An Interview With Dr. Mustafa Barghouti
On March 20th, I interviewed Dr. Mustafa Barghouti about the plans for a new international initiative for Land Day, March 30th: a Global March to Jerusalem, to bring together in one nonviolent action all of the Palestinian political parties and civil society organizations in historic Palestine as well as in the diaspora, with supporting actions around the world.
Then on March 27, Mustafa’s distant cousin, Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, issued a letter from the Israeli prison where he has so far served ten years of five life sentences. In it, Marwan Barghouti called on the Palestinian Authority to end peace negotiations and all coordination with Israel, to institute a total boycott against Israel, and to turn to the UN General Assembly to advance the bid for statehood. He also called on the Palestinian people to begin a new a popular nonviolent uprising in the spirit of the Arab Spring: a third intifada. As punishment, the Israelis put him in solitary confinement.
Both Barghoutis are calling for increased Palestinian popular resistance, which is an implicit criticism of the old-guard Fatah leadership. Both Barghoutis have called for unity between Fatah and Hamas and all other Palestinian parties, yet the two might well compete against each other in a new Palestinian election: Marwan as leader of the more activist second generation Fatah activists and Mustafa as leader of the Palestinian National Initiative party (Al-Mubadara). During the 2005 elections, as candidate for president of the Palestinian Authority, Mustafa Barghouti won 19 percent of the vote. The Israelis thereupon banned him from entering Jerusalem, where he was born and had worked as a medical doctor for fifteen years.
In the Global March to Jerusalem this year, Palestinians and their supporters planned to march as close to Jerusalem as they could get: whether at the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, at the checkpoints in Gaza and in the West Bank, or at Israeli embassies around the world. The closest point Mustafa Barghouti could reach was the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah, where he now resides, and Jerusalem. At Qalandia he was injured and brought to a hospital, amid conflicting reports regarding the cause of his injury.
Reports on the success of the Global March to Jerusalem were also mixed. Far fewer demonstrators amassed on the borders of Lebanon and Jordan than had been predicted by some, and, as far as is known, no one attempted to cross over into Israeli controlled territory. Yet the organizers have stated that they had achieved their most important goals.
I recently spoke with Mustafa Barghouti again by Skype.
What was your response to the call that Marwan Barghouti issued from prison?
I agree with him that Israel is trying to make the Authority a security sub-agent while Israel continues occupying and oppressing us. Thus all this coordination with the Israelis should stop. I think we also share the same opinion about popular nonviolent resistance. That’s what we’ve been working on for the last ten years. And I am personally proud and happy that now all political forces that in the past did not consider nonviolent resistance effective are recognizing it and adopting it. This is the biggest success that can happen. And I believe that this is now a good opportunity for all of us to conduct a unified struggle.
Did this nonviolent approach arise from the villages in the West Bank and their struggle?
Already back in 1936 there was in Palestine a nonviolent resistance movement, a strike which went on for six months. There is a tradition, and the best example is the first intifada. But the new nonviolent resistance in its most purified form started in villages like Budrus and Safa, then moved to Bil’in and then Nil’in and then to other villages, then to Jerusalem, then to Hebron and now it’s spreading everywhere. If you go back to statements we made three or four years ago, we were anticipating that this nonviolent resistance would spread. People believe in it now for three reasons: first of all, the total failure of the so-called peace process, which became nothing but a substitute to peace and a cover for Israeli expansionist policies; second, because many people understand and realize now that nonviolent resistance is much more effective than military actions; and third – and this is very important – it is a very good way of linking the Palestinian struggle to international solidarity with a clear aim, which is to change the parameters of the struggle and of the conflict and change the balance of power. We believe that so far the Israeli occupation has been profiting from occupying us, and this popular nonviolent resistance is going to make the occupation costly. The nonviolent resistance takes multiple forms, and that is good. One of the most important acts we did was to try to break the siege on Gaza: I remember in 2008, when we went in a small boat and managed to break the siege, how much this affected many leaders in Gaza regarding their belief in and acceptance of nonviolent resistance. But there are many more forms: hunger strikes, demonstrations, and the very important form of boycotting Israeli products, which we are planning to increase in the coming weeks.
