Israel and Hamas on Wednesday agreed to a ceasefire brokered by Egypt on the eighth day of violent conflict between the two parties in the Gaza Strip. Israel has agreed to stop all hostilities, whether by land, sea or air, and has pledged not to target individuals or undertake any kind of military incursions into Gaza. For its part, Hamas and other Palestinian factions have agreed to stop all hostilities against Israel, either by rocket or by means of border attacks.
On Monday, two days before the ceasefire went into effect, VOA senior correspondent Jeffrey Young sat down with Maen Rashid Areikat, Chief of the PLO Delegation in Washington, D.C., to gain his perspective on the conflict. Below are a transcript and a sound file of their exchange (the sound file might not display on mobile devices).
Young: Let’s start with the official situation. What is the position of President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority in regards to the conflict underway between Israel and Gaza?
Areikat: Well, the position of the PLO, including the Palestinian Authority, is very clear. We strongly condemn the continued Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip. We believe Israel is resorting to excessive military power once again in order to resolve a political issue. They have tried this path many times in the past and they did not produce any results. If you recall, four years ago they invaded the Gaza Strip. They sent their ground forces in a two-week week campaign that left 1,500 Palestinians dead and 5,000 wounded. This escalation must stop. Israel started the escalation, and we believe that violence is not in the interest of any party to this conflict.
Young: If you could respond to a comment I saw on TV from [Israeli President] Shimon Perez. He made the statement, ‘Stop shooting, start talking.’ Can you respond to that?
“One point five million people are living in a big jail under the most difficult economic and living conditions. And then say that Israel has right to defend itself. This is not acceptable at all.” – Maen Rashid Areikat, PLO Washington Delegation Chief
Areikat: Why doesn’t he tell his own army to stop? He’s telling the Palestinians not to do that? Listen, I’ve been watching the reaction of many, including in the United States, about that Israel has right to defend itself. It’s becoming cliché now – from Congress to the Administration to media. OK, you defend yourself if you are the one being attacked by someone. If somebody starts an attack against you, and you are right and you are not wrong, then people say you have right to defend yourself.
But if you are the one who actually initiated the cycle of violence by taking out a military commander of Hamas, the Israelis anticipated that Hamas and other militants would react. So, you are giving that right to defend yourself or to defend themselves demand that right to the occupying power, while denying it to the occupied people? This is absurd. It doesn’t happen. You have to deal with Israel as an occupying power who has been denying 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip the right to move in and out for the last seven years. They are under total siege. They cannot move. No goods or services are allowed in without Israeli approval. One point five million people are living in a big jail under the most difficult economic and living conditions. And then say that Israel has the right to defend itself. This is not acceptable at all. So, you want to stop shooting, Shimon Perez? I think he should order his army, he should ask his prime minister to order his army to stop shooting at Palestinians. Ninety five [at time of interview] people have been killed so far, 700 wounded. And this number, of course, will increase every day if this campaign continues.
Young: So that people can understand, people all over the world are reached by the Voice of America. There are two substantially different factions within the Palestinians – there is Hamas in Gaza, and Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and the Palestinian Authority are in the West Bank. Can you please explain all of this.
Areikat: This has to do with the internal political situation. Hamas is not part of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are out of the PLO. The PLO is the representative of the Palestinian people everywhere, including inside Palestine, inside the Occupied Territories and outside in the diaspora.
Now, because we politically don’t agree with Hamas, because our political agendas are not necessarily the same, that does not mean that when Israel attacks Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and kills Palestinians and wounds Palestinians, destroys infrastructure, schools, hospitals, targets media outlets, targets ambulances – it doesn’t mean we will tolerate or condone the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians.
The political differences are put aside now. The Palestinian people are subjected to military and political attacks by the Israelis – militarily in the Gaza Strip, politically [as an effort] to undermine the Palestinian leadership and to weaken resolve of Palestinian people who are aspiring to be independent and to end the Israeli military occupation. So we are in the same boat when it comes to these Israeli military campaigns.
