An Interview with Palestinian leader, Haidar Abdel Shafi

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Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi

Dr Haidar Abdel Shafi was born in Gaza in 1919. He is a widely respected left Palestinian leader who is critical of the Oslo Agreements and the undemocratic tendencies of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction of the PLO. Shafi is a leader of the Council for Palestinian Restitution and Repatriation, an organisation created to fight for the rights of Palestinian refugees. In this interview conducted by Toufic Haddad, Dr Shafi analyses the dynamics of the Al Aqsa Intifada.

Q: The reasons behind the current Intifada are well known and generally refer back to a call for the end to the occupation, the dismantling of the settlements, the return of Jerusalem etc. However a less well-talked-about element of the Intifada is the complete frustration of the Palestinian people toward the Oslo process as well as a lack of faith in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Could you elaborate to what extent these two dynamics play out in the current events?

A: There has been a cumulative process of disappointment among the public. One major disappointment, of course, is the ineffectiveness and lack of credibility of the negotiating process, which, as became obvious, was not the means through which Palestinian rights would be realised. Still, people did become increasingly disappointed with the conduct of the PA: its lack of respect for legal principles, human rights, the dispensing of public funds, accountability, transparency etc.

But the main thing, I think, is the frustration with the political/negotiating process. It is true that the trigger was the visit by [Likud Party leader] Sharon to a highly sensitive area, but the preparedness for what is taking place today was there before Sharon, and hence things exploded.

Q: When you resigned from the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in 1997, this dealt a major blow to the credibility of the Palestinian Authority, particularly because you were the highest recipient of votes in the entire election. Yet despite your status and all the disturbing signs that were coming out of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian popular leaders were unable to forge any genuine alternative to what was taking place. Could you address why that was the case?

A: We had expectations — which I might say were moderately high — that with the PLC elections, real progress could be made toward a democratic society. That was our hope and it was, in fact, the main reason why I participated in the elections in the first place. I had condemned the Oslo Agreements, and even though the elections came in the context of those agreements, I didn’t mind because my hope was that the PLC would be the beginning of the process of democratisation. That is also why, when PLO Chairman Arafat adopted a policy of ignoring democratic processes, there was a general disappointment from members of the PLC. We began to think of what we could do, contemplating many ways to express our disappointment and anger. But the attitude of the Chairman remained. He did not adhere to the decisions of the Council, completely sidelining it from public affairs.

When the government Ombudsman released a report that discussed corruption within the PA, the PLC formed a committee to investigate the claims. Eventually that committee confirmed the Ombudsman’s findings, but still nothing happened. PLC members failed to take collective action to address the issues. I found it impossible to continue in the Council, so I resigned.

I think this demonstrates a problem concerning the character of Palestinian society in general. It’s not something special to the Council. In the absence of the rule of law, people promote personal interests over public interests.

Q: Do you think that this might be one of the reasons why in the current Intifada, there is a sense of lack of leadership?

A: I think yes. The present situation is very serious, because the Intifada started without any real preparation. For it to be organised, for it to be effective, to guarantee its permanency, to lessen its sacrifices, to cause damage on the other side it needs good planning. It is obvious that the losses are very serious in terms of people killed and wounded. The Intifada cannot endure unless there is real organisation. So far, none of this has taken place, and this is very grave.

What I have therefore been promoting over the past month is a call for all the political parties to unite and in turn call on the Chairman to establish a united leadership — on the basis of national unity. In other words, a new Authority should be formed with the responsibility of doing what needs to be done: to abide by democratic principles and to see that there is proper support for the Intifada.

Q: But supposedly there is a “united leadership” of sorts — the unity of national and Islamic forces which has released several leaflets?

A: There isn’t such a thing. In reality, all who participate retain their particular identifications, and this is a very serious situation which cannot be left as such. No organised efforts have been made yet to see that the Intifada gets the proper support. This support means moving to ensure our effectiveness — as I said, lessening our losses, inflicting losses on the other side and so on — to ensure our ability to continue. Now all of this needs organisation, and organisation means that you have to put your own house in order — first and foremost by respecting legal principles and addressing the question of financial accountability.

