By Anayem Al-Tayeb | 11/03/2010
Manasra was born in 1943 in Bani Naim, a village near Hebron. After completing his secondary school education in his village, he began studying Islamic religious law in Damascus but left his studies before completing the program. In 1965, he joined the Fatah movement and, a short while later, traveled to Germany to study economics. In 1967, he returned to his homeland; however, the Israeli authorities banished him, sending him back to Germany. He resumed his studies in economics there and attended classes at Frankfurt University. In 1976, Manasra decided to go to Lebanon, where he contacted Fatah's senior command. In 1986, after being arrested in Jordan on the grounds of being involved in the planning of a military operation against Israel, he was banished to Baghdad. Ten years ago, he returned here as a member of the Palestinian National Council and was appointed governor of Jenin. From 2002 to 2003, he headed the Palestinian Authority's Preventive Security Service in the West Bank and served as governor of Bethlehem from 2003 to 2005. Today, Manasra is a member of the Revolutionary Council, Fatah's legislative body, and the PNC. He currently resides in Ramallah.
In his patterns of thinking and in the tone of his voice, Manasra is clearly a political strategist. Because of his sophisticated personality, he determined, to a large extent, the spirit of our meeting. He is not interested in delving into the minute details of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and he wants to skirt around the still painful scars of the history of the dispute between the two parties so that they can both move forward. Nonetheless, Manasra is concerned with analyzing the present situation in depth and is repelled by the superficial approach that the Palestinian media and Palestinian propaganda demonstrate toward key issues. He is an outspoken critic of the Palestinian leadership, especially his own movement, Fatah. Although he sometimes gets carried away when presenting his arguments, Manasra's answers are always focused and succinct.
How do you understand the history of the Jewish presence in the city of Hebron?
There has always been a Jewish presence in Hebron and it dates back to ancient times, just like the Christian and Muslim communities residing in that city. In antiquity, Jews lived in Palestinian villages, in Hebron and in other places in this land. It is clear that, when Islam came to Palestine, there were Jews living there. Although the Prophet Mohammed was in contact with Jews in Mecca and Medina, he himself did not set foot in Palestine. However, when the Muslim army arrived in Palestine, it found Jews living in various places among the Muslim residents. The Jewish presence in this land dates back to early times, but, it should be emphasized, those Jews were Palestinians. Just as there were Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Muslims and members of various minority groups whose homeland was Palestine, there were Jews here – Palestinian Jews.
So then, Jews are an integral part of Hebron's populace?
We have no quarrel with the Jews. They are welcome in any Palestinian home and any Palestinian city. But we do have a quarrel, a bitter one, with the settlers. Concerning all these settlements, which were created with the force of arms on Palestinian land, various international decisions have been made. The existence of the settlements is a major obstacle that stymies any possible international solution. The settlements cause tension and extremist behavior in the day-to-day lives of the Palestinian people – in Hebron and in surrounding cities.
Apparently, there is no easy solution to the issue of the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron.
The synagogue in the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs is new – in fact, it was built very recently. If you are talking about the right of Jews to pray in a mosque, which is also a holy place in their eyes – Abraham is both their father and ours – no one is denying them that right. However, in order to have free access to a holy place, you do not have to exert total control over that place. While we recognize the right of Jews to free access to all the holy places, we cannot accept the idea that this right should serve as an excuse for Israel to exert pressure so that it can control those places. If there is a mosque in Haifa, does that give Muslims the right to seize control of Haifa? Does the very fact that there is a church in Nazareth, where, according to Christian belief, Jesus lived, give Arab Christians the right to seize control of Nazareth? Do Christian Americans have the right to occupy Bethlehem, because that is where the Church of the Nativity is located?
There is a clear distinction between the religious right to worship God and the political seizure of control of a given place. I support the view that Jews should have every right to access all those sites that they consider holy, and, as Palestinians, we will guarantee their safety.
What, in your opinion, caused the disturbances of 1929?
