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Date posted: December 17, 2004
By Ruthie Blum

Veteran Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi on Arafat, Abbas, Bush, democracy, and suicides

Displaying her trademark forthrightness, Palestinian Authority lawmaker and spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi gets straight to the point.

"I've had many interviews," she says, fondling a string of silver worry beads, "and I have the sense you already have an idea about me and you want to see if I fit into it."

The beads, she explains sitting in her small Ramallah office, are a substitute for the cigarettes she quit smoking two years ago.

Not known to pull verbal punches - even with Yasser Arafat - Ashrawi at the same time appears to be weighing the consequence of every statement she makes. Years of appearing on CNN and BBC will do that.

"It's a big responsibility," she says, with a piercing stare and an almost incongruous girlish smile. "Everything you do is taken to have symbolic significance."

Indeed, Ashrawi became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, as well as a household name, after she appeared on a live broadcast of ABC TV's Nightline in 1988. After that, the foreign media couldn't get enough of her. This is not surprising, given her Western appearance and political savvy, as well as the fact that she is a woman and a Christian trying to debunk "negative stereotypes of Palestinians" as terrorists.

One of five daughters, Ashrawi was born in 1946 to a wealthy family, and grew up in Ramallah. She received a BA and MA in English literature from the American University in Beirut, and her doctorate in Medieval and Comparative Literature from the University of Virginia. In 1973, she founded and chaired the English department at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. She would later become dean of its arts faculty.

The author of several poems, short stories, articles and books on Palestinian culture and politics, Ashrawi was appointed official spokeswoman of the Palestinian delegation at the Peace Conference in Madrid.

In 1996, she became an elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council for the Jerusalem district. She was also appointed minister of higher education in the first PA cabinet, but resigned two years later, when Arafat failed to fire corrupt ministers.

This, it turned out, would not be the only post from which she resigned in a huff. In 2002, Ashrawi quit as spokeswoman for the Arab League less than a year into the job, over difficulties she encountered in trying to persuade the different member states to speak with a uniform voice.

In 1998, she founded MIFTAH, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, which she continues to head.

Married with two grown daughters and one grandchild, Ashrawi lives in a house across from the famous Mukata compound.

Though a self-proclaimed reformist and human rights activist, Ashrawi nevertheless firmly opposes the Bush Doctrine.

"You can't bomb people into a democracy," she says, glancing up at the muted TV tuned in to CNN. "You don't use democracy for justifying the existence of states."

Describe your relations with Arafat.

Unique, turbulent, with mutual respect and friendship. I would be very honest about what I thought and he would accept it. But sometimes, people would joke about this and say, "Don't see Arafat after he's had a meeting with Hanan, because he'll be angry and shout at you."

We had disagreements on issues of governance and human rights, often on issues of reform. Every time he founded a new government, he would ask me which ministry I wanted, and I would say "no thank you" - and this became a sort of ritual. I would say, "only when you decide to change the team, the approach and the work."

You are a Christian. Was one of your disagreements with Arafat over the treatment of Christians by Muslims in the PA?

Quite the contrary. Arafat was much more conscious of supporting the Christians than I was, because I don't look at people on the basis of their faith or their religion. I believe in separation of church and state.

Then how do you explain the persecution of Christians by Muslims in the PA?

There is a diminishing number of Christians, but this has nothing to do with persecution. This is totally false. There was quite a bit of emigration from Palestine, as a result of conditions. Conditions under occupation aren't easy.

Also, many Christians have more family outside Palestine than others. For example, there are thousands of Bethlehemites in Latin America. In Ramallah, there are 2,000 left of the original people, and 40,000 in the States. So, the Christians have their connections already - their families abroad - which makes it easier for them to leave.

Another factor is mixed marriage between Muslims and Christians. The law here says that the children follow the faith of the father, so if a Muslim man marries a Christian woman, she can stay Christian, but the children are Muslim. If a Christian man wants marries a Muslim woman, he has to become Muslim. This, of course, diminishes the number of Christians. And there is a low birthrate among Christians.

How, then, do you explain the huge noise that was made surrounding the issue?

I haven't heard any noise from Christians themselves in the PA. I have only heard it from American and Israeli sources, frankly.

What could the motive be for magnifying this if it doesn't exist?

