History Repeats Itself in Occupied Palestine: A Conversation with Diana Buttu

Alex Kane Mar 24, 2010

Palestinians protest in the West Bank village of Ni'lin.  PHOTO:  International Solidarity Movement

Recent developments on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories have once again riveted much of the world’s attention on the Israel/Palestine conflict.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government declared two holy sites in the occupied West Bank a part of Israel’s “national heritage,” a Jewish temple in Jerusalem was reopened amidst high tensions and rumors in the holy city, and new settlements illegal under international law were announced by Israel both right before and during United States Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel.

The actions by Israel have sparked widespread Palestinian protests throughout Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with scores of Palestinians clashing with Israeli soldiers, leading to injuries on both sides.  This past weekend, four young Palestinians were killed near Nablus in the occupied West Bank, and Israel bombed and wounded about a dozen people in Gaza, in response to rocket fire from Palestinian militants.

Yesterday, at the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to the powerful pro-Israel lobby that the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security is “rock solid,” but criticized Israel for continuing to build settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also spoke at the conference, and was defiant in the face of the Obama administration’s demands, claiming that, “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It’s our capital.”  And today, Netanyahu met with President Obama, just after an Israeli announcement that 20 new housing units, shops and a carpark at Shepherd hotel had received a building permit, and would be constructed in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, according to Al Jazeera.

To provide some much needed perspective, I got a chance to discuss the explosive situation in the occupied territories with a woman who knows it very well:  Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian human rights lawyer currently based in Ramallah.  She previously worked with the Palestine Liberation Organization’s negotiating team and has worked for current Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas before resigning in December 2005.  Buttu was also part of the legal team that was responsible for putting forth the case of Israel’s “separation barrier” before the International Court of Justice in 2004, when the wall was declared illegal.

During the interview, Buttu and I talked about the situation on the ground in Palestine, the Obama administration’s approach to the conflict, and much more.

Alex Kane:  Recent weeks have seen Palestinian protests against settlement expansion, the inclusion of two holy sites in the West Bank as part of Israel’s national heritage, the dedication of a temple in Jerusalem and clashes throughout the West Bank.  What’s your overall assessment of the situation on the ground in the occupied territories?

Diana Buttu:  I think that the best way to view current events is to always look back at past events.  And all this stuff is not at all new when it comes to what Israel has done to the Palestinians.  It has always been that every Palestinian peace offensive—whether you agree with it or not—is always met with violence on the part of Israel.  And, it’s always met with a settlement expansion as well.  We’ve seen this happen time and time again:  Whether it was the Fahd plan of the 1980s, or later the Baker plans, or the unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood and recognition of Israel, or Oslo, or even the Arab peace initiative and even now this time, when there’s Palestinians agreeing to indirect talks.  Every single Palestinian peace offensive is met with a military offensive on the part of Israel.

And there’s a reason for that.  The reason is that it becomes so much easier for Israel to explain away its actions when the world is focusing on something else.  If there is violence, than very easily the Israelis can focus attention away from settlement activity and its ongoing violations of Palestinian human rights and instead point the figure and say that there is violence taking place.  It’s sort of a common strategy, and we’ve seen it time and time again.  As a Palestinian, what frustrates me about all of this is that there never seems to be an effective Palestinian strategy, a Palestinian-led government strategy, to combat what Israel is doing.  Instead, it’s always just a denunciation, a wagging of the finger, and so on and so forth, but no real effective strategy to actually stop Israel from what it’s doing.

AK:  What would an effective strategy be?

DB:  There are tons of effective strategies out there.  They haven’t been coordinated, and it certainly hasn’t been given the level of support that it needs to be given.  For example, there have been people now calling for boycotting Israel, there have been people calling for divesting from Israel, people calling for sanctions on Israel, and this has gone on for several years now.  The problem is that the boycott, divestment and sanctions call is one that is being called for by non-governmental organizations and by individual Palestinians, but it hasn’t gotten that widespread support that the Palestinian Authority should have been giving it or the political factions should have been giving it.  If you think back to South Africa, were it not for the African National Congress calling for and using the same tools, then their call would have fallen on deaf ears and it wouldn’t have been as effective as it ended up being in fact.  This is one of the problems.

