May 102001

The Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam interviewed Dr. George Habash, Founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in May 2001. The interview follows below:

1. Ten event-filled years have passed since the Madrid Conference. How do you evaluate this period in view of your rejection of Madrid?

The peace process that began in Madrid in 1990, has reached an impasse, reflecting the basic imbalance upon which this process was built. It is an American project that aims to end the Arab/Israeli conflict and the Palestinian problem according to the interests of the Israeli/American alliance. This imbalance was augmented after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Arab fragmentation as a result of the Gulf War. Our decision to reject the process was neither an arbitrary decision nor a statement that Palestinians and Palestinian political parties are against peace in principle. Rather, it was an affirmation of our conviction that the conditions of this process will not lead to peace. The daily practices of the Israeli/American alliance reveal a particular “understanding” of peace – namely, that it is a tool to impose political surrender on the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular.

A quick review of the past ten years reveals the dimensions of this US-imposed project and its impact on the region. I can understand that any peace settlement bears with it some concessions. When these concessions go beyond the values and fundamentals of justice and international and national convention, however, the process becomes one of suppression and surrender. The basics of the Palestinian problem and Palestinian national rights are clear. The decisions of international convention are clear. Nevertheless, everyone has been running around for ten years in the maze of the American peace project. How do we explain that?

During this period, we can count six Israeli prime ministers (Shamir, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, and Sharon). The Labor and Likud parties alternated power, sometimes as a narrow government, at other times as a national government. Did the policy and practices of the Israeli government change? We have to speak frankly and clearly when we stop to evaluate our political choices. And we must be diligent since we are not dealing with a simple matter of economic trade. We are dealing with basic human rights and human interests; and we need to take into account the reality of people who have been killed, who have been tortured and wounded, who are in captivity. It is about the aspirations of an entire nation.

Israel has used the peace process to impose its facts on the ground which reflect very clearly the consensus of Labor and Likud: No to the right of refugees to return; No to the withdrawal to the borders of June 1967; No to the dismantling of settlements; No to a “foreign” army west of the Jordan river; and finally, Yes to Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel. This is the consensus that regulates Israeli political practice, admittedly with a small margin to maneuver around this consensus. Given this, what remains in terms of the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people?

The strategy of the Israeli occupation since Madrid has been based on subduing the Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular, in order to extract more concessions, especially after the Palestinian negotiating team formally accepted the Israeli occupation of Palestine of 1948. By doing so, the Palestinian negotiating team gave up its strategic plan – a fact reflected in its agreement to change significant parts of the Palestinian National Charter. The negotiations moved away from “ultimate goals” and toward “interim goals.” Within this framework, the Israeli occupation, with the complete backing of the United States and a clear Arabic consensus, was able to significantly lower Palestinian expectations. Thus, the negotiating process became a political tool to break the foundations of the Palestinian vision for the interim stage.

This strategic mistake was made when the Palestinian negotiating team in Oslo in 1993, agreed to change the points of the final status negotiations and turn them into a bargaining chip. At their core, these points reflect the minimum with respect to Palestinian national rights (the right of refugees to return, the right to an independent sovereign state with Jerusalem as its capital, and the dismantling of the settlements). As long as the negotiations continue to avoid the real issues of political vision, it is only natural that they would lead to a dead end. The contradictions within this situation increased in complexity, even to the point of explosion when Sharon entered al-Aqsa Mosque in September 2000. What we are living today in the form of bloody confrontations is the natural consequence of a faulty process that envisioned an end to the Palestinian problem through its refusal to recognize the origins of the problem. The dilemma presently facing all parties finds its root in the fundamental imbalance in the peace process – a process that was blatantly used by Israel and the United States as a tool to ensure US hegemony over the region and to continue the Israeli occupation, albeit with new and different tactics.

2. In your opinion, what are the dangers threatening the present Palestinian Intifada, and what has the Intifada accomplished till now?

The major danger threatening the now seven-month old Intifada lies in the political attempts (mainly on the part of Israel and the US) to crush it. The political aims of the Intifada are the same as the aims of the National Liberation Movement, which are clearly illustrated in the political documents of the PLO (the right of refugees to return, the right to an independent sovereign state with Jerusalem as its capital, and the dismantling of the settlements, according to international convention).

We must remember that the major cause of the Intifada is the increased awareness on the part of the Palestinian people of the consequences of the Oslo Agreement: not only are their rights and legitimate historical demands on the verge of annihilation due to the so-called final status negotiations, but the Israeli-American alliance is moving full-speed ahead in the imposition of its terms and conditions on the Palestinians in spite of their reservations. In other words, when the Palestinian people realized that the aims of the United States and the practices of Israel are part of a well-developed and organized plan to contain the Palestinian problem and thoroughly break all of its foundations, they began the Intifada, in order to reformulate the equation and ensure that the constants of the Palestinian cause are remembered and defended.

