Spanish perspectives II: an interview with Teresa Aranguren (Part 1)

(John Collins is currently conducting interviews with Spanish intellectuals, journalists, and activists about the Palestine solidarity movement in Spain. In late January he spoke with Teresa Aranguren, an award-winning Spanish journalist who has covered a range of important stories in the Middle East and elsewhere during the past 30 years. Dr. Collins would like to thank Marina Llorente for her assistance with the translation of this interview. )

Aranguren recalled her experience of traveling to Beirut during the 1982 Israeli invasion:

Aranguren: I think that we have a tendency in the West to view the suffering of others as if it were not in the same category as our suffering. I think that what happened in Beirut during the Israeli invasion, not just Sabra and Shatila but the entire invasion, was a brutality difficult to describe. It is often passed over quickly in books dedicated to Palestinian history, but based on conversations I had with Palestinians who were present in that dramatic and brutal moment, I think that what happened in Beirut marked a turning point in the Palestinian resistance. It was in Beirut, I believe, that they accepted realistically that it was impossible to recover all of historic Palestine, and that in order to recover anything at all, they had to support the two-state solution.

I was there [in 1982] because I had the chance to interview Arafat in a Beirut basement on the day when a group of U.S. congressmen went to see Arafat. I think the Israelis knew about the visit, so they didn’t bomb as much as usual. [The delegation] delivered to Arafat a document in which he accepted, on behalf of the PLO, all the UN resolutions related to the Palestinian question, including 242. And in that way, very explicitly, he recognized the state of Israel as a reality.

Teresa Aranguren reports from devastated Jenin, April 2002

At that time I think all the Palestinians in Beirut were looking at their own deaths, because they were awaiting the final Israeli assault. There was a logic in the air that the Israelis were going to enter West Beirut, that the resistance would be street-to-street, amidst the rubble, and that eventually those who were there were all going to die. And the acceptance of this fact, that one is going to die, produces a spirit of great generosity and a great appreciation for life.

The Beirut experience, for me, was one of those moments that bring out the best in you. It was a time of great solidarity, of very moving gestures. I remember that when I arrived with my husband, we entered East Beirut and stayed the first night at the Hotel Alexander, which was located close to the firing line. All the U.S. press, along with Israeli army officials and Lebanese Phalange, were staying there. The following morning we left the Alexander and walked to the other side, and they took us to the neighborhood where the PLO officials were. The next day we got caught in a bombing and had to get underground into a shelter. People were living in the shelters, and the bombing lasted all morning until three in the afternoon. And suddenly, I remember, two Lebanese militiamen arrived, running down the stairs, and why were they there? Well, they knew that there were two foreigners down there, having spent the whole morning in the shelter, and so they brought us a few tins of sardines to eat. These are the kind of details that you lived on in Beirut. People refused to give up the best of their culture and of their humanity, because death was right around the corner.

John Collins: And these sorts of details stay with you forever, don’t they?

You remember them forever. I have always thought that the details were important, because it’s the details that give you an authentic view of reality. In the chapter of my book dedicated to Beirut I write about a lot of these things. Because I’m very conscious of the fact that everything having to do with the Arab world, viewed from the West, is shrouded in stereotypes. And virtually all of the stereotypes the West has of the Arab world are negative, because it’s our neighbor. The Chinese are far away, but the Arabs, we Europeans talk about them as if we knew them perfectly. The historical baggage that we have is negative. We have this perception of a violent, intolerant, fanatic world, and we project all of this onto the Arab world. So I think it’s important for people who have been there, who have lived other experiences, who have been welcomed into that world — which, of course, has its violent side, like all societies, but doesn’t have the hostility toward foreigners — to try to make clear that stereotypes can kill, that they end up killing, or justifying the killing.

JC: And the historical relationship between Spain and the Arab world? What is the effect of this history today?

