Sunday, 17 February 2008

Interview with Lily Habash (President of the Palestinian Forum)

Lily Habash explains that the European approach to the Palestinian problem lacks the required political will, emphasizing that what the Palestinian people primarily need to safeguard their dignity is not humanitarian aid but the creation of infrastructure, free borders and sovereignty.

How has the everyday life of Gazans changed after the recent intensification of the punitive sanctions against the Gaza Strip?

First of all, I‘d like to say that I don’t live in Gaza but in Ramallah. Nonetheless, I am fully aware of the people suffering. You can imagine 1.5 million people being blocked in a small strip of land, not being able to move, not being able to find jobs, not being able to find the right medication and the last thing was the cutting of the electricity supply and fuel from them, so it’s a major comprehensive pre-meditated collective punishment for a whole population. The feeling is very bad, I feel very bad because I feel very helpless, I am not able to do anything for them. They are becoming increasingly helpless. The recent incident at the Rafah crossing point is only an indicator of how desperate the people are, of how hungry the people have become, so that they just blew up the wall. It’s very difficult; these are people who –for the last 60 years- have been denied the right to freedom, the right to move freely from one place to the other, the right to a normal life. What is happening in Gaza is truly beyond description, and it has reached to a level where it has become so dark that words are not enough to describe it. Every day there are children who die because of the lack of medication and on top of that there are constant attacks from Israel. A couple of days ago a friend of mine told me that all his family was wounded, one of his children has remnant of bullets in his eyes and another in his skull and... You know what is happening in Gaza damages the human spirit of dignity.

How has life in the Gaza Strip changed since the de facto government dominated by Hamas in June 2007?

First of all, the Gaza Strip was already besieged before even the advent of the Hamas government. Even from before, Gazans were not able to move freely, nor enjoy several fundamental human rights. What I want to tell you is that it has already been like this, but it did intensify since the advent of the Hamas government and again 1.5 million people were punished collectively for something that the Israelis did not approve of. But let us not forget that the Hamas government came through democratic elections, whether we like it or not. Following democratic elections, Hamas came to power due to a variety of reasons, one of which refers to the people’s frustration from what is called the “peace process”, and hence for relying on something that is more metaphysical than real.

Concerning the recent massive Palestinian passage to Egypt, to which extent will it affect the Egyptian-Israeli relations?

I don’t think their relations have been affected. You know, there are fears now that there’s some kind of an agreement to open up Gaza towards Egypt rather than open up Gaza towards the West Bank and thus scattering and separating what was supposed to be the Palestinian state in Gaza and in the West Bank. The Gazans fear there is some kind of an understanding between Egypt and Israel to gradually give Gaza back to Egypt. As you understand, this is going to be very destructive to the notion of a Palestinian nation. What happened with the opening of the Rafah crossing was a result of a spontaneous revolt coming from a very desperate, hungry and helpless people. If Gazans continue to be forced into frustration and hunger, it seems that this is the only practical solution for the time being. In the long run, however, it will be highly destructive to the potential of the creation of a Palestinian state on Gaza and the West Bank, which is already very complicated because Israel is in the middle.

Which -do you think- is the main factor that obstructs the realisation of a two-state solution? Is it the state of Jerusalem, the Israeli settlements...?

It’s Israel’s unilateral action in accelerating the settlement building, especially in the West Bank. Additionally, Israel’s apartheid wall is definitely an impediment. For a State to be built you need sovereignty and identified borders. We don’t have borders, neither inside the West Bank, not between the West Bank and Israel, and the same applies to Gaza. So, the main requirements of a state do not exist. And of course we need financial resources to build our State. We cannot have a free and prosperous economy if we don’t have free borders. For the moment, we are consumers of the occupation’s products. We are forced to use the money we get as an aid from the international community and the EU to buy Israeli products. In essence, this means that we are in a way supporting Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian land. We do not have an economy of our own, we don’t have a currency of our own and people are thus becoming like beggars rather than productive people. In Gaza almost 85% of the population are living under the poverty line. Thus, these people have lost all hope for living with dignity and putting food on the table for their children. They are being constantly dehumanised and they are left with no dignity whatsoever, and this is why some of them resort to extreme options.

What are the current relations between Hamas and Fatah? To what extent, do you think, can one expect conciliation between Fatah and Hamas in the future?

