Al Qaeda hijacking the Palestinian cause

Al Qaeda hijacking the Palestinian cause

Anthony Lowstedt has been described as the leading Swedish researcher of Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He currently teaches and researches at Webster University in Vienna and just finished the 4th edition of his book called “Apartheid – Ancient, Past, and Present: Systematic and Gross Human Rights Violations in Greco-Roman Egypt, South Africa, and Israel/Palestine.”

This independent Swedish researcher has undertaken many responsibilities among which is former Senior Consultant for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) at “The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy – Miftah, which is s a non-governmental non-partisan Jerusalem-based institution dedicated to fostering democracy and good governance within Palestinian society .

He also led Miftah”s Media and Information Program, in Ramallah and Al Qods (Jerusalem).

Lowstedt also the headed the Documentation and Archives department of the International Press Institute and taught at Bir Zeit University, Palestine (West Bank) as Adjunct Professor.

Dr. Lowstedt has shared some of his direct experiences of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his research findings with our reporter in Vienna, Austria.

Q: From 2004 to 2005 you lived in Ramallah where you were a Senior Consultant for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) at Miftah; what was the purpose of your position and what tasks did you fulfill?

A: The purpose of my position was to act as a Media consultant on behalf of the UN to the Human Rights Organization known as Miftah. I worked at the Miftah Jerusalem office most of the time, but I lived in Ramallah. The primary goal of Miftah is to foster Human Rights and Dialogue; however it also focuses on media freedom. I personally represented Miftah to foreign journalists, diplomats and foreign activists whom I informed about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the situation on the ground.

Q: How does the UN contribute to Miftah and what is the relationship between Miftah and the UNDP?

A: The UNDP has a program called Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People (PAPP). Through this program the UN provides money for projects which help the Palestinian people create a sovereign state in accordance with the UN charter. The UN decided back in 1948 that Palestine was to become an independent state, unfortunately, it did not follow through with this decision and Palestine never achieved its independence. The UN has had a guilty conscience about it ever since. Therefore the UN financially helps an organization like Miftah in order to help the Palestinians in the process of nation-building.

Q: After living in Ramallah as a UN employee/diplomat, what impression did this time leave on you regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

A: It deepened my understanding about the conflict, even though I had researched and written about it during the previous eight years. However, even though I already was a kind of expert on the conflict, to experience it myself was very educational. What was very important during this time was the fact that I personally lived through the military occupation with the Palestinian people. In this short time, I experienced what they have been experiencing for decades. The fact is that most people have no idea what military occupation is like and neither did I. However, once I lived in that environment full of checkpoints and constant surveillance I realized that the main goal of the occupation is to make the Palestinians feel so uncomfortable in their daily lives that they simply give up and leave. I would say that the supreme goal is to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from Palestine. This is done by creating thousands of small daily hardships which are extremely well thought through and implemented. Being there helped me to understand how small things are part of a huge program of occupation.

One of the thousands of examples would be the Palestinian grocery shops. You go to any grocery shop and you can see how all the products being sold are Israeli products or products produced by the settlers. There are almost no products other than the Israeli products. I began to realize how the Palestinians are forced to sustain the occupation of their land through sustaining the Israeli economy by being forced to buy Israeli products. Since the Palestinians are surrounded by checkpoints and Israeli regulations they cannot really choose what to buy and import.

I also experienced what it was like to cross a checkpoint. This is a daily violation of the basic human right to freedom of movement. Sometimes it would take me hours to cross a checkpoint to get to our office in Jerusalem, only 15 minutes away otherwise, and I was still treated with respect due to being Swedish and a UN employee. This is unlike the Palestinians who have to go through daily humiliation while crossing these checkpoints. I also got to see how unhappy and bored the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints were.

Most of them were in their late teenage years. They were put at the frontlines of the conflict by the political elites and they had no choice but to be there. Their only other options were to go to prison or flee the country.

Q: When you were in Ramallah, Fatah was still the dominant political faction. After the January 2006 parliamentary elections Hamas won the election and started to dominate the political arena. Was it a surprise to you?

A: It was not a surprise to me at all. I had seen it coming for some time. One of the reasons I noticed the rise of Hamas much earlier then January 2006 is because I closely studied the flow of money from the EU, UN and the US into the Palestinian territories. A lot of that money that was given by the EU, UN and the US was used for the so-called democracy projects to educate the Palestinian people about the tools and the rules of the democratic political game. Therefore, Palestinians became very good in playing the so called “democratic game.” Also, a huge part of that money was used by the US and the Israelis to corrupt the leadership of Fatah. Many Palestinian people still look at the Fatah leaders as corrupt.

