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Extended Interview With Hanan Ashraw

February 1, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let’s start because we were talking about this already with the situation with the Palestinian Authority, because I have read interviews with you recently in which you talked about the breakdown on law and order and unless it was translated wrong, you even said that there’s a kind of return to tribalism which I thought was, please explain what you meant by that and explain the situation of the Palestinian Authority.

HANAN ASHRAWI: Well, we certainly are in dire straights in every possible way. We are in a state of siege, cut off from the rest of the world and internally we are in state of fragmentation. There is an internal siege of every city, town and village and along with the wall, so you end up losing every aspect of a cohesive national reality on the ground because of this isolation, fragmentation and internal siege and of course totally vulnerable to Israeli incursions, assassinations, land confiscation and so on.

So the siege and isolation and fragmentation have generated power systems that are localized and have made people regress and go back to a system of tribalism, family-based power systems as well as local groups, gangs, militias, whatever, because in the absence of a certain national institutional system, based on rule of law and, and due process, you end up with power systems that tend to be more family based, more tribal, more community based. At the same time the failure of the Palestinian Authority to deliver to its own people any sense of human security, to be able to defend them against Israeli incursions, but at the same time unable to present them with any basic services that are cohesive, whether due to the fragmentation and, and the, the shelling and the bombing of the headquarters and so on. And whether due to a failure of will and policy, this is where we are right now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think it’s both, failure of will and the policies of Israel?

HANAN ASHRAWI: Sounds like lack of ability yes, and of course the deliberate policy of, of bashing, battling, shelling, besieging, so you end up with a, what I call is a systematic policy of development. We are facing a dissolution of any kind of system that is as cohesive and comprehensive as a human based form of development strategies and we are undergoing a process of regression, and instead of what we call the removal of this integration of the occupation per se and the occupation institutions we end up with the dismantlement of the Palestinian Authorities.

It is very ironic because from the beginning we said we want the devolution of occupation and evolution of statehood, instead we are seeing the devolution of Palestinian realities, institutions, infrastructure and the evolution of the occupation into a different type of control system and it’s, it’s really alarming because if we disintegrated, we fall apart. It’s not just the Palestinians who will pay the price. And it’s very tragic that the Palestinians would pay such a horrible price, it will have a ripple effect throughout the region and of course it is…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Can you give me some examples of the signs of disintegration? One reads in the paper that there won’t be money to pay people next month. Kofi Annan has just spoken out about that, you know. Briefly what’s the reason you give for the disintegration.

HANAN ASHRAWI: Well, well you see a humanitarian disaster which everybody talks about, not just Kofi Annan, but has been, there have been and see the studies and statistics. But for example, you see people taking the law into their own hands, which in cases where you have young people with arms, shooting, killing, others saying that they were collaborated, so to take the law into their hands and then you become judge, jury and executioner.

This is very, very serious for any type of nation building process where you want the rule of law and where you want to build institutions that function and you want an independent judiciary. So that is a very alarming. We’re seeing cases of violence, internal violence and…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Before we go on with that, what about just specific examples of things that the Palestinian Authority can’t do right now. Is there no money for schools? Is there no money for garbage pickup? Just the most simple things.

HANAN ASHRAWI: Well the simple things include things like paying salaries. They don’t always pay salaries, not always on time and of course no one knows exactly the salaries themselves are very low and we’re ending up with an economic disaster with the people as you know, between 50 and 60 percent unemployment and between 60 to 70 percent people below poverty level, and so on.

Now the basic systems, educational and health systems, for example have not collapsed because we have massive numbers of people who have been working, institutionally for a long time. But the quality is regressing. The quality of education, the ability of students to go to school, the number of school days, the ability of universities to function within the siege and so on. In terms of health, we are seeing a resurgence of childhood diseases that we thought we had eradicated, but they’re back because of the inability to carry out a vaccination program.


