Talking two states in Ramallah

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, head of the Palestinian National Initiative and advocate of non-violent resistance, argues that because Israeli policies in the West Bank are akin to apartheid, they are ultimately unsustainable.

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI, a Moscow-trained and Stanford-educated physician, is one of a few Palestinian voices that still support the two-state solution. (photo credit: Courtesy)
MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI, a Moscow-trained and Stanford-educated physician, is one of a few Palestinian voices that still support the two-state solution.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Palestinian Medical Relief Society’s administrative headquarters are housed in a modern building located in northern Ramallah.
Just across the street is the Plaza Mall, a symbol of conspicuous consumption that to a large extent characterizes Ramallah – an international town frequented by NGO officials, foreign leaders and the de facto seat of the Palestinian Authority’s government – and sets it apart from Palestinian cities like Jenin, Nablus and Hebron.
In addition to the offices on the first floor of the PMRS building, there is a college on the second floor that trains “village health workers” or community nurses. These are women chosen by their respective communities to come to the PMRS to learn to provide basic medical care in Palestinian towns across the West Bank. So far, a total of 400 have been trained.
On the ground floor is the Edward Said Theater, a concert hall with high-level acoustics that seats 300.
On the walls of the corridor on the ground floor are pictures of smiling Palestinian children who have received medical treatment from the PMRS. Around 1.5 million Palestinians, mostly those living in rural and isolated towns on the West Bank and Gaza, receive such medical care annually.
If Palestinians are expected to engage in state-building as a precursor to the creation of a full-fledged Palestinian state, or something resembling it, the PMRS is a good example of such an endeavor. Rami Nasrallah, founder and head of the International Peace and Cooperation Center, an NGO based in French Hill, Jerusalem, that fosters the social and economic development of Palestinians, said that the PMRS is more efficient than many institutions run by the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians’ government administration. I came here to meet with Mustafa Barghouti, a medical doctor trained in Moscow and at Stanford University, who in 1979, together with a group of medical colleagues, established what would later become PMRS. Barghouti is one of several Palestinian politicians and activists with whom I have met in the past few weeks in or around Ramallah and east Jerusalem who still support a two-state solution – though in Barghouti’s case, it is because this is the only feasible political option, and ideally he would prefer a one-state solution. Others include Jibril Rajoub, a senior member of Fatah’s Central Committee, and Mahmoud al-Habbash, a former member of Hamas who is now the PA’s religious affairs minister.
My intention in the meetings was to get a feeling for the Palestinian perspective on the two-state solution, and on the negotiations being orchestrated right now by US Secretary of State John Kerry; to gauge the level of optimism or pessimism regarding those talks; and to attempt to predict what political options are being considered in the event the talks fail.
BARGHOUTI IS a distant relative of Marwan Barghouti, the only Palestinian leader who enjoys the support of the majority of the West Bank, who is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for his part in a series of terrorist attacks that caused the deaths of four Israelis and a Greek Orthodox priest. A huge spraypainted portrait of the man in handcuffs features prominently on the security barrier at the Kalandiya entrance to the city, alongside a portrait of a young Yasser Arafat.
But Mustafa Barghouti is a leading Palestinian politician in his own right, albeit without the record of violent resistance that seems to be a requisite for becoming a contender in Palestinian politics. That is not to say Barghouti is a pushover. He has been arrested four times by Israel, and since 2005 the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) has banned him from entering Jerusalem, where he was born and where he worked as a doctor for over a decade.
