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Extended Interview With Salim Tamari

February 1, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: One Israeli argument for the wall is that it will allow them to withdraw from the West Bank and there won’t be this source of friction between the Palestinians and the Israelis that there has been. What’s your response to that argument?

SALIM TAMARI: The problem is that the wall does not separate the Israelis from the Palestinians or the Jews from the Arabs, but it separates many Arab communities from the rest of the West Bank and it leaves the rest of the West Bank surrounded by Jewish settlements. So the wall is not between Jews and Arabs but between Arabs and Arabs. This is the main problem with the wall.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And does that indicate to you that the troops wouldn’t in fact be withdrawn? They’d still be here because the settlement would still be right around.

SALIM TAMARI: Exactly. I — the bulk of the checkpoints would have to remain if they’re going to separate the Palestinian urban population from the settlements that surround them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is this one of the worst moments that you can remember living in the West Bank?

SALIM TAMARI: It’s one of the worst if you take it in context, because the context is an international environment in which the United States — the one global leader today — is siding completely with Israeli strategies and one in which the war on Iraq is occupying the world community. And particularly one which creates physical values that are very difficult to reverse. Because once you have the wall, then land is confiscated. When land is confiscated new Israeli colonies are brought in to inhabit it and then you have to deal with these colonies. So in that sense, given the circumstances, it’s one of the worst situations.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You personally, you had a home in Jaffa, you lost your home, all the things that you’ve gone through. How do you keep working? Why do you just not leave? Why don’t you leave?

SALIM TAMARI: Well I think most people who physically can go from the West Bank and Gaza, people who with professional skills, entrepreneurs, people with capital have left in large numbers. People who remain remained either because they have no choices, or because of the deep-seated commitment to this country.

The problem of Israel today is that the days when physical hardships would compel Palestinians to leave are no longer there. And they also learned their lesson from the two major wars of ’48 and ’67. So they’re stuck with us and we are doomed to be part of this country and if we want to find a solution, it will have to be on that basis: We are two peoples who are living in this country and we need to find a solution for them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you believe that the wall is aimed at expulsion?

SALIM TAMARI: It certainly has that consequence because the wall creates so many hardships for people, especially in farming communities. But also in terms of internal trade, in making life miserable for urban communities, making continuities between the north and south West Bank very difficult. It’s ultimately contributing to the deterioration of the economic situation. And that is, by the way, the chief reason why Jordan is taking an active role today, in opposing the wall, because Jordan is afraid that the main consequence of the creation of the wall will be for thousands of people leaving and going to the nearest country, to the east, which is Jordan.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Israelis say they are building the wall to stop the suicide bombings. What’s your response to that?

SALIM TAMARI: Well it’s the chicken and egg formula because the kind of misery that the deteriorating economic circumstances generated, not only by the wall but by the checkpoints, by the dismantlement of communities in the West Bank, has created so much hardship that it’s certainly contributing to fertile ground where people become desperate. When they’re desperate they resonate with the whole ideology which propels people to become suicide bombers.

So, instead of preventing violence, I think Israel is contributing to this desperation by creating a very strong atmosphere for violence of suicide bombers and for other kinds of desperate acts, some of which we haven’t seen yet.


SALIM TAMARI: Well, when people are desperate they do, if you’d asked me ten years ago, would you foresee the suicide bombers, I would say no, because I can’t imagine them happening. There’s no tradition in this country of people killing themselves as a way of patriotic duty or as a way of redeeming themselves, but it happened and when, when you are desperate, people do that. And throughout the world, for example, in periods of famine, we know that people eat their own children. It happened, happened not here, it happened elsewhere, so I can imagine that what we see today is just a sign of things to come.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But what could be worse?

SALIM TAMARI: Well, what could be worse is a situation where desperation would make people go through corrective acts of confrontations which could lead to bloodbaths.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mean actual attacks.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Attacks by two or three hundred people instead of one.

SALIM TAMARI: Well, if you surround people in an area and they lose their economic foundation for their livelihood, then they may move en mass to face soldiers. When that happens the soldiers are panicked. When they panic they shoot and then you can have a mass slaughter. It has happened and it’s likely to happen again.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Could the Palestinian Authority stop the violence? Are they strong enough to?

SALIM TAMARI: The Palestinian Authority today is in a weak position to stop the violence. It may have happened in the late ’90s and at the turn of the century when the Palestinian Authority was equipped with organizational networks and with the political perspective which would allow it to control its extremist elements. Now these elements have gained ground and they have weakened the Palestinian Authority to such a degree that only a substantial diplomatic political breakthrough can bring about a situation where the Palestinian Authority would have both the ability and incentive to control elements like those. And these elements would lose their popular support if there is such a breakthrough because then you, people would have a vision of possibility of peace, of possibility of retaining the land and continuity in their communities to isolate these groups.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What kind of breakthrough? I can’t imagine the breakthrough that could undercut the huge support there is for Hamas right now, even the polls are showing all the support for these groups.

SALIM TAMARI: The support for the fundamentalist groups is less than a quarter of the political forces here and active support is even less than that. But it’s a support that is propelled by desperation and misery, economic misery. And the kind of situation that is needed to reverse the situation is one which would require international intervention. I don’t think the Israelis or the Palestinians by themselves are able to circumvent the situation. Now this is easier said than done.

