Palestine’s political class is still the uncommunicative “awkward squad” it’s always been
I recently asked Hamas if Ismail Haniyeh would agree to do an email interview. I said I hadn’t seen a recent interview with Mr Haniyeh and thought it would be helpful to readers in the West if they knew more about the man and his hopes for the future.
No reply. So I repeated the request and included the 20 questions, suggesting that these might “provide an opportunity to forge a better understanding and state the case for peace”.
Again no reply.
I’ve had the same problem with the Fatah bunch. Six years ago, at the time of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s much-trumpeted “framework” for more lopsided peace talks between Mahmoud Abbas’s puppet administration and the Israelis, I asked Hanan Ashrawi of the Palestine Liberation Organisation for an interview and sent her some draft questions.
It’s a familiar story with Palestinian politicians – they treat the media, and even friendly journalists and writers, with contempt. Then they wonder why it’s Israel’s narrative that gets broadcast.
She was then (and presumably still is) a member of the PLO Executive Committee and highly articulate. Western activists regard her as a “good egg” and wish they could hear her speak on behalf of Palestinians more often.
I got no reply, and after repeating my request her media assistant asked me make contact again in a few weeks, which I did. But I heard nothing back, not even an acknowledgement. It’s a familiar story with Palestinian politicians – they treat the media, and even friendly journalists and writers, with contempt. Then they wonder why it’s Israel’s narrative that gets broadcast.
So, it is hardly surprising that Palestinians never make progress towards freedom. Indeed, that prospect is more distant than ever, despite having international law and most of world’s public opinion on their side. Losing so heavily, in the circumstances, is a remarkable achievement; so remarkable, you wonder if it’s deliberate. And whether Palestinian resistance is a sham.
I’ve been writing about the Palestinian struggle for 15 years, the same length of time Mahmoud Abbas has been in the driving seat in Palestine. In that long, grinding period I’ve had no help from Palestinian politicians or their bureaucrats. I find them an uncommunicative “awkward squad”, the very opposite of ordinary Palestinian folk who, in my experience, are warm and friendly and helpful. They must be wondering what they’ve done to deserve a political class that’s such crap.
Abbas has been a big noise in Palestinian affairs for decades. In 2003 Arafat appointed him prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Some say the West foisted Abbas on Arafat. A power struggle ensued, and after Arafat’s suspicious death in 2004 Abbas was seen as a natural successor.
Abbas’s term as President of the PNA officially ended in 2009 but the Basic Law allowed him an extension of one year whereupon he was voted into office indefinitely, the sort of thing usually seen in banana republics and often terminating in a bloodbath. He was also chosen as President of the State of Palestine by the PLO’s Central Council.
So, nobody else has had a look-in for 15 years, during which Palestinians have seen a continuous slide downhill while the Israelis’ colonisation and expansion programme goes from strength to strength with annexation of the West Bank imminent. Justice has never been allowed to play a part. Furthermore, Abbas has repeatedly given the Israelis time to cement their ill-gotten gains, readily agreeing to more bogus negotiations arranged by the same dishonest brokers.
And he inexplicably dragged his feet over joining the International Criminal Court.
During his over-long tenure Abbas has failed to unite the Palestinians under a single purposeful voice. On the contrary, he has driven the factions further apart by letting rip the old Fatah-Hamas rivalry. His regime fails to keep the world informed or make proper use of media opportunities.
He is not noted for tactical brilliance and his embassies in the West are lazy, uncommunicative and uncooperative, and behave as if under orders not to “make waves”. I myself was branded “an enemy of Palestine” by the London embassy, an insult I wear as a badge of honour.
Abbas seems to be the darling of the West and of Israel, and the Palestinian Authority under Abbas is frequently accused of collaborating with Israel in its brutal oppression. The Israelis are said to regard him as a strategic asset. They’d hate to lose him.
Hamas is usually blamed for any whiff of corruption but the Palestinian Authority is bursting with it. The confidential Palestine Papers, leaked by AlJazeera in 2011, revealed the shambolic conduct of the so-called peace process and how the Palestinian team allowed the Israelis to walk all over them, with US help. Then in 2015 a damning report by The Coalition for Accountability and Integrity (AMAN) titled Absolute Power, Total Corruption appeared. According to the commissioner-general, Azmi Shuaibi, “the cancellation of elections and the absence of the Legislative Council led to the president’s monopolising the three powers — legislative, judicial, executive — which has served as fertile soil for some cases of corruption.”
But even this catalogue of misbehaviour failed to hammer the final nail into Abbas’s political coffin. He’s still there, and the Palestinians’ position is dire.
