When the UK’s Palestinian ambassador talked at York, his message was one of oppression and national strength. Raf Sanchez speaks to the man who believes that he has the solution to the problem of the Middle East
The bullet smashes through the window of the East Jerusalem house at dinner time. Fired during a temporary ceasefire, it is unclear whether the round has come from Israeli troops or a Palestinian. The startled Christian Palestinian family gather around their household statue of the Virgin Mary to give thanks no one was hurt. As they kneel in prayer an Israeli helicopter gunship sweeps low over the city. The rocket it fires destroys half the house.
There is an unmistakable bitterness in the voice of Professor Manuel Hassassian, academic and official representative of the Palestinian government to the United Kingdom, as he tells the story. “I was on television all of the time advocating peace and unarmed resistance against occupation. What do I get as a gift? A TOW missile launched by an Apache helicopter on my house. Fortunately enough, my family and I are at the end of the house and in the basement. We survived. We were lucky to survive. But many Palestinians are not.”
Little has changed in the few years since the Hassassian family’s narrow escape. Feburary 27, the day before the ambassador speaks at the University, has been a bloody one in Gaza and Southern Israel. 15 Palestinians, one of them a child, die in Israeli strikes while a three-story Interior Ministry building is completely destroyed. Only a few miles away in the Israeli town of Sderot a university student, the father of four, is killed by a Hamas rocket attack. A second student is injured.
The violence is compulsive and the reasons behind it multi-causal. Many of the initial motivations have been forgotten in the 60 years of on-off fighting since 1948 – to Israelis the year of national independence, to Palestinians the year of al-Nakba, ‘the catastrophe’. Yet for all the complicated and competing factors (Hassassian describes the conflict as being “cultural, religious, sociological” as well as territorial), the ambassador and professor claims to have developed a boldly single-minded belief.
In the weeks following the attack on his home Hassassian “came up with another major conclusion – that there would never be a military solution to this conflict. That rocket did not make me an extremist,” he continues, “it asserted my firm belief that a military solution is no solution. And that it is only through dialogue and negotiations that we will achieve peace.”
Hassassian is a man who knows his history and has learned from it. As he speaks he gestures broadly, encompassing years of regional warfare. The lessons of the second half of the twentieth century, he argues, show that neither side will ever be able to militarily win the peace they desire. “We have seen many wars in the Middle East and we have seen many conflicts between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The five major wars that Israel has fought did not bring peace to the individual Israelis and the Palestinian concept of armed struggle did not liberate an inch of Palestine. Both have come to the conclusion that there will never be a military solution.”
The rhetoric and intractable language of public diplomacy remain on both sides of the conflict. Negotiations have long been bedevilled by the unacceptable or impossible conditions that one side requests before talks can begin. Again and again tentative communications have broken down after an outburst of violence. Hassassian is striking in his ability to recognise this pattern and the similar tendency by both sides to allow violence to derail peace talks. “Who is gaining from this?” he demands. “Extremists on both sides, unfortunately. And that is why the majority, the mainstream, has always been victimised by the petty divides in our societies.” His solution lies is the development of a ruthlessly pragmatic approach – both sides must cling to the hope of peace and continue to hold on, however rampant the violence becomes around them. He is animated and intense, fists balled in front of him as he speaks. “We must take the bull by the horns and say: ‘Listen, this is it – this is our strategy.’ We will negotiate even if there are terrorist attacks or military incursions; we must sit at the negotiating table until we address all the problems and come up with a solution. But we cannot, every time there is an action here or there, stall the entire peace process.”
He gives the example of North Vietnam, where the militarily inferior Vietnamese continued to doggedly negotiate with their American counterparts at peace talks in Paris despite the daily attacks on Hanoi by US bombers. They refused to set conditions that would excuse them from continuing to talk. As Hassassian puts it “nothing rocked those kind of negotiations. They continued. What can we learn from history?” The peace that the North Vietnamese negotiated led to the withdrawal of American troops and was the first step in the creation of an independent country.
Despite the desperation for an end to conflict on both sides, Hassassian diagnoses two key stumbling blocks that he argues must be dealt with before Israelis and Palestinians can embark on this joint venture for peace. The first is what he sees as a peculiar psychological condition in the Israeli government and military. “We have to bear in mind Israel’s military background, most prime ministers come from the military. The military has this lust for power, lust for land. They believe that they have conquered this land… which creates a certain kind of attitude. And this attitude is the siege mentality attitude which makes them believe that they are in the big fortress trying to revisit Masada [the site of a battle in 66 AD], when they were attacked by the Romans. This kind of psychological impact is running straight through the psyche of the Israelis.”
