Hope, out of Ramallah: The rise of the Palestinian alternative

AN INTERVIEW WITH MUSTAFA BARGHOUTHI, SECRETARY-GENERAL OF THE PALESTINIAN NATIONAL INITIATIVE

Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi

Palestine eNews, a service of Canadian Friends of Sabeel, interviewed Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, Secretary-General of the Palestinian National Initiative, during a Canada-wide tour, before carrying his message to the United States next week. Launched in 2002, the Palestine National Initiative (PNI) is a democratic Palestinian opposition movement that calls for a just and durable peace. It distinguishes itself from the current Palestinian Authority on key issues that touch the lives of Palestinians, not just in the Occupied Territories, but around the world. The PNI believes in the importance of including all Palestinians around the globe in the decision-making process.

Why must I come all the way from Ramallah to tell you not to give up, to give you hope?”

— A reply by Dr. Barghouthi to a despairing Palestinian-Canadian, in a presentation at Carleton University in Ottawa this week.

Dr. Barghouthi, how would you describe the current situation in Palestine?

I would say it’s a very, very dangerous situation. There is an element of urgency. We’re witnessing Israel practically destroying the last hope of building a Palestinian independent state. It is destroying the two-state-solution, and it’s doing so while the world is watching. We have a situation where Israel is allowed to be above international law. Of course the Palestinians are not planning to give up, and they will not give up. There is a great amount of resilience and steadfastness and that’s why you see the rise of popular mass struggle against the wall. At the same time, the daily life is terrible. On average we have now about 72% of Palestinians living below the line of poverty, with $2 per capita. Around 60% of the labor force is unemployed. The wall has become a major obstacle to education and to health services. Israel has put 734 checkpoints across the Occupied Territories. I’m talking about imprisonment of a nation. A whole nation is being imprisoned behind bars.

The Israeli army, upon orders from the government, can now go into a Palestinian bank and rob it. Do you still view the current Israeli government as capable of negotiating for a just peace? And if they are not, then what is the alternative?

We don’t negotiate. We are beyond the possibility of negotiating with such a government. And it would be just an illusion to think it can be done. Israel has become the second South Africa, and what we see in the OT is a combination of occupation and apartheid. The policy of Apartheid must be isolated, must be boycotted, and must be sanctioned.

But isn’t that something for the international community to do?

And for us too. For all the Arabs, in particular the Arab governments who still have the illusion that they can make peace with someone like Sharon. I believe that peace can be made but not with a government of such a policy. And the only road to peace is to tell Israel and the world that this policy of oppression is not going to break the Palestinian people.

Three years into the second Intifada, have we as Palestinians gone forward or backward? Has this Intifada thus far served the Palestinian Cause?

We’ve definitely gone forward. The Intifada was not a choice that the Palestinians made. The Intifada was a natural reaction and a response to a situation where Israel was annexing the land and changing the facts on the ground while the Palestinians were watching. The Intifada was the Palestinian reaction to Israel’s own imposition of a de facto solution on the ground. The Intifada was a response to injustice. For seven years the Palestinians waited for Oslo to produce results, and for seven years Palestinians almost did not perform any act of resistance, not even civil resistance while Israel was building settlements. And it came to a point where Palestinians could not take that anymore. The Intifada is a direct outcome of Israeli policy, and I do believe that it served the Palestinian cause. Right now we are in the middle of the struggle and for some people it may look like we’re going backward. But I think the building of the Israeli wall and the annexation of so many territories and the continuous expansion of the settlements would have continued regardless. If we didn’t have an Intifada, the Intifada would have started with the wall.

So you think it was inevitable that Sharon would have built the wall?

Absolutely. Of course. Sharon came to power with one plan, which was to destroy the potential for the Palestinian state, and this is what he’s doing on the ground.

What is the Palestinian National Initiative’s (PNI) position in regards to suicide bombings?