Now, having said that, again, I reiterate, I repeat that it is our desire to see that this cycle of violence is ended, stopped as soon as possible. But it takes two to tango. You cannot put the blame on Hamas alone without also asking Israel, the largest military power in the Middle East, to stop resorting to excessive force and killing civilians in the Gaza Strip in order to achieve political objectives.
Young: There is much speculation that there might be a ground operation initiated by the Israelis into Gaza. If such an operation takes place, what do you anticipate the outcome of that might be?
“Egypt is a strategic power…Ninety million people always championed the Arab cause, the Palestinian cause. They have been receptive to the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. They try always to ease up the situation. They allow medical relief, they allow different kinds of assistance to get into the Gaza Strip. But at the same time, they understand that Israel also has obligations.” – Maen Rashid Areikat, PLO Washington Delegation Chief
Areikat: What do I expect? I think we anticipate that hundreds of Palestinians will be killed, thousands wounded. We have seen this before in 2008-2009. We have seen that before when Israel went into Lebanon in 2006. We have seen that many, many times before by the Israeli government. They resort to military campaigns all the time to try to achieve political objectives. It’s like putting your head in the sand. They see the truth, they see the facts in front of their eyes, and yet they keep doing the same thing again and again. Approaches that failed in the past and did not produce the results that they wanted to produce.
So what does this mean? You just sit down and reassess and maybe decide to engage politically to look at the root causes of this problem. The Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip, which has been going on since 2006 -seven years – which has exacted a heavy toll on the 1.5 million Palestinians who are living in the Gaza Strip, must end. That is the first step to end hostility and tension between the Gaza strip and Israel…
Young: If Egypt were to open the border at Rafa with the Gaza Strip, wouldn’t that end the blockade in a sense? There would still be the Israeli blockade, but then suddenly you would have that opening with Egypt. We know that there are negotiations taking place in Egypt right now, aimed at diffusing this crisis. Is there anything that you can tell me about relations between Palestinians and Egypt right now? What can be done with Egypt? How can it help?
Areikat: Well, Egypt is an important country. It always played an important role vis á vis the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause. The people of Egypt are 100 percent on the side of the Palestinians. The new government in Egypt said over the last few days that this Israeli campaign must stop, they are using their good offices with the Israelis, with all the parties, in order to put an end to this conflict.
Egypt is a strategic power. Seventy, eighty, ninety million people always championed the Arab cause, the Palestinian cause. They have been receptive to the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. They try always to ease up the situation. They allow medical relief, they allow different kinds of assistance to get into the Gaza Strip. But at the same time, they understand that Israel also has obligations. Israel cannot forever continue blockading the Gaza Strip and denying the people there the simple right of moving freely from and to the Gaza Strip. They are also severing the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. Now, if we want to establish a Palestinian state, we have always said it will include the Gaza Strip, so therefore by severing the ties between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the Israelis are deliberately trying to permanently damage any link between the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This is something that has been in planning by Israel for a long time. Therefore, while we see Egypt playing a more active role in putting an end to this conflict and trying to alleviate the pressure on the Gaza Strip. One should not forget that Israel is also responsible for doing its share in order to also reduce the pressure by lifting the blockade on the 1.5 million Palestinians who live there.
Young: Are you getting any word whatsoever from the discussions that have been happening in the last couple of days in Egypt. Any progress, anything?
Areikat: Well, no. I mean, these are still ongoing discussions. I would speculate that the two parties -or all the parties – want to put an end to this violence. Each is trying to maximize their outcomes as much as possible. I know that the Palestinians will insist on having the blockade lifted because any solutions, any conditions that will not eventually lead to the lifting of this blockade that has been [imposed] on the Gaza Strip for the last seven years means that you are not dealing with the root cause of the problem. The Israelis have their own demands. So I think the role of Egyptians now is to try to bring all the parties together in order to reach a formula that will be accepted in order to put an end to this escalating violence.
