Israel under Prime Minister Netanyahu is showing no inclination to resolve the long-festering conflict with the Palestinians who remain harshly repressed in an apartheid-like system as Jewish expansion continues into Palestinian lands, a crisis that PLO leader Mustafa Barghouti describes to Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
The ongoing occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland by Israel continues unabated. Israeli forces continue to demolish Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, while they step up the pace of illegal settlement building on the West Bank.
In Gaza, the situation is beyond bleak. It is a major feat even to get fresh water. Thousands of children have been sickened because of this, and are suffering major health defects and learning disabilities as a result. Meanwhile, they are traumatized on a daily basis by the continuing military assaults and constant drone presence on the strip.
Mustafa Barghouti is a physician, activist, politician and General Secretary of the Palestine National Initiative. He’s been a member of the Palestine Legislative Council and is a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO Central Council. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
Dr. Barghouti spoke last week with Flashpoints host Dennis J Bernstein about the future for peace in Palestine and independence for the Palestinian people. Bernstein reached the Palestinian leader at the United Nations.
DB: Welcome Dr. Barghouti. What brings you to the UN?
MB: We had a conference at the UN of 151 parties from all over the world, within the framework of the so-called socialist international. It was a very important platform to present the Palestinian issue. We reached the best resolution ever issued by all these parties supporting the right of the Palestinian people to end the occupation, to have freedom and justice. It calls for the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, and to support the immediate end of occupation and all illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, as well as the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, especially the young people, children and the Palestinian elected members of Parliament who are held in Israeli jails.
It was a very good conference inside the United Nations. I hope these resolutions will help advance the Palestinian cause and explain to the world that we are struggling not only for the freedom of the Palestinian people, but also to liberate the Israeli public itself from its own Israeli government which is consolidating a system of occupation, oppression and segregation in the form of an apartheid much worse than what was in South Africa.
DB: In September 2014, following Israel’s brutal 51-day massive assault and slaughter [on Gaza], you said, “This inhumanity can’t continue. There is only one way out – to establish a boycott, divestment sanctions (BDS) against Israel in order to dismantle the occupation and this apartheid.” Do you still agree that is the only real future for Palestine, and how do you see it unfold?
MB: Palestine agreed to the two-state solution and the PLO recognized Israel while Israel still does not recognize the Palestinian state. Many Palestinians thought that by accepting the two-state solution, which is really unfair, but is a painful compromise that Palestinians can accept, they thought this would end the occupation and that Israel would finally let Palestinians to be free and dignified. Unfortunately it turned out that after 22 years of useless negotiations, these negotiations became a cover for Israeli illegal expansion of settlements and the negotiations became a cover for the destruction of the very last opportunity for two-state solution and peace.
After 22 years, Palestine discovered that the so-called peace process has itself become a substitute for peace. That’s why we first need to change the balance of power before we speak about negotiations. The last atrocity in Gaza was the attack of 51 days that took the lives of 2,270 Palestinians, who were 85 percent civilians, including 580 children. This was one last episode of a series of episodes of massacres that have been waged against the Palestinian people.
When we speak about the balance of power, it cannot only happen with the resistance on the ground, which is a non-violent resistance – it requires an international factor. That is what happened in South Africa. Without the boycott, divestment, sanctions against the system of segregation and apartheid, the South African injustice would not have ended. That’s what we are saying today.
BDS is one international instrument to make the Israelis understand that their government is dragging them into a terrible situation. BDS is not against the Israeli people as people, or against Jewish people at all. Many Jewish people are supporting this, including many famous people such as Daniel Barenboim, famous musician, or the great historian, Ilan Pappe, and other very well know Israelis. BDS is not against the Israeli people, but against the Israeli government policy.
As we tell Israeli soldiers when they try to arrest us during non-violent actions, we are not struggling only for the Palestinian people but also to liberate the Israeli people themselves from the system of apartheid. Israelis will not be free from fear and the terrible system of apartheid, until the Palestinians are free from occupation. This is the message. It is very peaceful message, about a very non-violent form of struggle, but also about the determination of the Palestinian people to be free and dignified.
I hope that many Jewish people in the United States will understand that the Israeli government policy is destroying not only the future of the people in the region, but it is also harming the image of Jewish and Israeli people everywhere. It’s time for people to understand that Palestinians deserve freedom and justice like everybody else. It’s time for people to understand that Palestinians need to be free and will be free. Nothing will break us after 67 years of dispossession and displacement, 48 years of occupation – the longest in modern history – and now a system of apartheid and segregation.
All of that will not break our will because we are determined to be free like African-Americans are determined to get their rights in the U.S., the people of Algeria struggled for their freedom, and the American people struggled for their independence. It’s the same. People aspire to freedom and nothing can stop that.
DB: We often hear the Israelis say they are looking for peace, but they don’t have a partner. What’s your response to that?
MB: I think that is incorrect because they have had partners from the Palestinian side and they had the chance to conclude peace with the Camp David meeting, but instead of accepting Palestinians’ right to have a state, they proposed that Palestine would remain under Israeli slavery.
DB: What do you mean by Israeli slavery? That’s not hyperbole, is it?
MB: I mean that for 48 years, the Israeli government has been exploiting the Palestinians in several respects; by taking away our land, confiscating more than 90 percent of our water then selling us the water back at twice what the Israelis pay, and a system of segregation where many major roads inside the Palestinian territory are exclusively for the use of Israelis. If a Palestinian is caught driving or walking on them he could be sentenced to six months in jail.
People like me, born in Jerusalem, are prevented from reaching Jerusalem, although I worked there for 15 years as a medical doctor. Yet the Israeli army doesn’t want me to be in Jerusalem. People in Gaza cannot reach out to their relatives in the West Bank and vice versa. Our movement and lives are restricted by Israeli military orders and a legal system created to establish apartheid.