Well, the Arab and Muslim presence in Spain lasted eight centuries. This isn’t a conquest — it’s a part of our culture. And that period included great civilizational splendor, the world of al-Andalus and Cordoba and all of that. This includes the multiconfessional experience of the Spain of al-Andalus, with Christians, Jews and Muslims forming part of the same social structure and having positions in the Caliphate of Cordoba. All of this, nonetheless, has been erased from Spain’s historical memory. It has been erased for political reasons. And the vision that has been transmitted, that I received in school, is that the Arab and Muslim presence was an episode of conquest and that finally the European Christian world succeeded in expelling them. This is how they told us about the “reconquest” and the world of al-Andalus and so forth. Fortunately this is changing, because there are historians who have opened up another vision, but the average Spaniard still maintains the old view. In other words, there isn’t a consciousness of our cultural connection with the Arab world. This is still missing. What we know is that we are a Mediterranean people with a unique history — for example, the fact that Spain didn’t enter the Second World War and adopted a distinctive position on the whole question.

Now, in relation with the Arab world today, and with the Palestinian question, Spain is more of a blank slate. There hasn’t been the same intoxication with Zionist and pro-Israeli propaganda that has happened in France or the UK, and of course in the US. So our perception is a bit more free from this sort of deception. So the drama of the Palestinians is perceived more naturally than, say, in France, where it is mixed up with European guilt over Nazism and how people looked the other way while the Nazis were pursuing their policy of extermination. I think it’s terrible that the Palestinian question has to bear the guilt associated with the “Jewish question” in Europe. But that’s the way it is, and I believe that Palestinians are perfectly aware of this. In Europe it is known, but people don’t draw the necessary conclusions. While the extermination was occurring in Auschwitz, there were many people who didn’t see it, or didn’t want to see it, or looked the other way, or didn’t believe it. It happened right in front of people, even though [the Nazis] took steps to hide it. But it happened right there, in the heart of Europe.

And what is happening in Palestine today, we can’t say that we didn’t know. Now no one can say they didn’t know. We are seeing it every day on television. We have endless documents, we have the testimony of Palestinians who live here among us. So no one can say, “I didn’t know.” What is happening is a policy of liquidating an entire people before the eyes of the world, and with total impunity, just like in Beirut. In Beirut I saw for the first time cluster bombs, I saw people wounded by phosphorous shells, I saw hospitals bombed, and all of this with the sort of impunity with which we are now accustomed to carrying out wars. What can a Kalashnikov do against a plane that drops its bombs from three thousand meters? And what they were doing in Beirut and in all of Lebanon, we saw later in Baghdad, and repeated various times. I remember hearing that the Israeli army was breaking the arms of young men older than twelve in the camps of Sidon and Tyre. I remember perfectly that I didn’t give it credence because I figured it was just the kind of exaggeration that people create during wartime. And then in 1988, during the first intifada, we saw images filmed by Israeli cameramen [of soldiers carrying out Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s orders], and we realized that it hadn’t been an exaggeration but a strategy, a political lesson. In Beirut, the most terrible part was thinking, how can all of this be happening, how can I be seeing all of this, and the world does nothing? There wasn’t even a condemnation in the UN Security Council, because of the US veto. And then Sabra and Shatila happened.

JC: When you see the situation in Falluja or Baghdad, it must call to mind your experience in Beirut.

Yes. One of the phenomena that generate the greatest desperation, not only in Palestine but throughout the Middle East, is the feeling of ,deja vu, that you’ve seen it before. For example, in 2002 during Operation Defensive Shield, with the destruction in the Jenin Refugee camp and the enclosure of the West Bank cities, it was as if we were back in Beirut and the same thing was happening again. And in Iraq, when I think about the bombing and the invasion, I imagine an Iraqi who lived during the 1930s with the presence of the British and the entrance of British troops after the First World War. He must be thinking, we can’t escape. He must feel that they are perpetually trapped in a cycle that is always deadly for them….

JC In the same history…..

….in the same history, always repeating itself. Of course it’s false, because I don’t believe that history repeats itself. But it often looks very similar. There are factors
that are always there, no?

JC: Of course. And here in Spain? What is the general attitude of the Spanish people toward the Palestinian question? The media must have a strong impact on this.

