The "nuts" in the next room
January 27, 2001
"If the refugee problem is not resolved,
it will explode again and again, just
as it did after 1948, when Israel and
the Arab states believed that the
Palestinian problem was past history."
"My children were killed in an Israeli
bombing of the Pekani neighborhood in
Beirut. They were nine and seven.
Khaled and Walid. It was in 1981."
Nayef Hawatmeh, Founder
Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine
"The 'Nuts' In The Next Room..."
Ezer Weizman referring to
Bibi Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon
In recent years Israel's most important and serious newspaper, Ha'aretz, has
taken to not only reporting Palestinian affairs much more deeply but to interviewing
major Palestinian personalities abroad. Of course for all of its sophistication
Ha'aretz remains an Israeli publication catering primarily to liberal and sophisticated
Israeli and Jewish audiences. And make no mistake about it, there are biases,
however subtle they may be in most cases -- twists that are important in coloring
who is interviewed, when, and how. In this case, at the ending of this interview
by a seasoned Israeli journalist with one of the historic leaders of the Palestine
Liberation Organization, there is a very telling, and no so subtle, exchange.
It's amazing that even the most sophisticated Israelis still have so little
appreciation at times for what it means to be a Palestinian and for how many
Palestinian leaders have tried to protect their families and their personal lives
from the dangers Israel has represented to all of them at one time or another.
That Gideon Levy expresses such skepticism after being told of the deaths at
Israeli hands of Hawatmeh's children, calling it a "riddle", only serves to underscore
how wide the chasm of misunderstanding and distrust remains.
Oh yes, the timing of this interview. Well...anyone who thinks the timing
here is accidental just doesn't understand what's going on these days. The newspaper
(Ha'aretz), the country where the interview took place (Jordan), and the person
(Hawatmeh), are all eager (should we say desperate), to find some way to head
off Ariel Sharon at the pass. And that explains the timing, and much of the
content, of this interview.
With all of these special considerations in mind, this is indeed a very insightful
interview and good journalism. Even so, it's not likely at this point, in this
way, that the "Arab vote" is going to be affected. Indeed, the same Israeli
newspaper, Ha'aretz, reports in its Sunday edition that "Ten days before the
election, all the Arab parties and non-parliamentary political movements in the
Arab sector have called on their supporters to abstain from the prime ministerial
election. The only differences between the parties lie in whether to boycott
the election or to express their protest against both candidates by submitting
a blank ballot."
YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN
Nayef Hawatmeh, head of the Democratic Front
for the Liberation of Palestine, talks about his
peace efforts, says the terrorist attack at Ma'alot
was a 'deviation,' reveals what Ezer Weizman told
him about 'the nuts in the next room' and describes
the death of his children in an Israeli bombing attack
By Gideon Levy
[Ha'aretz - 26 January]
The whole story of the peace process may be
encapsulated in his calling card, which his aide stuffed into my hand
very late at night, as we were about to take our leave: Nayef
Hawatmeh, Secretary-General of the Democratic Front for the
Liberation of Palestine. Phone numbers in 10 different cities from
San'a to Algiers, including Nicosia. Two of the cities, Ramallah and
Gaza, are currently barred to him. Hawatmeh lives in Damascus, calls
Palestine his homeland - even though he was born in Salt, Jordan -
and treats Amman as his home. But the meeting with him this week in
the Jordanian capital almost had to be called off because, his aides
say, the Jordanian authorities placed obstacles in the way of his
entry to his native country. It is no easy matter to be a
revolutionary, still less to be an aging revolutionary. At 63,
Hawatmeh - one of the founding fathers of the Palestinian national
movement - continues the nomadic existence that has been his lot for
most of his life. In a blue sweater worn over a shirt and tie, he
looks more like a senior clerk than a revolutionary. Slightly
stooped, his movements betraying a certain lassitude, he radiates
warmth and softness. In fact, he creates an impression not unlike
that of his partner and rival in the revolution since its outset,
Yasser Arafat - whom Hawatmeh now calls a right-wing leader.
