Pariah State: Meeting with the Prime Minister of Palestine

Scott Kennedy and Palestinian Prime Minister Isma’il Haniya in Gaza City, 18 November 2006.

30 November 2006

A friend, knowing of my many years of leading study groups to the Middle East, told me he wanted to gain a first hand view of what is happening on the ground in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He asked for my recommendation of where to visit and what to do. It happened that I was planning to lead a delegation to the region and that our times in the region would overlap. I suggested that together, at the end of my study group, we visit Gaza.

I warned my friend at the outset that the American and Israeli governments would put up as many bureaucratic obstacles as possible to our going to Gaza. If we persisted, they would try to scare us out of going.

Through my friend’s close contacts at an Israeli consulate in the US, before leaving California, we received verbal assurance that Israel had granted us “permission” to enter the Palestinian territory of Gaza for three days. This was great news, but I was confident that, if it remained true to form, the American government and Israel would do their it best to dissuade us from visiting the hellhole of a fourth world country, the world’s pariah state known as Gaza.

I first visited Gaza in 1968 and have returned more two dozen times, most recently in April 2002. Since then, Israeli authorities have prevented our visiting Gaza. I was eager to return, to renew friendships and see for myself the changes that have taken place. I also wanted to convey my support for those courageous people who continue to work for human rights, democracy and a political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They persist despite formidable obstacles and being cut off from visitors. It is imperative, for them as well as for us, that those suffering such extreme isolation not be forgotten and that their voices still be heard.

But visiting the Gaza Strip is no simple matter. After Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in January 2006 elections, the Bush Administration determined that the Islamic movement represents a key thread in the web of global terrorism. Israel for its part decided Hamas constitutes a mortal threat to its survival. The European and other nations followed suit by supporting both a US-led international diplomatic and economic boycott of Hamas and Israel’s military siege of Gaza. By all but official Israeli accounts, these factors have created a severe humanitarian crisis for the 1.5 million people crammed into Gaza’s 140 square miles and surviving on less than $2.00 per day. But we were intent on visiting Gaza in any case.

At our half hour meeting in Jerusalem three weeks later, an American official spoke to us in a lifeless monotone. Mustering as much gravitas as possible, given the circumstances, he emphasized just how dangerous our plans would be, pronouncing, “Gaza is the second most dangerous place in the world for Americans to visit.”

What place beat out Gaza, I mused? It must be Baghdad. Or maybe Tehran or Kabul? But I wasn’t sure. Perhaps St. Louis, declared ‘the most dangerous city in the USA’ in a poorly timed news item during the recent World Series. (Detroit came in second in the danger competition also.)

The diplomat and his head of security detailed the recent kidnapping of two Fox News personnel in Gaza. The cameraman reportedly tried in vain to convince his captors that his home New Zealand is not part of the United States.

No matter how unimportant the two of us might be, and it was clear from the diplomat’s demeanor that he considered us altogether unimportant, we would surely be “prime targets” for kidnapping or worse, just because we were Americans.

We also learned that if we were taken prisoner, our government could do nothing to help us. He forewarned that the US no longer has any contacts in Gaza and we’d be on our own should anything happen. We were supposed to believe that the sole Super Power is incapable of communicating with groups operating in Gaza or influencing events there.

We continued to listen to the American official with more than a bit of skepticism as he tried to to prevail upon us to avoid Gaza. The meeting drew to a close with all parties feeling equally frustrated.

The final straw, however, came later that day. A State Department official in Washington, DC told my friend by phone, “Were you to travel to Gaza, you will almost certainly be killed.”

My friend called me later that night and explained his decision against going to Gaza, “If we were rescuing hostages or something, I might be able to justify making such a trip. But I would be going just for my self-education. It doesn’t seem to be worth the risk.”

I was not entirely surprised, but I was disappointed with his decision. Later I wished I’d had the presence of mind to counter, “But there are 1.5 million hostages in Gaza!”

Since the capture of an Israeli soldier early this summer, the Gaza Strip has suffered a devastating blockade and complete isolation that made it nearly impossible for anyone to visit. Growing hunger and despair reveal a civilian population held hostage to political power games by the Palestinian factions, Israel and the United States.

Despite what I had been told earlier, I knew the US government wouldn’t be completely useless were I taken prisoner!