There are all kinds of ways to attack the Palestinians. At one point it was the textbooks. Now, even if you point to objective studies showing that Palestinian textbooks in many ways are better than Israeli textbooks when it comes to "the other" - and way ahead of Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks - nobody acknowledges that. They'll say that the Palestinians incite and are anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic - which isn't true. There's not a single anti-Semitic word in the textbooks. But anyway, there are fads of accusations. And these take on a life of their own when they keep being repeated.

What about incitement on Palestinian television? Two weeks ago, there was a children's program in which a puppet said that if someone were to cut down the trees in front of his house, he would get an AK-47 and massacre him.

That's ridiculous. Why would a puppet talk about AK-47s?

There is also a clip in which a child actor plays Muhammad al-Dura in an amusement park in heaven, and calls upon other children to join him.

You must watch more Palestinian TV than I do. Anyway, this is taken out of context. People try to make it look as if this is everything they're showing on Palestinian television. I'm sure anybody monitoring Israeli TV would find horrible things as well.

But Palestinian children are being bombarded with this kind of material.

They are not being bombarded. Palestinian children don't have to learn about violence from textbooks or TV. All they have to do is watch the news... [or] live in an area that is bombed or shelled or where their parents are arrested or beaten up. Studies show that more than 80 percent of Palestinian children are in a state of constant trauma. So, the reality they live in is inherently abnormal. And the fact that they are robbed of their traditional source of security and comfort - their families - since their parents themselves are vulnerable and cannot protect their children.

So why are so many young people being recruited for suicide missions?

Most young people don't think so much with their minds as with their emotions. I don't want to generalize, but they're very vulnerable and have more hormonal influences than any other age group.

And the belief that they'll be rewarded with paradise?

Not only is this a lack of understanding of the Koran or the religion, but of the reasons people do these things. Motives for suicide bombing could be revenge or desperation. So, you look at all the motives and you deal with all the motives. But the moment you distort what's happening by saying they're going after virgins in heaven - this is ridiculous. I think it's an oversimplification to talk about people being promised sexual gratification in the afterlife.

When you refer to the occupation, are you talking about '67 or '48?

1967.

Do you see no root causes for the occupation in the first place?

Nothing justifies the enslavement of the people, regardless of the causes of the war. There were many Israeli voices from the beginning which said Israel cannot continue to be in this position, and that the occupation has to be ended.

Unfortunately, the more the occupation continues, the more the occupiers absorb a sense of power and lack of accountability - because they have a captive population - and the more they can justify whatever they do to them because this generates a cycle. They say: "We're the ones who are in a state of fear," or "We're victims and this justifies everything."

What should have happened after the '67 war, when Israel was attacked and ended up victorious?

There should have been a real withdrawal, with a real negotiation about a two-state solution then.

Can you give me an example of another country that was victorious in a war waged against it that sat down to negotiate withdrawal when the war was over?

I don't see why one always has to find a precedent. But yes, people who are victorious in war do negotiate - especially when the result of that war leads them to control the lives of a population on land that is not theirs. There is such a thing as the acquisition of territory by war, and there is such a thing as international humanitarian law.

Do Jews have the right to sovereignty over any part of the territory?

Yes, Israel has the right to exist on 78% of historical Palestine, which is the land it had in June 1967. So 22%, the West Bank and Gaza, is Palestine. This is the only way we can have a two-state solution, with people living side by side, and start a process of historical reconciliation.

What about the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel?

You start with the narrative of the Palestinian refugees - the historical injustice that was done to them. [You cannot continue to] blame the Arabs or the refugees, and not recognize the fact that the creation of Israel inflicted a historical injustice and tremendous pain on the Palestinian population. So, first you recognize that. Then, you cannot negate their right to return. You say: "OK, they have the right to return, but let's negotiate how to implement that right."

Those are the first two steps. The third step is to look at options and permutations.

If the right of return of Palestinian refugees is recognized and implemented, isn't it true that there can't be a two-state solution? That, due to demography, there will end up being only one state, and that will be Palestinian?

Yes, it would be non-Jewish.

Yet, you still think this has to be negotiated? Yes, of course, the implementation has to be negotiated, by examining possibilities, such as compensation. You know, offering the refugees different options.

Options such as those the Israeli government is now giving the Gush Katif settlers?

