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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Etat palestinien: Face à face Leïla Shahid Régis Debray

by Françoise Germain-Robin

Leila Shahid and Régis Debray: Will There Ever Be a Palestinian State?

Translated Friday 2 May 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Subjected to unceasing military pressure from Israel, the physical, economic, and human foundations for a Palestinian state are disappearing. Is there room enough left in Palestine for a Palestinian State? Two guests of L’Humanité des débats — Leila Shahid, the Palestinian Authority’s representative in Brussels, and Régis Debray, writer and mediologist [1], discuss this paradoxical issue. Régis Debray’s last published book is entitled "Un candide en Terre Sainte" (Candide - an ingenuous traveller - in the Holy Land), a reminder, no doubt, of the author’s earlier career as a philosopher [2].

Debray’s book is dedicated to his friend François Maspero, who first inspired the idea of a reporter following in the footsteps of Jesus, and to Jacques Chirac, who had entrusted him with the delicate mission of studying ethnic-religious coexistence in the Middle-East. In his quest of the Gospels and of Palestine, Régis Debray retrieved merely evocations, the former having faded in the course of time, and the latter having been shattered by the occupation and colonization of the land. His findings point to the gradual, inexorable fading out of the territory that was once to be Palestine – a flat denial of Bush’s prediction that this year shall see the creation of the Palestinian State promised by the UN in 1947.

Meanwhile the Zionist movement has seen its dream of the Promised Land come true and will be celebrating Israel’s sixtieth anniversary in May. What is springtide for Israel is Nakba’s winter for the Palestinians.

HUMA (to Régis Debray): Having come to the last page of your book Candide en Terre Sainte (An Ingenuous Traveller in the Holy Land), one feels on the very brink of absolute despair as concerns the future of Palestine. From your fact-finding trip to the land in 2006 (commissioned by Jacques Chirac) you have brought back a damning report: “The physical, economic, and human foundations for a Palestinian State are disappearing.” You also say that as early as 1938 “the British administration had judged it impossible to create two states in Palestine, a Jewish state and an Arab state.” Have all those struggles then, all those peace plans been for nothing? And does Leila Shahid, Palestine’s representative in Brussels, agree about this diagnosis?

DEBRAY: Scott Fitzgerald writes in The Crack-Up : “One should be able to understand that things are hopeless and still be resolute to change them.” That is true: in this land which I was rediscovering after a few years by analysing the remarkably thorough maps drafted by UN geographers … I found that a program was being silently carried out, unreported by journalists, which simply consists in pushing as far as the river Jordan, Israel’s present border so far. And so there is nothing Machiavellian about the vital, spontaneous, and inexorable way the colonization develops, with all the parallel supporting infrastructures that are built: to capture water resources, to settle heights, to link one colony to another, or the way an unauthorized colony is very soon officially recognized… In short, the process is like a steam-roller - most unlike the picture that is made of it abroad.

Now, my problem, when confronted with this difficulty, is to decide whether we should let diplomats and the media flatter us with the comforting refrain that “there’ll be two states in a year’s time at most”, or that “the Annapolis Conference revives peace hopes”, or that “we (meaning France) demand the freezing of settlements”, whether we should allow this smoke-screen to persist, or tell the truth and dispel it?
To me, what would truly kill hope would be to sanction this smoke-screen. That would mean sanctioning the double dealing of a government that cultivates consensus abroad and is inexorable at home. And the West’s double dealing consists in giving the stronger contestant a free rein by protecting it behind repeated soothing statements. Should the smoke screen be dispelled even at the risk of disheartening and demoralizing our Palestinian friends? It’s a dilemma. My own writings are for this country’s public opinion, French people, not Europeans, and I do not want them to be lulled to sleep with false truths.

