11 August 2005 Edition
A just solution is the way out of conflict - Leila Khaled
Iconic figure of the Palestinian struggle, and member of the Palestinian National Council, Leila Khaled was in Ireland last week at the invitation of Féile An Phobail at which she was scheduled to speak. However, having been refused a visa by the British Government to enter the Six Counties, she was confined to the 26 Counties where she addressed public meetings in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Leila did eventually manage to speak to people at the Belfast Féile, thanks to a video link.
During her trip Leila, who lives in exile in Amman, Jordan, gave a fascinating interview with An Phoblacht detailing her life in struggle and the prospects of a resolution of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
An Phoblacht: How do you remember your childhood?
Leila Khaled: We were forced to leave our country in 1948. Those who arrived said the arrival of the Jews to Palestine was the "promise of God" becoming truth. When I was young in Palestine I kept asking why God did something like that to us. How it was that God promised land to some people and not to others. In exile, while we were living in a very miserable situation, we tried to better our lives as a way to come back to Palestine. Palestinians were at the time dependent on UN aid, clothing and food.
Children always remember the details of their lives and it affects their personality in the future. As for all Palestinians, and I am one of them, we were always asking why we had to live in such a miserable situation and the answer that came from our parents was: "It is because you are outside Palestine." So, it was planted in our minds even when we were that young that we had to go back. We wanted to go back, but did not know how.
During our student years we would demonstrate every 15 May about the "disaster" for the Palestinians of the creation of Israel as a state.
How did your political activism begin?
In 1952, when Nasser took over in Egypt, the first thing he mentioned was the need for the restoration of Palestine, and to help Palestinians to go back. Also many of the Arab parties had in their programme that they supported the return of the Palestinians and the destruction of Israel.
Very early on we had the idea that we would be back to Palestine and that we would have our human rights like any other people. However, in 1967, Israel went to war and occupied all of historic Palestine, the Golan Heights from Syria and the Sinai from Egypt. This all created a new phenomenon for the Palestinians. They had no one to help them, so they had to take their future in their hands. So, the Palestinian revolution was initiated outside Palestine, because since 1969 all patriots, all activists were put in jail, which meant that it was very difficult for any force to be strong enough to face the Israelis when they occupied Palestine.
The revolution was welcomed in the Arab world and we had the Algerian example to follow. The Algerians fought an armed struggle and gained their independence from France. It gave us some hope that we could do this ourselves.
However, the Israelis kept launching attacks against Palestinian military bases in Jordan and by 1970 we were driven out and we went to Lebanon. We needed time to reorganise but what happened was that Israel attacked us in 1972 in Lebanon. In 1973 it was the turn of the Lebanese Army. In 1975 there was a civil war in Lebanon and we were forced to take part in it. This war went on until 1978, when once again Israel invaded Lebanon and occupied Lebanon. Then 1982 marked the end for armed struggle, as Israel occupied Lebanon and Palestinian fighters had to leave for other countries. This created a depressing atmosphere for people in the diaspora. On the other hand, those in the occupied territories who had also gained the experience of resisting occupation were sent to jail in their thousands.
How did the Palestinians deal with this situation?
The Intifada broke out in Palestine in 1978. This was a defining point. It was a new stage of resistance with people going out in the streets facing the Israeli Army with the might of their weaponry. Many were killed, many were deported, many were put in jail, but the Intifada showed the real nature of Israel. Before that, Israel was considered a democratic state in a region of dictatorships.
What about the role of women? In the West there is a belief that women are not allowed to take part as much as men in social or political life in the Middle East or in Arab countries. Is it that the reality in Palestine?
Generally, Palestinian women are examples for women in struggle around the world because women were involved since the beginning of the resistance to the occupation.
How is life in Palestine under Israel's occupation?