Barghouti was one of the many Palestinian intellectuals, grassroots activists and local politicians who served as delegates during the 1991 Madrid talks. In the 1990s, he was a member of the Palestinian Communist party. Like Edward Said, Hanan Ashrawi and other Palestinian leaders, he was strongly critical of what he saw as the PLO’s capitulation to Israel in the 1993 Oslo Accords. In 2002, he established the Palestinian National Initiative, or al-Mubadara, together with Said; Haidar Abdel-Shafi, a physician and head of the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid conference; Ibrahim Dakkak, a civil engineer and community activist; and others. The idea was to build a reformist alternative to both Fatah and Hamas, and reconstitute the popular, grassroots groups that had begun to give Palestinian civic society form and substance during the first intifada, but which had been seriously undermined when Israel decided to install in the West Bank and Gaza the autocratic Arafat and other Fatah members, who had been exiled to Tunis from Lebanon.
As Nasrallah put it, “The Israelis were never interested in civil culture. The common Israeli stance, even among doves, was, ‘We need a strong Palestinian police.’ The internal Palestinian agenda did not interest them. Israelis essentially were subcontracting security to the Palestinians, and were not interested in the building of a Palestinian society.”
In recent years, the most common criticism leveled against the Palestinian Authority, besides charges of corruption, is that its security forces are perpetuating the “occupation” by cooperating with Israel. Stifling dissent and maintaining order allows Israel to maintain the status quo without paying a price. Instead, say critics, the PA should be allowing popular resistance against Israel to gain momentum.
In a 2005 interview with The New Left Review, Barghouti said the Fatah-dominated PA “has functioned along the same lines as the totalitarian Arab governments that gave it refuge.” In the same year, Barghouti garnered 20 percent of the vote in the Palestinian presidential elections, coming in second place after Mahmoud Abbas and shocking many, including himself.
In the 2006 parliamentary elections, Hamas was the big winner with a plurality of 44% of the vote.
In our interview, Barghouti refrained from criticizing the PA. While he admitted that democracy had deteriorated in Palestinian society, he denied that the PA was violating basic rights such as freedom of the press and freedom of assembly as shown in ample news reports, including those by The Jerusalem Post’s Palestinian affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh.
Instead, Barghouti blamed the lack of democratic processes primarily on the internal division that has existed since 2007, when Hamas wrested control over the Gaza Strip from Fatah in a violent coup d’état, while Fatah continued to control the West Bank. This split has precluded national and presidential elections, which were supposed to take place five years ago.
Barghouti also blamed Israel’s decision to arrest 55 Palestinian parliament members, mostly Hamas lawmakers but also those affiliated with Fatah and PFLP, after the 2006 elections and its refusal, along with the international community, to recognize a unity government that includes Hamas.
Perhaps Barghouti was hesitant to criticize the PA in an interview with the Post, a paper identified as Israeli and pro-Zionist. Or perhaps he, like many independent- minded activists across the West Bank, is intimidated by the PA’s security apparatus, which regularly cracks down on dissidents. Still, Barghouti said he has never been arrested by the PA.
Barghouti, like every other Palestinian with whom I spoke, supports reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. As an independent who is not affiliated with either side, he has been intimately involved in attempts to secure reconciliation. He said it was a mistake for the West not to allow the unity government of Hamas and Fatah to continue to function back in 2007, a time considered by Barghouti to be the “Palestinian Spring.”
“We would have had presidential elections and PNC [Palestinian National Council] elections again on time, and that is what is important. You see, today I vote for you and tomorrow I don’t like you. I vote for someone else. I am sure that [Yesh Atid chairman Yair] Lapid won’t get the same votes in the next elections. That’s how the democratic system works. That is how democracy functions.”
I suggested experience has shown that when Islamists win in a democratic vote, it often becomes the very last democratic vote to take place.
“But that is what we would not have allowed in a national unity government. And I totally agree, we should not allow one party to confiscate elections. It has to be a continuous system. You can say that a place is democratic only after they have two consecutive elections. And believe me, the only future for peace – if there will be peace, the only peace that can last – is a peace between democracies. Because you do not want to repeat Oslo, you don’t want to have an agreement imposed on the Palestinians.”
I asked him if he conditioned reconciliation on Hamas agreeing to change its official platform, which, among other unsavory elements, affirms the anti-Semitic screed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and calls for the violent destruction of the State of Israel.