HANAN ASHRAWI: Whether we’re talking about polio, measles, things like that that are coming back again because with the siege and the fragmentation people are unable to carry out a massive national vaccination program. We have the DTP vaccination, you have all these basic health care, family health care for infants and so on that are no longer being carried out in a way that is systematic and sustainable. You’re seeing children with malnutrition, we’ve never had that in Palestine. We have never had malnutrition, you know anemic women of childbearing age. These are things that are serious causes for alarm, but are systematic also.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And when you said that there’s this strange process of the development and devolution of what’s happening here and this new development of the occupation, what do you mean, what do you see them doing that indicates this?

HANAN ASHRAWI: Of course the occupation has evolved a new system of control, where it wants security control everywhere with the Army, without the responsibilities of an occupier. Because according to the fourth Geneva Convention they have to be responsible for all the services given to a population in a state of war and that the civilians in times of war and at the same time they want all the power, all the control, all the authority without any of the responsibilities and they want the authority of the Palestinian National Authority to be there, to deliver these services and they’re making life impossible for the authority. And at the same time, they want to maintain the military and security control and they want the authority to deliver security to the Israelis. So it’s like a Catch-22.

But the most visible form of a devolution of a new type of control is not just the expansion of settlements and bypassed roads but now this horrific apartheid wall of separation and annexation. It’s a wall that distorts any Palestinian reality, that prevents any kind of emergence of a continuing viable Palestinian state and at the same time, it’s an excuse for annexation of further land, annexation of water resources and of course with byproduct of displacement of Palestinians, of tremendous economic and daily living hardships. This is just incredible. This is one visible complete expression of control of oppression which is very pervasive which effects every type of life, every aspect of our life. So, with Sharon’s and Mofaz’ mentality of…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mofaz being the minister of defense.

HANAN ASHRAWI: Mofaz is the minister of defense, of course he came from the army, so he’s a military man, you have the union of the extreme hard line right wing political ideology and that with the most extreme hard line military mentality and control, with the most, of course ideological fundamentalist religious parties coming together to form a policy whereby the most horrific, illegal cruel measures are all justified by saying this is a state of self-defense and that we are creating facts on the ground that are not just victimizing the whole captive population, but that are becoming irreversible. That are gradually destroying the chances of any peace in the future.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why is it, why do you say when people say, well, it is for defense. The bombing yesterday, there are all these bombings. How do you respond to that?

HANAN ASHRAWI: Oh, well the bombings do not come from a vacuum, the first thing that has to be addressed is the issue of occupation itself. The problem with Israel all along is that it has always thought it could have a safe and pleasant and profitable occupation, that it can do whatever it wants to the Palestinians and if ever they act, then they’re immediately they’re labeled terrorists. There’s no such thing. Occupations are very dangerous. They, it’s an abnormal situation. They generate abhorrent and abnormal behavior and we do have this sort of bizarre exchange of violence where the military seems to think it has a free hand to inflict any kind of pain and punishment and violence on the captive civilian population. And the Palestinians have to become you know perfect Christians. Turn the other cheek or die quietly. This is not happening.

The extremism and violence of the occupation and of this government and Israel in particular are generating their counterparts and encouraging their counterparts among the Palestinians, so there are many Palestinian organizations that feel vindicated using the same kind of fundamentalist rhetoric that they hear from Israel, using the same methods of violence against civilians, and justifying it by saying you know you do unto others what was done unto you. And in the meantime you have a whole Palestinian cause and population that are paying the price of both types of violence which is taking place above their heads.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We spent a day with Jamal Juma’a traveling through the West Bank. We went to … then we went to Qalqilya, went to all the little, the villages that are cut off. I’m going to ask you, let me ask you as a person and a human being now before we go any further because we’re going to a lot of policy. You’ve been involved in this for so long. You had years that weren’t so bad where there was quite a bit of interchange, you could come and go. You’ve got a situation now that to drive to Qalqilya from [inaudible] takes two hours.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: At least. You go by these villages with all these blocked roads. I mean how do you deal with this? Just as a human being that the years of hope and faith and then this.

