Reform school: One on one with Rami Nasrallah

"According to Palestinian logic, when someone attacks or provokes me, my national pride is raised."

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
International Peace and Cooperation Center head Rami Nasrallah (no relation) has a gentle manner and soft-spoken discourse which belie a certain obstinacy of purpose. This is not surprising, perhaps, given the 37-year-old think tank director's point of view, based on years of research on civil society and the Middle East, with an emphasis on Jerusalem as a divided city. One might even liken the Palestinian intellectual's paradoxical position - promoting comprehensive reform in the PA on the one hand, and objecting to much of Israeli policy on the other - to that of the unwitting casualties of the Arab-Israel conflict it is his aim to alleviate. Caught, as it were, in the conceptual crossfire: simultaneously a member and analyst of two diverse worlds, yet an enthusiastic espouser of the premise that bridging the gaps is in the realm of possibility. "No one [in the PA] is talking about the destruction of Israel, even the mainstream of Hamas," he insists, during a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post - conducted in Hebrew - at his office in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood (ironically located on the corner of IZL and Lehi Streets). He emphasizes that the organization owed its landslide election to the Palestinians' opting for clean governance over corruption and chaos. That the results have been less than reassuring for both the PA and Israel Nasrallah attributes to a combination of factors, foremost among them what he considers to be a misguided focus on achieving national liberation first, and the creation of viable democratic institutions later. "I'm not ashamed to say that we have failed to imitate Israeli state-building," he says. As for the war in Lebanon: Though he views it as completely separate from the situation in Gaza, he draws some parallels between Hizbullah and Hamas, each of which he stresses is an integral part of the societies in which they operate. How has the war in the North affected the Palestinians? Unlike the Israelis, who view Hizbullah as solely a terrorist organization, the Palestinians see it as an integrative force which contributed positively to the people and state of Lebanon. They also think it is the Israeli strikes that damaged Lebanon's infrastructure, and did harm to its economy and citizens. These two factors led to the Palestinians' anti-war stance. What is the Palestinians' attitude toward the people of Lebanon? Solidarity - a sense that the Lebanese suffer from a similar kind of victimhood as they themselves suffer at the hands of Israel. Victims of whom? Syria? No, not of Syria - there was a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Nor even of Hizbullah, really. For many Lebanese, Hizbullah is a national movement and a major political and social player, much more than a group of fighters. More importantly, it is an established party integrated into Lebanon's political system. It also provides crucial social services - just as Hamas does in the PA. Of course, Hizbullah is more developed than Hamas. It has a mini-state inside Lebanon, with 40 percent of the population. This is something Israel doesn't grasp, because all that interests Israel is terrorism, by its own account. Should Israel be interested in something other than terrorism - such as Hizbullah's additional functions in Lebanon? Yes, for stability's sake. In the end, whether we like it or not, Hizbullah is an integral part of Lebanon's political system. I see no tension today between Hizbullah and the government or other political forces, including the Christians. Everybody keeps talking about the Iranian connection, but this is not exactly the way it's perceived. The Lebanese people - including Hizbullah - emphasize their Lebanese-ness. That they're willing to receive Syrian and Iranian aid doesn't change that fact. This is very similar to Hamas's situation. Up until the Palestinian elections, Hamas was an Islamist movement whose raison d'etre was "resistance," as defined by Palestinians. But the minute it became part of the political system, it wanted to be perceived by the public as a nationalist movement. It has no interest in turning the PA into an Islamist state - not in the near future, at least. I don't know what it has in mind for the long-run. In any case, the Lebanese and Palestinian arenas are totally separate. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel had no gripe with Lebanon or the Lebanese people, but rather was at war only with Hizbullah. Similarly, the Israeli government publicly makes a distinction between the PA and Hamas. But if, as you say, Hizbullah and Hamas are integral parts of their governments, shouldn't Israel be treating Lebanon and the PA as enemy states, rather than pinpointing Hizbullah and Hamas as isolated terrorist organizations that are as harmful to their own people as they are to Israel? In keeping with the same logic, why is Israel blamed for the casualties among "innocent" civilians? The fact is that in both cases, innocent civilians are indeed the victims. The victims of Israeli actions? Yes. There's an Israeli explanation for this, of course - the claim that the militants in both cases hide behind children. This is not entirely true, for the simple reason that they - as distinct from an organized army - are members of the public and live among it. The very nature of "popular resistance" is that it takes place among the population. If so, isn't the civilian population a legitimate target? When a populace behaves like an army, shouldn't it be treated as one? Civilians are never a legitimate target, whether Israeli or Lebanese. Are you saying that Israeli civilians and Lebanese civilians are morally