· Vatican City ·

Interview with Professor Emad Abu Kishk, President of Al-Quds University

Young people will build peace and Palestine

 Young people will build  peace and Palestine  ING-051
22 December 2023

Prof. Imad Abu Kishk is President of Al-Quds University in Palestine, and is considered to be one of the closest advisors to Mr Mahmud Abbas, President of the State of Palestine. Jurist and professor of public policy, he has led Palestine’s best-known university for almost 10 years now, and holds numerous public positions in Palestinian state institutions, including at the Anti-Corruption Commission, the National Academy for Public Administration, and the waqf (the institution that governs the Al-Aqsa Temple Mount and Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem). We met him at Al-Quds University.

“Training and education are a key step in the search for peace. This is why I am very satisfied with the great progress we have made with the university I lead. We have the best faculty of medicine in Palestine. Our university is accomplishing goals we could never have imagined. In some fields the preparation of our students even exceeds the standards of those studying in Israeli universities and in Western universities. This is despite the obvious logistical difficulties that our Palestinian students are forced to face due to Israeli occupation. For example, we have also opened an office in the old city of Jerusalem to help students who experience difficulty passing through Israeli checkpoints”.

In fact the university’s main headquarters is just a 5-minute drive from the Old City, just beyond the Mount of Olives, but due to the separation wall, it took us over half an hour to reach it passing through a checkpoint.

I am firmly convinced that the process that will lead to peace and the full independence of the Palestinian people, will be achieved first and foremost through the formation of a ruling class in every field of civil life, one that is suitable for the enormous tasks of economic and social development that lie ahead of us.

But we first need to achieve peace. President, let us talk about the current serious crisis that began on 7 October. How and when do you think it will end?

Yes it will end. I don’t know when, but it will end. Even though it will once again leave the main problem unsolved, namely, how we and the Israelis can finally live in peace together. It was the goal Rabin sought. He truly believed in the possibility, or rather, in the necessity, of living together in peace. And we welcomed and shared those intentions. But when Yitzakh Rabin was killed in 1995, the peace process came to a definitive halt. Rabin genuinely believed that Israelis and Palestinians could live together, and in peace.

Then Ehud Olmert tried again.

Yes. Olmert must be given credit for having brought the Palestinian problem back onto the Israeli political agenda. I don’t know the details about why Olmert’s proposal did not go ahead. However, I can tell you that that proposal was put forth in an already different phase: Israeli society had already changed a lot since 1996, moving progressively towards the far right. Successive governments since then have refused any form of negotiation, and have instead, worked to remove the existence of a Palestinian problem from the collective conscience of Israelis. Some examples are there for all to see: the man who threatened Rabin with death just two weeks before he was killed, is today Israel’s Minister of National Security. Minister Bezalel Smotrich shares the same opinion as Itamar Ben-Gvir. Both are invaluable for ensuring a parliamentary majority for Benjamin Netanyahu.

But apart from the political profiles you mentioned, why do you say that the entire society of Israel has changed?

Because with the most recent immigration, a messianic religious orientation has grown, and with it, the influence of Orthodox Jews and religious nationalists, especially among the now approximately 700,000 settlers who are illegally occupying Palestinian lands, and who call for an “Israel from the river to the sea”. Not that this was not there before, but it was confined to the religious field and was unfamiliar with the mechanisms of politics, remaining on the outside. The settlement policy is what changed the paradigm of Israeli society. The old Ashkenazi political establishment, of European culture, mostly close to the Labour Party, has been totally marginalized and supplanted by a new generation that makes extremism its flag.

But Palestinian society has also changed since 1996. A decade later Hamas established itself in Palestine as the political force with relative majority political.

Yes. Until that time, hope had prevailed in Palestinian society, hope that was linked to Abu Ammar’s political action (Yasser Arafat, ndr), which aimed at the establishment of Two States. The majority of Palestinians nurtured this hope for their future, and for that of their children. We could say that Palestinian society also changed in 2000, that is, four years later. I would say in relation to two factors. The first was undoubtedly the disillusionment that followed Rabin’s assassination. The second arose from the perception of the failure of the implementation of the Oslo agreements, which occurred under the distracted eyes of the USA, the EU and the international community of the West. This perception led to the explosion of the second Intifada which definitively ended any possibility for dialogue.

