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July 1st, 2004
Suicide Bombers
Interview: Professor Sari Nusseibeh

July 1, 2004: Professor Sari Nusseibeh, the President of Al-Quds University, speaks with host Mishal Husain.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Sari Nusseibeh, welcome to WIDE ANGLE. We’ve just seen in the film some chilling firsthand accounts of suicide bombing. As a Palestinian, how would you explain what we’ve just seen?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Well, it’s a very tragic story. It’s really depressing actually to see those pictures and to hear those stories of those people involved, both the potential suiciders as well as the people who were behind them. The only consolation I have for myself as a Palestinian is that the majority of the Palestinians, I don’t believe, share that particular ideology.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But it certainly seems that the people who carry out suicide bombings seem to be celebrated by their community in many ways. Money flows to their families, their faces go up on posters. They get recognition from their community.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Unfortunately, I have to accept that. There’s a lot of support in the community for the idea of martyrdom, and the money comes in primarily for the families of those people. There’s a kind of idolization of death which happens perhaps when life itself seems to have very little to offer, as we heard one of the potential suiciders say. And it is in such a context that people begin to think that death is better, that life after death is better, that life on earth is not good.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But that can’t be the full explanation. There are people in many parts of the world whose lives are very difficult, who are suffering, and they don’t go out and do things like this.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
But this is suffering of, perhaps, a different kind. I realize there’s a lot of suffering in terms of hunger, for example. Some wars take place in different parts of the world, massacres take place in different parts of the world, but perhaps they take shorter durations. You have to realize this is an ongoing conflict that’s been going on for the better part of the last century, actually.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But would you say then this is happening for political reasons or because of a failure of other alternatives or a failure of Palestinian society?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
There’s a failure and this is the result of the failure in the peace process. We haven’t been able to advance in this process to a point where in fact Palestinians will feel that there’s some investment to be made and to be saved in the peace process. If you look back at the first few years of the Oslo process — that’s to say after ‘94 — you’ll find in general that the rate of people who were supporting violence or the activities of violence, in fact, subsided. And the support for the people supporting violence was going down. And only when the negotiations faltered did the support increase.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But nevertheless, we’ve already seen in the peace process that at key moments where, say there’s going to be a big meeting between a key Palestinian a key Israeli, that is the day when suicide bombers choose to take action.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
But you have to distinguish between what seems to you to be a major step forward, like a major meeting, and life in general, as people feel. And what I’m talking about is how people feel concerning their own lives — how they interact with soldiers, how soldiers interact with them, what’s happening to their land, to their houses, to their families, are they able to go out to work, are they able to go out to school. These are the things that are measured by normal Palestinians to be the way in which peace is actually calculated, whether it’s advancing or not. When you have a major meeting it’s not a breakthrough for the average Palestinian.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But it still seems a quantum leap from your life being very difficult to being prepared not just to kill yourself, but to take as many Israelis and Jews with you as you can.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I don’t claim to be an expert on this. But it looks like you reach the point where you begin to — you’re treated or you feel that you’re treated like less of a human being. Not quite like a human being. And you begin to think of others in that way. You begin to think less of others as human beings. And the minute that perception changes, like in that film we saw one of the potential suiciders glimpsing some children playing. So suddenly there’s a glimpse of real life. It changes. You see human beings as they are and you come back to life. But for as long as you feel totally suppressed, you no longer feel that you’re a human being. You stop seeing other people as human beings. And I think this is how people have to think who go and kill themselves and kill others as they do.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But on a moral level, I mean, you wouldn’t seek to justify this?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I certainly wouldn’t. I think it’s certainly outrageous, morally speaking. And in addition to it’s being morally outrageous, I think it’s, even from a political point of view, totally counterproductive because, as I say, it’s premised on the rejection of seeing others as human beings. And you cannot really advance in peace or in negotiations unless you in fact see others as human beings, as equals. The failure of all talks, all negotiations, all advances in peace is if you cannot see the other party as an equal human being.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
In purely practical terms, also in terms of the reality of Palestinian life on the West Bank and in Gaza, these are the very acts that make life much worse. They prompt massive Israeli retaliation.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Yes, it’s like the chicken and the egg. Basically, the situation of desperation that drives these people to act in the way they do leads to even further desperation.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But they’re making life worse for themselves.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
And they make life worse for themselves as well for the Israelis. They make advances towards peace negotiations more difficult. It’s a closed circuit. And it’s a situation in which we continue thinking into a quagmire, unable to find solid ground in which to step, to put our feet on, and to build for the future. And it’s worse both for us as well as for the Israelis. And that is why, in fact, we need to somehow find something, catch on to something that would allow us to come out of the hole — if you like, the quagmire — and proceed forward.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
One of the things we keep hearing about in the film is talk about martyrdom. There seems to be something that really drives these young men: the thought that they’re going to end up in paradise. Is this ultimately a religious act that they’re undertaking?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Looking at the film I think you can tell that for the people themselves who are potential suicide bombers, it is really a personal quest. It’s a way of escaping from their own lives.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But they see it in religious terms. They talk about it in that way.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
