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'The occupation cannot be accepted'

Print edition : Sep 14, 2002 T+T-

President Yasser Arafat, interviewed for Frontline by Vikram Sura: September 5, 2002, Ramallah, West Bank.

President Arafat rarely ventures far from his headquarters. Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said more than once that if Arafat were to leave the West Bank, he would not be allowed to return.

Yasser Arafat, who turned 73 on August 4, is arguably one of this century's most enigmatic and iconic leaders. For decades, he has been fighting for a Palestinian State that is yet to be. Foreign dignitaries come and go, as though accepting as a fait accompli his confinement in his office building, the windows and doorways to which are sand-bagged and braced with tall barrels. On his coat lapel are pinned twin flags of the United States and Palestine, the United Nations and Palestine and of the European Union. Perhaps in the many folds of his military coat is also tucked in the Russian flag. Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, is the diplomatic star of the evening for the gaggle of mediapersons. A day earlier, representatives of the Danish government presented him with a new proposal for a Palestinian State by year 2005. President Arafat, according to press reports, gave his assent.

The chief of the Israel Defence Forces, in a contentious interview, called Arafat the "Phoenix in the Muqata," who presented a greater threat to the State of Israel than enemy Arab nations. Israeli peace groups of varying shades reluctantly accuse him of killing the Israeli Left with his intransigence. Nevertheless, he continues to be the undisputed leader of the Palestinian people.

President Arafat spoke to Frontline in the backdrop of the recent failure of an agreement with the Israelis on their withdrawal from West Bank and Gaza cities in exchange for Palestinian security guarantees. He blames the Israeli government for the failure. Although Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in an interview with Israeli television, said prospects of peace looked good, the Gaza Strip had been cut off by the Israeli army into parts, on the ground that two IDF soldiers were killed by Palestinian militants this week.

President Arafat complains, with restraint, that he is held under siege in his headquarters; reminisces about his partner, Yitzhak Rabin, in the "peace of the brave"; and says of India, "your role is very important. We are in need of it."

Late in the night of September 5, in between meetings with his Cabinet ministers, President Arafat set aside 40 minutes for Frontline:

How is your health?Well... [coughing], I have got a cold.Only today?

Yes, last night. I was opening the air-conditioning...

Where do things stand between the Palestinians and the Israelis after the "Gaza Bethlehem First" talks? Is there anything new you can offer to break this stalemate?

According to the agreements which had been done and agreed upon between our delegation and the Israeli delegation headed by Minister of Defence [Binyamin Ben] Elezier, we had to start with Bethlehem and Gaza first, then to continue directly after that with Hebron, Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah, specially Ramallah, our temporary capital, and the rest of Area A. We were surprised not only that they had removed withdrawal from inside Bethlehem and inside Beit Jala and Beit Sahour of the Bethlehem governorate. But tanks, armoured vehicles are still around Bethlehem, even the refugee camps there; and, instead of withdrawing from Gaza also, they had divided Gaza into five divisions; new cantons. And it is a tragedy. If you had the opportunity to go to Gaza and see for yourself... How the checkpoint between Gaza and Khan Yunis are keeping our people [waiting], some of them more than twelve hours; while you can move along whole Gaza Strip in not more than twenty-five minutes! Even our fishermen had to face the orders, troubles from the Israeli Navy. And at the same time, while we had respected from our side, till now for the last 34 days complete quiet from our side, they are escalating everywhere! In these 34 days, 68 [Palestinians] have been killed and 279 injured. One third of them are small boys and small girls. Besides, the humiliation and the complete siege and the escalation everywhere, all around our cities and towns and refugee camps - everywhere! Including what had been done in Nablus, the oldest city, and in Jenin camp and in Hebron and in Gaza Strip. They have used new forbidden weapons like this bomb, one tonne, in Gaza, [for the assassination of Sheikh Salah Shehadeh, chief of the paramilitary wing of Hamas, who was accused of planning an attack in Israel] with new explosive material. I'm speaking to you as a General. [President Arafat shows pictures of Gaza bomb victims being evacuated by the crowds.] You can see it easily, look, unbelievable...

What is the explosive actually?

