Anyone who has met Bassem Eid in person or who has seen him speak knows that he is personable, direct, and charismatic. Mr. Eid is a human rights activist and a political commentator who would be a privilege for any country to have, but he happens be a Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp.
Mr. Eid has been fighting for the human rights of Palestinians for decades, and his courage was noticed particularly during the first Palestinian Intifada because as a researcher for B’Tselem, he was reporting human rights violations by Palestinians as well as human rights violations by Israelis. As a result of his even-handedness and honesty, Bassem was called a “collaborator” by Fatah. After his freedom to criticize the PA was restricted within B’Tselem, he founded the Palestinian Human rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG), but PHRMG later lost funding because its sponsors were uncomfortable with his criticism of the PA.
I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Eid after his last publication, which is a blog on Times of Israel that received a great deal of attention and that was the most popular blog for four days running.
In this interview, Mr. Eid provides an insider’s view of a Palestinian society that is divided and full of contradictions. Perhaps the biggest contradiction is that while Palestinians are still pursuing violence and revenge against Israel, they also have strong economic and even friendship ties with Israelis, and their culture has become strongly influenced by and integrated with the Israeli culture.
This interview and Mr. Eid’s work in general provide a view of the conflict that is starkly different from much of what is said by either side. It leads to us to realize that no one has ever really worked towards a feasible long-term solution for the Palestinians, not Israel (which is hardly unexpected considering the long-standing Arab hostility towards Israel), not the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), not the UN itself, not the international community, not the so-called pro-Palestinian activists in the West, not the regional powers, and not even the Palestinians’ own politicians and leaders.
Mr. Eid’s perspective uncovers a Palestinian world that is badly divided and dysfunctional, in urgent need of a solution when none is forthcoming and when no one in any position of authority, either locally or internationally, really cares. If there were any doubts about the seriousness of the Palestinian condition and its need for real answers, Mr. Eid dispels those doubts. Sadly we are left wondering how long it will take before those who claim to support the Palestinians start listening to Palestinians like Mr. Eid rather than to terrorists and crooks.
Fred M: Bassem, your first blog in Times of Israel was extremely popular, and it received overwhelmingly positive responses from Jewish readers. But do you know if many Palestinians have seen it? Would many Palestinians agree with your blog?
Bassem E: The Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza know me very well and know my thinking. Since the year 2000 I have been participating every two weeks in a show called “Dialog” on Israel’s television Channel 1 in Arabic with two Israelis and two Palestinians. All the ideas that I raised in the blog, I said them thousands of times in Arabic on television. There are many Palestinians who agree with me, but there are many who disagree. Palestinians are living under a kind of shattered hope. They don’t know exactly what they are hoping for, which makes their situation very complicated. If you take the issue of peace process since Oslo, the PA doesn’t know what they want from the Israelis. Do they want a state or do they want to trash the state of Israel? Unfortunately it looks like there are more Palestinians going in the direction of trashing Israel and dismissing it. There is a lot of hatred between the Israelis and the Palestinians left-over from the intifada in 2000; a lot of tragedies happened on both sides. Many Palestinians want revenge against Israelis rather than peace, which worries me. This makes my situation very sensitive because I live between Israeli friends and their enemies from the Palestinian side.
As you probably know, many Jews are concerned with what they see as a culture of antisemitism among Palestinians. One example is the festive Palestinian reaction to the kidnapping of three Jewish teens by Hamas last year. Many Jews see this as the main stumbling block to peace. Do you agree that it is an issue? And if yes, what can be done about it?
I agree that this is an issue. When this tragedy happened with the three Jewish youths in June of last year, the Palestinians almost crossed a red line. Later when Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and burned alive, a lot of Israeli buses full of Jewish people came to give their condolences to the family of Abu Khdeir. I was near the house, and I saw it. I hoped that Palestinians would start as a result of this event to want peace with Israelis. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. In November of last year, when two Palestinians went into a synagogue and killed four rabbis while they prayed, I thought that some religious Muslim Palestinians should have gone to give their condolences. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. I wrote about that incident. I said that I wished to see Muslims offering their condolences at the synagogue, but unfortunately, Palestinians are still under the influence of incitements from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Fatah’s Palestinian Authority. Palestinians are not able to follow their own conscience when such incidents happen. Palestinians should be more courageous and more human. We must realize the fact that there is no other choice, for both Israelis and Palestinians, other than living together. It is the time for the Palestinians to prove that we are ready to live in peace with the Israelis. We must start building the bridges of trust towards Israeli public opinion.
In your blog, you say that Palestinian democracy is a pre-requisite to peace. However, when we look at the Arab world and even the Muslim world in general, we see little democracy and little democratic traditions. Why do you think that Palestinians can succeed in building a democratic society?
After 48 years of living under the Israeli democracy, the Palestinians learned a lot about democracy and freedom. In the West Bank and in Gaza, we never heard about the establishment of a Palestinian civil society until after the 1967 war. It is only then that Palestinians allowed themselves to think about creating such a civil society. Under the Jordanians in the West Bank, and under the Egyptians in Gaza, we were never able to do so. The majority of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are reading and speaking Hebrew, and many Palestinians read Israeli newspapers more often than Palestinian newspapers. The mix of Palestinian culture and Israeli culture helped the Palestinians learn about democracy and human rights. In the Arab culture, democracy and human rights are practically non-existent, but with the influence of Israeli culture, I believe that Palestinians have a better chance than other Arab societies to achieve democracy and human rights.
Many people in the West, particularly among the political left, think that the BDS movement will help the Palestinians, even if it causes them short-term pain. Their rationale is that Israeli businesses in the West Bank prevent Palestinians from building their own economy. Do you agree?