I resolved that night to make the trip to Gaza on my own. After arranging for transportation, the only remaining detail was to provide the US Embassy three details about me (my dogs’ names, my wife’s nickname and such) that could otherwise not be discovered were I ‘Googled.’ The details would be useful in confirming my identity if I were captured. Despite what I had been told earlier, I knew the US government wouldn’t be completely useless were I taken prisoner!

Three days later, an hour-long taxi drive from East Jerusalem brought me to the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza. The crossing seemed old hat to the half dozen journalists seeking entry into Gaza. I was the only other person at the entry point so I approached it as an adventure.

I had been assured the day before that the Israeli Foreign Ministry still had my name on the list of those permitted to enter Gaza. The young solider behind the counter staring lazily at the computer screen before him, however, first told me that my name was not on the list. Then he made a phone call.

He next said that my name was on the list, but I had to wait while they checked things out. Another phone call. Next I was told that my name was on the list but my permission had expired on May 15, 2006. I asked him to check with somebody how that could be true since I had only applied for permission a month ago. A few more people filtered into the transit room as I waited patiently.

Still later, after checking by phone with higher ups for the umpteenth time, the soldier smiled, handed me my passport, and stated without any explanation that there was no problem for me to enter Gaza after all.

Finished with the Israeli army process, I next handed my passport to another soldier six feet down the counter. She advised me it was unsafe to travel to Gaza and asked my reason for visiting. When I told her I was visiting non-governmental organizations, she asked why I would do that. I told her I supported their work. She asked if I work for them and if I have any friends in Gaza. I said no, I worked in the US, but had several friends in Gaza. Finally, she wanted to know if I had a business card demonstrating that I work for an NGO?

I handed her a personal business card with no mention of a non-profit organization. She looked at it quizzically, raised her eyebrows, handed it back to me, and said, “Have a nice trip!”

I handed her a personal business card with no mention of a non-profit organization. She looked at it quizzically, raised her eyebrows, handed it back to me, and said, “Have a nice trip!”

I had official permission to pass through Erez into Gaza. There was almost no one else at the crossing facility. Still, it took me over an hour and a half to clear the Israeli procedures. All of this fuss was occasioned by my entering a territory from which the Israelis had “disengaged” more than a year previously.

I understood the need for nations to control who enters their country. It’s not entirely clear, however, why Israel would be so concerned with my visiting Gaza. If they thought I was smuggling Qassam rockets into Gaza, they would at least have looked into my bag. Instead, at the next step in the process, the civilian employee from a private security firm simply waved me past and into Palestinian territory without so much as a glance into my shoulder bag.

After a series of one-way turnstiles, I made my way several hundred yards along a two lane street. Eight meter high concrete sections, the same used by Israel to build what they call the “separation barrier” through the West Bank, formed a concrete corridor. There were benches at the foot of the wall for long sections, should one tire. Corrugated iron provided cover from the heat or rain. A single Arab porter with a neon vest and a wheel chair waited at the halfway point. As I entered the Palestinian portion of the passageway, the concrete was chipped and uneven in height.

At the other end of the corridor, several uniformed Palestinian border officials sat around a simple table under a metal awning. They were chatting and drinking tea with a couple of men in civilian clothes. As I approached, they smiled and welcomed me to Palestine. Without their getting up, I was asked for my passport and they wrote my name in a lined register book.

Being admitted to Gaza, as opposed to leaving Israel, took all of two minutes. The Palestinians weren’t concerned the least bit about what I might be carrying into Gaza, and didn’t ask to look in my bag.

A translator and a guide from the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and the Union of Women’s Health Committees in Gaza, along with a police escort, waited for me just outside the Palestinian border station.

For the next two days, I traveled with a police car in front and a heavily armed security detail from the Palestinian Authority’s Interior Ministry in a pickup truck, with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, behind our car. I’m still not sure if I was any safer for all that effort. But anybody gunning for me definitely knew we were coming. Children rushed to the street to see the passing attraction. They must have been disappointed to see only me waving back at them.

We made stops at a demolished mosque in the town of Beit Hanoun and at a home where 19 people had been killed ten days before and a hospital in Jebaliya Refugee Camp. We rushed from site to site because I was scheduled to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh shortly after noon.