I ask Hassassian whether there is not some justification to the attitude, given the decades of hostility and outright aggression that Israel has faced from its regional neighbours. “Nobody denies the fact that Israel has been under pressure from the Arab world, and nobody is denying the fact that Israel is psychologically traumatised, but Israel cannot claim that it has been traumatised when it is an occupying power, a power that is making the Palestinians totally subservient by occupying them with sheer force.”
The ambassador’s second diagnosis is that all attempts at peace negotiations have been irrevocably skewed in Israel’s favour by the influence of the United States. In order to reach a realistic compromise, “we need balanced negotiations. We need a power that could balance the US’s unequivocal support for the state of Israel, a third party that is interested in resolving this conflict by being an honest broker for peace.”
I interrupt him to ask if he is optimistic there will be a more balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine issue if a Democrat takes the White House in 2008. He looks darkly amused at my suggestion and says carefully: “I don’t like to meddle into the internal affairs of the US but from our experience in foreign policy terms its tweedledum, tweedlee. The actors go and come but the main ingredients of this foreign policy have been consistent for the past 60 years, and such elections are not going to make a big difference whether Obama wins or Clinton. They are the same coin with two faces.” The US’s bi-partisan Baker-Hamilton Report comes to the same conclusion, though somewhat more diplomatically, admitting: “No American administration – Democratic or Republican – will ever abandon Israel.”
The United States, Hassassian argues, will support Israel to the end, regardless of the circumstances or the consequences. The only power potentially both willing and able to redress the balance is Europe. It is for this reason that Hassassian gave up his job as Executive Vice President of Bethlehem University to lobby the British government as an official representative of a homeless people. “We don’t want charity. We don’t want your money. We want your political support. We want the European Union to redress the balance that the US has tilted by supporting Israel. What we need is more political strength.”
The Palestinian people’s political strength is undoubtedly compromised by their non-existent economy and dwarfed by Israel’s military superiority. But it is further undermined by the violent schism between Hamas, the militant Islamist party that won a parliamentary majority in 2006, and Fatah, the more moderate party of the separately elected President Mahmoud Abbas, of which Hassassian is a representative. Hamas’s rise in what were generally considered free and fair elections sent shudders through the West. News channels endlessly broadcast images of masked Hamas gunmen chanting their victory in the streets and promising to destroy the state of Israel. Both Israel and the US froze aid to the Palestinian people until Hamas recognised Israel’s right to exist. Hamas stood firm while the humanitarian situation deteriorated and the isolated Abbas desperately sought a political compromise.
In the summer of 2007 the growing tension between the two parties spilt over into violence and Hamas fighters seized control of the West Bank in what Hassassian describes as “a coup against their own legitimate government.” Today, Hamas retains control of Gaza and continues to fire rockets into southern Israel, despite the brutally violent retaliation of Israeli forces.
I ask Hassassian how committed the Palestinian people can really be to the path of non-violence when they vote for a party whose militias launch daily attacks on Israeli citizens. His answer is swift – the votes for Hamas are not representative of a general militancy among Palestinians, but should be seen instead as a protest vote against the ruling Fatah party. He looks rueful as he says: “My mother voted for Hamas. She’s Christian. It has nothing to do with ideology or religion. It was the bad governance, it was the corruption of politics, it was the stalling of the peace project, it was the unequivocal support of the Americans for Israel. All of this created frustration amongst the people and they opted for the other choice and the other choice was Hamas.”
Hassassian, who is both a diplomat and a scholar, has devoted his whole life to studying and experiencing the suffering of the Palestinian people under occupation. His conclusion that peaceful neogtiations are the only way forward is reinforced daily. He ends his talk with a warning, not a threat, to Israel, taken from the pages of his own personal history and that of his people. “You make concessions when you are at the crescendo of your power. That concession gives you credibility and sustainability. If they think that they still have the actual power and that we are the weaker power, then our answer to them is that the actual power is with you, but the staying power is with us. But if they think that we are going to revisit the al-Nakba of 1948 – leaving our country – they are totally mistaken. Only a genocide will make the Palestinians leave their country. We have learned from our history and we have learned that we have to hold steadfast and fight until we get our independence and our freedom.”