Elias Rashmawi speaking at a forum.
Photo: Bill Hackwell
As more and more people in the U.S. antiwar movement are discussing the Palestinian people’s national liberation struggle, Socialism and Liberation’s Richard Becker interviewed Elias Rashmawi, a leader of the Free Palestine Alliance and a steering committee member of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition.
Q: September 28 is the fourth anniversary of the Intifada. How do you assess the Palestinian struggle at this point?
I’m glad you called it the Intifada not the “second Intifada.” That’s a common misconception, because people assume that the first uprising of the Palestinian people was the one that occurred in the late 1980s. However, there were many uprisings before that, most notably the 1936 general strike and the associated uprising with it. Before that, during the 1920s, there were several others.
When one assesses the current situation of the Palestinian struggle, one cannot only assess it in terms of the “second Intifada” or what is happening today. One must assess it in terms of what has taken place over about a hundred years or so: the Palestinian people’s struggle for national liberation.
I would say that the main issue right now is: How does one assess the success of what we refer to as the “Project to End Palestine” (PEP)? I believe that we need, as progressives, as people in the movement, to look at Palestine not in terms of the dichotomy between the Israelis or the Zionist forces on one side and the Palestinian people on the other, as if this is a dichotomy between two isolated parties. We need to look at it in the larger context.
There is a need by the imperialist forces, particularly the U.S., and Western Europe to a lesser degree, to in fact eliminate Palestine. Not just to eliminate Palestine the people, Palestine the land, Palestine the cause—but to eliminate Palestine in the context of the overall international struggle for national liberation, for a better society and for a different vision for the future.
I think the PEP is definitely not doing too well. In order for the U.S. and Israel to succeed, they would need to do several things. First would be to eliminate actual elements that make Palestine what it is: the land, the people and the context of liberation.
In terms of the land, the idea was to conquer the land and transfer it to the state of Israel. In terms of the people, it was to fragment and segment the Palestinian people into different entities—most importantly to cut them out or to remove them from the larger Arab struggle and the larger struggle for national liberation. That has not been too successful. The third aim is against the actual context of liberation and what that means. The PEP has in fact attempted to transform the Palestine movement for liberation into a Palestine movement for quasi-statehood, for a Bantustan (1), so that it would be transformed into a junior servant—not even a junior partner—within a globalized Middle East.
On all three points, the PEP has had some successes and some great failures.
We need to assess some of these is sues as to where we are now, the status of the current leadership, the uprising, the status of the people, the political manifestation of the different political parties, how the state of Israel is proceeding and the U.S. is proceeding. If we in fact are tied to, and are part and parcel of the Arab people’s march, we need to assess the Arab regimes and what is taking place in terms of the Arab masses.
The first issue that needs to be looked at in my opinion is the Palestinian factor. Let’s look at that in three separate, but intricately connected elements. First, let’s look at the people. The PEP has had as a main objective to isolate, fragment and segment the Palestinian people into different entities. The means include the assimilation of Palestinian refugees into other states such as Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and others. Or, Palestinians are segmented into “1948 Palestinians” (2), “1967 Palestinians” (3), “refugees” and so forth. The thread connecting all of these segments of the Palestinian people is the cumulative historical national identity that developed most sharply through the struggle of the 100 years or so that we have talked about.
The ultimate goal that the U.S. and the state of Israel have for the Palestinian people is fragmenting and totally disuniting them. This goal has failed, in the sense that the most important issue for Palestinians—and a key anchor for the liberation struggle—continues to be the right of return (4). Today the Palestinians who are refugees, or dispossessed, or in the Diaspora not only have not dropped their demand for return, they have strengthened it.
Now the right of return is not some sort of emotional, hypothetical or theoretical demand. We as a people require a return to our homeland so that we can continue the most important part of our struggle—the unification of our people in a place where we can control our destiny, control our resources, and control our future in an egalitarian sort of society. Equality is a must. Had we dropped the demand for return, as called for by the U.S., Israel and the Arab regimes, we would have lost the possibility of ever looking forward to a unified Palestinian Arab people. But the demand has not been dropped.
Q: Let me just ask one question for clarification. When you said that the right of return is not theoretical or subjective, can you just explain that a little bit more?
