What It's Like to Be a Palestinian Journalist, According to an East Jerusalem Editor

The Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds drew criticism recently when it interviewed Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Its senior editor, Amjad Omari, explains why Arabs will never recognize a Jewish state and the importance of an independent Palestinian press.

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The Al-Quds newspaper's offices in East Jerusalem.
The Al-Quds newspaper's offices in East Jerusalem.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

Amjad Omari, a senior editor at the East Jerusalem-based Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds, doesn’t regret his paper’s interview with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in October. The very fact of the interview, conducted by Muhammad Abu Khdeir, was severely criticized on Palestinian social media and by sources in the Palestinian Authority. However, Omari is certain that publishing it was the right thing to do journalistically, “so that every Palestinian will know exactly what a leader like Lieberman thinks,” he tells Haaretz. “Just as an Israeli journalist would have a hard time conducting an interview with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, it wouldn’t have been easy for a Palestinian reporter to have to interview Moshe Ya’alon when he was defense minister, or Lieberman now. Because every day we see the Israeli army entering, detaining, killing – and those we interview are responsible for all that. But in the end, as journalists, that is our task: to voice people’s opinions.”

It’s that same belief that prompted me to ask Omari for an interview. His condition was that we meet in the editorial offices of Al-Quds, located in the Atarot industrial zone of East Jerusalem. I drove from Tel Aviv. Before we sat down in his office for the interview, Omari gave me a quick tour of the newspaper. Even though it’s equipped with new iMac computers, the design and atmosphere of the place hurtled me back to the 1970s. Print versions of all that day’s Israeli newspapers lay on Omari’s desk, and that seemed as natural as his request that we speak in Hebrew. True to the era his office exuded, he lit up a cigarette and, for the first time since I stopped smoking, I regretted it.

Even before our conversation began, we both felt that the significant achievement had already been made, shared by the two of us: we were meeting face to face.

Amjad Omari, a senior editor at the East Jerusalem-based Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

Al-Quds was founded in 1951. Its publishers today are the brothers Walid and Ziad Abu-Zalaf, the sons of Mahmoud Abu-Zalaf, who was publisher and editor-in-chief from its founding until his death in 2005. Walid Abu-Zalaf, the current chief editor, lives in London. “We are in daily contact with him, via WhatsApp and phone,” explains Omari, who edits the paper on a day-to-day basis. “I am the deputy manager and a senior editor. I also write editorials twice a week and serve as night editor twice a week.”

Al-Quds has a print run of between 15,000 and 30,000, “depending on whether there is a closure of the West Bank or problems in the Gaza Strip that prevent distribution,” says Omari. He didn’t have exact figures about the readership of the digital edition, but noted, “Our site is one of the 10 most read in the Arab world. Our Facebook manager says we have seven million followers.”

They have paid, private subscribers, too, but not many. The paper is sold mostly in stands throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Between 2,000 and 3,000 copies go to Gaza. Al-Quds is printed in a broadsheet format and costs two shekels (50 cents). In addition to local and foreign news (with special emphasis on the Arab world), at least two pages are devoted to Israel every day. There are also translated reports and op-eds from all the Israeli papers, including articles by right-wing journalists.

Omari wishes that the Israeli press would do the same with articles by their Palestinian peers. The Palestinians know the Israelis, but Israelis don't know the Palestinians, he says.

"They [the Palestinians] know that there are those who believe in two countries and want to live in respect and peace, and those who want a greater Israel. I told my Israeli reporter friends, come see what's happening here. Visit Nablus and Hebron, real places, in East Jerusalem. The primary job of journalism is to pass along the truth.

“The people of each side have the right to know about those on the other side. Israelis hear from their government that there are Arabs and there are terrorists, and they don’t know that most Palestinians desire peace. That they live in sub-human conditions. You should translate articles by Palestinians, so that Israelis will be exposed to the opinions of regular people.”

Omari takes pride in the independence of Al-Quds. “Ninety percent of the revenues come from ads and 10 percent from distribution,” he says. Two other newspapers are also published in the West Bank: Al-Ayam and Al-Hayat al-Jadida, the latter considered a PA mouthpiece. Two papers are published in Gaza: Ar-Risala, which is known as a Hamas propaganda outlet, and Filastin.

You translate material from the Israeli papers but don’t have journalists inside Israel?