HANAN ASHRAWI: Yeah, well that, personally I mean it’s an uphill struggle because every morning, every day you have to wake up and say I’m not going to let it get to me. I’m not going to let them dictate, not just my mood, but my moral fiber, my agenda, my humanity, the way I deal with things. I don’t want to be driven to despair because that’s what causes violence. That’s what causes desperate acts.

And it’s a conscious effort to say that I will work simultaneously, internally to maintain a movement of reform, a movement of serious policy decision making, of empowerment of the Palestinian people, working towards elections. These are positive things that you have to hold onto and keep working for. And on the other hand, I still believe that peace is a noble objective. It must be worked for. That must be attained regardless of how hopeless or how negative the conditions are or how you have no faith on the other side. It doesn’t mean that these conditions are permanent. If the instruments are flawed, if the process is flawed, it doesn’t mean that the objective itself is any less noble or is flawed.

So we have to maintain this long term commitment to peace and to prevent Sharon and his ilk from doing permanent damage and inflicting permanent harm on the prospects of peace and at the same time, you have to try to give the Palestinian people some hope and to empower the Palestinian people to try to carry out the process of reform. And this is very, very difficult. It gets to you sometimes. You just say, well how can I? How can you maintain this sense that there is a humanity out there. That there is some justice out there for the Palestinians. But the more suffering you see, the more determined you become to ensure that the Palestinians don’t continue being the victims of fate, of others, of history, of the factors that are not their own making.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you feel any differently about the separation barrier, if it were on the Green Line?

HANAN ASHRAWI: Well I don’t like walls. By nature I don’t think this is the kind of relationship I would like with neighboring countries. I don’t like to hide behind walls. I mean if you look at our house, we don’t have a fence or wall. We have nice ivy and we have flowers and we have gardens. And I believe in that all my life. You need the sunshine in.

But if Israel wants to survive by being closed in and this beleaguered fortress mentality, which to me is very abnormal also, then it can do it by building walls on its own land or on the Green Line, certainly. And I wouldn’t like it, but I would say they are justified if they want to live that way. It’s not conducive to a healthy mentality. It’s not conducive to good neighborly relations in the future. We should have peace and then once you have peaceful agreements you change conditions on the ground, and then you have relationships of mutual benefit, rather than mutual destruction which is what we have right now. I wouldn’t object. I wouldn’t like a wall, but I wouldn’t object to it because it would be within their rights to build walls on their land or on the Green Line.

However, it goes against my long term vision because I believe the whole world is moving away from barriers, moving away from separating one from the other and working towards more regional and global cooperation, based on a more human understanding, rather than a limited, patriotic, nationalistic definition and establishment of boundaries.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think the purpose of the wall is?

HANAN ASHRAWI: The ostensible purpose that Sharon says is to defend Israel from the Palestinians is a sham. I don’t think that’s the purpose.

I think the real purpose is an excuse to annex more Palestinian land, an excuse to take more water sources, an excuse to create a demographic separation which is very racist to say they can take land without the people. So the wall will carry out Sharon’s policy of annexing over 58 percent of the West Bank, of destroying the Palestinian national identity and our ability to create a contiguous and viable Palestinian state. And therefore transforming the Palestinians from a national identity with rights of self-determination and independence, and so on, to population centers that are fragmented and that can be swallowed within the greater Israel, surrounded and besieged by a wall that would destroy the very fabric of their society and their national aspirations.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You say annexing 58 percent. The UN says that as the wall’s currently planned, it will take 15 percent of the West Bank and put it into Israel.

