Interview with Palestinian Justice Minister Nahed al-Rayyes

Palestinian Justice Minister Nahed al-Rayyes, who recently submitted his resignation, granted Samah Sabawi in Amman, Jordan this exclusive interview by telephone from his home in Gaza on 27 August 2004.

Samah Sabawi: Mr. Al-Rayyes, you’ve submitted your resignation from your post as Justice Minister; what were your reasons for resigning?

Nahed al-Rayyes: The situation fell out of control and it became difficult for me to do my job. It became difficult for the Ministry of Justice to operate, especially after the Palestinian Cabinet passed a ministerial decision that further limited our ability to work within our legal channels to implement law and order.

Basically, the wording of the new orders was vague and didn’t clearly establish boundaries for different departments within the government to operate. It became impossible to work, hindered by all the interferences, the decline in the status of law, and the widespread presence of foreign interest in the field - namely Israel, the US and even some European countries.

Samah Sabawi: The media in the West, in general, blames the Palestinians for supporting a corrupt government and they claim that it is the corruption of the PA that is behind the hardships of the average Palestinian person. The Arab and Palestinian media blames the Israeli occupation for the terrible status the average Palestinian is in and for standing in the way of reform. Where does the truth lie? Is corruption or occupation to blame?

Nahed al-Rayyes: Of course there is corruption; what I don’t know is if it is more corruption than exists in many other countries. No doubt, though, there is corruption and I personally feel that it is a huge problem and it should not exist in a government that is in charge of a people with such few and limited resources.

However, I also have no doubt that Israel is responsible for much of this corruption - for manufacturing the corruption. They create and encourage corrupt people. They do this because they are in control of our economy and our movement; they reward those whom they choose and allow them freedom of movement and prosperity.

Not only that, they also worked to destroy our legal infrastructure and our police force through their never ending aggression - the demolition of our government buildings including the police headquarters. They are responsible for the collapse of our legal institutions, including the police whom we need to keep our daily lives in order. They have corrupted the Palestinian system on purpose.

Samah Sabawi: Where are the average Palestinian’s priorities today? Is it reform, resistance or survival? Also, is surviving the occupation a factor in the average Palestinian’s apathy toward reform?

Nahed al-Rayyes: Today, the unpoliticized person, the average Palestinian, only wants to find some food and security. We are in a situation where Israel has total control of our movement, our relationship with the rest of the world, who can come in to see us, who can be allowed to leave and who can go to work and earn a living.

Sadly, the only work available today for Palestinians is in the construction and expansion of the Jewish settlements. We have a rate of 85% unemployment in our labor force. People are humiliated and tired. Every hour there is an Israeli helicopter hovering above our heads. It has become common to have their rockets target our civilian homes, our streets and our villages under the guise of targeting wanted terrorists.

Often civilians and people who are just walking doing their shopping end up being hit by the missiles. We bury our dead every day. Our hospitals are full of the injured. Also it has become common to see Israeli tanks roaming our streets, Israeli soldiers invading our homes. All of this has taken away the average person’s feeling of security. You ask me where their priority is - they can’t think that far, they just want to survive.

Samah Sabawi: To have a democracy there has to be an opposition to the Palestinian Authority. Where is the Opposition today?

Nahed al-Rayyes: There is opposition within the Legislative Council of which I am a member; there is also the opposition of many factions - Islamic and otherwise - within Palestinian society. However, to have this democracy flourish to the point where it becomes an effective operating system you need to have the right environment. We have democracy in theory, but it can’t be implemented under occupation. There were countless numbers of time when the legislative council was not able to hold its meetings because of street closures or curfews imposed by Israel. The daily events here are so dramatic it is difficult for democracy to grow under these conditions.

Samah Sabawi: What is the situation like in Gaza today?

Nahed al-Rayyes: It is just terrible. Things are falling apart. The police system is in need of reform. We are suffering from a status of destruction, an environment of total collapse, an environment that was created by Israel.

Samah Sabawi: Do you think Sharon is serious about withdrawing from Gaza?

Nahed al-Rayyes: Maybe he will withdraw, but I personally don’t trust anything he says. If you ask me what we see here, we don’t see any signs that he plans to withdraw.

We see more settlers arriving, we see more expansion of settlements, we see more Palestinian homes demolished and olive trees uprooted. We see that there are people in the Likud government who think that Sharon has been too soft on us. There are Israelis who are more extreme than Sharon and they present a danger to the peace process and to any peace initiative. They will not be happy until they’ve completely ethnically cleansed all of the occupied territories.

We cannot forget that Rabin’s peace process relapsed with his assassination at the hand of a Jewish extremist. All of this raises the fear that maybe Sharon will withdraw from Gaza only to focus his efforts on driving every Palestinian out of the west bank and expanding the settlements there.

Just think about how this occupation has progressed over the last 37 years. This has been its pattern: to drive out the Palestinians from their homes, their farms, their communities. The burning of their olive trees, the destruction of their livelihood - this has become a common feature of the occupation. They will not stop until their dream of “Greater Israel” is realized.

Samah Sabawi: Where is the Palestinian resistance heading? We’ve seen a rise in non violent resistance, the most recent example being the hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners. Is this indicative of what the future of the resistance may be?

Nahed al-Rayyes: Most militant resistance has been reactionary. It is a reaction to Israel’s aggression. There is no attack strategy to liberate the occupied territories. Some factions may claim they work within a strategy or boast about having a strategy but the truth is they don’t. They are stuck in a chain of reaction.

Now once in a while, something happens to break the violent cycle - for example, when Hamas offered a ceasefire to Israel, and in fact ceased from attacking Israelis for several weeks. But Israel did not respect or even want that ceasefire and it continued with its assassination and aggression against the Palestinians.

When Rantisi offered Israel 10 years of ceasefire, their response to him was that they were not interested; they said it was up to the Palestinians to work this out amongst themselves. So, when the resistance is reactionary it is hard to predict the direction in which it will go.

Samah Sabawi: Five of your seven children live abroad, yet you don’t consider leaving Gaza in spite of its worsening situation - why?

Nahed al-Rayyes: I would have no meaning if I lived outside Gaza. I lose my meaning unless I am here; I lose who I am and I lose the passion by which I have fought for this just cause all my life. Maybe too, I dread being buried elsewhere.

Samah Sabawi: Did the PA accept your resignation?

Nahed al-Rayyes: They took some time at first; then they began to talk of forming a new cabinet and I believe my name was not in it.

Samah Sabawi: So what do you plan to do next?

Nahed al-Rayyes: I plan to stay in the Legislative Council and to do what I love to do best, which is writing.

Samah Sabawi, originally from Gaza and whose permanent residence is now Ottawa, is a writer and activist with Canadian Friends of Sabeel. Her work also appears in several other electronic media.