Continuing the Palestinian Struggle, Part 2

This interview with distinguished Palestinian author, activist, poet, and journalist Fouzi El-Asmar is a follow-up to one this author published in Arabisto in February 2012. There Dr. El-Asmar shared his thoughts about the Arab uprisings and the importance of culture to the Palestinian liberation movement, in the context of analyzing the problematics of Zionism, Israeli nationhood and related matters that affect the lives and well-being of Palestinians. Here Dr. El-Asmar discusses Al-Ard [The Land], a political organization he helped found in Palestine during the late 1950s but whose history and perspective have been marginalized if not largely absented from most narratives about the Palestinian liberation movement. In turn Dr. El-Asmar draws instructive connections between that political experience and relevant issues shaking the contemporary Arab and Muslim world.

TG:  It is probably fair to say that most narratives about Palestinian liberation situate the origins of post-1948 Palestinian political activity at the formation and founding of the PLO. In turn, ensuing discussion of Palestinian politics to this day tends largely to focus on recognized institutional, especially national and religious, structures at the expense of people’s movements and initiatives. By contrast, the composition and history of Al-Ard calls into question such a limited narrative. Can you give readers some background of Al-Ard and explain the rationale for its founding?
FE:  The Al-Ard movement was founded in 1958, following the split between the Communist Party in Israel, a majority of whose members and supporters were Palestinian, and the Palestinian national movement. During that period a split had occurred in the Arab world, when Gamal Abdel Nasser, then the leader of the Arab national movement, entered into a conflict with the Communist Party in Iraq over political principles. The latter started attacking him, and he in turn attacked them, and the result was a split that affected Palestinians inside Israel. The Palestinian nationalist group, at the time called al-Jabhah al-Sha‘biyyah, or the Popular Front, which was previously in unity with the Communist Party, split from it.

Now, the main thing for the Arabs in Israel was the land—which is how we got the name Al-Ard. I was one of the founders along with my mother, Najla El-Asmar, who had been a Palestinian activist and writer since before 1948. Al-Ard started the independent national movement for the Palestinians in Israel, connecting the struggle and demands of the Palestinians in Israel to Palestinian demands in general. Among other things it called for solving the refugee problem and recognizing that the main power in the Middle East is the Arab nation, to which Israel must adjust itself in order to exist there. When Al-Ard split from the Communist Party, it not surprisingly garnered a big following. Nasser was very popular, so the majority went with Al-Ard, and during the next Israeli elections, the Communist Party went from having six to only three members in the Knesset.
TG:  How did the Israeli government react to Al-Ard?
FE:  In the beginning, the Israeli authorities favored Al-Ard because it was hurting the Communist Party, so they let it alone for a while. Some time later they decided that for them, Al-Ard was a dangerous group, and they started fighting us. They arrested some of our members, and when we asked for permission to publish a newspaper, they refused. So we did something else: we started publishing a newspaper in Israel called Al-Ard, according to the British Mandate rule for which each person may publish only one issue of a newspaper. We used the name "Al-Ard," but each group member would publish a different issue of the paper using a slightly altered title each time, for example Shad [“Smell of”] Al-Ard, which was the name of the second issue, Kalamat [“Words of”] Al-Ard, which was the name of the third issue, and so on. In fact this is something that the Jews themselves did before 1948, when the British wouldn’t allow them to publish organizational newspapers. We ended up publishing twelve issues. During the production of the thirteenth issue, the police raided the printing house and confiscated all our materials.
TG:  What were Al-Ard’s other activities and accomplishments, and how were they received by Israelis?
FE:  The story of Al-Ard is long. It fought for the rights of the Palestinians in Israel. It demonstrated and wrote against the confiscation of Palestinian land. It agitated for Palestinian literature, with its national aspirations, to be included in the educational curriculum. Until that time, for example, we were allowed to study poetry in Arabic, but Palestinian poets were excluded from the canon. Al-Ard also fought for equal rights for Palestinians and in the beginning tried to engage with certain Jewish-Israeli parties and activists. We had several meetings with Uri Avnery, for instance, then head of Semitic Action, which amounted to nothing in the end. Some Israeli parties tried to negotiate a formal relationship with Al-Ard but demanded that we engage with them on an equal footing, which of course was impossible given the practical realities of the Israeli electoral system. In addition we were frequently attacked by the Communist Party. So Al-Ard decided early on not to engage with these parties and to establish itself independently.
TG: In that light, what else did Al-Ard do?
FE:  Notwithstanding the harassment sustained by its members, who were either put in Israeli jails or sent into internal exile (e.g., moved forcibly from Nazareth to the Negev), Al-Ard decided to run candidates for the Knesset. At that time there was no independent Arab party; all the Arab parties were related to, or part of, one of the Zionist parties, such as Mapai or Avodah. The Israelis would deploy a kind of trick whenever attempts were made to establish an independent Arab party. Israeli electoral rules at the time required a certain number of petition signatures, maybe 750, for a party to be accepted on the ballot. (The rules changed in 1992 to 100.) But whenever a party would submit a valid petition, the Shin Bet [Israeli Security Agency] would pay visits to some of the signers and force them to withdraw their signatures, so that legally that party could not run candidates. Al-Ard did something different: it collected 5000 signatures or more! That number was so difficult for the authorities to hide or undo that they resorted to taking Al-Ard to the Supreme Court where, citing its party platform, they accused it of opposing the existence of the state of Israel. Sure enough, the Court decided to exclude Al-Ard from elections, it forbade all association with Al-Ard and prohibited the publication of any newspapers using its name.

