"We’re here to see the rais, the leader,” my driver Tariq told the guard who stopped us at the large white gate. “We have an appointment.”
The guard bent over and peered into the taxi at me, and proceeded to make a phone call. After a few minutes of waiting, we were admitted. The relatively grandiose white, four-story building, with its ample slabs of marble and large panes of glass, seemed to be designed to stand out against the comparably drab apartment buildings and assorted small businesses that make up the skyline of al-Ram, a Palestinian neighborhood just south of Ramallah.
Construction on the Palestinian Football Association’s headquarters had been completed just six months before. Money was set aside for the project from the Palestinian Authority’s coffers, and it also received an injection of cash from FIFA, the world football governing body. Adjacent to the PFA headquarters is the renovated Faisal al-Husseini International Stadium, with astroturf and seating for 12,500 football fans.
Palestinians were introduced to football by the British, who ruled these parts after World War I – and it has been a popular sport ever since.
In a sense, here was another monument to the PA’s ability to build institutions and take on the trappings of any “normal” country. But Rami Nasrallah, founder and head of the International Peace and Cooperation Center, noted wryly that the fostering of a cadre of Palestinian ultras modeled after Beitar Jerusalem was hardly a constructive way of empowering the community.
“The only Israeli niche that Palestinians should respect and emulate is technology. We look to your health system, hi-tech and economy – those are the things we should be focusing on.”
I was here to meet Gen. Jibril Rajoub, a senior member of Fatah’s Central Committee and chairman of the Palestinian Football Association. He is one of a handful of potential candidates to become Palestinian president when the present leader, Mahmoud Abbas, 79, a heavy smoker with a long history of health problems, either steps down or dies. Rajoub recently made headlines when, at the request of Abbas, he traveled to Tehran to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
That meeting took place on January 27, four days after I met with Rajoub.
The visit to Iran, the first of its kind by a Fatah official in years, took place on the backdrop of Hamas’s falling out with Tehran over the Islamic Republic’s support for Syrian President Basher Assad’s regime.
The meeting also seemed to signal that Fatah was exploring political avenues that could set it on a collision course with Israel.
Rajoub noted in an interview with Iranian TV that Abbas’s message to the Iranian leaders included congratulations for Tehran’s “wisdom” in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program and international sanctions. The Palestinians, Rajoub said, consider the sanctions and embargo to be “unjust.” He added that Fatah was “interested in creating and building bridges of communication with Iran.”
Just a few days after the meeting, I called Rajoub and asked him about it. I reached him in Jordan, on his way back to Ramallah.
He told me that Palestinians were entitled to seek all channels to recruit support for their cause.
“I don’t need your [Israeli] permission, or the permission of anyone else.”
As I entered the PFA’s headquarters accompanied by several of Rajoub’s people, I noticed a large photograph of Rajoub on the wall. He was wearing a keffiyeh and holding a soccer ball. This was part of Rajoub’s fiefdom. It was populated by sycophants who received monthly salaries thanks to Rajoub’s strong position in the PA, and his good relations with Abbas, which go back to the years preceding the 1993 Olso Accords, when key Fatah members were exiled to Tunis. In 2011, Reuters reported that the PFA had an annual budget of $6 million and employed 30.
Arriving early, I was ushered into Rajoub’s deputy’s office and served coffee. A young woman named Rawan Arikat from the east Jerusalem neighborhood Abu Dis, who is the association’s international relations officer, kept me company while I waited for Rajoub to arrive. She told me about games played by Palestinian teams against Qatar and Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq and the Philippines. At the time we spoke, the Hebron-based Shabab al-Dhahiriya, considered the best Palestinian team, was slated to play Kyrgyzstan’s FC Alay Osh in the qualifying playoffs for the Asian Football Confederation Cup.
Arikat also told me about the difficulties she experienced dealing with Israeli security restrictions. She told me about a soccer player on a Palestinian team from Gaza who at the time we spoke had been detained for nearly a month in Jordan, for no apparent reason.
Israel’s denial of travel visas to Palestinian players and officials is a continued source of tension. This policy, which Israel says is in place for security reasons, forced the Palestinian team to forfeit its place in qualification for the 2010 World Cup. Last year, teams from Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq had difficulties arriving for a Palestinian-hosted youth tournament. On several occasions, Rajoub has called on FIFA president Stepp Blatter to suspend the Israeli soccer association and its teams from international soccer games. He did so most recently at the beginning of February during a meeting with Blatter in Zurich.
