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MEE interviews veteran Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi

Veteran Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi discusses a wide range of topics in an interview with MEE
Veteran Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi

Israel has systematically targeted Jerusalemites, putting them under a triple siege, and matters in the city have now come to a head, Hanan Ashrawi, the veteran Palestinian negotiator told MEE in an exclusive interview.

Among a wide range of issues concerning Palestine, Dr Ashrawi talked of the fundamental flaws of the Oslo Accords, the Jewish state, the UN role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Palestine's unity government.

MEE: What is your reaction to events in Jerusalem?

Ashrawi : One of the fatal flaws of the Declaration of Principles ( DOP or Oslo Accord) is that they left the Jerusalemites at the mercy of Israel and then the international community allowed Israel to treat the Jerusalemites as residents of the city and totally control their lives, their lands, and their resources. From day one, Israel treated Jerusalem as if it were annexed de facto, even before they annexed it illegally, and started a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing, totally transforming the character, history and culture of the city. Siege and division is a microcosm of what Israel did to the West Bank, where you besiege it, control entrances and exits, and then fragment it internally. They planted settlements and settlers inside Jerusalem, then surrounded it with three rings, a triple siege: the settlements which it started early, the military checkpoints and the apartheid wall. This made Jerusalem inaccessible to any Palestinian who does not have a Jerusalem ID. It means Israel totally extracted Jerusalem from the heart of Palestine, territorially, demographically, in terms of access, in terms of culture, in terms of institutions. Jerusalem’s hospitals and schools were there to serve all Palestine.

Israel practised some of the most cruel measures against Jerusalemites. Exorbitant taxes, no services, forming the Palestinian areas into ghettos, stealing their land, leaving them only with from 12 to 13% of their own land, and thousands upon thousands of ID confiscations, the separation of families. There is a whole set of illegal and inhuman legislation. Jerusalemites are under occupation with no rights and Israel has draconian laws to deal with them like the centre of your life law. So Israel has managed to treat palestinian populations in different ways of oppression, exclusion, whatever you want. Violence begets violence. Now matters have come to a head.

I would never have signed the DOP [Declaration of Principles] relinquishing power over Jerusalem. I have a Jerusalem ID. My daughters had Jerusalem IDs before they confiscated them. We call ourselves the Madrid/ Washington group. We are not the Oslo group, we had a totally different approach. We didn’t postpone the real issues. We discussed human rights, Jerusalem, statehood, borders. We demanded control over the population register and the land register. Israel is in control of both, so how can you ever be free? They control who are their citizens and who owns the land.

So no wonder Jerusalemites feel abandoned, vulnerable and targeted. Because Israel has systematically targeted them. It has neutralized the PA. The PA cannot do anything officially in Jerusalem, as per the agreement . And somehow Israeli picks and chooses parts of the agreements. It chooses which ones to implement and which ones to disregard. And, of course, maintains the position that the PA cannot function in Jerusalem so it totally prevents them. Even though the PLO should be able to function in Jerusalem. That’s why Faisal Husseini was in Jerusalem. That is why he refused to enter PA and accepted the PLO position from the beginning. We divided because he said he would not enter the PA because his job was in Jerusalem. So he accepted the position as PLO executive, but I didn’t.

But now even the PLO cannot function in Jerusalem. Even the letter we demanded from (Shimon)Perez (then Israeli Foreign Minister) to Jochan Holst, the Norwegian Foreign Minister) about the institutions of Jerusalem, that not only will they not be protected, they will not intervene and deliver all these important services to the Palestinians of Jerusalem. When we entered negotiations, we had American commitments and assurances that Orient House will not be touched, that they would not enter, that they would not look at our papers. Not only did they enter it and confiscate our papers, they closed it down.