This is the flesh that has been burned. [Shows more pictures.] Look, it is not a normal explosion. I'm speaking to you as a General and as an expert. I was a reserve officer in the Egyptian army, an engineer in the Egyptian army, so I'm an expert. Look, who can believe it? Who can believe it?

Is there anything new that you can offer to break the Gaza-Bethlehem First stalemate?

And not only that - the new flechette tank shells that have been forbidden internationally also. And many other forbidden weapons. Depleted uranium.

Depleted uranium?

Yes. And it is not me who is saying this. Many of their high officers and many of the Israelis from the peace camp have mentioned this. Clearly and obviously.

Is there anything new you can offer to break the stalemate?

In spite of that, we continued our talks. [An aide fetches a document.] This report you can keep. About using uranium. An American [NGO][1] report in which they had mentioned that they discovered that they [the Israelis] had used depleted uranium. Also look [shows photograph of a red-bodied, skinned patient in a hospital bed], it can damage him; it can kill him but not like that. It's like putting him on a barbecue.

You can keep it. And not only that. When the Taliban were trying to explode the Bamiyan Buddha statues, [there was] a big international outcry from us, from the whole Muslim world, from Arab, Christian, China, India, from everywhere. They were against this. What they have done here? Against Saint Mary? You can keep it. [Shows a photograph of a damaged statue of St. Mary in the Holy Family Church in Bethlehem.] Can you imagine, and no one's voice, especially from the West, has mentioned this crime against Saint Mary, an important and sacred woman not only for Christians but for Christians and Muslims.

The Israelis said that there were Palestinian militants inside the Church of the Nativity. That's why the siege over there.

First of all, it is not the Church of the Nativity. To give you [an idea of] how they are giving you a big lie. It's the Holy Family Church [also in Bethlehem]. And in spite of that, we continued our talks. But I'm sorry to say that it has been written officially in the Israeli mass media that the Minister of Defence did not have the authority to make any agreement with the Palestinians. The same, you remember, when we arrived at an agreement between Abu Ala, our Speaker of the Legislative Council, and [Shimon] Peres - they said that Peres was not mandated[2]. The George Tenet Understanding - with whom? It was in the presence of Colin Powell, and Sharon was Prime Minister and the Palestinian leadership. And we had accepted the George Tenet Understanding. And now they are not accepting it. Not only that; Sharon mentioned himself that the Oslo Agreement has died.

What has happened to the Palestinian resistance? The political struggle that was led against the occupation now is led by groups celebrating suicide bombings and this despite your opposition to such acts?

Not just now but from the beginning of our evolution we have been against touching any civilians. Be it Palestinian civilians or Israeli civilians. And this you remember has been declared many times, many years ago. You can return to my interviews in India. But the most important thing is the occupation cannot be accepted. We are the only people who are under occupation all over the world. Who can imagine this? At the last meeting of the [U.N.] General Assembly [there were] 161 votes for the State of Palestine against three.

You mentioned earlier, according to press reports, that President Bush didn't mention your name when calling for a change in [the Palestinian] leadership.

It is not me who has mentioned this. This has been mentioned to me even by leaders who were in Canada in the G-8 meeting. And they said to me that he [President George Bush] never mentioned me by name. And not to forget I'm sending my delegation to America. Who sent them? And these negotiations with the Israelis, who sent them? In the Non Aligned countries movement, in the Arab Summit Conference, in the Islamic Summit Conference, in the African Summit Conference? We are respecting our democracy, our system of pluralism.

The perception in Israel is that some Arab countries, especially Iraq and Syria, do not accept its right to exist.

First of all, this is an attempt by these Israeli groups to make big lies. Because they have to remember in the last [Arab] Summit Conference [that] took place in Beirut - and you remember I had been prevented from attending it by force; and I'm still under siege now in my headquarters, they prevented me from attending this African Summit Conference, this Arab Summit Conference, this Islamic Summit Conference, many conferences. It was clear that the Arab Summit Conference had adopted this very important initiative for peace, which had been declared by Crown Prince Abdallah al-Saud, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. And it has been adopted. And they refused this very important Arab initiative, which had been accepted by all the Arabs! What do they mean by that? And you remember, they said, the Israelis, we had started a peace conference according to United Nations resolutions 242, 338, 425 concerning the south of Lebanon, concerning Golan Heights, concerning Palestine with Egypt, with Jordan and this had been offered to them and has been refused by Sharon. Why? Because he wants to continue his military line, his escalation against the Palestinians. And he is imagining that he can destroy and get rid of all Palestinians. And they are repeating it in their mass media. They have forgotten that we are here in this land from the beginning of old history, of old history. The Silk Road, which was coming from India and from China, where was it arriving? To Gaza, and from the sea to Crete Island and from Crete Island to all Europe. Historically.

