This land deserves not walls
A conversation with the President of the State of Palestine Mahmūd Abbās
It has been 30 years since the historic Oslo Accords were signed. A time which saw the hope of peace ignite in the land of Jesus. Many things have changed in 30 years in that land: politics, its protagonists, international scenarios, but also Israeli and Palestinian societies. The expectations of that time have not been met: after 30 years, peace still seems far away and dialogue between the parties appears to be at a standstill. It has also been nine years since Pope Francis invited Presidents Shimon Peres and Maḥmūd Abbās (Abū Māzen) to the Vatican Gardens to plant an olive tree together. In the small way that a newspaper can, we would like to foster a renewed dialogue, we would like to re-water that olive tree wanted by Pope Francis so that it can grow again. We would like to retrace that season of hope by giving voice to the guardians of that tree. We will begin with the President of the State of Palestine.
Darkness has long fallen on the road from Jerusalem to Ramallah and the streets are illuminated by the lamps that people light for Ramadan. The evenings are already warm and groups of families are gathered on the sidewalks for iftar, the dinner that follows the long daily fast. The bright white buildings of the muqata, the President’s residence, stand out in the darkness of a moonless night. The conversation with President Abbās takes place at night time. It is not unusual in these parts of the country. After several security checks, we enter a large waiting room furnished with a large copy of a photograph depicting the golden Dome of the Rock and the two grey domes of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, as if they were one. “We want to display them together” says Majdi Khaldi, the President’s Diplomatic Advisor, because together they represent the Palestinian National Authority’s (PNA) adherence to the religious pluralism that characterises the Palestinian people. With a somewhat solemn protocol, we enter President Abbās’ room. His handshake is vigorous, he looks quite younger than his age. “You come here to ask me questions, but I would like to ask the first question. How is my friend Pope Francis”? And the figure of Pope Francis resurfaces several times during the interview. This is no political or diplomatic wit: every time he speaks of the Pope, the President’s face lights up; it is clear that he admires him, that he cares about him.
Mr President, you are the only Muslim (perhaps the only one among Christians too) who attends three Christmas Masses each year: with the Latins, with the Orthodox and with the Armenians. How would you describe your relationship with the Christian community in Palestine in recent years?
The Christian religion in Palestine is as much a reality as is the Islamic religion. What distinguishes Christianity in Palestine is that Jesus is a son of this land, and he was born here in the town of Bethlehem, in a humble grotto on which the Basilica of the Nativity was later built, and which we visit to pay our respects to the various Christian denominations — Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian — three times on the occasion of the Nativity of Jesus. As PNA, we are very close to these places of worship dear to both local Christians and the many pilgrims who come from all over the world. This is why we did not hesitate to start important restorations of Bethlehem’s Basilica of the Nativity and Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre in recent years, in agreement with the three Christian denominations adhering to the Status Quo. We celebrate Christian feast days with all our Palestinian people, Christians and Muslims, and consider all Christian religious holidays as Palestinian national holidays. We are aware that the land of Palestine is the land of holiness, where Christianity began and spread throughout the world.
Mr President, 30 years have passed since the Oslo Accords, and since then, the peace process has made no progress. In the meantime, however, many changes have taken place. For example, in the demographics of the population of Area C, which those agreements did not specify, postponing it to a later date. My question: Today, how can one imagine a Palestinian State if there is no territorial contiguity? And do you think that the ‘two States for two peoples’ solution is still practically viable today?