This is typical. The Israelis will not honour any commitment or sound agreement, not just to us. Perez wrote this letter to Holst on the Jerusalem issue. But also they will manipulate any agreement so that they will pick and choose what serves their interest and what weakens us and whatever is in our favour, they will not implement. So that is where we are now. Jerusalem institutions closed, Jerusalem under a triple siege, ethnic cleansing, the total transformation of the character of the city demographically, culturally, historically. To add not just insult to injury and to make it totally abhorrent to our ideology and religion, now we have  this whole assault on the Haram al Sharif and the al Aqsa mosque. It is really provoking a religious war. It is provoking religious sentiment. And add to that the issue of the Jewish state, so that you have on the one hand ISIS, the Islamic State, Da’esh and on the other hand the Jewish state.

MEE: What do you think about the Jewish State?

Ashrawi: Netanyahu made it a precondition that all the Palestinians have to become Zionists - we have to accept their narrative, their history, their ideology. We have to condone discrimination against the Palestinians of 48 who are the indigenous population. We have to accept a false narrative, as though there was a Jewish state throughout history, which was never the case. Palestine has never had a Jewish majority even 2 to 3000  years ago. They were part of the tribes that came and went. Palestine was always pluralist, tolerant and inclusive. So why we should accept an exclusive ideology? Why should we accept an exclusionary state? Why should we accept in principle what we do not accept for Palestine? We do not want an Islamic state. We don’t want a state that excludes others. We want a democratic, inclusive, tolerant, pluralistic, diverse state. So why should we be forced to accept this for Israel? How can they expect us to accept discrimination against non-Jews?

And ultimately the agenda is political. They do not want the Palestinian refugees to have the right to return. They will legislate a law of return for any Jew anywhere, whether they are from Ethiopia or Brooklyn or Poland wherever, but we have no right to return, the Palestinians who have  land deeds , keys to their homes, who have been living there for centuries, who were expelled by force have no right of return. And this acceptance of this Jewishness of the state means automatically we condone not just Zionism, but the exclusion of the Palestinian. This completes the '48 Nakba. This completes what Illan Pappe calls the displacement replacement paradigm.

MEE: Do you believe that going to the UN will change things?

Ashrawi: I believe that the UN should be held responsible and Israel should be held accountable. The international community should be spurred to action and there should be a global rule of law. So the issue has always been external interference, pressure and blackmail. What Israel does or does not want dictates what the US does and does not do, and then the US not only puts pressure on us and unleashes Congress on us, it goes to Europe and gets some of its European allies to do its dirty work for it. Then he (Abu Mazen) starts assessing what it will cost. Can we afford this cost? Can we afford a breakdown? Can people stay and survive if we lose assistance, if we lose relations? We said (to him) people want to see that there are systems of accountability that are working, that we are treated equally by the law, that Israel abides by the law and is held accountable.

This is a situation of total unaccountable victimisation, where the occupier has full impunity and the occupied has no protection and then you put pressure on the weaker side not on the stronger side. So we need to be able to work out how to empower Palestine on how to understand the consequences of doing the right thing, while Israel has never paid the price of doing the wrong thing all these years. I believe we should have gone earlier. We should have moved, but the president was reluctant because he doesn’t want to have to face the price of the breakdown here without having sufficient preparations and alternatives. So it's a real dilemma.The whole political system will pay the price. There will be a breakdown here, it is expected if there is total boycott, lack of cooperation and assistance, if they carry out the threats but a breakout here means a break out of violence. And a break out of violence will have a spillover effect. It's not controllable. It will have a ripple effect.

But the status quo itself is also untenable. It has to change and that’s why we have to think outside the box. That is why we were thinking of the UN and the other things. Because since 1991 we were doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result. But we should know by now that the US is not an even-handed peace broker. We should know by now that they will not curb Israeli violations or engage in any way that is positive to us. We should know by now that their strategic alliance with Israel is much more important to them than any sense of justice or equality before the law - even American standings and interest. We should know by now that the motive of self interest and domestic issues and election is a very powerful motive in the US. They need to get re-elected - these members of the Congress and administration. So they need to pander to special interest groups, foremost among them is AIPAC. There are all sorts of studies about how AIPAC puts all elected officials on a test of good behaviour, how good they are for Israel before they can get elected. And then they have campaigns to discredit (ones who don't measure up).

