Intl. Herald Tribune, Athens Sep 30
A new kind of leadership for Palestine
The Intifada’s most popular leader gives Kathimerini his first interview since being arrested by the Israeli authorities last April
Marwan Bargouti (center) listens to his lawyer (left) during his first appearance in an Israeli court. ‘The desire for freedom and independence is stronger than any armed force, as evidenced by the failure of Sharon’s fascist government to quell the uprising and to provide security to the Israeli occupation,’ he said.
By Petros Papaconstantinou - Kathimerini
If the Palestinian Intifada could be encapsulated in one person, there is no doubt that would be Marwan Bargouti. The 43-year-old member of Al Fatah from the West Bank gained the esteem of his compatriots by playing a leading role in the Palestinians’ uprising against the Israeli occupying forces. He shared the danger and the pain at the front line of the bloody fighting in Ramallah and managed to earn the respect of all Palestinian organizations, from the more moderate Muslims to the Marxist Left.
He is generally seen as uncorrupted and uncompromising in his stance regarding Israelis and Americans. He speaks both English and Hebrew and is considered one of the most likely successors to Yasser Arafat.
Our first interview with Bargouti took place in Ramallah two years ago, just a few weeks after the beginning of the second Intifada, during a demonstration that developed into an armed conflict between Palestinian fighters and Israeli troops.
This time we were not able to talk to him face to face. Imprisoned by the Israelis since April 15, Bargouti found a way to reply to our questions from within the Hedarim prison in Tel Aviv, in the first interview he has given to the international media since his arrest.
You have been in an Israeli jail for the past six months. Tell us about the conditions of your imprisonment.
I was abducted from the city of Ramallah, a city under Palestinian control, on April 15, 2002, during the Israeli siege of the occupied West Bank. The Israeli occupation forces were about to demolish the building and the home in which I was staying, and I emerged just moments before helicopters and tanks fired shells and rockets into the building. I was handcuffed and taken to an interrogation center in Jerusalem, then to another center in Tel Aviv, and finally to a third military center in northern Israel.
For nearly 100 days I was subjected to severe and brutal interrogation. I was tortured using the “Shebai” method; my arms were tied behind my back to my chair and I was forced to stay that way for several days. I was deprived of sleep for several consecutive weeks. In addition, I was routinely subjected to insults and other humiliations as well as psychological and physical pressure. These methods are used against hundreds if not thousands of Palestinian prisoners.
There are now approximately 8,000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons who endure harsh and difficult conditions.
A few weeks ago I was transferred to the Hedarim prison north of Tel Aviv and I occupy a cell with one other prisoner. All the prisoners here are denied visits from their families.
To date I have been prevented from seeing my mother, wife and four children. At my last court appearance on September 5, 2002, three of my children managed to attend. Despite their cries, they were forbidden from getting near me and I was denied the ability to even embrace them.
The Israeli government accuses you of being responsible for suicide attacks and other alleged terrorist actions against civilians. What’s your reply?
All the Israeli accusations against me are totally fabricated and I refuse to dignify them by dealing with them. In many ways, I feel sorry for the state of Israel — the Middle East’s “only democracy” — stooping to fabricating charges in a show trial aimed not at truth and justice but rather to appease the Israeli masses who refuse to see any connection between their own brutal policies and the violence we are now experiencing.
Like President Arafat, I have become a scapegoat, my trial simply a public relations event by a corrupt and visionless Israeli leadership desperate to cover up its own inadequacies. Those who should be on trial are the criminals of occupation who have perpetrated massacres against the men, women and children of Palestine over decades, who continue to violate UN resolutions and the fourth Geneva Convention with impunity. In the face of international abandonment, the Palestinian people, like all people whose rights have been trampled on while living under the armed occupation of a foreign country, have a right to resist.
Before September 2001, you were known to Western public opinion as a supporter of the Oslo agreements and the peaceful resolution of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. But during the second Intifada, you were transformed into an ardent supporter of the armed struggle and adopted an intransigent attitude toward the Israelis. Why was that?