Don’t you think that Arafat made a mistake in supporting the second Intifada?

Yes. Personally I think it was a mistake. If only because it led to the construction of the separation wall. The price paid by the Palestinian people after this was very high. The events of those years marked a serious failure for both sides. The failure of the implementation of Oslo was a defeat for both, although even today for some that failure is to be applauded.

Do you think this situation is truly irrecoverable? After all, after the Yom Kippur war, Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel; after the first Intifada there were the Oslo agreements. Don’t you think that once the phase of anger and revenge has passed, the terrible current crisis could open the doors to a new awareness of the coexistence of the two peoples?

Some think so. I am a little sceptical. I believe we need a new generation of Israeli and Palestinian women and men who have a vision for the future. This crisis is certainly the most serious, but every 4 or 5 years, there is a military crisis that is not accompanied by initiatives regarding the resumption of negotiations. What is most lacking today is the ability to have vision. And this lack is the result of a lack of rationality, of giving in to emotions, which, although understandable in the people, is unforgivable in politicians.

From this point of view, do you think that the Palestinian leadership has shown weakness in recent years?

Surely. And for several reasons. Mainly, Israel’s rejection of any negotiation towards peace has put the Palestinian National Authority into a state of resistance that has distanced the population from a political class that seemed incapable of reversing the desperate state of life imposed by the occupiers in Palestine. Palestinian society today suffers from a disheartening loneliness, both with respect to its own institutions and with respect to the international community.

In the handling of this crisis, it seems that the Palestinian Authority has been left on the sidelines. More generally, many observers have noted that in recent years Israel has in fact supported the growth of Hamas to the detriment of the Authority. Do you agree?

Netanyahu has a weakness for extreme positions. In both courts, in the presumption that he can control and use them. It seems to me that both in his camp and with Hamas, things went quite differently. You see, the polarization caused by Netanyahu’s policies is also worrying for the dynamics that have emerged in Israel. The “judicial reform”, which has a tone of revenge against the independent judiciary, very seriously undermines Israeli democracy. As does the “basic law” of 2018 — also of constitutional rank — which describes Israel as the State of the Jews. With all due respect to “Israel the only democratic State in the Middle East”, that law makes the country a theocratic autocracy. A very delicate and dangerous step for the entire region.

However, President, even among Netanyahu's opposition, despite the more moderate positions, no one seems to talk about “Two peoples in two States” anymore.

That is what I was saying earlier. Israeli society has changed. We do not see politicians on the horizon with a vision of dialogue or a horizon of peace.

But does Palestine also need new leadership?

Certainly. But let us remember that Palestine is under occupation. It is Netanyahu who is in control of the situation. Without a different Israeli policy, any desire for dialogue on the Palestinian side will inevitably hit a rubber wall. The initiatives of the Palestinian camp can only be reactive to Israeli policy. If that does not change, nothing changes. Objectively I believe that the Palestinian leadership is currently in the most difficult situation it has experienced, in the last 30 years. Hope for change in policy is at an all-time low. Because of Israel, but also because of the international community’s decreased attention to the fate of the Palestinian people, and because of the ambivalence of the so-called “Abraham Accords”.

Who will govern Gaza after the war ends?

I do not think the Israelis have any interest in returning to the pre-2005 situation. I think an initial phase of interposition by a neutral force is necessary and then the direct governance of the territory by Palestinians. The essential requirement is that there be someone in government who does not think of their own interests, but only of the interests of a people who have suffered, and are suffering, enormously.

You have a much more important role in Palestine than a mere University Rector.

Look, I truly believe that we will stake our future by forming a new ruling class that knows how to build peace and the economic and social development of our country. From this point of view, Al-Quds University is a formidable outpost. It is from these young people, my young people, that a free and independent State of Palestine will finally arise.

Roberto Cetera
from Jerusalem