Palestinian Authority security forces patrol the remains of an 800-year-old mosque in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, destroyed during the first week of November. Flags of the Fateh movement and the Palestinian national flag fly from the minaret that was left standing. (Scott Kennedy)

When we pulled up in front of a tall office building in busy Gaza City, armed security milled around with a dozen members of the press awaiting our arrival. Several dozen other curious passersby waited to see what was going on. The Prime Minister’s staff greeted us and together we quickly made our way up two short flights of steps and into the building. I noticed several men on their knees in prayer in a room off to the right as we hurried by, lest I forget that I’d soon be meeting with the elected head of the Hamas government.

We joked nervously when the elevator failed to move for several minutes despite multiple pushes of the button. The elevator not only failed to rise but the door wouldn’t open to let us out. Finally, a man accompanying us hit the red button and a loud alarm sounded. I imagined an onslaught of armed security forces converging on the elevator, but no one seemed to notice. We soon exited the elevator on an upper floor, stepping into a spacious office suite with golden brown rug and overstuffed sofas and men in suits standing around. A few minutes later I was ushered into the Prime Minister’s office.

After shaking hands, Prime Minster Haniyeh motioned for me to sit next to him at one end of a rectangular office. A Palestinian flag stood behind us. Another faced us from the far reach of the office where four men in dark suits sat chatting and answering cell phones during our meeting. Introductions later revealed they were Palestinian cabinet members, representing the Ministries of Information, Transportation, and the Interior, and the official spokesperson for the PA.

Haniyeh turned to face me and through an interpreter offered a warm welcome. He wore a neat gray suit with a Palestinian flag pin on his lapel and a freshly pressed shirt opened at the neck. I introduced myself and explained that I was visiting the region on behalf of three pacifist organizations that oppose violence by all parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had come to express my opposition to the United States’ campaign to isolate the PA because of Hamas’ victory in the January 2006 elections and to oppose the killing economic sanctions against Haniyeh’s government and Israel’s military siege of the Gaza Strip.

Prime Minister Haniyeh said how pleased he was to have a visitor from the United States and that Hamas bears no ill will toward the American people. He noted with irony that those calling for the spread of democracy didn’t respect the results of the Palestinian elections, even though the January elections were universally viewed as fair. “I was shocked by the US response to the Palestinian electoral process,” he added.

Haniyeh acknowledged that I had already seen some of the evidence of the Palestinians’ suffering and the destruction brought about by Israel’s “incursions”: “Gaza is under total siege by sea, air and by land. This has resulted in tremendous humanitarian suffering.” He said the military escalation culminated in the recent massacre in Beit Hanoun in which 19 people from one family were killed by Israeli artillery. I had met two young survivors of the massacre earlier in the day. An Israeli military spokesman said the shelling was an accident and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert offered an apology.

The week before my visit, the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the killings in Beit Hanoun. Haniyeh said the US veto gave a green light to Israeli aggression against Gaza and sends messages that Israel is above the law and Palestinian lives are worth less than other lives.

Many commentators say that Hamas had not expected to take control of the Palestinian government. This view is widely shared by those I met in Gaza. Hamas ran on a platform of “reform and change” and the Islamic movement’s candidates benefited from the moribund peace process, deteriorating economic situation in Gaza, and widespread corruption in the PA dominated by Arafat’s Fateh Party. Their political strength is rooted in an Islamic social program that has developed over a decade and a half.

Haniyeh indicated that Hamas will live with a political accommodation with Israel because that is what the Palestinian people want.

A secular woman activist from Gaza told me that the Hamas political program largely focuses on the role of women in society. She described a recent attempt to alter Palestinian law in order to permit polygamy according to Hamas’ reading of the Koran. After meetings with a broad coalition of grassroots human rights and women’s organizations, Hamas withdrew the proposed changes. Hamas does not have a strong “foreign policy” agenda. They choose instead to fold themselves within the Palestinian consensus. Hence, while Hamas may not be taking groundbreaking initiatives with regard to Israel, Haniyeh indicated that Hamas will live with a political accommodation with Israel because that is what the Palestinian people want.

