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Intifada 2000: The Palestinian Uprising
An interview with Edward Said, November 2000
Edward W. Said was born in Jerusalem, Palestine and attended schools there and in Cairo. He received a BA from Princeton, an MA and PhD from Harvard. He is University Professor at Columbia. He is the author of Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, Covering Islam, Culture and Imperialism, Representations of the Intellectual, The Politics of Dispossession, Peace and its Discontents, and Out of Place. His latest book is The End of the Peace Process.
In your writings and lectures on the Palestinian conflict, you constantly refer to the centrality of 1948.
I don't think you can understand what's happening today and the situation of the Palestinians unless you understand what happened in 1948. A society made up principally of Arabs in Palestine was uprooted and destroyed. Two-thirds of the Arab population of 870,000 people was driven out by design. The Zionist archives are quite clear about this, and several Israeli historians have written about it. Of course, the Arabs have said it all along. By the end of the conflict in 1948, Palestinians were a minority in their own country. Two-thirds of them had become refugees, whose descendants today number about four and a half million people scattered throughout the Arab world, Europe, Australia, and North America. The balance of the people became subjects to the Israeli military occupation in 1967 when the West Bank and Gaza, along with Jerusalem, were taken over and occupied. Nineteen forty-eight is the date on which the Palestinian search for self-determination begins. It doesn't begin in 1967. That completed the Israeli conquest.
During 1948, not only was all of the land of the Palestinians, roughly 94 percent, taken over militarily by the state of Israel as land for the Jewish people, which meant that the Arabs who remained and who are now roughly 20 percent of the population of Israel, were not entitled to hold land. Most of the land in Israel is now controlled by the state for the Jewish people. Second, 400-plus Arab villages were destroyed, which were then replanted, so to speak, by Israeli settlers who built the kibbutzes. Every kibbutz in Israel is on Arab property that was taken in 1948.
So the festering wound of 1948 has remained, since at the same time Israel has said, we bear no responsibility for what happened to the Palestinians; they left because their leaders told them to. All sorts of propaganda were used. Second, there's been no attempt by the Israelis, even during the last meetings between the Palestinians and the Israelis at Camp David in July, to consider the right of return of every Palestinian to the place from which he or she was driven out in 1948. That is the core of the whole thing.
Talk about “the peace process.”
The peace process began in 1993, when a secretive agreement was made between the PLO and the Israeli government to give the Palestinians and the Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasir Arafat some territory and authority over that territory in the West Bank and Gaza. However, given the tremendous disparity in power between the Israelis and the Palestinians, in effect the peace process has been a repackaging of the Israeli occupation. Israel still controls 60 percent of the West Bank and 40 percent of Gaza. It has annexed Jerusalem, and has filled the territories with settlers, including the ones in Jerusalem where about 350,000 Israelis are there illegally. These are settlements and a military occupation that is the second longest in the 20th century, the longest being the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945.
Essentially, the peace process has involved the Palestinian leadership in accepting Israeli terms: A small redeployment of Israeli troops; the settlements continue; Jerusalem is still under Israeli sovereignty and settlement; the borders and the water are controlled by Israel; the exits and entrances are controlled by Israel; security is controlled by Israel. What the Americans and Israelis were doing was to get Palestinian consent to this repackaging of the occupation. It's been presented to the public as moving towards peace, whereas it's been a gigantic fraud. Only that could possibly explain the extent and depth of the Palestinian rebellion that has taken place since September 29.
Of course, the Israeli army is called the Israeli Defense Forces. The line has been that the Israeli army is a defensive one. The media have presented it as if they are defending Israel from Palestinians. The Palestinians have no arms to speak of except for some small arms among the police. It's been a population of stone-throwing youths against Israeli missiles, helicopter gunships, tanks, and rockets. The most important thing is that all the fighting has taken place inside Palestine, because of the Israeli military occupation. So to use the word “defense” here is a grotesque misnomer. This is an occupation force inside Palestinian territory, whereas the Palestinians are resisting military occupation and the Israelis are prolonging the occupation, and making the civilian population pay the price of resistance.
How about “terrorism?”
It's a very ugly conflict and has been since the 1920s, when the Zionists introduced terrorism into Palestine. It was one of the standard techniques of the early groups of Zionist extremists, who put bombs in Arab marketplaces to terrorize the population. This led to a crescendo during the 1930s and 1940s, when terrorism was used by the Zionists against the British to hasten their retreat from Palestine, which they did in 1948.
Since that time, there has been a great deal of back and forth. In all cases, it has to be remembered that despite the horrendous loss of life, and there is no way of excusing or making up for the innocents who have lost lives, there has been a vast preponderance of Palestinian losses. If you look at the example of the figures of the last 6 weeks, there have been 180 Palestinians killed and 14 Israelis. Eight were soldiers. The Palestinians were all civilians. Terrorism in this context has been for the Palestinians the weapon of the weak and the oppressed. It has been very limited and sporadic, but amplified and blown up to grotesque proportions by the Israelis, who always try to portray themselves as the victims, whereas in this conflict they are not the victims. They are the oppressors.
The U.S. is portrayed as an even-handed broker.
Israel is the only state in the world that has received U.S. military and economic aid that now roughly totals about $170 billion. Every U.S. political figure of note, whether it's a campaigner in a small district in northern New York State or a presidential contender, has had to declare himself or herself an unconditional supporter of Israel, because of the power of the Israeli lobby and the fact that there is a very active and politically savvy and sensitively placed community of supporters of Israel. U.S. policy has focused on the defense and support of Israel in all of its ventures. Something like 60 UN Security Council vetoes have been used by the U.S. to prevent censure of Israel in cases that are flagrant violations of international law, whether they range from torture to using helicopters and missiles against civilians to settlements and illegal annexations.
So to say that the U.S. is an even-handed broker is a preposterous mischaracterization. The U.S. is very much in Israel's camp. It should also be mentioned that most of the officials involved in the peace process, beginning with Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, and Aaron David Miller are former employees of the Israeli lobby.
The Economist, the conservative British weekly, observed that “the new Palestinian intifada is rapidly assuming the form of a serious anti-colonial revolt.”
The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza with settlers and settlements and roads and the constant expropriation of Palestinian lands, the destruction of crops and olive trees to make way for roads, the redesigning of the geography of the West Bank to permit its greater control, all these policies have, were it not for the amnesiac U.S. media, followed the line of all classical colonialism. So what has happened in the last six or seven weeks has been an attempt to overthrow this, including the peace process, streamlining it so that the Israelis can control without using so many troops, frequently using Palestinians to police the people on behalf of the Israelis. Ironically, a lot of the job of security has been handed over to Palestinian police, who have to subdue precisely the people who are now the anti-colonial demonstrators.
You've pointed out that there are no maps in this most geographical of conflicts. Why are maps important?
Given the notoriously small attention span of the average TV viewer or reader of newspapers, there's very little awareness of the history or the geographical topography involved. Most people say, the Arabs and the Jews are back at it again, giving the notion that there are two equal sides and that one side is beset, being victimized, the Israeli side. Whereas what has happened is that for all Palestinians, 1948 and the founding of the state of Israel, meant that essentially 78 percent of historic Palestine that was Arab has become Israeli. That's been conceded. The West Bank and Gaza together constitute 22 percent of historical Palestine, and this is what the current fight is over. The Palestinians are not fighting over the 78 percent that they've already lost. They're fighting over the 22 percent that remains. Of this 22 percent, the Israelis are still in control of 60 percent of the West Bank and 40 percent of Gaza. So if there were ever to be a Palestinian state, there would be no contiguous territory. It would all be chopped into little pieces, controlled by the roads, which the Israelis have built and which are now encircling each of the Palestinian areas, which is why Palestinians today are besieged within their little territory.
The Israelis have made it impossible for Palestinians to move from one area to another, from north to south from east to west. Greater Jerusalem, which is roughly 4 percent of the whole territory, has been annexed by Israel and the Israelis plan not to give it back at all. The idea is that this area will be controlled by Israel except for municipal services and issues like health, all those problematic citizen problems that they want to give over to the Palestinian Authority. Security and borders are under Israeli control. Even today Yasir Arafat can't go in and out of Gaza without Israeli permission, and they can shut the airport, as they have, and shut the territory so that people can't move. In effect, they are being choked to death. This is the result of the peace process. This is not the result of war. This is part of the disaster of the agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinian leadership under the aegis of the U.S., which is why it's blown up.
Where is your information coming from?
Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories is a bimonthly published in Washington. The editor is Geoffrey Aronson. It's a publication of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. It's the single most authoritative source drawn from Israeli, Palestinian, and international agencies on the rate of settlement building, the holding of settlements, the initiation of new settlements, the destruction of property and the increase in the settler population.
Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, Pulitzer Prize-winner and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, PBS's Charlie Rose, and the Orientalist academic Bernard Lewis pretty much all state that: Camp David collapsed because of Arafat's intransigence and his failure to seize a unique opportunity; that the Barak offer went way beyond anything previously proposed; that it was a far-reaching and generous compromise.
It's factually untrue. Before he went, Barak made it absolutely clear that he had no intention of returning to the 1967 borders, which was the principle on which the peace process was started—that there would be a return of all the territory to the June 5, 1967 borders. Second, he made it absolutely clear that there would be no return of the refugees. Third, he made it absolutely clear that there would be no return of Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty at all. Fourth, he made it absolutely clear that he had no intention of uprooting any of the settlements. These are the positions on which his whole subsequent negotiation was based. He didn't concede anything. He said, we will allow you a form of sovereignty in the holy places. We will keep the Christian and Armenian sections. You can have a little bit of sovereignty over some of the Muslim holy places, but the real substantive sovereignty over East Jerusalem will remain in Israeli hands. The vast majority of the city in terms of area would remain under Israel. That was supposed to be a “forward-looking” position.
Faced with this, Arafat couldn't agree. Not only because of the conditions, which were terrible, but also for two other reasons. One is that Arafat was being asked to end the conflict and end any Palestinian claims against Israel and thereby ending any Muslim-Christian claims against Israel. He couldn't do it. Secondly, he was also being asked to give up Palestinian claims to the right of return and self-determination, which again he couldn't do. Far from it being an opportunity for Arafat to take advantage of Israeli generosity, it was an opportunity for Arafat effectively to commit suicide and to give Israel the last prize, you might say the cherry on the sundae, which was everything they wanted in addition to what Arafat had already conceded, which was 78 percent of what they had in 1948. He also conceded West Jerusalem. The concessions Arafat made were vastly more generous and ill considered than anything the Israelis did.
Another theme echoed by the pundits is the image of Palestinians as losers. Barak in his Knesset speech on October 30 revived the Abba Eban comment that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Israeli information, from the very beginning, has always played on two levels. On one level, there's what they call hasbara, the Hebrew word for information for the goy, the foreigners. There is the depiction of Israel as forthcoming, democratic, defensive, victimized, generous and compassionate. In other words, an image crafted to appeal to the Western liberal conscience. Then, on the other hand, there's what Israel says to itself and what Barak says to his people. From the very beginning, whether it was Peres speaking or Rabin or Yossi Beilin or Barak or Netanyahu, they all said the same thing. They said, this is a peace process in which we lose nothing. Rabin said it just a few months before Oslo was signed in 1998. He said, I wish Gaza would sink into the sea. It's such a millstone around our necks. It's overpopulated, a million people living under the most miserable conditions. Why should we be responsible? We'll keep the best land and we'll give Gaza to the Palestinians. That's the basis of Oslo.
If you look carefully at this history, you realize what, in my opinion, a suicidal game the Israelis are playing. The basis of their politics is that the only argument the Arabs can understand is violence. The occupation is a form of violence against which throwing of rocks and the occasional terrorist outrage, horrible though they may be, is nothing in comparison to the collective punishment of 3 million people that has been going on for the last 33 years. Israel was the only country in the world where torture was permitted. Twenty percent of the population of the Israeli citizens of Israel, who happen not to be Jews, Palestinians, are denied rights, not allowed to own land, rent it or buy it. Their lands are regularly confiscated. Twenty percent of the population gets one percent of the budget.
It also must be said that Israel signed peace treaties with two Arab countries, Jordan and Egypt, and still 20 years of peace with Egypt have remained essentially cold. The Israelis say, we tried. We sent missions. But Israel is seen everywhere as responsible for the use of massive weapons, disproportionate violence against civilians, the continued expropriation of land, the building of settlements, the trampling on Palestinian rights. This has made Israel a pariah state in the Arab and Islamic world of three hundred million Arabs, 1.2 billion Muslims. That's why I say it's suicidal, because in the end Israel is a state in the Middle East. It has the support of the U.S. But how long can that last? At some point the numbers are going to be against it. I figure that by 2010 there will be an equal number of Palestinians and Israelis on historical Palestine. There will be demographic parity between Jews and Arabs. At which point, how much can the Israelis control? By 2030 there will be twice as many Arabs as there are Jews. So the Jews in Israel will be in a minority.
It's certainly acceptable that they should have political self-determination. But it can't be guaranteed by military means. That is not a long-term policy. The only option is peace, and it has to be a real peace between equals as opposed to a peace that is imposed on the weaker party by the stronger one.
In the 1987 uprising the Palestinians living in Israel were rather quiescent. However in the 2000 intifada that has dramatically changed. Why?
One reason is that the treatment of the Palestinian Israelis by the Israeli government has historically been appalling. They were ruled by military edict until 1966. So for 18 years, from the beginning of the state in 1948, they were an outcast people in their own country, discriminated against in every way. They were not allowed to move, to be properly educated, to have certain jobs. In 1966 the military government was lifted and they were given a measure of improved conditions. They were represented in the Knesset. They could vote in elections. They can't serve in the army. They can't own land. During that period, from 1966 on, they watched the alienation of their land continue to take place. Many of the villages, like Um El Fahm, which was probably the largest Arab village in Israel, lost 10,000 dunams, about 2,500 acres, of its village land ceded to the Israel government. It was expropriated for military purposes. They were going to turn it into a target range. So there was a massive sense of being discriminated against for the simple reason that they're not Jews. It's a kind of racism that affected the whole community, and they finally rose up against it. They saw what the Israeli army was doing in the West Bank and Gaza and they identified with the Palestinians there. That's the second most important thing.
What the Israelis have tried to do has been to destroy the sense of unity of these people, who are divided by geography. The Palestinians of Israel are Israeli citizens and the people in the West Bank and Gaza used to be Jordanians, or in Gaza they used to be Egyptians. They're now in an indeterminate state. The Palestinians in Jordan and Lebanon are stateless people. One of the most important achievements of the PLO was to make the people feel as one people. I think the whole of the policy of the U.S. and Israel has been in the last 20 years to keep digging away at Palestinian identity, to fragment it, so that people didn't feel that they were part of the same entity who have suffered collectively as a people.
For any Israeli, the thing to do now is to confront the problem within their borders. Israel is unique in many ways. It is a state that has no constitution. It is government by a set of basic laws. It makes very radical distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, right down to the statistical abstracts. Everything is governed by who's a Jew and who isn't. This is unworkable. It's a state that's run effectively by religious authority. So many citizens of Israel are genuinely worried about the fate of secular Jews who will not accept being ruled by Orthodox and Conservative clerics. Rather than confront this in an open way, there is this return to the traditional response of the Israelis, either to deny or to reaffirm something completely different that has very little to do with reality.
The Palestinians bear a great responsibility, Palestinian intellectuals, but even Palestinian citizens and other Arabs have a great responsibility to make this known to Israelis, and to say, we are here, you are here. You can't deny, you can't repress forever. You have to seek out the truth in your past, the truth in ours. Maybe through a truth and reconciliation commission such as the one that took place in South Africa. What's stunning about this conflict is that for 50 years, these two communities have been working on totally opposed principles. The Israelis have said that they have a right to this land. There was nobody here. In one way or another they've been saying this all along. It doesn't matter what happened in 1948. Let's try to deal with 1967. Those are unacceptable responses in the 21st century. It behooves everyone to say, this is unacceptable behavior. You can't wipe the slate clean to suit you and your policy. You have to face the other party and try to take responsibility for what you did, the way everybody has.
You wrote a series of articles in Al-Ahram Weekly entitled “American Zionism.” In the lead article you discuss an interview you had with Avi Shavit of Ha'aretz, the main Israeli newspaper. You drew certain conclusions from that interaction.