“They’ve tried everything in the book—they’ve tried violence, they’ve tried assassinations, they’ve tried occupation, they’ve tried shelling, they’ve tried expulsions of Palestinians, they’ve tried settlements. They’ve tried everything in the book to break the will of the Palestinian people and to discourage them from their struggle to be independent and free.” – Maen Rashid Areikat, PLO Washington Delegation Chief
Young: The point has been raised again and again – and it is not my point, but it’s a point that has been raised – that if actions were not taken within Gaza towards Israel, there would be no response by Israel, that if they [Hamas] stopped shooting rockets into Israel, then Israel would have no reason to shoot back. How do you respond?
Areikat: I respond simply: This is a very misleading argument because, one, the Gaza Strip remains under military occupation, despite the fact that they pulled out their settlers and troops in 2005. Again, the Gaza Strip is under siege. Their crossing points are controlled by Israel. Their airspace is controlled by Israel. Their territorial waters are controlled by Israel. Technically, the Gaza strip is still under military occupation. Two, this is not a chicken and egg issue where, you know, who is right, and who is wrong? We are not occupying the Israelis. We are not occupying the State of Israel. Israel is occupying the Palestinian people and they have been for the last 45 years.
So it’s time for Israel to understand that maybe if they end their occupation of the Palestinian people, maybe if they allow Palestinian people to live in dignity and freedom and to have their own independent state, side by side with the State of Israel, maybe that would be the solution. They’ve tried everything in the book – they’ve tried violence, they’ve tried assassinations, they’ve tried occupation, they’ve tried shelling, they’ve tried expulsions of Palestinians, they’ve tried settlements. They’ve tried everything in the book to break the will of the Palestinian people and to discourage them from their struggle to be independent and free. Maybe it’s time for the leaders to understand that it is time, maybe, to put an end to that brutal military occupation of the Palestinians people and understand that this is the only way we’ll bring about peace and stability to Israel and its people. Short of that, the region will be mired in more conflict and more violence in the years to come.
Young: Since we’re here in Washington, and since cynicism is rampant here, the cynical question: Right now, we have this conflict. It’s just after the American election. There is an Israeli election on January 22. Is it too cynical to try to connect the dots?
Areikat: Absolutely not. Actually, we received a report from a local think tank here, without naming any names, in which they stated that in the last seven general Israeli elections, Israel embarked on military campaigns against the Palestinians and Lebanon in five of these elections. In 2008 – it was was two months before the elections in Israel, when the former prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, decided to go into the Gaza Strip.
In 2006 – it was before the Israeli elections when they went into Lebanon against Hezbollah. And so on and so on. There is definitely a factor of domestic politics at play here, i.e., ‘We need to show we are tough.’ And who always pays the price of that toughness? The Palestinians. We are the soft target – and the Lebanese. Therefore, one cannot help but link that to the domestic political situation in Israel.
I don’t know about coincidence that this campaign was happening at the same time as elections were over in 2008, when President Obama won his first term. I think it’s more linked to the fact that the Israelis have general elections, and some factions within the Israeli government – including the prime minister – want to project themselves as tough on security issues, but I think, I definitely believe that this is the wrong approach and it will backfire if it continues.
Young: If there is a ground incursion into Gaza by the Israeli IDF, could you see that escalating bigger than just in Gaza itself. I bring up this point: We know that on the northern border of Israel that Hezbollah has massive forces, they have rockets, they have weaponry, etc. Can you envision a situation that if they do go into Gaza and things get bloody, that this might trigger other things that are also within the region?
“We are still determined to go to the United Nations on the 29th of this month to seek non-member state status for the State of Palestine…This is part of our effort to preserve two state solution…” – Maen Rashid Areikat, PLO Washington Delegation Chief
Areikat: First of all, once again, our desire is to see this come to an end as soon as possible. I don’t think it would be wise to even contemplate going into a ground offensive; in that, I mean, this is, again, the fourth-most-densely populated area in the world. There is no way there won’t be heavy civilian casualties. And the reaction? I cannot predict the reaction, to be honest with you. I don’t know whether that would mean other parties would be drawn into the conflict, maybe that’s not the only scenario, but the fact that the Middle East is still in transition – the situation is very fluid in the Middle East – I cannot really predict how the masses will react, how the Palestinian people will react to rising civilian casualties and an increased the military pressure by Israel on the civilian population that does not have the means to defend itself; the situation will be very, very dangerous and very complex.