Why is nonviolence more effective?
It works better because it allows everybody, and not just a small group of people, to participate. It works better because it does not allow the Israelis to claim that they are victims in this conflict. It reveals and exposes them as they are in reality: the oppressors, the occupiers, and the creators of an apartheid system.
This year on Palestinian Land Day, March 30, there was a new nonviolent initiative, the Global March to Jerusalem, of which you were a principle supporter. What role did your political party, the Palestinian National Initiative, and the other political parties play in this initiative?
I represented all political parties in the West Bank in the coordination committee of this March. In the West Bank all the political parties were completely involved in the organization of the Global March to Jerusalem, along with the civil society institutions and other structures. And we all agreed that we would come to the March with Palestinian flags as well as with our political party flags. The idea was to encourage party members to come in big numbers, and it worked. There was a long effort to bring all the Palestinian factions together, and so the Global March to Jerusalem seems to be at least a symbolic step towards unity. During the demonstrations in the West Bank, all of the leaders of the political parties marched in front. It’s of course our duty to be in the front, because we cannot have young people to be hurt by the Israelis and wait behind and direct them from the comfort of an office. The Palestinian Initiative had a lot of its supporters from different regions of the West Bank participate in the March.
On Land Day, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa called on Israel to stop using excessive force against demonstrators. Did the Israelis use an unusual amount of violence against the Global March?
It was unusual how early they started attacking us. I think they were hoping that somehow the demonstrations would be aborted, and when they realized they would not be, they immediately turned to severe violence. Not only was the violence disproportionate and extreme and excessive, but also – for example in Qalandia, where I was – they started shooting the tear gas and the metallic bullets covered with a thin piece of rubber when well before we reached the checkpoints, before we were even given any chance to approach them. Then this violence did not stop. And this has become a habit, the constant and disproportionate use of violence by the Israeli Army against nonviolent demonstrations. And I think this will continue for as long as the international community does not criticize and pressure them sufficiently. I really thank Amnesty International for directing attention to the excessive violence and force they used. On Land Day they injured at least 320 people, including one who was killed in Gaza with a high velocity bullet; a man in Bethlehem who was hit directly in the face, with a broken jaw; and I myself received one of their tear gas bombs that grazed my head.
On Land Day Amnesty International also cited reports that Palestinian Authority security forces tried to prevent protests in areas under their control and that Hamas security forces had beaten protesters in Gaza. Is the popular resistance in Palestine now facing Palestinian security as the first obstacle?
The Palestinian security forces did try to stop the demonstration in Bethlehem, but they could not, and people from Mubadara and Fatah and other groups managed to get past the security officers who were standing there to conduct their demonstration. In Qalandia, there was a mob that attacked the people participating in the demonstration and tried to prevent the demonstration from reaching the checkpoint. Of course these were people wearing civilian clothing. We don’t know them. We don’t know exactly who was directing them, but clearly there are suspicions that there were efforts to try to prevent the demonstration from proceeding. The Palestinian Authority officially declared that it supports popular nonviolent resistance. So we expect that no Palestinian should try to prevent or stop Palestinians from nonviolently, peacefully struggling for their rights, because we are struggling for the freedom of everybody. They should support the popular nonviolent resistance rather than try to obstruct it or co-opt it. The authorities in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip have no right to stop Palestinians from participating in peaceful nonviolent resistance, whether it’s in Gaza or in West Bank or anywhere else.
On Land Day you were injured during the demonstration and brought to a hospital, and there are conflicting reports regarding the causes of your injury. Can you tell us what happened?
As Land Day this year was on a Friday, it began with two prayers, one in the street and one inside the mosque. When the one in the street finished, people started to move, with Mr. Alol who is a member of the central committee of Fatah and others and I leading. Then some guys said there are others waiting still in the mosque, so we stopped the demonstration and waited. After that everything went well until the Israeli Army attacked us. In the second wave of the teargas bombs, one of the bombs hit me in my head. I was injured and a wound started to bleed. I was rushed to an ambulance. As I was trying to enter the ambulance, some of the people who had been trying to co-opt the demonstration and prevent it from moving tried to attack me. And when I got into the ambulance, they started attacking the ambulance, hitting it, and we were just lucky that they couldn’t break through. They assaulted not only the ambulance I was in, but also two other ambulances. The Palestinian Authority is investigating this matter now, and we are waiting for the results.