In more than one instance this person was saying he wanted to go out, move around, sit in cafes, live an ordinary life. On more than one occasion you saw these people basically seeking normal lives, wishing to achieve normal lives and not finding it possible within their own circumstances. Now the people who sent them, the politicians or the activists, fed them with ideology, religious ideology, to reinforce this preparedness they seem to have to go out and kill themselves. And they fed them with, yes, with this sense of martyrdom.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But as a professor of Islamic philosophy, is there a basis for this in Islam? Are they right to think that this will lead them to paradise?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
There are two questions. There’s a basis in religion for people who wish to interpret it in any way they like probably to interpret that way. Is it right to interpret it [that way]? No, I don’t think it’s right to interpret it [that way]. I think some people, especially extremists like the ones we saw, basically try to appropriate religion to themselves and to their own political ideologies. They basically impose their own ideologies, their own way of looking at things, to their religion, which they presumably follow. But, in fact, they may follow their own ideology.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Is that how you explain the basic paradox that the Koran condemns suicide and yet these young men think that this is exactly the way that they’re going to end up in heaven?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I think there’s certainly a contradiction. I think that suicides are not accepted in the Koran. The Koran, in fact, celebrates life. You’re not supposed to go around and kill yourself or kill other people.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
So why don’t clerics step in and condemn this then? If it’s that clear in the Koran that life and death is for God?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I think clerics often do, but not sufficiently perhaps. And in any case, even if they did, those who interpret the Koran differently will stand up and say the clerics were mistaken in their interpretation. And basically we’re talking about radicals who have extremist points of view who make use of whatever text, religion, or ideology they can put their hands on in order to support their extremism. And the question is, Are they allowed by the rest of the community, in this instance the Islamic community, are they allowed to hijack religion to themselves? Are they allowed to blemish the religion and the Koran they way they do? I don’t believe they ought to, and I believe the Muslims should stand up and defend Islam for what it is. Certainly as a normal Muslim, growing up as a normal Muslim, I find their interpretation of Islam totally appalling. And it makes me feel totally distant and alienated from my own upbringing.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
One of the other affects of all of this is perhaps also what it does to create stereotypes in the broader world, particularly in the western world, about Palestinians, about Muslims and their political struggles. That this is exactly the kind of stereotype of the worst kind of face of Islam that goes out to the rest of the world.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Well, unfortunately extremists always manage to appropriate the pictures of themselves and appropriate attention by the rest of the world. And that is how it is, but it doesn’t mean of course that the underlying reality is like this. The underlying reality, I believe, is that there are a lot of normal Muslims who believe as normal human beings in God, who see the other as also equals, and who are prepared to make peace with Israel.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
And yet these kind of instances, suicide bombings, they’re not isolated incidences, are they? I mean, they have been a growing phenomenon. Older, younger, women, men have all tried or actually taken part in them.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
It’s certainly true and it’s a sign of desperation, but I think there are many acts of heroism in peace making that never reach the news. There are millions of instances. And you have to take that into account in order to be able to look at reality in general. And you have to also look at a little bit deeper basically behind the hatred or underneath the frustration. What is it people are after? Some certainly are after some kind of redemption in the afterlife, but a lot are really wishing to have a normal life down here on earth. And it’s really up to the politicians and the leaders to try and present them with opportunity to live those lives.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But in the immediate aftermath of acts like this, Israel has to respond, doesn’t it? It has to respond to protect its citizens from these kinds of acts.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Well I think it’s true that Israel needs to respond. The question is, How should it respond? Does it respond, for instance, by acting in the same way? For example, by carrying out assassinations in which also young children, women, and so on are taken out or assassinated or killed? I don’t believe this is the right answer.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But you don’t expect the Israelis to turn the other cheek when clearly the bombers aren’t prepared to do that?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I don’t expect them to turn the other cheek. I expect them to take security measures. But I expect them to be actually, if anything, [to take] wiser security measures, if you like, rather than angry actions.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
So what kind of measures would you, if you were in the Israeli position, think were appropriate?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
You know I’m lucky enough not to be in the army or anything to do with the military and I wouldn’t really know exactly how to go about doing it. Personally, I think every act of violence is in itself not something to be proud of or to try to — I’m not sure how to put this — but I’m totally against any kind of violence, including the violence perpetrated by the Israelis against us. But what I’m saying is this: you cannot really address the problem of violence by counter measures in violence. What I’m saying is that you should try to counter the violence by going deeper and seeing what the political problem is and only by addressing that political problem can we then reach an end of the ongoing conflict and violence.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But that’s a question for the Palestinian leadership, isn’t it? I mean, you’ve had a role in the leadership as you’ve served as a PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] commissioner in Jerusalem. Isn’t it your job to then stop this? It’s happening in your society.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
It’s my job as an ordinary citizen, not as a PLO representative, at one point. And it’s the job of every Palestinian and every Israeli.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But particularly the leadership?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Particularly the leadership, but this is too important to be left to the leadership. I mean, we’re talking about our lives, our future, and I think it’s really the obligation of every citizen, whether Israeli or Palestinian, to look deeper into the reality, the terrible reality, now the tragic reality we have, and to see what can be done, what needs to be done in order to get out of it. And certainly killing isn’t going to get us anywhere and building walls isn’t, to my mind, going to get us anywhere. I think the only way to go forward is to try and see what would work as a peaceful solution and to try and make that happen.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But are you saying then that there is nothing that the Palestinian leadership at the moment, the Palestinian authority, could do about this?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I think the Palestinian authority ought to speak in the same way that I’ve spoken out in the past. Mainly, it ought to speak against violence. It ought to do everything in its power to control violence. It ought to be on the other hand very clear about its commitment to peace –

