A Race Against Time: An interview with Sam Bahour

Sam Bahour

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American living in the besieged Palestinian city of El-Bireh in the West Bank. He is the co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994). I spoke with Sam via telephone about the worsening situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, U.S. aid restrictions on Palestine, divestment from Israel, and the need for a strong resistance leadership in the Palestinian Authority. He can be reached at sbahour@palnet.com.

Christopher Brown: Can you talk about the current climate in The West Bank and Gaza in light of the recent massacres that have occurred at the hands of the Israeli military?

Sam Bahour: I’ve been there since 1994, so I’ve seen ups and downs regularly for the last 12 years. However, during the last six months specifically, the Israelis basically in my opinion have been spinning out of control. They have unleashed, literally daily attacks on Palestinians. Unfortunately, the world only sees every once in a while what’s happening there, when there is a camera taking a picture such as the incident when the whole family of civilians was killed on the beach. They were lucky enough to have a camera there to take a picture of that war crime.

For the last six years, there’s been a non-stop onslaught in terms of not only killing Palestinians, but also raids into Palestinian cities where they’re actually arresting people on a nightly basis. I literally cannot think of a night when there isn’t a Palestinian being arrested in the various cities throughout the West Bank, and before they exited Gaza, in Gaza as well; that, in addition to F-16’s and Apache helicopters, which as you’re seeing lately, are basically assassinating Palestinians from the air.

So, although the Israelis would like to claim that they have left Gaza, what they really did is what they said they would do, which is a re-deployment. Unilaterally, they re-deployed outside the center of the population area in the Gaza Strip, to surround the Gaza Strip totally. And what that has done is two things: One is turn the political crisis into, the first time ever, into a humanitarian crisis because the borders of the Gaza Strip are fully in Israeli control and they have not allowed, or they’re restricting heavily, the amount of food and medicine that can come into the Gaza Strip. As per international law, they still fully occupy in terms of who’s in charge of the Palestinians lives. So they are still an occupying force, which means they have the full responsibility for the population of the Gaza Strip. They don’t like to hear that, but that is the way the UN has classified it up until now.

The environment has intensified after the legislative council elections. Where the Islamist organization Hamas won elections via a very democratic process as was said by international observers, including Jimmy Carter himself. And I think that one of the most hypocritical phenomena that we’re facing is that the U.S. specifically was one of the motivating forces to push Palestinians into an electoral process at all levels of government — municipal elections, presidential elections and Palestinian legislative council elections. And at every level, except presidential, Hamas or the more extreme factions within the Palestinian political spectrum have won. The only reason they didn’t win the presidential elections is because they boycotted them. So, there really was not a challenge to Mahmoud Abbas. And this most recent election has caused a knee-jerk reaction from the American side to basically suffocate the Palestinian community; without any regard to the investment they’ve made within the last 12 years of trying to build as much as possible the infrastructure of a new economy. And what they’ve done by suffocating the Palestinians by terms of cutting off all banking relations; basically spearheading global sanctions against the Palestinian Authority - they’ve turned this political crisis totally into a humanitarian one. That’s going to have long-term ramifications even when a sense of normalcy comes back. I think the Palestinians will start looking at the Americans with much more scrutiny than they did before.

CB: Apart from a few Western journalists, are there any corporate media that have looked deeper into the events of the Beit Lahiya killings or the subsequent executions over the past two weeks?

SB: Well there are multiple vantage points to look at this: Number one, the mainstream media has really done very little investigative reporting. The best example I use is the most recent, is the CNN reporter, I believe her last name is Sweeney, she’s actually covering events in Ramallah, in Gaza, and in the northern West Bank while she’s sitting in a modern updated Israeli studio in the center of West Jerusalem. We’re talking about events that are happening literally ten minutes, 40 minutes from where she’s at and she doesn’t have a clue of how to cover the events.

So what they’re doing, not only CNN, but also other mainstream media as well, literally, if they want to cover the event, especially on video, they’re relying on strangers that will be able to sell them some video; and even then, that video goes through two sets of censorship; one is the Israeli military censors who actually cut out what they don‘t want the world to see; and then there is the self-censoring that’s happening in the studios of the various media outlets themselves.