Who were these people?
This is being investigated. We think anybody who attacks Palestinian demonstrators during a demonstration against occupation cannot be serving the interest of the Palestinian people. Only the occupation will benefit from such acts. I spoke with President Abbas on this matter three times. We met, and he condemned such acts against any Palestinian leader. He wished me recovery from the Israeli tear gas bomb injury. Many other officials came to see me in the hospital. And now there is an investigation to find out why some of these guys tried to block this demonstration, because we will not allow this to be repeated. We have to be unified. The Global March to Jerusalem on Land Day was organized in very close cooperation between my party, the Mubadara, and Fatah, PFLP, Hamas, everybody else. And when I was in the hospital, all the leaders of all parties — Fatah, Hamas, PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), PPP (Palestinian People’s Party), everybody — came to see me to express their respect. So we will not allow this to affect our unity. There was no conflict between the political parties. This was an act by a small group of people who instigated attacks on ambulances and on injured people and on some demonstrators. These people have to be investigated. We have to find out who directed them and who motivated them. And I think the Israelis are ridiculous when they try to take away the responsibility for injuring me. Would they also claim that they are not responsible for the other 320 others they injured on Land Day and for the death of the 19-year-old Mahmoud Zakout in Gaza?
What was accomplished on Land Day towards building Palestinian unity?
I think it consolidated this unity. And it was a great day because you had people participating at the same time in activities and in demonstrations inside Israel — the Negev and Galilee — in West Bank, in Gaza, in Jerusalem, and in the Diaspora. This was a great sign of regaining Palestinian unity again around common goals, and it was also a great merger between Palestinian popular nonviolent resistance with international solidarity.
But though there were solidarity demonstrations in more than 80 countries around the world, these activists mostly so far have not had much influence on their own governments to convince them to support the Palestinian cause.
This is not true. The activists are building very good influence in their countries. Our struggle is like the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. It takes time and it needs to be built gradually. We need to stop dreaming about getting the solution from the United States government, as some politicians do. Like the anti-apartheid struggle, people are working now at the grassroots level in many countries, and gradually it will have an impact on parliaments. It has already changed even the European Parliament a great deal. And after parliaments, governments will change. And the last to change will be the United States. We know that.
You don’t count on Obama, if he’s reelected, to help you?
No. Maybe there will be a miracle and he will change. But I count on the people of the United States, who will gradually learn and know, including the Jewish American community. I spoke the last week in March at a conference of a Jewish organization called J Street in Washington, DC, and it was amazing. And I think as more and more people understand the reality and the moral integrity of the Palestinian struggle, and how immoral the Israeli oppression is, the more we will prevail. And I believe in the people who will change their governments.
What about Germany?
People in Germany more and more understand the situation, and more and more of them are more enthusiastic for the Palestinian cause. I am sure you read the remarks that were made by the head of the Social Democratic Party when he went to Hebron and said this is apartheid. This is just one indicator. The more these leaders come to Palestine, the more they will understand the situation. People in Germany need to comprehend that our struggle to free Palestine does not negate or undermine the sufferings of Jewish people during the Holocaust, nor even during the pogroms in Russia or during the Inquisition in Spain. None of what we do negates this, but on the contrary, that suffering of the Jewish people should be a motivator to the government in Israel not to repeat the same mistakes, not to oppress the Palestinian people. Our nonviolent resistance is not only about freeing Palestinian people from the oppression, but it is also about freeing the Israelis themselves from the last colonial settler system in modern history and from the worst apartheid system in modern times. When the German people understand that, I think they will realize that supporting our struggle is also about supporting both people and preventing conflict for both people and saving lives on both sides. The Israelis themselves will not be free until the Palestinians are free.
Elsa Rassbach is a filmmaker and journalist from the United States, now based in Berlin. She is a member of CODEPINK, an organization that endorsed the Global March to Jerusalem.
This interview previously appeared in +972 Magazine.