After that, Al-Ard became the basis for the Arabs in Israel to focus on another initiative—a national initiative. The Abnaa el-Balad (Sons of the Country) formed in several Arab villages and towns within the Israeli “Triangle,” as did other organizations which worked like Al-Ard but used different names and were more careful with respect to Israeli rules—such strategies have in fact been pursued to this day. Azmi Bishara, for example, who was a very young man at the time—we used to call him one of our children—established the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), which still exists. The Muslims established a party, too. Thus was the influence of Al-Ard: it gave the Arabs in Israel a national injection, which became the basis for much of what developed since then in Palestinian politics.
TG: Can you clarify the specific ideological differences between the Communist Party and Al-Ard?
FE:  Obviously the Communist Party is not a nationalist party, although it describes itself as anti-Zionist. Its leader, Meir Vilner, however, signed the Israeli declaration of independence, so it couldn’t take a position against Jewish immigration to Israel. Al-Ard opposed Jewish immigration because it occurred at the expense of Palestinians and their land. It must be said that the Communist Party was the only official party that fought seriously against the confiscation of Palestinian land and the displacement of Palestinians, and produced principled Arabic literature on behalf of the Palestinian struggle. While Al-Ard shared those principles, it did so from a nationalist perspective that positioned Palestinians as part of the Arab world and the Arab national movement, and saw Israel’s adjustment to them as the solution to the Palestinian question. The Communist Party did not share this particular view.
TG:  Some historians, especially in the West, are inclined to believe that pan-Arabism is outmoded, even though it garnered significant support during the recent Egyptian elections, a fact barely acknowledged in the Western media. Do you think the current Arab uprisings entail a renewal of certain crucial aspects of 1950s-60s pan-Arabism that Al-Ard favored and that may hold promise for the contemporary Arab and Muslim world, particularly in Palestine?
FE:  This question contains at least ten more questions! First of all, during the Egyptian elections, the Nasserites came in third. Nobody expected that. Arab people still have nationalist feelings. Even under Mubarak, the film Nasser ’56 (1996) was one of the most popular movies in Egypt and the Arab world. Many people saw it two or three times, including mostly young people who weren’t yet around when Nasser was in power. This phenomenon offers crucial insight into Arab thought, for which nationalism is part of the human condition, especially in the face of outside enemies. Such nationalism is opposed by many Western countries as well as some Arab regimes, which see it as a threat to their own power. That’s why anti-nationalist movements in the Arab world are receiving support—which in turn has gotten the West and its Arab allies into real trouble. The Muslim Brotherhood is not nationalist; it built its political philosophy upon religious ideology, in effect using religion for political ends. Ultimately such a formula enables them to do their own bidding on the excuse that it is morally right.