I don't equate the settlers with the refugees. The refugees were evicted from their homeland, and they are living at the mercy of countries they don't want to be in. They're not Lebanese or Jordanians or whatever. They're Palestinians. The Israeli settlers are illegally placed in occupied territory, in contravention of the fourth Geneva Convention. An occupying power cannot move its population into occupied territory. It cannot take away land from the occupied people. So, it's an illegal situation there. By removing settlements, they are undoing an injustice.

Then you agree with President Bush about the spread of democracy throughout the world?

Listen, before President Bush decided that he had a mission to transform the Arabs into a democracy and to adopt the neocon agenda, there were movements here to democratize, not just Palestine but the Arab world. Look, the point is that we are not as ignorant as people seem to think. The Palestinians' problem is not absence of democracy - it's absence of freedom. Give us the room to breathe; give us the right to live in freedom and security; get rid of the occupation; and yet even under adverse conditions, we were working for human rights and reform.

Of course, you can skirt all the issues and talk about transforming the Arab world, but who appointed the non-democratic regimes of the Arab world? Who propped them up? Who made deals with them? The Americans!

You refer to the "neocon agenda." If Kerry had won the US presidential elections, would there have been a difference?

I do not interfere or pass judgment on party politics in the US. I deal with issues. It would be too simplistic to say that Bush and Kerry are the same. But I can say that there are constants in American policy. The strategic alliance with Israel is a constant, regardless of who is in the White House.

Are you saying that Palestinians want to reform, but don't want it imposed on them?

You can't bomb people into a democracy. Look at what's happening in Iraq. I think [the allies] fed extremism and fundamentalism and violence. They stirred up a hornets' nest and everybody's going to pay for it. The region is being destabilized.

Isn't "bombing people into a democracy" precisely what the US did in WWII?

They bombed Germany in order to stop what Germany was doing. But there was a situation of war. It was justified because of the horrors that were taking place, not just the Holocaust but what was happening to Europe and, of course, the Japanese.

Is this not comparable with what the US is doing in Iraq?

No, no, no. This is a false analogy. Saddam is not Hitler. Sure, Saddam was bad for his own people, but he was only one of many dictators all over the world. But you don't go around invading their countries or bombing them because they're dictators.

What about 9/11?

Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11! This is ridiculous. They talked about weapons of mass destruction; they found none. They tried to connect him to 9/11; there was no connection, for heaven's sake!

What created al-Qaida?

It's very hard to understand the mentality of such a closed, extremist, fundamentalist group, although we've seen expressions of it in different religions - people who think that God gives them the right to do certain things. This is very destructive, but I don't find it exclusive to Islam. Any religion or faction or anybody who thinks God gives him the right to dictate, to destroy life, to do whatever he wants... I've had Christian fundamentalists tell me we Palestinians have no right to exist.

Are you talking about American evangelical Christians who support Israel?

Well, they were anti-Semitic for a long while; they just discovered their Zionism recently. Do you believe that America somehow invited the 9/11 attacks on itself and that it has soul-searching to do?

No. I can't say America invited those attacks, but it certainly has to examine where its policies went wrong.

I don't think anybody deserves this treatment and I don't think the taking of innocent lives can be justified in any way, shape or form. But I'm saying that to deal with phenomena such as al-Qaida and others, you have to see the causes - what makes them come out. What do they thrive on? What are the fertile grounds from which they arise, what keeps them going and how do they gain constituency? This is important.

Look, the Taliban did not emerge out of nowhere. They were created during the days of the Cold War, when the US used the "end justifies the means" policy, according to which fighting communism meant you use whatever instruments you can, including the Taliban, the so-called Arab Afghanis who became religious fanatics. During the Cold War, the US made many mistakes. It courted Islamic fundamentalism in many different places, creating simplistic alliances based on "my enemy's enemy is my friend."

If the Israelis and the Palestinians resolve their conflict, will there be stability in the Middle East?

In the same way as insecurity and violence and instability have a spill-over effect, I think peace has a ripple effect. Once there is peace in Palestine, you will see a rapid transformation of the region.

Yet, before 1967, the region wasn't stable.

The region has rarely been entirely stable. I mean in '48, you can't consider that stable. It began with the establishment of the State of Israel. That was a whole new phase. But now the Palestinians are willing to accept a two-state solution.

