By Itamar Hauser
Last month, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu-Mazen) addressed the United Nations General Assembly. He gave an incredibly vitriolic speech, accusing Israel of genocide, apartheid, and other equally heinous acts. According to the Palestinians interviewed for this article (all Fatah-affiliated), the speech was a step in the right direction.
Fatah Youth Movement leader Raed Debiy explains that Abbas’s accusatory language simply “represented the facts on the ground: what happened to our people in the Gaza Strip is a genocide, and the Nakba [the 1948 catastrophe] is part of our narrative.”
Moreover, all interviewees stated Abbas had simply expressed the Palestinian public’s feeling of “we’ve had it.” Nour Odeh, spokesperson for the Palestinian government under Salam Fayyad, a former prime minister, explained that given the brutality of the most recent excursion into Gaza, his speech was not unexpected.
Indeed, all agreed that the Palestinian approach to the so-called “peace process” had failed, and change was necessary. According to Shawan Jabarin, director of Al-Haq, Palestine’s largest human rights organization, Abbas has lost popularity among his people. “What did he get from the Israelis? He got more settlements, more land confiscations—he got a wall. What did he get? He got nothing. And I think that after 21 years of Oslo, one can make a judgment.”
But after two decades of failed negotiations, Abbas is arguing that he will take a new approach—one that involves direct contact with powerful international institutions. However, when asked whether approaching the UN Security Council and International Criminal Court (ICC) might not obstruct peace efforts, most interviewees argued on the contrary. For Odeh, “Going for the two-state solution doesn’t mean that one must negate one’s history and forgo…the historical injustices.” Debiy explained, “If the UN Security Council adopts the Palestinian proposal [to end the occupation by 2016], we will go on the following day to negotiations with Israel, but with other rules this time…We just changed the mechanism but never changed our strategy, which is a two-state solution: Palestine and Israel, side by side, according to UN resolutions and human rights.”
However, if Palestinians are truly committed to the peace process, indicting Israel in the UN and ICC would undoubtedly create obstacles. According to Odeh, “That’s a paradox Israelis have to resolve. I think it is borne out of the current Israeli government’s denial of reality. You can’t have people under an occupation regime and expect them to just lie down and take it. We are not using arms and violence; we’re using legitimate means that the world agrees are there to resolve conflicts.”
Indeed, Jabarin sounded slightly frustrated when he exclaimed, “If you don’t want Palestinians to use international law, international organizations, and treaties, what do you want them to use? Sometimes I put myself in the shoes of the Israelis, and I don’t understand.”
Jabarin was not alone in this sentiment. If there was one theme that emerged during interviews, it was that these Palestinians did not hesitate to criticize the Israeli governments or its policies, which they see as the very obstacles to the peace process. Dr. Bernard Sabella, a Fatah member of Parliament, said that the Israeli Foreign Ministry was out of touch with reality; that Israel needs to make a more concerted effort to achieve a lasting peace. Furthermore, when he attended meetings in Europe and heard an Israeli spokesperson speak, he claims several participants stated, “We now understand why there is no peace in the Middle East.”
Moreover, according to Debiy, “The Israeli government is very interested in empowering the extremists inside the Palestinian society because they want to tell their people that on the other side of the apartheid wall, there are enemies and not partners.” Odeh added, “One of the many faults is that ordinary Israelis are not in touch on a daily basis with the occupation. And so in many ways, if people don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist for an Israeli citizen in Tel-Aviv or Naharia.”
But the “right” to criticize the other side is not a privilege afforded to Palestinians exclusively. After Abbas’s speech, Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman responded, “Abbas has lost touch with reality and, at this point, doesn’t represent anyone but him.” Odeh begged to differ, referring to Lieberman’s quote as a “cheap shot” since “Israeli officials are not in a place to say who represents the Palestinian people just as no Palestinian leader has any impact to say who represents the Israeli people.”
According to Sabella, the fact that polls indicate most Palestinians still believe in a peace process is a testament to the true strength of Abbas. Debiy further argues that Abbas “represents the will of all the Palestinian people in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the diaspora.” In other words, they consider him a leader capable of achieving a lasting peace in the region. Or, as Odeh explains, “Abbas will go down in our history books as a president who had an impossible task, who had obstacles that any sane person would have given up on from the get-go.”
There are several key takeaways from these interviews. First, the Palestinians are eager to employ new techniques to achieving peace, even if means taking a unilateral approach to negotiations. They are equally willing to assign any and all blame to Israel, but hesitant to chastise their own leadership. And given that both sides are quick to accuse the other of wrongdoing, there is little hope of any immediate progress in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Itamar Hauser is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal. An Israeli native, he received his masters at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and his LL.B in law and B.A. in Government from IDC Herzliya.
[Photo courtesy of chinatopix.com]