As is already known, the PLO and the Palestinian leadership agreed to recognize the state of Israel and to a historic solution on the basis of two states for two people based on the application of international law.
I took part personally in peace efforts after the 1991 Madrid Middle East Peace Conference; I participated in dozens of conferences and meetings with Israeli parliamentary delegations, intellectuals, academics, writers, public figures and supporters of peace.
The party that destroyed peace efforts and trampled on signed agreements is the Israeli government, particularly after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister (Yitzhak) Rabin in 1995 at the hands of a Jewish extremist of the right-wing Likud party, the party now in power.
All governments succeeding Rabin have failed to adhere to the Oslo agreements. Personally, I remain convinced that peace is possible and that the only solution lies in an end to occupation and a total withdrawal to the border of June 1967 and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in that part of Jerusalem occupied in 1967. In addition, we must find a just solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN [Security Council] Resolution 194.
Any attempt to end the Palestinian peoples’ uprising through armed force and more force and unprecedented use of military force has no chance of succeeding.
The uprising against the occupation of Palestinian lands represents the independence movement of the Palestinian people and its aspiration and ambition to obtain freedom and independence.
The Palestinian people have negotiated for 10 years but this did not end our suffering or the occupation or the settlements. Quite the reverse; Israel doubled the number of settlers living illegally on occupied Palestinian land.
Since (Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon took power we have been subjected to a general war of elimination, and Israel and the people of Israel will not enjoy security and peace as long as we Palestinians do not enjoy freedom, independence and sovereignty on our land and in our independent state.
The Palestinian Authority called for elections in January. Will you again be a candidate for a seat in the Palestinian Legislative Council?
Regarding elections, I do not believe any elections can be free and meaningful while they are conducted under armed occupation. Our first priority is for Israel to withdraw from the areas it has recently reoccupied; only then does it become logical to speak of such elections. But before I can decide whether and how to participate in such elections, some questions must be decisively answered:
What is the use of being a member of an elected Palestinian parliament if such a parliament is still subject to Israeli dictates? What is the purpose of going through the motions of democracy while we have no freedom?
I have already been elected but my detention exposes a grim reality; I am still controlled by Israel’s racist and fascist occupation. So what is the use of elections?
The USA and the Sharon government both call for the resignation of President Arafat and for the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership. What’s your opinion?
I believe that the Intifada is the birthing pains of a Palestinian state as well as of a new Palestinian leadership. President Arafat did not force himself onto the Palestinian people. Rather, the Palestinians democratically elected him and only the Palestinian people have the right to elect a new president.
Nevertheless, it is natural that in the next few years we will be witnessing a new generation and a new type of leadership, which will be primarily concerned with attaining freedom and independence and constructing a modern, democratic Palestinian state that brooks no corruption and honors the separation of powers, the rule of law, and political pluralism.
Much of the Western media anticipates that you will be one of the strongest candidates for the succession of Mr Arafat, whenever this question is put on the agenda. Do you really have such aspirations?
As for me and my ambition, all I seek is a complete end to the occupation and the right to enjoy the status of “citizen” in a democratic state. I want to contribute to the development of that state — the state all Palestinians have been dreaming of for generations. And I want that state to develop in an atmosphere of calm, security and peace; a peace that both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples enjoy.
What’s the point of continuing the Intifada, in view of the tremendous consequences for Palestinian militants and civilians and the apparent lack of any kind of political gain?
The law that governs the Intifada is the law of rejecting and resisting the occupation, and therefore the outcome of the Intifada is tied to the fate of the occupation. If there is a guaranteed agreement of a timetable for a complete withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 (including all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) and on the establishment of a Palestinian state, then the Intifada would naturally stop.
It will not stop, however, as a result of destruction, occupation and demolition of houses and crops, assassinations and arrests or through aircraft or tanks or curfews or starvation. On the contrary, the desire for freedom and independence is stronger than any armed force, as evidenced by the failure of Sharon’s fascist government to quell the uprising and to provide security to the Israeli occupation.
I am confident the uprising will triumph over the occupation, that Palestinian values of freedom, independence, justice and peace will triumph over Israeli values of oppression, occupation, injustice and war.