Q: So the same problems that handicapped the PA before are effectively damaging the Intifada today?

A: Yes. The problems are still there and I dare say that unless — in a short time — all these matters are attended to properly, we will be in a terrible state.

Q: Gradually the Intifada is transforming from a popularly based mass movement to what appears to be more guerilla-style military actions. How do you feel about that?

A: It is natural. The point has been driven home to the people that Israel continues to reject recognition of Palestinian rights in their most minimal form — a State in territories of the 1967 borders. Israel has dropped all avenues for dialogue, and the situation is hopeless as far as negotiating goes. The Intifada is a genuine act pertaining to the failure of the negotiating process, and it is an affirmation that there is no way we can regain our rights except through struggle.

Q: There is a fear on Palestinian streets that the PA is looking for a chance to come in and “take out the legs” of the Intifada by negotiating something via the back door.

A: I think that based on the determination and attitude of the crowds which is so strong and serious, it would be reasonable and rational for the PA to concede that the negotiating process is not taking us anywhere and that only national struggle will chart the way. If it recommends modification of tactics and better organisation, of course that would be acceptable. The people are really angry and believe that nothing will do except to fight.

Q: If, as you say, the struggle calls for the organising of a wide democratic front, how do you do that in the light of the current PA?

A: It is a matter of great concern, and is the reason why I am involved in working with all political parties toward the objective of establishing a national unity authority. Decision-making must become a collective affair involving all the political forces and Arafat. It is necessary to establish an accountable legal authority and to work together to dispense available funds.

Q: What are the prospects of your efforts?

A: It depends upon the political parties, including Hamas. It is the duty of all the parties to call strongly for national unity. I have been talking with them continuously. Once we agree, then we have to meet with the Chairman. I don’t want to talk with him before agreement is reached.

Q: One thing very apparent throughout the Intifada is the pre-eminence of Fatah, with Hamas taking a sideline role, more or less observing things. Where is the Left and what explains their complete absence from the scene?

A: The Left has unified with the PA. It is a shame. If this uprising comes to nothing, it will be a catastrophe. Nothing could be worse. And that is what makes me always say that there is no time to lose and there should be real pressure, because we are badly in need of national unity. The decision-making should not be left in the hands of the Chairman alone.

Q: The present policy of the Palestinian national movement repeats ad infinitum the mantra: “the establishment of an independent Palestinian State with Jerusalem as its capital within the borders of 1967.” However the reality on the ground clearly resembles apartheid, especially given the very strong Israeli settlement policies of recent years. Moreover, it could also be said that the independent state does not necessarily address the question of Palestinian refugees. Isn’t it time to reassess the national strategy in favour of one secular democratic state?

A: In the face of Israel’s insistence against a bi-national or secular democratic state, we have no alternative except to press for an independent Palestinian State with respect to the implementation of UN Resolution 194. Don’t forget that there is a detailed study by Dr Salman Abu Sitta which discusses the feasibility of the return of the refugees and points out that there is plenty of space for 194 to be implemented. Now when one considers the situation as a whole, one feels that the idea of a single state is the most feasible option for the future. But in order to accomplish this, we need to win over the Israeli side.

The option was raised as early as the 1930s during the British Mandate, but the Zionist leadership categorically rejected it. I think they still reject this, and many Israelis still cling to what they claimed a hundred years ago — wishing that the Palestinians would just move out, the so-called “wordless wish.”

Q: As the former leading member of the team representing the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories in Madrid — until your efforts were eclipsed by the secret talks held in Oslo — how much, in your opinion, does the current Intifada represent an uprising by the Palestinians from inside the Occupied Territories against the leadership of those who came with the PLO from the diaspora?

A: The fact that the people in power are returnees is not looked upon positively by the general public. But this has little to do with the current Intifada. The Intifada is a genuine rebellion resulting from the failure of the negotiating process. It is an affirmation that there is no way we can regain our rights except through struggle.

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