SHAHID: I am back from a month spent in Palestine after a four-year absence and I was absolutely appalled, absolutely shattered at seeing how much worse the situation had got. I have a feeling that in this four-year interval it has become all but irremediable. In Jerusalem, first. Today, Jerusalem no longer exists as an Arab town in the East and an Israeli town in the West. Nowhere else is the wall more repelling, more unbearable than in Jerusalem. Because all of it is pure concrete there. Elsewhere, along its 700 kilometres, it is sometimes a barbed-wire fence. But in Jerusalem, which has now grown into a metropolis sixty times as big as it was in 1967, it’s all in concrete and it’s nine metres (thirty feet) high.

Secondly, it is in East Jerusalem that the colonies have been most enlarged. All the information available goes to prove this, especially the information collected by Peace Now - which must be credited for the remarkable achievement of closely “monitoring” the colonies. It is actually in line with the mainstream Zionist tradition to present the enemy with a fait accompli. And in this case the fait accompli will save Israel the pain of negotiating the status of Jerusalem: should this process go on, there will simply be nothing left to negotiate.

Thirdly, what I found deeply shocking was the spread of road junctions to connect what is called the “ring road”, Jerusalem’s beltway, which is going to annex practically the whole town in terms of its spatial extension and of its public transport network. The junctions serve only the colonies. Not a single one leads to Beit Hanina ou any suburb in East Jerusalem. Jerusalem is cut off from the West Bank and from the occupied territories: that’s a fait accompli. One can no longer talk of East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine. On top of that, and France is particularly implicated in this last respect through the Veolia and Alstom companies, the tramway will connect settlements that lie to the East of Jerusalem to Israel, and thus violate all the rules under international law.

In the rest of the West Bank the extension of settlements around Ariel, that of Maale Adumin practically as far as the Dead Sea, the extension of the Gush Etzion cluster leave only three completely separate entities: the North, Centre, and South "Bantustans", which do not add up to a viable territorial state.

When you say this to Israeli leaders, they will answer most earnestly that they are going to dig tunnels under the settlements and build bridges over them, in order to abide by the letter of the agreements, namely, territorial continuity. That is truly Kafkaesque, but they say this quite seriously

The first to take stock of this regression are the inhabitants of Palestine, who no longer visually recognise the country in which they live. Not a single day goes by without there being a new settlement, or without an unauthorized one being authorized, or another being granted city status like Ariel or Modiin. You will hear this reflected in the talk of most citizens, though not in the talk of Palestinian Authorities officials: for if they had to admit that the territorial basis for a State no longer exists, they would have to stop negotiating. Or they would have to opt for another strategy.

HUMA (to Régis Debray): In your report you predict the annexation of the whole of the occupied territories within the next thirty years. Sarih Nusseibeh, the rector of Al Quods university, relates once more in his latest book [3] how he once published an open letter to ask Israel to annex the Palestinian territories, which would eventually lead to Palestinians enjoying the same civil rights as Israelis. And that would solve the problem, especially as the Palestinian population growth rate is high. Are you considering this solution yourself?

DEBRAY: I am not considering any solution for I am neither a politician nor a diplomat, and even less of a futurologist (they are wrong all the time)! What I am saying is that we are now witnessing a more or less soft form of ethnic cleansing, but a perfect one all the same, precisely because it goes unnamed. It is both continuous and invisible. I am not concerned with building castles in the air, but with taking stock, as Leila Shahid says, of the real situation. The UN has all the updated information they need through almost daily topographical statements which are perfectly, meticulously objective.

The question for me concerns the future of Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority. Nusseibeh’s proposal basically consists of a bi-national state, an option Israelis reject. Which you can understand: originally, they set up that state so that they have a country in which they are the majority, in which, at long last, they no longer have a minority status as had been the case since Titus. You can understand their not wanting eventually to go back to that minority status. The very logic of the Zionist project excludes the bi-national option: it would make Zionism meaningless.

