An interview with Hanan Ashrawi
Ashrawi, academic and political activist, served from 1996-98 as
Minister of Education under the Palestinian Authority. She was educated
at the American University in Beirut and got her PhD in comparative
literature at the University of Virginia. She’s one of the
most well-known representatives of the Palestinian viewpoint. She
is the author of
Intifada to Independence
This Side of Peace
Palestinians are often described as “refugees,”
as “terrorists,” “a problem,” and even for many
decades a “question, as in “the question” of Palestine.
How do you breathe life and humanity into those sterile reductions?
ASHRAWI: The important thing is to break through misconceptions,
preconceptions, stereotypes, and exclusion because from the beginning
we were told that we didn’t exist. The Zionist slogan was:
A land without a people, for a people without a land. We were dismissed
and cast outside the course of history. So we’ve had to start
by affirming our humanity, by defying these terms, and by providing
a human narrative that is not so reduced and not just in relation
to someone else. It’s been a very difficult struggle because
the deck is stacked.
the many decades of the Palestinian struggle, at least in the United
States, it has been difficult for the Palestinians to advance their
point of view. Why is that?
a variety of reasons. First, we were dismissed as if we didn’t
exist. Then our existence was recognized only through the terms
of reference of the Israelis—the enemy, so to speak. There
were other issues. We are the foreign, the alien, the other. We
were labeled as the people who speak a strange language, have this
different religion. So we were excluded from the Judeo-Christian
tradition, even though Christianity and Judaism started in Palestine.
Palestine has always been pluralistic. We’ve never been only
Christian or only Muslim or only Jewish.
the horror of the Holocaust is still part of Western consciousness
and culture and, in many cases, people feel the need to assuage
their guilt for anti-Semitism—which is a Western phenomenon,
by the way, not an Eastern or Arab one—that Israel’s sins
have to be forgiven entirely. That Israel has to be supported blindly
and the Palestinians can be conveniently dismissed in order to cope
with this painful legacy.
of the typical arguments that some Israelis make is that there is
one homeland for the Jewish people, who have historically suffered
persecution and tremendous tragedy, and there are 22 Arab states
where Palestinians can go to practice their customs, speak Arabic,
eat their food. You’re chuckling. How do you respond?
like telling a French person, “Why do you want France? You
have all these countries in Europe and they’re united, so why
not give up France and give it to some other people?”
have our identity, our history, and our culture as Palestinians.
We can trace our history back at least 5,000 years in Palestine.
I belong to the oldest, continuous Christian tradition in the world.
So you cannot tell me that we are just a phenomenon on the surface
of the earth that can be removed.
horror of the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jews needed to
be dealt with, but not at the expense of the Palestinians, by dismissing
us, by saying, “You can conveniently disappear or we can carry
out ethnic cleansing or you can live as refugees.” We have
now five million refugees who are at the mercy of host countries
that don’t want them. The rest of the Palestinians are living
under military occupation. Do you tell the Palestinians that for
the convenience of the West and the sake of solving the Jewish question,
you have to pay the price?
people a sense of what daily life is like in the occupied territories.
I’ve been to the occupied territories a couple of times. There
is a dramatic contrast between the settlements and where Palestinians
of my South African friends tell me this is much worse than apartheid
because we are living on our own land, under occupation, and we
have an apartheid system of bringing in settlers with their own
laws and privileges and who have the power of life and death over
Palestinians. Palestinians are living in a state of siege in isolated
towns unable to move, not just from one town or refugee camp to
the other, but within our towns and villages because of the curfews.
They confiscate our land. They bring in settlers, in countervention
of the Fourth Geneva Convention and international law. The settlers
come mainly from the U.S. and Russia. They say that God gave them
this land so they have more right to it than we do, who own it legally
and have been living there for thousands of years. Then they settled
there, armed to the hilt, and have to take more land in order to
expand—“natural growth” as they say. Then they have
to take more land for their industry or agriculture. Then they need
even more land to build bypass roads. These are a unique form of
racist roads, because they are built on Palestinian land, but are
for the sole use of Israeli settlers who use them to bypass the
recently we have military invasions of cities and towns where the
civilians are defenseless. We have house demolitions, constant shelling.
We have curfews so for days on end we are prisoners in our own homes.