Within this framework, I want to point out the dangers of the occupation’s imposition of Israeli conditions and tactics, illustrated in catch-phrases such as: Stop the violence; Go back to security coordination; Implement Sharm-al-Sheikh; and Go back to the situation before 28 September 2000. These tactics serve only to strip away the real meaning of the Intifada and to dismiss the sacrifice and steadfastness of the Palestinian people. The Israeli occupying forces recognize that the popular uprising is not a strategic military threat (in the traditional understanding of military balance). Nevertheless, the occupying forces are using all their criminal war machinery, rockets, airplanes, assassinations, tanks, siege, geographical fragmentation, and destruction of land, not because they are afraid of Palestinian military strength (whose limitations are well-known), but to prevent the Intifada from achieving its political goals. What we face now in terms of an open war against an unarmed people, is in reality and at its core, a political war with military trappings. It is simply an attempt to contain and subdue the Palestinian people by using militarily means to impose Israel’s political vision in the wake of the failure of negotiations. Herein lies the real danger that should be confronted by the Palestinian Authority, the national forces, the Islamic forces, and the Palestinian people in general.

The present Palestinian uprising has brought about a number of significant accomplishments:

a. The Intifada has affirmed that the Palestinian people will continue to hold fast to their conviction to regain their national rights.
b. The Intifada has dealt a decisive blow to the American – Israeli plan to annihilate the Palestinian cause.
c. The Intifada has proven that any agreement that does not recognize the rights of the Palestinian people as stipulated in the Palestinian national program and through international convention is doomed to fail.
d. The Intifada has forced Israel, whether under a Labor or Likud government, to reveal its cards and its understanding of a political settlement. It has exposed the nature of the Zionist project. Israel’s vision is based on the continuation of the occupation under new forms, and the core of its understanding of peace is limited to an apartheid system that will control the present and the future of the Palestinian people.
e. The Intifada has proven that the potential energy of the Palestinian people should not be underestimated. This energy has revealed the lies of the past ten years surrounding the concepts of “normalization,” “co-existence,” and “peace partners,” and has restored recognition and affirmation of Palestinian steadfastness, dignity, and national pride.
f. The Intifada has given back to both Palestinians and other Arabs their rightful place as equal participants in the conflict despite the high price paid by the Palestinians and the imbalance of power.
g. The Intifada has restored the Palestinian cause to its rightful place in the Arab World and in the international arena as the foremost liberation cause in this era.
h. The Intifada has provided a tremendous opportunity for Palestinians to reevaluate and review the events of the past number of years. If taken advantage of, this opportunity could aid the Palestinian people in rewriting in a clearer manner its vision and political strategy based on resistance to Israeli occupation and the attempt to regain their legitimate rights. The Intifada has succeeded in uniting the Palestinian people after ten years of fragmentation and internal attrition. If this significant achievement of unity is not transformed into a clear political program with defined organizations and democratic practices, however, then it risks to be lost. For this reason, it is crucial that all political parties transform their national unity to a political unity, in order to ensure that a steady momentum is maintained.

3. What is the role of Palestinians living abroad and what is the political tenet used to organize their present movement?

The case of Palestinian refugees is a clear manifestation of the Palestinian cause and its historical and political depth. Palestinian refugees were created through the massacres and policies of expulsion used by Zionist, colonialist gangs. This resulted in the destruction of more than 470 villages and the expulsion of over 800,000 Palestinians in 1948 as well a second expulsion in 1967, in addition to the policies of indirect transfer and land confiscation that continue to take place today.

The present Israeli political program is based on the attempt to ignore the reality of Palestinian refugees and has consequently led to an impasse in political negotiations. As long as the refugee problem still exists and millions of Palestinians are still living in refugee camps, any talk of a political settlement or solution will sooner or later reach the same dead end. The right of refugees to return to their homes from which they were forcibly expelled is a sacred right for the individual and for the collective. No one — no leadership or authority — can relinquish this right. The right of refugees to return has no statute of limitations nor can it be negotiated into oblivion.

Within this context, the role of Palestinian refugees (more than half of the Palestinian people), can be described as historical, political, and strategic. Refugees are the bridge that connects the transitional and ultimate aims of the National Liberation Movement. Any agreement that does not recognize this core is doomed to fail.

In dealing with US and Israeli attempts to ignore the Palestinian refugee problem, we become more aware that the crucial role of Palestinians abroad involves efforts on the levels of politics, the media, the liberation movement, and the general public. While the refugees are the link between the strategic and the transitional goals at the Palestinian level, they also form a bridge of action and connection in the Arab dimension of the conflict. The Arab national dimension is, in reality, an expression of political, social, and economic diversity.

