‘Everybody wants to lead a normal life’
The terrorist attack on the United States on September 11 sent shock waves around the world. Along with the fear, grief and anger came the sense that everything that we knew had changed or would have to change. Beyond the rubble and the thousands of victims came disbelief at the realization that the unthinkable could happen in the heart of the United States. Suddenly New York and Washington were one of the world’s conflict zones. This focused renewed attention on international trouble spots, especially the Middle East. Kathimerini’s English Edition spoke with the ambassadors of Israel (in the edition of September 13) and the Palestinian Authority (on Monday) on how the Mideast situation had changed following the unprecedented attacks, where the protagonists stood on the Middle East issue and what the future holds. Below is the interview with Abdullah Abdullah, the Palestinian ambassador. Do you think the Taleban have won such legitimacy the people of Afghanistan will be sorry to see them go? They probably have some legitimacy, and it appears that they have good support. The opposition, which is backed by outside forces, have not managed to secure more ground, and even have less than they had years ago. What has drawn attention is that the Taleban’s response to what’s happening sounds logical. They’re asking for proof; they’re not absolving themselves from their responsibility, indirect responsibility. And they’re not taking joy in what happened, from the human side of it. Their attitude is not to be faulted. Of course, they need to cooperate more, which is expected of them. But their request before any accusations are leveled at any parties in their midst is probably dictated by a sense of sovereignty, that they cannot be dictated to. But I hope that there will be cool heads on both sides. Calm heads and reason will guide everybody within the framework of the rule of law, guided by international law and legitimacy to handle all these problems. Conflict resolution is an art in itself, it is a science. Good will and strong resolve can help remove the root causes of tension or conflict. And the world will be better to live in. What happened in New York and Washington is a great shock. It moves the conscience of every human. And mind you, probably we are the first to understand what it means, because every day our people go through this experience. For a Palestinian who witnesses his – probably – one-bedroom apartment or house destroyed by an F-16 rocket, his children left out in the open air, to him that house is exactly like the World Trade Center. It is all that he has in life. So it is easy for him identify with the victims of the World Trade Center. And therefore we have always been calling for international efforts to protect the unprivileged, to protect the victim from his victimization. The Israelis say the same thing, that they are the victims of terrorism, of suicide bombers who kill their children in discotheques and pizzerias. We don’t condone that. We don’t condone that at all. On the contrary, we are on record publicly taking a strong position against causing harm to any civilian, be it Israeli, Palestinian, American or Vietnamese or South African. But here the conflict in the Middle East did not start the day that a suicide attack took place. It comes as an attempt, unjustified, to let the other side share the pain -so he can understand what his occupation is doing, what his humiliation of the other party, i.e. the Palestinian, is doing. What the policy of assassination carried out extrajudicially by the Israeli government is doing. And we have a very simple approach to that. Let peace prevail. So both Israelis and Palestinians will be winners. But if the occupation persists, then both Israelis and Palestinians will be losers. Why was the Camp David agreement not good enough for the Palestinians? It was some ideas presented by a third party. The end result of it is continued Israeli sovereignty in the Palestinian territories, and Israeli control of the water resources, airspace, and international crossing points. Even the Palestinian territory to be the base for a Palestinian state is not integral. It’s divided into Bantustan-like fragments with Israeli roads and settlements cutting through. And that means the perpetuation of Israeli occupation. Did Israel not offer 97 percent of what you wanted, plus another 3 percent separately? Then you think that the Palestinians are stupid enough not to accept it? (Former Israeli PM Ehud) Barak himself wrote in August in the (International) Herald Tribune that territories offered by Mr. Barak were 85 percent of Palestine. When they talk about 97 percent they don’t include the Greater Jerusalem area, which is 23 percent of the West Bank. They don’t include a strip along the Jordan River in the east and another strip along the line of 1967 called a Green Line in the west. We entered into peace negotiations with the Israelis by signing the Oslo Agreement in 1993, called a declaration of principles, with the intention of implementing Resolution 242 and 338, Security Council resolutions, and based on the principle of land for peace. We agreed on a five-year interim period to prepare the psychology on both sides to accept the historical compromise where the Palestinian side forgoes 78 percent of Palestine to Israel. We accepted that based on the two precedents with Egypt and Jordan, where peace treaties were concluded with Israel after the latter withdrew from all territories occupied in 1967. Instead of following these precedents, we found that Israel was not honoring its commitments emitting from the agreements signed with the Palestinian side during the interim period. Such as? More Palestinian land was confiscated. More Israeli settlements, or colonies, were built, and more bypass roads, especially for use by Israeli settlers in cutting through the Palestinian territories which prevents the continuation of territorial integrity of the future Palestinian state. How has the world changed since September 11? The world, I think, changed because the world has to become more serious. And when I say the world I mean the United States of America. It has been hurt. And let us hope that pain will unite us with the Americans – the very pain that used to separate us in the past. Remember that the Palestinian baby who was killed in the lap of his mother was killed by an American-made rocket, that the 27 Palestinian police stations leveled to the ground were destroyed by American-made F-16s and Apache helicopters. That when we cry for international protection against this senseless and barbaric aggression, the Americans will turn their deaf ear to us and prevent the Security Council from intervening and offering its protection. Because they are hypnotized into believing that the Palestinian victims are the aggressors and the Israeli occupation is a God-given gift and blessing to the Palestinians. It is clear that Mr. Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, wanted to manipulate and to exploit the sad events in the United States of America to his advantage. I believe the Americans are called upon to be fair and to look objectively at what is happening in the Middle East. We only ask them to know that we want justice. For all. And that our people have the right to pursue happiness. That is the American Declaration of Independence. The United States appears to have been pushing for progress in the past week… They have. That is what gives us some hope. I think that they are not only pushing. They are realizing how the Israeli prime minister so adamantly and arrogantly opposed European and American efforts for a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict. Because solving the Middle East question will deny the extremists on either side a case for continuing their aggressive acts or strengthening their camp. What kind of relationship can there be between the Palestinian question and the September 11 terrorist attacks? Fairness. Universality. You cannot fight terrorism in one country and ignore it in another, or sometimes support it. Occupation is the worst kind of terrorism. Where humans are demonized. People are humiliated. Freedom is denied and human rights are violated. So the first step is to end occupation. No more arguments of mythology, the arguments of God being a real estate agent. This doesn’t work any more. The slogan land without people does not convince anybody (this is what the Zionists said, that Palestine is a land without people and they are a people without a land so they fit together). Because here we are. We are the people of Palestine, who have been here for centuries. That is why we insist on a durable solution to deal with the question of the Palestinian refugees who were forced from their homes. They need to have a fair deal for their suffering, for the loss of their property and their dispersal to the four corners of the world. A lot of the extremism in the Palestinian territory has come from groups opposed to the Palestinian Authority, who have accused it of not governing well or violating human rights. That can be a reaction to things beyond the Israeli occupation… It’s because of the Israeli occupation. First there was no consensus in Palestinian circles when the peace process started in Palestine. Some of them believed that the Israelis are not serious about peace. And the unfortunate thing is that successive Israeli governments supplied them with strong arguments for their cause; by not implementing the agreements signed, the continued confiscation of Palestinian land, and exploiting Palestinian water resources at the expense of the Palestinians themselves. These agreements were not supportive. But the Palestinian Authority was serious enough to uphold it where it felt that it could sacrifice individual freedoms for the sake of collective or national freedom. Therefore anyone opposed to the peace process was in some cases silenced in an undemocratic way, with all the pain that this violation causes the Palestinian Authority. Let’s go back to September 11. You say that the pain the Americans felt can make them feel the pain of other people… We hope so. I mean this is just… But do you think the people who planned this terrorist attack had the Palestinian question in mind or is this an excuse for something else? I don’t know. Nobody knows. Because if you were to list those who were unhappy or opposed to the American policies, they are numerous. Definitely, one of them but not all of them, it’s not exclusive, is the American policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. But what is decisive is that there are extremist groups, not only among Arabs or the Muslims. In every nation there are extremists. Remember that the perpetrator of the Oklahoma bombing was not an Arab or a Muslim. And those who pumped poisonous gas into the metro tunnels in Tokyo were not Arabs or Muslims. And those who demonstrated in Seattle, in Genoa and in Gothenburg against globalization and economic exploitation have their own case against the Americans. Even those who attended the Durban anti-racism conference have their grievances against the American position. Since we still do not have a concrete theory about the perpetrators of the September 11 attack, it is not fair to prejudge without concrete evidence and thus conclude an exhaustive scenario of that event. But no doubt it is a very strong and bloody warning that the whole civilized world should contemplate and find ways to address the root causes of these events, where punishing the perpetrators and their supporters is included. I don’t want to get into hypothetical scenarios, but do you see danger in the foreseeable future for a peaceful outcome? It is a big challenge. We tend to be more academics than fortune-tellers. It’s a big challenge to try to reduce if not remove the causes of feeling outside the mainstream. The feeling of being outcast. The feeling of being undesirable. Is this the motive behind an attack like this, whatever the source? It’s very difficult to pinpoint accurately the motives but there are elements that contribute and we here can only speculate. We are not privy to the intelligence reports and evaluations. Let’s return more specifically to the Middle East. How will peace be achieved? I think that Israelis and Palestinians are not speaking on the same wavelength when it comes to peace. We believe that Israel must withdraw from all territories occupied in 1967… The Israelis so far don’t have an approach for peace. Still, in the Israeli government there are people who believe that the whole of the Palestinian territory is theirs… You get Palestinians saying that all of Palestine is theirs… We have an authority, a leadership, that contributed to the historic compromise, to accepting 22 percent of Palestine. Since 1993 we proved we are willing to work with, to compromise with the Israeli government of the day to achieve this goal. But we didn’t find the Israeli leader after Rabin (who accepted this)… In Sharon’s coalition, the majority hold racist ideas, literally racist, from their chief rabbis to their political leaders. They are the ones who convinced Sharon to cancel the meeting for the third time