An example is the relationship between the US and Al-Qaeda. The US’s biggest mistake was to create Bin Laden. He and Al-Qaeda were given money and arms to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now Al-Qaeda is the US’s arch-enemy, and in the Arab world, we have what one might call a wave of Muslim control. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections. But a careful look at how many votes it received—about twenty percent for Mohammed Morsi—reveals that the new president will not only have to uphold the ideology of the Brotherhood but adjust himself to satisfying the remaining eighty percent of Egyptians. How he will do that is a big question. Morsi is trying to portray himself as a leader of all Egyptians by taking a few popular steps, but the question remains as to whether or not he can continue in that vein. When it comes to the crucial issue of Egyptian national sentiment, he is backing down.

Take Camp David, for instance. There are many problems with the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt. The Morsi regime said initially that it would revisit the agreement and try to have it altered. But when the US reminded Egypt that the former gives it $1.2 billion annually thanks to Camp David, and the media started emphasizing the poor state of the Egyptian economy (no tourism, etc.), Morsi grew equivocal.

Yet the Egyptian people are still fighting. They’ve revived Nasser’s call to forego eating so much meat in an effort to shake off imperialist control. They are struggling for their lives, they know they want to be independent and free. The same thing happened in Tunissia. In Libya as well as in poor Arab dictatorships in which the West has no vested interest, the people also continue to struggle. Indeed the West may have used NATO to help depose Qaddafi, but if there were no oil in Libya, the invasion would probably never have happened.
TG:  Why is the Western media so focused on what you refer to as “Muslim control”?
FE:  It was puzzling to witness the US suddenly approach and encourage the Muslim Brotherhood after the Egyptian revolution. The US media reported several times that a Muslim Brotherhood delegation was to meet with US officials in secret. Somehow—probably due to Israeli interference—the specifics of the meeting were leaked, and the delegation was cancelled. Nonetheless, some sort of negotiations was sought. The US sees the Muslim Brotherhood and Islam as primary forces in the Arab world, because some Arab regimes which support the US, especially in the Gulf, believe the Brotherhood will cooperate in their fight against anti-Western elements; the most important thing to these regimes is the power the West has continued to ensure them. Again, the US is making a mistake. If you promote religious extremists, whether in Egypt or the Gulf, you must understand that they are not loyal to you, they are loyal to their ideology and faith, which run counter not only to you but to the other forces in the Arab world, including the nationalists, the communists, the atheists, the everybody.
TG:  There seems to be a contradiction in the Western focus on Muslims in the Arab world. On your argument, the West supports the Muslim Brotherhood on the basis of an incorrect view that it will cooperate with the Gulf states and thus serve Western interests (oil, military industry, etc.). Yet many of these same supporters express rabid anti-Muslim sentiment. On the other hand, but by the same token, it has been argued that the Muslim Brotherhood is not extreme in light of the moderates within its ranks. Would you say these counterpoints are meant to cloud the real issues—the expansion of corporate interests and the propping up of governments, whether dictatorships or nominal democracies, which enable them?
FE:  For eight years, the George W. Bush administration successfully convinced Western public opinion that Islam runs counter to Western interests. That’s in fact why 9/11 occurred. Afterwards, instead of emphasizing Al-Qaeda’s extremism, which exploits religion to garner Arab support, the Bush regime blamed Islam generally, despite occasional claims to the contrary. Public opinion in the West accepted that, because that’s what the people saw. That was “terrorism” to the West. And when the US tried to fix the problem it had created, it didn’t know how.  It couldn’t distinguish between Islam and Muslims who are extremists. So now that the US is claiming to be on good terms with the Muslim Brotherhood, nobody is buying it. Instead they see the looming specter of Bin Laden. The Western image of the Muslim is that of a terrorist. Other religions also carry extremist tendencies, such as Christianity and Judaism, but that fact goes largely unremarked.