HANAN ASHRAWI: Well that’s without the east side. If they build the east wall which will also allow them to take the Jordan River Valley. And the Jordan Valley has nothing to do with Israel. That’s our border with Jordan, not with Israel. If they do that, which was in the making, then that means that we are just isolated population centers, as I said. We have no borders with Jordan and we are surrounded by Israel if it annexes all that territory. Sharon said he does not want a permanent solution with the Palestinians now. He wants a prolonged, long term interim agreement or series of interim agreements that he would carry out with local leaderships rather than a national leadership. So it was already clear from day one that this is what Sharon intended and the wall played into this policy.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do so many people use the word apartheid when describing what’s happening here?

HANAN ASHRAWI: Well apartheid means separation actually. That comes from the South African experience and we’ve had lots of contacts with the South Africans and we’ve had many South African delegations coming here and saying, well actually this is much worse than apartheid. Because to them, apartheid was you know locking of whole populations, or of a different color, or a different creed and so on, and then having different laws for different people, racist laws of course.

Here, you have apartheid in the sense that you have a settler population that carries the law of Israel and has privileges. You have a Palestinian indigenous population that certainly has no rights and is not given them. And then you have an Israeli policy of the separation of the Palestinians — not just from the Israelis and settlers — you have separation of Palestinians from other Palestinians and you have the Israeli army on both sides of the wall, and you have Israelis on both sides of the wall. On our side there are settlers on the Israeli side, there are of course Israelis. So you have a very complex situation, because this not Israel.

This is an occupation and you’re creating a racist situation of separation on occupied territories, so you are already also violating international law, international humanitarian law, the first Geneva Convention. You’re stealing other people’s land. You’re establishing roads that are racist towards us. This is incredible. They take your land, they build a bypass road on it, on confiscated Palestinian land, and as a Palestinian you’re not allowed to use that road. It’s to be used only by Israeli settlers who are there illegally.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There are roads you can’t travel on, right?

HANAN ASHRAWI: Of course. There are roads that the Palestinians cannot use and what adds insult to injury is that these roads are built illegally on confiscated Palestinian lands for the exclusive use of Israeli settlers. So your reality, your historical reality, your authentic history, identity, culture in Palestine that dates back thousands of years becomes the peripheral reality because all the roads have superimposed a different artificial and illegal reality on your own land where the major so-called population centers are the settlers and the settlements connected by roads and the peripheral reality is that of the ancient Palestinian communities and, and towns and villages and so on, that are now isolated.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve had your problems with Yassar Arafat. But how do you answer the argument that the Israeli leadership and the American leadership makes, that there’s no partner for Israel to deal with as long as Arafat is in charge?

HANAN ASHRAWI: Well, first of all, I think there’s a certain degree of hypocrisy in that because Arafat was elected and we may have our criticisms of him, our disagreements with him, it’s our business. But nobody has the right to decide on the legitimacy of another people’s leadership, especially when they were democratically elected and it is actually hypocritical to say you are for democracy but you don’t like the elected leader of another people.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But is it true that there’s just no way there’s going to be peace with Arafat. That it will be more possible after his death?

HANAN ASHRAWI: That’s a Catch-22, depends on how he goes exactly. Now Arafat has played a multiplicity of roles in Palestinian history. He has a sort of symbolic reality. He’s a national symbol. A historical symbol. He’s maintained the Palestinian struggle. He’s done a lot, he’s head of the revolution and so on, but we also criticize him for not evolving beyond the revolution into nation-building and statehood because that is what is needed: to build institutions, to legislate just laws, to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, the nation-building process.

So it is up to us to work with whatever leadership, to have elections. Now we want elections. The only way to change any leadership is to have elections. Not, to gain legitimacy from approval or disapproval by the Americans or the Israelis, that’s the real problem: the source of legitimacy. Because historically in the Arab world, leaders, particularly oppressive leaders relied on the West for their legitimacy, on the Americans for their legitimacy, not on a constituency from within and not on the elections process.