There’s one very well known case about seven or eight months ago in Nablus, in Balata refugee camp; there was an actual cold-blooded killing - an Israeli soldier who killed a 12-year-old. And the Western media outlet that got videotape of the entire incident, and when their tape went back to Israel to be edited before it got sent out, that entire incident was removed. Palestinians actually filed a complaint and it was later found that the outlet actually acknowledged that they erased or nixed the entire incident. So this self-censorship is troubling. The military censorship from the Israeli side is expected. We live under military occupation, and you expect that they don’t want to put out any bad image to the world. However, what the Israelis are missing, even the media outlets - especially the Western media outlets - are doing themselves a disservice, is that technology has bypassed the ability to do full censorship.

I was in Palestine for the first Intifada in the late 80s and then there was the ability for the Israeli occupation forces to confine what people see and be able to be rather successful to keep the Palestinian voice from being heard or even incidents from being covered. However, in this Intifada, from the year 2000 onwards, we have new tools available to us. We have the video, the Internet, email, digital cameras; we have much more media savvy within our own communities, we have professional media personnel that are taking their own video and syndicating it out to whoever would like to cover it.

So as much as Israel tries to militarily censor, or as much as the media outlets try to be politically correct in terms of not disrupting their relationship either with their owners or the Israeli media spin that they’re being fed; they’re finding themselves at a huge disadvantage because the pictures and the Palestinian perspective is getting out. And at the end of the day this is not a media twist, there’s a real live military occupation on the ground. And as in Iraq, the Americans and Iraqis are getting stories through embedded reporters inside of tanks. They need to be a little more wiser if they want to learn about what’s really happening, and they should - given that they’re receiving news from the embedded reporters. They need to go beyond those embedded reporters.

I would say the same thing applies to Palestine. Given that the mainstream media every once in a while, will show what’s happening is wrong — and I think there is a right and wrong — we should not fall into the trap of symmetry. The day we fall into the trap of symmetry where the Palestinians who are occupied and the Israelis who are occupiers all get equal time, I think we’ve done a disservice to report the truth of what’s happening.

But I do think that the media, the alternative media specifically, is going in a good direction. I am personally able to get published; last week I had something in the Dallas Morning News a couple of days before I had something in the San Diego Tribune. These are mainstream papers, covering the Palestinian perspective. Unfortunately, everything I get published gets run side-by-side with a syndicated, rather right-wing reporter here in the States, who is giving the Israeli line, but that’s okay. I think if the Americans are able to see both sides of the story, I think they will start to understand that the Palestinians have had a historical injustice being done against them. Unfortunately the U.S. is supporting the injustice.

CB: Recently, the Israeli High Court ruled that part of the separation wall near the villages of Azur and Nebi Elias be torn down. In addition, the wall would have also gone around the illegal settlement of Tzofin built on occupied land. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said that the court “essentially ruled that the State lied” over claims that the 670 km (415 mile) barrier “is based solely on security considerations.” Are we finally starting to see justice from the Israeli courts towards the Palestinians?

SB: First of all I don’t see any justice being done. What I think is happening, and I’ve read Israeli analysis of this, is that the wall could have been probably completed by now. However, especially with Sharon, before he was incapacitated, there’s an analysis that says: by design they didn’t finish building the wall as fast as they could’ve: Why? Because, especially after the International Court of Justice ruled that it was illegal and needs to be torn down, Israel needed some kind of legal cover to be able to justify what they’ve done; which is to slow down the building of the wall, and really propped it up to enter the Israeli court system so that different parts of it can be contested and thus the Supreme Court of Israel or High Court of Israel would give a decision to move it a few meters one way or the other, and thus give s sense of legitimacy to the wall.

And this is the bluff that the world is buying. The Israeli legal system that is the occupier is also justifying its occupation via a legal system. It’s a complete disrespect for the rule of law. And this is not the first time we’ve seen the Israeli legal system play an active role in justifying the occupation, it happens in many spheres of life.

But regarding the wall itself, the International Court of Justice was very clear. The United Nations General Assembly was very clear; this wall at all parts of it, in all locations is illegal. If Israel wants to build a wall, they’re more than welcome like any other sovereign country to build anything they like on their own land. But they cannot build a wall, which runs through their neighbor’s kitchen, which is basically what has happened to the Palestinians. They’ve taken not only the settlements that are illegal and put them on the western side of the wall and annexed those large settlements to become part of Israel proper. But they’ve also done something which is very hard to paint a picture of, they’ve incorporated the wall that all of the aquifers to be on the western side of the wall, thus creating one of the very rare resources in The Middle East, which is water, to also become part of this conflict. So not only are they doing a land grab, but they’ve also done a water grab. Not only that, as per the Oslo agreement, they’ve also controlled the airwaves. I’m in telecom by trade, and basically all of the frequencies are under Israeli control.

