RAMALLAH - Ahmad Shami is the spokesperson to the Office of the Palestinian Authority's Prime Minister, Dr. Rami Hamdallah. He received a Master’s Degree in conflict resolution from George Mason University following his Bachelor’s Degree at Birzeit University. Shami speaks to The Media Line’s Felice Friedson in his first exclusive interview.
THE MEDIA LINE: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared the American administration incapable of being an honest broker and therefore unwelcome to participate in the peace-making process. The American peace-making team headed by Jared Kushner seems unfazed and is apparently trying to reach out to the populace instead of the government. Can this strategy succeed?
SHAMI: The Palestinian leadership and also the Palestinian government have worked with the American administration for years based on clear [support for] the two-state solution, backed up by international law. This is how the interim agreements were signed.
The transition took place with the last couple of speeches from the Obama administration and [former US Secretary of State] John Kerry. Those speeches reiterated the importance of the two-state solution and that formula set the relationship between the Palestinian leadership and the American administration.
Since President Trump took over and recently with the baseless declaration regarding Jerusalem, things have changed. The American administration understands the importance of Jerusalem as the key pillar of the two-state solution and the importance of Jerusalem to the Palestinian people. If they don’t understand that they can go back to the signed agreement that states it clearly. However, the Jerusalem issue is the final negotiation issue. It has never been that a country can unilaterally decide the capital for another country. It doesn’t work like that.
Palestinian leadership took decisions regarding Trump because of the unilateral and baseless declaration recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the occupation; the use of its veto against the Security Council resolution that came out of the great marches in the Gaza Strip; and what we see as blackmail in cutting UNRWA funding which is supported by UN resolutions and international law.
These, plus the withdrawal from the Human Rights Council, are clear signs that today the Trump administration has disqualified itself as an honest mediator to the peace process. The Palestinian government and the Palestinian leadership are still committed to the peace process. However, they are ready to re-start relations with the US only if Trump Administration goes back from the declaration regarding Jerusalem.
We see it today that the Trump Administration is also taking the front seat in the Netanyahu government; sponsoring the Israeli violations, denying international protection for unarmed citizens in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
THE MEDIA LINE: The Americans and Israelis both counter that because the embassy has moved does not prejudice final negotiations regarding Jerusalem. How do you respond to that?
SHAMI: Jerusalem is key to the two-state solution and it’s the eternal capital of the Palestinian people. This is known, it’s not going to change. Moving the embassy, is again taking the driving seat of Netanyahu and killing the two-state solution.
THE MEDIA LINE: Can you see Jerusalem as an international city as many have suggested? Could you see that as a two-state solution?
SHAMI: My reference is international law; my reference is signed agreements. When you talk about Jerusalem, I’ll tell you…The Trump administration violates many resolutions of United Nations and international law, violating the interim agreement of 1995, exactly article 7 for example. Then you are talking about violating the law of the Fourth Geneva Convention when it comes to that decision. It talks about violating all the United Nations resolutions guarding the Palestinian rights. When you talk about Jerusalem you are talking about Palestinian citizens living there. You are talking about resolutions signed for east Jerusalem to be the capital of Palestine…so in the end of the day our reference is international law. What international law says about the two-state solution is what Jerusalem needs to be.
THE MEDIA LINE: Again, I would remind you that Israelis will tell you the opposite and then we are caught in the “he said, she said” scenario.
SHAMI: It’s not about the “she said” or “he said.” International law is the defining factor. We believe in securing our rights diplomatically through international law and we are sticking to that. We believe in our rights in Jerusalem, we believe in our rights to live in an independent state, living side by side by Israel, and neither Netanyahu nor the Trump administration can come now and reinvent the wheel.
