30 May - 5 June 2002
Issue No.588
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

'I come from here'

Hanan Ashrawi spoke to Aziza Sami of the Palestinian people today: besieged, yet self-critical, and ready for change

Aziza Sami The Palestinian political agenda was particularly charged when I spoke to Hanan Ashrawi. Israel had not totally lifted its siege of the West Bank and Gaza. Just a few weeks ago, during the commemoration of the 54th anniversary of the Nakba (the creation of the state of Israel), Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat pledged to reform the authority. Long-postponed legislative elections were to be fast-tracked.

In the meantime, the US and Israel were pushing their own version of PA reforms. These centred on security matters and the Palestinian leadership, possibly with a view to replacing Yasser Arafat. Would the embattled Palestinian leader be forced to mediate -- to engage in a balancing act, as has sometimes happened previously -- between the Palestinians' vision and the agenda suggested by the US and Israel?

Hanan Ashrawi had just emerged from a meeting that was called on the spur of the moment and had delayed our scheduled telephone interview by an hour. The atmosphere in Ramallah was tense, but she was as congenial as always. She had been participating in a press conference held by fellow Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) members to express solidarity with another deputy, and leading member of the Fatah movement Marwan Barghouti, who was captured by Israel during its reinvasion of the West Bank.

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'It is good for the Arab public to be made aware, to have free open media and interact in the ongoing dialogue. But we speak to ourselves always. We have yet to address the world with a discourse that is rooted in self-respect, not defensiveness'

Despite the blizzard of demands on her time, Ashrawi was ready to elaborate on her thoughts. Speaking on whether Arafat might be forced to balance the hopes of Palestinians with the demands of the US and Israel, she said, "The situation could lead to this happening. But, in the end, President Arafat's legitimacy comes from his people. The 'home-grown' approach to reform has been ongoing, ever since 1994. However, [The reforms being pursued] are not part of an American agenda dealing with security issues. Israel and the US couldn't care less about Palestinian democracy. It is just something new being used by them as a political tool, each for their own ends."

Ashrawi first came to world attention as spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. Appointed minister of higher education and research in 1996, she resigned from the cabinet two years later. She remains critical of the PA concerning the need for democratic and institutional reform and transparency. As PLC deputy for East Jerusalem who ran as an independent, she adopted an autonomous stance while continuing to support Arafat as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Ashrawi's stance is as relevant now as ever, as Palestinians continue to criticise Arafat for failing to have pushed harder to ensure that a UN fact-finding committee was allowed to visit the Jenin refugee camp to investigate war crimes by Israel and later for agreeing to the deportation of 13 Palestinians. Does Ashrawi think that Arafat is losing ground over contentions related to the Jenin and Bethlehem deals?

"These [deals] cost him a great deal in terms of public support. When he was besieged, people rallied around him. But when these agreements were concluded to resolve the crisis, it affected him directly." The reason? "The deals were inconsistent with international law and [the upholding of] Palestinian rights. Now, Arafat has the key, which is to respond to the people on the agenda for reform. He needs to regain the initiative and we need to put our house in order."

It is unclear exactly when elections will be held and Arafat, by making the contests contingent on Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank, has contributed to this ambiguity. Some think that the Palestinian leader is procrastinating. He has been accused, even internally, of being reluctant to relinquish authority. Ashrawi, though, thinks that he is following the will of the people. "These [conditions] are also the demands of civil society and the Palestinian public in general", she said. "The major obstacle preventing the Palestinians from exercising their democratic rights is the occupation."

The comprehensive reform agenda formulated by the PLC responds to demands by people from across the Palestinian political spectrum.

In the run-up to elections, the PLC has called for the cabinet to play the role of a "caretaker." A new cabinet, according to the PLC reform programme, should comprise "qualified, efficient, nationally credible individuals working within a system characterised by transparency and accountability. [Cabinet ministers] would number no more than 19," Ashrawi explains.

On the legislative front, the PLC has called for the implementation of legislation and resolutions -- much of the council's work since it was convoked in 1996 has yet to be executed.

Judicial reforms target the fundamentals of establishing and modifying institutions. Proposed actions include "ratifying the bill for the judiciary's independence, completing the [judicial] structure, abolishing the state security court and establishing a constitutional court. All international conventions pertaining to fundamental rights and basic freedoms must be accepted and ratified."

Now in her mid-50s, Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi was born in the West Bank city of Nablus. Today, she lives in Ramallah. She is married and has two daughters. A specialist in Mediaeval and comparative literature, she established Bir Zeit University's English department. She has been politically active since the 1970s and was one of the leaders of the 1988 Intifada. Elected to the PLC in 1996, Ashrawi that year also took up the higher education and research portfolio. Her relationship with the PA has seen her opt out of official positions.

In recent years, her political life has not only been in the corridors of power but amongst the people through her establishment of two non-governmental organisations focusing on human rights, civil rights, democratisation and mobilising women.

