Coming home to Hebron, looking forward to Palestine
Fadi Elsalameen, a Hebron native, educated in the United States, receiving his MA at Johns Hopkins University, feels more at home in Hebron where he has gotten full scholarships to university for 30 boys and girls.
Fadi Elsalameen says he does not belong to the Palestinian elites - he is the son of a Palestinian plumber. But at 13, he was sent along with about two dozen other Palestinian kids to study at boarding schools in the U.S., as a part of the program “Seeds of peace”, created by author and journalist John Wallach, and funded by the U.S. government, with the purpose of nurturing a future generation of leaders in zones of conflict.
At the time, his father wasn’t too happy about the prospect of sending his eldest son from Hebron to the U.S.. Fadi threatened to quit school altogether if he wasn't allowed to go. He wanted to go on the program so badly that he even doctored the grades on his report-card a bit, to make a more favorable impression on the program coordinators, something he admitted to later.
The late Yasser Arafat warned participants of Seeds of Peace years ago not to ask for second portions while in the U.S., lest Americans think Palestinian teenagers are impolite or hungry, and to stay away from the American girls.
Elsalameen followed up his time with Seeds of Peace in the U.S., proceeding to study biochemistry and political science and completing his MA at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). In addition to science and politics, he has studied Mandarin Chinese, adding to his repertoire of languages.
Today, at 27, outspoken and well-connected Fadi is back in Hebron, trying to figure out ways to contribute to the improvement of the local reality. The news of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation reached him while in Washington on a two-week visit chock-full of meetings with political officials and Congress staffers. With caution, the Johns Hopkins alumnus states that unity might be a positive development.
Can you imagine Netanyahu negotiating with the PLO with Hamas inside?
But what’s the alternative? Netanyahu favored status-quo for a long time. As long as he is a prime minister, there is a status-quo, and as long as there is a status-quo, he is a prime-minister. Now it’s not the same. Abbas was talking about clarification points he wanted to make to the world – renouncing violence, he said there will be a monopoly on power, with the PA in charge of the security, etc. And Meshaal said after that he wants a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, within the 67' borders - it’s clear that they want to play politics.
Netanyahu muscled Abbas, muscled Obama, didn’t give them anything – promised them a lot of things - he basically pushed Abbas to go to Hamas. And Hamas at the beginning wasn’t even interested in any kind of conversation, but because of what happened in Syria, everybody started to think, maybe it’s a good time to make a deal. It made me think – was Netanyahu even aware that it’s such a dangerous game to play? Because now he is the lonely guy. He doesn’t have Abbas, he doesn’t have the U.S. Yesterday, Abbas was the lonely guy – he didn’t have Netanyahu, he didn’t have Hamas, he didn’t have Obama. But now he has some confidence.
I think Netanyahu shot himself in the foot – he didn’t give up one inch, he made it clear to the whole world: I have nothing to offer to the Palestinians. So they went to Hamas. Now Netanyahu has to come up with an incentive that will make Abbas think twice, or make Obama tell Abbas to think twice. Either way you look at it, there is some good that might come out of it. At the end of the day, the Palestinians and the Israelis want to make a deal, it’s just a question of under what conditions.
Some people doubt this agreement will survive.
I turned on Al Jazeera to watch how they interact with each other. They were joking, but you could sense the kind of tension between Abbas and Meshaal, they are not at ease with each other. It wasn’t like the Mecca reconciliation [a declaration signed in Saudi Arabia in 2006 by Shiite and Sunni clerics, pleading for national reconciliation in Iraq between all groups], where they were hugging and kissing.
The fact that the deal wasn’t forced from the outside but driven by interests could mean that the deal will stick. But I don’t know if they are strategic enough to make the best out of it.
Several weeks ago you wrote an article calling on President Abbas to resign. Do you see a Palestinian leader you want to vote for?
In the structure that exists, to be honest, I don’t see someone to vote for. In Fatah, there are certain personalities that I feel won’t have support on the street because they haven’t delivered much. And what scares me about Hamas – they haven’t made it clear where they stand on certain issues - not politics. I don’t want to live under a Taliban-like government. If they present a presidential candidate, they may put up a nice story, but my fear is that I might have to grow a beard - I don’t look good with a beard (laughs). I am a Muslim and I am proud to be a Muslim, but I don’t want anyone to tell me that I am only 10% Muslim according to their parameters.