As for George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation
of Palestine, Hawatmeh calls him bourgeois. If Arafat's uniform still
evokes the past, the elderly uncle Nayef really does not look like
someone who once headed a terrorist organization. Israelis, of
course, remember him mainly from the Ma'alot operation and other
attacks, as the identical twin of George Habash and Ahmed Jibril:
They once terrified Israelis, whose only interest in them was their
murderous actions, not their views.
A researcher of terrorism, Reuven Paz, wrote two years ago in
Ha'aretz that the Israeli Intelligence community found Hawatmeh's
Democratic Front "the hardest of all to digest." Hawatmeh was the
first to call for negotiations with Israel, long before the others,
and it was very important for him to remind me of that fact. He was
also the first to address Israeli public opinion, via a
Jewish-American journalist, in an interview that appeared in the
daily Yedioth Ahronoth as far back as 1974. This week he cited the
exact date on which that interview appeared.
But a few weeks after that historic event, came the brutal operation
in Ma'alot, in Upper Galilee. This week he described it as an
accident, a violation of orders, and placed some of the blame on the
Israeli defense minister at the time, Moshe Dayan, who refused to
negotiate over the release of the hostages. Twenty-four Israelis were
killed at Ma'alot, 22 of them schoolchildren.
In the 1953 raid on the Jordanian village of Kibya, for example, he
will remind us, 69 Arabs were killed, most of them women and
children. The perpetrator of the massacre at Kibya is now the Likud
candidate for prime minister. In the interview, Hawatmeh warns
Israel's Arab population about Ariel Sharon and, somewhat
surprisingly, calls on them to vote, not to cast a blank ballot. Vote
for Ehud Barak, he tells them. At the same time, he hints that he
would prefer Shimon Peres. He demonstrates an impressive knowledge
about the situation in Israel and explains that he gets an Arabic
translation of the Israeli press on a daily basis. Only once did he
get his facts wrong - he tried to attribute the 1956 massacre of
Arabs from the Israeli village of Kafr Qasem to Menachem Begin. When
I corrected him, he tried again: Sharon was responsible for the 1948
massacre at the village of Deir Yassin on the outskirts of Jerusalem,
he said, as though the massacres in which Sharon was really involved
were not enough.
Until Hawatmeh arrived, his aides - no youngsters themselves - hosted
me in the bedroom of a modest suite in a Jordanian hotel that has
seen better days. The veterans of this Trotskyite organization don't
use room service, so the refreshments during the conversation
consisted of bitter coffee poured from a thermos and some chocolates
they had brought. The organization's house photographer snapped a few
shots as souvenirs.
Hawatmeh came to Amman this week in order to address the Israeli
nation. Our talk lasted four hours, partly because many of his
replies to my questions were very long-winded. He also paused for a
few minutes before answering most of the questions, in some cases
trying to gain time by having the question translated, even though he
speaks a reasonable English. He uttered the phrase "a comprehensive
and final peace that will be based on United Nations Resolutions 242
and 338 and 194" at least two dozen times. That is his mantra, and it
represents his only compromise. Any other arrangement will simply not
endure. Late at night, he was the most wide-awake person in the room,
even though he was also the oldest.
What would you say is the first association Israelis make with the
"It is difficult for me to guess exactly, but I think they will
immediately remember that Hawatmeh was the first Palestinian leader
who called for a comprehensive peace between the two peoples, who was
the pioneer in calling for negotiations and the first to address the
people of Israel and say that the hand of the Palestinians is offered
"That took courage in those days. The Palestinian national movement
then supported a struggle using force to liberate all of Palestine,
in one stage, and a compromise of any sort was considered treason.
>From August 1973 we fought for a new program, based on two states for
the two nations. Arafat was against it then. Our members were
attacked. We thought at the time that the military resistance
operations should be concentrated only against the occupation and the
settlements, and take place exclusively inside Palestine. We were
against operations outside Palestine, and therefore we condemned the
actions of the Black September organization - Munich [where 11
Israeli athletes were killed during the Olympic Games in 1972], [the
hijacking of the] 'Achille Lauro,' Habash's plane hijackings and the
attacks on the airports of Vienna and Rome by Abu Nidal."
And then came the operation at Ma'alot, which ran contrary to
everything you said.