I wanted to start this interview with Prime Minister Dr. Rami Hamdallah’s vision for the Palestinian people so we see our own responsibility before assessing others. What is the responsibility of the government towards the Palestinian people is summed up in three major pillars: 1.) That we are here as a government to lead the Palestinian people to their independent ambition and independent state. It’s our responsibility to do so. 2.) The second is to lead reform and build our institutions – improving the quality of services Palestinians receive. 3.) Third is sustainable development, strengthening their resilience, with special attention paid to Palestinian residents of “Area C” [per the Oslo Accords – ed.].
World Bank reports suggest that “If Israel allows the Palestinians to benefit from Area C, which makes 60% of the area which is the West Bank and is under Israeli military control, investment in this area would bring in $3.5 billion a year to the Palestinians.”
THE MEDIA LINE: Is there an alternative to American oversight of the peace process; and state or states that can really replace that iconic American role as a peacemaker? Perhaps the European Union or France?
SHAMI: Great question…I’m delighted you asked rather than telling me there is. Europe and the UN have played a big role in pursuing Palestinian rights for years. You see the decision of Sweden to recognize the state of Palestine; so yes and there are many initiatives such as the recent French initiative that are trying to pick up the peace process along with the initiative of President Abbas to hold an international peace conference based on a two-state solution.
THE MEDIA LINE: If Israel doesn’t plan to come to the table how do you move forward – who is the alternate broker?
SHAMI: It’s an initiative that we called for. We’re still committed to peace. But I’ll tell you, yes, we accept not only Europe, we accept the international community, we accept international law and Europe to fill the position of an honest mediator to the peace process. It’s not the responsibility only of the United States, it’s the responsibility of the international community to stand and protect a defenseless nation under occupation.
Today we are trying our best to still serve as a government, serve our citizens, support them and that’s why I call the Palestinian government a super government. The Palestinian government is not only functioning to support, to reform, to provide services, area C, Jerusalem, etc. but also to stand tall still under the occupation and lead Palestinians to independence.
But going back to filling the shoes of the mediator, I’m talking about Europe. I think it’s the moral responsibility of the international community and specifically Europe to fill the shoes of the mediator.
THE MEDIA LINE: Are you talking about Europe as an entity or are you talking about certain European countries?
SHAMI: You know, we highly respect the decisions of many of the European countries that stood for Palestine and the EU. They played a key role in supporting Palestinian rights, but I’ll tell you the specific steps that we look for from Europe. To actually to fill the role vacated by Washington they must take immediate measures to make Israel accountable for its violations; vote for Palestinian resolutions at the United Nations and all its institutions; take quick steps to end the 11-years of siege on Gaza; take quick steps to stop the Israeli violations in Area C, especially the so-called E1 plan that would confiscate Jerusalem and split and isolate the West Bank into two parts. And in the end, it must support providing international protection for the Palestinian people and recognizing their rights for an independent Palestine…we are not reinventing the wheel.
THE MEDIA LINE: Is there a boycott of the United States in effect right now?
SHAMI: The boycott was because of the Jerusalem declaration, UNRWA funding and other matters I mentioned before. If these are reversed, we are ready to incorporate the U.S. government into the peace process. Jerusalem and Palestinian rights are key pillars.
THE MEDIA LINE: Is the decision to press charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court a good strategy and what can realistically could come out of it?
SHAMI: We’ve been living under dispossession for 70 years and occupation for 51 years. The United Nations is there, but not one single Israeli official has been prosecuted for committing a crime against the Palestinian people. The Israelis have been committing crimes against our people with no accountability, an increasing gap of impunity, zero protection. The Palestinians are part of the ICC like any other of the 123 plus countries who are by the mandate and the definition of the ICC and the reason it was created is to actually protect nations against so many violations and crimes against humanity. I see it as an important step for the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian government to actually take serious steps in asking the ICC to hold Israel accountable for its violations and crimes. And I’ll tell you, when we approach the ICC, we are not seeking revenge. We are seeking justice.
THE MEDIA LINE: Could it work two ways? Could it open the door to actions against Palestinians?