As years went by and as the dispossession of Palestinians continued, there were three conflicting views on the right of return. The first was that we should just forget it. According to this view, we will stay where we are—Jordan, the U.S., Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, anywhere we are—and just continue our lives. Those who have remained, that is the 1967 Palestinians, would eventually have some sort of statehood under some framework, be it under a Jordanian federation or under the Israeli state. That was one wing, which basically said the right of return is really nonsense, that nobody can actually ever imagine it.
Some of those now in the Palestinian Authority secretly hold this point of view, but are unable to express it publicly. Publicly, what they express is a second point of view: It is good to have a right to return, but it is a theoretical right. All we really need, this wing says, is to have the state of Israel issue a public apology that says it is sorry for what it has done. Then we would have a reconciliation commission, and we Palestinians would stay in exile and they would maintain the theocratic nature of the Israeli state.
The third view is that held by the vast majority of the Palestinian people. It says that the right of return is not a theoretical, or ethical, or subjective right. It is in fact a material right that is a prerequisite of self determination. It means the return of Palestinian refugees in exile or in the Diaspora to their original towns and homes. Many researchers, most notably Dr. Salman Abu-Sitta, have conducted extensive research in terms of the actual viability and practicality of the return of Palestinian refugees to their original homes, villages and towns. What was found, to the astonishment of many, was that this is not only a possibility politically, but practical and viable from the standpoint of the individual and the collective right of return.
Q: What do you think that the Israeli strategy is right now? What are they hoping to achieve in a strategic sense over, say, the next couple of years?
I would say the most important part for them right now, and for the U.S., is to fashion the Palestinian Authority in a certain way so that it can accept responsibility for governing a bantustan.
The Israelis and the U.S. are seeking to eliminate Palestinian political organizations, completely gut or remove any Palestinian leadership and political formations that are capable of standing up to this newly fashioned Palestinian Authority. At the same time, they want to sanitize the Authority, so that the voices and faces would be Palestinian, but all aspects related to the real national aspirations of the Palestinian people would be removed. They are seeking an Authority that would have the fa?ade of being Palestinian, but would at the same time be their functionary. You will find that the main demand by the U.S. and Israel is for the Palestinian Authority to transform and to be an “acceptable” authority, so that it can take leadership as a functionary apparatus that they are trying to set up for that entire region.
Q: Do you think that the Israeli leaders hope that, due to the massive repression in every sphere of life, large numbers of Palestinians will give up and leave?
Well, I think that in order to achieve that there are certain prerequisites. In order to achieve that, there would have to be at a certain point a transformation in the makeup of the people.
The Israelis are trying to create a situation where those who remain must accept the dictates of the occupation. Those who do not, they hope, will pack up and leave. The Palestinians who cannot do either, because they are unable to leave—most of them are not willing to leave and want to fight to the very end—would just be erased. The project of simply erasing the Palestinians, literally and physically, is not new and is not an aberration. The Israelis use bulldozers, erasing the homes of Palestinians and making roads, and later set up a settlement. They have done it before, in 1948, when they destroyed over 450 villages. They also did it right after the June 1967 war.
They tried it between 1948 and 1967, as well. In fact, Ariel Sharon himself went very close to a neighborhood where I used to live in Gaza. He went to the Shate [Beach] refugee camp and removed a very large number of homes with bulldozers in order to make room for areas where the Israeli army can enter and maintain its own operations, unchallenged by Palestinian commandos that were very prevalent in the 1970s in Beach camp and much of Gaza.
They are doing it right now in Rafah; they are doing it now in Jabaliya, Beit Hanoon, everywhere in the Gaza strip. They’ve done it in Jenin, Nablus, and certain areas of Ramallah in the West Bank. They are transforming Palestine as a land into a Zionist settler entity. That is their goal—not just by erasing the homes of Palestinian refugees, who in most cases are third-time or fourth-time refugees—but by actually building on top of those homes. Now there are so many settlements that the vast majority of the land of Gaza and the West Bank has now been transformed into settled areas.
Q: Given the fact that the Palestinian resistance clearly cannot hope, within the present relationship of forces, to militarily defeat Israel at this time, what are the present objectives of the movement?
