Transfer is a clear and present danger
“The desire to transfer us has roots in the past, and in the history and ideology of certain Zionist circles, which have never given up hope of attaining this goal,” a leading Palestinian in Gaza, Dr. Haydar Abd al-Shafi, tells Joseph Algazy
Dr. Haydar Abd al-Shafi defines recent events in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a war. Despite the distance in time and the different circumstances and means, the present war reminds 83-year-old al-Shafi, one of the most prominent Palestinian leaders in Gaza City, of the events of the 1948 war. He is alarmed by the mottos and statements coming from members of the extreme rightist camp in Israel who are calling for a transfer of the Palestinians to the East Bank of the Jordan River - that is, to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan - and to other neighboring Arab states. In his opinion, "this is a real danger and not just a bunch of empty slogans".
According to al-Shafi, "the desire to transfer us has roots in the past, and in the history and ideology of certain Zionist circles, which have never given up hope of attaining this goal. This danger still exists at the start of the third millennium. I will tell you frankly: In the present situation, I would not rule out the danger of a [population] transfer. We the Palestinians must regard the danger of a transfer as a potential option."
Thus, he notes, the current war reminds him of the 1948 war, in which a partial population transfer was conducted: "That is how the tragedy of the refugees was created - a tragedy that has persisted for the past 54 years, and nobody knows how and when the problem will be solved."
He does not consider the idea of a population transfer as just a case of extremist brainwashing. "The Israeli authorities are today trying to finish the job they did not manage to complete 53 years ago - namely, our banishment from Palestine. The Israeli government is deliberately ignoring the Palestinians' natural right to an independent, sovereign national entity, like any other nation on earth. The Palestinians have made immense concessions, and the international community recognizes that fact. We have declared that we are prepared to settle for a quarter of the territory of the original area of Palestine. We are not prepared to make any further concessions. Our backs are to the wall."
In al-Shafi's view, "Israel's various governments have never given up the goal that was set by the First Zionist Congress: To take control of all Palestine. The goal of Israel's governments is to create a situation in which we will give in to the terms they are dictating to us. I simply cannot understand how far the Israeli authorities want to go and what will satisfy their appetite for expansion.
"The Sharon government has stated publicly that it wants to crowd us into about 50 percent of the territories Israel occupied in the June 1967 war - that is, about an eighth of the area of historical Palestine - and to dictate to us how we should conduct our lives. Can you call such a thing a state? Israel wants us to become a nation of refugees, a nation that it will continue to rule, and is hoping that, out of despair, we will reach the conclusion that we can no longer live here."
Nights filled with anxiety
"Not only once," said Dr. al-Shafi, referring to the Pesach suicide bombing in Netanya, "have I strongly expressed my opinion against acts such as these which harm citizens and innocent people." He spoke of "the Palestinians' feelings of rage at IDF attacks on their towns and refugee camps, killings, bombings, siege and starvation. All these things do not justify acts in which the victims are innocent; international public opinion also condemns these kinds of actions".
In al-Shafi's opinion, "part of the Palestinian activity, including a part of the military activity is not practical, not organized, and often gives pretext to the Sharon government and his generals to make aggressive actions against the Palestinian people".
In the Gaza Strip today, as in other parts of Palestine, says al-Shafi, "life is filled with terrible suffering, with tension, worry, sadness, frustration and fear of what tomorrow may bring. You get up in the morning, go to work and you do not know what to expect that day. Children and adults live under conditions of extreme pressure. It is hard to describe the anxieties that attack people at night when they hear the roar of planes or the sounds of bombs and mortar shells. Those who live on the fringes of the Gaza Strip and in communities that are very close to Israel Defense Forces troops are in constant danger."
Despite the situation, al-Shafi has not changed his way of life. He daily reports for work at the offices of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Gaza City. "Personally," he remarks, "except for restrictions on movement due to the overall situation, I have not suffered. The travel restrictions imposed on me are nothing compared with the suffering and dangers that are the daily diet of those who live in such places as Rafah and Jabalya and who must endure aerial bombings, mortar shelling from Israeli tanks, and the destruction of their homes and possessions.
"In short - and medium-range terms, I am pessimistic," al-Shafi declares. "There is no room for optimism, because of Israel's stubborn, intransigent position and because of the American support Israel enjoys. However, in long-range terms, I believe that time will mend all ills”.
Regarding Israeli recognition of the Palestinian right of return, his position is crystal-clear: "[The Palestinian refugees] were banished from their homeland in a violent manner, through massacres and acts of terror, and their right of return is entirely legitimate. The policy of faits accomplis that Israel follows negates that legitimacy. If Israel's Jewish society is really interested in genuine peace with both the Palestinians and the Arab world in general, there is no logic behind this obstinate refusal to recognize the Palestinian right of return. Obviously, it will take years before a practical solution can take care of the refugee problem. However, first and foremost, Israel must recognize this right.”
Al-Shafi is convinced that what will satisfy the Palestinians will also satisfy the rest of the Arab world. Thus, in his view, the initiative of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdallah enjoys widespread Palestinian and Arab support and its implementation hinges solely on Israel's acceptance of the initiative.
"The Saudi initiative," al-Shafi points out, "will solve not only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also the Israeli-Arab conflict and will lay the foundations for peaceful coexistence between Israel and the entire Arab world."