You have heard about the wall. We call it the Apartheid wall. It represents the political system. Although they say that we have to stop our resistance and to live in peace, we ask what kind of peace with a wall which took much of our land?, that cut the cities from each other, the people from each other. Although the International Court of Justice in the Hague reached a decision that this was an illegal wall that should be stopped, the Israeli response was to turn their back on the law and continue building the wall. From now until the end of September they will be surrounding Jerusalem, which will mean that Palestinians living in Jerusalem will be prevented from travelling to the West Bank without military permission, and those in the West Bank will not be able to travel to Jerusalem anymore.
Israel is banking on Palestinians accepting any solution, but this is not possible without addressing the question of the refugees. And I mean accepting the UN resolution that Palestinian refugees have the right to go back to their homeland. Then there is the question of the sovereignty of the land. We said that we accept that if Israel implements the UN resolution and accepts the return of the refugees, the second drive of the Palestinians is for self-determination and to establish their own state in Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. Until now, Israel keeps denying these rights to Palestinians.
How is all this affecting those living in the occupied territories?
Have you ever heard in history of human beings being assassinated by planes, but in Israel? A bullet is all that is necessary to kill a human being. However, they carry out these assassinations against activists and leaders, and innocent people are killed because they happen to be walking the road near the target. There is not the same fuss as when a Palestinian kid goes and blows him or herself up in Israel. Why is it that if there is a bomb in Israel you hear that there are innocent Israelis killed or injured while the treatment of the Palestinian who get killed is different? We are talking about Palestinian children. All of you have seen the images of six-year-old Mohammed while he was hiding behind his father. His father was shot and he was killed. Israelis kill a lot of children, even while they are sitting in their school. In many of our schools there are pictures placed on chairs to mark the spot where the children were killed while attending class. This is another kind of punishment against Palestinians.
What about checkpoints? Imagine that in an area of less that 20,000 square kilometres there are more than 200 checkpoints. So if you want to travel from one place to another, it will take hours. So people, when they want to go to work need to leave two or three hours earlier because the Israelis will not allow them to pass. Many lose their jobs.
And then, the humiliation at the checkpoints is something else. They keep the people waiting under the sun. If someone complains, they get beaten up and abused in front of the others. Many women have lost their children at checkpoints. I knew this woman who lived in Nablus and she went into labour. Her husband and father accompanied her to hospital. The Israelis took her out of the car by herself, because they did not believe she was given birth, but that she had explosives. They killed her father and husband. She gave birth at the checkpoint. She was asking for help but the soldiers ignored her. In the morning, they allowed her to go to hospital. This is one of many stories. Many people die because soldiers do not allow them access to medical attention. Children going to school are forced to open their schoolbags at gunpoint, and we are witnessing many psychological problems in Palestinian schoolchildren.
During the last few years, thousands of houses have been demolished, which means that hundreds of families are now homeless. And that means not only the destruction of the house but also that people are not allowed to live in their own house, so they become destitute and have to live in relatives houses.
How has Palestinian struggle changed, if at all, since the death of Yasser Arafat?
I do not think that the struggle has changed because occupation is still there, it did not change. What has been added to the struggle is that PLO leadership is negotiating with the Israelis; this is the only thing that happened. Other than that, we have witnessed that after the Oslo Agreement, Israel is still practicing its policies of occupation and hostility to the Palestinians. And the Palestinians retaliated by defending themselves, by holding their guns again.
We witnessed how Arafat was pushed aside, although he was the one who signed the Oslo Accords. Previous to that there was an international conference in Madrid to discuss the situation in the region. The aim behind the gathering was to foster negotiations between Arab countries and Israel. They did not invite a Palestinian delegation to attend, but there were Palestinians as part of the Jordanian delegation. Then, they accepted that a Palestinian team could attend negotiations in Washington, but those negotiations did not go anywhere. The negotiations were called the "corridor negotiations" because the Israeli and Palestinian delegations did not agree upon the agenda, so they went out and spoke in the corridors. However, at the same time there were secret channels, and in 1993 it was clear there was an agreement in Oslo between Israeli and Palestinian, and accords were signed in the US. This brought the end to the first Intifada. It meant that the US wanted to restore the face of Israel as a democracy and that Israel wanted peace. But what we have witnessed in the last ten years is how Israel has re-occupied the towns and cities and how they have pulled out of the accords.