What I find striking is that kind of silence in which the Palestinian Authority has taken refuge. Confronted with that situation, it can choose between two possible attitudes: either to dissolve, give the keys to Israel and ask for the fourth Geneva convention to be applied: the occupier must manage the country, that is to say pay public employees, pay for the hospitals, roads, schools. That would at least have the virtue of throwing light on the real situation, and forcing both sides to stand with their backs to the wall. The other option consists of sending maps of the region to Mr Bush, Mr Sarkozy, Mr Blair and to say to them: “The game’s up. We do not have the means to oppose this, but at least we are still standing and we are lucid. We do not accept your hypocritical attitude. You talk of perspectives that are no longer viable. You urge Israelis to take measures, they nod and do the very opposite. And you never seem to notice. We consider that you share with them the responsibility for the daily violation of international law. We do not consider you as an impartial supervising authority. You have taken sides with a state that sets itself above the law for reasons that are specific to it, though they can be clearly analysed.

What I find embarrassing for a friend of the Palestinian national cause (I would have been a friend of the Israeli cause in 1946) is to sanction not only a denial of justice but also a perpetual deception and glossing over of the facts to lull public opinion to sleep. If you keep blatantly ignoring the truth and pretending that the two sides in the negotiations meet on an equal footing and equally in good faith, you end up being an agent of collaboration. Those are the questions that many Palestinians, not all Hamas supporters, and many well-informed people like our ambassador Stéphane Kessel begin to ask.

HUMA: What does Leila Shahid say to this?

SHAHID: I agree that the process of negotiation has now lost credibility. It was a credible process between 1993 and 2000. I must specify that between the summer of 2000 and the Annapolis summit, so for nearly seven years, there were no negotiations. Negotiations officially started again from the Annapolis summit onwards. But they have made no breakthrough. And meanwhile the situation has become much worse. I agree that there are two possibilities: either the authority in charge of negotiations, namely Mahmoud Abbas declares: “It is a farce in which I personally lose all credit and the process loses all credibility; so I’ll just go home”, and he leaves the whole case with an international community that has proved non-existent. Or he concludes that negotiation having failed, a new military, political strategy, a popular uprising, something else is needed. That means putting an end to the Oslo strategy for which he himself was the main negotiator.

Why will Mahmoud Abbas do neither? I do not think it is because he lacks the courage or because he takes a different view of the facts. He doesn’t. But from the moment he says it publicly, there will be no more negotiations. And he will have to hand the case over to a third party. But to whom? The UN has proved its incapacity to assume the role and for the first time since World War II the international community is in all respects an accomplice of the occupation: it has been incapable of treating Israel like a state that is answerable under the law. It is the first time ever that a state has so blatantly offended the laws without any kind of pressure, either indirect or direct, economic or political, being brought to bear upon it.

I believe the straightforward reason for what seems to be akin to “collaboration” (the word is Régis Debray’s, not mine) is partly the responsibility of an international community that has left no other possibility to the Palestinian leaders. There is a deep feeling among Palestinians that they have been left to cope with Israel on their own, and delivered into its hands. That there is no working international community to speak of when it comes to the Palestinian question: the UN does not demand that its own resolutions be implemented, certainly not resolution number 242 which bans the acquisition of territories by force. It is effective on issues that relate to the Balkans, or East Timor, or Kosovo — anywhere else in the world except Israel. The reason is that Israel can evade all its obligations on account of its historical relation to Europe.

That is what creates the illusion – for it is an illusion – that there is no hope without a direct dialogue with the Israelis, even though the balance of the forces is so unequal that it is used not only to tip the situation but also (and more dangerously) to discredit those like myself who have opted for coexistence. To me Arafat is the Palestinians’ historic figure, and so is he for the Israelis. Not because the Oslo process was well negotiated (it wasn’t) but because he brought the Palestinian people to accept the notion of co-existence. Which involves accepting the legitimacy of Israel and urging all Arabs to accept it. The discredit in which the peace process has fallen today also undermines the very concept of co-existence. For in the face of the Israelis’ total blindness, the options that remain open to Palestinian leaders are limited.

The other option is to end the negotiation that was opened in 1993, as it has brought no results. Mahmoud Abbas says he will by the end of the year if there are no changes.

Is there another strategy, another form of political or even military struggle? I believe that the difficulty is the challenge that Hamas sets by having refused to negotiate from the first. To say that one renounces negotiation amounts to recognizing they have won. And that is no easy thing to do. To dissolve the Authority would be totally irresponsible, for it would amount to delivering the Palestinian people over to the Israelis.