Copies of the East Jerusalem-based Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds (archives).Credit: Emil Salman

“It’s not that we don’t have journalists. Our journalists are not allowed to work in Israel. Only someone with a Government Press Office card [from Israel] can enter, but mostly we are not issued cards. For example, every year only 10 to 12 cards are given to each paper. And even if you have a card and go to the Knesset, for example, you undergo a series of humiliations. Just like at Ben-Gurion airport.”

Do you get help from Israeli journalists’ associations?

“The associations don’t do anything if a West Bank journalist is unable to get to Jerusalem to cover an event. Even East Jerusalem journalists – who have a blue [Israeli-issued] ID card – encounter problems. The associations do nothing about the fact that no Palestinian journalist is allowed access to Al-Aqsa [The Temple Mount], or when journalists are detained, summoned for interrogation or aren’t allowed to use their cameras.

“There were many cases in which journalists from Al-Quds who were covering clashes between Palestinians and the [Israeli] security forces were attacked by the security forces. The Israeli forces beat them and broke their cameras, arrested a few journalists. Some were even wounded by rubber bullets or other weapons of the Israeli security forces, even though they are Jerusalem residents with a blue ID card. The association did nothing. Our request for authorization to cover Gaza was rejected.

“The associations help the government of [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu. After the interview with Lieberman, an Israeli organization told the International Press Association that we had been threatened by the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate. That’s not true. We were not threatened, only criticized.”

Throughout the interview, Omari makes the point that Al-Quds operates without PA restrictions, and that he is not subjected to pressure from other organizations. Apart from Israeli censorship, of course. “We advocate freedom of expression and freedom of religion, and we give a voice to the whole Palestinian political spectrum,” he says. “We are published in East Jerusalem, under Israeli rule, under Israeli law and under Israeli military censorship.”

Do you submit all your material to the censors?

“Not all of it. The censorship unit is like rubber: it depends who’s sitting on the other side. Every year we receive a notice stating that all stories relating to security and arrests have to be submitted to the censors. What is ‘security’? It’s a very broad term. But even if we submit something to the censors and they approve it, that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. We might still be summoned by the police.”

Do the police come to the editorial offices?

“No. But it happened a few times that they warned us in one way or another. Things are easier today.”

Are you subject to censorship by the PA?

“No. It’s important for me to make it clear that we, in contrast to Israel, do not have official censorship. Article 27 of the Palestinian Constitution enshrines freedom of the press and prohibits censorship.”

And does it work like that?

“In practice, it’s 90 percent like that. Occasionally people see something we posted in the digital edition and ask us not to put it in the print edition.

Which people?

“People who have a problem with a certain story try to ensure that we won’t publish it in the next day’s paper. Not official people.”

Do you not feel threatened by either the PA or Hamas?

“What do you mean by ‘threatened’?”

That your journalists are in danger.

Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a journalist for the East Jerusalem-based Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

“The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate publishes a monthly report about the behavior of the authorities on both sides, Palestinian and Israeli, toward Palestinian journalists. It’s also published in the PA. For example: on this date, a journalist was detained because of his work. And they condemn it. A journalist of ours was summoned for questioning once, 15 years ago. In recent years, not one of our journalists has been arrested or summoned for questioning or an investigation.”

But journalists from other papers are detained.

“Sometimes. When the PJS intervenes and asks why, they are always told that it doesn’t have to do with the person’s journalistic work but with other things, maybe criminal matters, I don’t know.”

Does Hamas arrest journalists?

“There are many reports about the arrest of journalists by Hamas, and they say the same thing: It’s not related to the person’s journalistic work but to something else.”

Still, Omari insists that he does not feel threatened. “The situation here is not so awful,” he says. “Mahmoud Abbas openly supports freedom of the press. Palestinian journalists feel freer than they did in the pre-Abu Mazen [Abbas] era. And you can read articles critical of the government in our paper and in other Palestinian papers.”

What about self-censorship?

“Every journalist exercises self-censorship. After many years of dealing with the Israeli censors, we know exactly what angers them and what words they don’t like, for which they will disqualify an entire article. So we try not to use terms that will cause the rejection of articles and reports. In addition, our social norms dictate what can be published. For example, reports about rape – that is a very sensitive issue for us. Not like in the Israeli media, where names and identifying details are sometimes published. With us, that leads to a war between families and clans. If I have to decide whether or not to publish details that will spark a war between two families or two clans, I don’t publish them.”

What else will you not publish?

“Uninhibited attacks on the Palestinian leadership or on other organizations. Or articles whose line is ‘Let’s [start] an intifada.’”

In other words, calls to violence.

“Yes. But if a political person expressed himself in a certain way, we report that he said so-and-so.”

