by Hanan Ashrawi
It has been a year and a half since the Palestinian National Authority has come to Gaza and part of the West Bank. Is the lot of Palestinians better or worse than before?
One cannot pass judgment across the board. I think that in some ways it is better, and in some ways it is worse, and in some ways it is the same. One has to look at the specifics.
In what ways is it better?
Palestinian statehood has become a concrete reality. The return of the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian exiles is important. Regardless of who came back and why, the fact is that there are Palestinians returning; they are setting up institutions on the land of Palestine.
That is not to say that the Occupation is finished. Israel still controls the crossing points and still has areas for settlers, but at least the principle, the concept, of withdrawal has begun, even if the dismantling of settlements has not. In Gaza, for example, you can see some improvement in the eco¬nomic situation. There are no more curfews.
And of course things are better in the sense that we have started the whole democratic debate, the issue of elections, preparations for institu¬tion-building and nation-building.
How is the situation worse?
Important issues are being preempted by Israel, especially Jerusalem and the settlements. It is also worse in terms of access to the land, the fragmen¬tation of the land. Right now it is much more difficult for Palestinians to move freely because of a multi-tiered system of checkposts and permits.
The expectations of the people here were thwarted. They expected much more than they got. The agreement itself has made Israel act very quickly in terms of land confiscation and settlements, imposing facts before any political settlement.
Many Palestinians do not know what is happening in the negotiations. For example, the official confiscations for bypass roads in the area of Jenin, from which the military government will withdraw — Palestinians are not sure whether this is part of the agreement or not. There is a gap between the political level and the people.
You have been a kind of honorary ambassador for Palestinians outside of Palestine. Do you feel that the Arab and the international dimension has been completely cut off? There doesn't seem to be any more influence of the Palestinian cause on the international track.
Definitely. I feel that the Palestinian presentation, the Palestinian narrative, the Palestinian message has not been presented adequately. Firstly, the official system and structure has not really paid much attention or given priority in status to the presentation of the Palestinian case internationally or on the local level, officially or in public opinion.
Secondly, there is what I call the grand deception: that the Palestinian question has been solved, so don't bother us anymore. Everybody saw the signing on the White House lawn and was quick to dismiss the Palestinian question as solved, despite those little issues that keep coming up, or the gap between talks and facts.
Thirdly, the nature of the message is different. Before the message was one of historical integrity, in a particular reality of resistance to the Occupation. Now it is a question of trying to explain the intricacies of a fluid and uncertain situation that does not lend itself to public presenta¬tion. We have lost in a sense the human substance as against the official utterance. We stressed credibility, the human aspect, our authenticity, the honesty and the immediacy of our message. Now it is becoming like other political statements: manipulative, sloganeering, and quite often lacking immediate honesty.
You have been a leader among Palestinians in initiating dialogue with Israeli peace movements. How do you evaluate the Israeli peace camp? Has it been coopted by the present Labor government or do you still have hopes and expectations for the Israeli peace camp?
The Israeli peace camp has undergone several transformations, starting as an activist dialogue and becoming more and more of a political dialogue. I would not say political at the expense of activist dialogue, but it was a pre¬negotiation dialogue and became a subject of political expedience. I think what is happening now is that the peace camp does exist in Israel but it is constantly being told not to rock the boat, not to weaken the Labor coali¬tion. It is not a question of being coopted as much as being neutralized because of the fragility of the Labor-Meretz coalition.
The peace process became the be-all and the end-all, with no alterna¬tives. You find an unwillingness to explore difficult issues, to do what the previous dialogue did, which was to lay the foundations for a new type of discourse, to lay open issues that are very sensitive and difficult to treat where the official dialogue cannot tread. So now we have in many ways reduced the contacts to the official negotiations as opposed to the unofficial dialogue. The negotiations superseded the dialogue and that robbed the political arena of a very valuable open and frank discussion of issues that are not always on the negotiating table, away from the limitations and con¬straints of the official discourse.
Women have taken more initiatives than men in the peace dialogue. Do you have more hope and expectations from female Israeli-Palestinian activists than from men?
Women have been more forthcoming, more daring and more honest in broaching difficult issues. But there is a reluctance on the part of women, just as there is among men, to discuss certain difficult issues, such as Jerusalem, settlements and prisoners.
On the Israeli side, political decision-making is getting more and more restricted to a few people in the Israeli government. Women have been told very openly that they do not know what is happening in the negotiations, and not to do anything that would upset or disturb them. So, even the women's dialogue has been affected.
Is it also possible that Palestinian women are turning inward and are now giving more priority to women's issues within the Palestinian community rather than the outer issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
Yes, this could be a factor. But I would not call it a decisive factor, or say that these issues are mutually exclusive, because I think women's empow¬erment is linked to the political process. You cannot separate the different components of Palestinian struggle and say that you do one thing at the expense of the other. Women are now dealing with issues that have to do with Palestinian women in parliament: organizing our work; creating more awareness, particularly on the issue of elections; encouraging women to participate, whether to run or to vote; trying to establish support systems, and creating structures at all levels.
These are new challenges and concrete demands, but they do not exclude the possibility of maintaining a dialogue. Generally, we are able to address issues that were taboo before. At the same time, Palestinian women involved in dialogue organizations have come under attack because there is this backlash against "normalization." Many people have accused women's organizations of normalizing and of playing into the hands of the Israelis, particularly since many women feel disappointed that they did not see any results for all their work. Somehow their Israeli coun¬terparts are not consistent politically and, when they are in positions of power, they do not challenge decision-making, as they do when the issues are discussed with the Palestinians.
