[In May 2001, at the height of the Al-Aqsa Intifada and several months after Ariel Sharon assumed office in Israel and George W. Bush was installed in the United States, Edward W. Said came to Palestine to pay his respects to his close friend and associate, the Palestinian academic and activist Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, who had succumbed to illness. He was interviewed by Jadaliyya Co-Editor Mouin Rabbani and Dutch journalist Bertus Hendriks in Jerusalem on 28 May. During this discussion Said offered his views on developments in Palestine, their broader context, as well as his conception of a different future.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): Since Oslo was signed you have been uncompromisingly critical of Israel, the United States and the Palestinian Authority. You have also described the Accords as a “Palestinian Versailles” being implemented by a “Palestinian Vichy” government. And yet the current Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, according to the entire international community, is being led by the PA if not by Yasir Arafat personally. Can we conclude, therefore, that for the past seven years you’ve basically misinterpreted what both the Palestinian Authority and Oslo are about?
Edward W. Said (EWS): I think one would have to say that what’s going on is a massive uprising against the whole situation, which includes an enhanced occupation due to Israel. I think it’s a revolt against the whole status quo brought in by Oslo, which in a sense I predicted. I said this would never go anywhere, and in the end people whose condition was getting worse were going to refuse to go on. I think that’s the current situation. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying it’s against occupation. It’s against the whole situation — occupation, and the role the PA plays in it.
MR: At Camp David last summer, the Palestinians — as US diplomat Dennis Ross put it — were basically given everything they asked for, but instead took a strategic decision to use violence. Here again there is an at least implicit acknowledgement that the PA is actually still in charge of the Palestinian national movement, and seeking to attain the strategic objectives of this movement rather than being a subcontractor for Israeli security.
EWS: I think what was offered at Camp David and again at the White House at the end of 2000 has been misleadingly portrayed as “giving the Palestinians everything they want”. It’s like saying to prisoners in a jail we’re going to give you ninety per cent of the prison, but we keep the doors, the walls, the exits and the entrances and the roof. That whole confection was misleadingly portrayed as a wonderful gift to the Palestinians.
Second, Arafat and the PA understood what was offered to them. They understood they were being asked to sign off on the entire conflict, that they weren’t going to get Jerusalem. That, after eight years of Oslo, they weren’t going to get a Palestinian state but a protectorate of some sort, non-contiguous territory, what I’ve just described. At that point Arafat’s caution, his endurance, gave out and he just drew back. I’m speculating, but I don’t think he had another plan. Like in Cairo in May 1994, he refused to sign [the Gaza-Jericho Agreement] and there was somebody there, President Mubarak [of Egypt], to make him sign; here he just drew back. He didn’t want to sign. He saw that it was a terminal trap from which he couldn’t escape. And at that point the whole policy of closure was also choking the Palestinians. So I think there was a convergence of reasons to cause the whole situation to blow up.
Bertus Hendriks (BH): If these negotiation are to resume again, it’s clear that in order to be successful they will have to start from where they left off at Taba, and there would have to be an improvement over the Taba offer. Would that not come close to a solution that would not entail all the abandonment of Palestinian principles that you have criticised so much?
EWS: If they’re going to resume at all they’re going to resume within the framework of the Mitchell Report. The Mitchell Report is simply a rephrasing of the old Oslo agreements. I resent the fact that it’s seen as a very forward-looking, quite extraordinary document. There’s nothing in it about the end of occupation. They talk vaguely about stopping settlements, but say nothing about removing them. They don’t say anything about getting the tanks out of here, or about not using F-16s. It’s a very cautious report written, in my opinion, very much for the Israeli lobby in the US, of whom Mitchell and his colleague Warren Rudman are creatures. Mitchell was one of the highest recipients of Israeli lobby money when he was in the Senate. So was Rudman. To expect anything more of them is foolish. It’s the same old stuff repackaged, and the Israelis have everything to gain by it. They say “we’re stopping settlements”. But what’s the mechanism proposed for monitoring the stopping of settlements, or for getting rid of them? There’s nothing in the Mitchell Report about ending occupation, removing the settlers, or restoring East Jerusalem. It’s just what we in America call a shell game. Give me a break!
MR: You’ve now been in Palestine for several days during which I understand you’ve met many political leaders, or at least many of the leaders of the current uprising, such as Marwan Barghouti, Mustafa Barghouti, and others. Have these meetings affected your view of the current situation, and made you perhaps more optimistic or pessimistic? The second, related question, is whether you have had any meetings with the PA?
EWS: No. I met PA Cabinet Secretary Ahmad Abd-al-Rahman at the eulogy for Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, who I’ve known for almost 30 years. [Abu-Lughod’s deteriorating condition was the reason for Said’s visit, but Abu-Lughod passed away only hours before Said’s arrival., I of course met people at these very sad occasions, but I haven’t had any discussions with them to speak of.