The political tenet that is organizing not only the millions of refugees abroad but the entire Palestinian people is reflected in the right to return as a sacred, inalienable right according to UN Resolution 194. We must be wary of any attempts to avoid this right or to change its political nature through empty phrases or through agreements that fall short of affirming this right. Some examples include allowing a few thousand refugees to return as part of a final status agreement, or through talks focusing on resettling refugees or “encouraging” emigration and the naturalization of some refugees in western countries.

The right to return does not apply only to those refugees abroad, but also to those living in camps in the West Bank and Gaza. In any case, the Palestinian people are not required to give up their rights in order to “solve” the problems of the Zionist entity, embodied in their fear of “demographic imbalance,” or how to keep Israel a Jewish state. It should not be required that our people give up their legitimate, historical, political, and human rights in order to preserve the racist policies of the Zionist movement made tangible in the state of Israel.

4. How do you see the role of the Palestinians of 1948 in accomplishing Palestinian independence and facing Sharon?

Palestinians from 1948 are a stable strategic force in the National Liberation Movement. Their steadfastness and their commitment to staying on their lands have played a decisive role in bringing the Zionist project, with its political and ideological foundations, to this historic impasse. The Palestinians from 1948 have revealed in depth, the impossibility of a “democracy” of racism. Their legendary steadfastness in resistance, and their ability to endure and to act with initiative have enabled them to confront the Zionist project. This project has tried through all means available to crush the Palestinian people economically, politically, demographically, and culturally, all the while using tactics of defamation and sabotage in order to render the Palestinian people void of any sense of national identity. Their resistance to this and their creativity in self-defense and strengthening their cultural and national identity is yet another proof of the failure of the Zionist project. On Land Day in 1976, as well as during the present Intifada, the Israelis found themselves in front of a people convinced of their aspirations for national identity and their readiness for sacrifice. Thirteen Palestinians were killed from the area of 1948 during their Intifada in solidarity with Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza. This was a magnificent expression of the unity of the Palestinian people in general and the unity of their political and national aspirations in particular.

Perhaps the decisive role for the Palestinians of 1948 should be focused on continuing to reveal the failure of the Zionist project to solve the Jewish question according to Zionist ideology. The Palestinians of 1948 also have a role in revealing the undemocratic character of Israel and its inability to be a just state for its citizens, given the fact that it is founded on an ideology, vision, and practice that perpetuates injustice and refuses to recognize the rights of the other. Israel is a state based on religious and racial discrimination.

5. Regarding the present confrontation, some people believe that the concentration should be on the popular activities of the Palestinian public because the Palestinian reality cannot bear the cost of military operations. Do you agree with that?

The confrontation with the Israeli occupation — its forces, its settlers, and its policies — is open and comprehensive. The Palestinians must, therefore, form a systematic and practical strategy of confrontation in order to ensure the continuation of the Intifada on a broader level. The armed struggle should also be used in order to weaken the enemy and to prevent the continuation of Israeli policies of terror and oppression. It is critical to find the proper tools and methods to use in order to avoid direct military confrontation, the results of which are well-known. The Israeli occupation forces have already attempted to portray the conflict as a war between equal armies. In other words, using military strikes requires a new tactic as to how to choose the targets and the timing and the proper means. All means and tools for confrontation must be complementary so that the integrity of the Intifada is preserved and that effective means of attack be used against the occupation. This will ensure a strong Palestinian presence and will lead to the instability of the occupation as well as hinder the attempts of Israel to thwart the Intifada.

As I say this, I realize the tragedy that the Palestinians are living with in occupied Palestine. I realize the high cost that our people are paying in order to defend their rights, their dignity, and their homes. But there is no other choice in the face of terror, Israeli fascist and racist policies, and in the shadow of international silence and Arab conspiracy. Is there any other option than steadfastness and resistance?

6. What are the primary strategies to be used by the Palestinian people during the Intifada?

The first mission would be to protect the Intifada politically through holding on to the aims of the Intifada which are the same as those of the Palestinian national program. Equally important is the preservation of the successes already achieved through the Intifada. We must confront the various policies of containment and suppression being implemented by Israel and the United States, and refuse any political or security dictates aimed at sidetracking or aborting the Intifada. This mission coincides with another political mission which is to enhance the steadfastness of the Palestinian people through the following:

a. ensuring the necessary economic conditions for the continuation of the Intifada. We know that the possibilities of the Palestinian people under occupation are limited. The promised Arab support has not yet arrived. The money of the donor countries has been used as a political tool to pressure the Palestinians into surrender. The need is for immediate Arab financial support.
b. enhancing the national unity program based on democracy and commitment to the Palestinian national program. This calls for the reactivation of the organizations of the PLO and the organizations of the civil society as it also calls for the enhancement of the democratic process as a value made tangible in practice, as well as to the cessation of political arrests.
c. confronting corruption (financial and administrative). The human and material potential of the Palestinian people cannot allow for mismanagement or riches gained through corruption.
d. motivating Palestinians abroad (as well as the Arab public in general) to assume their role in politics and the media.
e. Continuing to put pressure on the Arab public who, in their turn, will pressurize Arab regimes and governments to leave their circles of silence and take a more active role in supporting the Palestinian people.
f. activating and maintaining relations with international public opinion, media, and international organizations, as well as to ask all political powers and civil organizations to raise their voices against the policies of occupation and to ensure that the ongoing peace process, based on the logic of power and Israeli/American hegemony, returns to the relevant arenas of international convention.
g. working on practical tools to maintain the continuation of social life and educational process and to provide basic services to the public so that the Intifada does not paralyze the life of citizens and their economic and educational progress.

7. Are you optimistic for the future? What is your advice for the young generation?

Certainly yes! And I am not saying this simply to be polite, but rather because I see the movement of reality and history and I can touch the will of our people, their steadfastness, and the depth of their national awareness. I can see the possibilities of the Arab Nation and the historic and civilized role it can play in the international arena. It is true that the reality is difficult and the forces leading toward weakness and fragmentation are a cause of frustration for many, but I think this is temporary. The core of it all is the Arab person — the human resources and the economic and cultural potential that are stored in the Arab world. His reality will effect change and aid in regaining the balance between these various types of potential and the political and civilized role of the Arab Nation.

Admittedly, this process of change will not occur overnight, but will gradually happen through the accumulation of experience and commitment to the struggle on different levels. This struggle includes the efforts of the Arab World’s national liberation program toward improvement on the economic, political, and cultural levels, as well as efforts on the part of all concerned to free the Arab World from subservience and servility to the imperialist countries. At the same time, the Zionist project, which is targeting the Arab Nation in all its dimensions, must be confronted. In addition to national and political duties, we must also give priority to the construction of a sound society made tangible through practical democratic values.

The key to facing any potential internal conflict is to ensure democratic process at all levels of society, to preserve the human rights, dignity, and freedom of the Arab person, to ensure that the basic material needs of each person are met, and to protect cultural, religious, political, and social pluralism within society. In this respect, pluralism becomes a source of wealth and cultural and social richness rather than a means of fragmentation and an invitation for external, colonialist interference.

This is my vision, and I am fully committed to the reality of the unity of the Arab Nation and the significant human and civilized role it can assume in the international arena.

The present situation of impotence on the part of regional development projects to respond to national challenges and questions proves that the option of Arab Unity is the only strategic and sound option. In order to make this happen, interaction and dialogue must be initiated among the Arab people, their cultural leaders, and their social organizations in order to move forward, intellectually, culturally, and politically, on the path toward progress. Regional isolation must be rejected and practical plans leading to an openness to Arabic depth must be embraced as a means to this goal. Among other things, this requires an improvement in the coordination of efforts on the part of Arab working organizations, for example, the Arab League, the Arab Summits, and an economic Arab market that could include all Arab countries. This could also include transitional alliances such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Moroccan Union, the Valley of the Nile, and the Bilad a-Sham.

It is now the role of the Arab young generation to attempt to address these tasks, goals, and lofty ambitions. Neither I nor anyone else has the right to determine the particular facets of their role or how they will respond practically to their questions of importance. Previous generations experienced their own successes and failures. The young generation must read and interpret this accumulation of experience in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes. Upon the shoulders of the new generation lies the serious responsibility of continuing the liberation movement and building a sound society. This depends on the extent to which young men and women are aware of their role and the efforts they should expend in educating themselves and recognizing the uniqueness of the Arab Nation with its civilization, history, and culture. The young generation is responsible for enhancing and protecting a sense of dignity and self-respect (individual and national), and to be creative in choosing the proper tools to make this tangible within society.

Of particular significance is the question of education and how it should be enhanced and developed. The educational process itself must be a reflection of the value of deepening the understanding of one’s own culture as well as that of other cultures. In this way, the young generation will be protected from the process of “cultural malformation” that results from the phenomenon of globalization based on a supremacist, capitalist understanding, and will be empowered to transform cultural theft into a process of cultural and civilized interaction among the peoples of the world based on respect and equality rather than negation and hegemony.

I call on the young generation to open themselves up to those peoples who preserve their own culture at the same time as they allow themselves to benefit from other cultures. This comes through the development of the mind, and the acquisition of critical tools for judgment that are based in reality, as well as an awareness of the need to protect the Arab human person and his/her political, economic, and cultural rights.

I have full confidence in our nation, in our youth, and in our future as they confront these daunting tasks. And I am privileged to witness the magnificent examples that Arab youth are offering in the areas of science, social construction, and in their deeds of heroism in Palestine and in Lebanon and in all other countries in our Arab World.

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