Eventually, we got word that Rajoub had arrived. A Palestinian TV crew working for a Saudi sports news agency came into the room. I was told that Rajoub would give the TV crew a short interview, and then it would be my turn. We were all ushered into Rajoub’s huge office, adorned with trophies and pictures of Yasser Arafat and Abbas on the walls. After a few minutes, Rajoub sat down for our interview.
I was struck by how thin he had become.
I later learned that he had won a battle with cancer waged in a hospital in London, but had lost a few dozen kilograms in the process.
I remembered him as a burly man with a gravelly voice who bore a striking similarity to Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Rajoub, who grew in a town named Dura near Hebron, has a long history of militant activism. In 1970, at the age of 16, he was imprisoned for terrorist activities that he declined to elaborate upon. He was only willing to say that reports that he threw what turned out to be a dud grenade at a bus were inaccurate. Even before his arrest, Rajoub distinguished himself for his organizational ability, helping to build Fatah terror cells throughout the Hebron hills. In the Eshel prison in Beersheba, he rose to a leadership position.
Rajoub told me that at the age of 21, while in prison, he translated Menachem Begin’s book The Revolt from Hebrew to Arabic. Besides its autobiographical parts, the book also traces the development of the Irgun from its early days in the 1930s, through its years of violent struggle during the British Mandate period. The relevance of the book for Rajoub was obvious. The Revolt was, after all, a story about how Rajoub’s bitter enemies – the Jews – had succeeded in achieving national liberation using terror, among other methods.
In 1985, after Israel freed him as part of a prisoner exchange, Rajoub returned to Fatah work, building on his wide network of ex-prisoners to strengthen the Tanzim, Fatah’s terrorist cells on the West Bank.
When the first intifada broke in 1987, he was one of the leaders. He was soon arrested and deported, eventually ending up in Tunis, where he developed a close relationship with Arafat.
In the 1990s Rajoub, who became the single-most-important secret police official in Arafat’s police state, was involved in negotiations with Israel within the framework of the Oslo talks. In the 2012 movie The Gatekeepers, former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yaakov Peri describes his shock at meeting Rajoub in Geneva, not as a wanted terrorist whom he must arrest but as human, a negotiating partner “whose desire for peace and quiet, whose desire for an agreement is no less ambitious than yours.”
Throughout the 1990s, until the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, Rajoub was Israel’s ostensible partner in the war against Islamic terror, and he fostered close relations with several IDF officials – some of which he has retained to this day. (A retired IDF general facilitated my meeting with Rajoub.) With his fluent Hebrew learned during his stint in prison and his close coordination with Israel on security issues, Rajoub was sometimes jokingly referred to be his Israeli counterparts as “Gavriel Regev,” a Hebraization of his name.
He began the interview by asking me how old I was and where I was from. We talked a little about San Diego, California, which seemed at the time so far away, not just geographically. He mentioned there was a large Palestinian community there. I mentioned I used to surf.
“Oh yes,” he exclaimed. “Very nice.”
Pleasantries aside, Rajoub lost no time making it clear that from his perspective, the reawakening of a potentially violent national resistance movement against Israel with the objective of gaining Palestinian national independence was a very possible scenario. Barring any significant changes in Israeli policies and stances vis-à-vis Palestinian statehood, Rajoub estimated, the Palestinians were headed for another round of potentially violent resistance.
“All the options are open,” said Rajoub.
“The Israelis should not, and have no right to think, they can continue the occupation, can continue the humiliation, can continue to build settlements, to undermine the creation of a Palestinian state and at the same to have security. No way. All the options are open.”
Including a military action? “All the cards are on the table.”
Even using violence? “Excuse me, excuse me. This is not violence and the terror is the settlers. The violence is the settlements, the humiliation of the people. The worst kind of terror – let us define what is terror and terrorism. Israel is practicing official terrorism against the Palestinians: settlements, the confiscation of lands creating facts on the ground, as if the territory belongs to the State of Israel and as if the Palestinians are slaves for the Israelis.”
Rajoub said that one way of averting the violence would be for the Israeli peace camp to organize and unite with Palestinians against the occupation and for the two-state solution, and for the international community to put pressure on Israel.
This would prevent Palestinians from losing hope, he said.