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'The Palestinians are among the most critical, active and politically aware peoples in the world. We have an active, vibrant civil society. We continue to be extremely committed to our democratic and human rights'

In 1994, Ashrawi established in Jerusalem the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights. What insight has her work at this organisation given her? "Because the Palestinians have been subject to the most systematic and pervasive [rights] violations by Israel, they are critical and protective of their rights. We will not rationalise human rights abuses when Palestinians commit them. We hold our leadership accountable."

She also founded the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). This organisation has just met to try and mobilise women's groups to participate in the reform process. "Palestinian women have been involved in the political struggle for a long time. But most women's organisations, which are quite critical of the PA, ended up working for social justice, democracy human rights and gender equity. This [focus] was used to exclude them from the national political agenda." Consequently, a major goal of women's groups is "to remarry the national and gender agendas."

As a professor at Bir Zeit University, Ashrawi has seen how the young respond to democracy. "The Palestinians are among the most critical, active and politically aware peoples in the world. Under occupation, we have had a very vibrant, active civil society with a strong NGO system. We continue to be extremely committed to democratic and human rights," she said. The younger generations are "extremely aware. I think you will see the emergence of a young leadership." However, "When you go outside the universities and [educated] elite there is a tremendous sense of pain and victimisation. When people are repeatedly assaulted and their lives destroyed, or people around them are killed, there is a collective trauma which must be addressed."

Two suicide bombings had taken place in the week preceding our discussion, and in recent months the topic had become particularly sensitive. Those defending such acts describe them as a form of resistance undertaken in the absence of any other means of leverage. Other observers of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict say that an end to the bomber phenomenon lies in a negotiated political solution. However, the US had labelled suicide bombings "terrorism", divorcing discussion of the acts from the political context in which they take place. Ashrawi has always spoken out against suicide bombings. In view of recent developments, I thought it would be interesting to hear her opinion on the matter.

"The provocation [of Palestinians] has been enormous, beyond endurance," she said. "This does not mean that we should fall into reactive mode. Because Israel makes our civilians fair game -- our men, women, children, homes and livelihoods -- this doesn't mean we should do the same."

She does not condone acts of violence committed outside the 1967 borders "as legitimate resistance against the occupation." "Any resistance movement must maximise gains and minimise losses. Its actions must not backfire and cost us more than we can endure."

The Islamist movement, Hamas, has said it will only take part in the Palestinian elections if it is allowed to continue resisting the Israeli occupation. So, was there a consensus on the question of suicide bombings?

Amongst Palestinians there is "a very lively debate on this issue. People are speaking out who before had been silent," Ashrawi said.

So how do the Palestinians in the refugee camps -- ordinary people -- feel about this matter? "Who," she retorted, "can appoint himself, or herself, spokesperson for the so- called ordinary man?"

I asked her opinion of the view, expressed even amongst supporters of the Palestinians, like French philosopher Etienne Balibar, that suicide bombings pose "an ethical and political problem" as being part of a "suicidal culture."

As someone who is concerned to formulate discussions of the Palestinian cause using "universal language", how does she think such reactions should be addressed?

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What Neta Golan did was very brave. There were other individuals as well, like Uri Avnery and Ilan Pappe, journalists like Gideon Levi and others, who have spoken out. It is not a question of nationality, but of one's moral fibre as a human being'

Ashrawi believes that the suicide bombings are an issue that needs to be resolved internally, not for the sake of an "international audience", but for the sake of Palestinians themselves. "Palestinian culture has never been a suicidal one," she said. "But, there is a sense of frustration. There is anger, pain and the gut reaction is to lash out, though it is not necessarily part of the political plan." She also criticises the public mood that has led to "an escalation in the rhetoric, particularly from the Arab public, that 'beautifies' suicide bombings and martyrdom, when we know you must live to serve the cause." She has little patience for demagogues: "I do not like political pandering. It is time to stop catering to the public mood. We do not need sloganeering and emotional or inflammatory statements which gloss over reality. We need an inclusive and honest discourse about the issues pertaining to our lives." For her, leadership entails responsibility: "A leadership must protect the rights, and the lives, of its people."

She is highly attuned to the challenges posed by the international political climate in the aftermath of 11 September. Within this climate, Israel has succeeded, particularly in the US, in equating Palestinian national resistance with "terrorism" against which the US is waging its global "war".

"This creates a dilemma. Since 11 September, there has been a willingness to 'label' realities, to polarise the world, without looking at the causes of anger, desperation and [acts of] revenge."

But there is also an urgent need, she believes, to address the ideology that encourages this form of resistance.

"When you close off other options, [such thinking] becomes inevitable. But you have to show that other schools of thought, like the political approach and democratic reform, can work. We must deal with these challenges from a very political, rational and legal point of view."

During the siege of Ramallah, some European, American and even one Israeli peace activist, Neta Golan, stayed inside Arafat's Ramallah headquarters and proclaimed solidarity with the Palestinians. Was this a significant development or does it remain a peripheral phenomenon?