MISHAL HUSAIN:
And it’s not doing enough in your opinion?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
It’s not doing enough. But neither, by the way, are the Israeli leadership. I think this isn’t something that only one side can do by itself. I think the two sides have to do it. And very often when the leaders can’t do it, the people need to be made to do it.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But on the Palestinian [side], it’s not helpful when someone like Ahmed Qurei, who’s your Prime Minster at the moment, says something like, “A hundred thousand Palestinians are willing to become kamikazes.” That’s almost endorsing the violence.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
It sounds like it, but I’m sure if you went and asked him, he’ll probably say that he was very excited when he said that. But certainly it’s not a helpful statement. But as I was saying earlier, the Palestinian Authority ought to do everything in its power to control the violence. And not just control it on the street, but also control it as we saw on television, control it in the mosques, control it in schools. It requires a great deal of effort to do this. But it has to be done.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
What about also creating other opportunities? Because these are young men who obviously have very little in their lives. I mean, they say themselves that they think their lives are worthless. Why aren’t their other things that –

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
There are some things that the Authority perhaps can do, for example, influence the media, the official media that the Palestinians — that we — have. Or influence the mosques and so on. And there are some other things that the Authority cannot do, such as provide, for example, the kind of normalcy in life that you’re talking about. This is something that is totally in the power of the Israeli army. It is the Israeli army that blocks off your entry to a village at will. It is the Israeli army that suddenly takes up the land that you have for working. It is the Israeli army that allows you to work or not to work, to reach school, not to reach school.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But the suicide bombers have to take responsibility, don’t they, for the fact that when they carry out these acts it’s exactly that kind of thing that means the sealing off of the Palestinian territories, the prevention of Palestinians getting to their jobs in Israel.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
What you have to remember is that the Israelis are not just sealing off Israel from the West Bank when they do this. The Israelis are basically in the West Bank, are living in the midst of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza. And so when they’re, for instance, sealing off one area from another, they’re basically sealing one Palestinian area from another. So you cannot, as a Palestinian, move from one village to another Palestinian village. You cannot go to school in the next village. You cannot go and see your parents or your cousins in the next village. So what we’re talking about is not Israel coming in and preventing Palestinians from rushing into Israel and blowing themselves up in Israel. If they were to do this, it would make sense and indeed, maybe that would be the end of the entire problem. But as it is, they’re living in our midst, the army lives in our midst, and it’s very difficult therefore for Palestinians, or for the Palestinian Authority rather, to create normalcy when it is under Israeli occupation.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
In terms of what the Palestinian Authority can do — this is an authority that received about $20 million dollars from the United States. Why hasn’t it created more opportunities to get young men like those we’ve seen in the film into something much more constructive than what they’re actually doing?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I don’t think this is the way to look at this. Basically what we’ve had is a good beginning back in 1994 with the beginning of the Oslo process and the construction of the Authority. There’s been a lot of investment, a lot of work opportunities, job opportunities, a lot of money was thrown into the West Bank, Gaza, and things seemed like they were going well until they totally broke down in four or five years after Oslo began. Now this means that there’s a failure on the part of both the Palestinian Authority but also the Israelis to make the best use of the peace agreement which was reached at Oslo. And as soon as they began to break down everything just collapsed. And as it collapsed, it became impossible for the Authority to provide those conditions you talk about for the Palestinian …

MISHAL HUSAIN:
And are you saying that that provided the breeding ground for what we saw in the film?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
The frustration that grew out of the total … yes. In 1994, you must remember there was a big hope that the Palestinians had. The Palestinians had a big hope that finally they’re going to be free, they’re going to have a state, they’re going to have independence. It’s all going to be different. And I think that after five or six years — you heard references to this in the film — people discovered, when they were saying, “We gave Israel the chance and it didn’t work out” and so on. I think people just came to the point where they were totally frustrated with the fact that the hopes seem to have broken. And that freedom was not achieved. That was the breeding ground, yes.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
It’s still an indictment of Palestinian society, is it not? What we see in the film is young men who are preoccupied with the act of taking the lives of the people they see as their enemies.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I think it’s an indictment of the political situation of human nature, of a tragedy that’s been going on for the last 50 years unsolved. It’s indictment of the United Nations, of the big powers. It’s an indictment of Britain, who created the problem. And it’s an indictment of the Palestinians too.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But as a Palestinian yourself who one day wants to see your own state, this is your youth. How do you build or construct a society and one day a state on this?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
This is only a part of the picture. I work in education, as you know, and I’ve been working on education for the better part of my life as a Palestinian. And I’m interacting with students all the time. I see negative signs every now and again, but that’s not the picture that I get. I still have a lot of hope. There’s a lot of good out there and I think if the opportunity presents itself once again I hope it will be possible to reach peace and to have normal lives and indeed very positive lives for these people.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But the fact that Palestinians often perhaps now see themselves as victims, identify themselves with suffering; is that a basis to build a society, a state of the future?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