This is why Arafat refused to accept the withdrawal of the demand for Palestinian refugees to come back to Palestine and for Jerusalem to become the capital of a future Palestinian state. Any settlement that does not discuss these two issues will not come to any positive conclusion and will bring further bloodshed.
In every negotiation the United States has acted as a mediator, as an honest broker. Who else do you believe could play that role?
The honest peoples of the world, the peace loving people. And there are governments that support us. We are patient enough. We will work to raise awareness about our situation so we can get further international support.
There has been an evolution in our political ideas since the 1970s, as you admit that you now accept the right of the Israeli state to exist and the possibility of co-existing with it.
The only way out of this conflict is to find a just solution, and just solutions always will be permanent ones, unjust solutions will not stick. The just solution is that there is to be a democratic state in Palestine for all of us — Palestinians and Israelis.
Would you go back to a Haifa under Israeli rule today if you were allowed to?
Of course. Yes. Without any hesitation. It is my right to.
And do you think the majority of Palestinian would do likewise?
They would. If they were given the chance they would go back even if they have to live next to Israelis. Think that part of our people is still living in Israel now, and they hold Israeli passports. Of course, they are not treated equally to Israelis, but even so, at least they remain in the land. And this is very important for the identity. The Zionists wanted Israel to be a pure Jewish state and they denied the existence, the presence of Palestinians within its limits. Nowadays there are 1,200,000 Palestinians living within Israel, so they cannot be denied anymore.
Do you believe that there is still room for armed struggle in a post 9/11 world?
Armed struggle is not something that people take up willingly. We are obliged to hold arms. Now, whenever Israel stops its occupation, we will throw our arms away. It is only natural that where there is occupation there is resistance. We will not give our arms up until Israel goes out of Palestine. No one can blame us or judge us because we are holding our arms. Since 1967 and since 1948 Israel has turned its back on international law, violated our right to return to our land, to self-determination, to create our own state with Jerusalem as its capital. So, unless Israel recognises our rights and treats us accordingly, we will not stop our resistance.
How do you think the solution to the conflict could be achieved?
We are the ones looking for peace, because we are the ones who are not living in peace. We are the diaspora. We are not allowed to go back to our homeland. Although there is a United Nations resolution that calls upon Israel to accept the return of the Palestinians to their home and to their properties in territories occupied by Israel post 1948, as a condition that Israel will be accepted and recognised as a member of the UN. Unfortunately, according to the balance of forces, Israel was accepted as a member of the international community although refugees remain refugees.
We understand the balance of forces that made this possible but that does not mean we are going to quit our rights. That is why even Yasser Arafat, who signed the accords was not accepted by the Israelis or US administrations because they did not consider him as a good participant in their negotiations.
What can we do in support of the Palestinian cause?
We are asking people to get the facts of what is happening in Palestine. Then it is to extend their solidarity to Palestinian people. But we are also looking for justice. We would like a similar campaign to that that was run against the South African Government during the Apartheid regime, because that is what Israel is — an Apartheid government. They not only despise the Palestinians, but also those who were brought from Ethiopia, the Falashas, are not treated as equal citizens because they are black Jews. Is that not Apartheid even against its own people?
We believe it is time to punish Israel. It is time to pressurise that state to stop ignoring international law, to stop violating human rights, building the wall and expanding the settlements.
Israel does not accept any role for the European Union, but if there was a strong policy position, a strong attitude by the EU, Israel, which has many vested interests in the EU, will change. We are telling the EU, which was responsible for the building of much of the infrastructure in Palestine, to at least ask Israel to compensate for the destruction of it. But they would not do even that.