"The organization's resistance policy cannot be judged according to
one deviant case. The orders our fighters received were to operate
only against the army and weapons. Not to hurt any civilians. But
things are not always under control. Sometimes a small group crosses
the boundary without coordination. The mission of the squad that was
sent to Ma'alot was to confront the army and, if possible, to take
hostages in order to obtain the release of Archbishop Capucci [who
had been caught by Israel smuggling arms for Palestinian terrorists].
That was the 27th year since the Naqba [the 'Calamity,' as the
Palestinians call the war of 1948] and the idea was to get 27
"Our organization separated the military and the political wings, and
an operation like that was authorized by the military level. We did
not want to hurt civilians, but we also did not want our fighters to
be hurt. Moshe Dayan was against any negotiations for the release of
the hostages [who were being held in a high school]. He asked for two
more hours and we agreed. And then he sent in his units, which
started shooting, and then what happened, happened. I don't just say
this now, I suggest you go back to what people said even in Israel
after the operation. The military level that carried out [the attack
in] Ma'alot is now living in the Palestinian Authority and working
"You don't see the whole forest, but only one finger that hides it.
No Israeli government knew the Palestinian political map. They never
knew our psychology. There are operations we didn't want and
operations that we wanted. The massacre at Kibya and at Sabra and
Chatila of Sharon, or the assassination of three Palestinian leaders
in Beirut, one of them a poet, by [Ehud] Barak - those were
deliberate operations. That should be the focus of things, not only
"Despite this, we said that war is war, rivers of blood and sometimes
also unplanned operations and accidents, as at Ma'alot. Now too there
are decisions by Barak to assassinate political leaders, more than 18
liquidation operations. I know there are many in the government who
did not accept this. I know that [Meretz leader Yossi] Sarid and
[Justice Minister Yossi] Beilin were against it, for example. And
those are not accidents, they are deliberate operations. Israelis
should know this."
What is wrong with the Clinton proposals?
"I think that Clinton's ideas are very far from the United Nations
resolutions that formulated the compromise between the two peoples
after 1967. The whole world accepted them as a compromise after the
'victory' of Israel in 1967. Clinton is proposing a new compromise,
with new borders in the West Bank and in northern Gaza, and the
annulment of Resolution 194 regarding the refugees. Just as the UN
resolutions were followed in Lebanon, it should be the same here. No
other solution will endure in the long run. A peace of the brave, as
Arafat called it, and Barak too, is very nice, but it is not enough.
There has to be a combination of a peace of the brave and justice.
"We were the pioneers of the call for a settlement. Already in 1968 I
gave an interview to Le Monde, to Eric Rouleau, calling for a
comprehensive settlement. Rouleau was stunned. He was a friend and he
feared for my life. I asked him to go to Tel Aviv and meet with the
leaders of the [Labor] Alignment and call on them to say something in
reaction. Everyone in the Alignment refused. When I gave the
interview to Paul Jacobson, which was published in Yedioth Ahronoth
in 1974, I asked Rouleau to go to Lova Eliav, who was then the
secretary-general of the Alignment, and to Yitzhak Ben Aharon, who
was the secretary-general of the Histadrut [federation of labor].
"Rouleau told Eliav that Hawatmeh was calling for a comprehensive
settlement - I quoted the phrase about beating your swords into
plowshares - and Eliav said he could say nothing. He was a politician
and he was afraid of losing the support of public opinion. Still, I
said that Eliav and Ben Aharon were preferable to Golda [Meir] and
Dayan. I read Eliav's book, "Land of the Hart," and I thought he was
someone it would be possible to talk to. But he was afraid and our
people continued to live under the occupation."
Which Israelis have impressed you, if any?
"Of those who bore responsibility and could have done something, I
hoped and expected that Yitzhak Rabin would open his policy and we
would reach a strategic agreement. I followed Rabin in books and his
[biography], I saw how he slowly developed since 1967. So I hoped he
would open up even more. The same goes for people like Yossi Beilin
and Amnon [Lipkin-] Shahak."
Are Barak and Sharon the same for you?
"No. They are far apart politically. The history of both of them is
dripping with blood, but there are political differences between
them. Barak is also one of the hawks of Israeli politics, but he is
right-center. He said he would be the prime minister of everyone and
that means that from the very start he took a road that could not
lead to peace. He called for a broad coalition that would have a
Jewish majority. Rabin was more progressive than Barak from that
point of view. He did not look for a Jewish majority."