It’s not the basis, but you have to remember that we have a problem which is unsolved. The problem is that we do live under occupation. There’s a war that started that was never finished. You have to remember we have a lot of frustration; we have a lot of people who feel unjustly treated. We have refugees living all over the place. It’s a problem. Now in a situation like this, you need to look beyond the immediate reactions of the Palestinians and see how best to move forward. And the only way to move forward is to deal directly with the conflict and the occupation and create peace through the establishment of a state.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Now you have been working on your own blueprint for peace in the Middle East, working on it at a very difficult time and you’ve chose to work with an Israeli on it.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Yes. I’m working with Ami Ayalon on the Israeli side, who is a retired admiral of the Israeli navy and an ex-chief of the Israeli security forces. So he represents a good security image from the Israeli point of view. And both he and I believe very strongly that the violence that exists cannot be overcome by violence of any kind. We think that the violence that exists can only be overcome and addressed if there’s to be a political solution, a solution that will involve a price to be paid by both sides. But a commitment by both sides therefore to six main principles: two states for two people, Jerusalem to be shared, settlements to be evacuated in the Palestinian state, refugees to be addressed within the context of the Palestinian state, and the security issue to be addressed in the context of demilitarization for the Palestinian state.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
You make it sound simple, but it’s very far from that, isn’t it? I mean, you’ve already faced opposition from your own community.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
If there’s to be peace in that area, it has to be based on some kind of equitable balance. Now you can either divide up the land in the territory for each side so that one side has one territory and the other has another territory. And that’s equitable, although we get something like 33 percent, but that’s equitable. And the other side, if you can’t do that, you have to give equal rights to people. I’m open personally for the two suggestions. In other words, divide up rights among individuals: Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, Christians. Let them all live as equals in one system of government. Or, if you do not want that, divide up rights according to territory. But you can’t expect the Palestinians to live without rights forever and to feel normal about it.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Let’s just talk for a moment about the problems that your own community, the Palestinian community, has had with your plan — crucially the issue of refugees. You are advocating that the Palestinians give up the right to return to homes in Israel?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I’m advocating the following: that Palestinians should actually choose from different options, and in this particular instance, basically give priority to the right to live in freedom and independence over the right of return to pre-’67 Israel. I’m not saying that we do not have the right to return. I’m saying we have the right to return and we have the right to freedom, but as often in life when two rights conflict, you have to give priority to one right over another. And so what I’m saying basically to Palestinians is in this particular context, let’s give priority to the right to live in freedom, to have a future for ourselves.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
That’s a very, very hard one to sell to Palestinians. We all know how emotional the issue of returning to their old homes is for so many. How do you sell that to them?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
By knowing what it means because, you know my own mother is a refugee. And I grew up in a house in which I knew exactly what my mother was telling me she was yearning for as she was talking about return. And it seems to me that half of it, almost, is like a yearning to go back in time, not only to go back in space 60 kilometers due west so to speak, which is impossible. And I think it’s far better therefore to exchange a dream which is unattainable by a dream which is a dream about the future.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But the reality is though that you’ve already seen the anger of your own people over that issue. You’ve talked about it for a while. You were once beaten up actually by –

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Over something else, though.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Not over this particular thing?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Not over this particular thing. When I was beaten up, it was when news of talks first broke out among people between ourselves on the Palestinian side with people on the Likud side. This was back in ‘84, ‘85, when talking between Israelis and Palestinians was not there at all, and especially with right-wing Israelis. But since then it’s become normal. And when I started speaking about refugees, yes, I did break a taboo. I make people begin to address this point openly. People dislike it, but I think people respect me for saying the truth and they know that I’m being honest. I’m basically saying that you can’t expect to have a one-state solution.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
You are a member of the Palestinian elite. You’re very well known in the Palestinian community. You run a university. Do you really think that you can take this idea and go into refugee camps?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I’ve done it.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Places like Jenin, where most of these bombers come from?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I haven’t been to Jenin, but I ought to tell you something. The people’s voice on the Palestinian side in the name of what we call the People’s Campaign for Peace and Democracy, which actually espouses the five principles or six principles I spoke about, including the one about refugees, has or is being supported now by a grassroots movement throughout the West Bank and Gaza. And the leadership of this movement is actually in various refugee camps.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But you can’t imagine that the kind of young men who we’ve just seen in the film signing up to this, they don’t want a two-state solution. They want an end to Israel.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Not specifically those people. Perhaps now they might, but certainly I’ve got more than 140,000 people so far from refugee camps, from villages, from towns, certainly none of them elites like myself, as you describe me, who have signed up to this on the Palestinian side. It’s a very strong grassroots movement and it’s unprecedented. There’s no other document that’s been signed by so many people calling for peace between two people like this.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
It’s still what, only about 5 percent of the Palestinian population, though?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
But it’s better than 0 percent, which is the alternative because there’s no other document. And if you take a look at history, none of the U.N. resolutions, none of the agreements back from ‘48 to today has had any Palestinians and Israelis signing to it. You know, not [U.N. resolution] 242, not 194, not the partition plan itself, U.N. resolution 181. Get me one document which actually Israelis and Palestinians say they agree to that has been signed by all the individuals. This one has had so far over three quarters — three hundred or four hundred thousand people all together.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
There are the problematic aspects, though, for both Israelis and Palestinians, with it this issue of Jerusalem being an international city. Again, Jerusalem is something that consistently has been so emotional.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