Issues of terminology

Al-Quds uses the term “Israeli government,” but refers to the Israel Defense Forces as the “Israeli occupation army.” “One of the attacks on us over the interview with Lieberman was that we called him the ‘Israeli defense minister,’” relates Omari. “‘What defense are you talking about,’ people said, ‘it’s occupation.’ Sometimes we use a term such as ‘occupation government’ – for example, in the West Bank. We write, ‘Israeli finance minister’ and ‘prime minister of Israel,’ but we call everyone who is killed by the Israeli occupation government a shahid" – a martyr.

I ask him about terms such as “terror” and “terrorist attack.” “Those are negative terms,” Omari responds. They are used in coverage of the Islamic State group, but not to describe “actions of Palestinians against the Israeli occupation.” For that, the term “amaliya” is used, which is something like “mivtza” (operation) in Hebrew and doesn’t have positive or negative connotations. “Like your attitude toward Operation Protective Edge [in the Gaza Strip in 2014],” Omari says, by way of illustration. “We describe the event. We do not call it a ‘terrorist attack’ and we do not characterize it as good or bad. For many Palestinians, it is not terrorism but something legitimate: ‘There is an occupation, so I have to fight against it.’”

Is there no difference between violence used against civilians, settlers or soldiers?

“Personally, I am opposed to every action against civilians, whether from the Palestinian side or the Israeli side. But a settler is not a civilian: he is armed and he has militias.”

There are civilians with weapons inside the Green Line, too. Aren’t there categorical differences between actions against the army, against settlers, and against civilians?

“I don’t want to respond to that. From my perspective, if the two sides return to negotiations and revive the hope of Oslo, that will be preferable for both sides. I hope that, ultimately, Netanyahu and the right-wing government will recognize that with force, with occupation, with land expropriations and with home demolitions, they will not achieve either security or peace.”

Is the paper’s political line two states for two peoples?

The editorial offices of the East Jerusalem-based Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

“Yes. That is the official Palestinian line and also the people’s line. The majority of the Palestinian people believe in that line.”

But not Hamas.

“Hamas doesn’t constitute [even] 15 percent of the Palestinian people. What is Hamas? And who allows Hamas to hold this power and this status? The Israeli right. They are interested in telling the world that Abu Mazen does not speak in the name of the Palestinian people and that there is no partner.”

So the Palestinian people are behind Abbas, and Israel’s claim that he is weak is incorrect?

“Israel weakened him. Bibi [Netanyahu] did not allow Abu Mazen even one achievement. At the time the Oslo Accords were signed [in 1993], the Palestinians in the West Bank went into the streets with olive branches to distribute to the departing Israeli soldiers. We looked forward to another five years during which we would talk about the key issues – Jerusalem, settlements, water, borders, refugees – and then we would have an independent state. But what happened since then is the exact opposite. Israel expropriated more land, there are more settlers on the occupied lands, Israel demolished more homes. So when people look at the Palestinian government they ask: What did you accomplish for the Palestinian people? Security cooperation with Israel while Israel enters and leaves Ramallah every day, arrests people and demolishes as many homes as it wishes? And this at a time when the Palestinians have no freedom of movement in the West Bank and Gaza is under siege and a blockade is in place.”

Unrealized hopes

Amjad Omari was born in Baghdad in 1956. During Israel’s War of Independence, his family had been forced to flee from its Haifa home, made its way to Syria, and then to Jordan and the West Bank. They wanted to return home after the war but eventually lost hope. Omari’s father bought land in East Jerusalem and built a home for the family, where they moved. Due to the difficult economic situation, however, they went to Iraq so the father could find employment. Omari was born during the family’s few years spent in Baghdad. When he was 2, he and his mother returned to their East Jerusalem home, and he has been there ever since. He has held the status of Israeli resident since 1967 and holds a blue ID card. He does not want Israeli citizenship, though he is entitled to request it. In addition, he does not vote in Jerusalem municipal elections, even though he has the right to do so (though not in Knesset elections).

“It is not my municipality,” he explains. “I do not recognize the Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem. If I were to vote in the municipal elections, it would be as though I recognized the legitimacy of this situation.”

Omari studied journalism at Bir Zeit University and law at Al-Quds University. He has been with Al-Quds since 1986. He and his wife, Naja, are the parents of four sons and a daughter.

Would you expect Israeli Arabs to refuse to be represented in the Knesset?

“No. Their situation is completely different. They are living inside Israel, which we recognized in Oslo – within the 1967 boundaries – and they are an integral part of the Israeli population.”