Another strategy that is being employed is a piecemeal strategy of using nonviolent resistance in certain areas in the West Bank.  Again, the Palestinian politicians will come, they will do the occasional photo-op with the popular resistance committees, but there’s nothing that they do to actually promote this type of popular resistance  It’s always again this wagging the finger at Palestinians, telling them not to be violent and telling them not to do this, that or the other, bur never really a push to do something that’s actually positive, with the mistaken belief that somehow, negotiations are magically going to undo 42 years of colonization.  And it won’t.

AK:  The big story in the U.S. last week was that the announcement of 1600 new units of housing in occupied East Jerusalem has angered the Obama administration, especially because it was at the time that Joe Biden was there.  Some commentators suggest that U.S.-Israel relations have reached a tipping point, although with the AIPAC conference, with Hillary Clinton’s speech, it seems that tensions have cooled.  Others say that nothing serious will come out of the Obama administration.  What are your thoughts on the current state of relations between the U.S. and Israel?

DB:  When the announcement was first made, and there was Biden’s condemnation of the announcement, it became very clear to me that the condemnation was not so much regarding the substance of what the Interior Minister had said, but more of the fact that it was done in his presence, while he was there visiting.  The fascinating thing—again, if you look at history—all the way as far back as Baker, when he was purportedly interested in doing something with the Palestinians, Baker himself acknowledges that every visit he made to Jerusalem was marked by an announcement of settlement expansion, or settlement construction, or land confiscation or home demolition.  So, this is not new.  When Hillary Clinton came there was an announcement, when Secretary of State Rice came there were similar announcements, when Powell came there were similar announcements, with Albright.  Every single administration since Bush the father has been met with the same sort of announcements and proclamations.  I’m still a little bit stunned that Biden was so taken aback by this particular announcement.  But again, if you read through the statements, what becomes very clear is that Biden’s anger was less directed at the substance of it and more directed at the actual timing of it.

You’re absolutely right when you say that many people have made a big deal out of this so-called “strain” on U.S.-Israel relations.  I kind of liken it to the fable Chicken Little, where Chicken Little is screaming, “the sky is falling,” and clearly the sky is not falling, but people end up manipulating the statement that “the sky is falling.”  So, people are manipulating this so-called “strain” on U.S.-Israel relations.  There really is no strain; if there were a strain, we wouldn’t be clinging to harsh words, but instead we’d be seeing the United States taking direct action against Israel.  And that’s just not going to happen.

AK:  What do you make, overall, of the Obama administration’s strategy, or lack thereof, towards Israel/Palestine?

DB:  History is repeating itself, again and again.  I think it was Einstein who said that, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  And, so too this is what the Obama administration is doing.  The peace process failed; it failed more than a decade ago.  It started in 1993, by the year 2000 it was completely out of steam.  I’m really left wondering why a decade later they’re still trying to pursue a failed strategy in the hopes that somehow this failed strategy is going to yield different results over the course of the past 17 years.  So, I don’t really have a lot of hope for that.  I think that, for them, they’re following the same path that other administrations have followed, which is conflict management, not conflict resolution.

AK:  The Israeli government is still insisting that it wants to begin these so-called “proximity talks,” and as you mentioned this is over 15 years into a “peace process.”  First, do you think the Palestinian Authority will agree again to “proximity talks?”

DB:  Yes.  I look at who is the more powerful of the two sides, and where the balance of power rests.  Clearly, it rests with Israel.  Israel’s got a great deal of support in the United States, it’s got a great deal of support in Congress, it’s got a great deal of support in the European Union, and it hasn’t yet seen a red light given to it.  It hasn’t yet been held accountable for its actions, in particular its violations of Palestinian human rights.  That indicates, to me, if it hasn’t been done in the past, I don’t think it’s going to happen in the future.

Then you have to look at the Palestinian side.  What does the Palestinian side have?  They haven’t invested in the diaspora, they haven’t created an effective lobby in the United States, they haven’t really used the mechanisms that they have in Europe and elsewhere to pressure Israel.  The only thing that they have done is that they have clung to the same failed strategy of negotiations, negotiations, negotiations.  So, right now the Palestinian Authority, or the PLO, who actually does the negotiating, now they’re saying that they won’t head back to indirect talks unless this statement is reversed.  Again, it’s important to note the wording that they’re using.  They’re not saying that there has to be a complete settlement freeze.  What they’re saying is they just have to reverse the decision of the latest colony construction in Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem.  They’re saying that, but with a little bit of a push and with a lot of pressure that the Obama administration exerts on the Palestinian Authority and the Arab governments, and the fact that the European Union continues to fund the Palestinian Authority, I think that there’s going to be pressure on the Palestinian Authority to resume or head back to indirect talks, and I think this will happen very soon.