“Listen, this sort of approach just makes obstacles. It puts the carriage before the horse. I mean, what is better than having a unified government with an agreed-upon program that is compatible with a peaceful solution to which the Hamas has agreed?” Barghouti, whose intensity is tempered by a good sense of humor, is highly articulate in English and a spokesman par excellence. Nidal Kanaaneh, a news producer at Al Hurra TV, told me that in Arabic, Barghouti has the uncanny ability to provide sound bites tailored precisely to the time slot. “We tell him to give us 20 seconds on settlements, and he speaks for exactly 20 seconds – not 19 and not 21.”
In a 2009 appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart together with Jewish pro-Palestinian activist Anna Baltzer, Barghouti joked easily with Stewart. At one point a heckler from the crowd called him a liar for accusing Israel of illegal occupation on the West Bank, without noting the context of conflict and terror attacks. Barghouti said that he would like to sit down with the heckler and try to explain to him his point of view. When Stewart remarked cynically, “That would go over well,” Barghouti laughed. He received applause for his call for non-violent demonstrations and his support for democratic values. He received another round of applause when he declared that people like the man who called him a liar are afraid of change, but that “the change is coming.”
BARGHOUTI REPEATED many of these messages to me. He blamed Israel for maintaining an apartheid regime on the West Bank, a claim that Israeli politicians such as Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni have said would be true if the “occupation” continued.
Barghouti did agree with me that unlike South Africa’s apartheid regime, Israeli arrangements on the West Bank, put in place within the framework of a military conflict between two nations and part of Israel’s attempt to protect itself, are not based on race.
“We all come from the same grandfather,” Barghouti noted.
Nevertheless, Barghouti insisted that what was happening on the West Bank was akin to apartheid.
One of the issues he talked of at great length was water allocation. According to Barghouti, Palestinians receive significantly less water than Israelis. As a result, there are periods during the week when Palestinians turn on the tap and no water comes out.
The issue of water allocation came up in the Knesset a few weeks after my interview with Barghouti.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz, addressing the Israeli parliament in German, noted the “never again” legacy of the Holocaust, expressing unqualified support for Israel and vowing that his country would stand by the Jewish state. However, Schulz sparked controversy after saying the following: Two days ago I spoke with young people in Ramallah. Like young people everywhere in the world, their dream is to train, study and travel, to find work and to start a family.
But they have another dream as well, one which concerns something most young people take for granted: They want to be able to live freely in their own country, with no threat of violence, with no restrictions on their freedom of movement. The Palestinian people, like the Israeli people, have the right to fulfill their dream of creating their own viable democratic state. The Palestinians, just like the Israelis, have the right to self-determination and justice.
“One of the questions these young people asked me which I found most moving – although I could not check the exact figures – was this: How can it be that an Israeli is allowed to use 70 liters of water per day, but a Palestinian only 17? Upon hearing this, members of Bayit Yehudi began heckling Schulz, with MKs Motti Yogev and Orit Struck calling out, “That’s a lie, the Palestinians are lying.” The party’s head, Naftali Bennett, called for Schulz to apologize for lying. Even Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that Schulz “suffers from the same selective listening as many Europeans.”
But while Schulz may have quoted the wrong figures, he came very close to being right about the ratios of four to one in favor of Israelis, according to an assessment provided by Friends of the Earth Middle East, a joint Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian organization that has been dealing with regional water and environment issues for the past two decades. Municipal water consumption per capita per day in Israel in 2011 was 250 liters, compared to an average of 70 liters for Palestinians, according to Friends of the Earth. B’Tselem’s estimates are about the same.