These days the term “Israeli Arab” isn’t fashionable – the young people want to be called “Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

“True. Israel always tried to distinguish between Druze, Arabs, Circassians and Bedouin, but they are all Arabs. In your society, ‘Arab’ is a negative word. That’s why they refuse to be known as ‘Israeli Arabs.’”

According to Benjamin Netanyahu, what’s preventing us from achieving peace is the fact that the Palestinians are unwilling to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

“If Abu Mazen were to declare that he recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, would Netanyahu be ready to withdraw from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and implement a two-state solution?”

Why not put it to the test?

“The PLO recognized Israel. No country in the world has been called on to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”

But none of those countries has a territorial dispute with Israel.

“It’s a demand that’s meant to torpedo the peace process.”

Why not take that declarative step?

President Clinton presiding over the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.Credit: AP

“We recognized the State of Israel within the 1967 boundaries, and that is enough. Why recognize Israel as a Christian or Jewish state? That’s a religious issue. The Palestinians took many steps toward a just peace. When we recognized the State of Israel, we gave up the dream of greater Palestine. In Oslo, we recognized the UN resolutions, and the partition agreement [of 1947] talks about a Jewish state and an Arab state.”

But you rejected the partition agreement.

“In Oslo, the Palestinian leadership agreed that the just and comprehensive solution should be based on the UN resolutions, one of which is the partition resolution. If Abu Mazen were now to say, ‘Let us return to the UN partition resolution, not 1967,’ what would Netanyahu say?”

True, the discussion revolves around the 1949 lines, not those of the partition resolution.

“The Palestinians renounced the belief that all of Palestine is theirs, and courageous Israelis, like [Yitzhak] Rabin, also compromised on a partition according to the 1967 lines and UN [Security Council] Resolution 242. Now Netanyahu is putting forward more and more conditions. Even if Abu Mazen were to accept that demand, Netanyahu would come up with a new condition the next day. For example, for the Palestinian state to be demilitarized; or Lieberman would demand that all the Arabs be removed from Umm al-Fahm and from Wadi Ara and sent to the Palestinian state. We know that the vast majority in Israel are Jews. Israel is known internationally as ‘Israel,’ not as ‘Jewish state.’”

What do you have to lose?

“We examined many things with Netanyahu and lost a great deal. Why doesn’t Netanyahu declare that he is ready for a just solution, that he is ready to end the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in return for the Palestinians’ recognition of Israel as a Jewish state? If Netanyahu is truly interested in a peace agreement, that can be discussed and an agreement reached that will satisfy both sides. The real problem is that Netanyahu and the right wing want to go back to the pre-Oslo situation. That is why they are making every effort to weaken Abu Mazen and put an end to Palestinian rule. But they have a serious problem: Do they really want to be the second South Africa? Do they think that the international community will agree to that situation?”

It has so far.

“Because the United States thinks its interests are dependent on Israel and not on the Arab states and not on the Palestinian people, so it supports Israel. The Arab world is very weak. We have governments that are pawns in the hands of Washington and Europe.”

In recent years, the one-state solution has gained support in Israel. Do you see willingness among young Palestinians to solutions along those lines?

Amjad Omari, a senior editor at the East Jerusalem-based Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

“When Fatah was founded in 1965 and launched the struggle against the Zionist movement, they called for one secular state in which Jews, Muslims and Christians would live in complete equality. Who was against that? Israel and Arab groups. Fatah realized that it wouldn’t happen, so it agreed to the principle of dividing the country into two states. But things have changed since then. Israel is leaning rightward. We also have a movement that believes in one state. But both with us and with you, it’s a small percentage of the population.”

The Israelis believe they want peace and the Palestinians don’t.

“The absolute majority of the Palestinians supported the Oslo Accords.”

But at the same time there were terrorist attacks.

“True, there were attacks, but by marginal groups within Palestinian society. And there were also attacks by marginal groups within Israeli society. The settlers. There are opponents of peace on both sides. But the absolute majority of Palestinians and Israelis will support an agreement if there’s a genuine proposal on the table. All Israeli governments talk about peace, but also say that Jerusalem will not be divided, that refugees will not return, that settlement blocs will remain. Under the Oslo Accords, those issues are to be discussed and a final-status agreement is to be reached. Not one Israeli leader put forward proposals on these issues to a Palestinian leader that are acceptable to the Palestinian side.”

Aren’t you afraid that in each new diplomatic round, what’s offered will be less generous?