It’s important to keep in mind that back when the Goldstone report first came out, even prior to that, Abbas himself kept saying he was not going to negotiate with the Israelis until there was a complete settlement freeze.  Sure enough, he backed down, and I tend to believe that he’ll back down again, given the right amount of pressure.

AK:  And even if the talks continue, nothing will come out of them, correct?

DB:  Nothing will ever come out of them, because it’s two unequal parties.  One party is incredibly powerful, Israel, and the other party is incredibly weak, and unless the Palestinian Authority is willing to sign away a submission agreement, which is basically what Israel is asking of it, then I just don’t think there is going to be anything achieved between the two sides.

I can tell you, I was part of the negotiations a long, long time ago, at the time when it was the last round of talks at Taba in 2001.  It was then that I realized how silly negotiations were and how useless they were.  Before that, I actually believed that there was going to be freedom for the Palestinians via negotiations.  Don’t ask me why, but I did.  I was wrong, and I admit it.  But at the time that there were negotiations taking place, the things that they couldn’t get the Israelis to agree to was preposterous.  It was absurd—even something as simple as where is the Green Line.  The Israelis wouldn’t even acknowledge that there was a Green Line.  When we were talking about percentages of land, the Israelis were defining the West Bank in a completely different manner than the Palestinians, and completely different than how international law defines the West Bank.  It was absolutely absurd to see the level of bickering that would take place.  So if the Israelis don’t recognize the applicability of international law in negotiations, than what use is there to negotiate?  You’re just going to negotiate without a framework?  And this is what has happened all of these years.  Israel has failed to recognize, or fail to accept, even a basis for negotiations, and without a basis then it becomes very clear that negotiations will lead nowhere.

AK:  During the last couple of weeks of protest, there’s been some talk of a third intifada in Palestine against the Israeli occupation.  What are your thoughts on the possibility of that?

DB:  I don’t think that the second intifada ever really ended, to be honest.  I think that the second intifada, which started in the year 2000, continues to this day, and continues because of the fact that Palestinians continue to resist Israeli rule.  Now, if the question is will it turn more violent, it already has been more violent over the course of the past ten years.  Israel has received ultimate calm over the course of the past decade in the face of brutality that it has dished out to the Palestinians.  I don’t know whether it will get more violent, I’m not so sure, but what I do know is that, no matter what, Palestinians are going to continue to resist Israel’s rule.  It doesn’t matter what they call it, what shape or what form it is, but it will continue to happen.  If the Palestinian Authority is smart, rather than saying that it will stop a third intifada with force if need be, it should really be examining why it is that these intifadas are taking place in the first place, and start really thinking of a strategy where we can get overwhelming international support that I think exists, and channel that overwhelming international support into freedom for the Palestinians.

AK:  I have one last question:  In the very near future, if you had a crystal ball, what would you say is the most likely thing to happen in terms of developments on the ground in Israel/Palestine, international opinion, and resistance.

DB:  I’m an optimist, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to live here.  I think that things are changing.  I remember two decades ago, when it was almost impossible to get the word “Palestinian” in a major U.S. paper.  You didn’t see Palestinians on television, they just didn’t exist.  And today, a lot of that has changed.  It’s certainly not at the level I would like it to be, but there’s starting to be a lot more support for the Palestinians.  People are no longer accepting the carte blanche excuses proffered by Israel.  People are really opening up their eyes to Israel, what Israel stands for, what its overall strategy is, what its design is.  In that regard, I’m actually kind of optimistic that there will be a greater awakening around the world about what Israel is doing.  I see that it’s happening already.

Will that actually be funneled into change on the ground for Palestinians?  I think so.  But I don’t think it’s going to come through the usual channels.  It’s become clear to virtually all Palestinians who are not invested in the peace process that the peace process has failed.  It failed us, it will always fail us, it will continue to fail us.  The governments have failed us.  And I think that instead, there will be an awakening and a realization that we have to move away from that, and no longer put our faith into these false hopes and false beliefs that somehow a meeting of two world leaders is going to somehow bring about change for the Palestinians.  I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe the majority of Palestinians believe that.  I think that they do believe that when Israel is held accountable, when they are forced to pay, that there will be change.  And I think that that time is coming soon.

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