Last time I was in Gaza was in 2005. And it was still under the PA. I want to go to Gaza, but I guess psychologically there is a big barrier. With what you hear in the media and friends that are not happy about the way Hamas rules in Gaza… Not for political reasons, but because they are being forced to behave in a certain way.
I would not vote for a Hamas president. I don’t agree on the ideology, and although publicly they say they do not support a Taliban-like state, on the ground – it exists. They are banning girls and boys from going to the same schools, forcing people to grow beards.
I wrote that Abbas had to resign because he didn’t do what he is doing today. He was kicked around and nobody likes a weak President. He was a yes man for everything Netanyahu asked of him, and he got nothing. Fayyad's security was getting oppressive - being not nice to people and interrogating people, without a court. A Hamas-Fatah deal was nowhere to be seen. So I said: if you can’t say no to anybody, if you can’t bring anything new, if you can't look strong – leave, announce elections”.
What did you hear about the deal from the officials in Washington?
Most of the conversations that I’ve had with people in Congress or the State Department were that this unity deal is a good thing. And if you're really interested in making peace in the Middle East, you don’t make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies. If Hamas today felt pressured enough from within to come to the table, isn’t that what we wanted from the beginning? There are speeches and rhetoric that you have to make; Hamas must meet the Quartet's demands, but that’s for public consumption. You have to make those statements, but when you’re looking eye to eye and you really want to make progress, you have to start from somewhere to get to that point. You don’t get there from day one.
Would it be a mistake to threaten to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority because of Hamas?
To be honest, yes. If the U.S. wants to stay a key player in the area, you don’t cut your own arm and say to people: “I’m going to punish you”. This is a new region - this is not the Middle East of 2010. This is the Middle East where the Egyptian foreign minister is sitting with the Israeli foreign minister, demanding to hear "what is the solution that you want to achieve with the Palestinians, because that’s the only thing I’m interested in hearing from you, I don’t want to hear about a process”. This is not the same Egyptian foreign minister who said “tell me how I can help you close Gaza”.
So for the United States to cut off aid, it means that they’re pulling out of that area. I don’t know if strategically that’s a wise move, when you have Iran still threatening, Syria is still not neutralized obviously, Hezbollah, all of this, and Iran not just building nuclear weapons, they also want to be good friends with the new leaderships in the Arab world.
I just heard from a friend of mine who is very close to President Abbas, and asked what would happen if the U.S. cuts aid. He said: "Nothing. We already have a guarantee from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Algeria to pay the bill that the U.S. was paying”. So again, already other countries are willing to fill the void because they feel it is much more important to them to have a stable Palestinian neighbor”.
There were some speculations about whether the Palestinians will have a Tahrir square of their own.
So far, our demands have been met – we wanted an end to the division, we wanted elections, and we wanted a new leadership.
How about the “White Intifada” perspective, with a Palestinian state recognized by the UN in September, but with checkpoints still there?
To be honest, something like this is very possible. Because you can’t really micromanage people’s lives for 60-70 years. They are going to revolt at some point. We’ve tried the violent way, throwing rocks, and now we have 3 or 4 living examples of what the non-violence can do – in the Arab societies. People were always skeptical about the Gandhi approach, the Martin Luther King approach, because it was done by non-Arabs and in faraway countries. But now you have Tunisia, you have Egypt, even Libya, Yemen… Masses are producing power, and that is respected by the international community. And Palestinians are probably the most politicized nation in the Arab world. They tune in with every political issue, they are following the news – it’s probably the same in Israel.
So nothing can stand in their way and prevent them from gathering and moving toward – maybe not toward Jerusalem as a first step – but toward the settlements. They are illegal and everybody knows they are not supposed to be there. I have no idea how it might end, but I would participate in a march toward the settlements. If they want to create a Palestinian state, why do they build on that land that is supposed to be ours, for the future Palestinian state?
Aren’t you afraid you might be fired upon?
Once you make the psychological decision to do something like this, you take a 50-50 chance. The people who came out in Tahrir square, in Yemen, Tunisia, they could have died, but they did it. But it wasn’t confrontation with a different nation, it was a domestic protest.
I am not afraid because Israel is more rational than Gadhafi. There is more damage to them killing a thousand peacefully marching Palestinians. Why would they do that? I don’t see it. Based on the conversations that I had with people on the Israeli left – they say, if you are doing something like this, we will march with you. And I don’t think the Israeli prime minister will issue an order to kill his own citizens in the peaceful march. It can encourage me to do something like this”.