Q: How is it that Hamas, which is seen by the West as a movement which stands against democracy, came to benefit from democracy?

A: Well, one of the key reasons is that Hamas was deeply involved in working with the Palestinian people on a daily bases by helping them overcome daily problems. Hamas is very dedicated to help the most disaffected segment of the Palestinian population and the Palestinian people recognize this.

Another key factor in the Hamas victory is the fact that on a daily basis in Palestine, people see the luxury in which much of the Fatah leadership lives and this angers a lot of Palestinians. If one is to travel to the West Bank the luxurious life of the Fatah leadership can clearly be observed. On the other hand, we must give credit to Hamas for being deeply democratic because it has a democratic ethos due to its commitment to work with the people.

Q: What will be the political consequences for the West in the Middle East for the position which they took against Hamas after the 2006 election?

A: It”s hard to say. I thought a lot about this. The fact is that the West has been hypocritical very often about democracy. It has practiced colonialism and other forms of un-democratic policies and has gotten away with it by being able to turn the story around. One thing which is very clear is that due to the position which the West took after the free and fair elections of 2006 in Palestine, its hypocrisy will make it even less trusted by the people in the Middle East.

Q: By directly participating in the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians, do you think that they believe in the fruitfulness of the negotiations between their two Nations?

A: In general terms I think yes, both Israelis and Palestinians believe that the way to solve the conflict is through negotiations. The fact is that both sides are tired of constant war and revenge, but the negotiations alone will not solve everything. There need to be other conditions present in order for both sides to become interested in negotiating. However, when it comes to specific negotiations like the upcoming one in Annapolis, we are certainly not going to see anything productive.

Q: The United States of America tried to broker peace in Palestine for decades. Do you think that the Palestinians and Israelis see the United States of America as an honest broker of peace between the two sides?

A: I can confidently state that the Palestinian side does not see the United States of America as an honest broker. One can just simply see the power the Zionist lobby has in the US and know how pro-Israeli the US position will always be. Unfortunately, outside of the region many people are tricked into believing that the US is trying to honestly broker peace. A lot of this has to do with the political marketing that the US conducts. The US government makes sure that the people see the US diplomats going back and forth between the Israelis and the Palestinians, attending conferences and so on. These travels and conferences make people outside the region think that the US is working to have an honest and just peace. However, the Palestinians have no choice but to accept the US as a broker because they are the weaker side. They are the ones under the occupation and surrounded. We have for example the Middle East quartet where the UN, EU and Russia are also participating, but they rarely make any demands from Israel. And when they do make demands those demands are rarely implemented.

Q: After the 9/11 events, the western media began propagating the view that the Palestinians are sympathetic to Al-Qaeda. How is Al Qaeda viewed by the Palestinian political elites and the population?

A: There is a clear rejection of Al-Qaeda”s methods and even of some of its goals. People who are not familiar with the roots of the conflict in Palestine may think that the “suicide bombings” are signs of Al-Qaeda”s ideological presence. However it must always be kept in mind that most of the attacks by “suicide bombing” are carried out by Palestinians in the occupied territories. Palestinians do not go abroad and attack other countries which are not directly occupying there territories. The targets of the Palestinians are also not a hundred percent civilian. The settlers who occupy the Palestinian territories are subsidized by the government and used as an instrument of occupation with a civilian mask.

The Palestinians do not want to be associated with Al Qaeda at all. They know that under international law they have a legitimate cause for struggle, which Al Qaeda does not have. When it comes to the view of political elites towards Al Qaeda one can see a clear hatred of it. All Palestinian political factions understand that Al Qaeda is hijacking the Palestinian cause and through their terrorist attacks are turning the whole world against the Palestinian struggle and the struggle of all other Muslims who fight against imperialist domination and for independence.

Q: What is the attitude of the Palestinians towards the major regional state players such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt? What are their views towards major non-state regional powers such as Hezbollah and The Muslim Brotherhood?

