Are the Palestinians urging peace dialogue with Israel heroes or traitors?

Palestinian Affairs: Recent meetings between Israelis and Palestinians aimed at promoting a dialogue have been met with a backlash. Will it cause the Palestinians to back down?

DR. WARDA SADA WITH fellow participants, former MK Ophir Paz-Pines (left), the Joint List’s Ofer Cassif and former MK Ran Cohen (right). (photo credit: Courtesy)
DR. WARDA SADA WITH fellow participants, former MK Ophir Paz-Pines (left), the Joint List’s Ofer Cassif and former MK Ran Cohen (right).
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Warda Sada says she was not surprised by the latest Palestinian campaign against meetings between Israelis and Palestinians.
The college lecturer, who describes herself as a “Palestinian-Israeli peace activist,” was born in a village in the Galilee and has been living in Jerusalem since her graduation from the Hebrew University.
Last week, Sada was invited to a meeting in Tel Aviv that was organized by The Israeli Peace Parliament, a group consisting of former members of Knesset, ministers and peace activists. More than 20 Palestinians from the West Bank, including PLO and Fatah officials, as well as former Palestinian Authority ministers and parliament members, participated in the gathering, which was held under the banners “Two States for Two Peoples” and “No to Annexation [of parts of the West Bank].”
The Palestinian participants are affiliated with the PLO’s Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, established in 2012 with the purpose of promoting dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Headed by senior Fatah official Mohammed al-Madani, the committee has arranged hundreds of meetings between Israelis and Palestinians, including visits by various Israeli delegations to the PA’s Mukata headquarters in Ramallah.
The committee’s activities have drawn sharp criticism from many Palestinians, who accuse its members of “promoting normalization with the Israeli occupation.” The criticism has come not only from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – the two Gaza-based terrorist groups that are vehemently opposed to any peace process with Israel – but also from ordinary Palestinians and other less radical Palestinian organizations in the West Bank.
Most of the criticism has surfaced on social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook, where the term “normalization” is being equated with treason. One of the hashtags on Twitter and Facebook states that tatbi (Arabic for normalization) is an act of treason.
Until recently the “anti-normalization” campaign appeared to be limited only to rhetorical attacks on the Palestinian organizers and participants. In the past week, however, the campaign shifted to violence when Palestinian assailants threw Molotov cocktails at a restaurant in Ramallah that hosted a meeting between Israeli journalists and a senior PA official.
“I was not surprised by the attacks on us,” Sada told The Jerusalem Post. “I’m aware that every person sees things from a different perspective. I want to ask all those who are criticizing the Israeli-Palestinian meetings: What’s wrong if we sit with representatives of the Israeli peace camp? What do we gain by boycotting Israel? Making peace is not normalization. This is an attempt to search for ways to promote peace.”
Sada said she and her colleagues believe in the importance of meetings between Israelis and Palestinians, “especially in the absence of contacts between our leaders.”
The Palestinians involved in the dialogue with Israelis, she noted, are working in the context of the PLO’s Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, which, she said, “is authorized by [PA] President Mahmoud Abbas.”
Why is the PLO overseeing a committee responsible for engagement with Israelis? Where are Palestinian nongovernmental organizations that are supposed to be promoting peace and coexistence with Israel?
Sada has an explanation: the Palestinians don’t have free institutions, and many of them are afraid to speak out.
“I meet many Palestinians who support normalization with Israel, but they are afraid of the extremists; that’s why only a PLO committee can carry out such activities,” she added.
“Sadly, although the PLO is in charge of the committee, many meetings have been canceled because people are afraid. Several meetings that were supposed to take place in the coming weeks have been called off because of the smear campaign after the last two meetings in Tel Aviv and Ramallah.”
JUDGING FROM the reactions of many Palestinians opposed to normalization with Israel, it appears they are angry with the Palestinian leaders more than with the meetings themselves. Their main argument: On the one hand, Palestinian officials publicly condemn Arab states for allegedly normalizing their ties with Israel; on the other hand, the same officials are engaged in meeting with Israelis to promote peace.
Take, for example, Mahmoud al-Habbash, senior religious affairs adviser to Abbas and one of the PA officials who hosted the Israeli journalists in Ramallah earlier this week.
After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Uganda earlier this month with Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s sovereign council, Habbash was one of the first Palestinian officials to denounce the meeting.
“This is a crime and an immoral act on the part of al-Burhan,” Habbash commented. “Worse, it’s a betrayal of God, his prophet and [Muslim] believers.”
“I have a feeling that Palestinians protesting against normalization with Israel are actually speaking out against the hypocrisy and conflicting messages of Palestinian leaders,” said Ayman Samara, a university student at Bir Zeit University, north of Ramallah. “I believe many Palestinians are angry because they understand that the Palestinian leadership is playing them for fools. President Abbas recently announced that he has decided to cut all relations with Israel. He also said he would halt security coordination with Israel. Then, Palestinians see him and his senior officials doing the exact opposite.”
