Interview: Palestine’s red lines of struggle

There are certain inalienable rights that many Palestinians consider to not be up for negotiation, including the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

While many of the key concepts of the Palestinian struggle, the likes of intifada (uprising) and awda (return), have become familiar in other languages, an integral term in the Palestinian lexicon has yet to be understood by non-Arabic speakers. Thawabet (plural of thabet) is an Arabic word that literally means “constants.” For Palestinians it generally refers to the red lines of the struggle, those demands on which there can be no compromise and which have acquired a certain sanctity over the decades of struggle. The part of the Palestinian leadership, represented by the Palestinian Authority (PA), that has sought to achieve its goals through a negotiated settlement has defended its own actions by couching them in interpretations of the thawabet. In light of the political and legal compromises that the Oslo negotiations process has entailed, much of the Palestinian and Arab opposition to the negotiations process has also been framed with reference to the thawabet.

On 4 February 2010, a new Palestinian formation was announced at a press conference in Beirut. At that time, the National Committee for the Protection of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (the Committee) was composed of some of the most respected Palestinian and Arab activists, journalists and intellectuals who had joined together behind the idea that the thawabet are not just a vague group of ideas to be interpreted at will, but in fact constitute the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. These include: the right of Palestinian refugees to return, restitution and compensation; the right to resistance in all of its forms; and the right to self-determination over the British Mandate territory of Palestine, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

On 23-24 September 2010, the Committee held a consultative meeting in Beirut, during which a roster of renowned progressive figures from across the Arab world shared their thoughts and experiences on the potential role of the Committee. At that meeting The Electronic Intifada contributor Hazem Jamjoum spoke with Committee co-founder and spokesman Bilal al-Hassan.

Hazem Jamjoum: Please introduce yourself.

Bilal al-Hassan: I was born in Haifa and expelled with my family — and two thirds of the Palestinian population — to Syria in 1948. I studied philosophy and sociology at the University of Damascus, after which I moved to Beirut to write for the newspaper al-Muharrir. I have been a journalist ever since. In the 1960s I became a member of the Arab Nationalist Movement, and was one of the founding members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 1967, and in 1969 of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. I left the latter in 1972 due to a strong disagreement, and since then I have not been a member of any faction, but continued as a member of the Palestinian National Council — the Palestinian parliament in exile, and the highest decision-making body in the Palestine Liberation Organization — and was always a supporter of the PLO. I was the editor, with Talal Salman, of the daily Lebanese newspaper As-Safir from 1974 until I left Beirut after the Israeli invasion and siege of the Lebanese capital in 1982, at which point I left to Damascus. From 1984 I was the editor of al-Yawm al-Sabi’, a weekly magazine coming out of Paris that became very influential as the foremost publication of Arab intellectuals until it was shut down by Yasser Arafat in 1991 for reasons I still do not know. Since 1993 I have worked with the newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat. I have also been quite active in the union movement, and was vice secretary of the Arab Journalists Union from 1966 to the early 1970s, and vice secretary of the General Union of Palestinian Writers and Journalists, spanning the periods in which that union was headed by Abu Salma and later Mahmoud Darwish.

HJ: Given that the Arabic name of the Committee implies that its purpose is to defend the thawabet, and that these national principles have been the subject of much debate and controversy since the signing of the Oslo accords, could you explain what you and the other Committee founders mean by the thawabet?

BH: One aspect of the thawabet is that they emerge from the history of our struggle. In 1917, the Palestinians rejected the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate as part of our rejection to colonialism. The rejection and active opposition to colonialism and its manifestations thus became part of the thawabet. In 1947 we rejected UN Resolution 181 — the Partition Plan which allotted over half of our country to the one-third of the population composed of recent Jewish immigrants from Europe. This resolution violated our right to self-determination, and so rejection of the partition of our country became part of the thawabet.

This is an aspect of the thawabet that is tied to our political position with regards to historical events and developments. As a people rejects, it struggles, with or without arms. The Palestinian people struggled against colonialism — both British and Zionist — the Zionist form being more dangerous since the British did not claim Palestine as their country. So colonialism creates anti-colonial struggle, and so the right to resist and the right to self-determination become part of the thawabet.