“If Israeli society is turning rightward for a certain period – I don’t know for how long – that doesn’t mean the Palestinians have to accept the terms of this or another government.”

In other words, you have patience.

“We have patience, and there is justice in the world. Legitimate rights are not for sale. You cannot negotiate and say, ‘Let’s give you 50 percent of them.’”

But does the struggle stand a chance? The international community talks a lot but is not pressuring Israel. The expectation that one day Israel will understand that it’s not just, or will decide on its own to do something, might not come to pass. Maybe this isn’t how things happen in history and additional action is needed?

“That means the Israeli side wants to force the terms of the Israeli right on the Palestinians? That we will make do with the big cities and some sort of self-rule, while Israel controls the borders and the economy? That is the continuation of the occupation under a different guise. No leader and no Palestinian will accept that. Like every other people, we need freedom: an independent state, a flag and Palestinian-Arab identity.”

And an army?

“An army, too. Why not? Israel deserves an army? So do we.”

And with right of return to Israel?

“Under international law, right of return is an individual right. Even if Abu Mazen were to tell you today that he is forgoing the right of return, under international law he cannot forgo my right to return to my village within the 1948 boundaries. It’s up to me whether I want to return or not.”

Many Israelis are afraid of the scenario of a Palestinian state alongside what’s known as a “state of all its citizens.”

“Why are they afraid? If there is a situation of equality of rights between Arabs and Jews in Israel, what reason do they have to be afraid? What you want does not exist anywhere in the world. There are Christians, Jews and Muslims in every country and everyone lives in peace. Everyone can become prime minister, they are not afraid of one another and they live peacefully. London elected a Muslim as mayor.”

Nationality and citizenship are equal there.

“There are many countries that have many peoples, and they live together peacefully and without any problem.”

Then why should there be a state that is only Palestine?

“Because the Jews here will never agree to a single state. In Palestine it will be possible for Jews to live and for Muslims to live. The Jew who remains in Palestine and has a different nationality – we are not afraid of him. Let him remain. We have Jews in Nablus who have been living with the Arabs for hundreds of years, and they are not afraid of one another and live peacefully there. It’s possible.”

That is exactly what the opponents of an agreement fear. Why is it not possible to declare that one state is for Jews and the other for Palestinians?

“When you say ‘Jews,’ you are speaking of religion. But what about the 1.5 or 2 million Palestinians who live in Israel and are citizens in every respect?”

“Jewish” does not refer only to religion. They are full-fledged citizens, but their national rights find expression in Palestine.

“What does that mean? To expel them?”


“Then what? Those who say ‘Jewish state’ – what will they offer the Arabs who lived in their homeland before the [Jewish] state was established? What are they being offered? To salute the Israeli flag and sing the Israeli national anthem? They have a different nationality. Are they therefore to be deported? Where will they live?”

Wherever they want.

“They want to stay there. In their homes, on their land. They do not want to leave – not to Palestine and not to Europe. Twenty percent of Israel’s residents are not Jews; how is a Jewish state compatible with a democratic state? Those who live in Umm al-Fahm or Sakhnin, those who were here before the State of Israel was established – how will they take it?”

Do you think that Abu Mazen’s refusal to recognize Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ is related to his commitment to the Palestinian minority in Israel?

“When you say ‘Jewish state,’ that means they don’t have the same rights as Jews, that it is not their country. It’s known that Israel is the state of the Jewish people. The whole world and the Palestinians know that every Jew from everywhere in the world can emigrate and settle in Israel. But don’t force me to say that it’s a Jewish state. For me, Judaism is a religion.”

The Jews’ fear is to remain without a place in the world; that if they are persecuted they will have no place to escape to. They are afraid that, under the right of return, a lot more than the current 20 percent will come here and the Jewish majority will be lost, with the result that the Jews will not have a state.

“If Israel recognizes the Palestinians’ right to establish a state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, it will be possible to find a solution for the refugees that will satisfy both sides. If the Palestinians are granted the right of return, I am certain that the majority of Palestinians will not come to Israel. They will prefer the Palestinian state over Israel. I understand the Jews’ fears, but that is not the main problem. For example, Jerusalem: What fears prevent you from withdrawing from East Jerusalem? What fears prevent you from accepting the 1967 boundaries with modifications here and there according to the existing situation?”

Beyond the territorial problems, there is a fear that is not related to Jerusalem or to percentages of territories. It is related to a general feeling that the Jews have to have a safe place in the world.