“This is, for me, the preferable tool. But if we are isolated, if we are pushed into a corner, if the face of Israel is [leader of the far- Right Jewish National Front party] Baruch Marzel, [Likud MK Moshe] Feiglin, [Bayit Yehudi head Naftali] Bennett, if this is Israel, and some Palestinians do see all of Israel as the crazy statements of [Deputy Defense Minister] Danny Danon or Feiglin or [Likud MK Miri] Regev, all those crazies, then don’t expect that we will act as if we are Martin Luther King… don’t expect roses.”
Rajoub’s pessimistic forecast might be a ploy to put pressure on Israel. However, coming from someone with intimate knowledge of security matters on the West Bank, it should not be taken lightly.
Nor is Rajoub the only one making such doomsday projections. True, some Palestinians I spoke with such as Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian National Initiative and Nidal Foqaha, executive director of the Palestinian Peace Coalition – Geneva Initiative, were calling for a combination of local activism -- such as non-violent demonstrations to obstruct settlement construction or challenge checkpoints – and international activities such as petitioning the International Criminal Court or passing measures against Israel in the UN General Assembly. But the International Peace and Cooperation Center’s Nasrallah told me that it was unrealistic to believe that a third intifada, if it were to break out, would be anything like the first intifada, in which rock throwing and Molotov cocktails were the primary weapons, not guns and suicide bombings.
“The fact that there are weapons in the hands of Palestinian security forces in Gaza and the West Bank means that Israel will defuse attempts at using these weapons in the event of an intifada. So the Palestinians have no chance to keep this intifada as popular and non-violent. That was what happened during the second intifada.”
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Dov F. Sedaka, who served as the head of the IDF Civil Administration during the second intifada and is today a senior adviser at the Economic Cooperation Federation, told me that Abbas needs one of two things to maintain political stability: negotiations or elections.
“Otherwise the situation will begin to deteriorate on the Palestinian street.”
In recent weeks, Sedaka and other IDF officials past and present spent a weekend in Tel Aviv with a group of Palestinian security officials, past and present. During the three-day meeting, the main message coming from the Palestinians was one of frustration, who said they were disheartened with day-to-day “occupation” under an Israeli regime that restricts mobility in an apparently arbitrary manner, even for the highest-ranking Palestinian security officials, and discriminates between Jewish and Palestinian regarding construction and water allocation.
But according to Sedaka, Palestinian security officials’ frustration was highest when it came to coordination arrangements with the IDF. Security coordination between the IDF and the PA is very good.
But, as was the case before the second intifada, Palestinians are increasingly viewing PA security forces as collaborators, one of the worst accusations that can be leveled at a fellow Palestinian.
“What bothers them, what drives them crazy, is that they will suddenly see an IDF jeep arrive at the Mukata [the seat of the PA’s government institutions and the burial place of Yasser Arafat] without prior warning, without coordination and without any reason. This embarrasses them because people on the Palestinian street say to them, ‘What do we need you for, if the IDF jeeps are here?’” If negotiations fail and Palestinian elections continue to be postponed due to the split between Hamas and Fatah, pressure will build for Palestinians to take to the streets in protest. And PA security personnel will find it increasingly difficult to maintain order without being accused by their fellow Palestinians of being collaborators.
Rajoub faced similar dilemmas during the years he served as one of the most senior security officials on the West Bank. On one hand, the various security forces that were created in the wake of Oslo instilled Palestinians with a sense of national pride and a measure of autonomy. On the other hand, these security forces were also under pressure from Israel to crack down on Palestinian terrorists planning attacks against Israelis. In Rajoub’s case, this pitted him not only against his people, but against his own family: Rajoub’s younger brother, Sheikh Nayef Rajoub, is a leading Hamas imam who has in the past supported suicide bombings.
During the 1990s, Rajoub did not obey every Israeli demand to round up known Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists after terrorist attacks. However, during the second intifada that broke out in October 2000, IDF officials who knew him at the time say he opposed violent attacks against Israel.
That’s why Rajoub has never forgiven Israel for destroying the headquarters of the preventive security forces in Beitunia, a town just west of Ramallah, in the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield.
And Rajoub is particularly bitter over the shelling of his house in el-Balua, a neighborhood adjacent to Ramallah, on May 20, 2001. He told me he had just emerged from the shower, and had he remained under the water a little longer he would no longer be among the living. And this was at a time when Rajoub claimed he was openly opposed to violent attacks against Israelis and the militarization of what had begun as a popular uprising, and knew that nothing good would come of it.
“Never in my life did I support attacking civilian targets, even when I was on the decision-making side. Never did I support attacking civilians.”
What is a civilian? “This is not my discussion right now, but when we go to war, war is war.”