I pressed the Prime Minister about the question of Hamas making peace with Israel. Haniyeh said that the problem remains that Israel has yet to determine its position towards the Palestinians. Despite all of the peace talks, “We have received no real offer” of peace from Israel. Instead a series of demands have been made of the Hamas-led government: that they recognize Israel, honor agreements previously entered into by the PA, and renounce violence. He asked rhetorically whether the same demands are made of Israel. Answering his own question, Haniyeh argued that Israel must first recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, including a clear statement about what borders the Palestinian state will have. Only then will Hamas be able to clarify its position.

Haniyeh reiterated his oft-stated position that Hamas is willing to enter into a ten-year interim peace agreement with Israel and perhaps longer term truce to enable the Palestinians and Israelis to build a new relationship. For the past eighteen months, they had observed a unilateral cease-fire with Israel. He covered the same points he has made elsewhere, “We are strongly in favor of direct talks between Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the PLO and the head of the government, and the prime minister of Israel, [Ehud] Olmert … If they reach an agreement in their discussions that’s acceptable to the Palestinian people, we will accept it, also. Hamas will.”

Conversation with Haniyeh strengthened my impression that Hamas is prepared to agree with a political resolution to the conflict with Israel, so long as it represents the will of the Palestinian people as confirmed by a vote.

The great sadness is that the US and Israel has failed to test this possibility, choosing the course of continued occupation and war instead. Hamas appears primed to join the international consensus in support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This solution calls for an exchange of “land for peace” and creation of a Palestinian state consisting of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that Israel occupied in 1967, in return for normalizing relations with Israel, and return or compensation of refugees from the 1948 War. Support for a two-state solution has been officially adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organization and every Arab state, the European Union, the United Nations, the nonaligned countries, Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, and every other significant grouping of world nations.

Some of those whose homes were destroyed along with the mosque in Beit Hanoun in November 2006. (Scott Kennedy)

Sheer exhaustion, if not a change of heart, has brought the Palestinian people to accept the international consensus in support of two states. Hamas would eventually have had to bend to domestic Palestinian pressure and the international consensus, just as the grizzled guerilla leader Yasser Arafat had been compelled to do. The US instead gave Hamas no grace period to come to terms with this Palestinian consensus, demanding isolation of the newly elected government and bringing about a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Meanwhile Israel’s continued annexation of Palestinian land and increase of Jewish colonies in the West Bank threatens to render the “land for peace” formula meaningless and the two-state solution irrelevant. Many observers have already concluded that Israel’s land grab in the West Bank has killed the option of a a two-state solution.

I can’t claim the same gift George Bush professes — the ability to look into a man’s eyes and size up his soul. But I did look squarely into Haniyeh’s eyes during much of our half-hour conversation. There was no evasion and no shifting of eyes. He seemed to be a kind and thoughtful person.

When I asked Haniyeh about the so-called “clash of civilizations” that has dominated American understanding and discussion of global events since the September 11th terrorist attacks, I sensed a deep sadness. With a clear and determined voice, he slowly laid out his position on a question he obviously had answered many times: “We believe in dialogue between civilizations and not the clash of civilizations … We know how special the relationship is between the US and Israel. We don’t look to stop this strategic alliance. We are only asking for a more balanced position.”

He lamented the fact that after September 11th, the US missed a real opportunity for cooperation and coordination between East and West, based on mutual respect. The US missed another opportunity when it chose to oppose the democratically elected government of Hamas. “Hamas is moderate and pragmatic and realistic … We are not a terrorist organization just because we are part of the Islamic world. We can be a bridge between the US and the West and Islam and the Arab World. Instead, the US has pushed Hamas into a corner.”

I couldn’t help but wonder whether this soft-spoken man was well-suited for the job. Haniyeh rose to prominence after his mentor Sheikh Yassein and other Hamas leaders were assassinated by Israel. Immediately after his election, Israel and the United States moved decisively to bring about his downfall. When I shared my assessment of their prime minister, my guide and translator said that Haniyeh is known among the people in Gaza as a very thoughtful and kind person both before and after his election as prime minister. His stature was enhanced when he offered to step down as Prime Minister if necessary for Israel and the United States to lift the devastating siege on the people of Gaza.

