The evening's panel speakers. From left to right: Suhail Khalilieh, Benjamin Pogrund, Talia Sasson, and Akiva Eldar.
The panel presentations were followed with a lively question-and-answer session that drew questions from across the political spectrum. Excerpts from the discussion: I want to note that the expositions have been one of the propaganda of the enemies of Israel. The right of the Jewish people to closely settle the land is established in the Palestine Mandate of the League of Nations. Also, the Geneva Conventions say that the relationship of occupier and occupied can only be between two high contracting parties. Are you aware of these facts? Eldar: It’s very clear that settlements contradict the definition of a Jewish state. According to international law and official Israeli policy that accepted 242, Israel has to withdraw to the 1967 borders with minor modifications. What I suggest to this gentleman, if he wants to be post-democratic and Jewish, let’s start with asking: Why didn’t the Likud governments annex the territories? They could have annexed the territories if it was given to us by God, and then allow the Palestinians to vote – one man, one vote. Otherwise it’s South Africa. If you want to live in South Africa, you’re welcome. I agree that settlements are the greatest enemy of Zionism. I came to this country because I consider myself a Zionist in the tradition of the declaration of independence. Maybe this sort of Zionism doesn’t exist anymore. I hope it does. Do you consider in 2007 Israel to be an apartheid state? Eldar: I think Israel is bad enough without this title of apartheid. If you know a little bit about the history of South Africa, we don’t have segregation laws. People talk about “apartheid roads,” but if you want to be precise, Israeli Palestinians and Muslims can use these roads. It's not on the basis of race. It's on the basis of political – demographic, if you’d like – conflict between us and the Palestinians. I think that most Israelis would like to see an end to this, but there was a military conflict that we can’t ignore, unlike in South Africa where it was based on color. Here it was based on a war that you can argue Israel didn’t start. It’s not South African apartheid, but things are pretty bad without the title. A lot of the focus is on the land. I think that a lot of people in this room are concerned about terrorism. Hamas is killing Fateh, Fateh is killing Hamas, and when they don’t get to kill each other, they try to kill Jews. If Palestinians would get the land that they want, what would they do with it? Would they shell Tel Aviv and Haifa?
PIJ Co-Editor Hillel Schenker welcoming the audience. From left to right: Hillel Schenker, Benjamin Pogrund, Talia Sasson, Akiva Eldar.
Khalilieh: When you talk about terrorism, this really pisses me off. In 2002 or 2003, the Israeli army was after a Hamas member, Salah Shihadeh, in Gaza. They got information that Shihadeh was in a house meeting his family secretly in one of Gaza’s refugee camps, which are some of the most densely populated areas in the world. So the Israeli army dropped a one-metric-ton bomb on that neighborhood and killed Shihadeh and maybe 16 others with him. After that the spokesman of the Israeli army said that ‘we did not intend to kill any civilians.’ What you say is terrorism, I say we are resisting an occupation. [From the audience: Hamas is shelling Sderot. Do you agree with that?] Did you ever consider the Israeli army shelling refugee camps in Gaza? [From the audience: No!] I recall in 1966 that Judea, Samaria, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip were completely Arab. I don’t recall a single settlement and your people attacked us and lost. We now have a right to this land and I’m not afraid to take it. And I’m not going to be intimidated by the fact that they’re gong to be voting because they don’t have to. They were citizens of Jordan. It was never a Palestinian state. When we captured the area in self-defense, you discovered your Palestinianism. Eldar: If this gentleman wants to control other people who don’t want us and believes that this is the best way to ensure security, and wants our children and grandchildren to spend their lives chasing Palestinian children, you’re welcome. Why is the Israeli government scared of the settlers? Eldar: This government as well as previous governments is using settlements as a bargaining chip. According to the polls – besides the people who live in areas that might be annexed to Israel in a swap with Palestinians – there are 80,000 people who live on the other side of the wall, 60% of which want to get back to Israel. This leaves 40,000 people in about 10,000 households. Olmert is keeping them as a bargaining chip. For example, 60% of the settlers in Ariel were taken straight from the airport to Ariel. They couldn’t tell the difference between Ariel and Kfar Saba. If you gave these people keys to Kfar Saba, Ariel would be an abandoned city. We dealt with Gush Katif [in Gaza]. We could deal with the West Bank. Sasson: I do not agree with you that this is the same threat as Gush Katif. I think many politicians are quite afraid of the violent settlers and afraid of dealing with the problems. I don’t think that the hard core in the West Bank are similar to Gush Katif. This is for Talia Sasson: Why did Ariel Sharon appoint you? Here is the man who is the self-proclaimed father of the settlements. Illegal outposts were a hot issue at the time, yet he appoints you to investigate them and do a report. Why? Sasson: I never asked him this question. There are some questions that you don’t ask. But I can assume why. One reason was that he had to explain to the Americans why he didn’t fulfill the Israeli commitments to evacuate the outposts. I remember that Mr. Kurtzer, who was the American ambassador to Israel at the time, asked me why it was that when every Palestinian goes from his house to his sister's to visit for 2 hours, the security authorities know immediately, but when a caravan of trailers goes into the territories, nobody's heard of it? Can you please explain that? The other reason was entirely different. I think Mr. Sharon thought the settlers and all the governmental organizations that helped them caused a lot of damage to Israel and, therefore, he thought that it must be stopped. But when he wanted to stop it, he found out that he couldn’t. He wanted to show the settlers that he meant business by appointing somebody who will write a report revealing the real truth about what's going on. Why have road blocks within the West Bank not been removed to improve the economic situation there? Khalilieh: The Israelis want to keep us on a short leash. They want to keep controlling the Palestinian movement throughout the territories [From the audience: Do the roadblocks increase with the settlements?] Of course. [From the audience: Or terrorism!] Eldar: It has nothing to do with terrorism. Khalilieh: The network of bypass roads works hand-in-hand with the settlements. The Israelis have made another network of roads just for the Palestinians. If you want to talk about racism, they call the network of Israeli bypass roads the ‘sterile network,’ meaning there are no Palestinians. Do you believe the rabbi community will sanction violence if settlements are ordered cleared in the West Bank? Eldar: Since the disengagement in Gaza there’s been a tremendous crisis between rabbis and the settler communities. The message coming from the rabbis was that if you pray hard enough it will not happen. Trust us and trust God. Settlers feel they were betrayed by the rabbis and the political establishment. The rabbis used to say that the secular community, headed by Ariel Sharon, is a natural partner. They were wrong. I would like to thank Suhail Khalilieh for coming all this way to an audience that he knew would not be easy and to say things that take bravery. I would like to ask you specifically what you would like Israelis to know about you as a Palestinian and about Palestinians in general. Khalilieh: Well I would expect you know more about the human side of Palestinians. We are not all what you see on TV. We are not all with masks and guns trying to shoot and kill people. We’ve been living long years under oppression that have not been easy for us. Children have not been out of their neighborhoods in years. Many in the younger generation have not even seen Jerusalem. We don’t have playgrounds. We have to play in the streets. We do not have the luxuries of even the poorest Israeli neighborhoods. I was asked if my children knew any Jewish children. The only Jewish people we see are the Israeli army and settlers. I urge you to look into the Palestinian human side. We do have a human side. We want to relate to other people. Many people who come from abroad relate to us and see what we go through. We are not going to attack Israelis randomly. If you tried to communicate with Palestinians, they would communicate back. Report compiled and written by Geoffrey Macdonald, PIJ contributing writer and editorial intern.