A: In general, Palestinians as a whole are very disappointed in Egypt because Egypt gave up protecting their rights. The Palestinians have the same attitude towards Saudi Arabia. In regard to Iran, when I regularly discussed politics with Palestinians two years ago they did not mention it. I think now, due to the current situation, if I were to return to Ramallah Iran would probably be on everyone”s mind, just as Iraq was back when I lived there. However, I think that the Islamic Revolution of Iran is connected to the Palestinians in a non-tangible way; it is more of a spiritual inspiration. For example, the University of Bir Zeit, where I taught, was an English-speaking University before it was forced to become an Arabic speaking University by massive student demonstrations in 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

When it comes to the regional non-state actors I would say that almost all of the Palestinians have great sympathy for Hezbollah because they are the only ones who managed to deter Israeli aggression. The attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood is also very sympathetic since Hamas was born out of the Muslim Brotherhood. I would say there is even a veneration of the Muslim Brotherhood by some segments of the Palestinian society mainly due to their very similar principles and day-to-day work which is rooted in what I would call fundamentalist democracy. However, secular segments which are mostly Fatah supporters are not so favorable towards the Muslim Brotherhood and this is mainly due to the political competition with Hamas.

Q: For over 10 years you have worked at the International Press Institute. Could you please give us some insight as to what the freedom of press situation is like in the region?

A: From my experience in working in the region in the field of Press freedom, I have not seen much oppression of freedom of expression in Palestine and Lebanon. In Egypt also there is a relative freedom of expression because there is no massive oppression of it.

This is unlike what I have seen in Tunisia, where journalists are persecuted on a massive scale. In Tunisia journalism as a profession is under absolute control by the President. However, this is not the case in Palestine, Lebanon or Egypt. Actually during the time I lived in Palestine it was surprising to see how free people were to express their opinions.

Freedom of expression is very much a part of the Palestinian political culture where it is very normal to express one”s criticism. The problem I think which affects journalists in the region as well as everyone else living there is the presence of strong violence which causes a decrease in the value of a human life. Therefore, when journalists get caught up in the violence they are easily seen as part of the collateral damage. This is mainly due to the many years of conflict which has resulted in devaluation of human life in the region. However, it must be said that censorship in the past decade has become very sophisticated. It is not a clear-cut censorship in its classical definition. For example, in Israel, media in general is free from state censorship, but in Israel it is often done through market mechanisms. The case of the Israeli newspaper Ha”aretz during the second Palestinian Intifada is a clear example of market mechanism censorship. Ha”aretz was sometimes reporting very critically about Israeli practices towards Palestinians and this led to many death threats against their journalists and it also led to the withdrawal of advertisements from their newspaper by powerful pro-Zionist companies and they almost went bankrupt. However, they managed to survive due to their international advertisement through their website. This is exactly what happened to the most liberal white newspaper in South Africa during the Apartheid regime. In fact in 1985 that newspaper went bankrupt due to a boycott by powerful pro-Apartheid companies.

Q: Do you mean that the Zionist segment of the Jewish population is against any sort of self-criticism in the policies against Palestinians?

A: Yes, except one word, any. The Israelis like to think of themselves as the only democracy in the Middle East. Israelis see themselves as a Western country or a western society which is transplanted outside of Europe. This is in a way true since Israelis are often of European origin. They do have self-criticism, but a very constrained one, especially in regard to occupation. There is no questioning of the occupation among the elites, but there is questioning of how to handle the occupation. They question tactical matters but not the strategic principles. It”s like the debate about the Iraq war in the US. You have voices against the US policies of the occupation of Iraq, but the voices which say that the US must pull out now are silenced and sidelined by the mass media.

Q: Last year I read in Ha”aretz newspaper that Professor Robert Yisrael Aumann, the Israeli-American scholar who won the Nobel Prize for economics last year said that Israel may not be capable of continuing to exist in the long-term. During your presence in Jerusalem, what impression did you get from the Israelis regarding the future of their state?

A: Unfortunately I did not get to discuss this matter in detail with Israelis during my stay in Jerusalem. However, what I noticed from the public atmosphere in general is that the people are in a very deep, war-time mentality. I have especially noticed this in the architecture of the houses which were built in what I call “Apartheid architecture.” The houses are very similar to the ones I saw in South Africa with very thick walls and small windows. It”s as if they are preparing for a defense.

Q: Since you taught at the Palestinian University of Bir Zeit in the West Bank, what is the institutional education environment like in Palestinian?