The fact of an American coming to meet with the Palestinian Prime Minister apparently was newsworthy enough and made headlines across the Middle East

We concluded our meeting with a round of handshakes and the obligatory photos. As we exited the office building, I was greeted by an impromptu press conference on the front steps. I expressed my opposition to an American campaign promoting democracy that failed to respect the results of a fair election. I also said that the economic blockade of Gaza was immoral and expressed my support for the human and national rights of the Palestinian people. The fact of an American coming to meet with the Palestinian Prime Minister apparently was newsworthy enough and made headlines across the Middle East.

Talk of building bridges of communication and cooperation or lifting sieges against the Palestinians, whether spoken by Prime Minister Haniyeh or a normal American citizen, has no currency with President Bush. His administration decided immediately after the democratic election of Ismail Haniyeh to bring down the Hamas government. Taxes that Israel has collected from the Palestinians are withheld from the Palestinian Authority in defiance of written agreements and international law. International aid has also been suspended. Around 150,000 government employees, including teachers and police, have not been paid for more than eight months. Commerce to and from Gaza is disrupted or stopped altogether. Poverty and malnutrition are on the rise. The people of Gaza are paying a very heavy price for freely casting their ballots.

Standard operating procedure for the Bush presidency includes breaking off communication with those who won’t go along with our nation’s global agenda and trying in turn to bring down governments we stigmatize as “terrorist.”

Syria, for example, fought alongside the US in the first Gulf War and was taken off the list of “terrorist nations.” Later, after 9/11, the US publicly thanked Bashar al-Assad’s regime for their active cooperation in the “international war on terror.” Syria was on the list of those regimes to be toppled, depending on whether US military forces turned left or right after vanquishing Baghdad. More recently, Bush threw the full weight of the US into forcing Syria out of Lebanon and then watched as that country slid into chaos and war with Israel. Now the Bush Administration faults Damascus for the situation in Lebanon and Iraq and shuns any contact with Syria along with Iran and North Korea.

The net effect is that relations with these countries continue to deteriorate and drift towards escalated conflict and war. Meanwhile, the United States grows more isolated among the nations of the world. 156 countries, including the European nations, voted for a General Assembly resolution expressing sympathy for the Palestinians killed in the Israeli attack on Beit Hanoun. The resolution was amended to also oppose Palestinians firing rockets from Gaza into Israel. Seven nations abstained, but only half a dozen nations, including several Pacific island nations, joined the US in voting against the resolution.

In the five years since the World Trade Center attacks, President Bush has squandered global solidarity and support for the US and the American people. He has instead fomented an unprecedented anti-American sentiment around the globe. For the first time in my four decades visiting the region, I experienced explicit anti-American feeling in my two weeks in Israel and the occupied Palestinian West Bank. Of course, people were mystified or upset by such things as President Bush declaring war criminal and Israeli Prime minister Ariel Sharon “a man of peace.” But many more people are despairing now of the American people for having reelected a president that went to war with Iraq based on false accusations and continues single-minded support for Israel in defiance of United Nations resolutions, international political consensus, and our own national self-interest. This rising anger at the American people for its government’s actions prompted my heavy security arrangements in Gaza, the likes of which I have never experienced before.

In his effort to isolate Hamas as a “pariah state,” Bush has achieved quite the opposite effect

In his effort to isolate Hamas as a “pariah state,” Bush has achieved quite the opposite effect. The US is increasingly isolated on the world stage and it is our nation that is viewed as adolescent, bullying and warlike. The US’s continued backing for Israel, no matter how heinous its crimes, reinforces the general deterioration in world esteem for our nation and its people.

President Bush sits by while Israel effectively destroys the possibility of a two-state solution, the only basis for a political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that abides by UN resolutions, enjoys an international consensus of support, and offers a diplomatic rather than a military solution. Bush may in the short run bring down the Hamas government, but at what long term cost to regional stability and peace?

Bush may very well have succeeded within our own borders in defining Hamas and other political movements as terrorist groups. But there is little doubt, from the perspective of the broad international consensus about how to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is the United States that has become the pariah state.

Scott Kennedy coordinates the Middle East Program of the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, California. He was elected to three terms on the Santa Cruz City Council and served twice as mayor. Kennedy was elected national chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and founded and chaired the FOR’s Middle East Task Force. He has traveled to the Mid East four dozen times since 1968 and most recently in November 2006 when he colead a delegation for the Interfaith Peace-Builders. Contact:

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