So your talking about a three dimensional occupation where the underground is being occupied as well as the land and the sky. And this is a complexity that they’ve been able to create where it’s rather subtle; it’s difficult for foreign reporters to come and take a picture.

One of my Israeli friends who’s in the peace movement, Jeff Halper, he wrote a booklet called The Matrix of Control; that the occupation isn’t just one kind of control it’s a whole system of policies and permits, checkpoints, access and denied access, that all together make up this occupation. So it’s one of the most sophisticated types of oppression that we’ve seen in recent history. And little by little it’s becoming exposed, and Palestinians are in a race against time, because this most recent aggression against us, we feel that what is being done with the wall is not only creating a separation between the Palestinians in The West Bank, Gaza, and Israel, but is also creating a separation between Palestinians in various Palestinian cities from each other. And at the end of the day this is what we call in Middle East politics the politics of transfer.

In 1948 and 1967, when Israel made their aggression, they actually transferred forcefully populations outside of the areas they wanted to control. Today what they are doing with all this matrix of control is creating an involuntary transfer where people are becoming so frustrated, their livelihood is so difficult to maintain, that people are looking for ways out and if they have the means to be able to leave, they leave voluntarily. As far as the Israelis are concerned it reaches the same goal to have as much land as possible with the least amount of Palestinians on it as possible.

This is why we really feel that we are in a race against time. And its sad because you look at the US as the superpower, legislation is being passed through the House and the Senate that not only speaks the Israeli state line, but even goes further than that and is a more extreme and one-sided approach to the entire conflict. It’s a dangerous situation, that I personally think will break somewhere along the line.

Palestinians can no longer go on living with the amount of stress that is being applied to their society from a humanitarian perspective as well as a political perspective. And I really fear for the days to come. Because this is not a status quo - this is a kettle ready to boil over.

CB: The House of Representatives passed by an overwhelming majority a bill (HR 4681) to severely restrict aid to the Palestinians, further worsening an already horrible humanitarian crisis in Gaza and The West Bank. What is the current situation on the ground and how will this bill affect the situation in the future?

SB: The American legislation is rather surprisingly taking a more draconian measure than even the Israelis themselves are taking. I think that these days as the Israeli lobby, APIAC, is being exposed even further and further, many people think that the U.S. system is so tied to Israeli affairs domestically that it’s very difficult for Palestinians to make in-roads at least in the legislative side of things. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict is not a foreign affairs issue for the U.S. it’s a live domestic issue and we seen that throughout history where legislators running for the House and the Senate are defeated at times because they’ve taken the wrong position as far as the Israeli lobby is concerned.

In a general sense, the Palestinians have been aware that all of the donors, the U.S. and E.U. being the largest, that have invested into Palestine during the last ten years since Oslo was signed; we are fully aware that those monies are politically motivated and it’s been a struggle that as we try to do a dual task of ending the occupation, at the same time trying to establish the economy for a future state. We have to weigh between how much those donor funds are being funneled for Palestinian priorities and how much are being funneled for donor priorities.

Recently, the Senate passed their version of the House bill (S.2370), and there’s 20 million dollars allocated for peace, reconciliation and democracy. The Palestinians just came out with the most democratic elections in the entire Middle East, that can be compared to elsewhere in the world and the U.S., as international observers, including Jimmy Carter, stated. And the problem is not that we don’t know how to apply democracy, we just did, the problem is that the U.S. as part of the international community are not able to accept democratically elected results. And that is the real crux of the matter, because if those donor funds are to be applied only if democracy results only in the results those donors want to see, then I think they need to take a closer look at their own understanding of what democracy is all about.

As they move forward the Palestinians will scrutinize even more the various funds that are coming in. True, in a humanitarian crisis I doubt the Palestinians will turn food and medicines away, but as we move forward, and hopefully things settle down a bit and some of those donor funds move into more developmental channels, I think the Palestinians will want to dictate even more that those funds are supporting Palestinian priorities and maybe not U.S. priorities.