We didn’t say it should be international. We said basically that it would be open, that Arab neighborhoods would fall under Arab/Palestinian sovereignty, Israeli or Jewish neighborhoods under Jewish sovereignty. When it came to the religious areas, especially the Noble Sanctuary area, which is also called the Temple Mount area, which is really the sensitive area, we basically said let there be no sovereignty there. Let the sovereignty over there be God’s, because after all the Muslims give it a lot of respect, for what reason but for the fact that this is God’s place. And so do the Jews.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Is that realistic, to think no sovereignty over it?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
It’s the best way of looking at it in my opinion. Let there be a God sovereignty over there. And let the Palestinians act on behalf of God, represent him if you like, in looking after the affairs of the Noble Sanctuary, Haram al-Sharif, the Aqsa and the Israeli government again acting on behalf of God looking after the wailing wall on behalf of the Israelis and the Jewish people. As far as the real practical daily affairs of the situation are concerned, the Israelis will feel they have it under their control. The Palestinians would have under their control what they want to have, but the sovereignty would be God’s. And so it would not be infringing on each other’s historic sense of belonging there.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
You also speak about the Palestinian state being demilitarized. I mean, again that could be a red light to very many people. Is that a viable Palestinian state? Is that a real state?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I think it’s the only viable state. I don’t see any need, personally, for a militarized Palestinian state. There’s no need for a military for the Palestinians because –

MISHAL HUSAIN:
They’re living side by side with one of the most powerful militaries in the world?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Absolutely. Because of that, there’s no sense of our being militarized in any way at all because, however much you militarize yourself, you’re not going to be able to achieve a victory over nuclear power on the Israeli side, nor indeed protect yourself. So any money that’s spent in militarization would be, in my opinion, a waste of money. And it’s far better to invest in education and social welfare and health and developing any country for the Palestinians. And actually we would be far more powerful vis a vis Israel, nuclear Israel, if we were totally weaponless than we would be if we carried a few guns. It is totally useless and counterproductive.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Again, this is going to be something that is really hard for you to sell to Palestinians. It makes them appear powerless against this hugely powerful neighbor.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
On the contrary, when you have a neighbor which is so powerful, the only power that you can have is to have no military weapons whatsoever. Otherwise we enter into a race, we put together as many devastating weapons, nuclear weapons, as we can, and what’s the point of it eventually?

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Is it realistic to talk about Jewish settlements being evacuated? The word settlement is in a sense is misleading. Many of these are fully functioning towns with thousands of inhabitants.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Well there are some concentrations of those settlements. Now we envision the possibility of a territorial exchange on the basis of one to one, equal both in value and quantity between the two sides. And one assumes that Israel will wish to appropriate those concentrations or settlements, the large concentrations or settlements, to within Israel in exchange for territory to be exchanged for the Palestinian state. I’m not saying that it’s very easy to do. And I’m not saying necessarily that everything can be agreed upon very quickly, but the principle is there. It can be done perhaps, that the major concentrations of settlements can be incorporated while the other settlements can be evacuated. But however it works out, we need to have a Palestinian state in which the settlements are evacuated indeed so that they do not constitute neither burden on the Palestinian state nor indeed even on Israeli, which would have to look after them.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But if you look at with the light of what we’ve seen in Gaza, where we’ve had a sense of how determined settlers are to stay there, it doesn’t bode very well, does it? Because the West Bank for Jewish settlers has much more of an emotional and a historical significance.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
It has to be done very radically. It has to be done very committedly. It is going to be painful. Both sides have to realize exactly what their price is. Look, the Israelis would have to put up with the fact that they cannot have settlements inside the Palestinian state. And they will not be able to reach peace if they insist on the settlement policy. And the Palestinians will have or realize on their part that there are some things that the Israelis cannot live with. And so the two sides have to take the bull by the horns. It’s not going to help us if we continue to ignore the reality, however painful it is. So we, both sides, have to look directly in the eyes of the main problem, or problems if you like, and reach a solution about them. And this is the only solution.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
And make some hard choices?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
They’re very hard choices to make. If we do not make them, we have a very a much harder life ahead of us because if we do not make the hard choices when the hard choices need to be made we’re going to allow both sides, the Israelis and Palestinians, simply to sink deeper into this bloody quagmire. And it’s not going to help either of us.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Do you think that we are in some ways seeing a two-state solution develop anyway? We’re seeing a barrier being built in the West Bank. Ultimately that separation is happening, isn’t it?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
No. You can’t tell. This might be the case, but on the other hand, what we might be seeing at the moment is a development of a more solid system of apartheid in the country, where the walls would be walls that surround prisons or cages, where Palestinian populations would be living surrounded by Israeli settlers under Israeli hegemony. So it’s not clear what is happening. I don’t think there’s a future that’s happening by itself. I very much believe that the future is what we make of it, and therefore what we see happening can be either in one direction or in another, which is why we need to work on it to make it the future that we can live with.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But what makes you think that your plan might be able to succeed when so many others have failed, when some of the best diplomatic minds in the business have turned their attention to this?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Well this is because this is a grassroots, bottom-up approach. This has never been done. We’ve always had plans come to us from — descend from the heavens, so to speak. Worked out by geniuses, if you like, but basically unconnected with the people. This is a plan which tries to empower the people themselves, the ordinary Israelis and the Palestinians who are, yes, angry and frustrated and everything, but who live life as it is and know what’s possible. This is a plan to make those people stand up and say to their leaders, “This is the life that we want.” And I believe that the people have the power and it is the only party that has power: the people. They have the power to stand up and do this and impose on their respective leaders the solution.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But ultimately it’s the leadership which has to carry this forward. The official side has to talk to each other.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I believe the real power, the real leadership, is the ordinary citizen. And for as long as the ordinary citizen will delegate this leadership or this power to the political leader it will not happen. It’s not happened for the last fifty years, as you said. So it is high time in my opinion that the ordinary citizen take the power back to himself or herself and use it in order to impose on the political leader what kind of future the ordinary citizen would like to live. And, as I said, this is too important a question to be left to a political leader. I think not only can it be done, but the more people that have faith that it can be done then it can, then it will be done. It’s a question of getting more people to join the faith.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