"What the international solidarity movement did was a heroic implementation of principles. The world saw [the activists] only when they did dramatic things. But they have been here, at checkpoints, areas targeted by settlers and homes that were threatened with demolition."

People working to support the Palestinian cause may not have numbered "in the hundreds of thousands, but they sent a message to the world's governments. 'You might feel impotent, paralysed and helpless, but there are still individuals who have the courage to stand up for what they believe in'." Ashrawi spoke of Israeli peace activists and journalists who supported the Palestinians. "What Neta Golan did was very brave. There were other individuals as well, like Uri Avnery [head of the Israeli peace movement, Gush Shalom] and [political scientist and historian] Ilan Pappe, journalists like Gideon Levi and others, who have spoken out. It is not a question of nationality, but of one's moral fibre as a human being."

I asked her about what appear to be the beginnings of a controversy in Egypt over the national media carrying work by members of the Israeli left and peace movement. Critics protest that this is not reciprocated in the Israeli media. "It is absolutely crucial to provide these individuals with a forum. It is a source of shame for Israel that the Arab world does so while Israel closes its doors to democratic debate. We should not use Israel's violations and repressions [as a justification] for doing the same. This will not help the Arab or Palestinian cause."

Has formulating the Palestinians' demands in a universal political language become more difficult since 11 September? "Of course. Since then, the world has fallen prey to a simplistic vision of a Manichaean universe of good and evil, freedom and terrorism, as portrayed by George Bush and others. The willingness to listen has diminished, even in Europe. The human rights, civil rights and positive intervention agendas have taken a back seat. Now, it is the gung-ho so-called war against terrorism approach. It is the 'bash them, defeat them, shell them to death' approach... Translated into policy, [this vision] perpetuates conflicts. It does not resolve them."

In July 2001, Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa appointed Ashrawi Commissioner for Information and Public Policy. Moussa entrusted her with formulating an information and public policy approach to the Palestinian situation to be used by Arab countries. Although she has prepared a plan of action in this regard, no concrete steps have been taken by league member states to adopt it.

Referring to the handling by the Arab media of Israel's siege of the West Bank that began in March, she said "We speak to ourselves always. It is good for the Arab public to be made aware, to have free, open media and interact in the ongoing dialogue. But we did not address the rest of the world at all. We must address the world in its own arena, with a comprehensible discourse that is rooted in self-respect, not defensiveness. You cannot impress anyone if you just translate what you say in Arabic into English."

She has been acclaimed internationally as one of the most articulate defenders of the Palestinian cause, Yet in the West, she is also perceived as a secular, Western-educated woman. Who does she represent? Does she not, in a sense, stand alone?

She rejects "stereotypical images of the Palestinians, which are simplistic, distorted and reductionist. Nobody has the right to define the mainstream. This is a very pluralistic culture. I come from here. I gain my legitimacy by virtue of being elected. Women voted for me. Christians and Muslims voted for me. People from Jerusalem and from the villages voted for me. Palestinians are much more mature than people think."

As a deputy for East Jerusalem, as well as a poet and writer, how does Ashrawi see the city? "It is a city of tremendous magnitude. Jerusalem is a city in captivity. Its identity, history and culture are being distorted to create an artificial, fraudulent future. It is also a very lonely city, isolated from its natural demographic, territorial environment, which is Palestine. Jerusalem was built to be the heart of Palestine. It is the heart of the Muslim and Christian world. It is the heart of the Arab world. Can you extract the heart from the body? Neither can survive. We need intervention to rescue Jerusalem."

She has been searing in her criticism of the "successive weak stances of US administrations" towards Israel. "As regards the current administration, I find it amazing that it is reduced to being a mere spokesman for Israel. To put it in a nutshell, US foreign policy is being formulated inside Israel." US administrations confuse their narrow self- interest with their country's global responsibilities as the world's strongest power, she said.

What should the parameters be for upcoming peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel? "The Arab peace initiative and Saudi plan provide an excellent 'road-map' for negotiations. The question, though, is how to prevent these plans from being hijacked by Israel and watered down by the US."

Ashrawi thinks that Israel is exploiting the proposed "peace conference" scheduled for early summer, "to buy time to create more facts on the ground." She points out that, "While all of these matters [such as holding a conference] are being 'discussed', what is happening is so critical and dangerous, that it renders this conference, or any political talks, entirely irrelevant. The plan we are now witnessing is not a secret. It is not just the creation of a buffer zone and Bantustanisation of the West Bank and Gaza; there is the annexation of land, creating an apartheid system within the occupation, land confiscation and massive military assaults. The realities required for peace are just not there."

What is the mood amongst Palestinians? "The mood is multi-faceted. There is a strong spirit of persistence. There is a tremendous feeling of collective empowerment as well as critical attitudes and engagement. We are going to prevent [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon from implementing his plans. At the same time we are seeing, on the ground, unilateral action that could supersede all talks. But people are aware of the gravity of the situation, and the danger they now face."

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