MEE: But there is a change, certainly in Britain and it was seen in the parliamentary vote on Palestinian statehood.

Ashrawi: There is a change for several reasons. Israel has overstepped its limits. The outcome of hubris. It's backfiring. Israel has taken its impunity to an extreme, has taken the collusion of the world to an extreme. It thought that it can do anything it wanted and get away with it, including massacres and war crimes and obliteration of whole families, and neighbours and still get away with it. And it couldn’t count. I mean it may have (US) politicians where they hurt, but it doesn’t control their minds. Public opinion is awakening and it is feeling a sense of responsibility because this injustice has been going on for a long time. So this type of awakening is important and challenging the decision makers and executive authorities. To me what is very strange, is somebody like Cameron saying: ”OK, let the parliament vote but we will not change our policy.” Parliament reflects the will of the people, and why should the executive authority decide they do not want to listen to the people and their representatives, a priori?

MEE: Do you think international  policy will change?

Ashrawi: You cannot base your policy decisions (as a western politician) on what is good for me and my elections. You also have to understand that what is good for the UK is also important for its economy, its standing and the world. If you allow Israel to raise the specter of religious wars, extremism and violence cannot be contained. The integrity and credibility of the US will be determined on how they will deal with this. In the states, it was the military who told the political nationals that what Israel is doing, it is in our names and it is costing us - it is putting our boys and girls in jeopardy in the Middle East. The US intervenes only when there is violence, but it  does not know how to intervene positively to make peace. It is blinded by this passion - single-minded passion for Israel. So, no, I agree that there is a shift in public opinion, and it is major, and it is making itself felt and heard and it behooves the powers that be in every country to listen.

In the States it is slower because of the stranglehold of the mainstream media and special special interests on the public discourse. But it is happening in universities, it is happening in churches, it is happening in ethnic and minority groups. People are challenging taboos, so if you withdraw the anti-Semitic charge, people will say no. There are many Jewish groups who are saying no. This is an abuse of anti-Semitism and the fact that the Jewish organizations are standing up to Israel and extremist policy and this unholy alliance with the US and so on, is again a factor. You cannot just label everybody a prostitute and an anti-Semite if you dare to criticize Israel. No. There are many now who are challenging Israel on the Jewish state issue because they do not want to be part of this, and they know this is racist and discriminatory. So that Israel is placing even the Jewish community in a position that has to decide - principles versus allegiance to Israel.

MEE: How is the unity government  functioning ?

Ashrawi: Many negative things, and very few positive things are going on. We agreed that there should be a government of national accord, not unity, because we are a government of nationalities and you have all the factions and parties in it. But you have independents who are professionals, supposedly, who will carry out the tasks of preparing for elections, reconstruction of Gaza and delivering services, and they will have the approval of everybody. Because there was a time limit and very specific functional responsibilities, they set up a weak government. I felt it has to be a stronger government. Instead of reducing the number and combining ministries, you have to increase the number, because it faces a serious challenge. This became very clear with the attack on Gaza. The challenges of the aftermath, the post assault period are so enormous that you need a powerful government with its institutions to be able to do several things quickly -  alleviation of suffering , welfare relief. Immediately people need housing, food, clear water, health services, electricity and so on. These are emergency things that you should do instantly. You have a big strong government: go there, take over. Don't sit back and say, “Well, the deputy ministers have created a shadow government." Why did they? Because you were not there. Go there, take over. Take with you a whole bunch of technocrats and professionals. They sent one minister of health. He was threatened, beaten, turned back. So they use this as an excuse to say nobody else. So, I said no. Now is the time to be strong - to have a big showing. Go there, take over the ministries. Hold them accountable. Check what they have done and give them tasks to do. Put together their plan and then with the reconstruction, which is the second task, and it has to be done simultaneously. We cannot just provide a relief.