equivalent in the current crisis? Absolutely. No moral or other distinction can be made between them. Do you believe the claim that Israel deliberately targets civilians? It's not my place to analyze IDF operations. All I know is that, intentional or not, civilians are getting hurt. Does it make no difference whether or not civilians are killed intentionally? Justifying an air strike which levels a populated building by saying there were weapons in that building doesn't make a difference to the people killed. Nor does it change the fact that civilians - Israelis and Lebanese equally - are the ones most harmed by the current war, just as Israeli and Palestinian civilians are hurt by the conflict in Israel. Let's talk about Palestinian civilians. It was they who put Hamas in power, after all. This was to protest the corruption of the incumbent leadership and the gang wars among some Fatah groups and the armed forces connected to them. They were frustrated with the lack of progress made by Fatah in terms of national liberation, and with the undemocratic character of this single, all-powerful party. They were hungry for internal reform, which Hamas was offering. Did the victory of Hamas produce the desired reform? No, Hamas simply replaced Fatah as a ruling party, and there is no evidence of a move toward a multi-party system. Furthermore, though the Palestinians are the most educated populace in the Arab world, they have been left with no blueprint for how to achieve national liberation. One thing is certain, however: The changes that have to take place within the PA don't have to do only with ending Israeli occupation. They have to do with building institutions from within, before achieving statehood. Are the Palestinians indeed the most educated populace in the Arab world? Yes, in terms of the number of them dispersed throughout the world who possess degrees in higher education and who have upward economic mobility. In fact, in the 1940s and 1950s, Palestinians were the ones who helped build governing bodies in other Arab countries. In the meantime, we're having trouble building our own tiny state. We've been failing at building our institutions. Palestinians have long believed - and many still do - that Palestine first has to be liberated and only afterward have its institutions established, as opposed to the other way around. But that hasn't worked. And there was a serious backslide after 1994, following the Oslo Accords which brought PLO leader Yasser Arafat in to govern the Palestinians. Was Arafat responsible for the Palestinians' inability to build state institutions? It wasn't Arafat's fault. It was the fault of Israel and the international community, in whose interest it was to create a central Palestinian government with a strong police force. Oslo introduced that model. As a result, the populace - and its attempt to begin building infrastructure for a state - was pushed aside, and the leadership focused on negotiating, with no real long-term perspective, in the theory that this would improve the lot of the Palestinian people. In practice, this had the opposite effect. It gave rise to a new kind of moneyed elite - those in power - one that replaced the intellectual elite and civil society, with a monopoly on making negotiations. This constituted a failure of the nationalist movement. Today, we have the opposite problem. Hamas doesn't have a political/diplomatic plan. It is focused on the daily provision of services to the people, such as education. But on the nationalist level, it has no reform or political plan. Nor does it lay the groundwork for a multi-party system. Are you blaming the international community for this? You seem to be completely minimizing Hamas's very clear platform based on the destruction of Israel. Minimizing it? Not at all. But destroying Israel was simply not on Hamas's electoral agenda. Look, Hamas did something amazing. It wanted to change its reputation, so it changed its name to "Change and Reform." And it took people who were not formerly associated with Hamas - the best communal leaders, engineers and businessmen - to emphasize the positive elements of each area. You say that the Palestinians are educated. The fact that Hamas ran on a reformist ticket, then, doesn't mean that the voters were uninformed about the party's stance on eliminating Israel. Whatever else the candidates were, they all exhibited behavior and issued statements on record indicating very clearly who they were. First and foremost, this was a protest vote against Fatah. Yet there was an option to protest Fatah by voting for the Third Way, Hanan Ashrawi's party. But Hanan Ashrawi has no credit on the Palestinian street. The Hamas candidates all had clean records where developing infrastructure was concerned. And they were individuals who came in daily contact with the populace. And these candidates were considered trustworthy by the electorate? Yes, something Fatah never was. Fatah never made itself part of the populace. Nor did the left-wing or third-way parties ever really make themselves part of the populace. They often weren't considered reliable in terms of the day-to-day interests of the Palestinian people. They talked more about representing the Palestinians in negotiations with Israel - not the issues really concerning the people, who have been far more preoccupied with the intolerable degree of instability and anarchy under which they live. Gang wars. Poverty. Speaking of instability, do the people not now blame Hamas for the obstacle it poses to their ability to work in Israel and receive aid from abroad? You have to remember that being prevented from entering Israel freely at roadblocks is something the Palestinians have been suffering for years. It predated Hamas. It predated Oslo. And since they don't consider Fatah - even the Young Guard, who is perceived to be just as