What role does the United States have in trying to sort out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Well, I believe personally that the main parties that need to be actors in the peace process are the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. I realize this is not a classical or a traditional way of looking at things. I realize the United States is very important, can be very helpful but –

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But hasn’t movement in the peace process only come really when there has been a strong U.S. influence?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
This is a conflict unlike other conflicts in the world in the sense that I do not believe that the United States can intervene in the way that it has done and can do in other parts of the world. It’s a very sensitive conflict. There’s a lot of painful baggage behind both in the history of the Jewish people, as well as the situation with the Palestinians. It is not a situation which can be meddled with very simply. I think the world can help us, but I believe deep down the only people who can really make this happen is the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. We have to understand each other. We have to somehow recognize the histories, our mutual histories. We have to recognize the pains that both peoples have gone through. We have to somehow ourselves reach out to each other and make it happen. Nobody can impose it from the outside. You can help us from the outside, but that’s all.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
So do you think that the Bush administration’s Roadmap is helpful?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I think it’s helpful. I think it’s certainly helpful, but it being a formal plan, it being a plan that has come from the outside, it’s not sufficient. What is also necessary is that in addition, we do create this grassroots movement, this people’s movement, this commitment by the people themselves. And I think as we do this, we should try to make the people basically commit to each other. The Israelis need to see the Palestinians commit to peace and vice versa. And so we need to get the people engaged. And we need to define the vision. The Roadmap is good; it’s not enough. We need to define also the end game, which is the painful part.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Now what we’re seeing President Bush talk about a viable Palestinian state, is that helpful?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
It’s certainly helpful. The president actually was far more forward in his formulation of the end game than any other previous American president. And I believe that he is committed, it seems, to the kind of end game that would be workable, but it’s not sufficient to have that vision on the part of the U.S. administration. It’s just as important, side by side with any formal diplomatic steps to be taken, to create a people’s involvement, empowerment of the people. So that when it happens, when things happen, they happen both by the two sides coming together. On the one hand, a formal diplomatic effort. On the other hand, the people’s engagement also in the same process towards achieving that vision.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
So if you place the emphasis on the grassroots and the people rather than the leadership and the official position, then how does that make you feel about what the Israeli and the American view on President Arafat, for instance, is — effectively deciding not to do business with him?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Well, I think that the choice of Mr. Arafat is that of the Palestinian people. [It] certainly shouldn’t be the business of either President Bush or the Israelis. On the other hand, I believe that the focus on Mr. Arafat and the leaders themselves, whether it is Arafat or Sharon for that matter, is not what is relevant. The question of whether Mr. Arafat is relevant in my opinion is not relevant — the question itself. Because what is relevant is whether in fact you can create a dynamic, a process in the two populations. Because if you can create such a dynamic for a process, the leaders on both sides, Palestinians and Israeli, would either have to go along with the dynamic or would have to step aside. It’s one way or the other.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
If ultimately we see movement in the peace process once the Americans and the Israelis are dealing with someone like the Palestinian prime minister instead of Mr. Arafat, then is it worth it because you see movement in the peace process as a result?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I believe that if one can achieve the aim of peace, then certainly that would justify whatever the means is in order to achieve that. However, I would question whether in fact you can achieve peace, move forward the peace process, through dealing with one person or another. I think it’s far more complicated, as I was saying earlier. And I believe that the focus should not be on individuals, whether they are a specific leader or a prime minister. The process should be on getting the people themselves, Israelis and Palestinians, empowered to stand up and actually express themselves in wanting peace. It is not dependent on one person, whether it is Arafat, or Qurei or Abu Mazen, and the Americans shouldn’t think that simply by taking one out and putting another in things will work, that one person can stop a process, one person can make it work. What works is getting, on the one hand, getting the right diplomatic efforts at the international level, and on the other hand, getting the people involved at the local level.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Do you understand, though, the frustration with Mr. Arafat on the part of, say, the Israelis who feel they’ve dealt with him for a long time and not got anywhere?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I can understand the frustrations of the Palestinians with the Israelis and the frustration of the Israelis with the Palestinians and I don’t think that has anything to do with how I feel personally towards Mr. Arafat positively –

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But the personalities involved do matter, don’t they, in terms of what they personally bring to a peace process?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I think they matter and the sort of personal elements are important, but there’s more to it than just that. Arafat is a major figure as far as the Palestinians are concerned. He’s a symbol; he represents history, hopes, and so on. Now this doesn’t of course mean that everything that he does from a Palestinian perspective is good.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Does he represent the past rather than the future?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