As the people struggle, they create institutions that direct and sustain the struggle. When these institutions unify the people and enable them to struggle, protecting these institutions becomes part of the thawabet. The PLO did not become such an institution by chance, there were objective reasons. One of these was that the PLO had a charter called the Palestinian National Charter which tells our story and outlines our strategy for liberating our land and people, namely the armed struggle. The story and the strategy are what brought people to the PLO. From Chile to Ein al-Hilweh, Nasserists, communists and Islamists, all united behind the story and the strategy, putting aside their differences.

The PLO was destroyed with the alteration of the Charter, and this destruction has been continued over the past twenty years in which there have been no elections for the PLO’s two main institutions: the Palestinian National Council — the parliament in exile — and the Executive Committee. Today what remains of the PLO is a dead body that PA President Mahmoud Abbas uses for legitimacy every time he decides to sign on to a new concession in the negotiations process. As such, the reactivation and democratization of the PLO has become one of the thawabet. This does not just mean holding elections to the hollowed-out PLO institutions and the inclusion of Hamas and Islamic Jihad — two Palestinian factions not represented in the PLO thus far. It is about bringing back the Charter that was scrapped, the scrapping of which was tantamount to erasing our story. When our story was deleted it left only the Zionist story, which sees Palestine as divided between a territory that was liberated as the Jewish state in 1948 and a territory that has been disputed since 1967.

The reason that the thawabet now play an important role in our struggle is that it is now an expression of a politico-historical position against the path of the negotiated settlement — what we usually refer to as the Oslo process — and against the Palestinian Authority’s engagement with this process, its departure from the thawabet, and its retreat in the face of the ongoing Zionist colonization of our country. It goes without saying that goals of the struggle such as the return of the refugees and the liberation of the land and people are central pillars of the thawabet.

HJ: What is the Committee? Is it a faction, a movement, a coalition, an umbrella organization? How and why did it come about? How have the Palestinian factions responded to the Committee?

BH: When we felt that things with the negotiations had been going too far — straying from the most fundamental principles of the struggle — for too long, a group that included myself, Azmi Bishara, Munir Shafiq, Anis Sayigh and Shafiq al-Hout came together and agreed we needed to do something about it. The result was not a new faction or party. In a way we are a kind of ideational movement that aims to bring in all those people that are not currently members of existing factions — that I estimate at 80 percent of Palestinians — and that share our commitment to the thawabet. We are in no way against any of the existing factions; naturally, we support the resistance in all of its forms. In our communication with the factions we made this very clear, and I believe that they — and especially some of the wiser ones amongst the factional leaderships — have realized that the success of this Committee will contribute to the success of the factions in their resistance against Zionism.

A central purpose of the Committee is to revive and develop the Arab and Palestinian culture of resistance. In working towards this goal, we — the original five members — held a series of meetings to develop our ideas with others. The five became ten, and 75 other well-known activists and intellectuals joined us. It was at this point that on 24 February 2010 we held a press conference in Beirut to announce the launch of the Committee. Since then, and despite the fact that two of the original members passed away — Shafiq al-Hout and Anis Sayigh — the positive response from across the globe has been astounding. I can say that we did not realize the extent to which there was so much of a thirst for this kind of step, especially since there was nothing particularly new about what we have put forward.

HJ: Has there been any response from the Palestinian Authority?

BH: Since our position on the negotiations strategy is unequivocal, and our membership includes a variety of people with influence on Palestinian and Arab public opinion, the PA monitors us. Some of its representatives have openly attacked us as well, and on occasions have tried to stop or hinder our work. This has been somewhat farcical at times; I remember we organized a forum in [Beirut’s] Shatila refugee camp in a center affiliated with one of the PLO factions, and we received word that some of the PA people were going to try to obstruct the meeting. We informed some of our supporters from Fatah in the camp, and they guaranteed that they would make sure no such obstruction took place. As we were speaking in the center, there were a couple of children playing football outside, kicking the ball at the door of the center. We considered this some of the ambient sound of the refugee camp at the time, but later found out that the PA elements who were unable to obstruct the meeting themselves had sent their children in their stead!

HJ: One of the most successful parts of the Palestine liberation movement in the past few years has been the solidarity movement, particularly the part engaged in the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it implements international law and respects Palestinian rights. The BDS movement takes as its reference the Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS issued in 2005, and the coordinating reference for which is the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC). What is the Committee’s relationship to the BNC, and to the growing solidarity movement?