Why did you return to Hebron? Didn’t your parents tell you it’s a mistake?
They said, there is nothing here. What are you going to do, what work is waiting for you? Even to become a teacher, you need some good connections. They were shocked. I left when I was 13, I grew up far away from them, they saw me maybe for a week or two in a year. But I came from the poorest of the poor, my father was a plumber, I looked around and compared myself to my friends. Some got killed, some of them went to jail, some could never finish university. When I came to the U.S., I went to the best boarding schools, some of the best universities, and one year of my tuition was probably the lifetime savings of the Palestinian family. So there is some guilt that comes with it, because I kept in touch, I called home every day. Sometimes I sent my friends money so they could pay their school tuition.
The guilt was huge and I always said, I am just here temporarily, I want to move back there and build something, to be among my friends, my community. Hebron is not like Ramallah – the family is very important, and it hasn’t been corrupted. In Ramallah, I’ll say “hi” to you if I know I can get something out of it. In Hebron, there is still loyalty among people.
But do you feel comfortable there?
For me it’s worth it. I work with Hebron and Alquds Universities, I got 30 boys and girls full scholarships to study there, and I chose what they study – economics, computers… Here, I couldn’t send even one student to the university. I got a lot of help all along the way, and I know the reward you get when you push someone to deliver something in their life. And so in Hebron, the scale is so huge – there is so much room for growth. For me, the biggest reward is that I can be in my own community and not to be a burden, but a help. At the end of the day – you get 60-70 years to live, maybe 90 if you are lucky, and you want to do something good, Politics right now is not for me. Actually it’s the most dangerous field in Palestine. It’s not being in Hebron, but getting involved in politics, because it’s still at a very raw stage. I could get killed. My money doesn’t come from Palestine – it comes from outside, I have my network and I consult.
What are the youth up to?
For the past ten years, a lot has happened in Palestine. The second intifada, that I think sent Palestinian youth generations behind, set them back tremendously. So, the level of education went down, the level of reading, their whole focus became how to secure their living, how to provide food just a day at a time. So the majority of the youth were casualties of that. Now after that, there was a period when people started to feel some kind of economic improvement, I’m talking only about the West Bank. If you look in Ramallah, you’ll feel like you’re in any other city in the world. You can sit at a cafe, people who are dating, boy and girl sitting together. But if you go outside, say, to Nablus, people have become a little more religious than they were before. A young lady, she’ll tell you: “I can’t shake hands.” I never encountered that before in the West Bank. I noticed it even among college graduates. I’d go to a university graduation, and a lot of girls would not shake hands with the person who was giving them their diploma. So I see that as a setback. Clearly we lost a lot. The education system went down, so people had to hold on to something else, to feel that they are still alive. They went to religion, an imported version of Islam, which I don’t think goes along with many Palestinian values. So you have a mix - you have people who went way behind and became somewhat backward, and then you have people who were impacted by an influx of NGO’s and international aide, and different people spending time in Ramallah and bringing about a different type of interaction. One of my 13-year-old cousins, who sells bread in Ramallah, was telling me: “I saw a guy and a girl kissing on the street in Ramallah!” To him it’s a huge thing, it’s a different country. Somebody like him should have been in school. His father doesn’t work, the rest of his family is unemployed.
Why doesn’t his father sell the bread so that the kid can go to school?
Because he wouldn’t earn enough. His father was a construction worker in Israel who would make 250 shekels a day, he’s not going to work for 50 shekels a day. So there is a culture thing. Also, I gave birth to you, now you can walk on your own legs, go out and make money.
Will Hamas grow stronger in the West Bank because no one will go after them?
I would imagine that would be the part of the deal. But if the Hamas won’t abide, it might end the deal, and then Fatah might be even harsher with Hamas because it undermined the trust. Hamas at the end of the day are Palestinians, and the president needs a political agenda. I blame Netanyahu more than anyone else for creating this vacuum in the West Bank. He crippled Fatah in a very nasty way, because Abbas was getting nothing.”
There was a poll conducted in several Arab countries showing Osama bin Laden enjoyed most support among the Palestinians.
