No justice without self-determination

September 1, 2011

Israel's deadly air strikes in late August underscored the dire conditions facing the 1.6 million Palestinians living in Gaza. In spite of hopes that the new rulers of post-Mubarak Egypt would open the Rafah border crossing, the siege continues. Activists in Gaza have launched an international campaign to pressure the Egyptian government to lift restrictions that limit to a trickle the number of Palestinians who can travel through Rafah.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) will go to the United Nations this month with its call for a recognized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital--in the face of sharp opposition from Israel and the U.S.

Haidar Eid is a professor of literature at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza and a veteran activist in the movement for Palestinian national rights. He spoke with Eric Ruder about the urgent need to open the border between Gaza and Egypt--and his critique of the PA's statehood strategy.

CAN YOU describe the mood in Gaza in the wake of the Egyptian revolution that so many had hoped would end the siege of Gaza?

I LEFT Gaza about two months ago, and I spent about 48 hours at the border trying to get through the Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt. The first day, I went at around 7 a.m. and stayed until 9 p.m. It was terrible. I was on the sixth bus, and we were kept in the no-man's land between Gaza and Egypt for between four and five hours.

I think Palestinians in Gaza are really disappointed. They were expecting the end of the Mubarak regime to lead to the end of the siege, because the only exit that Gaza has to the external world is the Rafah crossing with Egypt. You have six crossings separating Gaza from Israel--and then there is the Rafah crossing. It's the only crossing that can guarantee freedom of movement for the more than 1.6 million Palestinians of Gaza.

On May 25, Egypt's foreign minister issued a statement declaring the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing. People in Gaza were ecstatic about it, because this declaration came after very powerful and encouraging statements made by Dr. Nabil El-Arabi, the previous foreign minister of Egypt and now Secretary General of the Arab League.

The siege of Gaza has driven poverty to new heights for the 1.6 million Palestinians who live there
The siege of Gaza has driven poverty to new heights for the 1.6 million Palestinians who live there

But when the Rafah crossing was opened, it lasted for only two days--May 28 and 29. On the third day, a conflict erupted between the Hamas government in Gaza and the Egyptian side. The Egyptians said they didn't have enough staff working at the crossing, and they could not allow more than 500 travelers to cross per day. But then they ended up not allowing more than 300 per day.

The situation now is that if you want to leave Gaza, you have to register with the Ministry of the Interior in Gaza or register online. If you are lucky, you might have a chance to leave Gaza two or three months later. Already, more than 35,000 people have registered to leave Gaza. Most are either terminally ill people or students with scholarships to study abroad or people with permanent residence in Gulf countries and Europe.

We also need to take the context into consideration. More than 600 terminally ill people have died since January 2006 due to the imposition of this deadly siege on Gaza--which continued thanks to the closure of the Rafah crossing by the Mubarak regime. We expected this kind of maltreatment from Egypt under the reactionary Mubarak to change after the revolution.

Unfortunately, it seems that the revolution has not yet reached Rafah. And that is why most people of Gaza and Palestinians in general are disappointed--because people are literally dying.

With Israel's escalation of violent assaults in Gaza in August, people are expecting more support from Egyptians, and we are very heartened and very happy with what is happening on the streets of Cairo right now.

Now everyone is talking about the "flagman"--he's the Egyptian Spiderman! On August 22, Egyptian protesters surrounded the Israeli embassy to call on the Egyptian government to kick out the Israeli ambassador. Naturally, the Israeli embassy was heavily guarded by Egyptian security personnel. But one Egyptian man managed to climb something like 20 floors up the building and replace the Israeli flag with an Egyptian flag. His name is Ahmed al-Shahat. Everybody knows his name across the Arab world, and calls him the "flagman."

This symbolic gesture, with the protests on the streets of Cairo in support of the Palestinians of Gaza, seems to have sent a strong message to Israel that Egypt is not the Egypt of Mubarak--that this Egypt won't continue to allow Israel to go on massacring Palestinians in Gaza, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians without any reaction from the Egyptian people.

This growing resistance is one of the things that made Israeli leaders Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledge that the international community is not ready to accept a new massacre in Gaza. Of course, they didn't use the word "massacre." They said "a new military operation" against Gaza. But resistance is why people have been talking about a ceasefire and saying that Israel has been forced to put an end to its military operation.