Students at Bir Zeit University and the Arab American University in Jenin, in the northern West Bank, are now demanding the firing of two lecturers who attended the Tel Aviv meeting of the Israeli Peace Parliament. Palestinian activists have compiled a “black list” of Palestinians involved in promoting normalization with Israel. The “black list,” circulating on social media platforms, denounces these Palestinians as “traitors” and “normalizers with the Israeli and Zionist enemy.”
One of the participants in the Tel Aviv meeting, Hamdallah al-Hamdallah, the mayor of the West Bank town of Anabta, announced his resignation on his Facebook page, apparently after receiving threats from anti-normalization activists.
Members of the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society said that their recent activities came in response to US President Donald Trump’s recently unveiled plan for Mideast peace. The recent meetings, they added, were also aimed at sending a message to the Israeli public on the eve of the upcoming Israeli elections.
“We’re meeting with Israelis who share our opposition to the Trump plan,” said a committee member who asked not to be identified. “I see no reason why we shouldn’t forge an alliance with the Israeli peace camp that rejects the Trump plan and insists on the two-state solution.”
The Israeli journalists were invited to Ramallah in order to relay a message to the Israeli public to the effect that there is a partner for peace on the Palestinian side, he added. “[PA presidential spokesman] Nabil Abu Rudaineh told the Israeli journalists that the Palestinians were prepared to reach a peace agreement with Israel within two weeks if the Israeli government accepts the two-state solution,” the committee member pointed out.
The Palestinian leaders’ vicious attacks on Israel and the US after the publication of the Trump plan have obviously backfired by further emboldening the anti-normalization camp among Palestinians. The impression Palestinian leaders have created in the aftermath of the announcement of the Trump plan is that Palestinians are being targeted by another “American-Zionist conspiracy to eliminate the Palestinian issue and national rights.” In addition, Palestinian leaders had called for a “day of rage” against the Trump plan during which senior PLO and Fatah officials called for stepping up “popular resistance” activities against Israel.
“Palestinians are confused,” remarked Suha Mubarak, a social worker from Bethlehem. “Some Palestinian leaders encourage young people to take to the streets and confront Israeli soldiers and settlers,” she said. “Other Palestinian officials, however, are traveling to Tel Aviv and meeting with Israelis in Ramallah.”
Palestinian writer Lama Khater says the PA is “full of huge contradictions.” She pointed out that days before the PLO sent its representatives to the event in Tel Aviv with Israelis, PLO secretary-general Saeb Erekat condemned the meeting between Netanyahu and the Sudanese leader as a “stab in the back of the Palestinian people.”
“How can Erekat talk about a stab in the back, while Abbas is meeting in New York with war criminal [former prime minister] Ehud Olmert?” Khater wondered. “How can the Palestinian Authority criminalize normalization between some Arab states and the occupation while it’s doing the same thing?”
Aware of the Palestinian leadership’s contradictory position on the issue of normalization, some Palestinian officials in Ramallah expressed fear that the recent meetings with Israelis would further undermine the credibility of Abbas and the PA.
“Our people are accusing us of playing a double game,” complained a veteran PLO official. “Honestly, I don’t blame those who are now denouncing us as traitors for promoting normalization with Israel. We are the ones who are telling our people that normalization is a form of treason.”
The beleaguered Palestinian “normalizers,” meanwhile, have gone on the defensive, arguing that they are operating on instructions from Abbas and the Palestinian leadership. Some have gone as far as describing themselves as “fedayeen” (freedom fighters) serving the Palestinian cause through nonviolent means.
Habbash, the Abbas adviser, reminded Palestinians that he was one of the leaders of the First Intifada, which erupted in 1987, and that he had spent time in Israeli prison. That was his way of refuting charges of betraying the Palestinians by holding meetings with Israelis.
Omar al-Ghoul, a PLO official and columnist, rejected the charges against the Palestinians who believe in dialogue with Israelis.
“I want to defend those who participated in the meetings,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “First, they represent the Palestinian official position, and they did not go to the meetings on their own. Second, they are part of the PLO tools aimed at penetrating Israeli society. Third, the statements they made during the meetings reflected the official position of the Palestinian leadership, especially regarding rejection of the Trump plan. We need to salute the [Palestinian] heroic figures for defending the two-state solution and Palestinian rights. They did not give up the rights of the Palestinians. Those who attacked the Palestinian participants should apologize for their sins [and] reconsider their stance.”
Even if the current controversy over normalization with Israel subsides, it’s clear that the smear campaign against those Palestinians who still believe in promoting dialogue with Israelis has succeeded in deterring others from engaging in future “peace” encounters.
Under the current circumstances, it’s also hard to imagine how any Palestinian leader would be able to return to the negotiating table with Israel, if and when a peace process ever resumes.