The Palestinian cause has gone through many phases, the most serious of which was when Israeli forces committed what is still remembered today as the greatest tragedy suffered by the Palestinian people, the Nakba of 1948. More than half of the Palestinian people were expelled from their homeland, 51 massacres were committed and about 529 villages were destroyed. It is the greatest catastrophe in our history and, still today, 6 million Palestinians, both Muslim and Christians live in refugee camps. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, as well as the 54th anniversary of the 1967 occupation of the remaining Palestinian territories in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Despite the many resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, none of them have been implemented to date. Despite Palestine’s willingness to participate in many peace initiatives and to sign agreements, such as the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, the Middle East Road Map in 2003 and many other proposals, subsequent Israeli governments have never responded to any of these initiatives and have not even fulfilled the agreements made. On the contrary, colonial practices that violate international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention have been implemented, such as building illegal settlements, annexing land, destroying houses, expelling Palestinians from their land, violating Islamic and Christian holy sites. All this helped undermine the possibility of the two-State solution and allowed [access] to crimes related to ethnic discrimination, like in apartheid. Unfortunately, I must note that instead of questioning Israel for its aggression against Palestinian people — forcing it to respect the agreements signed on the foundations of international law — many countries continue to remain silent about Israel’s responsibilities, expressing only a generic and superficial sympathy for the legitimate rights of Palestinians. Despite all of this, the State of Palestine enjoys a respectable international recognition, has been an observer in the UN General Assembly and has been a full member in more than 100 international agencies and treaties, signing agreements and responding to all the initiatives of the international community.
At this time, it is up to the international community to stop Israel and to force it to implement decisions of international legitimacy and to respect the agreements it signed, putting an end to Israeli occupation of the territories of the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and returning to the 1967 borders. Instead, in the current one-State reality, it is a system of apartheid that prevails, going against international law. Our people, who now number 15 million Palestinians scattered throughout the world and in the State of Palestine, deserve to live in security, peace and good relations with the neighbouring States in this geographical area.
What about Gaza? Maybe two peoples in three countries?
The Gaza Strip is an essential and important part of the independent Palestinian State and the Palestinian national project: a firm resolve to counter all plots and plans of destruction to which the Palestinian cause has been exposed, is essential. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are all Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, and in accordance with the international legitimacy resolutions, they constitute the territory of the State of Palestine. What the Hamas Movement has done against Palestinian legitimacy is not accepted by the Palestinian people. The only legitimate representative of our people is the Palestine Liberation Organization with its legitimate institutions elected by our people, including the National Council, which is the parliament of the Palestinian people, and the executive committee of the organisation chaired by the President of the State of Palestine. We are trying, with all our efforts, to reaffirm national cohesion and direct our action to address the main threat to our people and to our cause, which is Israeli occupation and the need to be freed from it.
Mr President, you are known to be a man of peace. Especially among young Palestinians who were born and grew up without ever experiencing freedom, a sense of frustration has grown over the years, which often turns into violence as has happened in recent days. What would you like to say to the young Palestinians in this regard?
We are against violence, especially towards unarmed civilians. Instead, Palestinian youth is the fundamental pillar of our project to build our Palestinian national institutions. We have worked in recent years to have State institutions based on the rule of law, empowering women and youth, spreading a culture of peace, using dialogue, diplomatic and political methods and peaceful popular resistance. And I say to the young people of Palestine, who are proud of their land, that whatever difficulties and challenges our national cause faces, we must remain in our land and in the land of our forefathers, because the changes taking place, both in our region and in the world, clearly indicate that the end of Israeli occupation is inevitable, and it is not far off. We want peace. The peace that will be achieved is for us a strategic choice in accordance with the resolutions of international legitimacy, in order to finally live independently in a sovereign state with East Jerusalem as its capital, a state based on foundations of international law, freedom, equality and justice. We urge the youth and future generations to preserve Palestine’s original heritage and complete the journey that we began for freedom, dignity, justice and independence. We urge them to study and to use the latest technologies in industry, agriculture, health services, education and building sustainable cities. We are a people who deserve to be loved, to live with dignity on our own national soil, as is right and vital for all the peoples of the world.
It has been nine years since you accepted Pope Francis’ invitation to the Vatican, where you and President Shimon Peres, planted an olive tree together in the Vatican Gardens. This tree grows very slowly, despite Pope Francis making sure to water it every day with a prayer for peace. How is it possible to realistically relaunch the peace process?