But we saw the, the light at the end of the tunnel before, when there was an international peace conference in Madrid, when there is a concerted effort to contribute to a radical solution of the land question, the question of occupation, and the question of settlements and refugees. Then we had European intervention, U.N. intervention, and an American administration which was willing to act as an arbitrar. That is no longer the case.

The Bush administration talks only the language of terrorism. The rubric of terrorism has become the prism of seeing all political regional conflicts, which have nothing to do with international terrorism. It has to do with local violent situations that are generated by grievances. It’s very important to make these distinctions and I think the Bush administration is unable to go beyond its, its vision, which is colored by the events of September 11th.

The second point is that we need to restore an international dimension, which brings Europe to the scene in a much more vigorous way. The sole dependence on American intervention today has acted in a way to undermine the trust that could be built between Israelis and Palestinians. And also, it encouraged extremist elements in Israel under the current Likud administration to confiscate more land, to make more settlements and to basically forgo the idea of the two state solution, because the whole country is being seen as the land of Israel today.

And the third element I think we need to energize is the peace camp both in Israel and in Palestine. The peace camp has been weakened considerably by acts of violence, because people have become very suspicious of each other. And without an active constituency, in Israel, especially in Israel, but also on the Palestinian side, it’s very hard for intervention from outside alone to create the momentum for a return to a territorial negotiations.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay, some Israeli leaders say we are for a two-state solution. That’s why we’re building the barrier. It makes it possible for Palestinians to have a state. Your reaction?

SALIM TAMARI: Well, at the moment, everybody is for a Palestinian state including the most extreme elements in Israeli society. Well not the most extreme, but certainly the, the current, the bulk of the Likud government is for a state. The question is where is this state going to be. At one point they suggested Jordan to be the location of the Palestinian state. Now I think they are resigned to the state being in Palestine, but the area in Palestine where they are conceiving of this state is not viable. It’s something like 42 to 48 percent of the current areas of the West Bank, which is a land locked area with no international borders and no contiguity to it. That is a recipe for disaster. It’s not only a repetition of the Apartheid situation, but also it’s a state which would be endemically riddled with economic disasters, with the inability to stand on its feet. So the question is not whether they support the Palestinian state or not, but the conditions under which this state is likely to prosper and therefore to be stable and be able to conclude a long term peace with the Israeli state.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Many Israelis say the line they are drawing preserves 85 percent of the West Bank and is very similar to a plan offered by former Prime Minister Barak. You say the line only includes 42 to 48 percent of the West Bank. Why is your figure so much lower than the Israeli analysis?

SALIM TAMARI: The distinction between the Barak plan and the Likud plan is that the Likud plan takes large chunks of the Jordan valley and accesses it to the state of Israel, so it leaves the future of the Israeli state landlocked, no borders with the Arab world, no borders with Jordan for example.

The second point is that its aim is purely demographic. The idea is not to give the Palestinians a state, but to get rid of the Arabs from the context of the Jewish state to maximize a number of Jews in Israel and minimize the number of Arabs in it. So it’s a racist demographic solution which is not moved by the idea of coexistence between Arabs and Jews but of solving an internal demographic problem for the Jewish state.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Hanan Ashrawi has said that there’s almost what she called a return to tribalism in the West Bank, in Gaza, because of the lack of Palestinian Authority and the growing up of sort of networks of power in these various communities. Is that true?

SALIM TAMARI: Yes, to a large extent unfortunately it is true. The undermining of the Authority meant also that the court system and the police system has broken down. There was a time, until quite recently when police, even traffic police were afraid to wear their uniforms because they would become targets by the Israeli soldiers. The court system is undermined because there is no police force to carry and execute court decisions. It allows people to take the law into their hands, which has been a disastrous situation.

The miracle, however, is that society still continues with some degree of normalcy. The amount of theft and robberies is considerable but not as you would see in industrial society. There are less thefts here than you do in Israel for example, even though there is no legal apparatus of catching criminals here. And the reason for that is because it is a small society where traditional neighborhoods, traditional social networks act as a break, control the criminality which otherwise would be rampant in a situation where there is an absence of law and order.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that in the short term, just involving the fence, there will be demonstrations against it that will get larger and larger? How do you see this movement progressing?

SALIM TAMARI: Well I hope they do. At the moment, the people who are most immediately damaged, their lives been damaged by the fence, are farmers and commuting neighborhoods where the fence have actually gone through their land and through their neighborhoods. You find urban communities where children are separated from their schools. People can’t go to hospital. People cannot go to work except by obtaining very hard to get permits and if they can get the permits, they have to spend so much time going around the fence to get to there.

The second impact will be when the damage from the fence in long term economic terms, will be felt by the areas beyond the fence, which is people like us here, who in terms of trade, lack of work, and hence unemployment will affect communities so you have more robberies because people cannot get food to eat. People become desperate because they’re separated from relatives and so on, not to speak of the health situation.

And I think in some unexpected way, the fence is galvanizing people against Israel and away from internal disputes which is a situation I don’t think foreseen by Israel. And it’s also bringing people outside Palestine, especially in the Arab world, most notably in Jordan, who are afraid that the wall would act to undermine the already precarious situation of the Jordanian economy. They’re really afraid that the building of this wall, this barrier will force thousands of people to spin into Jordan, making the economic situation in Jordan worse. And that’s another demographic fear which another country is experiencing.

So in a way the wall may indirectly bring about political changes which in the long run could be good because it will focus on the situation of occupation, it will highlight the segmentation and amplified situation that Palestinians are living, and mobilize more and more people against it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much.

SALIM TAMARI: Thank you.