Absolutely. I think that from the beginning, there has been a perception that the Palestinians are victims, that they are the weaker party, that they are victims of something. This is a generic perception here. It’s not that people have a great knowledge of the history of the Palestinians, but yes, there is an idea that they deserve to be left in peace. When you see the pictures of the Israeli army entering Beit Hanun or Ramallah, it’s common sense to ask, ‘Why don’t they leave them in peace?’ At the same time, though, there is a general feeling that what’s happening over there can’t be solved. This is something that the media, with their saturation of images and news — but news that doesn’t reveal the foundation or the keys, that gives the impression that it’s just a succession of disasters — have helped to create.

So ultimately you have people who say, “Why don’t you stop throwing stones at the Israelis?” And so enters the consciously designed idea that the victim is at fault. The victim is to blame for his own misfortune. Eventually people start saying, “be quiet already — stop making so much noise about demanding your rights.” This is an attitude that has been successfully encouraged not only in the Spanish public, but throughout the West. It’s basically saying, “Yes, we know that you were thrown out of your homes, we know you are living under military occupation, but really, why don’t you just accept it?” And this attitude has grown, because we have such a deep history of racism and contempt for the other that we think that Arabs, or Indians, well, they don’t feel the same way we do, their feelings aren’t as important as ours. The world is designed by us, from the West, and rest, they have to conform to it.

JC: The same discourse emerges in discussions of violence against women, which has been in the news a lot here recently. “Of course they are victims, but…..” Perhaps because of this, there are many women, for example those in the Coalition of Women Artists against Gender Violence, who are linked with the Palestinian issue as well.

Yes, that’s true. You’re right. The comparison works, because at the roots we’re saying to the victim, “Look, stop being so difficult. Of course you’re a victim, but try to put up with it a little better, stop provoking.” It’s basically “Don’t provoke him any more, stop provoking the man, stop provoking the Israeli.” That’s what it is.

JC: When in fact we know that there has been a remarkable consistency in Sharon’s policies since the 1960s and 1970s, no?

Yes, it’s interesting that I was talking about deja vu before. Sharon was Minister of Defense and the major architect of the invasion of Lebanon, and the invasion ended without a final assault because the US intervened, because of the pressure exerted by President Reagan in that moment, because of that document that the U.S. Congressmen brought back to Washington. So Beirut didn’t end with the physical liquidation of the PLO leadership, and especially of Arafat, because the U.S. in that moment put the brakes on the Israeli military. The Israeli government signed a pledge that it wouldn’t enter West Beirut, but they entered anyway. They pledged to protect the lives of the Palestinian refugees, but two weeks later the Sabra and Shatila massacres occurred. Sharon’s objective at that time wasn’t only to secure a friendly government of Lebanese Phalangists. He wanted to liquidate the PLO leadership, and when I say “liquidate,” I mean liquidate physically. But he had to restrain himself because of U.S. pressure.

Now, twenty years later we found ourselves in 2002 with Ariel Sharon sending his soldiers into the West Bank cities, with Yasser Arafat confined in the Muqata`. All of this after the Oslo accords and all of that. And once again using the same discourse about having to liquidate Arafat and his leadership. And once again needing the “green light” from the U.S. in order to do it. I remember the visit of [U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell in those days, during Operation Defensive Shield, when he arrived with the mission of saying to the Israeli government that it had to pull out of the West Bank cities immediately. He met with Sharon, he met with Arafat — making the Israelis very uncomfortable — and when he left that interview, the message in the press conference was that they had to withdraw “as soon as possible.” But they didn’t leave immediately. The invasion lasted ten more days, during which Jenin happened. In other words, they gave them the time needed to complete the job and crush as much as possible. But evidently the U.S. put the brakes on when it came to killing Arafat.