He represents certainly our past and our struggle. If I were to look into the future, I would wish to see the kind of future which wouldn’t need the kind of leadership that he exercises and the skills that he has. If we’re looking into the future, into a Palestinian state that’s run properly with proper administration and so on with the focus on welfare and education I’d like to have a Palestinian state focus on, certainly I don’t think people like Mr. Arafat would necessarily fulfill that function or be able to.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Now you know him pretty well, of course, because you’ve worked with him, you’ve had a role within the PLO. Do you think that at this point in time he’s the person who can deliver anything to the Palestinians or is his time over?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Well, that’s up to him, I believe, in many ways. In other words, he is very well placed to deliver to the Palestinians what we need, which is a commitment to a strategic peace with Israel. And I believe that it is at this juncture that he has to make himself clearer about this. I believe personally that the time of unclarity — if you like, ambiguity — is over. It might have helped in the past for different purposes. But I believe at the moment that clarity is needed — clarity on behalf of the Palestinian leadership that he has to express, as well as on the part of the Israeli leadership. And I believe if there’s no such clarity, if he is not able to provide us with such clarity, if he’s not able to provide us with the last step towards freedom and independence that we’ve been craving, then yes, then his time’s over.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Is Ariel Sharon the person who delivers clarity on the Israeli leadership side?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
No, I don’t think he is clear. He’s just as much of a fox, if you like, as any of the military and political strategists we have running around in our region. But what we need therefore as ordinary people is clarity from both sides. And the clarity I mean is exactly the clarity contained in the vision of Mr. Bush. If we go back to his speech in June 2002 — the commitment by the leaders, by Arafat and by Sharon, to the exact points: a state for two people based on the ‘67 lines.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But whatever you think about Mr. Sharon, it is under his leadership that we are seeing a plan for a withdrawal from Gaza, something many people never thought that he’d ever envisage.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
You shouldn’t be fooled, by the way, because it may be a step towards peace, but it may be also a step in the other direction. You should never be fooled by Mr. Sharon. He’s certainly capable of doing a number of things, among them fooling the partner that he’s working with.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
So you don’t trust the Gaza pullout plan?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Unless it is connected very clearly to the end game, to a vision, I cannot trust it. If it is connected to the end game, I would go along with it.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
How would most Palestinians view American involvement in their peace process?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
The Palestinians would love to have the Americans come and lend them a helping hand. They believe that next to God stands the United States of America, a closer distance so to speak. And that America has its power therefore to deliver them and to bring them freedom. They see America as a great supporter of Israel and so there’s a lot of hatred and dislike of America the political actor in the Middle East region. On the other hand, there’s a lot of love for America at the ordinary level. I think the ordinary Arab loves the ordinary way of life of the American. And this is always a contradiction; it’s a love-hate relationship.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Is that true in your view?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Well, yes. I mean, you know, historically speaking, the Israelis have had basically a lot of support from the Americans, from Europe in general. The Arabs, the Palestinians have had less support for different reasons. But, on the other hand, I think that something can be worked out nonetheless where Israel can be supported by the United States. But only to the extent that the United States needs to support it. Mainly to provide Israel the security, but not beyond it, namely at the expense of the freedom of the Palestinian people.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
And how do you reconcile those two sides?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
It’s very hard. The American way of life is something that’s greatly admired by the Arabs. There are a lot of cultural affinities. The way Americans go around behaving within America, as Arabs see that on films and song, is something that’s actually admired by the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. But the political role of America in the Middle East is not something that’s right. And I think balance needs to be achieved. And I think once it is achieved maybe the whole triad, Israel, Palestine, United States, can fit back together again.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But do you think the perception on the Palestinian side and perhaps generally in the Arab world that America is so far on the Israeli side is justified? Is it true?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
It’s certainly true [that] the Americans have in the past been supportive of the Israeli position. The Arabs have not really had any true support or even understanding or sympathy. That’s partly been our fault, maybe, that we haven’t been able to communicate our concerns to the Western public, generally speaking to the American public also. But we certainly haven’t felt supported in the past by either the United States or the West.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Now you’ve been known as a moderate Palestinian voice for a long time. You’re an academic; you’ve had a leadership role within the PLO. Today, amid the reality of what we’ve seen in the film, the reality of the conflict, there are those who say that views like yours are irrelevant. How does that make you feel?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
The first sense or feeling I have is that the person that says this doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about. I believe that my views, strange as it may sound, represent a majority trend within Palestinian society. I realize there’s a lot of anger and frustration, extremism that we saw in the film.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But do you think more people would support you than would support those that we saw in the film?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I think the personality of a society is certainly complex and [has] different layers, and on the outer layer perhaps you’ll find frustration and anger. But I think the deeper you dig inside the depth of that society, the more you’ll find that there’s the normal desire there deep down in our Palestinian society for living a normal life. And I think, therefore, in voicing my quest for peace for reconciliation there’s a sense in which I believe my voice represents that of the majority of the people.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But it’s the faces of the suicide bombers that we see shown across the Arab world. It’s them that get celebrated, not people like you.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Well, they get celebrated also by the Western media. They get all the air time they need. The media is not interested in peacemakers. There’s a lot of heroic stories of peace makers back home, even in very limited space, and I’m not considered important. But I believe it is the heroic attempts at making peace, building bridges [between] Israelis and Palestinians, that will eventually determine the future. It is not the suicide makers that will determine the future.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
How do you keep thinking about peace and acting in the hope of a peace process in the face of so much violence? So many people now throw up their hands and say, “This is hopeless. We just can’t afford to get involved here.”