Well, there are several stages that Palestinians are trying to chart for themselves. In the current stage, the primary concern is to maintain the viability of the Palestinian political manifestation that exists. Not only do we need to maintain its viability, but to involve and incorporate as large a sector of the population within the political manifestation as possible. That is one of the key successes of the Palestinian struggle. Palestine is one place where the political manifestation reflects the vast majority of the people.
In Palestine, it is critical to make sure that the Palestinians are not only invested in the political struggle, but in the contradiction with the Israeli state. That is key. It means that every Palestinian himself or herself becomes a project for liberation. If Palestinian political organizations succeed, and they appear to be succeeding tremendously in this, that means the continuity of Palestinian liberation will be sustained.
It is also necessary to thwart the formation of a standardized, fashioned and groomed Palestinian Authority that would in fact become even more of a functionary for the state of Israel. To do that, the Palestinian political organizations have to succeed in mobilizing the vast majority of the Palestinian people in the ranks of these organizations to thwart the development of a Buthelezi-style, puppet government (5).
And we must take care that none of the anchoring slogans and the anchoring political programs for the Palestinian people are compromised. That means first, the Palestinian right of return; second, for the Arab identity and the Arab character of Palestine; third, that we do not accept the theocratic and exclusionary state of Israel, regardless of whether it de facto exists. We as Palestinian Arabs do not accept that. If we hold fast on these issues, and these are the most important issues right now, then we can continue to wage the liberation movement for years to come.
Palestinians living in the ruins of Jenin’s refugee camp. It was largely destroyed by the Israeli Army in April 2002.
Photo: Richard Becker
Q: Do you believe that the prospect of a two-state solution, Israel and a Palestinian state side-by-side, is a viable one?
The prospect of a two-state solution is inherently flawed. It is impossible to achieve regardless of whether or not the Palestinian people even agreed to it. The reason is that the two-state solution would require the following to happen. First, within 10 to 15 years the state of Israel would transport thousands upon thousands of Palestinian out of Israel in order to maintain demographic superiority within their state. Right now there are 1.2 million Palestinians inside the 1948 borders (6).
Within 20 years, if current trends prevail, Palestinians would become at least 50 percent of the population within the state of Israel. Their vote would become not only a determining vote, which it is increasingly becoming, but it would become the dominant vote. Now if the state of Israel is to maintain itself in the fa?ade that it wants to, as a state where voting is the primary issue, then it would have to remove the Palestinian Arabs from its borders.
Another point: In the long term, let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the Project to End Palestine succeeds completely. Let’s assume that the United States succeeds, in fact, in maintaining or constructing a new Middle East accord ing to its own image. Let’s assume all of that actually takes place and Israel emerges as a victorious state.
A couple of things would need to happen. First, it would need to normalize relations with its surroundings. But in the way that it was formed, Israel is a foreign entity outside the realm of that part of the world, the Arab nation or what people in the U.S. call the Middle East. If Israel continues as a separate state, it cannot normalize relations.
So in the long run, say 20 or 30 years from now, what are we looking at? We are looking at the demographic problem of the Palestinians who are threatening the demographic makeup of that state. We are looking at non-acceptance by its surroundings. Not only that, we are looking at an increasingly militarized state that must remain so in order to maintain itself.
Now, the other state, the Palestinian state that is supposed to come into existence, would require that all the Palestinian refugees be assimilated into the countries where they are now residing. There would have to be a major change in the makeup of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan in order for those states to absorb and to maintain permanently the Palestinians living there.
That means the actual character of the indigenous people, the Arab people, of those states would have to now be transformed in order to accept a new dictate from the state of Israel and the U.S. It would also require that the Palestinians abandon their national aspirations for unity and not only cede or accept the existence of the state, but in fact give up their own rights.
There is a difference between the two. You can say, “Fine, you are de facto reality, I accept your existence, but I still want to secure my rights.” But in this case you have to also give up your own rights and most importantly it would mean that the Palestinian “state” we are talking about would be constructed on somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of the remaining part of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza—if that—which together comprise 22 percent of historic Palestine. That would mean about 10 to 11 percent of the land for the Palestinian “state.”