Six years ago Hamas announced it had appointed bright, attractive 23-year-old Isra al Modallal as the media face of the resistance movement. She’d been at college in Bradford, Yorkshire, a part of England where people are noted for blunt speaking and their dry sense of humour. I remember thinking at the time that if Isra brought some of these qualities to Gaza it would stand her, and Hamas, in good stead.
Her arrival was supposed to be part of a “public transformation” for Hamas that included a new head of media, Ihab Ghussein, who was to “orchestrate a new government website”. So things were looking up, it seemed.
But has anyone here in the West noticed a transformation? And what about Hamas’s media office? Well, I’ve just experienced some of their rudeness.
The “20 Questions” I had put to Haniyeh’s are set out here:
20 Questions for Hamas chief
1) Well-wishers in the UK pray for Palestinians in Gaza who are facing the COVID-19 menace trapped under Israel’s cruel blockade without the necessary equipment, medication and protection for hospital staff. How bad is the situation with regard to public health in normal circumstances, and what should the international community be doing to help in the present crisis?
2) You were born in a refugee camp yet graduated from the Islamic University of Gaza, a remarkable achievement. How difficult was this for your parents – and for you growing up in those circumstances? What was family life like in those dark days?
3) And how difficult is it for ambitious students studying in Gaza today? Can they attend any of the West Bank universities? Can they leave to find a career abroad; and if the do, can they ever return?
4) After becoming involved in politics you were jailed several times by Israel and deported to southern Lebanon along with other key figures in Hamas such as Mahmoud al-Zahar. This must have been an important time in forming your political outlook. How did this exile prepare you for what followed?
5) You were close to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas. What are the most important lessons you learned from him?
6) Hamas was condemned throughout the West for its Charter, which contained ill-chosen words about Jews. It was a diplomatic suicide note. How has the revised Charter of 2017 been received around the world? And, given the lost ground in the propaganda battle with Israel, why did it take so long – 11 years – to produce a more acceptable document?
7) Winning the 2006 election fair and square provoked great hostility towards Hamas resulting in 14 years of unimaginable misery and hardship for the people of Gaza marginalized and starved by Israel’s blockade. How do you think history will judge the failure of the international community to intervene?
8) You have been targeted for assassination by Israel several times. Did they ever come close to eliminating you.
9) You succeeded Khaled Meshaal as Head of Hamas Politbureau in 2016. Was this a difficult act to follow? And how does your approach to the task differ from Meshaal’s?
10) Have you any regrets about your actions while in control of Gaza? Given the harsh conditions would you have done anything differently?
11) You were reported to have said that a Hamas government was prepared to accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders and to offer the Israelis a long-term truce if they recognised the Palestinians’ national rights, all in accordance with UN resolutions. Is this still your position?
12) The Palestinian cause has lost support in some quarters through endless Fatah-Hamas rivalry and a failure to unite. What is the answer to this?
13) Israel and the US regularly vilify Hamas by labelling it “Iran-backed” and linking it to Hezbollah. How close is your relationship with these two?
14) I met you briefly in Gaza in 2007 when Israel’s blockade was biting deep. Relations between Hamas and the Christian community seemed good at the time. I even heard that some Hamas ministers sent their children to the Catholic school. Is this still the case? And do Christians in Gaza have anything to fear from their Muslim neighbours?
15) Palestinian embassies in the West make no real attempt to compete against pro-Israel propaganda. If Hamas were in government how different would Palestinian diplomacy and media strategy be?
16) If Hamas had been permitted to exercise its democratic right to govern after winning the election in 2006, where would Palestine be today?
17) BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) is an increasingly important pillar in Palestine’s struggle for freedom and self-determination. What else would you like sympathisers in the West to do to help the cause?
18) Politicians in the West always talk of a negotiated peace and never of justice and international law. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, apparently quoting Ayatollah Khomeini, was reported saying that “the occupying regime in Jerusalem will vanish from the page of time”. Is that your belief also, or are you resigned to the likelihood that Muslims and Christians of the Holy Land will have to live with the Zionist regime indefinitely?
19) In your younger days you were a rising football star. Do you still follow the game? Israel bombed Gaza’s football stadium in 2006 and again in 2012. It was repaired by FIFA last year. Are you confident that Palestinian football can now move forward and the national team will be allowed to participate at international level without Israeli interference?
20) Following the democratic 2006 election Hamas’s team of ministers seemed, on paper, to be as talented and well-qualified as any running Western governments. If they had been allowed to show what they were made of and the Hamas government had enjoyed the recognition and freedom of movement of goods and people normally expected in an international setting, what would Gaza and the West Bank look like today, 14 years later?
If Haniyeh sees these and wishes to answer, he’s still welcome. But, as with anything political in Palestine, I’m not holding my breath.