We promote and advocate mass popular nonviolent struggle. We believe that at this very important point in time, it is crucial for Palestinians to engage in such a struggle, which could be part of an important strategy of Palestinian resistance combined with working with the International community. At the same time we say that Palestinians must remain unified, and that’s why we call for a Unified national leadership which would be able to decide in a collective way the political strategy and the struggle strategy that would serve the interests of the Palestinian people. We have to be very clear here about one specific point, which is, we do not accept the approach where factional politics should prevail above national common interest. I’ll give you an example, when Palestinians were about to initiate the ICJ hearing on the wall, the attack in Jerusalem definitely didn’t serve the interest of the Palestinians. So while we say that Palestinians have the right to resist occupation, it is very important for Palestinians to rationalize their resistance in a way to make it most productive and to maintain the Palestinian struggle and the moral integrity of the Palestinians as people who are struggling for freedom and dependence.

You were quoted as having said once to Abu Mazen and Yasser Arafat when they had their power struggle that they were like two men fighting over a deck chair aboard the Titanic. Do you really think that the ship is sinking? Are we close to seeing the end of an impotent Palestinian Authority?

Well the authority might be sinking but not the Palestinian people. The authority is in bad shape and I think the authority is standing at a cross roads where it has to make a choice between going back to becoming a part of the Palestinian national struggle or becoming a security sub-agent for Israel. And I do hope they make the first decision.

Daoud Kuttab has published an article in the Globe and Mail recently where he calls on the PA “to throw in the keys”. He echoes a concern that many Palestinians have today, where they see that the PA has become a heavy burden to carry. What are your views in this regard, and how realistic is it to demand that the PA resign?

To me that is not the important issue, to me the important issue is how to reactivate the Palestinian national movement as a movement of the whole of the Palestinian people, and this is what the PNI is about and this is why I am here with you in Canada. We want to re-establish the connecting social fabric of the Palestinian people everywhere in Palestine and in the Diaspora around the legitimate Palestinian goals of freedom, independence and dignity. It is important to build for the future and provide the people with a vision of how to build a future. It is more important than the dispute of who is occupying which position, where, because it is clear to me that the whole of the Palestinian authority is now, like the rest of us, under occupation.

Where is the Palestinian Opposition today in terms of political structure? In particular, how far has the PNI gone since its launch in 2002?

I think we have done quiet well. I think young people, women, and grassroots groups are becoming more and more responsive to PNI. If we haven’t been able to reach so many people up till now it is only because of the obstacles and obstructions we are facing, but wherever we manage to reach the people and explain our vision, the people’s reaction is just tremendous. I have had fantastic interactions with the people in Rafah, Nablus, Beirut, London and here in Canada, and I think we’re on the right track. Our idea is that we should provide the people with a clear vision and our vision says that the Palestinian struggle should be based on five pillars:

  1. Popular mass struggle across the country.
  2. The build-up of a strong international solidarity movement with the Palestinian people.
  3. Internal democratization and strong, serious internal reform.
  4. Supporting the steadfastness of the people.
  5. Building up a huge mass popular power that would push the Palestinian struggle into the right direction and would echo the voice of the silent majority of the Palestinians.

Our strategy is to make the cost and the price of the occupation much bigger than its benefit.

What if we were to hold a Palestinian election, and have a radical extremist group win the majority? Some would argue that Palestinian society is not ready to embrace democracy due to their support of the activities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

That is a racist approach. It is racist to say Arabs or Palestinians are not ready for democracy. Only colonialists would say these things. And I do believe that Palestinians are capable of making the right choice if they are given the right circumstance and if they are given the right conditions to practice democracy. And I believe all the Palestinian groups - Islamic or non-Islamic - should be allowed to participate in the democratic process. All the groups must respect the democratic choice of the majority of the people. And that’s what democracy is about after all.

There was a story by Reuter’s news agency about a girl who was kidnapped and raped in Gaza. The headline warns of a rise in lawlessness in Gaza. Are we sinking into lawlessness, have we lost our moral compass?

No, we have not, and we are not sinking into lawlessness; and this is an Israeli approach to make Palestinians look like gangsters fighting with each other. After all, the whole Israeli strategy is about fragmenting the Palestinian people and separating their communities. That’s why we have so many checkpoints, and that’s why we have the wall. And that’s why there is so much pressure from outside to dissolve the Palestine leadership and create a police or intelligence gang leader that would function as Israeli sub-agent for the Israeli protection, and this is the Israeli plan. We have problems like Israeli society, but it would be a total mistake to accept this vision of Palestinians simply as a corrupt society that is dismantling. The truth is that we are not; we are a lively society. We are a very powerful civil society, and we must do everything we can to stop the fragmentation from taking place.