“But in the present situation, do the Israelis feel safe in the world? While continuing with the occupation, the settlements, the suffering of the Palestinian people, do they feel safer? That’s weird. A just peace between two countries with internationally recognized borders and cooperation and good will to make peace – that is what will ensure the future of Israel and the Jews, and also the future of the Palestinians in this land. The ‘Jewish state’ will not ensure the future.”

The next president of the PA

In the time that passed between the conversations I held with Amjad Omari, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Omari doesn’t think this will negatively affect the situation for the Palestinians. “There is no difference between Trump and Hillary Clinton or anyone else,” he says, “because their position on Israel and the Palestinians is clear and well known: they always back Israel.”

Nonetheless, this assertion doesn’t dismay Omari. On the contrary, he shows signs of optimism regarding the U.S. attitude to the Palestinian problem. “Maybe Trump will surprise us, because he is an interest-driven person. If at a certain point he feels that his interests, or those of the United States, are linked with Saudi Arabia or the Arab or Muslim world – he will alter the policy.”

At the same time, though, Omari expresses concern at the possibility of World War III. “If he dares to withdraw from the agreement with Iran, and Iran continues its nuclear efforts, that is liable to deteriorate into war.”

On the subject of the future of the Palestinian leadership, Omari is less speculative. “When Arafat was alive, a lot of people feared there would be chaos after he left. After his death, the Palestinians managed to choose a leader for themselves. Now, with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] either ending his term in office or dying, the Palestinians can choose a different leader.”

Although last week, Abbas was elected chairman of Fatah, his term in office [as president of the Palestinian Authority] has ended. Why haven’t there been elections?

“True, his term, as well as that of the Palestinian Legislative Council, has ended, but then you had what happened in Gaza, and the problems of the Hamas government and of the Ramallah government, and they still can’t agree on how to hold elections, and on what will happen next. The Israeli right wants the situation to remain as is, so that Israel can tell the world that there is no unified Palestinian voice, and that they are hurling rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip, and that they want to destroy Israel and who knows what else. By the by, Israel is carrying on conversations with Hamas under the table, and is sending them goods.”

And do you have any thoughts on who the next Palestinian leader will be?

A mural of jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, painted on the West Bank separation wall. Credit: Sharon Bukov

“If Abu Mazen leaves the political arena for whatever reason, Fatah’s Central Committee will select a leader for a period of time until the general election, in which the entire Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would take part.”

In Israel, we are hearing names such as Marwan Barghouti and Mohammed Dahlan, head of the Preventive Security Service in the Gaza Strip going back to the days of Arafat, who is despised by Abbas. There are rumors of a regional plan, in which Lieberman is involved, to crown Dahlan as the new leader.

“Barghouti is sitting in an Israeli prison, and therefore cannot be a leader in actual fact, even if he is elected.”

Mandela was also in prison.

“Yes, but Netanyahu is not like [F.W.] de Klerk.”

Would you be interested in Barghouti as the next leader?

“Every leader who favors the minimal conditions of making a just peace and providing a permanent solution to the Palestinian problem is acceptable to me. By the word ‘solution,’ I mean the establishment of a Palestinian state on the territory of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the capital of which would be East Jerusalem, based on the ’67 lines or minor revisions to them, and a solution to the refugee problem that is acceptable to both sides. The main issue is that the current Israeli government – and I have the feeling it will remain in place for another few years – is not interested in peace. They want occupation, settlements, Jerusalem.”

Is Barghouti admired by the Palestinian public?

“If Barghouti or anyone else were to lead the Palestinian people without gaining political achievements on the Palestinian problem – he would not maintain power and he would not have a popular base. When Arafat was the leader and he showed inflexibility on Jerusalem and the Al Aqsa mosque and the borders, Israel said he was irrelevant, and gambled on Abu Mazen. Abu Mazen – like every other Palestinian – cannot make concessions on the fundamental issues. So they began to weaken him, too. When army forces enter Ramallah every day to carry out arrests, when the suffering of the Palestinians in the West Bank continues, and when the economic situation is unstable – what can they say about Abu Mazen?”

I’m not talking about a plan to take him down, but about the day after.

“Even if Barghouti gets in and he is the leader of the Palestinian people, he would not be able to do anything different than what Abu Mazen is doing. He would not be able to make greater concessions than him.”

And Dahlan?

“Same thing. But as for Dahlan, I do not think that in the present situation he has the power to become president.”

Does he have a popular base?

“No. Fatah is the backbone of the Palestinian government. In terms of the backbone of Fatah – Dahlan is out. He is not a candidate.”

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