BH: We have little to no connection to the BDS movement; it is a major flaw that I must admit. The news of this movement does, however, reach us, and we are always impressed and inspired by the commitment and determination with which these activists abroad, regardless of their origins, have managed to keep the struggle alive. We look forward to building bridges with this wing of the movement, and supporting it in any way that we can.

HJ: What was the purpose of this week’s meeting?

BH: An important part of our self-identification in the struggle has always included the understanding that Palestine is an Arab issue. We refuse Arab support that labels itself “solidarity,” and see Arabs’ role in the liberation rather as “participation” in their own struggle. This is for two main reasons: that Zionist colonization thus far — not to mention Zionist regional aspirations — are a direct threat to all Arabs, and secondly that facing the Zionist project requires Arab efforts and Palestinian efforts to be unified as one. This fusion of Palestinian and Arab efforts was integral in the years of the PLO and the armed struggle, and were deeply felt at the level of unions, political parties and even governments. All these connections were severed, except insofar as some Arab governments are still connected to Palestinian efforts but in the reverse direction: these governments have committed themselves to supporting the negotiations process for the sole purpose of improving their bilateral relations with the US administration.

We want to revive the Arab role in the struggle, and this was the Committee’s purpose in organizing this “Arab Consultative Meeting on Palestine,” as we have called this conference. The main questions posed to the participants here — and that have come from almost every country in the Arab world — have been:
what do you think of the Committee, its principles and action plan; and what do you think of the current PA strategy.

HJ: Are non-Palestinian Arabs able to join the Committee?

BH: At the moment we see the Committee as a Palestinian and independent formation. Membership is on an individual basis, following a long PLO tradition of individual membership. Non-Palestinian Arabs are welcomed as members. One of the main questions posed at this consultative meeting has revolved around whether this is an Arab or Palestinian formation. Personally, I think we need a Palestinian formation that strives to connect as deeply as possible with Arab societies. There is a difference of opinion on this question even among the non-Palestinian participants at this meeting. I realize that there is a kind of contradiction in my own position, given that I have lived my life and waged my struggle as a pan-Arabist, but I feel that the Palestinian identity in itself entrenches the Palestinian cause. There is specificity to the place, to Palestine and its people that I feel must be recognized in our organization and work.

HJ: Given that more than six million of the approximately 11 million Palestinians worldwide are refugees, any mobilization of Palestinians as a people is bound to take place in many countries, and particularly in Arab states where this kind of mobilization has caused collision with the governments and militaries of these states in the past. Given that a step taken at this conference has been to discuss expanding the membership in the Committee in Arab societies, the potential for friction with Arab states becomes all the more likely. Has there been any communication between the Committee and any of these governments, and if so, how have they responded to the Committee?

BH: We do not wish for any problems with Arab states, and we do not really have a problem in any Arab countries unless there is a specific political reason at a particular moment in time. The only possible exception is in Jordan where the Zionist project to recreate Jordan as an alternative Palestinian homeland creates certain specificities that we understand and appreciate. The Jordanian government has not banned our work, but has taken the position that the work must be of a joint Palestinian-Jordanian nature. Given that we are actively seeking Jordanian members, we support this entirely.

HJ: What’s next for the Committee?

BH: Since the February press conference, when we announced the formation of the Committee, the ten original members became a kind of leadership that we have since referred to as the “consultative committee,” the task of which has been twofold: to continue to talk to people throughout the Arab world and beyond to build the Committee’s membership, and secondly to prepare for a founding conference for the Committee. We aim to hold this founding conference in the coming months.

HJ: What do you see as the role of Arabs and Palestinians beyond the borders of the Arab world?

BH: I don’t really differentiate between Arabs and Palestinians in or out of the Arab world. The only real difference is that the context is different depending on the locality, and so the type of work changes, and the people outside know their context far better than I do, and what kind of work that context entails. Despite the location, all have an obligation to contribute to the struggle.

Perhaps another distinguishing characteristic is that those in the diaspora beyond the Arab countries have a heightened sense of the importance of working for the implementation of the right to return. Those outside are also more receptive to the demand to stand behind the thawabet, and from what I have seen of Palestinians in the shatat [the exile], whether or not they have European or American citizenship has no effect on the intensity of their struggle. They can have 15 different passports and still adamantly demand and struggle for the implementation of their right to return.

Hazem Jamjoum is a Palestinian writer, researcher and the former editor of al-Majdal, the English language quarterly magazine published by the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.

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