9 September 2004 Edition

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Palestine calls from behind the Wall

In August Diana Buttu, legal advisor and spokesperson for the PLO visited Belfast to speak at the West Belfast festival. Here we publish the second part of an interview she gave to An Phoblacht.

ONE of the difficulties Irish people have in coming to grips with Palestine is the large number of different Palestinian factions. Could you tell us a bit about the different factions?

There are 26 Palestinian factions. Fatah (Arafat's group), a faction within the PLO, used to be the main one but now Hamas is increasing in size and support. Whereas Fatah seeks a secular, democratic Palestine, Hamas seeks an Islamic religious Palestinian state. There are a number of smaller factions — the Communist Party, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine ( PFLP), Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Islamic Jihad, etc.

Politically, Hamas and some of the other factions opposed the negotiations and the elections, while the PLO supported them.

You say that Hamas is increasing in size and support? Who leads the Palestinian people then?

Yasser Arafat is the head of the PLO, the body which negotiates with Israel. He is also the elected President of the Palestinians (the Palestinian Authority) elected in the last elections in 1996. Yet Israel, backed by the USA, refuses to negotiate with Arafat and in order to pursue negotiations he has appointed two different Prime Ministers, neither of whom was elected. Israel still refuses to negotiate. The USA has also twice blocked new elections.

The President is a prisoner in his own building and Palestinian institutions have been systematically destroyed.

What the Israelis, backed by the US, have done over the past three and a half years is not only undermine the leadership but undermine Palestinian confidence in that leadership. In the Gaza Strip for example, the recent clashes between Palestinians is a case in point. Everyone is talking about corruption yet that is not the real issue. The issue is the lack of leadership in the Gaza Strip.

That lack of political leadership is because Israel has done everything in its power to undermine that leadership. When you undermine it on an international level and continually force the Palestinians to their knees, it's no wonder that the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip or in other parts of the West Bank have no confidence in their leadership.

Is the fault solely due to the Israelis and the USA?

When the Oslo Peace Agreements were originally signed one of the major problems was that a large part of the Palestinian leadership did not come from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, but from outside. This was the diaspora community who had fought and struggled so hard to try to get recognition. This was the diaspora community which had lived in refugee camps and have been exiled from one place to the next around the world. So there is a view point that when that leadership came back this exacerbated tensions among Palestinians in terms of class differences rather than defuse them. I blame both the Israelis and the Palestinians for this. I blame the Israelis because it set up the structure where there was a whole new class of people, mostly coming from outside, who were termed VIPs — and they actually are called VIPs in Palestine — who could cross the checkpoints, import goods, travel, drive fancy cars, and be on certain roads. The Israelis created that structure. The problem with the Palestinians leadership is that they bought into that structure and the adopted it, rather than refusing it and saying 'we are just like the Palestinians who are living in the refugee camp of Rafah', etc. They instead allowed the distinctions to be made and animosities developed between what were seen as the privileged newcomers and the rest of the population.

Now we are three years into a Palestinian uprising, an uprising that has taken the heaviest toll on the working class. 60% of the Palestinians are now unemployed and the vast majority of those who are unemployed are living below the poverty line. Thus those tensions have been exacerbated rather than diminished.

Another point is that the PLO and the secular groups depended very heavily on the success of negotiations and failed in trying to establish or maintain a grass roots base during the period of negotiations. The religious groups, particularly Hamas, banked on the fact that negotiations would break down and they concentrated on building their grass roots base. When negotiations broke down, support for Hamas rose.

Can you tell us about living conditions for local Palestinians at present?

Right now the current reports that have just come out have indicated that 60% of Palestinians are unemployed, 70% of Palestinians families are living on less that $2.00 a day — for the entire family — not per person. This is really significant given that the per capita income of Israelis is $19,000 a year.

30% of Palestinians children are chronically malnourished, 15% are severely malnourished, 45% of Palestinians women are anaemic and in this past year alone we've had 54 women give birth at checkpoints. Many have lost their children because they could not reach hospitals.

The U.S. when it was fighting a war in Vietnam lost 1% of its soldiers. In Palestine 1% of the entire population has been killed or injured over the past three years.

How would you answer those who say that Israel is simply trying to defend itself from 'suicide' bombings, hence the 'security' measures, hence the Wall being built on the West Bank?

I don't think that the facts show this to be the case. Since the start of this Intifada in September 2000 there have been 3 to 4 times as many Palestinians killed compared to Israelis. More than 3000 Palestinians have been killed, among them more than 500 children, and over 30,000 have been seriously injured. In the same period more than 900 Israelis have also been killed. Besides this, thousands of Palestinian houses have been completely destroyed causing thousands of families to be homeless. It is Palestinian territory which is under occupation, not Israeli territory. It is Palestinians who are trying to defend themselves not vice versa.

For example, there has been a wall around the Gaza Strip for almost a decade which has completely cut it off from the West Bank. It is effectively a large prison. It is the most densely populated place on earth. 80% of the Gaza Strip Palestinians residents are refugees living in refugee camps. In the past three years Israel has demolished the homes of 19,000 Palestinians living there and has killed 1,400 Palestinians, including 400 children there.

Yet there have only ever been two 'human bomb' operations inside Israel from Gaza, both of which took place in March of this year. So while Israel uses the excuse of security to kill Palestinians, it has actually been more secure in the Gaza Strip that in any other place.

Can you say a little about the 'Wall'?

One of the most important things about the Wall is that it is not at all being built on the Green line, Israel's 1967 border. When it is finished only 6% of it will be within 100 metres of Israel's border. The vast bulk of it is being built in Palestinian areas on confiscated Palestinian land. Houses, shops and crops have been destroyed. One case I know of is that of a wedding couple who had their house demolished on their wedding day before they could move into it.

Although it has been entitled a security barrier, it is not at all a security barrier. It is a land grab. The Wall is separating Palestinians from Palestinians. It is dividing farmers from their fields, children from their schools and workers from their places of employment, the sick from hospitals. And at the same time Israelis remain in Palestinian areas. So it is not about separating Israelis from Palestinians but keeping Palestinians caged into as little land as possible.

When complete, 43% of the West Bank will be annexed into Israel. If, as they are threatening, they are allowed to build a Wall along the Jordan Valley on the East of the West Bank then this percentage will rise.

The International Court of Justice at The Hague and the UN General Assembly have both this summer ruled that the Wall breaches International Law. Israel's own Supreme Court have even ruled that some parts of the Wall should be moved closer to the Green Line. Nevertheless, Israel continues to build it.

What can people in Ireland do to help the situation?

Well it is important to remember that Israel is in breach of more than 30 UN Security Council resolutions and hundreds of UN General Assembly resolutions and that its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is in breach of International Law. Besides supporting the general boycott of Israeli goods campaign, a campaign which was very successful against Apartheid South Africa, Ireland could play a role in getting the EU special trade agreement with Israel suspended on the basis that Israel consistently flaunts one of the conditions of that Agreement - to abide by International Human Rights standards.

Irish people can also demand that Cement Road Holdings (Ireland) disinvests from the Israeli firm supplying concrete for the Wall.

Irish people could also boycott firms making money out of the occupation and the oppression of the Palestinian people, such as Caterpiller. The Caterpillar D9 Bulldozer is sold to Israel and its only use is to demolish Palestinian homes. It was this bulldozer which killed Rachel Corrie.

An Phoblacht
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