I tend to disagree with this characterization, however, because as I speak to you now, Israel is carrying out air strikes across Gaza, and has killed six Palestinians in Beit Lahia and Rafah in the last 24 hours. The number of Palestinian martyrs over the last week has reached 21, and more than 80 have been injured.

So I think what is happening is that Israel is taking note of the mood on the streets of the Arab world--and in particular, on the streets of Cairo. This sends a strong message that, yes, Israel in fact fears people power. And I say if Israel fears the power of the people, then we will make sure that Israel will see more of it.

Of course, people's power comes in different forms. This means intensifying the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, as well as more land, air and sea convoys designed to highlight Israel's illegal siege.

WHY DO you think Egyptian authorities proclaimed Rafah open and then closed the border two days later? What happened to make them do that?

PEOPLE IN Gaza are politicized, and they keep trying to answer the same question that you have raised. One view is that Israel was furious when Egypt made the decision to open the Rafah crossing, and so people are saying that there was a great deal of Israeli/American pressure exerted on the government of Egypt.

Another view is that Egypt had been trying to mediate unity between Fatah and Hamas, and they came very close to a reconciliation deal, but apparently Hamas wasn't happy with the way PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah were dealing with the question of the appointment of a prime minister. Abbas wanted to reappoint Salam Fayyad as the prime minister, and Hamas refused. So people are saying that Egypt is punishing Hamas for refusing to accept that deal.

These are the two views prevalent in Gaza, but I think we need to look at it from another perspective. If America and Israel are exerting pressure on the government of Egypt, we need to counter that. We need to learn from what is happening on the streets of Cairo, on the streets of Tripoli, on the streets of Manama, Sanaa and Damascus. That's the kind of counter-pressure that I'm talking about: the power of the people.

It's either the pressure of the U.S. and Israel--imperialism, in other words--or the pressure of the people. We've learned from what has been going on in the streets of Cairo. And we are saying, no, we need to exert pressure on the government in Egypt so that it knows without a doubt that it must open the Rafah crossing permanently and unconditionally, because times have changed.

Mubarak is no longer the president of Cairo. Mubarak built what we call the wall of shame--the steel wall extending beneath the border between Gaza and Egypt to shut down the tunnels that are essential to smuggling milk and medicine for our children. Now Mubarak is gone, and he was the greatest asset that Israel and the U.S. had in the Arab world.

That is why Palestinian civil society sectors in general--labor, students, youth, women, BDS--have come up with this statement calling on the revolutionary forces of Egypt to exert pressure on their government to open the Rafah crossing.

Unfortunately, Palestinians have long played the role of scapegoat for whatever is happening in the Arab world. But no longer. We don't want to be the scapegoat, and we don't want to pay the price for what is happening in American-Egyptian or Israeli-Egyptian relationships.

IT APPEARS that the PA hopes to bring its own kind of pressure this September through its push for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood. What do you think about this strategy?

IN 1993, when Yasser Arafat, the late chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), signed the Oslo Accords with Israel, there was what I call an "induced euphoria." The media talked endlessly about a long-lasting peace in the Middle East--that the "two sides" were coming together to have a dialogue. There were great hopes then.

But critical thinkers, such as the late great Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, Azmi Bishara and others, never subscribed to that school. I think what is happening right now is a repackaging of the Oslo Accords. From 1993 until 2011, there has been a "dialogue" between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and what has that led to?

I'll paraphrase what my friend and comrade Hajo Meyer, the Holocaust survivor, said on a platform that I shared with him. He said, "You don't bring the elephant and the mouse together, lock them up in a room, and ask them to negotiate." For obvious reasons, you need to have a fair mediator, and that should be a lion standing on the side of the mouse.

The Palestinian leadership--the right wing leading the PA, and the right wing leading the various Palestinian liberation organizations--have reached the conclusion that the negotiations have led nowhere, so they've decided to go to the United Nations in order to call for recognition of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

But we need to go back to the ABCs of the Palestinian question. Is the Palestinian question about the establishment of a Bantustan on some of the territory within the 1967 borders and calling it an independent state? Does that lead to peace with justice? And does that lead to the end of the "conflict?"