SHAMI: When we go to the ICC and we are talking about the illegal settlements expansion, the recent illegal destruction of the school in Khan- Al Ahmar. You are talking about violations against humanity. We are talking about crimes and violations on a daily basis. What we expect from the international community is to support our efforts to open an official investigation. The reason for going to the ICC is to protect our people. We are not seeking revenge, we are seeking justice. At the end of the day, I believe that our strategy to the ICC is the biggest test of morality and credibility to the international law. We want to be part of international law. We want to be a part of the institution that gives us the right to exercise our rights. What we’re doing is natural, what we’re doing is something that will provide protection to our people and we refuse 100% to be the exception.
THE MEDIA LINE: Couldn’t Israel say, “Why should I go to the ICC? You know there are violations that the Palestinians have done against Israelis?"
SHAMI: Palestinians are the people who are under occupation, not the opposite. Israel is violating international law, clearly. What violations are you are talking about when you are talking about hundreds of Palestinians unarmed who are killed in Gaza at the great marches? You are talking about Palestinian children, Palestinian youth, unarmed, defenseless beings shot by live ammunition and then Israel has an immunity to protect it and then the Palestinian people are denied international protection. We demand our rights. We are part of an institution, we are part of humanity, we are part of international law. We want protection for our people, we’re denied protection. We have to go to the ICC. We have responsibility as a government, as a leadership to provide protection to our people. We will use and utilize any mechanism of international law or any United Nations mechanism to provide protection for our people.
THE MEDIA LINE: Children are going to “Days of Rage” and they are throwing rocks, that’s OK under international law? Peaceful marches are…
SHAMI: They are peaceful marches…
THE MEDIA LINE: I’ve seen they are throwing rocks…..how do you define that?
SHAMI: I think you should go back to the definition and the history of non-violent movements. The great marches that took place in Gaza were not separated from the longest Palestinian non-violent movement that took stages through the Palestinian history.
THE MEDIA LINE: No, but come on...launching armed kites and other things that can be used as weapons; you always go back to again who started…
SHAMI: Let’s put things in reality…
THE MEDIA LINE: If you have a peaceful march and people are coming to march and they’re chanting and they’re marching, that’s one thing…
SHAMI: I again reaffirm that it was a peaceful march on a Palestinian land. We need to ask ourselves and you need to ask yourself why people are marching? People are marching for 11 years of siege. People are suffering from lack of basic human rights, they want their rights…you think people are going peacefully marching and getting killed on camera…
THE MEDIA LINE: Don’t you believe that the world watching knows the difference between a peaceful march and a march that might aggravate the situation?
SHAMI: I think anyone would be mistaken to question that the Palestinian people in Gaza cannot exercise their rights to peaceful demonstration. They were doing it at the great marches and Israeli occupation forces responded by shooting and killing young Palestinians.
THE MEDIA LINE: How do you respond to the armed kites? How do you respond to people going to the fence knowing that they are going to be shot? What do you tell young Palestinian youths about these things?
SHAMI: The world should put their shoes in the youth of Palestinian people in Gaza. What do you think is the situation of someone being born in Gaza? He’s seeing his future in front of him. Living under occupation, no rights, he can’t leave that prison. What people tended to do… is to have said that these marches are disconnected from the Palestinian non-violent movement and many other demonstrations taken place in the year.
THE MEDIA LINE: President Abbas is 83, the majority of Palestinians want new leadership. Is there a process in place that’s going to give rise to a new lead? What is the percentage today of young people living here?
SHAMI: 30%. Even if it’s a low percent or not, but I’ll tell you…the Israeli occupation is still the main obstacle in front of the Palestinian youth (18 to 30 years of age) to achieve their dreams. Our youth live under harsh conditions, with around 46% unemployed in Gaza and 20% in the West Bank under occupation.
Prime Minister Al-Hamdallah believes in our youth. Palestinian youth one day were children and seek to be part of humanity – not the opposite. Palestinian children are the only children born under occupation and excluded from them are their basic rights to proper education and movement.