Peace and stability are an essential and constant request in our Palestinian politics, which we tenaciously seek to reach through the implementation of international legitimacy resolutions, the Arab Peace Initiative, and the convocation of an international conference for peace under the aegis of the United Nations. At the same time, we respond to all international initiatives to respect the signed accords and to stop unilateral actions that violate international legitimacy, in preparation for the launch of a political process that can put an end to Israeli occupation of the land of the State of Palestine with its capital, East Jerusalem, according to the 1967 borders. I agree with you that the olive tree we planted along with His Holiness the Pope, must soon bear fruit, and I hope that His Holiness Pope Francis will continue to pray for peace, and we urge him to continue the path he launched in carrying forward the journey of peace and justice in the Holy Land. And let’s not forget the Vatican’s position in recognizing the State of Palestine based on the borders of 4 June 1967, and its desire to open the Embassy of the State of Palestine to the Holy See. I greatly appreciated His Holiness the Pope’s positive response to our initiative aimed at rebuilding bridges with Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, which culminated in the fraternal meeting between His Holiness Pope Francis and the Venerated Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb and the signing of the document on “Human Fraternity”.
Peace, as opposed to war, does not have winners and losers. Peace is always the fruit of compromise. In Oslo we can say that peace won without anyone losing. What solutions of compromise can you present today at the negotiation table to return to those accords and make progress in this direction?
I think I have already given you some indications in the previous answers regarding the foundations and means for reaching peace. The great problem today is the absence in Israel of a partner who truly believes in peace based on the two-State solution, in accordance with international law. To the contrary, in Israel there seems to be a prevalence of extremist leaders and ministers who incite hatred against us. Settlers are encouraged to commit terroristic crimes against Palestinian people, as occurred recently in the city of Hawara and in other places and cities. In short, the problem is that I do not see reliable interlocutors on the other side at the moment.
Many years have passed since the last elections in Palestine. What is keeping new elections from being held?
The authorities of the Israeli occupation are the ones impeding general elections from being organized in Palestine. They control all the details of our life. And they prevented them from happening in 2021 because East Jerusalem was denied the right to vote, under the accords, as had been done in previous years. Unfortunately, our efforts so far have not been successful with the United States administration and the European Union, in receiving aid that would permit us to organize elections in Jerusalem, together with the rest of the Palestinian territory in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I can assure you that we are ready to immediately organize these elections if we are allowed to hold them also in East Jerusalem.
President, it has been three years since the first of the so-called Abraham Accords. What has changed for you in these three years?
Attaining peace, security and stability in the region passes through the recognition of Palestinian people’s rights to freedom and independence, and, clearly, the end of Israeli occupation.... The implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative, as has already been affirmed, is the right way to reach this objective.
What is Palestinian public opinion on the war in Ukraine, and what do you think about it?
We are a people under occupation. We have been living as refugees for 75 years and, until now, our people have not been compensated. Israeli occupation of our land is not over, international accords have not been implemented, but we continue to hear many erroneous assessments of our situation. I can answer you with absolute certainty that we are for the end of all wars and for the attainment of peace in every part of the world, so that all people can enjoy security, freedom and prosperity.
The patriarchs and the heads of the churches in Jerusalem denounce repeated attacks on Christian churches, cemeteries and clergy. Do you, Mr President, feel that the international community is showing sufficient sensitivity to the threats and dangers looming over the Christian presence in the Holy Land?
It is essential to remember that during His Holiness’ visit and pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Pope Francis remained in astonished silence before that strident humiliation represented by the wall of separation, and he placed his hand on that wall asking the Almighty to break down the barriers, because this land deserves not walls but bridges to be built. The Christian presence is in danger, and we fear that the Holy Land will lose its good Christian sons and daughters, who here, are salt of the earth. In this context, we ask the churches and the capitals of the world to take sides in support of the Palestinian people, to preserve the holy sites belonging both to the Christian and Islamic faiths.
The president’s adviser indicates that the time is up and that other commitments await. But he wants to continue talking. He lights a cigarette and drinks cardamom-flavoured coffee, remembering all the times he has met Pope Francis, and then he talks about his three children and nine grandchildren, lamenting that he sees them far too little. The car which takes us back to Jerusalem glides quickly along the dark and by now deserted streets. One of the people accompanying us receives a text message: “I forgot to say something important. Could you wish my friend Pope Francis a happy Easter?”
From our correspondent Roberto Cetera
(Father Ibrahim Faltas, OFM, Vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land collaborated.)