Those are the two reasons why the Palestinian Authority persists in a way that may be ill interpreted and raises endless questions among the population and the friends of Palestine as well. A reflection is under way in the Palestinian society on the definition of a new strategy. As though a cycle was nearing its end. Israel will have to assume its responsibility for the end of a cycle that started in 1993 and granted it a form of legitimacy for the first time in forty-five years. If all hopes of a Palestinian state are dashed, we lose all these benefits. A new cycle will open, the outline of which no one can delineate.

HUMA: Might Régis Debray’s suggestion that the seat of the UN be moved to Jerusalem change anything?

DEBRAY: On the face of it the idea is ridiculous, but there is nothing in the UN statutes against it. The UN Charter sets no address for its headquarters. Should a majority of the General Assembly so decide, the Security Council could not oppose the decision. The idea originally was Massignon’s when he felt in 1937 that the Society of Nations was a useless body – “un machin” (a gimmick) as de Gaulle dubbed the UN – that was not up to its task. It occurred to him that it might be brought back to life if its seat were moved to Jerusalem. He felt that it was a place of conflict. But the move would not be in the Americans’ interest. They control the UN by diverse means, the first of which is osmosis, the phone-tapping system, differing pressure on poor countries. Nor are the Israelis in favour of it. They are very touchy as concerns their sovereignty and will not have the international community meddling with their own affairs.

It is a nuisance to be home to the UN when one refuses to implement its resolutions. But in the long term, it would be in the interest of all the nations in the world to have peace where the UN has its seat. It would be a long-term guarantee of security for Israel. Besides it would strike some kind of balance that might ensure stability: it is not desirable that the organism in charge of the law should have its seat in a place where force prevails. The coincidence between the capital of an empire and the capital of international law is wrong in its principle.

SHADID: Well, to me this was a marvellous idea. It had never occurred to me before. But if the UN cannot be moved, it can be incited to become more involved. One has not yet taken stock of its failures. The prevailing tendency, especially now, has been to put them down to the Palestinians, which is all too easy. The real problem is the UN’s double standard: the UN has not been able to stand up to Israel under the pretext that Israel’s sovereignty cannot be challenged, whereas it has done so with other states.

They say the UN is “un machin”? But no one has come up with anything to replace it. If Israel wants to annex all the territories, it will find itself with five million Palestinians on its hands and will have to manage the situation in every field, security included. Maybe one day it will need the UN to pull it out of the quagmire in which it will have leapt.

DEBRAY: There is indeed something suicidal about the Israelis’ attitude. Some of them are aware of this. I met Abraham Burg [4] a short time ago, and he is one of those Israelis who see far into the future. One reason for hope is the presence of free minds in Israel, people who have both a great culture and great courage, who realize that a policy based on force is not only illegitimate but self-defeating and ultimately debilitating.

There is a capital word that we have not yet used, namely the Shoah (the Holocaust). Israel is a state that gets away with breaking the law in all sorts of ways. The reason for this is that for the West at large Israel is synonymous with remorse and guilt. We feel we are under a debt, maybe not for ever, but we feel we still have not finished paying it back, and the name for it is the Holocaust. This is what confers upon Israel the ontological status of victim. To exert pressure on this country is tantamount to being an accessory (after the event) to a crime against humanity.

Europe is paralysed because it labours under this tremendous guilt. Significantly, the countries that are the most impartially objective and the most courageous are those where there was no deportation, no yellow star. I am deeply impressed by the attitude of the Anglican Church compared with other Christian churches. The same is true of Nordic countries, of Spain, of all the countries whose past is free from this ignominious stain, of which we by contrast are reminded every day: not a day goes by without the radio, TV, and papers taking us back to the Vel d’Hiv [5] or to Vichy. To this Israel owes its impunity, which no one dare call into question. So much for Europe.

