Interview with PA dissident: “I cannot just stay silent”

Abdel Sattar Qassem outside his home in Nablus. (Marcy Newman)

Abdel Sattar Qassem, a professor and author of numerous publications on Palestinian history and Islamic thought, is well-known for his pungent critiques of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). As a result he has been imprisoned by both the Israelis and the PA. Most recently his car was blown up as a warning from the PA. Marcy Newman spoke with Professor Qassem on behalf of The Electronic Intifada at his home in the Palestinian city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank.

Marcy Newman: When did you become politically active?

Abdel Sattar Qassem: At the American University in Cairo I wanted to be part of the revolution. I used to call it a revolution; I discovered later that it wasn’t. I went to Beirut three times: in 1970, 1971 and 1972 to join a Palestinian faction. Each time I was disappointed and left without joining. I noticed that they were not true revolutionaries. They drove their cars in an arrogant way in the streets of Beirut, said bad things to Lebanese girls on the street. I thought those were not revolutionary morals. I noticed that so many of them went to bars. At that time I always thought that a revolutionary should be a clean guy. He should be somebody who sets an ethical example for others. I felt these people were not going to liberate Palestine. These people were going to surrender. So I spent four years in Cairo disappointed by the revolution.

MN: Who were the leaders you respected in those years?

ASQ: I always felt that George Habash was a good leader, unlike the rest of the leaders who were just aiming at being leaders. But he was a Marxist. I don’t believe in Marxism, although I believe in a just distribution of wealth. I thought Habash would have been more successful had he remained a pan-Arabist. When he moved to Marxism he lost many supporters. He adopted Marxism in a society that does not accept Marxism and looks at it with a sense of animosity.

The education against Marxism started long before the so-called independence of the Arab countries. The religious people and colonialists in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were all mobilized in their efforts to fight Marxism. It was not easy for Communists and Marxists. They were described as atheists who didn’t believe in God. The whole image of Marxism was so distorted that Palestinians, and Arabs, have a certain kind of hatred of Marxism. As Arab countries got some independence, Arab regimes were directed by the colonial powers to fight the Soviet Union and to distort the image of Marxism and Communism. I usually ask my students what they know about Marxism. All of them say that Marx denied the existence of God. That’s what they know. I have to explain how Marx was actually interested in exploitation and alienation as prime obstacles to the freedom of man. Marx talked about God in a couple of statements, but he talked about exploitation in volumes. Still, I once said that the only way to liberate Palestine is to follow certain ideas of George Habash.

MN: Which ideas in particular?

ASQ: He said that without toppling the regime in Jordan, the Palestinians would never be able to liberate their own country. In a gathering at the University of Jordan, where the king came to give a speech to the teachers, he said, “One of you is saying that George Habash is the right Palestinian leader.” The intelligence fed him the statement. I thought that the Arab regimes were the first enemy of the Arab nation — then Israel, the United States. We have to topple them. As long as they are there, the Arab nation will not move a centimeter forward. That’s why I have been telling the people now that the Shia are going to lead the Muslims.

I think [Hizballah’s General Secretary] Hassan Nasrallah is still the most popular [figure] in the Arab countries. There are so many people who understand that the Arab regimes are not protective of Islam. But they want to use the argument to create hatred against Hizballah and Iran. Most of the people who speak against Hizballah in Palestine are those in the Palestinian Authority. Because it’s not in the interest of the PA to have Israel defeated. Neither is it in the interests of the Arab regimes because Israel protects the Arab regimes.

MN: How does this kind of collusion with the Israeli regime play out in Palestine?

ASQ: In 1990 I was under interrogation in [former Israeli prison near Nablus] al-Fara’a prison. After [the interrogator] finished, I said, “What do you want? We finished the interrogation.” He said, “Yes, I want something from you.” I said, “What?” He said, “What about making you a Palestinian leader? Which is better for you? To get out of jail — nobody is waiting for you except your wife. Or having 20 TV cameras waiting for you?” I said, “Well, 20 TV cameras would be much better.” He said, “Okay, we will arrange that for you when you get out of prison.” I said, “What’s after that?” He said, “After that we will concentrate on you in our mass media. Professor Qassim went, to Professor Qassim ate, to Professor Qassim met with some people, made a speech here and there and so on and in a couple of weeks you will be a Palestinian leader.” I said, “What do you want in return?” He said, “I don’t want anything. We have so many spies around. All I want from you is to give hot speeches. Talk about the liberation of Haifa and Jaffa, but go back home and sleep. Don’t do anything.” I said, “Okay, I will think about it and I will send you my answer.” I never thought about it and I never sent an answer. But that’s how they make leaders. So many of our leaders — they speak too much, they give hot speeches and people believe that these are nationalists! They are collaborators.

