DOHA, Qatar — Creating a unified Palestinian political strategy to confront the Israeli occupation is what veteran Palestinian political leader Mustafa Barghouti wants to see out of the reconciliation deal.
Speaking to Al-Monitor on the sidelines of the Brooking Institution’s US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Barghouti said that neither Fatah nor Hamas can impose their respective agendas on the other, and instead will have to work to form a unified platform.
“Nobody can start imposing a certain form of struggle without agreeing with others, and nobody can run negotiations on their own without agreeing with others,” he said. “We need a strategy; we need a leadership that can be able to create a unified position. People can have different opinions, but we should have one political line.”
Barghouti was a key member of the negotiating team that went to Gaza in April, forging a reconciliation deal that has since produced a long-awaited unity government under President Mahmoud Abbas.
“I was the one who suggested we send the delegation to discuss with Hamas on behalf of the PLO. This suggestion was made on March 30 and the delegation was five people, of which I was one.”
Barghouti continues to play an active role in mediating between Fatah and Hamas and was involved in securing the release of Hamas activists detained by Palestinian Authority security forces after the reconciliation deal.
“Both Fatah and Hamas have to comprehend and internalize completely the concept of pluralism. That one-party rule doesn’t work … There should be pluralism, accountability and serving public interests, not only factional interests,” he said.
Barghouti, who also runs his own movement, the Palestinian National Initiative, said it was time for Fatah and Hamas to put their differences aside and focus on the bigger picture: the Israeli occupation. “It’s better to be unified and end occupation than to keep fighting.”
Barghouti says the key problem to the Palestinian situation lies in the Oslo Accord, which he believes has “destroyed many aspects of the Palestinian struggle.”
“[The Palestinian Authority] was meant by Israel to create an illusion, an illusion of power, an illusion of authority, which can only exercise its power on its own people, but it cannot protect its borders. It has to provide security to the Israeli side, but it can’t protect its own people from Israeli army attacks,” he said.
Both Fatah and Hamas were trapped in the Oslo process, according to Barghouti, who says it’s time to explore alternatives, explaining, “Either it becomes a Vichy government, or it returns to being a liberation movement. You can’t have both.”
Despite concerns of a breakdown of the reconciliation, with problems already arising — most notably the issue of civil servant salaries in Gaza — Barghouti believes a return to internal factional violence is unlikely.
“I think everybody realizes in a situation where we are under occupation, the last thing we can afford is to have internal fighting between us.”
The full interview follows:
Al-Monitor: What are your impressions of the reconciliation deal and the unity government, and where do you see it going?
Barghouti: Well, it wasn’t easy, but we worked very hard to have it concluded, against all odds and against many people’s expectations. What we’ve done so far is only the beginning. If we want a real and full reconciliation, we have to proceed with other steps, including convening the Palestinian Legislative Council [PLC], which should happen within less than a month. The legislative council coming back to action means that we’re starting to regain what we’ve lost because of internal division, which is some sort of democratic system, a separation of powers and a system of accountability. In my opinion this is very crucial — to have the PLC return — because without the PLC we cannot pass the law for elections and we cannot have elections.
That’s one step. The other step is to convene the interim leadership meeting that is supposed to consider reforming the PLO, and it would be the basis for creating a unified Palestinian leadership. What I hope for is that this meeting will not just meet and that’s it, but will start considering discussing the Palestinian future strategy, especially now that we are in a situation where conflicting strategies are struggling with each other. We need a strategy; we need a leadership that can be able to create a unified position. People can have different opinions, but we should have one political line. There has to be unity, in relationship to the reform struggle and in relationship to the political actions, including possible negotiations.
In other words, each side does what it wants without any form of consensus, and what we want is consensus on all issues. Nobody can start imposing a certain form of struggle without agreeing with others, and nobody can run negotiations on their own without agreeing with others. This is very, very important. Then we should have elections, and elections should take place, not just in electing the new parliament and president, but very important would be the election of the Palestinian National Council.
In my opinion, today we have a very serious problem because we have an imbalance of power between us and Israel, and without changing that, nothing will work. Negotiations have failed for 21 years because, mainly, they were based on a wrong basis of power, and they will continue to fail. And if people think that the only alternative is negotiations, they’re mistaken. We need an alternative strategy, and I believe there’s an alternative strategy that can help us change the balance of power, which includes popular nonviolent resistance, which is one factor, and unity, which is another factor. Boycott, divestment, sanctions worldwide is a third factor. And fourth, changing internal economic policies to help people [remain] steadfast and survive.