That small part of the land is geographically impossible to be able to develop as a nation state in terms of continuity. Given the extreme turbulence that is slowly developing within the Arab nation as a whole and among Arab peoples in their different countries or nation states, I would suggest the viability of these two states is not only improbable, but I think it is impossible. It will not happen.
Q: So if the two-state solution is out, then the solution or the outcome will be one state in Palestine?
Well, it is an inevitable outcome. It is not what will happen because we want it to happen. It is what is going to happen simply because Israel now is creating bantustans. They are going to at some point call it a Palestinian state—there is no question about that. Within 5 or 10 years, they will create some sort of homeland very much like the homeland Buthelezi had in apartheid South Africa. It will be the same for the Palestinians and they will have their own Buthelezi. But that will be in the short run.
In the long run, in order to in fact create a viable situation that can exist in that part of the world in the heart of the Arab nation—the Arab nation being all the Arabs together—the natural process of political contradictions will develop into a one nation state. I would go further than that. I would say that at some point in time, be it 50 years or 100 years from now, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and perhaps Iraq will have to find points of unity between them. Those nation states will eventually have some sort of manifestation of unity within a short period of time. Not necessarily because the leaders want it, but because the makeup of the peoples and the geographic continuity and the economic stability and the aspirations of the region as a whole are in fact leading towards that. The only thing that prevents it from getting there are the client regimes, the U.S. construct that is imposed on that region and the presence of the state of Israel in its current theocratic exclusionary Zionist entity.
Q: Can you comment on the relationship between the U.S. and Israel? There are some, including in the antiwar movement, who have the view that U.S. foreign policy is directed from Tel Aviv, or directed through the Zionist lobby, for the benefit of Israel?
I disagree with that. I think that is not a correct reading of history, and also not a correct reading of politics. Politics is all about power. It is all about control of resources, control of geopolitical strategic locations, peoples, lands, power groups and so on. It is not about a lobby, it is not about a conspiracy that 10, 20, 50, 100 or 10,000 people sit behind closed doors or in smoke-filled rooms and decide what the policy is. It is not like that.
I think we need to be more objective and honest with ourselves and our movement in order for us to move ahead. We need to look at the interests of the U.S. in that part of the world. The number one factor is that from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean, the 22 Arab states control extremely vital and strategic points of interest, not just for the United States but for the world at large. They control energy resources like natural gas and oil. They control land masses, airspace and waterways that provide the connection to Africa, Asia and much of southern Eu rope. They control the passage through the Mediterranean Sea. They are the northern flank of Africa. They are the western flank of Asia and the southern flank of the former Soviet republics. These are extremely crucial factors.
Now imagine if there was some sort of Pan-Arab unification. Imagine the power and prosperity that the Arab masses would have if they in fact had control over these aspects of their lives, control over the various geostrategic aspects that we have mentioned. If that actually existed, the Arab people would possess one of the most critical locations in the world in terms of economic wealth, trade, military power and so forth.
It is not the state of Israel that is the only or primary entity directly invested in the maintenance of a fragmented Arab world. Primarily, it is the U.S and Western Europe that are directly vested in what we have just talked about.
It is the U.S. and Western Europe, but mostly the U.S., that is vested in what develops with Japan and China in terms of trade, the routes of commerce from southeastern Asia through the Indian Ocean up to the Red Sea, to the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe. It is the U.S. that is invested in what happens in the former Soviet republics. It is the U.S. multinational and transnational corporations that have transformed their character to become larger than most countries in that part of the world economically.
It is the United States that is now, as an economic and military power, as an emerging unilateral empire in the world, that is hinged on the fragmentation of the Arab part of the world. The region possesses factors that could threaten the viability of the project of empire.
Within this whole construct, Israel becomes like most other states, except with a special symbiotic relationship because of its colonial nature. It has a critical dependency on imperial power. It is not like, for instance, Turkey or Egypt or any of the indigenous states in the region. In those states, a transformation in politics would change the social character; the social and economic relationships between the people and those in power would change, while the state itself would remain.