In 1991 a friend from Jerusalem called me. He said, “The American Consul wants to visit you.” I told him, “Why? The American Consul — there are countries that bow under his shoes and he wants to visit me?” I told him, “No, I don’t want him to visit me. If he comes to my house, that will be a stain until I die. Please keep him away.” Well, after one or two days, he called me again. He said, “The American Consul wants to come to you. Don’t be stupid. There are so many people who’d like to see that American Consul and you’re telling me no?” I told him, “Yes.” I asked him, “Why exactly does he want to visit me?” He said, “He wants to visit you to convince you to be a member in the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid conference.” I said, “I don’t want to go to Madrid. I don’t believe in negotiating with the Israelis. And, if the American Consul comes to my house the whole Mediterranean will never wash me [clean].”

Two days after, the [Israeli] military governor of Tulkarem sent for me. He said, “Why don’t you want to go to Madrid?” I said, “What do you have to do with this? It’s none of your business.” He said, “No, it’s my business.” I said, “Why?” He said, “If you go to Madrid you will get something good for your people.” I told him, “Why don’t you give me that good thing here. Why should I go to Madrid if you are interested in the interests of my people?” Two days later he sent for me again. When I returned he said, “You have to go to Madrid with the Palestinian delegation.” I said, “Is that a military order?” He said, “Yes.” I told him, “Well, then, I’m not going.”

That was an indication of how our delegation was formed. Of course, their interest in me going to Madrid is part of a policy to silence me. If I went to Madrid, I wouldn’t be able to speak up again. That’s why I insisted on remaining independent.

MN: What is the role of the intellectual in prison?

ASQ: Inside prison, education is generally factionalized. Each [political] faction gives lessons to its own people. In each unit in the Negev [desert prison] there were around eight tents. It was a kind of chauvinist education — just telling people that their faction is the best, they are the only ones who face the Israelis, others are not on the right path.

Fatah’s people are not educated. The Popular Front are educated. They are in a better situation — or used to be. Hamas’ people limit their education to some Islamic teachings. If you are not educated in different fields, it’s a kind of inculturation. At the time I was in prison the education was not factionalized because Palestinian factions did not have time. I had the opportunity, for at least four months, to give lectures to all prisoners. They used to participate. Inside the unit we had around 220 people; I used to get 150 in each lecture. I used to teach them on the history of Palestine, the history of the Arabs, the ethics of a revolutionary.

MN: How has this factionalization affected you outside of prison?

ASQ: While I was going from the university to my home, in the afternoon, somebody shot at me and I was hit by four bullets. That was the first incident. [The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat] used to do that in Lebanon. He used to do that in Jordan. He wanted to silence me. I had written an article entitled “Democracy is Under the President.” I said: we don’t have democracy. Arafat is putting it underneath him; he will warm democracy like a hen sitting on eggs. He sent somebody to shoot me, but he did not silence me. In 1996 the PA arrested me for a couple of nights, they released me afterwards.

In 1999 I wrote the “Statement of the Twenty.” We had 20 prominent people in the West Bank and Gaza sign a petition in which we accused Arafat of being corrupt. I insisted on accusing Arafat in that statement because if we don’t, none of us will go to jail. If we don’t go to jail, nobody will hear about our statement. That was the price. Two of us were in prison for 40 days in Jericho, the others spent 15 days.

In 2005 they burned my car. In 2007 they shot around 60 [bullets] at my car. They arrested me in 2008 for one night. They burned my car in January 2009. The latest was that I spent three days in prison. I still have so much difficulty with the PA. But I cannot just stay silent while the PA rapes my land, my country and my people. They are collaborating with the Israelis. They are coordinating with them on security matters. They have been arresting Palestinians in defense of Israeli security.

MN: What about American imperialism? How does the dynamic of resistance change with US General Keith Dayton training PA forces?

ASQ: Now we have the American Dayton republic. Dayton is the High Commissioner of Palestine. He’s in control. The United States spends so much money recruiting all of these Palestinians to serve Israeli security and American interests.

They are recruiting people who have a very narrow horizon. They just can receive and carry out orders. They depend on these kind of people. Some of them understand the situation, but they are under economic pressure. But so many of them do not understand. What alternative do I have to support these people financially? I cannot ask people to have their families starve for the principle of liberating Palestine. They will tell you, “Look, my family is much more important than Palestine.” Would people like to starve or to be free? People like to fill their stomachs first. Afterwards they might think about freedom. So the Americans and the Europeans have been playing this game: keep the Palestinians always on the verge of starvation. Now they have a different situation where they feel they will starve to death if the Americans and Europeans do not give us money. Somebody like me will tell them, they will not let us starve because that will endanger Israeli security. They will allow outlets for us to bring money, food. This is not convincing because they cannot make the dialectical relationships. The Israelis in the first intifada decided to cut off the energy and gas for a couple of weeks. The international community started to protest against the situation: “What are you doing with these Palestinians?” There are several factors that we can play with. But to stand there and say, “If the Americans do not pay us money, we will starve,” the conclusion is: we have to do what the Americans want.

Dr. Marcy Newman is associate professor of literature at Al-Ahliyya Amman University.