Interview with Leila Shaheed
Yesterday, L'Orient-Le Jour carried an interview with Leila Shaheed, General Representative of Palestine to France by reporter Émilie Sueur. Mrs. Shaheed analyzes Ariel Sharon 's strategy and sounds the alarm concerning his plans for the West Bank.
Until the middle of August, the worst scenarios were imagined concerning the Sharon Plan for evacuating 21 colonies on the Gaza Strip and 4 on the West Bank. Today, a week later, the operation is all over. What are your thoughts on this?
We can congratulate ourselves for the calm conditions in which the evacuation took place and that it concluded sooner than expected. This is the result of security cooperation between the Israeli Army and the Palestinian Authority despite Ariel Sharon's continued claims concerning "unilateral redeployment". We, the Palestinians, deployed 7,500 police because we believed that the evacuation should take place in the best conditions possible.
People have been talking about a scripted evacuation.
I think that the Israeli government somewhat inflated the threat posed by the settlers before carrying out the evacuation. But, even if the government's reaction was firm yet passionate, the settlers understood very well that they could not resist a decision taken by the government and approved by the Knesset. Besides, the settlers did not wish to tarnish their image further within Israeli society. Israel took advantage of the occasion to burnish its credentials. The methods used in the evacuation were far different from those generally used against the Palestinians, who must face troops armed with M16's and tanks meant to raze their homes. Nevertheless, among the Palestinians this evacuation is seen as very positive because it is the first time in 38 years that Israel has dismantled its colonies. The evacuation, its rapidity and the conditions in which it took place have created a precedent proving that if the political will is there, the Israeli occupation forces can quickly clear out of a territory.
How to you explain the political will demonstrated by the Israelis?
There are three explanations. First, Ariel Sharon was forced to recognize that there was no way to win against the Palestinians militarily. Since the Second Intifada, we have been subjected to military repression unlike any other seen in the 57 year-old history of Israel. And yet, civil disobedience and armed resistance continued. Second, Ariel Sharon understood that maintaining the status quo translated into continuing, total paralysis. Discontent came from the ranks of his own army, which was obliged to mobilize 1,500 troops to protect 8,000 Gaza settlers; the military became really fed up and this feeling was expressed by the refuznik movement. Last, the Israeli peace movement began to make its voice heard. The USA also moved closer to the Europeans on the necessity of restarting the peace process with the 2003 Road Map. So a clever stategy was developed as described by Sharon's advisor Dov Weissglass in the columns of the newspaper Haaretz: act before international pressure became overwhelming. To escape the provisions of the Road Map, Ariel Sharon threw the international community a bone: the unilateral evacuation plan. The strategy would place the peace process in formaldehyde and prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state by annexing East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs on the West Bank.
Yesterday Israel ordered the confiscation of new Palestinian land to build a wall around the largest colony on the West Bank, Maalé Adoumim.
The Gaza evacuation was clearly utilized as a smokescreen to hide the expansion of colonization on the West Bank. With the building of the wall, which joins together the three settlement blocks of Ariel, Maalé Adoumim and Gush Etzion, the West Bank is going to be transformed into three Bantustans and Jerusalem will be annexed to Israel. And people are praising Sharon as if he were Charles de Gaulle! It's surreal!
As to Gaza, at what point are negotiations concerning the borders, the airport, the seaport...?
Since the arrival of Mahmood Abbas to power, negotiations haven't resulted in anything serious on a bilateral level. As to Gaza, we have had no answers to date. No answer on the border crossing between Egypt and Rafah, no answer on the crossing between Erez and the West Bank--although the Oslo Accords provided for a corridor--, no answer on the airport whose landing strips are destroyed and no answer on access to the sea. We have only just restarted discussions on a seaport. But everyone knows that building a seaport requires at least five years. Gaza has no natural resources. The only way to jumpstart the economy is through trade and for that we need free circulation of capital, goods and people. The Israelis and the Americans have always delayed discussion on this until after the evacuation. Today, there is no more excuse to prolong the delay.
What should the international community be doing about this?
The current situation is not merely the result of failure by the Israelis and the Palestinians. The international community bears some responsibility. Europe still views Israel as a state run by the survivors of the genocide of the Second World War and the United States sees it as its Fifty-first State. This has paralyzed their efforts. In any case, today I feel a renewal of concern by the international community due to the fact that the present global crisis has radicalized the Arab-Muslim world, which is no stranger to the anger of public opinion due to the legal limbo in Palestine. Today, the ball is the in court of the Quartette.
On the Palestinian side, we have just witnessed a wave a clashes and kidnappings, especially of foreigners, in the Gaza Strip. How do you explain that?
The situation in the Gaza Strip is very worrisome. It is the result of four years of pernicious Israeli strategy, which aims to atomize Palestinian society and to shread its social fabric. On the pretext of restricting the movement of suicide bombers, the Israeli authorities have built barriers around cities, towns, villages and the refugee camps. Before 2001, we were able to organize simple community meetings inviting all branches of Fatah to attend. This has been impossible over the last few years. The result? The populace has gravitated around the smallest and most backward common denominator: the family and the clan. In an Arab society which is predominately agricultural, this phenomen has conjured up the archaic demons of tribalism and vendetta. This was aggravated because the Palestinian security and police infrastructure was repeatedly smashed by the Israeli authorities. We are now seeing practices which have been absent from Palestine for the past forty years. It will not be easy to reconstruct genuine authority quickly, but we are determined to do it.
For several weeks there has been an increase in the number of vists by Palestinian officials to Lebanon. Why is this taking place?
In Lebanon, due to his history of civil war and power-sharing arrangement among its confessional communities, the plight of Palestinian refugees there is absolutely tragic. Neverthess, since the arrival of Mahmood Abbas to power there has been a return of a desire to improve the situation on the part of the Lebanese authorities. They shouldn't be afraid of the presence of refugees on their territory. We will never renounce our right of return and UN Security Council Resolution 194. In the meantime, we should be granted civil rights there. We must also have a Palestinian intermediary appointed in Lebanon.
Are the visits linked to UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of militias in Lebanon?
The world doesn't revolve around Resolution 1559. In any case, this is the kind of subject which requires the presence of an official Palestinian representative.