So there has been a real consistency in Sharon’s policy, and I would say in the strategy of successive Israeli governments. This is all related to the core of the ideology that informed the creation of the state of Israel, which is Zionism. There are differences between Israeli politicians in terms of what it means to be a Zionist. There is a pragmatic Zionism, symbolized by Rabin and certain sectors of the Labor Party, and there is a more messianic Zionism that refuses to give up any of the dream, that is hammered into the settlement movement. Sharon, I think, is somewhere in the middle. I don’t see him as a messianic man; he is not religious in this sense. What he is, is a man who responds to a philosophy of the far right that is racist and expansionist. In his logic, the goal is to stall for time, to weaken as much as possible the political capacity of the Palestinian resistance, and to secure as much territory as possible. He doesn’t need all of the territory of Eretz Israel, as the most fanatic settlers would have it, but the maximum amount of territory possible. This will strengthen the expansionist wing in Israel and weaken the hypothetical Palestinian state that will have to be created someday.

This helps explain the climate of exultant optimism that we see right now. On the one hand you have the Gaza, which I think has always been in Sharon’s mind. Sharon has always wanted to get rid of Gaza because Gaza is a nuisance for them. There are many settlers who want to stay there, but the demography will crush them, because the rate of demographic growth in Gaza is enormous. And Gaza isn’t as closely linked with Zionist dreams as parts of the West Bank. Gaza is a slum where you have between one and two million people trapped between the sea and the Israeli army. The West Bank is different, because of the water, because the West Bank has some economic potential that Gaza obviously doesn’t have, and because the West Bank is the place where, in theory, you will create the future Palestinian state reduced to a few cantons surrounded by the Israeli military. This is Sharon’s perspective. Achieving this is the ideal for him. He doesn’t need all of the West Bank. He has to give something, he has to be able to say “I am complying with this peace plan,” while at the same time designing a settlement policy, building the Wall, and reducing the West Bank to a minimum of disconnected pieces. This is how his entire policy works.

JC: It’s no accident that Palestinians are now describing their situation in terms of “bantustans.” It looks a lot like the South Africa of the 1950s.

The most accurate comparison, right now, to describe the Palestinian situation is the Apartheid regime. This is the most exact description.

JC: Yes, and of the 1950s, not the 1980s.

Exactly. Yes, the 1950s, the creation of the bantustans. There is also a question that, I think, is basic for analyzing what is happening on the Israeli side and on the Palestinian side. On the Israeli side, I am convinced that a great part of Israeli society has no interest in its army staying in the West Bank, in the continuation of the settlements, nothing. They have their country and what they want is to live like a normal country, in Tel Aviv and so forth. They don’t pay attention to what is happening in the occupied territories. Because of their government’s policy, they have been brought to a certain moment of having to defend themselves, but with all of the contradiction that comes with maintaining an occupation indefinitely. At some point they have to opt for annexation or withdrawal. And obviously annexation supposes not only the territory, but also the people who live there. This is the great Sword of Damocles that hovers over Israeli society: the so-called “demographic bomb.” The great contradiction it has within itself is that it pretends to be a democratic society, while at the same time defining itself as a Jewish state in which citizenship is directly linked with religion. There comes a point when the Jewish state and the democratic state collide. If they stay in the West Bank, what do they do with the almost two million Palestinians who are obviously not Jewish, but who are the cousins and the brothers of the minority of Palestinians who stayed in 1948 and who are citizens of Israel? Within 30 years the majority of the population within the state of Israel will not be Jewish. This is where Sharon’s strategy enters, saying “OK, we keep as much of the West Bank as possible, but empty of Palestinians, while at the same time limiting their ability to continue demanding their rights. They must be totally crushed, or at least limited in their capacity to demand their rights.”

JC: In other words, end the conflict officially with someone’s signature….

End the conflict. We sign something, and there you go: You have your state with its enclaves surrounded by our military and the conflict is over. Israel has made peace, and that’s it. I think this is the idea behind what they tried to get Arafat to sign at Camp David in 2001.

JC: This is similar to what happened in the U.S. in the 19th century with the agreements signed with Native Americans.

Right. You leave them there in the reservations. Yes, it’s true—it’s a good comparison. I remember interviewing Abu Iyad in Tunis during the first intifada. At the end of the interview he made this comparison. He said to me, “But we are not the Native Americans” — he said this to me in 1989 — “but we are not the Native Americans.” These kinds of perceptions, when you’ve lived the experience, you have them.

(Part 2)