch. She can be reached at idaaudeh A T yahoo D O T com.