corrupt and threatening as the Old Guard - as having brought about any fundamental change in attitude or perception, they don't blame Hamas for their plight. Hamas at least attempted to impose order and security, but it failed for various reasons, among them the escalation in Gaza and the tension between the Hamas security forces and the preventive security forces dominated by Fatah. Meanwhile, Fatah hasn't come to terms with Hamas's victory. Still, Hamas is behind the kassam missiles falling on Sderot and Ashkelon. For a year and a half, Hamas respected the hudna [ceasefire], and was not involved in launching kassams. The Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance were behind those attacks. For a short period, following the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, Hamas claimed responsibility for additional kassam attacks, but a mere few days later, it resumed upholding their commitment to the hudna. Paradoxically, due to the international community's refusal to recognize Hamas as a legitimately elected government, and to Israeli operations against it, Hamas had no reason to prevent individual groups from firing rockets. Why don't the Palestinian people rise up against their plight - of being victims of the infighting in Fatah and the fighting between Fatah and Hamas that prevents them from leading productive lives? What has to happen for the Palestinians to begin building a viable society? What is it they want? Do they really want a sovereign state? Your logic isn't the logic of the Palestinians. According to Palestinian logic, when someone attacks or provokes me, my national pride is raised; the more I suffer, the more stubborn and nationalistic I become. Like cats, when pushed into a corner, they fight with all their claws and teeth. The Palestinians need to be able to see the purpose, the end game. The purpose is a viable democratic state with a thriving, educated middle class - a sector we have lost to emigration. We need this sector to return to help establish and build the state. That's the ideal solution. In its absence, Israel will never be able to live in peace with the Palestinians. Democratic countries don't go to war with one another. The Israeli security-and-defense-based philosophy is to pinpoint isolated danger spots - to lower incidents of Palestinian so-called terrorism to a level that doesn't threaten the existence of the Jewish state. However logical this may sound, it won't work. Israel shouldn't be thinking about how to minimize the danger, but of how to establish a viable Palestinian state, since it is just as much in Israel's interest to do so. What has to happen in order to encourage the return of the educated class? Civil society has to resume being dominant. It has to be supported and cultivated. It has to be helped to bring about a change in mentality. Through American guidance in the ways of democracy? No, Americans don't understand what democracy means and could mean for the Middle East. The US endeavor in Iraq, for example, is a mistaken attempt at imposing American will on the Iraqi people. It's not a model to emulate. Democracy can't be a demand; it has to emanate from internal needs. How, then, can the "change in mentality" be achieved? Western values already exist among the Palestinians, in spite of how they are portrayed. Palestinians have keen intellectual awareness. They are well-informed. They follow the news carefully. If strengthening Arafat at Oslo, and offering him a state at Camp David - as Barak did - wasn't the answer, and disengagement - as Sharon carried out - wasn't the answer, what's the alternative? The only alternative is for Palestinians to undergo an internal political process. But how is this internal political process going to take place? That's exactly what the Palestinians are talking about today - how to extricate themselves from their current circumstances by bringing about real change. The problem isn't only Israel. That's what Israelis don't realize. Many Israelis do realize that the Palestinian problem is internal. Not from what I hear. And Israeli policy doesn't seem to reflect it. What would the future hold if Israel's policies were based on an accurate assessment of Palestinian society? A two-state solution based on mutual cooperation and trade - not an occupier and an occupied. Not a Palestinian state whose air space is controlled by the Israeli army. I'm not ashamed to say, however, that we have failed to imitate Israeli state-building by creating facts on the ground [viable institutions] and working our way up [to statehood]. Doesn't a two-state solution require the Palestinians to relinquish the goal of destroying Israel? No one is talking about the destruction of Israel, even the mainstream of Hamas. There is no gap between the political leadership and the public on this issue. So it's only a minority of Palestinians who support the Hizbullah-launched katyushas in the North? It's strange that Israelis keep asking that question. The Palestinians are suffering, so of course when they see someone trying to hurt Israel, they think it's good for them. Is it possible that the difference between the establishment of Israel and that of the Palestinian state is that the Jews wanted to build a state, while the Palestinians have shown more interest in eliminating Israel than in creating a country? No, the problem is that the Palestinians have invested most of their energy in national liberation, instead of integrating this goal with state-building. The direction now is very clear: a defined process of political, social and economic transformation of Palestinian society and political system. Will a grass-roots Palestinian movement emerge that pushes for democratization and peaceful coexistence with Israel? We're seeing such buds beginning to sprout. There is an increasing self-examination about where we went wrong.