Concerning Israel's right to exist, the Palestinian Authority's overtures towards the Neturei Karta[3] gives the different impression in Israel that the Palestinian Authority is also against Israel's right to exist.

First of all, they are Jews. Neturei Karta are Jews. And they are Palestinians. They have been living with us for a long time. And they have a religious vision that Israel will be established when our Jesus Christ will return from heaven. It is a religious vision. And also the Samaritans in Nablus are Palestinian Jews. Two of them have representatives in our PNC [Palestinian National Council] of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] and the Samaritans have representatives in the Legislative Council.

What is the solution to the crisis [with Israel] and will you take the first step?

We have declared openly and officially in my letter, which was declared to our Arab leaders in Beirut through television. It was clear; and one of the important speeches in which I had declared that we are committed as Palestinians to the peace of the brave, which we have signed with our partner General Rabin, who was assassinated and killed by these fanatic groups who are now in power in Israel. We have declared it officially many times. And the last agreement, which we had done with Elezier, the Defence Minister, to return to withdrawal from the implementation of the George Tenet Understanding and the withdrawal of the Israelis from all Area A and B, which had been occupied. To return to our democracy and our elections and to live together side by side.

President Bush desires a regime change in Iraq. If there is war in the Middle East, how is it going to affect the case of Palestine?

Till now it has not been decided officially. But there are groups around George Bush who are insisting on following this line. While there is officially also another group around him in the Congress and in the leadership. And today, also, Arab Foreign Ministers, meeting in Cairo from yesterday, they gave a very important statement, a communique, which has been clear and obvious, concerning this line.

If a war does take place, how does it affect the cause of Palestine?

It is the Middle East - to accept or not to accept. It is in the centre of Africa, Asia and Europe. Yes or not? This is the Middle East. Anything going on here will reflect all around us. And for this George Bush, the father, after the Gulf War, he directly started the Madrid Conference to achieve peace in this area. And I hope that this point will solve it. The majority of the whole world are not with this war, not only us!

Could you explain the present status of relations between India and Palestine and what could India do more?

You know, we are proud of this very strong relation. It is a historical relation. And I'm very proud of my personal relations with all the leaders of India and with the people of India. We are in need specially now of the help of our brothers and our friends in India. You have a strong weight internationally and influence and relations. And your role is very important. We are in need of it.

Did the U.N. report on Jenin disappoint you?

No. Because, actually, the statements and other reports from the United Nations have covered everything. It is one of the reports. And you remember this committee, which was behind this last report, has been prevented by the Israelis from coming and seeing for themselves the tragedy. Jeningrad, I'm calling it Jeningrad instead of Stalingrad. And what is going on against the holy, sacred Christian and Muslim places, and against our old cities like Nablus? Like Gaza, like Hebron. It is historically a crime. And you have to remember that if we have to speak about the United Nations, we have to speak about all the U.N. resolutions and reports which have covered everything.

Endnotes:

[1] A November 2000 report by the International Action Centre titled "Is the Israeli Military Using Depleted Uranium Weapons against Palestinians?" did not cite scientific investigation of shells and casings (acknowledged in the report), but news reports in The Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Post and The San Francisco Chronicle that the Israeli Army has DU munitions in its arsenal.

[2] The "fast-track-to-Palestine" plan was agreed upon in confidential talks, authorised by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in the winter of 1991 between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Legislative Council Speaker Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala). According to informed media reports, the plan offered the Palestinians the opportunity immediately to delcare statehood in all areas under President Arafat's control the moment a ceasefire was in place. A supporting letter given by Peres to Abu Ala reportedly said that Israel would be prepared to negotiate over its possible withdrawal to its pre-1967 boundaries. The Abu Ala-Peres plan was neither accepted nor rejected formally by Israel, but in practice it is clear that Israel has gone back on it.