Al-Monitor: Were you involved in the reconciliation talks? Can you elaborate on your involvement?
Barghouti: I was the one who suggested we send the delegation to discuss with Hamas on behalf of the PLO. This suggestion was made on March 30 and the delegation was five people, of which I was one. We went to Gaza and held the talks with Fatah, Hamas and us. We practically mediated between them and we continue to do so, as we did before. When the national unity government was created, I was the mediator. Being independent completely from Fatah and Hamas helps us do that, because I think nobody can claim that we, the Palestinian National Initiative, are biased toward one side or another.
I’m also the head of the freedom committee, which was sort of elected by all parties to deal with freedom issues. We have a very long list of things we are working on, including prevention of political arrests and also allowing parties and groups to have political and organizational freedom.
Al-Monitor: There have been arrests of Hamas activists in the West Bank since the reconciliation deal. Are you involved in trying to resolve this issue, and can you update us on the latest developments?
Barghouti: We managed to bring down the number of those arrested to 41 in the West Bank and 19 in Gaza. Two weeks after the reconciliation agreement, we had several arrests in the West Bank, which we managed to intervene in and free them. Now there are some problems. We are now going through the whole updated list and trying to resolve the matters. We have identified 11 issues in the freedom committee to be resolved; we‘ve managed to resolve some of them. First is to provide passports for every citizen without any discrimination. Everybody got their passports, except for two or three people. It was very important to have the ability to print and distribute newspapers from the West Bank to Gaza and vice versa. This hasn’t happened for seven years, and we managed to solve that in the past month. It was interesting that after we solved that and newspapers from West Bank started to be distributed in Gaza and vice versa, the Israeli army entered Ramallah, which is under the PA’s authority, and entered the printing shops of Al-Ayyam newspaper and ordered them to not print the newspapers that are produced in Gaza. So far, this didn’t happen, but this shows how much the Israelis are trying to block the unity efforts.
The third issue that was completely resolved was freedom of movement, especially those who left Gaza and could not return. We still have eight other issues, including eliminating completely political arrests, political interrogation, opening societies that were closed, bringing back employees who were dismissed from their jobs because of their political convictions, etc.
Al-Monitor: Why do you think political arrests are still taking place?
Barghouti: I believe it’s a mixture. The authorities in the West Bank say they only arrest people when they have concerns over security issues, but I believe it’s also motivated by political competition. By that I mean West Bank and Gaza. For the reconciliation to succeed, and for the Palestinian to succeed, both Fatah and Hamas have to comprehend and internalize completely the concept of pluralism. That one-party rule doesn’t work, that there is a place [where] there should be pluralism, accountability and serving public interests, not only factional interests. It’s a hard way, it’s a difficult way because you have two parties, not one. Usually, you have one party that is dominating power, but in this case you have two in two geographical areas. I think it’s about moving away from traditional politics in Palestine into modern forms of politics. Sticking with traditional politics will alienate more Palestinians, especially the youth.
Al-Monitor: One key issue that hasn’t been resolved is the question of weapons that are still possessed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. How much of a challenge is this to the reconciliation deal? How can a government function with weapons outside of its control?
Barghouti: I think here we have to completely separate the so-called resistance aspect and policing aspect. The agreement we have is about reorganizing first a civil police force which is nonpartisan. The people who are armed for resistance should not appear at all with their guns. They should disappear. The civil and security structure in Palestine, as we agreed in Cairo before, [has] four issues that need to be dealt with. First, the security apparatus and police should be nonfactional — serve Palestinian interests, but nonfactional. Second, all promotions and appointments in these structures should not be factional, but based on merit. Third, the security apparatus must be subject to the control of the Palestinian Legislative Council, as an elected body. Finally, we need to find a formula: When we speak unified strategy, we speak about a unified form of struggle, which would then lead to solving, in my opinion, this problem. It has to be done peacefully, nonviolently and with consensus.
They signed this agreement, but we haven’t yet reached there because there are many other steps that we haven’t taken yet. The issue of the security structure will have to be done by forming a committee, part of which will be Arab participants, not just Palestinians. Egypt is supposed to be a member of that committee. But it’s an issue, and of course, there are differences between West Bank and Gaza, but Gaza is not free like the West Bank is not free.