between President Arafat and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres [on Sunday]. If they recognized they are occupiers of the 1967 territory, we could end this tomorrow. But they think this is their inheritance from God and we are intruders, therefore we should be content with what they give us. This does not work. We are the indigenous people of Palestine. We have historic rights. It’s our memories, our culture, our civilization, our history, our future in that country. We say us and them, they want us or them. And this formula does not work; it is a recipe for the continuation of conflict. Rabin believed in us and them. And he stood up to the opposition in the Israeli political structure and among world Jewry… Because he arrived at the conclusion that Israel cannot annihilate the Palestinian people, nor can it keep occupying them forever, he accepted the need to end the Israeli occupation and to build peace with the Palestinians. And probably this is why he was assassinated on the 4th of November, 1995. We’re still waiting for a brave Israeli prime minister to conclude a peace treaty with the Palestinian leadership based on the principle of the Madrid peace conference of 1999, i.e. the principles of land for peace and the implementation of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. You’re waiting for a brave prime minister? We hope that the United States and Europe will help Israel to take the wise decision of peace with the Palestinians based on mutuality, respect and coexistence. What can the Palestinians do to contribute to this? The Palestinian leadership has been tested in the past eight years. How can you meet each other? What has to be done? The meeting scheduled with Mr. Peres is a step in the right direction. Despite the frustration we have had from the prime minister, our hand is still extended to the Israelis to achieve for us and for them. Can President Arafat control the bombings? President Arafat is leading a people and he does not silence his people through force or herd them, but through showing them a light of hope. The Palestinians, when they realize that there is a concerted effort, regionally or internationally, or both, to advance the peace process with some sense of seriousness, will give everything they can to offer the chance for success. Are moderate Arabs responsible for tolerating an increase in extremism? Is worse extremism coming? Extremism is not the result of Arab moderates, it is the outcome of despair, of lack of hope. When life equals death. That is the fertile opportunity for extremism. Therefore we should not close the options for a people. Otherwise no one on earth can stop them. In regard to those Palestinians who carried out suicide attacks, one of them was a Palestinian bus driver who smashed into an Israeli army stop outside Tel Aviv. He is not known to have any connection whatsoever with any political or religious group. But feeling the frustration, seeing how the Palestinian boy was killed while trying to hide behind his father, seeing that many of his relations cannot find work to bring bread to their children, led him to the point of despair where he probably did what he did without rationalizing or thinking of the outcome of his action. So no one feels happy at the murder of a human being. But remember, when the Israeli F-16 is sent to bombard a neighborhood in a Palestinian city or village, it is even worse than the suicide bomber because it is coming from a government decision at the highest level. Therefore, to stem these acts of violence will not be done by retaliatory acts, by overpowering the other side, but rather by changing course and choosing the route to peace. That will end terrorism? Absolutely. Everybody wants to live, to lead a normal life. To raise a family. Is Yasser Arafat’s life safe? I don’t think that he has ever considered the question. I think he’s a man of strong belief. He’s been subjected to assassination attempts that are too many to count. Nine years ago he survived a plane crash. In our part of the world we are strong believers, in the positive sense, that every life starts and ends (except for those who commit suicide), they believe that their life ends when it is destined to end. He is one of those who believes this. And I agree with that. It is not an issue really. We do not lose sleep over that. Do you fear greater extremism with the American retaliation? Yes. And therefore my concern is for two things. Number one is to be accurate in choosing the targets and have strong evidence to support the punishment. And second, retaliation is expected to be within the framework of international law and international legitimacy. But the United States is in a state of war. They are not alone in this war. But you can’t fight ghosts. You have to define your target and you have to have solid evidence. No one denies the United States the right to retaliate. But instead of an indiscriminate attack, the voices that we hear from the staunch allies is really to have reason guide their decisions. Are you afraid at all of the Palestinian question being identified with the September 11 attacks? No. There was no Palestinian involved. We have no enmity with the Americans. Maybe we criticized their policies but we have no enmity with the people. No Palestinian ever committed an attack against Americans. On the contrary, remember in the 1970s it was the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) that protected the Americans in Beirut and secured their departure when they were evacuated. This was officially recognized even by the secretary of state at the time, Henry Kissinger. Peace talks in Athens? It happened that Foreign Minister George Papandreou was the first European official to be in the region after the 11th of September (on September 15-16). He was briefed by both the Israelis and the Palestinians on the current situation. He offered, as the foreign minister of Greece and as a European official, to help facilitate contacts for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Athens was offered as a venue for such a meeting. The Palestinian side agreed that some subsequent meetings could be held in Athens, given that the first meeting (between Arafat and Peres) was scheduled to take place in the region (at Gaza international airport). Greece, of course, has a strong voice and at the European emergency summit last Friday it focused on the Palestinian question and the Middle East. I think that Greece is ready, or prepared, to play a constructive role envisaged in the future contacts of negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis.