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Middle East Roundtable / Edition 6

A Palestinian View:
Quiet doesn't come out of the blue

an interview with Hanan Ashrawi

bitterlemons: There was a lot of talk about a new era and an end of violence at the Sharm al Sheikh summit. What did you make of the summit?

Ashrawi: On the one hand we don't want to overload it with significance and unrealistic expectations. On the other, we mustn't underestimate or undervalue the significance of having a period in which there is no violence and in which there is a commitment by the Israeli occupation and the Palestinians not to resort to violence. A period of quiet is sine qua non for changing the dynamic on the ground and for generating a whole new modus operandi, which we hope will be a substantive peace process.

bitterlemons: But in order to ensure a period of quiet, certain things would need to happen on the ground immediately, wouldn't you agree?

Ashrawi: Yes, absolutely. Quiet doesn't come out of the blue, particularly when you have a military occupation. What you need is for Israel to refrain from conducting any kind of violence or aggression or escalation, including things like assassinations, the incursions, but also lifting the siege, and making moves like the release of prisoners and cessation of building of the wall and settlement activities.

So there is a need to show seriousness of intent and good will on the one hand, and on the other, if there is a period of calm, that has to be invested in qualitative and strategic moves ahead, and not exploited in order to create facts that are more detrimental toward peace.

bitterlemons: There was a big disagreement over the proposed release of 900 prisoners, which would have been the biggest release since the intifada began. How important is this issue and why?

Ashrawi: It is important to Palestinians. It cannot be seen as a deal breaker, but at the same time it is a significant moral, legal, political and human issue. This touches almost every Palestinian home. Palestinian prisoners are perceived by all Palestinians not just as heroic but as political prisoners, and therefore they have the right to be included in any political agreement. [A significant release] will improve the climate substantially and show Israeli willingness to reciprocate in a positive way to the Palestinians.

The problem has always been that Israel has unilaterally decided on the criteria for prisoner release and cynically manipulated this very human condition, in terms of releasing prisoners accused of crimes and misdemeanors, those in Israel without permit, or those who were due to be released anyway. They have shown they are capable of manipulating the situation and this has backfired, it has generated tremendous anger and a sense of betrayal among the Palestinians. So now it is important that the criteria are agreed to, that the Palestinians indicate very clearly--this started way back in the pre-Madrid peace talks--that prisoners released include older prisoners, prisoners since before 1993, women prisoners, prisoners who are not well, youth and underage prisoners, without the imposed criteria of "blood on their hands", or any type of separation on the basis of political affiliation.

bitterlemons: You mentioned the wall. Surely that is a huge obstacle, at least in the medium term if not in the short term?

Ashrawi: It's a strategic issue, actually. The wall, the settlements, Jerusalem, these are core substantive issues. Israel is creating facts that will be irreversible and will render any future agreement unrealistic or unworkable. The wall is a key issue. The wall around Jerusalem and the settlements around Jerusalem are an embodiment of a situation that undermines prospects of peace in the future. There you have a land grab, there you have the isolation of Jerusalem and steps that prejudge the issue of Jerusalem, and you have a siege that destroys normal life and economic endeavors. So this is a real test, and this is something that third parties are called on to address. That's why we are wondering whether it's the Arab countries that want to be involved, or the Americans who are expressing a willingness to reengage, or the Quartet that is supposed to meet on the sidelines of the London meeting. All of these are supposed to address these core issues. The question is! not just a first modest step of a cessation of violence, but preventing violations and the distortions of strategic and core issues in the meantime. This requires an act of will and positive engagement, particularly on the wall and the settlements around Jerusalem.

bitterlemons: This also begs the question of how far Palestinians can expect the Israelis to go right now. The Israelis will claim there are political pressures on the government and they can only go so far.

Ashrawi: That is true, but there are more lethal pressures internally among the Palestinians. The question is not whether Israel will use a domestic situation as an excuse to hold back, but rather whether the Israeli government will lead and take positions that will further the cause of peace. There is also a certain leverage that can be used by the US in particular and other friends and allies of Israel if they are committed to peace.

bitterlemons: There is also an internal Palestinian dynamic, and the factions have apparently committed themselves to a period of calm but not a ceasefire. How will this play out?

Ashrawi: I see this commitment as crucial. To be very frank, I think we have to move beyond factional politics and act as a democracy with institutions and with the rule of law. We are not here dealing with armed resistance and factional politics as the only defining forms of our political reality. There is a clear situation of nation-building, of institution-building, of rule of law, of an inclusive democracy and elections that are delivering an accountable and representative government. We cannot have individual factions or groups decide that they can give themselves the right to act on behalf of the people, or the right to act unilaterally, or the right to formulate policies on their own that can undermine national policies. So the commitment to a period of calm is crucial, it is important, it shows responsibility and engagement. But it has to develop into a modus operandi where respect for pluralistic democracy and the rule of law is displayed by everyone concerne! d.

bitterlemons: Hamas appears poised to enter Legislative Council elections. How important would such a step be?

Ashrawi: It is important. This means there is a gradual transformation, that Hamas is more and more engaged in the political realities of the domestic situation in Palestine, that they are willing to be part of a democracy that would allow for pluralism and peaceful expression of disagreement and dissent, and certainly would look at the source of legitimacy as being the constituency and the people rather than a unilateral definition of power.

So in that sense it is important. It consolidates the nation-building process, it creates an inclusive political system and helps Palestinian democracy. And of course it creates a system of checks-and-balances internally.

bitterlemons: Are you optimistic the ceasefire will lead us somewhere substantial?

Ashrawi: Not by itself. Not by default. You need to sustain it but also move ahead. The status quo is untenable. The ceasefire cannot last forever. There has to be a process with substance, with credibility, and with the ability to influence reality on the ground, as well as the political will to move ahead rapidly on substantive issues.- Published 14/2/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org

Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi was Palestinian spokesperson at the 1991 Madrid talks, and again at Camp David in 2000. Until her resignation in 1998, Ashrawi served as Palestinian minister of higher education, after which she founded the non-governmental organization, Miftah.

Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

hagalil.com 18-02-2005



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