Some of these women have refused to write for this Journal because it is an Israeli-Palestinian journal. Do you think they are justified?
They have not told me the reasons, so I cannot say if they have legitimate or justified reasons. But in my opinion, we made the decision a long time ago, that withholding of communication is detrimental, and we should have the confidence to speak up to address issues. We should be able to face and talk to the Israelis, find areas of convergence and areas of dis¬agreement. Refusing any type of dialogue is not going to be beneficial. I am not afraid of dialogue because I have confidence in my own message. When you adopt the basis of honesty and candor, you have nothing to fear. It is what you do with the dialogue that is important.
Now, that does not mean I am not aware of the dangers of creating a misconception that disparity does not exist, that everything is normal, that we are two sides living in equal conditions trying to resolve issues on the basis of equality and justice. That is why the substance of dialogue of any kind of joint activity has to be made clear. Now, on the one hand, you see joint activity on the military, the security, the political arena; and yet, it is this dialogue that started long ago which is now being questioned. To me, these political or economic dialogues are much more serious; I would ques¬tion those.
In almost any meeting today among Palestinian women, you hear the issue or the example of the Algerian women presented. Is this a fair comparison? Is it a legitimate fear, that Palestinian women, who had an active role in the political struggle, will be neglected when its goals are achieved?
It is a legitimate fear, but I do not think it is a fair comparison since the two situations are not entirely analogous. There is always a fear; we diagnosed this years ago. We talked about a backlash, which is really a reaction to an immediate threat. The moment the threat is removed, women are sent back to the kitchen, and are relegated to second or third status.
If we perceive our work as reactive work, a reaction to an immediate threat like the Occupation, or, now, the peace process, the negotiations and the process of nation-building, then we will be pushed back to the kitchen. There is a danger.
But women's work has had more than just that dimension: the active confrontation and the "resistance dimension. We have tried to evolve a woman's gender agenda and discourse, consciously based on identify¬ing women's issues that are uniquely Palestinian while at the same time universal. We have tried to create and prepare mechanisms, insti¬tutions and structures as well as support systems for women. We have tried to plan ahead and we have tried to review the legal system and to propose further structures and institutions, and now we are involved in a process of raising women's awareness.
What does feminism mean to you? Can you put it in context?
I do not like labels. I have never used the terms "feminist" or "non-femi¬nist"; I have always resisted labels. I would say I am committed to women's issues and to women's rights, regardless of the label you put on that. I believe that a nation can't struggle for self-determination and deny it to its women. You can't struggle for justice among others when you have internal injustice. You can't struggle against oppression and discrimination and deny that struggle to others. We have to recognize that our society still tends to be discriminatory and oppressive against women.
As commissioner-general of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizen's Rights, could you give us a brief evaluation of the human rights record of the Palestinian National Authority?
We are concerned not only with issues of human rights, but also act as ombudsman where all matters of accountability are concerned, to make sure that the basic rights of people are not violated through abuse of pub¬lic authority and public funds. We take up the individual case only when all recourse to the law has been exhausted.
We deal with institutions involved in security; we are concerned with lack of due process, violence, interrogation, rights of detainees, prison con¬ditions, and freedom of press, movement and assembly.
Some abuses are the result of lack of training or of legal awareness; some of a political decision to crack down on the opposition. Sometimes it is dif¬ficult to identify who is responsible.
There are excesses and violations and too few safeguards within the [new Palestinian] system. There is an alarming tendency to militarization and centralization, which curbs the freedoms I mentioned. Some of this results from Israeli pressures, in testing how the Palestinian National Authority can provide "immediate security," for example, that inspired the establishment of the Higher Court for State Security.
This Court was recently vehemently criticized by Amnesty International, and praised by U.S. Vice-President AI Gore.
We did not have to wait for Amnesty. We did our best to prevent the estab¬lishment of the Court on principle. Then we stressed, publicly, that the way in which it is operating is totally unacceptable. Most Palestinians and Palestinian human rights NGOs came out against such repressive military structure. Ironically, the U.S. State Department and the Israelis support the courts.
Do you think the decision to create the Court will be reversed after the elections?
I hope a legislative council elected in free and fair elections will have the confidence and authority to take this up.
What can Palestinians in general, and women in particular, expect from Hanan Ashrawi if elected as their representative?
I am considering standing for election, but I have not yet made a decision. I am in favor of a strong legislative body. People elected by a constituency have the ability to create a system of accountability and thus, to ensure the rule of law, would be my major task. We have to rectify some of the prob¬lems that have resulted from the transitional phase and watch over the work of the executive.
What was the reaction to your new book in America?
On the whole, the reviews have been excellent. I was amazed at the num¬ber of Israeli reviewers. I was amazed that The New York Times would choose an Israeli to review my book. I doubt whether they would have a Palestinian review an Israeli book. The book is being discussed because it is an individual, Palestinian narrative which conveys the collective narra¬tive and the human reality of Palestinians. Placing that narrative within the mainstream awareness and consciousness of the West was important to me. I know that it needed to be done; I had a sense of historical individual responsibility, a sense of amana
I had to discharge.