In 1948, you weren't willing to accept it, though. How do you feel about that in hindsight?

I say that we should have accepted the partition. Not that we had recognition then, nor were we really asked.

In his June 24 speech, President Bush said that he supports a Palestinian state on condition that it be a democracy.

You don't use democracy for justifying the existence of states. You would then have to remove many states. Self-determination for Palestinians is a right that has to be implemented as a way of bringing peace and stability to the region. Therefore, you don't make a state dependent on its system of government.

So that speech disturbed you.

I thought it showed some lack of understanding of the realities of the Palestinians and of the region. As I started out telling you, we want democracy. We are not the Taliban. And we are not living in the midst of a dictatorship. We are living under occupation. We don't need people to tell us that we have to reform and become democratic. Had they worked with us from the beginning, they would have seen that we had some authentic, home-grown movements that are really undermined by a peace process that didn't reflect the nation-building process. That's why we worked with the road map.

You don't tell the Palestinians, "Your rights are dependent on how you behave." These rights are universal.

Didn't the intifada that began in September 2000 have an effect on Israeli and American attitudes toward the Palestinians?

That's why I agreed to give this interview, even though I've known for a long time that The Jerusalem Post has taken an anti-Palestinian stance. It's important to cut through the spin and the nonsense and to address the Israeli public honestly. The question is not whether the suicide bombings affected people's perceptions of us; it affected the Palestinians' own integrity; it affected the Israeli public - the people we have to make peace with - and in many ways it undermined our own cause.

Because it was tactically wrong, or immoral?

It is inherently morally reprehensible. I have always opposed the taking of innocent lives. At the same time, I do not deal only with one side. I do not deal only with symptoms, I deal with causes. So, that's why I find it sick when you take something out of context and keep bashing the Palestinians for it.

Let's look at the whole situation. When you legitimize violence, when you make innocent lives fair game, when you use collective measures - then you have venerated an object which is lethal for both sides. I don't believe that bombing and shelling is moral or justifiable - particularly when you have a captive population. And you have voices in Israel - pilots, soldiers, officers - who are speaking out. I'm not saying that this is necessarily good for me. It's good for Israel to do a lot of soul-searching. And it's good for us to do our soul-searching, our assessment of where we went wrong.

I have always spoken openly. I always told Arafat never to trust violence. I told him that as far as I was concerned, the strength of our cause was that it was moral, legal and political.

What do you think of the security fence around Gaza and part of the West Bank?

I believe all walls are barriers. Anything that separates people is not very human. But when you have a wall on other people's land - that imprisons them and robs them of their land, water and freedom of movement - then it's a punitive wall. And that does not make good neighbors at all.

It has nothing to do with Israelis not knowing how to combat the terror in their midst?

No, it only generates more resentment, more hatred, more hostility and more violence. It's very punitive, like imposing a curfew on Palestinians. I have lived under curfew. It doesn't mean you have actual quiet. You have an abnormal quiet.

Does Abu Mazen agree with your positions and philosophy?

He has his philosophy. We agree on most things, yet disagree on others. But you have to judge him on his own. I see him as a person who has assured me he is committed to reform, to democracy and institutions to help Palestinian society to survive - to build a state based on the rule of law. And I believe he's committed to peace. But how he translates those principles into policies remains to be seen.

According to a recent poll, the Palestinian people are feeling optimistic about their future. Is that surprising to you, given their love for Arafat?

These things are not mutually exclusive. Palestinians still maintain a sense of loyalty to Arafat. Even his sins were often forgiven. One reason is that he was the symbolic embodiment of nationalism. That remained constant, even though some disagreed with him. Israel tried to render him irrelevant; it held him hostage; it ostracized him. So all Palestinians rallied around him, because he was a historical figure, and because he was targeted by the Israelis and the Americans.

Can Abu Mazen generate that same kind of leadership and charisma?

Abu Mazen probably would be a statesman, but not a charismatic, historical leader. The whole region is moving away from this kind of historical figure - like Saddam, or King Hussein, or Abdel Nasser - people who were seen to embody a nation, a history, an identity.

There isn't one person who will take Arafat's place. We're not looking for one person to take his place. We're looking for several people to be elected to build the society.

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Source: Jerusalem Post
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