This attitude has provoked tremendous reaction in the Arab and Muslim world, which wants to correct the Western view, to emphasize that the West is stealing Middle Eastern oil, supporting dictators who are oppressive, and so on. That’s a perspective rarely heard in the West—but it is not religious. The US and Israel would like to blame religion for actions taken by Arabs and Muslims. This is very, very dangerous. Take the question of nuclear weapons. When Pakistan got them, the political conflict that ensued between it and India was contextualized as religious. The fact was never discussed that Pakistan was concerned about Israeli aggression, which was being facilitated by India. The Muslim Brotherhood has achieved support in the Arab world because it fights against this image, as such trying to prove that it is not really a religious party, even though people support it because it is. This is a rather confused position.

How the West is going to get out of the quagmire it has helped create is uncertain. It will take a lot to persuade Arabs and Muslims that it supports the rights of the people and not their leadership and dictatorships. That’s another mistake: the US has good relationships with dictators while ignoring the people. When the Muslim Brotherhood took power, the US saw it as approaching the people, which is a mistaken view. The Muslim Brotherhood represents only twenty percent. Think about the eighty percent!

Of course, one of the main determinants of this view is unconditional US support for Israel, which only serves to antagonize the Arab and Muslim people. Regarding the stance against Iran, for instance, the US can say it doesn’t want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons—but what about the US? What about Israel? The US and the West don’t mention that! The US claims it doesn’t want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons because that would threaten the Gulf, where the US has interests. If Iran were to threaten Russia, however, that would be okay.
TG:  The US doesn’t mention India, either, which like Israel has a nuclear arsenal but has not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
FE:  That’s right. But when it comes to Pakistan, the US’s immediate fear is that any nuclear weapons it may have will fall into extremist hands—even as the US bombards and kills Pakistani civilians on a daily basis. People are reacting to that. But it should be a national reaction. If a combined national and religious reaction produces a bulwark against Western attacks, people will go with that instead. That’s why the wave of Islam is taking over in the Arab world.   
TG:  Another variable in this picture is Syria, for a brief time Egypt’s partner in the (pan-Arabist) United Arab Republic.
FE:  Syria is different. The history of Syria is that of a national state. Syrians are Arab nationalists. They have a clear foreign policy vision—about the Palestinian problem, about involvement with the US and the West, about Israel and its expansion. Syria is now considered the only Arab state that is really standing for the principle of nationalism and against imperialism and Zionism. Because of Syria, the US has been unable to implement Israel’s desire for a “New Middle East,” “Greater Israel,” etc. From the perspective of having supported the Lebanese resistance (Hezbollah), the Palestinian resistance, and of having taken a political stand on their behalf, Syria is not acceptable to the West or to Israel. But many aspects of the regime are corrupt, and that has to be changed.

One must differentiate between the regime and the state. The state stands for certain principles. The regime can be changed. The West refuses to accept that. In one of my columns, I refer to Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha, who during a presentation last year in Washington conveyed three demands presented to his government by the US which, if met, were to have ensured an end to the diplomatic impasse between the two countries: Syria must cut off relations with Iran, stop assisting the resistance, and expel Palestinian organizations from its borders. Syria would not comply, and that was the reason for US belligerence. Syria doesn’t have oil, so it’s not being invaded in the same way as was Libya, but it borders Israel, making it strategically important in the context of theUS commitment to Israel.
TG:  Returning to Al-Ard, are there any lessons that you derived from that experience which might be instructive and inspiring to contemporary activists and intellectuals engaged in the Palestinian struggle and in liberation struggles throughout the region?
FE:  Al-Ard was established before the PLO, and the charter of the PLO contains many ideas first formulated by Al-Ard. In fact what Al-Ard did was to supply a base for furthering understanding of the question of land in Israel. Al-Ard means “the land,” in turn suggesting the need for Palestinian refugees to be returned to their land and compensated for its expropriation by Israel. These demands are still unsettled today, and Israel is not willing to accept any of them. Until it does, I am doubtful that a genuine peace can be reached. It’s not a matter of two states or one state, but of recognizing seriously the rights of Palestinians, of respecting people who lost their land, their property, who have suffered for generations, whose refugees must be repatriated. This is a humanitarian issue that is also anational demand by Palestinians, which must be universally recognized if there is ever to be peace in the Middle East.

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