We have to simultaneously provide a relief and restart the reconstruction program. And, of course, institutional reconstruction of the government, its services and so on, and you have to place it all within a context of sustainable development, and to do that you have to place it in the context of political realities to deal with the causes - to put an end to Israel’s, not just immunity, but its pattern of recurrent attacks on Gaza. What is the point? Why should we keep rebuilding? Why should the international community come to our aid if every two or three years Israel is going to destroy. It has done that so far and literally gotten away with murder. So that’s what we need, and we did not rise to the challenges. And Hamas did not understand the need to relinquish its stranglehold on Gaza, frankly, and the same way as Israel wants to maintain its control over the crossing points and so on, and wants the international community to reconstruct Gaza and wants the authority to go there and take over the crossing points. How can you do that? This configuration does not work. Hamas wants to keep its militias and wants to keep its security apparatus intact. Why should the PA send, or the president send his guards to the crossing points if, behind them, there are Hamas militias? You cannot do that. You have to come to an agreement on all these issues and you have to take over the institutions and you have to have third-party participation. Egypt has to play a positive role. It cannot play a negative role, regardless of its problems with Hamas, because it is the people of Gaza who are suffering. They are paying the price, and all of Palestine is paying the price because the rift continues. It weakens us and it undermines our standing, our credibility.

MEE: What is the future of the government of national accord?

Ashrawi: As it stands I don’t think it has much chance of continuing as it is, because I think that everybody is realizing the need for a strong government that can deliver. So there are two voices: there is one group that talks about expanding  this government - carrying out certain reforms, and others who talk about of having a government of national unity, of people who have standing, who are known, who are powerful, who will not be taken lightly. Now each proposal has its own drawbacks. If you have a government of national unity, which everybody wants, it is fine, but then they will be boycotted. Do we go back to 2006 or not, because the Palestinians were sanctioned when they elected Hamas. So now, if Hamas is part of the government, what will happen? Will they use the Lebanese precedent, for example, the world talking to all ministers, but the Hezbollah ministers, or will they use the Palestinian precedent of 2006 when they boycotted everything and then they destroyed our institutions which then gave rise to relief and welfare assistance and to an economy by smuggling? All the institutions that were held accountable that we were building were totally negated, and we were sent a clear message of hypocrisy - that democracy is good provided you elected the people we want. Otherwise, you pay the price. And that Israel can violate international law at will and not be held accountable, but you are sanctioned for doing the right thing, again.

So, it is a real dilemma. I believe you need, whether they are independents or if they represent factions and parties, you need strong, national figures capable of taking over these institutions. Hamas needs to know it cannot continue like this, and it cannot want a thing and its opposite simultaneously. You cannot blow up people's homes or cars or whatever and the platform for the commemoration of Arafat’s death, and then say we don’t know, and it is not our fault. You control every thing. You know where an ant walks in Gaza. You have to be able to provide this and you have to be able to relinquish. You cannot place your party's or movement ‘s interest above the interest of the people, which has been done historically. And Fatah has to know that Hamas is not going to disappear. It is part of the political fabric. It has its own institutions, its own people, its own constituency, and you have to learn how to live with it. You cannot have the monopoly over the political system the way they did before and not be challenged. So you have to come to a modus operandi based on democratic practices and principles to be able to have an inclusive democracy and power-sharing with everybody. And, unfortunately, factionalism has been a major detriment.

MEE: Does this include the recent bust-up between Abu Mazen and Dahlan?

Hanan: That’s an internal Fatah problem. It is not even Fatah, PLO and Hamas. Even within Fatah, you have these personal rivalries. You have these rifts that come out into the open. They really affect the credibility and the respect for the leadership. People stop me and ask me in the street. You look at Facebook. You listen to people who say, 'What is this?' This is making a mockery of the political system. Fatah is the major address for the PLO and national camp. So if Fatah is not well, if Fatah is collapsing, then the whole national system is not well, and Fatah has to do its own reform.

