Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Saker interview with the Palestinian Pundit

It is a great honour and long awaited pleasure for me to interview a real expert on Palestine and the rest of the Middle-East: Tony, the author of what is definitely one of the best Palestinian blogs - Palestinian Pundit, a "must visit daily" for anybody interested in the Palestinian drama.

I have been reading Tony's posts for quite a while already (many thanks to datta for drawing my attention to it) and I had planned to interview Tony for several months already, but the situation in Palestine took such a turn for the worse that neither Tony nor I had any time left to work on an interview. Things have not improved, Palestinians are still being murdered on a daily basis by the Israeli occupation forces, and since things are only likely to get worse, I have decided not to wait any further and ask Tony for his insight about the current situation and its likely development.

I am deeply grateful to Tony for taking the time to answer my questions. I know that he is immensely busy in his professional life and that, on top of that, he still manages to be a (quasi) full time "blogging machine" (as datta once put it to me) on his 'free' time.


Tony, please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us under what circumstances you decided to start a blog which became one of the most informative and interesting blogs among all the Palestinian blogs. For the sake of full disclosure, how would you define your political sympathies in the Palestinian context.

I am a Palestinian who was born in Jaffa Palestine in 1945; the family was expelled from there in 1948 when Israel was established and about 800,000 Palestinians became refugees. Grew up as a refugee in Gaza; went to college in Cairo, Egypt; came to California to do graduate work in 1967 (right after the so-called 6-day war), and stayed here since.

I have been, like many Palestinians, an outspoken defendant of Palestinian rights and I do what I can to expose Israeli crimes against the Palestinians and the US full complicity in these crimes.

Actually, I did not set up the blog. I used to frequently visit the blog of professor As’ad Abu Khalil (Angry Arab) and make various comments. I guess I was outspoken enough and made enough noise that one of the regular visitors, who happened to be Jewish but a supporter of the Palestinians, told me to start a blog. I told her that I was not interested and I had no time! She, on her own, set up the blog, and chose the name. In the beginning she used to contribute to the blog but she opted out later on. The blog was started in July 2006.

My political sympathies in the Palestinian context are secular, nationalist, pan-Arab and leftist. I am not opposed to nationalist, progressive anti-imperialist Islamic forces as long as they concentrate on fighting occupation and defend their own people from foreign intervention and domination.

Could you please outline your view of the situation in Palestine and, in particular, the situation in the West Bank about which so little is written. How strong and stable do you believe the power of Fatah to be there? Do you see a replacement of Abbas by either one of the Barghoutis (Mohammad or Marwan) something which could salvage Fatah's power in the West Bank? Does Hamas still operate as an organization in the West Bank or is it totally underground?

The situation in the West Bank is that of tightly controlled occupation with rapidly expanding colonization. The goal is to imprison the remaining Palestinians (after squeezing out as many as possible, through very repressive policies of arrests, confiscation, home demolitions, control of movement, outright terror by Zionist colonizers, etc) in a few cantons or reservations if you will.

The so-called Palestinian Authority (PA) has been fully inducted as a collaborating quisling entity which fully coordinates with the Israeli occupiers the hunting down, arrests, disarming and killing of Palestinian resistance elements. Through the so-called Oslo-process, ensuring the security of Israel is considered the key role of the PA. For that purpose the US, through its designated coordinator of security General Keith Dayton, arms, finances and trains puppet PA forces to assist the Israeli occupation. The policies of the PA in the W.B. have been very repressive, where journalists have been arrested, demonstrations and public opposition banned by lethal force, and key figures of the opposition arrested and tortured, some to death. Corruption is rampant in order to buy the loyalties of the few. The PA in the W.B. has best been described as a police state without a state.

Fatah is very fragmented and weak and many observers doubt if it will survive. The collaboration of its leadership with the occupation and their participation in the siege and starvation of fellow Palestinians in Gaza have totally discredited Fatah in the eyes of most Palestinians.