I don’t agree with that. I have to tell Europeans that BDS is only motivated by antisemitism. I live in the West Bank, I met over 300 Palestinian workers who have been fired from the SodaStream factory, and I know exactly what the Palestinians are complaining about. The most important issues for the Palestinians right now are economic issues rather than political issues. The majority of Palestinians are seeking dignity rather than identity. Dignity will never be achieved without economic prosperity. If you ask any ordinary Palestinians today what are the three priorities they are seeking, they will say: a job, an education system, and a health care system. Nobody is talking about the wall, the settlements, or a Palestinian state. The BDS is damaging the reputation of the Palestinians. We the Palestinians are building the houses in the settlements. When Israel declares an expansion of houses in settlements, many Palestinians are very happy because this opens more and more jobs for us. Without income, dignity is not possible.
A two-state solution seems like a far-away goal because of the Hamas presence in Gaza and because of the weakness and corruption of the Palestinian Authority. Do you think that a two-state solution is still a good goal to strive for?
I don’t think that the Palestinians believe in the two-state solution. Most Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank believe in a three-state solution: one state in Gaza, one state in the West Bank, and the state of Israel. Alternatively, more and more Palestinians in the West Bank think that the solution is to go back to the pre-1967 situation when the West Bank was under Jordanian control. Palestinians want this because of the corruption of Abbas and his government. We the Palestinians in the West Bank still benefit economically from Jordan. The King Hussein Bridge is open 16 hours a day; large amounts of goods are coming in and getting out. Palestinians in the West Bank essentially have a confederation with Jordan.
If Palestinians in Gaza want a state there, why does Hamas continue attacking Israel?
Hamas follows an Iranian agenda rather than a Palestinian agenda. When Hamas took over Gaza, they destroyed almost everything that was left by Israel. The interests of the Palestinian people are not at the top of their agenda. I don’t think that Hamas is interested in the reconstruction of Gaza. They are much more interested in the reconstruction of their tunnels and their military capability. Hamas is hell for the Palestinians. With Hamas, the Palestinians will achieve neither dignity nor identity.
You have indicated that for the West Bank, being independent or becoming part of Jordan are the two more realistic options. So why is President Abbas pursuing a state in the West Bank and Gaza through the UN?
I don’t believe that Abbas is representing the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank. Two years ago we received recognition from the UN, and it changed nothing on the ground for the Palestinians. Abbas has little support among Palestinians right now, and he has not consulted Palestinians about his actions at the UN. This means that he has no mandate from Palestinians for those actions. Why doesn’t he have a referendum among the Palestinians on what we are really looking for? Abbas has a dictatorship mentality, which is probably why the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank do not support him.
You have criticized Hamas’ actions in Gaza, and you have lamented the death and destruction caused by Israel’s military response to Hamas. Is there anything that Israel can do, in your opinion, to avoid more wars with Hamas in Gaza?
It is very difficult for Israel to avoid wars with Hamas in Gaza. To be realistic, I don’t think that Israel can avoid protecting its own people in the south. Hamas must understand that the thousands of rockets it uses against Israel are hitting the Palestinians rather than the Israelis. If Hamas is seeking to rebuild Gaza, it must obey the international donors’ conditions, and the first condition is that Hamas must be disarmed. As long as Hamas has a military capability, Gaza will need yearly reconstruction, and I don’t think that donors can support that. If Hamas were to take into consideration the interest of Palestinians, it would dismantle its military capability, but Hamas continues to sacrifice its people and to blame Israel for Hamas’ own crimes.
Palestinian refugees are assured by their own leaders that they will one day return to the villages that used to be the homes of their ancestors in what is now Israel. You wrote in your blog that this is not a realistic expectation. Do you think that many Palestinians know this?
Most Palestinians believe that it is not realistic any more. When leaders make the same promise for 66 years and do not deliver, most people realize that the leaders are liars. The UNRWA is a liar too because it is part of the battle for the right of return. In 2003 we had in Ramallah a very remarkable organization (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, headed by Khalil Shikaki) that conducted a referendum among the Palestinian refugees. The question was “what is the solution that you are seeking from the international community?” Seventy percent of those surveyed said that they wanted compensation. I think that most Palestinian refugees want to be compensated and start rebuilding their lives and dignity. I visited refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and the majority of the refugees don’t believe that the right of return is realistic.
Your blog indicates that you have a good understanding of Israeli society, which is logical since you live in East Jerusalem. How much misinformation about Israel is there in the West Bank, Gaza, and Palestinian refugee camps in Arab countries?
I think that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have correct information about Israel. I personally grew up and lived for 33 years in a refugee camp. Many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza know the Israelis very well. There are thousands of telephone calls between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza every day. They are friends, and they will remain friends. In Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, Palestinians haven’t been in touch with Israelis, but when I was in south Lebanon, a lot of Lebanese people had friendships and relationships with Israelis. I encourage Palestinians who don’t know Israelis to get in touch with them.
It is often said that President Mahmood Abbas is afraid to agree to a reasonable peace plan with Israel because he would likely be killed by Palestinians if he did that. Do you agree?
No, I don’t. Remember that he has his signature on the Olso agreement signed in the White House. Since he signed Oslo and wasn’t killed, I think that this is not the problem. The problem is that Abbas became less and less courageous. He has lost most of his political charisma, and this is the main reason that he refuses to reach a peace agreement with Israel.
You wrote that Palestinians can make peace and build a mutually beneficial friendship with Israel. Do many Palestinians feel the same way?
I think that Palestinians are seeking dignity rather than identity. If we have 70,000 permits for Palestinian workers, we have another 20,000 who are trying to enter Israel in order to work. People know very well that economically we need to work with the Israelis. I believe that the majority of Palestinians would love to continue their friendships and working relationships with the Israelis. The majority of Palestinians know that without Israel, we Palestinians couldn’t exist.