There is the policy of assassinations—activists, political
leaders, military people being assassinated by Israel deliberately.
there is a feeling of fear, insecurity, and a breakdown in our institutions,
infrastructure, and services—our roads, electricity, water,
even crops and trees have been destroyed and uprooted. The economy
is non-existent. About 70 percent live under the poverty level,
unemployment close to 67 percent, our health system has fallen apart.
For the first time in history we see people suffering from malnutrition
in Palestine. The fabric of our lives—human contact, communication,
freedom of movement—they don’t exist; communities are
add insult to injury, we have a Palestinian Authority that is not
democratic, to put it mildly, and hasn’t made the right decisions
for its people. At the same time, we have some extremists who are
reacting to the situation by doing unto others what has been done
to them; by carrying out suicide bombings and violent attacks against
civilians in Israel. That has created a cycle of revenge and pain
that is very hard to break, although we are trying desperately to
issue of suicide bombers comes up inevitably. “What about the
suicide bombers? How do you feel about women and children being
blown up? What about the Passover Seder bombing?” How do you
provide some context to these horrible events?
targeting of civilians is inexcusable and cannot be justified. The
problem is people feel you’re justifying it when you tell them,
“A suicide bomber is not born, he or she is made”—they
emerge from a situation of tremendous injustice, or hopelessness,
or even extreme ideology. We’ve never had a suicidal culture
in Palestine. So this is an aberration. It’s something very
strange and very recent, from the mid-1990s. They started as a reaction
to the 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacre in the Ibrahimi mosque in
Hebron. Then there was the assassination of a couple of leaders
from Islamic Jihad and Hamas. The worse the situation becomes, the
more desperate and hopeless people are, the more extremism gains
sway. Extremism on one side feeds extremism on the other.
difference is that it’s the Israeli army and the Israeli government
that does these things to the Palestinians and among the Palestinians
the extreme organizations that are doing that are the opposition.
Many people describe the suicide bombers as the poor man’s
equivalent of the F-16. When they are being bombed by F-16s, they
turn their own bodies into weapons. But that’s no justification.
I’m saying this to place it in context.
there a sense of competing victimization between the two communities?
seen this in different places in the world: who suffers more? The
exclusivity of suffering, a monopoly on pain. I’ve been saying
to everybody: just because you have suffered does not give you license
to inflict the same suffering on others. The mentality of the victim
is not healthy or constructive. It has been exploited repeatedly
to carry out actions that are inherently cruel and immoral because
somehow you feel holier-than-thou. Your suffering should not make
you feel holy, it should make you humbled because you understand
the meaning of pain, the meaning of humanity, and you should make
sure it does not happen to others.
Sharon government and its spokespeople constantly say that the Israelis
don’t have a negotiating part
ner and they are impl
these measures purely in self-defense; they’re responding to
terrorism. How do you counter that
the government that stopped negotiations was the Sharon government.
Sharon said he would not negotiate a peace agreement and would batter
the Palestinians into submission—and he resorted to violence.
This coalition government in Israel is the most lethal combination.
It has the worst elements of Israeli society and has undermined
the peace camp in Israel that was our counterpart. So it is very
clear who doesn’t want to negotiate and who has a militaristic
and anti-peace agenda. There was no change in the Palestinian leadership.
On the contrary, they were willing to be even more accommodating.
So it’s not a lack of partners, it’s a lack of will, vision,
of the stories that is told revolves around Camp David in 2000 where
Clinton and Ehud Barak, then prime minister, and Arafat were all
present. The typical story—as told by Thomas Friedman in
New York Times
on PBS and many other venues—is that
Arafat got the deal of a lifetime. The Israelis made unprec
offers, but Arafat rejected them and the Al-Aqsa Intifada started
almost immediately. What’s wrong with that story?
has very little to do with reality. Sharon and chief of staff Shaul
Mofaz and these guys talk about it as if they were at Camp David.
Negotiations at Camp David were not finalized. There was nothing
in writing. Ideas were being discussed so it wasn’t as if they
offered Arafat something that he turned down. I have my disagreements
with Arafat, but in all honesty what was being discussed was an
end to the conflict, according to Barak, and no further claims for
the Palestinians. If we had agreed to this unwritten offer, then
they would keep between 10 to 12 percent of the West Bank; they
would maintain three big settlement clusters containing 80 percent
and they would annex them to Israel; they would control our airspace
and our crossing points and many of our resources and we would have
to relinquish the right of return for the Palestinians and they
would share East Jerusalem with us. This means we would be left
with three separate Bantustans incapable of any type of territorial
or economic viability and with a new type of occupation and control.