There are certain things that are happening in Hamas or in Gaza that I cannot explain – like why would Ismail Haniye say that Bin Laden is an Arab hero. He killed more Muslims and Arabs than non-Arabs.
Would people in Hebron agree with you on that?
I am not sure. But no one can deny that the U.S. faces some resentment in Palestine because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The same person can tell you he likes the U.S. and he hates the U.S. It’s all seen in the context of the conflict. I remember when 9/11 happened, my mom was crying. I was in the U.S. flying,. from Detroit to Indiana. I called home and my sister said mom was crying and watching the towers, because people were dying. Clearly she wasn’t cheering for bin Laden. I am sure if I ask my mom what she thinks about the U.S. support for Netanyahu – she wouldn’t be happy.
Seif Al Islam Gadhafi, the son of the Libyan dictator, was among your acquaintances. What impression did you get from him?
Last time I saw him we had a four-hour meeting with him and Josef Stiglitz, who was Clinton's advisor and a Nobel prize recipient. We spoke about privatization, the idea that more people in Libya should benefit from state owned enterprises. And he told us he wanted to fight the big cats. After the meeting, we asked ourselves, what does he think – he and his father are the biggest two cats in the whole country. It was clear he was not serious, but he liked to talk about reforms.
The son was kind of confused in a way – he wanted to be in the state because it was the best place for him to be politically, and he wanted reforms. He did have some resentment for his father – friends told me that when he got drunk in London, he would say: “F.. Gadhafi!”
How did the Arab leaders treat Palestinians? The Palestine papers showed they were concerned more about Iran, although they wouldn’t admit it publicly.
It’s not fair to generalize. Some of them would remember Palestinians only when it mattered to them politically, like the stamp of approval. I wasn’t shocked that Mubarak didn’t care much about the Palestinians – his number one priority was Iran. But the Qatari Emir and the Saudi king have always treated the question of Palestine as an A level agenda item and Aljazeera and its coverage of events makes it clear. As for the King of Saudi Arabia, according to a letter I saw from a senior Saudi official, the King at one point threatened President Bush to distance the kingdom from the US if it didn’t take into consideration Saudi demands on the Palestine question. I think also that after the Arab revolutions, they can no longer afford not to focus on the Palestinian Israeli conflict. I can’t imagine King Abdulla of Jordan ignoring an issue so important to 70 percent of his population, one of them being his wife.
Were they right, except for Jordan, not to grant the Palestinians full rights and citizenship?
The question of refugees is twofold. Do these people have the right to decide if they want to go back? I think absolutely yes. Now, do these people have a right to live while the politics play out until they can decide whether to return or not - also - absolutely yes. They have to be able to live, they have to travel, they have to get an education, to be able to move from one country to another. In Lebanon, I’ve heard heart-breaking stories about doctors who can’t get a job. That’s something unacceptable. That shows the Arab countries' shortcomings when it comes to the Palestinian question, that they haven’t been helpful on the refugee issue either. Let’s say that today Israel agrees that these refugees can come back to the Palestinian state, don’t we want these people to be educated, to be making an income, to be smart so that they can add to the Palestinian state, not to take away from it? Educate them. Give them a chance to feel they are part of the world, that they can contribute and have a life.
I think that every Arab country has an obligation to at least allow these people to feel free, to give them passports, to let them get an education and be a part of your society, so that when they go back to Palestine, they have something to give, instead of being just people that are in space, in limbo, and they become a burden when they come back to that future state.
So you have no problem with the idea of the refugees going to the Palestinian state?
Some refugees I spoke to cannot see themselves going back to Haifa. It’s not the same Haifa that they left, or that their grandfather left. They don’t see themselves living in a Jewish city. But there are still some who say: “No, I want to go back, it’s my land, it’s my house, I want to go back to that same place that I left. And let’s say they do go back, maybe they’ll live there a year and then decide they don’t want to stay there, they want to sell their property and move somewhere else. These are things that people do, and I don’t think it’s fair to put a clear-cut answer, that you can’t go back and that’s it.
But for our sake, if we create a Palestinian state, if we want people to come back, we want them to come back to that state, because you need the manpower, you need the human resources. Most people have been looking at the refugee issue as a burden. No, they’re not a burden. Assuming you have a big Diaspora outside Lebanon and Syria and Jordan – many of the Palestinian Diaspora are professors, millionaires. You want them to come back to Palestine, not to Tel-Aviv”.