The few discussions I’ve had with the leaders you mentioned and with others as well actually leaves me quite optimistic, because what I’ve discerned is a tremendous search for new ideas. There’s a complete awareness on the part of everybody that the old way just simply won’t do. You can’t just go back doing the same thing, it’s quite stupid in a way. And these are not stupid people. So I think there is a genuine search for new ideas, but there isn’t a genuine finding of new ideas, that takes time to come. But what impresses me is that people are looking for new things to do and new perspectives to offer beyond throwing stones, going back to the negotiations, and so on and so forth. In other words I think there’s a craving for some bit of imagination and creativity here which I think is tremendously encouraging.
MR: Speaking of new ideas, your consistent position during the Oslo period has been that the concept of a partition of Palestine cannot be sustained in the longer term. Yet during the early months of the current uprising you seemed to change this position. What is your opinion now and how has it been affected by the current uprising?
EWS: My feeling is that the current uprising is, as I’ve described it earlier, a complex phenomenon. I think its most useful energies should be directed towards the end of the occupation, basically within the 1967 lines, towards the removal of the settlements and of the Israeli military forces here. It’s not going to happen quickly, but you can build a movement around the evacuation of illegally held Palestinian territory by Israeli military and settlement forces. That’s a very clear tactical short-term goal. Now if you achieve that you achieve a dynamism in the political process here which is now completely unforeseeable. Will it lead to directly to a Palestinian state on the one hand, or will it lead elsewhere? I’m always thinking about the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, who are not going to rush into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There is also as an added factor a tremendous amount of pressure on the PA and on the Israelis: the movement of return. All of that has to be factored in. I’m simply incapable of telling you what that’s going to result in.
But I don’t think I should be misinterpreted as saying “end of occupation equals Palestinian state”. End of occupation equals a new situation, in which — and this is very important — Israelis have to participate. There can’t be an end of occupation without the substantial engagement in that anti-occupation movement of substantial numbers Israelis. Now in that situation you’ve got an entirely new dynamic, something resembling the liberation struggle against apartheid in South Africa, in which the whites were involved from the start. We’ve never achieved that kind of thought here.
MR: Perhaps because the concept has so often been rejected by Palestinians?
EWS: Yes. This whole fetish of the dangers of normalization, even while normalization is taking place under the covers has to be rethought. I have some ideas about that which I’d be happy to talk about. But what I’m saying is that if you focus on occupation and ending occupation, which alas they’re not doing, neither the Americans nor the Israelis nor, alas, the Palestinians, then you create a whole new dynamic. And I think without that dynamic we’re just going to go around in the same circle.
BH: You say that in order to end the occupation you must have the involvement of large numbers of Israelis. But this can only be achieved if you accept the basic tenet that the solution for two people in one land is the end of occupation and partition. What then happens with the refugees’ right of return in line with UN Resolution 194, which for many Israelis amounts to an unrestricted exercise of the Palestinian right of return and spells the end of the Israeli part of a two-state solution. How do you deal with that?
EWS: Very easily. The present right of return for every Jew everywhere is the end of Palestinian existence. Because if every Jew in the world has the right of return we’re talking about the return of 20 million people here, which can’t possibly be viable as far as Palestinians are concerned. So my answer is that we have to put both these unlimited rights together and negotiate some solution to the problem of this enormous number of theoretical returnees which this land can’t possibly accommodate. So why does everyone want the Palestinians to renege on a fundamental right of residence and not expect the same thing from the Israelis. So I’m just saying, put them together and look at them together and see what we get. That’s never been done. I think the Israeli screeching and the hysteria – the obviously feigned hysteria – is profoundly hypocritical. Why should they have an unlimited law of return for any Jew anywhere at any time, and Palestinians can’t even theoretically talk about the right of return to their country from which they were driven out. So I think that’s the way you have to see it, in that perspective.
BH: You said there could be no end to the occupation without significant Israeli involvement. Could you elaborate on this?
EWS: I think it’s terribly important to address directly, as Palestinians, sectors of Israeli society. I don’t mean the traditional way of running after Meretz, and Peres, and Labour, and all those, to my mind, completely discredited and useless traditional elements of the Israeli political system, which is dedicated basically to a racist dehumanization of the Palestinians. But rather to students, artists, intellectuals, Sephardi Jews, independents, sectors of society, to explain to them that we have rights as a people that we’re never going to abandon, and that their policies of the last fifty-three years are a failure. We have to say it to them. To help them understand that simply killing Palestinians, or imprisoning them, or besieging them is not leading them anywhere. They have less security today than they had ten years ago, less than twenty years ago. So it’s obvious that this is a stupid, suicidal, delusional policy of theirs. That’s number one.