But they didn’t say, “That’s it, we’re
going home.” It was Barak who said, “Take it or leave
those who tell you that in Camp David we were offered the moon and
we turned it down, either they’re willfully misrepresenting
reality to blame the Palestinians, or they haven’t looked at
Bush has met with Ariel Sharon at least six times since Sharon became
prime minister in 2001. Bush has referred to Sharon as “a man
of peace.” How does the average citizen see Ariel Sharon? What
is his history vis-à-vis the Palestinians?
Palestinians know Sharon very well. He is viewed as a war criminal.
He was responsible for the notorious 101 Unit that was in charge
of terrorizing Palestinian villages and destabilizing the situation.
Sharon conducted the Qibya massacre. He was responsible for what
they call “the cleansing of Gaza.” Even the Israeli
Kahan Commission found him indirectly responsible for the massacres
in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. Historically,
he knows no language except voting against any peace agreements
or negotiating process and for resorting to the military options,
was astounding that George Bush would describe Sharon as “a
man of peace.” The Israelis laughed. They call him “the
Bulldozer.” They know he’s responsible for the death of
thousands of Palestinians and for his adventurism and his militarism.
He’s a real threat because he’s also what they call a
fundamentalist Zionist. He wants to complete what he calls “Israel’s
war of liberation,” which means annexing the rest of Palestine—the
West Bank and Gaza—destroying the possibility of any viable
the history of U.S. support for Israel—billions of dollars
in aid and diplomatic and military support as well—why would
Palestinian leaders and Abdallah of Jordan and Hosni Mubarak of
Egypt call on the United States to negotiate a settlement to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I don’t understand that.
Arab regimes that you mentioned are allies of the U.S. and many
of them have a made in the U.S. stamp.
Arafat is constantly calling for the U.S. to get involved, to take
an active initiative.
U.S. is the only superpower that can influence Israel. Also, there
is the assumption in the Arab world, among the Arab regimes, that
their source of legitimacy comes from American approval and not
from their own people or the democratic representation of their
you envision a Palestinian leadership, secular, democratic, beyond
certainly can. Arafat has significance because of his historical,
symbolic role. But I believe there is a need for a young, democratic,
secular leadership that would really represent the Palestinian people.
The old guard and the mentality of the revolution have maintained
a stronghold on the nation-building process and on the Palestinian
people and have done a real disservice to them.
Sharon in power, what are the prospects for peace?
very good. I don’t think there’s any chance for achieving
a negotiated settlement, let alone a genuine peace, with this government
in place. We have to work with the Israeli public and the Israeli
peace camp. It’s up to the Israelis to change their government.
Once they realize that their government has destroyed their security,
is destroying their chance of peace, has destroyed their economy,
and destroyed the relations and confidence between both peoples,
ultimately this government has to be held accountable. It’s
a reckless, dangerous government.
have an ongoing dialogue with Israeli women’s groups and the
Israeli peace camp. They’re the ones who have to feel empowered.
Unfortunately, the Labor Party joining the coalition government
has split and the peace camp is in disarray, but ultimately I think
they will reach the right conclusions, that there will be a peace
government with a counterpart in Palestine. The only solution has
to be a peaceful solution. But the question of security is one that
has to be redefined and addressed. It is an outcome of peace, not
a prerequisite to peace.
is the basis for a final settlement ?
very simple and we’ve said it repeatedly. Israel should withdraw
from those territories it occupied in 1967—all of them. That’s
it—the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.
We’ve agreed that Israel would keep the 78 percent of historical
Palestine. We will build our state on 22 percent. The two-state
solution is the only solution. We’re not going to disappear.
They’re not going to be able to carry out genocide or ethnic
cleansing or expulsion. The Israelis are not going to disappear.
So let’s work on establishing good neighborly relations by
accepting the 1967 lines and by having a just solution to
the Palestinian refugee problem. That is a major human demographic
problem and it destabilizes the whole region. Once you solve the
two components—the land that is the 1967 boundaries, the people,
which would include the refugees, and the UN resolutions, you would
have it. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that, but it
does take a lot of warped minds to try to find ways to prevent such
a solution from taking place.