Since the Oslo ”process” and its Annapolis sequel have accomplished absolutely nothing, Abbas, the PA and Fatah who placed all their bets on negotiations only, are living their worst nightmares. Many observers believe that the PA is on the verge of collapse. Israel and the US might decide to keep some rump quisling entity as a replacement, but who knows. If the PA faces collapse, USrael will seek to find some younger “leader” who could be sold to the Palestinians as their new “leader.” I believe that Marwan Barghouti, who is in Israeli jail serving more than one life sentence will be that figure. Some Israeli leaders have been calling for his release; why now?

Hamas is openly fought in the W.B. by the PA, and even charities and orphanages have been closed down and their assets confiscated. There is still a lot of support for Hamas in the W.B. but the armed elements remaining had to go underground to survive.

The Hamas operation of bringing down the Wall was nothing short of brilliant and, for a while, it looked that it would be impossible to bring it back up and that Mubarak would risk his own political future if he tried to do this. Alas, he did bring it right back with and without any visible Hamas response. Why is this? Why did Hamas not fight as hard as can be to keep the Wall down? Has the Hamas leadership been corrupted/coopted by the Empire?

As you said toppling the wall with Egypt was brilliant and the jail break was breathtaking and unprecedented. Why was the momentum not maintained? One can speculate:

1. Egypt made some promises to buy time and I think that some within Hamas were a bit naive and bought those promises. After gaining the needed time to re-close the border, Egypt reneged on the promises.
2. The people in Gaza, Hamas included, are exhausted not just by the siege but by the relentless Israeli attacks which lately killed over 130 Palestinians in less than a week. So, Hamas needed a respite.
3. The US has asked Egypt to play a role in order to calm the situation between Hamas and Israel a bit. There was a concern that with the images of slaughtered Palestinians being shown day after day by Al-Jazeera, among others, that there was some risk of boiling over in the Arab street. The US wants to line up the Arab street behind its plans to attack Iran. So, Hamas was playing the game through Egypt of trying to arrange a calming down with Israel. Therefore, Hamas could not confront Egypt at the same time that Egypt was “mediating.”
4. Part of the agreement involved in a possible ceasefire with Israel is the re-opening of the Rafah crossing. This has been a Hamas demand. There has been talk of a trial opening soon with the crossing operating 3 days a week. It remains to be seen, if it is another empty promise.
5. Hamas can mobilize the people and storm the new barrier again, if all of these maneuvers lead to nothing. I don’t believe that Hamas has been corrupted or coopted. One of Hamas’ strengths is its collective leadership and decision making.

What is Hamas' game plan? What does Hamas hope to achieve with the continuing Qassam attacks on Sderot? Why is Hamas willing to risk an Israeli invasion of Gaza (and the inevitable arrest, torture and mass-murder of Hamas officials by Fatah thugs) for the sake of rocketing Sderot, but is not willing to openly engage Mubarak's forces to keep the Wall down?

There is a big difference between Hamas shelling Israeli targets and Hamas fighting the Egyptian forces. The first has contributed to the support that Hamas is receiving as the main party leading the fight against the occupation. The second would do just the opposite: it would discredit Hamas in the Arab street and be a gift to those who want to portray Hamas as agent of Iran and who is fighting fellow Arabs rather than Israel; Hamas would never do that.

Hamas, on a smaller scale is trying to copy Hizbullah through the use of simple rockets. In time, the hope is that these would become more effective. Hamas is not using the rockets without a plan. When Israel scales down its attacks, so does Hamas. Hamas is trying, by using the rockets, to deter Israel to the extent possible.

Whether Israel fully invades Gaza is a decision independent of the issue of Qassams. The Qassams are just an excuse. The problem of invading Gaza is what to do next? Israel occupied Gaza before and it could not control the situation. Now it will be much harder. Also, Israel does not want to be responsible for feeding 1.5 million Palestinians, and wants to maintain the illusion that the occupation has ended.

Do you think the Israelis will invade Gaza and what do you predict will be the consequences of such an invasion?