Like many Palestinians, al-Shafi has difficulty understanding and justifying the United States' position. According to him, "America is first of all concerned for its own selfish interests and that is why it supports Israel, which plays a central role in this region in defending American interests. I do not believe that the American administration, today or in the near future, will work hard in order to obtain both a stable peace arrangement in the region and a justpeace.
“It is no coincidence that all the American peace envoys, both those sent by the Clinton administration and those sent by the Bush administration - and I am including here [General Anthony] Zinni - have not brought peace. Cheney and Zinni's purpose was to bring a certain temporary calm to the region - so that the United States' hands would be free to strike Iraq.
"The American administration cannot claim that its hands are lily white. The U.S. has vainly tried to create the impression that ithas been adopting a balanced position, because it is obvious that it supports Israel's position. The statements made by President [George W.] Bush - in the face of the military operations that have been undertaken by the Sharon government in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, Deheisheh and Gaza City, and which Bush has defined as acts of self-defense - are absolutely infuriating and must be thoroughly protested. These statements signal to Sharon that he can continue his military operations against the Palestinians”.
The maladies of Oslo
Al-Shafi considers the settlements to be the major obstacle to a peace treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Oslo process' chief flaw has always been, in his opinion, the fact that it did not include any agreement on Israel's cessation of settlement activity. Any solution or interim agreement that does not include a total halt to settlement activity and which does not ultimately entail the removal of all the settlements, he says, is doomed to failure.
"As long as Israel continues its settlement activities, it is, in effect, continuing to strive for the removal of the Palestinian people from the soil of Palestine. In my eyes, the settlements are more dangerous than tanks, cannons, or fighter jets. The tanks are at the service of the settlements, and not the other way around. If there were no burning desire to create settlements, there would be no need for tanks."
The problem arose simultaneously with the 1991 Madrid peace conference, and with the peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis in Washington between 1991 and 1993.
"We Palestinians arrived at the Madrid conference with a high degree of motivation and we hoped that the U.S. would display a balanced position toward the peace process. However, those hopes were dashed before the end of the first negotiation session, when the Israeli delegation rejected our demand for a halt to settlement activity. In the peace talks in Washington, the head of the Israeli delegation, Elyakim Rubinstein, responded to our request with the statement that the Israelis were simply settling their land.
"When we turned to the American representative, James Baker, he told us that we should not worry and that we should simply put off our request for a later stage. In other words, Baker was asking us to accept a continuation of settlement activity and to go on with the negotiation process regardless. I did not agree and I emphasized that the continuation of settlement activity was a violation of the very basis over which it had been agreed to conduct talks - namely, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. Israel's insistence on continued settlement activity created a stalemate in the negotiations, which continued for 20 months until the Oslo agreement was signed”.
Al-Shafi, who has consistently opposed this agreement, expressed his negative view of it to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in Washington on the eve of the signing ceremony on the White House lawn.
"I told Arafat, `The agreement you are going to sign is neither logical nor just. For 20 months we have made no progress because of Israel's stubborn refusal to stop settlement activity. Suddenly, you report that you are holding in your hands an agreement that makes no reference whatsoever to the settlements.' Even during the negotiations over the implementation of the Oslo agreement, Israel continued its settlement activity, which did not elicit a suitable Palestinian counter-response. The talks simply served as a cover for continued settlement activity. The Palestinian opposition expressed itself only three years later, after the dispute broke out over the settlement in Abu Ghnaim [Har Homa]."
Nevertheless, he says that "if Israel declares that it is halting all settlement activity, the Palestinians would have to return to the negotiating table. We will arrive at the desired solution only through negotiations. I see no advantage being served in the continuation of violence and mutual bloodshed."
But what if Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine refuse to accept a solution achieved through negotiations? Shafi still hopes that a united national Palestinian leadership will arise and that it will "involve the participation of all the various political streams in the national movement." With Israel leaving Area A (under full Palestinian control), the next step is to demand a cessation of all settlement activity, he points out. He also favors the dispatching of international observers - from the U.S. and from additional countries - who would separate the PA from Israeli forces.
In the past, al-Shafi has come out on more than occasion against both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Arafat. In an interview he gave to Ha'aretz three months ago, he accused the PA and Arafat of not running a regime based onlaw, justice and democracy, and claimed that most of the Palestinian leaders were opportunists. Today, however, in view of actions emanating from the Sharon cabinet that it is working toward Arafat's removal, Shafi is opting for the view that "questions such as who will head the PA or who will lead the Palestinian people are an exclusively Palestinian matter."
From his home in Gaza City, he can discern changes taking place in Israeli public opinion. According to al-Shafi: "We are aware that not all Israelis agree with the policy of the Sharon government. Granted, so far, this is only a minority that is incapable of tilting the scales in the direction of another policy. Nonetheless, the existence of that minority is good news. We are aware of increasing opposition in Israeli society, especially among members of the younger generation We are also aware of the courage of those Israeli soldiers who have declared their refusal to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories and the courage of those Israelis who do not want to be inducted into the IDF. Similarly, we are aware of those bereaved Israeli parents who oppose acts of revenge and who are calling for an end to the mutual bloodshed.
"Not all Israelis are Ariel Sharons. I am talking about Israelis who, out of a concern for their own nation, are calling for the adoption of another policy, one that will also take into account Palestinian interests. The IDF's operations against the Palestinians arouse much hatred and hostility. However, we should not lose sight of those segments of Israeli society that have not lost their sense of humanity or their sanity. We should admire their position.