We saw what happened during the last ten years where international funds and U.S. funds were investing millions and millions in the infrastructure — an airport, a port, water projects, industrial parks, and it took only weeks for the Israeli military, at the beginning of this Intifada, to destroy most of that via those same tanks and Apache helicopters that they got from the U.S.

If the American public cannot see that their investment, their tax dollars that are being invested in developmental projects in Palestine are being destroyed by those same grants that they’re giving to Israel then the problem is really on the American side to look at.

As far as the Palestinians are concerned, with these international sanctions and boycotts being applied against us, I would hope and I would imagine that any future government is going to really scrutinize how much and where those funds go. In addition, I think Palestinians are going to be looking at more self-sufficient types of measures. So that we can start to get off these donor funds; at the end of the day many Palestinians are saying; ‘Donor funds are paying for the occupation.’ Every dollar that is put into the Palestinian Authority today is a dollar that is a dollar that Israel gets to maintain the occupation.

So as we move forward, the dynamics are going to change greatly compared to what they were the last ten years.

CB: The Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUSA) at its annual conference voted on whether to selectively divest from companies that do business with Israel, with regards to the occupation. Although PCUSA has decided not to take steps to divest at this time, they have left this as a last option if no other is available. In fact, they decided to use “softer” language in their wording of the statement. The Israeli supporters claimed that this was a victory for Israel. How do you see this statement and the situation with regards to divestment?

SB: I am personally in the loop with the PCUSA and I understand the most recent move of using “softer” language. But what I received, following the convention, were statements much to the contrary of an Israeli victory. They were saying that they have been put under an extreme amount of pressure of all different levels of the national church to withdraw their activities with regards to Israel. They did not withdraw their activities - they had to make adjustments for various reasons. But I think they are just as much focused on utilizing their positions to expose the injustices as never before; the Episcopal Church as well is involved in a similar situation.

I have to place a little bit of the blame on the inability to create this international movement of sanctions and divestment on our own leadership. Because at the end of the day one of the things that South Africans are fully aware, was that the ANC was in full control of leading the national struggle. In the Palestinian scenario it’s not as clear-cut. We have a lack of resistance leadership. The Palestinian leadership, at this stage, is more involved in trying to appease the U.S. government because they think that U.S. government has the means to end this occupation, or they’re rushing behind the Israeli leadership hoping that they will come back to the negotiating table. But what we see is a lack of Palestinians leading a solidarity movement nationally, clearly calling for boycotts and divestments. At the end of the day I think that without that Palestinian leadership taking its natural role and putting a frame and action plan forward, we’re going to find in various spots around the world and various organizations around the world, at times will become more active in divestment than at other times. But we’re not going to find that major thrust that’s required.

Having said that, I have full respect for all those organizations that are taking concrete steps to work towards divestment; it’s happening at the academic level, it’s happened at the business level, and what we need is a coalescing of all those efforts via a clear Palestinian leadership to move forward. And that kind of leadership is probably in the midst of being created; because this last onslaught that Israel has undertaken where civilians and children are being killed on a daily basis; I think more and more people are becoming aware that we cannot pin our hopes on an Israeli government coming to it’s senses; and we definitely cannot look towards the U.S. to lead an effort to bring their allies back to the community of nations; they’re not going to do it.

As I said, we believe that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a domestic issue, and the U.S. being a short–term kind of system, where people are looking at elections before they’re looking at long-term strategies; the U.S. is not set-up to deal with such a complicated issue. I feel that the results of the reality, especially after the sanctions that have been held against the Palestinian Authority, because of their democratic elections, this is going to bring the Palestinians round about into another level of “leadership resistance” to move the solidarity movement in a way that can be non-violent but effective as well.

In The Middle East, nonviolence has not had much success because of the lack of proper leadership for it. Many people think that nonviolence happens automatically; whereas we know, it’s hard work and a lot of sacrifice goes into creating a mass movement. But I feel that Israel is giving no other alternative except for Palestinians to renew their resistance in more creative ways, in ways that actually can achieve a victory. And if we look at that a little more deeply, they would do themselves a favor by coming to the negotiating table to end this occupation as soon as possible; because it will end one way or the other.

Christopher Brown is a radical grassroots journalist living in Arizona. He has a blog at www.cbgonzo.blogspot.com.

Related Links

  • Israel spinning out of control, Sam Bahour (13 June 2006)