Israel would not remain without its Zionist character, its Jewish exclusivist character, because it is a settler colony very much like apartheid South Africa. It is a settler colony that cannot be maintained except as an apartheid state. It can only really be sustained as part and parcel of its surroundings. In the case of South Africa, that was as an African state. In the case of the state of Israel, well, that part of the world is Arab.
Israel plays the part of a unique functionary. But I do not think that when we consider all of the various players and interests, be they corporate interests, or the military-industrial complex, or the centers of political power in the U.S. and Western Europe, that the interests of the state of Israel rise above the rest. That could not be the case unless we believed that all interests are subject to Zionist interests. That would not be a correct and materialist reading of history.
We read history in terms of the interests of those in power and how they go about achieving their interests, the processes they employ, the mechanisms that they employ, the plans and the constructs that they propose. The state of Israel fits in to that but it is not what determines those plans.
Jerusalem school children walking by apartheid-like wall under construction.
Photo: Uda Olabarria Walker
Q: There has been a big struggle in the U.S. antiwar movement during the last three years over Palestine. Can you comment on this and its significance?
I think movements in general, and the antiwar movement in the U.S. in particular, do not exist in isolation from what happens politically in the world. I think we all represent the interests of where we come from. In the U.S., the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, United for Peace and Justice, MoveOn.org and all of these different formations that exist, whether in virtual space or in the streets, reflect a certain view.
The reason Palestine is such a sharp contradiction is because Palestine is the anchoring point for the Arab nation, and the Arab nation is an anchoring point for national liberation worldwide. Thus Palestine becomes a gate to something very big. The issue is that those who lead liberal movements in the United States have interests in maintaining the overall modality of the world that sees Palestine as a hurdle.
They have sought over the years to either defeat it or to contain the issue. When they could not defeat it or contain it, they tried to transform it and marginalize it. The reason is not because they don’t like Arabs or they don’t like Palestinians or they don’t like brown people or they don’t like people who are darker in shade. That is not the case.
We are really looking at two models in the world, and the antiwar movement in the U.S. is broken down along these lines. The liberal view looks at an empire that needs to be beautified, that needs to become gentler and kinder and nicer but is still empire. This is the movement that supports John Kerry.
On the other hand, those who are clear on national and class interests, the intersecting interests of the Palestinian people with the struggling people of the world, whether it be the Filipinos, the Cubans, the Colombians, or the different oppressed communities within the U.S., who realize that a victory, or even an advance in Palestine, is not only an advance for the Palestinian people, but is in fact an advance for all. The vast majority of those struggling in the world know that they are fighting for their dignity, everybody’s dignity, fighting for a better society, for a better social structure, for control of our resources. We are fighting for an international solidarity that can actually bind us together. We are fighting for a better future. We are not fighting because we love to fight. On the contrary, we are fighting because we want a better life.
The A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition has been anchored in the real needs of not just Palestinians but people in the U.S.—the working class, the poor, the unions. Why is that? Because it sees the connection and it knows that the empire should not just be beautified and made into a gentler empire. The empire must be defeated. That is precisely the genuine aspiration for most people in the world.
1. Bantustans were puppet “homelands” for Black Africans created by the white ruling class in apartheid South Africa.
2. The “1948 Palestinians” are the Palestinians living inside the borders of the Israeli state which was established in 1948. Those borders include 78 percent of historic Palestine.
3. The “1967 Palestinians” refer to the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, which formed the other 22 percent of historic Palestine conquered by Israel in the June 1967 war.
4. The right of return refers to the right of Palestinians expelled in 1948, 1967 and at other times to return to their homes in Palestine and have their lands and other property restored. The Palestinian right of return has been upheld in many United Nations resolutions, but is adamantly opposed by Israel and the U.S. government. A Jewish person from anywhere in the world is accorded the right “to return” to Israel and be granted citizenship. No expelled Palestinians have ever been allowed to return by Israeli authorities.
5. During apartheid in South Africa, Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi was a puppet ruler of KwaZulu, the largest of the bantustans.
6. The population of Israel is today around 6 million, of whom about 1.2 million are Palestinians. There are 3.4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Another 4.5 million living outside historic Palestine in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, the Gulf states, and elsewhere.