MEE: What are the chances of rebuilding the leadership of PLO?

Hanan: That has to happen. The Palestinian National Council is the parliament. It should be convened. Some people said that we convene to have elections, or do we have elections in order to convene a new one and how do you have election? How can you have PNC elections in Lebanon, in Syria, in Jordan? You cannot, so how do we go about the forming before we reform the PNC, because you cannot have an executive committee unless the PNC elects it, and you need to elect the PNC.

We can start with what exists. We can start with the departments that have been weakened. We can start with the PLO, the institutional political decision making which has been weakened and undermined. We can start with the PLO responsibilities and mandate to serve the Palestinians everywhere, which has been undermined by the fact that the PLO came here and is living under the occupation.

This is, I am not going to say obsolete, but it is really an old and tired system, and when I was elected to it, I  thought I could inject some new spirit, some energy, and it is an uphill struggle. It is set in its ways. It needs to be challenged. It t needs to be reformed. Now Hamas wants to be part of the PLO. How? By keeping it as it is, and putting together as per the agreement, a new committee without prejudice to the role of the PLO executive. That this committee, which is supposed to be for the reform and the activation, the rejuvenation of the PLO. Then they called it the new leadership committee. So the Hamas wants to be the leadership committee. In that sense, we do not need election. You can have the PLO executive as it is, then you can bring Hamas and Islamic Jihad and some independent factions, and keep it as it is - but expanded. This way Hamas will be part of the PLO expanded committee. It will keep the  PLC in place where it has a majority, but it is already expired, and it will stay in control of Gaza, so to speak, through the control of the national accord government because it cannot control it through the PLC.

It doesn’t work that way. It is not that we want to keep the PLO always with problems and weaknesses and just add more problems to it. I would like to, sort of, open it up. Wide open energize it, invigorate, transform the partners, the membership, have elections convene the PNC where we can. Change. I will keep talking about young people, the generations who have been excluded from decision making. We need elections they need to run.

MEE: Is the leadership not concerned that things will get out of control in the Palestinian street? You can have a situation where the agenda is set for you.

Ashrawi: Yes, people are unhappy with leadership. It is a system set in place, set in its ways, and it is not renewing itself, and it is not responding to the needs of the young. It needs to be able to  formulate strategies and policies professionally, and it needs to respond to the needs of the people. If you don’t have elections, you don’t feel the urgency, the imperative for change. Because they will not hold you accountable. They will not vote you out of office. That’s why we need elections. Secondly, even if we don’t have elections, you cannot come to agreements on divvying up the spoils. You need to come up with agreements on how to open up the system and make room for young people. The problem is, even if tomorrow you have a revolution and the young take over, which I dont mind - I think they should, they will inherit an impossible situation. They will inherit an occupation that is ruthless, cruel. We are in the siege. We cannot control our resources, our freedoms, our lives, our everything. They cannot change that. They will inherit an economic system that is dependent and that has been distorted. They will inherit agreements that they are not free to change, and if they change them, they will pay the price. They will have a situation where you have people who have needs and demands that are impossible to meet because you will inherit a biased US and an acquiescent EU. And, of course the Arabs, the Arab transition and the problems and the promises that never materialize, and so on. So I can understand the frustration of the young. They are not getting what they want from their only leadership, but they have not formulated their own policies, and they do not have the tools. What do they have to change the situation? I know young people who are working on environmental issues. This is lovely. We all want to do that, but I want to get rid out of this goddam occupation. That’s the only way we can control our resources, our land, our freedom and prevent people from leaving. That’s what we need. I think by any way we have to get rid out of this occupation. I call it an enslavement, a captivity. It has to end. So, anybody who takes over - you cannot have nation-building when you don't control your land, your resources, your people, anything. And you don't give people even the alternatives of knowing that if they take over, they will have a whole new way of dealing with things. 

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