A: I was very pleased with the sense of curiosity and critical thinking of the students in Palestine. The environment was a very academic one. I have not seen any difference between my students here (Austria) and in Palestine. On an intellectual level there was no difference from any other place where I have taught. The only big difference was in material resources. The universities there run on very limited resources. For example, during winter in Ramallah we had no heating in the classrooms so we had to keep our winter jackets, hats and gloves on. In the entire University we had one photocopy machine to be shared among several departments which included thousands of students and teachers. Also in a UN report which was done about 10 years ago Palestinians were ranked as the most educated people in the Arab world. One of the main reasons for this is that educational aid is the only international aid that Israel allows Palestinian people to receive without any major restrictions.

Q: You have recently written a book called “Apartheid – Ancient, Past, and Present: Systematic and Gross Human Rights Violations in Graeco-Roman Egypt, South Africa, and Israel/Palestine.” Has it been published already?

A: I have finished the 4th edition of this book now and I am having it uploaded on the web. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a publisher for it which is disappointing, but at the same time not surprising. The reason for not being able to find a publisher so far is because publishers that I have contacted have told me that they are afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism. Also, for some reason, publishers seem reluctant to publish material on the Palestinian conflict which is not written by Palestinians or Jews.

Q: Could you perhaps give us a general overview of the book and the issues addressed in it?

A: It is a political science book where I attempt to study apartheid regimes throughout history and where I establish apartheid as a form of oppression which is not purely genocide or colonialism, but something in between. Genocide and Colonialism share fringe characteristics with apartheid. But, for example, an apartheid economy is very different from a colonial economy. In apartheid countries such as South Africa and Israel you have developed economies of diversity, while in colonialism economies are mostly concentrated on very few export products. Caribbean countries became the biggest sugar exporters because the colonial powers were focused mainly on exporting its sugar. To run a colony is very simple, all you need is soldiers and a few administrators, while to run an apartheid system you have to move in large numbers of semi-civilians who set up an independent state. That small semi-civilian population of invaders takes control over an already existing society and systematically oppresses the indigenous population. In the second stage of imposing an apartheid system the new minority defines itself and the state in ethnic terms only. .

Q: During your research for this book, what were some of the signs that made you realize that Israel is an apartheid state?

A:I have discovered thousands of signs that clearly indicate that Israel is an apartheid state. The best place to see this is to look at the laws of a country. In South Africa apartheid was systematic. It was embodied into the constitution where it actually stated that the white people were superior to the black people and therefore the whites deserved to be in power. Israel does not have this stated explicitly because it has no formal constitution; instead it has so called “basic laws.” For example one of its basic laws says that Israel is the Jewish state and it is referred to as a state in ethnic terms which is an apartheid law. This law is used in so many other laws for discriminatory purposes. For example, Arabs who are Israeli citizens cannot form a political party which does not accept the “Jewishness” of the Israeli state. It must be kept in mind that “Jewishness” is defined in ethnic terms. One is a Jew only if his mother is a Jew, it is not a missionary religion, and one cannot convert into Judaism like one can convert to Christianity. Therefore, in Israel if one is ethnically Jewish but an atheist, simply based on his ethnicity, he will get a privilege which his atheist Arab neighbor will never receive.

Q: What are some of the privileges a Jewish person in Israel gets but a non-Jewish person does not?

A: Well, these privileges are not so easily seen at first glance. For example you must be a Jew to serve in the Israeli army and if you are not a Jew you cannot serve in the army. Actually many non-Jews are happy about it, except there is a catch to it. In Israel almost all jobs require that you have performed military service to be accepted for a job. Therefore, a non-Jew who has no right to go to the army will never get a decent job. This is a social form of apartheid. Another clear legal discriminatory law is the “right of return” law. If one proves his Jewish identity he or she automatically gets the Israeli citizenship, the right of residence and a work permit. However, if a person is an Israeli citizen and marries a Palestinian, his or her spouse will not be given the right to live in Israel.

Another key issue where there is clear apartheid is the issue of land. In South Africa the government made sure that 87% of the land was reserved for the white people. In Israel a semi-NGO called Jewish Agency for Israel is in charge of reserving land for Jews only. In fact 98% of the land in Israel is reserved for Jews only. A non-Jewish citizen cannot buy any of those 98% of the land while a Jew from any other country can easily buy land in Israel. When Israel was formed in 1948 Jews owned just 7% of the land; this indicates that much of the rest was stolen or confiscated due to the destruction of 511 Palestinian villages which were bulldozed down and the land taken over by Jewish settlers. Some of the land was bought legally, and much of it was bought illegally, as well. Therefore, I think Palestinians and others must always try to remind the world of these facts so that the world does not forget the original causes of Palestinian-Israeli conflict.