How should the Arabs in Israel vote?
"In the next few days I will meet with the heads of the Arab parties
and I will examine the question with them. If Sharon is elected, it
will be a new catastrophe for the region. Sharon's historic plan and
his base on the right mean the end of the peace process. Sharon is a
person of war, not of peace, and therefore every call for a boycott
of the elections or for a blank ballot is a vote for Sharon."
In fact, you are saying they should vote for Barak.
"Who knows, maybe the Labor Party will call on another leader who
will replace Barak."
Is Peres preferable to Barak?
"Peres is an unclear personality. Barak is more clear. Peres, for
example, did not believe in a comprehensive settlement, but in the
path of stages, based on Oslo. He also criticized Barak for raising
the question of Jerusalem. Peres' positions on the final settlement
are not clear. But that is not my problem, it is your problem."
Who is Arafat in your eyes?
"A national leader. A fighter for more than 30 years. We cooperated
in many areas. More than once we were in danger of being killed
together. Arafat is a right-wing national figure and it is good for
every national movement to have someone like that."
What about the executions carried out by the Palestinian Authority?
"When the State of Israel and its prime minister assumed the right to
assassinate Palestinians without a trial, that opened the way for the
executions by the Palestinian Authority."
Why did you shake hands with [then-president] Ezer Weizman at the
funeral of King Hussein?
"Mr. Weizman came into a room where I was meeting with Arab Knesset
members - Tibi, Dehamshe, Al-Sana and Tarif - and he immediately
asked me: Mr. Hawatmeh, how can we reach peace? I told him it was
possible to reach peace easily and that was our policy, as long as it
will be based on UN Resolutions 338, 242 and 194. Weizman wanted to
send a message that he was a man of peace and my message then was
that the Front was ready to conduct negotiations and talk to the
leaders of Israel. There are organizations that are against any
settlement and any negotiations. We are not. Weizman said that he
personally believed in a comprehensive peace with the Arabs, but, he
said, 'the nuts in the next room' were against it, and he nodded
toward the room where [former prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and
Sharon were. When he went into the next room, Netanyahu asked him how
he could have shaken hands with Hawatmeh, whose hands are drenched in
Jewish blood, and Weizman replied that his hands too were drenched in
blood. He told Sharon that his hands were drenched with the blood of
Sabra and Chatila. That is what Tibi told me."
Have you given up the military struggle?
"Between 1964 and 1987, all the organizations believed in the [armed]
struggle and in military resistance. When the Intifada erupted, we in
the Democratic Front said that from now on our struggle would focus
on popular resistance and on political and diplomatic methods. That
is what we have done since then."
How is it that your group shrank so much and became so small?
"Honestly, that is not true. The Democratic Front is one of the three
organizations that comprise the Palestine Liberation Organization,
together with Fatah and the Popular Front. The additional body is
Hamas. Organizations like Hamas exist only inside and have no
independent hold in the diaspora. In the diaspora we are second after
Fatah and ahead of the Popular Front."
Do you have a private life?
"I did not live the natural life I could have. For example, I like
films and theater. In the past 20 years I have not gone more than
four or five times. My revolutionary life took too much of my time."
What mistakes have you made?
"The first mistake was the contradiction, at the outset of my
revolutionary life, between ideas that were socialist and my joining
an Arab national movement that was not socialist. From that moment I
lived with a conflict, until the establishment of the Democratic
Have you succeeded in life?
"Not fully, but many of my ideas have been adopted by the Palestinian
national movement and the Arab progressive movement. We directed the
Palestinian movement toward realistic plans and solutions."
Do you have anything good to say about Israel?
"I want to say that Israeli society has achieved broad and deep
social, economic and technological development. The Israelis took
things from their cultural roots in the countries they came from -
Western Europe, Russia and other countries - and made use of what
they brought to build a state that will lead to a high technological
and economic level. Even though they came from more than 100 cultures
and countries, they succeeded in establishing an Israeli society that
is in the process of taking shape. They also built a democratic
state, for 'whites,' in quotation marks, in Israel. A democracy that
is not for all the citizens and not for all the residents, so they
created gaps in the Israeli society between the whites and all the
rest - Jews and Arabs who are not white."