Part of the problem is that Palestinians have not done enough to fix leaky pipes. But in large part, the failure of the Palestinian water system is directly related to the Oslo Accords’ problematic legacy, particularly the demarcation of the West Bank into areas A, B and C. To prevent water theft by Palestinian farmers, for instance, Palestinians need access to Area C, because most farmed land is located there. But since Area C is under complete Israeli civil and military control, they are unable to, and it is not the job of the IDF to serve as police. As a result, water theft is rampant.
Construction of sewage treatment plants, which would enable Palestinians to rely less on potable water for agriculture, also depends on Israeli permission, since these plants must be built partly or entirely in Area C, which makes up over 60% of the West Bank and most of the unpopulated areas there.
Projects funded by Germany – Schulz’s country – France, the US and the World Bank have run into obstacles as a result of disputes and red tape. For instance, Israel has demanded that sewage treatment plants funded by international donors in places like Salfit near Ariel serve Jewish settlements as well as Palestinian ones. Palestinians and their international donors have refused.
Regardless of the reasons, however, Barghouti reflects a Palestinian sentiment that the status quo of “occupation” is unsustainable. Palestinians living on the West Bank are constantly reminded that they are under Israeli control. Perhaps the most ubiquitous symbol of “occupation” is the security barrier that has cut up what Palestinians view as their future state into a bunch of enclaves. Mobility between these enclaves is often made arduous by military checkpoints. And travel to Jerusalem and other destinations inside the Green Line is impossible without special permission.
Further complicating the situation for Palestinians are the jurisdictions created by the Oslo Accords. All the Palestinians I have spoken with told me that not only did the Oslo Accords do nothing to ease the difficulties of living under Israeli control, they actually worsened the situation.
THOUGH I enjoy free movement in and out of Palestinian- controlled cities thanks to my American passport, and though I am sympathetic to the rationale behind the building of the security barrier which was, at least primarily, to stop the wave of suicide bombings that terrorized the Israeli population in the early 2000s, I, nevertheless, felt intimidation and a vague sense of oppression in entering Ramallah, which is completely surrounded by a security barrier. And Ramallah is the most Western, bustling and open of Palestinian cities.
At midday, it took me and my driver Ahmed about 15 minutes to enter Ramallah through the Kalandiya checkpoint, one of only two entrances to the city – the other is Hizma. During rush hour, the wait can be much longer. Slabs of concrete eight meters high and three meters wide loom over the road to and from the border crossing. Young boys and men hawk anything from trinkets with inscriptions from the Koran to paper napkins to hot spiced corn. Palestinians who take public transportation are forced to get out at Kalandiya and cross over by foot, because the wait at the crossing is too long to make it worthwhile for the bus drivers. A large red sign at the entrance to Kalandiya and other checkpoints warns, “The road leads to Area A under the Palestinian Authority. The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against Israeli law.”
A feeling of relief accompanied each of my returns to Jerusalem, where there are no security barriers, checkpoints and confusing jurisdictions. Gone also was the vague anxiety of traveling around Ramallah as an American Jew with Israeli citizenship. Palestinians advised me to remove my kippa while in Ramallah, which I did, though it was unclear to me whether the animosity such a visibly Jewish symbol might arouse was a product of Palestinian frustration over the “occupation” or more general anti-Jewish sentiments.
The return to Jerusalem was also accompanied by culture shock. In just 10 minutes by car – not including delays at the Kalandiya checkpoint – I was transported from downtown Ramallah to Geula, next to which are located the Post’s offices.
It struck me how geographically close Palestinians and Israelis were to one another, yet how completely oblivious the vast majority of Israelis were to Palestinians’ day-to-day existence. The water controversy raised by Schulz was a striking example of Israelis’ cluelessness vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Absurdly, a politician from Germany knew more about the problem of water shortages on the West Bank than did his Israeli counterparts sitting in a parliament located just a dozen kilometers away. The incident also illustrated how many Israeli politicians’ complete lack of trust in Palestinians and their “lies” prevent them from seeing some of the uncomfortable realities of life on the West Bank.