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I felt like this for a long time in the past two or three years that it was hopeless. And then having thought it was hopeless, one day it occurred to me that since it was hopeless what was needed, therefore, required a miracle. And then I said to myself, A miracle is fine, because this is the land of miracles. So why not a miracle, but how does it come about? And then I said to myself, Well, in the past God used to make those miracles happen, but maybe in this day and age, the miracle needs to be created by a man. And so I started thinking maybe we should develop faith, therefore, among people, ordinary people — faith in life not after death. Faith in life on earth after the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I decided if enough people have that faith, then that life will be created.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
But short of a miracle, how do you go about selling this to your own people? What has to happen in order for more than the current 5 percent to sign up to your plan?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Hopefully they can see that, in addition to reason, if people can be helped in any way to make their lives normal, the economic conditions normal; if they can see that what we’re doing is not simply selling them pipe dreams or arguments that are good theoretically, but it is possible to bring sometimes normalcy back into their lives — helping them build up their clinics or getting their football fields or whatever — then yes, I think the support will increase. But I think what we need is access. And I find that whenever I go and I have access, which is not very often, to villages or refugee camps, I’m surprised by the readiness, the predisposition that I find among people.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Even amongst those that we see in the film, people like that?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Even people like that. I tell you, people might express anger when they hear me speak or when they first see me, but on the whole they would tell me after a long discussion that, first of all, they agree with me that nothing else can be done. And secondly, they will tell me that they respect the fact that at least I’m speaking the truth and I’m being honest.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
So you believe that someone like you with your views can have a dialogue with the kind of person we’ve seen in the film?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I believe so. I believe the person that we saw in the film, the potential suicide bomber, is someone who needs people like me. And I think they can come back to leading ordinary lives. Now as for the people standing behind them — the strategists, so to speak — I don’t see any conversation at all over there. But I believe that to the extent that the peace process can move forward, that the forces of peace will be victorious. To that extent those people will become more and more irrelevant. That is, I believe, the future.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
So what then are the misconceptions that you think that we have in the United States about the Israeli conflict or about Palestinians?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Well, I think in general you only see the ugly face of the Palestinians. The Palestinians, many of them in frustration, react to a tragic situation in which they live. And people in the United States only see the ugly aspect of Palestinian life.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
It exists, though. We’ve just seen it.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
It exists and I don’t think it should be supported, certainly, but if it’s the only thing you see about Palestinians — if you can’t see Palestinian children going to school, if you can’t see Palestinian painters, Palestinian artists, dancers, if you can’t see Palestinians living normal lives then, and you only see Palestinians who go about shooting other people or blowing themselves up or speaking in extremist ways — then obviously the Americans cannot understand, cannot see a Palestinian in their full image. They can only see only parts of the Palestinian. And therefore I believe that the Americans do not really see us as a whole. They only see bits of us. They see the ugly bits. And those ugly bits exist. I’m not saying they don’t exist; they do exist. But if that’s all you see of us, then you’re not seeing us. And that’s the problem with how the West, or the Americans in particular, view us and why they misunderstand us.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
And could the forces of peace win in your lifetime, do you think?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I said before, it’s not a question of thinking. I have a strong faith that it will happen.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
What advice would you give to the Bush administration, to Washington in an election year, of what you would like to see them do to help with this conflict?

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
I’d like to see Washington as committed in making peace in the area as we’ve seen Washington committed to making war. I’d like to see Washington committed to sending out peace envoys to the area as we’ve seen Washington committed to sending out soldiers. I want America to show itself to be interested not only for the rights of one party, namely Israel, but also the other party, the Palestinians. I want America to stand up and say, Our belief in liberty, of equality is a belief that not only extends to ourselves and the Israelis, but it also extends to the Palestinians because the Palestinians are human beings also and that we deserve our freedom. That’s what I’d like Washington to do.

MISHAL HUSAIN:
Sari Nusseibeh, thanks for being with us on WIDE ANGLE.

PROFESSOR SARI NUSSEIBEH:
Thank you.


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