The distinction I was trying to draw was that the Israeli position is that the Palestinians are there, but they are a lesser people. The Israeli right wing says we conquered them and they have to be our servants. The left wing says we can rearrange them in some inoffensive way. Today because the Israelis live there and they see Palestinians every minute of the day, as their servants and waiters in the restaurants of Tel Aviv or their chauffeurs and taxi drivers, all those people who work in the occupied territories and in Jerusalem, they know they're a physical presence. So that's the Israeli Zionist awareness, consciousness of Palestinians. The American Zionist by contrast really doesn't think of the Palestinians as a real thing at all. There's a kind of fantasy element in which Palestinians are a gratuitous ideological fiction created to harass the Israelis and therefore avatars of anti-Semitism. That's what Bernard Lewis keeps saying all the time, this is Arab anti-Semitism. Zionism is much more dangerous than Israeli Zionism.
A couple of years ago you made a documentary film for the BBC called In Search of Palestine. After being shown on BBC 2 and then on BBC World, it has more or less disappeared. The BBC was almost totally unsuccessful in getting it on U.S. television. Why was that?
There's a history of films from a Palestinian point of view in this country. There's an organized response from the Zionist organizations to try to stop it, try to block it. They try to argue it down. They try to make sure that the advertisers pay a very heavy price for it in withdrawn support. If they want to show one Palestinian film they have to show five films from the Israeli point of view. What happened to my film was very much of that order. Nobody would take it. The BBC couldn't place it in this country. Finally, through personal connections, I was able to get it on Channel 13 in New York, PBS, to show it once, and I think it was shown on public television in San Francisco, also once. Effectively the film has disappeared.
During the last six weeks of the Al-Aqsa intifada that began in late September until now, the New York Times on its op-ed page has not run any pro-Palestinian articles except one by an Israeli who argued the Palestinian case. Not a single Arab, with the exception of a Jordanian, and we're talking 50 op-ed pieces, maybe more, saying that he supported the peace process, saying this was a pity, let's go back to Oslo, and a very strong article by an Israeli lawyer who's in this country. The rest have all been pro-Israeli. That's been true of the Washington Post, of all the major papers. In all the reporting no maps have been shown, so you can't really tell what the Palestinians have lost and where they are confined. Mercifully, there are alternative sources. But the overwhelming official consensus is that Israel is a besieged, victimized country.
What can be done to reverse what you call the unhealthy quality of public discussion?
One has to begin first by mobilizing the community of supporters in this country of which there are many for the rights of the Palestinians and a genuine course toward peace and reconciliation between Palestinians, Arabs generally, and Israelis. So we need to mobilize opinion in this country. We must have more pressure, because the polls that I've seen since the early 1970s all have shown that most Americans, when given a quarter of a chance, will see the justice and the injustice of the situation. So I think the constant monitoring of the media, as some are beginning to do all over the country, to show the imbalances is important. NPR and the networks, the newspapers, like the New York Times, should be constantly bombarded with alternatives and letters and organized campaigns to change their coverage. Second, I think the most important thing is to delegitimize the Israeli military occupation. It has gone on for 33 years. The U.S. sells 40 percent of its entire arms outlay to the Middle East, whether it's the Gulf countries or Israel. They're the largest purchasers of arms in the world. What we also have to do is to take the curtain away so that the debate about the Middle East is not hobbled by the fear of inciting the Zionist lobby. Just because the New Republic or Commentary take after somebody doesn't mean that they should stop. One shouldn't be afraid of what is a paper tiger. They have very thin support.
In light of the 2000 intifada, what does that mean for your proposal of a couple of years ago for a binational state where Palestinians and Israelis would live in one country?
I think now the preeminent thing is the end of military occupation. The Palestinians and the Israelis are so integrated; the territory is so small that you can't have a situation in which one population has imposed itself militarily on the other. I'm very much against evictions and driving people off. I do think, however, that the settlements have to be dismantled and the populations have to face each other not only as neighbors but as coexistents in one basically homogenous state which we call historical Palestine, whether you call it Israel or a Palestinian state. The economies and the histories are so intertwined that I still think that in the end a binational state is the only long-term solution. In the interim, one would have to have two states in which one is free of military occupation and then is able out of that freedom to pursue policies that integrate it not just with Israel but with Jordan, Lebanon, the other small countries that make up this very densely populated and highly integrated part of the world. I still think it's the optimal solution and will come. But alas, a lot of time has to pass and some of these tremendous vestiges of the past have to be worked through. Z
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