As long as the split between both major parties continues, it is almost like we are cooperating with the Israeli occupation; because what we are doing is actually realising Israel’s wish not to have a strong united Palestinian entity and to have people fighting over a pseudo-state. Because Palestine is a non-existent state, it does not even have the power to make its own decisions. What is this kind of Palestinian Αuthority that people have in Gaza if their Prime Minister cannot move from his house, if the Foreign Affairs’ minister’s son is killed? They have no deterring power when Israel bombards Gaza. It doesn’t make sense to me; I think one of the greatest impediments to establish a Palestinian state is actually the maintenance of the Palestinian Authority the way it is. Because the Palestinian Authority under the Israeli occupation has become a kind of a subcontractor for Israel’s security and the donors’ community is the subcontractor for Israel’s economic aid. Because at the end of the day, all the money that we get from the donors goes to Israel, as we are consuming their products. The Israeli occupation is a very luxurious one – they have subcontracted and free security and subcontracted and free economic aid. So I think its going to be very difficult for the current Palestinian leadership –whether it concerns Fatah or Hamas- to really sit and focus and decide that this cannot go on, because the “power balance” may not necessarily be for this kind of a national unity. Because who is the main decision maker in world affairs today? It is the USA, and the US don’t want to talk to Hamas because they consider them as terrorist and they are allying with Iran and Israel wants to destroy Iran, the EU doesn’t have any political say in regional affairs – especially in our region. EU has sufficed itself; it is satisfied by just paying the bills of the Israeli occupation. It’s quite sad really, because it is aid rather than enabling the Palestinians to live freely and create infrastructure, or make trade. Indeed, we do need international aid so that we carry on living, but on the other hand, this international aid is only prolonging the conflict; instead of working towards the termination of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian land, so that we can create our own infrastructure and be self-sustained, the international community is merely sustaining the current shameful situation. It is like a vicious circle and its very sad that no-one is able to really think outside the box. Because all the actors and the players are so consumed in maintaining each one’s roles and they cannot break out of their short-sightedness. The loser at the end of the day is the Palestinian cause: that is, the fate of the Palestinian people. A people that has been denied its dignity for the past 60 years, and it doesn’t seem that this will end because of the failure of Israel to end its occupation and because of the failure of the international community to hold Israel accountable to its responsibilities, not only as a country which should have allowed the existence of the Palestinian state but also as an occupying power in terms of its responsibility under the 4th Geneva Convention for safeguarding the rights of the population under occupation. So, it’s a whole machine and it doesn’t seem like it can stop. It seems that the world’s conscience has gone into a very long nap, it is in a comma actually, and it’s very difficult to wake everybody up and say enough is enough. It doesn’t seem like many people are really interested in making change, because people are so captive to their own interests. We have a very strong case but we have never been able to make it be heard. That’s a shortage on our side, and I don’t know if we can remedy this shortage now… because the Jewish lobby machinery is so strong that its controlling world media and it’s a very huge machine. And this machine is not only about media, its about intellectuals, its about people, its about friends, its about colleagues, and it is so strong partly because Israel is comprised of people who have been so infiltrated into the Western culture. So we are talking about ideas, about people living in those cultures. If I am your friend and you only know me, you adopt my story. I cannot blame you if you‘re not able to go look for the real truth. The people who are eager to look for the objective truth of the matter comprise a very, very small minority. Even for people who come to Israel-Palestine to cover media, because Israel is a lot stronger than us in terms of providing the story, so the media correspondents don’t really bother: they simply want to write a story, send it to their editor and it all ends there. The Israeli ideological machinery is so strongly institutionalised that –like Edward Said said- not only do Palestinians not have the right to narrate their sufferings, they don’t even have the opportunity to do so. We don’t have the political means to make our story heard.

Let me return to my previous question, as it is very crucial. Do you see any potential of conciliation between Hamas and Fatah?

Not now. It is my biggest utmost wish for them to unite, because in my opinion they are fighting over something that is non-existent – which is power and sovereignty. They should unite in order to make the pre-requisites for Palestine to ever exist as a true national entity. They should try to see how they can end the Israeli occupation. This, nonetheless, is going to be very complicated because it is not only Fatah and Hamas who are playing; in our battlefield, everybody is using us as pretexts to fight their own battles. We have many external players, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Israel… who benefit from the split between the Palestinian political leadership. It is like divide and rule and the Palestinians are so cornered now.

In regard to the Annapolis conference and consequent peace talks between Olmert and Abbas, to what extent can one hope for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Annapolis is just a worse version of Oslo. There is a lot of money but no political horizon whatsoever. It doesn’t seem that negotiations are going to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state. Even if they did –theoretically speaking- what kind of a Palestinian state would that be? It would be a state that would be completely controlled by Israel and we cannot have a real state unless we have free borders. If Israel keeps controlling the passage to our land, it is not a state but a pseudo-administration that is being subcontracted by the Israeli occupation. What I want to say is that I think that the situation has become so complicated that the stake holders in the whole thing

As a President of the Palestinian Forum, what are your expectations regarding the forthcoming change of US Government? Do you hope that the new government will follow a different foreign policy regarding the Palestinian problem?

It’s going to be very difficult because U.S. foreign policy regarding the Middle East has been the same for so long. There’s a whole system behind it and you do not change it at once. It depends on the willingness of the new president, of how much time they are ready to devote. It will be very difficult, however, because the time factor works against us. I think we will be losing at least one more year, if we do not get any way forward by the end of 2008 and we wait for the new American elections, it’s going to be at least two years having people being helpless, but at the same time Israel is unilaterally changing the facts in the ground (with settlement building) and making it even more difficult. So far I am not so sure about the balance of power, I am not so sure about what will happen, or of any potential wars. In reality, it all depends on who this new American administration will bring in terms of advisors for the Middle East, and so far most of the previous governments have had Jewish advisors, Jewish generals, Jewish ambassadors who are working in the conflict. And this really weakens the neutrality or the mediation/position of the U.S.’s involvement in the conflict. At the end of the day, the all feel pro-Jewish. I don’t blame them but this is a very imbalanced situation. It also depends on how much the Arabs will be able to lobby in the U.S. but this will take many-many years and it will even depends on whether the Arabs in the U.S. will still be interested in fighting for the Palestinian issue.

* Lily Habash, a strong advocate of a modern Palestinian State, has been working with the Palestinian Authority since it was first created. Ms. Habash served as special adviser to the chief Palestinian negotiator during the Permanent Status Negotiations with Israel, and was a member of the Palestinian Technical Support Unit in economic negotiations with Israel. She has also played key roles in the PLO Negotiations Support Unit; the Palestinian Media Center; and the Office of the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister, where she has worked on issues of internal reform. Ms. Habash has worked closely and in advisory positions with several high-ranking Palestinian leaders, including the ex-Prime Minister as well as the Minister of National Security.

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