Apartheid means two systems of rules for two people living in the same area. That’s exactly what we have today. Many people in the U.S. abhor using the word apartheid, but it means segregation, injustice and discrimination. That’s exactly what we have. We don’t have the right to be free, to move freely from one part of the country to another, the right to determine our future without Israeli control.
When I spoke of the system of oppression imposed on us, I meant a situation where the Israeli government is practicing racism. When you listen to Israeli officials, they frequently say very serious racist remarks, depriving and denying Palestinians the same rights that are supposed to be allowed to everybody. We are talking about inequality. That is the reality on the ground.
DB: What are your hopes and the hopes of a free Palestine in the face of this extraordinary violent war in Syria, which is again making refugees of thousands of Palestinians who were living in Syria. How do you see this terrible and bloody war playing into the future of your people?
MB: What’s happening around us is very sad and horrible. We feel very sorrowful about what is happening to the Syrian people, as well as the people of Iraq and Yemen today. These explosions are the result of lack of democracy and opportunity for people, especially young people. These are the core causes of the terrible violence we see, including the terrible forms of terrorism committed by the so-called ISIS, ISIL, etc. All of these are horrible things.
We, the people who have suffered so long, understand the suffering of others more than anybody else. But this suffering of the people in Syria, and the violence that is practiced there, as well as in other places, present no justification for Israel to practice violence against the Palestinian people, as some Israeli government people would think or try to claim. Because thousands of people are killed in Syria, that does not justify killing thousands of people in Gaza.
We want the situation to improve in all these countries. We want the people in these countries to be able to practice democracy and have their rights. But at the same time we also want our rights as Palestinians to be free from occupation and oppression and free from any form of discrimination – through the longest occupation in modern history.
The problem with two-state solution is that while negotiations keep failing, Israel claims there are no partners on the Palestinian state. The truth is that there are partners all the time. The problem is that Israel does not want a partner, but wants an operator, a leader who would sacrifice and give up the rights of his own people and cooperate with Israel to give up those rights. This is the kind of leader Israel wants to see, and they keep failing because there is no Palestinian leader who respects himself who will sell out his country and his people to the occupiers. That’s why Israel keeps claiming there are no Palestinian partners.
DB: Here is the big question about two-state solution. Many, many in the movement for a free Palestine, feel those days are long gone. The Israeli expanding ethnic cleansing, if you will, stealing Palestinian land. They have taken so much land, the Palestinians have lost so much, that it isn’t even comprehensible to think about a two-state solution. I try to imagine what the map would look like, for a free Palestine with contiguous borders, airports. … Do you have a map in your mind?
MB: If there was a will on the side of the international community, especially the United States, being the greatest supporter of Israel, if there was a will for a real two-state solution, they could easily force Israel to stop the occupation and they could easily force Israel to remove the settlements from the occupied territories, in which case there would be a chance for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem, according to the 1967 borders. There would be a corridor linking the West Bank to Gaza.
But none of that is happening, because the United States government, and many other governments, are either afraid or do not want to pressure Israel. … Because of that, we see the evaporation, disappearance, withering of the possibility of two-state solution. That’s what some Israeli leaders also say. Israel must confront three choices: either they accept to take out the settlements, remove their army from the West Bank and Gaza and allow the Palestinians to have a Palestinian state on 1967 borders, or they must sustain the existing situation, but the existing situation is not sustainable because it’s a system of segregation, apartheid, and occupation.
This is not sustainable because no people in the world can accept being slaves of occupation forever. Then, the only possible third solution if Israel strikes completely the possibility of two-state solution, is the one-state solution with equal rights. I would prefer to have one-state solution immediately, where Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights and equal duties.
We can live together. We lived together with the Jewish people before Israel was established. Palestine was not a place where Jewish people were persecuted or discriminated against. On the contrary, as was the case in most European countries. I understand the suffering of the Jewish people. I understand how they went through the Holocaust, which was the most horrible thing, and the suffering in the pogroms in Russia, and the suffering during the Inquisition time.
But one thing that many Israelis forget is that all of these atrocities had nothing to do with Palestinians. Palestinians were never part of any oppression of any Jewish population. That suffering of the Jewish population doesn’t justify in any way Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. Because of that suffering, I think the Israelis should be more sensitive about injustice and oppression of another people than anybody else.
Unfortunately, that is not the case in Israel today. That’s why you see many Jewish people in the U.S. and in many other countries, joining and supporting the Palestinian struggle in solidarity with Palestinians because they care about the moral values.
That’s why I say that if Israel prevents the two-state option – and it would be Israel’s responsibility – there would be no other alternative than one-state solution with equal rights and equal duties. Such a state would not be a Jewish state. It would be a mixed state. That’s what people need to understand. If the two-state solution vanishes, the Israeli government is responsible.
DB: Isn’t it just as unrealistic to expect a two-state solution in Israel as it was to expect a two-state solution at a certain point in South Africa?
MB: Exactly. A friend of mine was a Jewish white minister in the first South African government that brought down the apartheid system. I told him that I thought the situation for the Palestinians was similar to the apartheid in South Africa. He stopped me and said what you have in Palestine is much worse than the apartheid system we had in South Africa. In South Africa people were not forced out of their country and did not suffer from this horrible system of oppression that Israel delivers.
In South Africa, the only solution was one-state with democratic rights for everybody. And this would not have happened if it weren’t for the BDS, which eventually made the South African apartheid system understand that they would lose everything unless they stopped the system of apartheid. I believe there is a lot of similarity between our situation and South Africa’s situation, and that’s why I hope that some of the strategies that were used then can also work for Palestine today.