Al-Monitor: The Israeli siege on Gaza is still in place and settlements continue to expand, despite the reconciliation and unity government. What is the next step to increase pressure on Israel regarding these two issues?
Barghouti: One of the reasons why, in my opinion, reconciliation finally took place (and I hope it continues) is because both parties realized they were fighting over leftover authority under occupation. It’s better to be unified and end occupation than to keep fighting. In my opinion, Fatah was trapped in Oslo 21 years ago, and the PLO as well, and then Hamas was trapped in Oslo after they took [over the] government. They became part of the Oslo process, in a way. I think that’s our biggest problem. The Oslo agreement, in my opinion, has destroyed many aspects of the Palestinian struggle. It created an authority while we are under occupation; it created a schizophrenic situation in the minds of Palestinians.
From one side we are occupied, and not only occupied, but the occupation has transformed to become one of the worst systems of apartheid. And this occupation is not [at a] standstill, it’s expanding. Settlement expansion — each day they take a new piece of land. While we have that, we started to have new governments and new ministers. All of this is not real. It was meant by Israel to create an illusion: an illusion of power, an illusion of authority, which can only exercise its power on its own people, but it cannot protect its borders. It has to provide security to the Israeli side, but it can’t protect its own people from Israeli army attacks. The Israeli army can enter any city and kill people, as they’ve done to 60 people … since the negotiations restarted. The whole system is wrong. They claim Gaza is free, but Gaza is not free. It’s besieged by land, by air, by sea. What freedom is that?
In my opinion, Israel decided to use a new form of occupation, which I call digital occupation, because it’s cheaper for them. In the West Bank, they allowed the authority to be established to get rid of the cost of occupation, to make the occupation practically profitable. And the Israeli public keeps voting for extremist parties, mainly because the Israeli public itself is benefiting from occupation. Israel is taking away 85% of our water, they’re taking most of our land, they’re controlling the airspace, they’re controlling the electro-magnetic field. They’re making profit — even from when we collect taxes, they take a portion. So it’s a profitable occupation.
This is the problem. When we raise it, it’s not discussed. They run away by talking about things like which form the government will be, but in my opinion, the substantial issue is this issue.
Al-Monitor: What’s the alternative?
Barghouti: Eventually, I think this authority’s standing will start standing at grass roots. Either it becomes a Vichy government or it returns to being a liberation movement. You can’t have both. For a while it was possible, and that’s why [late PLO leader Yasser] Arafat was killed, because he tried to move back. There will come a moment where this will be impossible. You will have to choose this way or that way.
Al-Monitor: There’s growing political apathy among the Palestinian population, and growing disillusion with the two main parties. Is this an opportunity for independent parties such as your own to play a bigger role?
Barghouti: Yes and no. There is a very big potential, but this will not necessarily translate into results unless we work very hard and we overcome some of the obstacles. The biggest obstacle is that the people were for a long time affected by a system of nepotism and clientelism, and it’s even affecting the younger generations. You see that in the student council elections. I passed a law — but it was not implemented by the executive authority — to create a student-loan fund which would, in my opinion, liberate young students from the obligation of joining this party or that party because you want a scholarship. The law would have given scholarships to students who are successful, and loans to everybody until they graduate and start working, as they do in civilized countries. I think we need a set of laws that liberate people from a system of nepotism and clientelism, which is in my opinion becoming the major obstacle to the development of a viable, real, democratic political life in Palestine. But at the same time, we are a party that tries to understand the combination of the fact that we are still fighting occupation while we also have socioeconomic issues to deal with. That’s why our buildup is based on three major parameters: One is freedom from occupation and system of apartheid. Second is the issue of social justice. Third, the issue of democracy. That’s what Palestine needs. It needs a political force that can work on the three fronts.
Al-Monitor: Do you see the reconciliation deal developing into a coherent Palestinian political strategy, as you’ve described in this interview, or will it descend once again into disunity and infighting between Fatah and Hamas?
Barghouti: Everything is possible. Our biggest problem is external interventions. I think everybody realizes [that] in a situation where we are under occupation, the last thing we can afford is to have internal fighting between us. I don’t think even Egypt would support such a thing, because Egypt realizes how sensitive the matter is. What we had is unity out of necessity. We need to move that to make it a unity of a conscious decision about the future. That’s what I hope for, and that’s what we are working for.