We need to consolidate a sense of democracy — active, vibrant democracy among the Palestinians — where the leaders’ legitimacy comes from the people and through a process of elections and accountability. This is important. Now if the the West insist that they’re the source of legitimacy that would continue a process of undermining democracy and of course of imposing a leadership that doesn’t enjoy any type of support or credibility or legitimacy within its own people.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is the Palestinian Authority too weak now to be able to control Hamas and the Islamic Jihad?

HANAN ASHRAWI: The Palestinian Authority is extremely weak and it has been weakened. I mean Israel systematically restored institutions, infrastructure, undermined the ability and, and particularly security ability to deliver security to the Israelis let alone to the Palestinian people. So when we talk about security forces, there are no prisons here, there are no headquarters for the security, for the police force even, they’ve all been bombed and shelled and the prisons are being destroyed.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So how could they ever get control of Hamas and Islamic Jihad?

HANAN ASHRAWI: Not through security. They cannot….

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: They have to have a negotiated deal with them?

HANAN ASHRAWI: Of course, because if you have an armed confrontation, it will degenerate into a civil war. And Hamas certainly has weapons and certainly has standing because it responds to the visceral need for revenge and fulfillment of anger and desperation and so on among the people. So you need to be able to create a viable political system that would acknowledge the political right to dissent, but at the same time you need a rule of law whereby people who violate the law and resort to violence will be held accountable in accordance with the law. So simultaneously you need a democratic pluralistic system and you need an independent judiciary and the system that is based on the rule of law.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you see hope if the Israeli demand is an end to violence and the Palestinian Authority can’t do this? How is there ever going to be negotiations? Can there be a cease-fire?

HANAN ASHRAWI: Well, the Palestinian Authority worked out two cease-fires. One in December 2001, I think which lasted for 20 some days, and the other during the days of Abu Mazen this year which lasted for 51, 52 days. Israel did not reciprocate. The cease-fire was met with escalations, with assassinations and so it broke down because when you assassinate somebody’s leader, of course, they will resort to revenge. So the thing is not just a cease-fire. A cease-fire is not among Palestinian factions. A cease-fire has to be between Palestinian and Israelis. You cannot tell the Palestinians, you mustn’t resort to any kind of violence, whatever including self-defense. But Israel has a free hand to use all sorts of violence — military violence against the whole population.

Two, even if there is violence, you cannot make a peace process conditional upon the cessation of violence and upon full security for the occupier. If we are all secure and happy and wonderful, we don’t need a peace process. We need a peace process to deal with the causes of violence, of instability, of insecurity, of lack of development and we need a peace process that is viable, that has substance, that has applicability on the ground, that has legitimacy and that has third party participation, because it’s not clearly bilateral. All these things have to be in place but if it becomes conditional and sequential and the Palestinians have to deliver, what is not within their power to deliver,then it’s just a very flimsy excuse for not having any type of political course of action and you allow the lethal dynamic of violence to take over.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it your view that Sharon’s real goal is to force expulsion of the Palestinians?

HANAN ASHRAWI: Yes. Sharon’s real goal to establish greater Israel, is to transform the Palestinians into docile minorities within Israel, to take as much land without the population. And it’s very clear: if he’s allowed to carry out this policy, it is suicide, both for Israel and for Palestine.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the separation plan? Do you take it seriously and do you also take seriously Abu-Allah’s response that if he wants to have a separation plan, you’re going to call for a unitary state?

HANAN ASHRAWI: Oh, no, I think anything that is unilateral will not work. Unilateralism means dictating the will of the strong and the weak, basically. When it comes to the weak, declaring unilateral step, it becomes a sign of powerlessness. Just empty threats. No, I think the unilateral plan that Sharon has is very clear. It is a continuation of the occupation by a different means.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you believe in it? Do you believe he’ll actually do it?

HANAN ASHRAWI: He’s doing it. The unilateral separation is already happening — with the wall, with land annexation, with control. While everybody is, is talking and pontificating and putting pressure on the Palestinians, Sharon is busy creating facts on the ground that are determining the outcome of everything.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Ashrawi, thank you.