I think that a full scale invasion and occupation of Gaza is directly linked to a bigger question: that of the US and Israeli plans towards Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. If and when a decision is made to attack Iran, which has to be preceded by an attempt to eliminate Hizbullah in Lebanon, then it would be the time to fully invade Gaza. Until that time, the American plan is to keep the Arab street focused on Iran and not on Israeli slaughtering of Palestinians. But after the attack on Iran/Hizbullah/Syria is underway, then a full invasion of Gaza is quite likely.

After such invasion and occupation of Gaza, USrael is likely to set up some NATO/UN force in Gaza so that Israeli forces would withdraw. Similar to what happened in south Lebanon. In such an invasion, total elimination of Hamas and its leadership would likely to be a key objective. For Hamas to survive, and it will, it will go underground. By doing so, Hamas could actually become more effective.

What do you know about the situation among half a million plus Palestinians with Israeli citizenship living inside Israel proper? Are they sympathies with Fatah or Hamas? Why is there no visible resistance or show of solidarity on their part with their fellow-Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank? Do you believe that Hamas can establish itself among these Israeli Palestinians as an organization capable of organizing any type of resistance?

The situation of the Palestinians within Israel itself (so-called Israeli Arabs), who actually number about a million (20%), is quite complicated. It is not the arena for either Hamas or Fatah to operate in, for obvious reasons. There is an independent and separate Islamic organization that seeks to speak for those Palestinians and to defend their rights. They have to walk a very narrow path lest the Israeli government accuse them of treason and to try them or expel them, as happened with Knesset member Azmi Bishara.

The best contribution of these Palestinians is to struggle for their own rights as equal citizens in a secular, democratic state for all of its citizens. Ultimately, the Palestinians in the occupied areas will find themselves in the same boat, with the demise of the two-state solution, as the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Then the struggle becomes one for both groups which is the struggle for one secular, democratic state for all of its citizens, Jewish and Arab.

The Palestinians in Israel do what they can to help the Palestinians in the occupied areas. They demonstrate in solidarity and speak out. They have organized some medical and other relief for Gaza recently as well as for the W.B. before. They challenge Israel’s courts and defend Palestinians in the occupied territories. However, within the racist state of Israel there is a limit of what they can do.

It is out of the question for Israel to allow Hamas to organize and operate among the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

How do you assess the current prospects for war in the rest of the Middle-East? The Israelis have openly bombed Syria, they have murdered Mughniyeh (whether with or without Syrian help), Lebanon is at the edge of another civil war, the USA is arming the Sunnis in Iraq and Admiral Fallon has been retired due to his opposition to an attack on Iran. What does all this mean for the Palestinian people? Do they see risks or opportunities here? What do you expect Hamas to do, if anything, in case of a war involving Israel?

I personally believe that Israel wants to attack Iran and to eliminate Hizbullah and Hamas as viable organizations. Within the US there are those who share this goal and a few (like Fallon) who do not. Israel will likely get its way and drag the US into such an attack. Hizbullah will be attacked first because it represents a first strike capability for Iran. There is a question mark about Syria. So far, Syria has avoided engaging the Israelis militarily; even when a Syrian site was bombed recently. That was humiliating for Syria. A similar thing happened in the summer of 2006 when scores of Syrian workers were killed by Israeli aircraft bombing Lebanon, very close to the Syrian border. Again, Syria did nothing. So there is a question of whether Syria would again stay out if a bigger attack on Hizbullah is attempted this time.

Hizbullah will retaliate for Mughniyeh, for sure. Whether this will trigger the USraeli attack on Hizbullah is a good question. Some believe that the assassination itself was a provocation to trigger such a war.

Iran would not be involved directly if the attack focuses on Hizbullah alone. However, an incident will be created to implicate Iran and trigger a US attack on Iran. I am convinced that Israeli leaders do not want to see Iran as a competing regional power.

How does Hamas fare in all of this? As I said earlier, the USraeli objective is to eliminate any resistance and to kill the very idea of resistance. Besides the Iraqi resistance, Hizbullah and Hamas represent the only other resistance. To finalize the total dispossession of the Palestinians an attempt to eliminate Hamas will have to be made.