But the Palestinian question didn't start in 1967. This drive for recognition led by PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is based on a decision that was made during the 1970s by the PLO to adopt a "more flexible" program.

That more flexible program meant accepting Israel on 78 percent of the historic land of Palestine and a Palestinian state next to it--in other words, the two-state solution. This program of the PLO, which the Palestinian Authority right now is trying to resurrect, is that this conflict can be resolved with the establishment of an "independent" Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

But this program denies or ignores the fact that there are between 6 and 7 million Palestinian refugees who are entitled to return to the villages and towns from which they were ethnically cleansed in 1948. This new PA "Declaration of Independence" proposes to solve the plight of Palestinian refugees by allowing them to return to a "state" of Palestine to be established in the West Bank, but not to their homes in what is now Israel.

In addition, this "declaration" does not have a single word to say about the 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel who are treated as third class citizens, and this group has called on the Palestinian national movement to transform the struggle into an anti-apartheid movement in order to address their oppressive treatment.

So I think this declaration before the UN ultimately compromises on the question of self-determination, because when you talk about self-determination for Palestinians, you can't ignore the right of return for Palestinian refugees, you can't ignore the question of the national and cultural rights of the 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel.

Let's talk facts. The number of Jewish settlers within the 1967 borders when Israel signed the Oslo Accords back in 1993 was only 193,000. But today, the number of settlers is more than half a million in the West Bank alone.

Israel has also proceeded with the Judaization of Jerusalem, which it began in 1980. Israel has built a monstrous apartheid wall, using it to annex some 45 percent of the land of the West Bank for the settlements and for greater Jerusalem. The consequence of this ongoing colonization has, in reality, made the establishment of an independent Palestinian state an impossibility.

Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip has been transformed into the largest concentration camp on earth. B'Tselem, a mainstream Israeli human rights organization, calls it an "open-air prison." So where on earth will the Palestinians have their independent Palestinian state?

The BDS campaign, represented and led by the BDS National Committee (BNC), is a rights-based campaign. It doesn't actually advocate a political solution, whether one state or two. But the BNC has issued a statement about the question of statehood with respect to Palestinian national rights.

The statement makes clear that we in the struggle for Palestinian rights do indeed support the implementation of UN resolutions that call on Israel to withdraw from the 1967 borders, including Jerusalem.

But it does not stop there. We also demand the implementation of UN Resolution 194, which calls for the return of more than 6 million Palestinian refugees ethnically cleansed in 1948. And we stand for equality for all inhabitants of Israel--that is to say, equality for the 1.2 million Israeli Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel.

During the struggle against apartheid South Africa, the international community never recognized the four infamous Bantustans--the fake independent "homelands" for Black South Africans. In fact, the only country that recognized even one Bantustan was Israel. Is that a surprise?

In the 1970s and '80s, the world heeded the calls from the African National Congress and the United Democratic Front to not recognize a Bantustan. But the problem is that our leadership hasn't learned this lessons of history. It is calling on the international community to recognize a Bantustan in the Middle East--a Bantustan that lacks sovereignty, that lacks self-determination, that has no control over its airspace, over its coastline, over its borders, and so on.

That is why the Palestinian people in general are suspicious about this declaration of independence. The mainstream media will not tell you this, but the alternative media--Electronic Intifada, Palestine Chronicle, Socialist Worker--have reported on this indifference that so many people feel, from the streets of Gaza to the streets of the West Bank to the refugee camps of Lebanon.

In this context, it should be clear that the principle of the two-state solution that the PA and, unfortunately, many other mainstream political organizations in Palestine are defending is, in fact, a racist solution. In truth, IT IS a racist solution par excellence, because it is based on ethno-religious identity. Palestine for Palestinian Christians and Muslims, and Israel as a state for Jews only. Do we as a people who have fought against apartheid really want to accept that?

I'm a Palestinian refugee. My parents were among those who were ethnically cleansed from the village of Zarnoga, which now no longer exists. My parents, who both died in 2005, always dreamed of returning to the village of Zarnoga.

More than two-thirds of the Palestinians of Gaza are refugees. My question is: How does the PA bid for statehood address their dreams and their rights--their internationally sanctioned right of return to the homes and lands from which they were expelled?

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