Canada was one of the countries that objected to having the ICJ rule on Israel’s apartheid wall; did their position surprise you?

Yes. Canada has supported human rights in many places. Canada has distinguished itself by being independent with nations like Cuba, and other issues, and I don’t think Canada made the right choice by boycotting the court or by demanding that the court would not make a stand on a very clear and obvious case of violation of Human Rights.

This hearing was very important, it was a turning point in the Palestinian struggle, a point that will probably be reported in history. I attended the court and the proceedings were clear. There is no way Israel could defend the wall, and what its doing in the territories is a blunt and clear violation of every aspect of Human Rights and humanitarian law. Israel escaped the court because it could not defend the case. When it decided to stay outside the court, it decided to be outside international legitimacy. Canada should have actually supported the hearing and should have also presented a case where it should have supported the removal of the wall. Those who refuse to have the court look into the matter were actually the ones that tried to politicize international law. And of course there is one important argument here; to say that a decision by the court would prevent the implementation of the road map or the peace process is truly ironic because it is the wall that is destroying the road map and the peace process. So a case against the wall would be supportive of the peace process. This kind of position is like saying that there is a thief that is robbing a house and you say the Police will not stop the thief because if the police interfere it will disturb the neighbor.

What should Canada’s role be in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? and does it really have power to ease the suffering that is inflicted on both Palestinians and Israelis?

Of course Canada, like many other countries, can play a very important role by supporting justice and by supporting the right of Palestinians to live in peace and independence, and by resisting the pressure that is trying to prevent countries from taking a firm stand through a campaign of what I call psychological terror. Sharon has initiated such a campaign, and the supporters of extremism in Israel are trying to prevent people from taking a position. It is really amazing that the same racist and extremist General who was totally neglected by the International community in 1982 has become a man that is capable of terrorizing the whole world to prevent them from interfering with us. It is quiet astonishing that pro-Sharon propaganda has reached a level of claiming that those who don’t support Sharon are either terrorists, anti-Semitic or self-hating Jews.

How did you find our media coverage of what is really happening in Palestine?

It is not enough. I think the press has a problem, and it is the duty of the press to bring truth and reality to the people. When Israel conducts an assassination attack in Gaza killing 3 people and injuring 15 using F-16 jet fighters and this does not get reported in the press, it means that the ordinary Canadian citizen is deprived of his or her right of knowing the truth. I am not saying that the press should take a stand with us or against us. I’m saying that the press has a duty, and their duty is to allow people to judge by themselves through providing a balanced approach and by providing information to everybody. Unfortunately, up until now this is not happening as sufficiently as it should be, and that’s why talks and meetings such as the one we’ll have tonight is our way of bringing the truth to the people. The truth and facts can help people make their own informed decision.

What is the best way to counter propaganda?

Spread the facts, tell the truth, and inform the people. This is the best way. Make people aware of what’s happening on the ground.

What is your message to Canadian peace activists? I know that one of the main objectives of the PNI is to reach out to the International community. What is the best way for us in Canada to help?

I would like to say that the Palestinian case is not a negotiation dispute, and it is not a case of a dispute between two parties that can be described as equal parties; this is a struggle for self-determination. The Palestinian struggle has become the #1 national liberation struggle in this world. It is like the case of India when it was struggling for independence. It is like the case of Algeria , the case of South Africa, and with such a struggle people must stand with justice and support the right of the people to be free and dignified. Israel is not the victim in what is going on, although all who are killed whether Palestinians or Israelis are both victims of the policy of occupation; but in this time it is the mighty Goliath against the weak David, and the weak David in this case is Palestine and the Palestinians.

So what can we do?

There is a long list of things that can be done: from supporting the Palestinian people, taking a better stand, supporting international law, insisting on the application of HR, and making it clear to Israel that the relationship between Canada and Israel is dependent on Israeli behavior in the Occupied Territories and on how much Israel will be ready to accept the rights of the Palestinians to be free of this occupation, which has become the longest occupation in modern history.

Samah Sabawi, from Gaza, is a writer and activist with Canadian Friends of Sabeel who lives in Ottawa. Her work also appears in several other electronic media.