Young: On November the 29th, we are anticipating action at the United Nations by the Palestinians, once again to seek status as a non-state member, correct?
Young: Now, we have this conflict right now. How does this conflict impact that diplomatic initiative?
Areikat: We are still determined to go to the United Nations on the 29th of this month to seek non-member state status for the State of Palestine. This is part of our political struggle. This is part of our effort to preserve the ‘two state solution,’ to tell the Israelis that you cannot continue with your current policies, defying international law, defying and violating past agreements that you signed with Palestinians and continue as if the situation on the ground is normal. We want to create a new situation, where Palestine will be an occupied state, occupied by another member state, the State of Israel. And we, as President Abbas said, we are willing to resume negotiations immediately after [recognition], because we believe that the bilateral issues should be resolved between Israel and the Palestinians. They are not going to be resolved at the U.N. They are not going to be resolved anywhere else. The venue must be bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
But when we sit with them at the table, we will have gotten international recognition that our future state – Palestine – is going to be within the 1967 borders, and whatever Israel does illegally on the ground in the Occupied Territories will be a legitimate violation of international law, and we will be sitting on par with each other – an occupied state member of the United Nations with an occupying state member of the United Nations, and this is exactly the new political paradigm that we want to create in order to reach a political solution to the conflict.
Young: Does this current action in Gaza make that diplomatic initiative more difficult?
Areikat: I would be lying to you if I didn’t say it. All the focus now is on stopping the bloodshed in Gaza, stopping Israel’s shelling and bombardment of innocent civilians in Gaza. This is the priority for the Palestinian leadership, and President Abbas and the Palestinian leadership are engaged in intensive contacts and discussions with Egypt, with Turkey, with Qatar, with Jordan – even the United States and Europe – in order to put an end to this onslaught on Gaza. This is one of our top priorities, but the work to go to the United Nations is already completed. All that we need to do is to show up on the 29th and get a vote. So we are going, because that is a political objective of the Palestinian leadership which is aimed at improving the chances of reaching a political resolution to the conflict with Israel.
Young: And if you don’t get the vote on the 29th? Then what?
Areikat: No, we will get the vote on the 29th. It’s only a majority plus one, a simple majority, and we already have 133 countries that already recognize the State of Palestine. We are not worried about that. The United States does not have veto power [in the General Assembly]. It will be a non-member state status, not a full member state status, but we will continue to seek full member state status because we believe that this will serve the cause of peace and will contribute positively in ending the conflict with Israel.
Young: Final thoughts?
Areikat: I would just like to say that maybe, for once, politicians in this country will take the higher moral ground and maybe understand that there is a big difference between supporting Israel and supporting the killing of Palestinians. What is happening right now is actually the slaughtering of innocent Palestinian civilians – children, women, old people – and we are not seeing any courageous or brave comment from members of Congress here to denounce what is going on in the Palestinians areas and the Gaza Strip. I think this is hypocritical. This is a double standard, and it does not bode well with the majority of the Americans who, I believe, strongly support the Palestinian people’s struggle for independence and freedom. American politicians must be on the side of their people and must support the Palestinian people, because the Palestinian people are struggling to end a brutal military occupation and to live in dignity, peace and freedom with all their neighbors, including with Israel.
We have reached out to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., for an Israeli perspective on the Gaza conflict. It will be published here as soon as one is received.
Click here to listen to the above interview.
Jeffrey Young is a senior correspondent and news analyst with VOA TV. His experience with the Middle East goes back decades, including years of living in Kuwait, and on-site reporting both during and after the 1991 Gulf War, and following the 2003 Iraq War.