What will the Palestinian state change?
Psychologically, you automatically start thinking that everything you see that resembles the occupation, is temporary. Because the way it looks now, it looks permanent, it looks like they will never move. That’s huge. That’s what would be the biggest difference. The difference is everything that is wrong with the occupation. Your whole life is micromanaged, if you cannot take your kid to the hospital without permission. You’ll feel that you are your own person, not hostage to a foreign entity”.
How does a day of your life in Hebron look like?
Sometimes I’ll go down to the university to see friends there or to meet people. If I’m going to go there I need to figure out which road I’m going to take, which road will allow me to avoid the Israeli police, Israeli checkpoints. I have to worry if I come back at night, if there are Israeli soldiers on the road, that they might take you, they might beat you. But if I’m living in my own state, and I know it’s safe, at least these kinds of calculations are no longer a part of my life”.
But you are not thrilled with the PA police too, so would it make that big a difference?
My problem with the PA police is with the way they operate. If they come and can’t find the person they are looking for, they might arrest his 14 year old son. Only gangsters do that. They need to understand that they are dealing with their own nation, they need to protect them. There are things that are wrong with the PA, they are not perfect – but at least I can criticize them. They did tell me they are going to arrest me for criticizing them- they thought about it and didn’t do it. There’s things that are wrong but I think as a Palestinian I am more likely to be able to make that change than I am to convince the Israeli army to change its own behavior.
You blog a lot, you’ve established several websites. What do you think about the “electronic Intifada”, the BDS movement?
People like Ali Abunimah from the “Electronic Intafida”, they don’t really represent me as a Palestinian. And there are many things we clash with them on. When we started the “Palestine note” with Hani Masri, every two weeks they would write a critical article – one of them was attacking us for hiring an Israeli editor. They want to boycott everything that is Israeli, even the people. I don’t believe in boycotting people. We were building a nice website, there was a good editor, there was nothing with it. Ali Abunimah is in Chicago, has a nice life, he still talks like my grandmother when she was 19, things that don’t relate to the current life in Palestine. There is a Palestinian Diaspora that feels that this is the way to show your loyalty to the Palestinian cause. For example, the education system. Instead of going to a fundraiser for the electronic Intifada and paying 200 dollars, I’d much rather pay one semester's tuition for a student in Palestine. I spent some time with him in Doha, and I wasn’t very impressed, I couldn’t see someone who intellectually stimulates me, but repeating slogans playing on the emotions of the Palestinian Diaspora. Always negative, while positive things do happen”.
Going back in history, was it wrong for the Palestinians not to agree to the partition plan?
It was a huge mistake. If they accepted it, in 2011 our main issues would be exports of flowers to Europe or importing wheat from Saudi Arabia, or whether the train that goes from Haifa to Hebron is fast enough or should we bring the Chinese to build it for us. How boring – but how nice!
Ali Abunimah, co-founder and director of “The Electronic Intifada”, responded to Mr. Elsalameen's comments:
“Contrary to Mr. Elsalameen's claims, The Electronic Intifada did not publish articles relating to Palestine Note 'every two weeks.' In fact as a search will reveal, we have only ever published precisely one article.
"I should note that since the time that article was published, neither Mr. Elsalameen, nor anyone else associated with Palestine Note has notified us of a single factual error. Moreover, like all the articles we publish - like any publication - the views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent my views or those of The Electronic Intifada.
"Contrary to Mr. Elsalameen's audacious claim, neither me personally, nor The Electronic Intifada have ever called for a boycott of individuals just because they are Israeli. The movement to boycott Israel is a boycott, of systems, businesses, organizations and institutions that support Israeli apartheid; it is not a boycott of Israeli individuals. This ought to be self-evident, since The Electronic Intifada itself has published articles by Israelis - Jews and Palestinians - on numerous occasions.
"I as an individual support the BDS movement. The Electronic Intifada as a publication publishes articles about the movement, but neither I nor The Electronic Intifada should be conflated with that movement. I have no official role in creating or directing the BDS movement -- which incidentally also specifically does not call for boycotting Israelis as individuals or people.
"Mr. Elsalameen is entitled to his views about me, and I do not intend to respond to them here. However, his claim that The Electronic Intifada holds $200-a-ticket fundraisers is another fabrication. We have never held a fundraising event. We raise money through our website, but do not spend money on gala events.”