Are settlers considered civilians? “Settlers are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They should go back and enjoy Beersheba, the Negev, the Galilee.”
Even in places like Upper Modi’in, which are located just over the Green Line? “The [pre-] 1967 borders should be the borders of Israel and Palestine, with no land swaps. Land swaps are a dirty game used by the Israelis. We agreed in 2000 to land swaps, but you are using them to reach the Jordan River. Don’t misuse the issue of land swaps.”
Rajoub repeats that he never gave a green light to an attack in which an innocent person would be hurt.
What is innocent? Is it settlers? “No, innocent is not settlers. But they are victims of the Israeli crazy policy. I never supported an attack on a bus of civilians.”
What is a civilian? “Attacking a school, attacking a hospital, attacking a university.”
Is it alright to attack a school in a settlement? “Don’t ask me if it is a school in a settlement, I don’t want to answer you but you can understand whatever you want. Because this is what I believe, whether you like it or not.”
In Palestinian political constellations, Rajoub is considered a moderate. He is personally opposed to armed struggle, and has been for some time, though it is unclear what his position is regarding terrorist attacks on settlers. He favors a two-state solution to the conflict through bilateral talks. And he is willing to join forces with the Israeli peace camp to prevent a scenario in which violence breaks out on the West Bank.
However, the term “moderate” is relative.
In recent years, Rajoub has made quite a number of extreme statements. He has called Netanyahu a “dog,” has blamed Israel for poisoning Arafat and on his Facebook page, there is a picture of him with a boy in his arms who is holding a rifle.
I was particularly interested in comments in which he compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazi regime. He justified the comments by claiming that his people were living in “concentration camps.” The Israeli policy, he said, is to “delete Palestine from the political map, to end the existence of the Palestinian people… go wherever you want to go, and see how much we are humiliated and how much we are suffocated by this occupation, by this regime. It is even worse than any policy in the history of mankind. I do not think it is fair for the Israelis to do the same that… the Palestinians are not responsible for the Holocaust. We are not part of that.
What do you expect from us?” There were times during our interview when Rajoub’s animosity toward Israel and its policies on the West Bank was so palpable that I began to feel uncomfortable. I realized that besides my driver Tariq, who was probably not downstairs waiting for me but busy taking fares inside al-Ram to make a few extra shekels, I was completely alone.
While Rajoub’s comparisons to the Holocaust were baseless, his anger was real. And anger was a theme that came up again and again in conversations with other Palestinians as well. The day-to-day reality created is unsustainable. As long as negotiations drag on, a complete deterioration in the situation is unlikely. But where will negotiations lead? Rajoub repeated the same positions on borders, Jerusalem and refugees that most Palestinians favoring a two-solution hold.
The 1949 armistice line should be the point of reference, with even minor adjustments for settlement blocs highly problematic – since, claims Rajoub, they are being used by Israel to grab more and more land. A just resolution of the refugee question must be negotiated in accordance with UN resolution 194, and east Jerusalem must be made the capital of the future Palestinian state.
Rajoub was one of several high-ranking Fatah officials, including chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Yasser Abed Rabbo, who took part in an ad campaign back in the summer of 2010 launched by the Geneva Initiative and financed mainly by Americans. Using short video clips and large billboard and newspaper ads, Rajoub, Erekat and Abed Rabbo spoke directly to Israelis: “We are partners for peace. What about you?” I asked Rajoub if he still backed the Geneva Initiative, which broadly adhered to the sort of solution outlined by Rajoub in our interview, though it included the annexation of large settlement blocs such as Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion, and Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Givat Ze’ev and Pisgat Ze’ev – which, for Rajoub, are obstacles to peace.
“I think it is a good beginning. The question should be to [Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.”
While it is true that Netanyahu and his present coalition would never accept the Geneva Initiative, it is equally true that there are many on the Palestinian side – including Rajoub – who have major problems with certain aspects of the initiative as well. Settlement blocs came up specifically in our talks. I will deal more with the question of Jerusalem in my interview with Mahmoud al-Habbash, religious affairs minister in the PA.
There is a yawning, seemingly unbridgeable divide between the sides. No amount of enthusiastic shuttling between the sides by US Secretary of State John Kerry will disguise this fact. If and when talks break down, will Rajoub’s forecast of violence materialize? Only time will tell.
Next Sunday another installment in an ongoing series about the two-state solution will appear in which Mati Wagner will interview Mahmoud al-Habbash, religious affairs minister in the Palestinian Authority.