As to the US, it is a spiritual colony of the Hebrew people. This is inscribed in America’s genes, in the historical genesis of the US. So, in Europe, intervention is psychologically impossible, while in America the impossibility is theological. You put the two together, and get a true picture of the international community.

Having said that you cannot expect much from the outside world. Unless a Palestinian stands up to the international community and starts telling it the truth, saying: “Yes, there has been such an inexpiable crime as the Shoah, but that crime is not ours to expiate, because we did not commit it. And how can a crime against humanity be an excuse for ceaseless war crimes?” I believe international public opinion must be shaken awake. The consciousness-raising that Arafat did with his own people and the Arab world, a Palestinian must do with international public opinion, which must be made to hear its own rhetoric and apply it literally: “Does the UN spell the law or doesn’t it? If what you say goes unheeded, stop voting resolutions. Dissolve.» It takes a bit of radicalism to be a realist. Being a radical means going to the roots of things. I believe that Palestinians are not radical enough. I am not advocating violence but a theoretical and practical radicalism.

SHAHID: It is true enough that Palestinians, like the world at large, have fallen into the trap of respectable, right-thinking diplomacy. They believed in a new world order where each had its place. I agree about the analysis of the international community’s paralysis. That is why I am saying to the European authorities: “Israel is not just our problem, it is yours, too. Israel is part of your history. It is part of our present and our future, not of our past. And you cannot settle accounts with your past by simply lending us humanitarian assistance.

I believe that Arafat’s proposal in favour of coexistence was based on the awareness that even though we were not historically responsible for the genocide, we have assumed the fact that it was a crime against humanity, that it has taken place. Having taken this in, we accepted to recognise Israel, and its desire to set up a national State in a country where there never was a Jewish state. That makes us feel that our political maturity and ethic positioning makes of us pioneers, in comparison with many national conflicts; for we have integrated the people that have been our historical enemy in the vision of our own future. Palestinians are not as fully credited for this as they deserve to be.

The tragedy is that because of Israel’s stubbornness and the world’s guilt in regard to Israel, for the first time in history anti-Semitism is on the rise in the Arab world, for the Arab world cannot accept that Israel’s unvarying response should be more expulsions, more settlements, more walls. But there are righteous people in Israel to whom I want to pay homage, anti-colonialist militants that see farther into the future than do politicians.

When you get the impression that all the issues are blocked, as is now the case, certain elements may trigger changes in the situation. There are radical questionings to be found in Israeli writings. Take for instance Abraham Burg’s latest book, where things are called by their rightful name, and where he describes the state of his own society, at the risk of being lynched for it. Think of Schlomo Zand, who has just published a book in Hebrew where he wonders if one can truly speak of a Jewish people. There runs across Zionist Jewish thought a reflection that can call many things into question.

What I find disheartening by contrast is Europe. I have been working for two years near the European authorities, which are one of the most influential regional bodies in the world. Europe has been unable to exist politically, yet it embarks on new projects like the Union for the Mediterranean.

How can one possibly talk of such a union with such an important conflict at its very heart for which no solution has been found in the thirteen years that the Barcelona process lasted? That’s burying one’s head in the sand. And I am concerned seeing that other political forces in that region are benefiting from our failures, the failures of the secularists, of the supporters of co-existence. Those that harbour another vision are making headway day after day. Not just in Palestine, but from Mauritania to Iraq.

Honestly, I find Europe’s attitude more disheartening than are our two societies, the Israeli and the Palestinian societies, which I believe will find in themselves the resources they need to pull out of the deadlock, despite today’s failures on both sides.

Footnotes :

[1] A method for analysing the processes of cultural transmission, and studying relations between symbolical objects, forms of collective organization and technical mediation. (Editor’s note)

[2] Un Candide en Terre sainte, Gallimard, 2008, 450 pages, 22.50 euros.

[3] Sarish Nusseibeh has just published Il était un pays, la Palestine (There was once a country called Palestine), Lattès pub.

[4] A former president of the Knesset, Abraham Burg has just published Defeating Hitler.

[5] The indoor velodrome where 13,152 Jews were rounded up by the French police on the 16th and 17th of January, 1942.

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