I think the fear that we have of addressing them in creative ways stems from a complete misunderstanding of the ways other societies besides our own operate. These are basically democratic societies with a very strong civil component that we can deal with and work with, but we have to educate ourselves. One of the things that occurs to me when I see people blowing up cars and killing innocent people is that, aside from being criminal, it doesn’t do anything. But what if you could explode a barrel full of leaflets that say “this is what you’re doing to us”, and list the crimes they’ve committed against the Palestinian people, and force them to read and hear what we have to say. Address them via television. We have lots of Palestinians at Israeli universities who can quite easily address Israeli students, faculty and others. In other words, a courageous and direct exchange, the way there was between whites and blacks in South Africa because of the ANC. You’ve got to be able to address them and get them on your side. I don’t see any other way. You can’t keep radicalizing them so that they kill you with more impunity, feeling they’re the victims, which is what we have now. That’s number two.
And number three, you can’t have a situation in which our young people are sacrificing themselves to a delusional suicidal idea. Political struggle is about life, it’s not about killing others and yourself, you’ve got to be able to live. And where we’re at now is to me a dead end. It’s neurotic. And it should be converted to something that gets results. There’s nothing easier for the Israelis than to sit behind a barricade and fire missiles at what seem like a bunch of maniacs. But look at the effect — it may have been positive, it may have been negative, but it had an effect — of the introduction several years ago in the Israeli parliament of the question of whether students should read Palestinian literature or not. It created a tremendous storm. That’s the kind of argument you want to have, not whether “we should defend ourselves against terrorists”.
BH: But what do you to say to those Palestinians who have given up all hope and say that all liberation movements, South African included, only achieved results through the use of force, and that terrorism is the only thing that is frightening the Israelis?
EWS: That’s a stupid argument, it’s an insufficient argument. Nobody is saying that you give up the use of force. I said nothing about that. Mandela never gave up, never disarmed, at all. You protect yourself. I’m not a pacifist. I think people should be allowed to protect themselves against attack. It’s very different from what I would call blind terrorism. What is achieved by that politically? In my opinion, not very much. We’ve tried it for years. I’ve never seen much thought given to it as one alternative among many. Why not examine the alternatives? Try these, which are in my opinion forms of cultural struggle that are in their own way as dangerous as shooting a rifle. And I think they produce more lasting and more effective results.
BH: So you support those Palestinian intellectuals who have criticized the rapid militarization of the uprising?
EWS: Absolutely. Well, first of all, we don’t have a military. If you want to call it popular resistance you can call it that. I’m for that. But I think it could be directed more imaginatively. Take, for example, the settlements. I’ve been saying this for the last five years, maybe more. There is no movement to organize the people who are building the settlements, who are Palestinians. Palestinian leaders are organizing Palestinian contract workers to work in the settlements. Why is that not stopped? In other words, there are many other weapons besides rocks and terrorist bombs, like popular, organized resistance against settlements, against demolition of houses. The way Israelis do it. There’s a movement in Israel against the demolition of houses, people go and sit in these houses and challenge the bulldozers. We should have more of that, rather than just lobbing rocks from a distance. It shows bravery, I suppose, and audacity, and defiance, but it’s rather limited in its results.
MR: What about the US role? There’s an increasing feeling here that what is happening is not so much Israeli aggression against the Palestinians but, as Noam Chomsky put it recently, “American planes with Israeli pilots”. How do you view the US role in the current situation, the representation of this conflict in the United States and the importance this representation has on realities on the ground here?
EWS: I would say that there are really only two serious areas of struggle. One of them is what I just spoke about, a cultural and political struggle on many fronts. The second is the United States. Without the United States, Israel cannot do what it’s doing now. The [US] media has systematically misrepresented this conflict as a conflict between two states, in which one – the Palestinians – are the aggressor, and the Israelis are the poor victims who might as well be in the Warsaw Ghetto. That’s the impression people have.
And third, in the United States, there is an extraordinarily permissive attitude towards Israel on the part of Congress and the Administration. It was true under Clinton, it was true under Reagan, it was true under Bush, and it’s now true under George W. That Israel has the right to a vast supply of military weapons and economic aid for which it is not held accountable.
What I think is developing, is a burgeoning civil movement in the United States, made up of elements of the old anti-war movement, the human rights community, the various ethnic communities, African-Americans, Latino-Americans, the Women’s movement, the academic community, the churches, and similar alternative as opposed to establishment communities in America, which have a very powerful clout and which have achieved quite important results, for example in the battle against the World Trade Organization, globalization, Davos and so on. All these elements are now slowly coalescing and converging around the question of Palestine and above all of US military support and supply of Israel. It has its information thanks to the internet, not thanks to the media but to the alternative media, radio, cyber-activism, alternative journalism, samizdat, all of that. There’s a tremendous amount of that stuff circulating around.
It seems to me that the movement is slowly being born which is going to in fact put enormous pressure on the US to modify or in some way rethink its policy towards the Middle East. It’s not going to come because the Republicans are more favorable to the Arabs. It’s not going to come because Colin Powell is better than Madeleine Albright. It’s not going to come for all the stupid reasons that we give here. It’s going to happen because of an enlightened, gradually more and more organized national campaign to change the position of the United States in the Middle East. I would say keep your eye on it. It is very, very, very encouraging.
[This interview was originally published in abbreviated form in Middle East International (MEI).]