Hamas and the Palestinians see the solution for the Palestinians dependent on the larger Arab context. In other words the Palestinian struggle combines with the resistance in Lebanon and in Iraq, because the enemy is the same. Hamas resists but also is buying time; it is not suicidal. The dynamics in the area will bring changes we can’t clearly see now. For example the situation in Egypt is precarious, with bread riots breaking out and a lot of discontent with the regime’s oppression of its opponents, especially the Muslim Brothers. The situation in Jordan is not much better with rampant inflation, high unemployment and open collaboration by the puppet king. Opposition forces (again mostly Muslim Brothers) have been demanding the closure of the Israeli embassy and abrogation of the treaty with Israel. So, a new large scale war involving Iran/Syria/Hizbullah/Hamas has many possible repercussions.

Why does Hamas persist in holding Gilad Shalit? What can be gained by a detention which is clearly illegal whether under the terms of the law of war (which apply during an international conflict) or human rights law (which apply during an internal conflict). Would a release of Gilat Shalit not serve to give Hamas the moral high ground? Is such a detention legal under Islamic law?

Shalit was a captured Israeli soldier. His unit was involved in shelling Gaza at that time. So, he is a clear prisoner of war. In contrast, Israel holds about 11,000 Palestinians, most of them are civilians kidnapped in the middle of the night. That includes 46 Palestinian MPs!

How can you say that holding Shalit is illegal, or un-Islamic? This is not true at all. As I said he is a prisoner of war, to be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners if and when Israel agrees to negotiate terms. Releasing him without release of at least some Palestinian prisoners would amount to treason on the part of Hamas, in my opinion, not taking the high moral ground, as you put it.

Hamas is a majority Sunni organization. Have the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood or Saudi Salafism penetrated into the Hamas worldview and policies? What is Hamas' position concerning Shia Muslims or, probably more relevant in the Palestinian context, Arab Christians? Does Hamas share the strong hostility towards the Shia and the Christians which is so obvious among the followers of Sayyid Qutb or Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab at-Tamimi ? Are there Christians inside Hamas and, if yes, what is their status?

Hamas’ roots and connections are to the Muslim Brotherhood and not Saudi Salafis. Hamas has a view that all Palestinians are in this together, including Christians. Hamas has gone out of its way to protect Christians and their churches and properties in Gaza. I do believe that Hamas’s leadership is enlightened and inclusive. I don’t think that there are Christians in Hamas, but in the last PLC elections, Hamas supported at least one independent, Christian candidate.

Hamas does not play on the Sunni-Shia divide; to the contrary it believes that all Arabs and Muslims should pool their resources and efforts to fight the common enemy and not each other. Hamas has excellent relations with the Shiite Hizbullah and has received at least some support from Iran. Hamas welcomes support from all those willing to help.

The debate on the "One State" versus "Two State" solution has recently heated up with Micheal Neumann, Jonathan Cook and others weighing in. Has Hamas taken a clear stand on this issue and, if yes, what is it? What about yourself, which side of this debate do you support?

Without using labels, I interpret Hamas’ position as supporting both solutions. While that sounds contradictory, it is not. What Hamas is saying is that it would accept a long term Hudna (truce) during which time a two-state solution, with a real independent Palestinian state, would be acceptable. After that, Hamas is calling for ultimately dismantling the racist, Zionist state, paving the way for one democratic state for all, including Palestinian Jews willing to live as equal in one Palestine.

While a one state solution is being advocated more and more, it is meaningless without dismantling Zionism. That dismantling is going to take time, and it would be unreasonable to expect the Palestinians to endure under the present horrible conditions. So, if a two-state solution can emerge in the interim, then that would be more just and humane for the Palestinians, but not as a permanent and just solution. That would not solve the problems of the refugees and their right of return nor would it address the status of Palestinians within Israel. Those issues can only be resolved within a one-state solution that would evolve after dismantling Zionism. This is my view.