“The Israeli public does not know,” says Barghouti, “the Israeli public is not aware of the details of what is happening. You can easily polarize the Israeli public to support Netanyahu and extremism by misrepresenting the case to them, and I think it is very important that the Israeli public know the reality. And the reality is that the choice is either a two-state solution with a real Palestinian state, with real Palestinian sovereignty, or occupation and apartheid.”
Barghouti told me that there is an increasing number of Palestinians who see the two-state solution as dead, because of Israeli settlement expansion and Israeli positions on the main issues of dispute between the sides. “We might have already passed the point of no return without knowing it, but the fact is that there is so much talk about it [being dead] – and this reflects a real worry that we might have crossed the line.”
FROM BARGHOUTI’S perspective and from the perspective of most Palestinians, the sort of state envisioned by many Israelis, even those who support in principle a two-state solution, is unacceptable, because its creation would not really end Israeli control over many aspects of their lives.
“I believe the problem you face today with Netanyahu and some Israeli politicians is that they want to get rid of the Palestinian demographic problem without giving Palestinians a state. Now you can’t give Palestinians a Bantustan [all-black enclaves in South Africa with a limited degree of self-government] and claim it is a state.
“If you want to keep Israeli troops in the Jordan [Valley] and on top of the hills and at border crossings, and you want Israel to control the airspace and the electromagnetic spectrum, then this is not a state, this a Bantustan.
“So the price to give Palestinians a two-state solution and eliminate apartheid is to get the settlements out, otherwise you would be complicating the problem further. But if you are expanding the settlements and you negotiate about a two-state solution and then you have additional demands, like you want to keep soldiers on the border, etc., then you are not talking about the creation of a two-state solution – you are talking about a Bantustan. Which means you are not solving the problem. It means you are substituting a two-state solution for a consolidation of occupation.”
As Barghouti talked, the local muezzin was heard calling the faithful to prayer. I asked him if he was sympathetic to Israeli security concerns. Israel fears, for instance, that after relinquishing control over the Jordan Valley, Palestinians will smuggle rockets and other arms into a future Palestinian state, and turn it into a base for terrorist activity, as Hamas did in the Gaza Strip.
“Israeli fears are not justified,” claimed Barghouti, “because Israel is very powerful. In the Jordan Valley, you have the state of Jordan on the other side, and if you follow this logic and say that Jordan is not enough because there are problems in Iraq, then you will have to place Israeli troops on the Iraqi border. But then you have Iran, so maybe Israeli troops should be on the Iranian border as well.
“Of course there is a risk. I always said that the Israelis have taken the risk of wars and violence for 65 years. It is time for Israel to take the risk of peace.”
If Israel fails to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, says Barghouti, international pressure will build to force a settlement upon Israel.
“I think I am realistic when I say that if Israel chooses to maintain apartheid, it will take 15 or maybe 20 years – I don’t know – of struggle against apartheid to reach equality and a one-state solution with equal rights for all. By the way, this is something I would prefer as a person, but politically I opt for two states now, to avoid pain and suffering and problems.”
Barghouti’s insistence on non-violent struggle and his commitment to democratic processes are appealing to Western audiences in the US, Europe and Australia, who attend his public speaking tours or hear him on TV and radio. Yet Barghouti has next to no chance of becoming Palestinian president any time soon, primarily because he is not a member of Fatah.
As noted by Nidal Foqaha, executive director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Peace Coalition-Geneva Initiative, “Fatah has suffered a loss of popularity during the last few years, but there are no signs that it is collapsing. Serious surveys show that Fatah is the main party, despite the tensions. I do not believe an independent can seriously challenge Fatah.”
The International Peace and Cooperation Center’s Nasrallah agreed. “He is very impressive,” admitted Nasrallah, “but he comes from the intellectual elite. Also, he follows the same notion of national liberation undertaken by Fatah, he was part of the PA coalition, he supported the peace process – so he has not distinguished himself as someone with a different agenda.”