Do you feel hate?
"I distinguish between the nation, which consists of human beings who
have the right to live in dignity, and policy. I do not judge the
situation according to ideas of revenge. I feel how the governments
of Israel caused injustice to our people."
I live in Ramat Aviv, where the Arab village of Sheikh Munis stood.
What will become of me in the wake of the return of the refugees?
"I am convinced that Israel can absorb the Palestinian refugees in
its territory. That does not mean that the refugees will return to
their towns or villages, but it is essential that they return to live
as equal citizens who own land in their country."
Three and a half million refugees?
"Their right in principle to return home must be secured. In
practice, it will be according to the plans that the two sides agree
to. If the refugee problem is not resolved, it will explode again and
again, just as it did after 1948, when Israel and the Arab states
believed that the Palestinian problem was past history. An unwritten
agreement between Israel and the reactionary Arab regimes, and with
British and then American colonialism brought about a division of the
Palestinian territory between Jordan and Egypt, and the illusion that
the Palestinian problem no longer existed. I remember that in 1974
Golda Meir said there was no such thing as the Palestinian people and
that there was no Palestinian problem. And afterward everything
"Ninety percent of the Israelis live in big cities on no more than
seven percent of the land. That means they can take part in resolving
the refugee problem. Everyone knows that in the past 10 years, Israel
absorbed a million new immigrants from Russia solidly. Among them, as
you know better than I do, 41 percent are not Jews, and there are no
real problems with them. So the impression is that the possibility
exists and that there is room.
"That does not mean that three and a half million refugees have to
return immediately. It is a matter of principle. First, Israel must
recognize that these people have a right to return home. Look what
happened in Australia, New Zealand, North America, how they absorbed
so many immigrants. I know how the opponents of the return in Israel
think - they think of a pure Jewish state, which is an apartheid
idea, not a democratic idea. And the people on the right are not
thinking only about apartheid but also about transfer, and at the
same time they are absorbing the immigrants from Kazakhstan and
Ukraine and Ethiopia.
"When I read Netanyahu's book, which in Arabic [and English] was
called 'A Place Among the Nations' and in Hebrew 'A Place Under the
Sun,' I was appalled and shocked. How is it possible to think like
that in the last decade of the 20th century? And there are many
others, like [MK] Rehavam Ze'evi, the nut, and [MK] Avigdor
Lieberman, the racist, who declare at the same time that they can
absorb another 10 to 12 million Jews."
Have you ever used a weapon?
Why not? After all, you sent others.
"I personally am incapable of shooting any living thing."
And the people you sent were different?
"We live under occupation and a people under occupation must resist.
Resistance is resistance. It is not a matter of individuals, it is a
matter of a people, and no people under occupation ever achieved its
rights without resistance."
Where would you like to live?
"It is essential to return home."
Your home was in Salt.
"That is a big mistake on your part. If so, most of the Israelis have
to go back to the countries they came from."
Choose a place.
"The houses and alleys of Jerusalem are deeply engraved in my memory.
I have not visited there since 1958, but the memory is still fresh. I
would like to live there. But this is not just a matter of personal
choice, it is a matter of circumstances. Whatever the national
movement demands, that is what will be. So maybe in the West Bank,
maybe in Gaza."
At one point in the conversation, Hawatmeh's eyes clouded over and
tears welled up in them. It happened when I asked about his family.
"My children were killed in an Israeli bombing of the Pekani
neighborhood in Beirut. They were nine and seven. Khaled and Walid.
It was in 1981. I did not have any more children after that. I prefer
not to talk about it. Maybe for psychological reasons. The
Palestinian people had 70,000 martyrs, and I feel that all of them
are my brothers."
Silence fell in the room. It was not known that Hawatmeh had lost his
two children in an IDF raid on Beirut. There was in fact an attack on
his headquarters in 1981 and reports at the time said he had a
miraculous escape. But there had not been a word about his children.
This week I asked a few Palestinian figures, but none of them ever
heard that Hawatmeh was a bereaved father. A few of them said they
had their doubts, others offered various explanations.
The riddle remains.