First of all, let us be precise here and let us clarify what disturbances you are referring to. Otherwise, we might discover that your version is different from mine; and that will mean that we are actually talking about two different things.
Obviously, there are different narratives, and that is a substantive point when we talk about the history of Hebron. However, I am referring to the clashes between Jews and Arabs in 1929, in the course of which 66 Jews were killed.
The killing of innocent civilians is always an act that must be thoroughly condemned and it runs counter to our religious and ethical values. The reason for the violent confrontations in the course of that dispute was the struggle between, on the one hand, the different Zionist undergrounds and factions that were determined to expand the extent of Zionist territory in Palestine, and, on the other, the Palestinian Arabs who simply wanted to defend their lands. That conflict has given rise to many subsequent wars.
Where did the first serious clash between Jews and Arabs take place?
In Jerusalem, in 1917. Whenever the Zionist movements and Israel have tried to seize control of Palestinian lands, clashes have broken out between the two parties in all the various cities and villages – in Haifa, Jaffa, Akko (Acre) and Safed; in fact, these clashes actually erupted everywhere. I cannot recall the precise dates. Many massacres took place in the violent confrontations between the first Jews who arrived here, the British and the Palestinian Arabs. These massacres have not stopped even after the creation of the State of Israel – not even after the signing of the Oslo accords. Just think of the massacre conducted by Baruch Goldstein.
So you see the bloody incidents [in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict] only as historical events?
No, I look at all the killing and all the massacres that have been committed by both sides but I am not trying to formulate any strategic perspective from those incidents. Otherwise, it would be impossible to understand how, from 1993 to 1994, the two sides to this conflict, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the State of Israel, signed the historic agreements intended to end that conflict. We remember only too well all the massacres we committed against the Jews, and the Jews remember with great detail all the massacres they committed against the Palestinian Arabs. In signing the Oslo accords, we have set up a huge barrier designed to prevent any future massacres against either Jews or Arabs. We all must continue the peace process in order to demonstrate our love for our children and grandchildren. We are not interested in repeating the historic tragedies that have been experienced by our parents and grandparents.
I notice that you do not specify any of the individual events and that you do not attempt to be precise about any of them; in fact, you do not even mention when they actually occurred. Can one therefore conclude that the historical events – the incidents in which massacres and killing were committed – interest you less than the rationalistic, enlightened aspect of drawing conclusions from them?
The human, political and modern aspects are what interest me.
Islam is my religion, and it is also Hamas' religion. Islam offers us a way for building a modern society because it led us out of a period of darkness – the Jahalya (the pre-Islamic era, which was characterized by social chaos and by a tribal structure based on racism and the formation of separate groups in accordance with ethnic affiliation – A.A.) – into a period of progress. Hamas cannot deny my Muslim identity. The Hamas movement is trying to use Islam to justify its actions and it claims that Islam is the source on which it rests, because it wants to impose a reactionary vision on Palestinian society. Whereas I go to a mosque in order to pray to God, Hamas uses God and the mosque itself in order to impose on [Palestinian] society a reactionary social, political and economic vision. Islam is an enlightened religion that emphasizes the need for learning and for increasing your knowledge; we can see this emphasis in the Koran and in the traditions associated with the Prophet [Mohammed]. Islam was the first religion to declare that all individuals must be free and I will cite here the well-known saying of Caliph Omar Al-Khatib: “Why do you continue to enslave people who emerged from their mother's womb as free individuals?” This is what Islam stands for.
Then how do you view the religious Jews who currently live in Hebron?
That issue is similar to what is occurring among us: the exploitation of religious discourse to serve personal interests. I have heard from reliable sources that the descendants of the Jews who lived in Hebron in 1929 and who subsequently left came after 1967 to visit the city where their parents or grandparents had lived decades before. After meeting with the Jews who have settled in Hebron, the descendants said that there is no connection between the Jews who lived in Hebron in 1929 and the Jews who are living there today and they even added that these Jews do not represent them.
Is Hebron more important than Jerusalem?
Jerusalem, in its 1967 boundaries – I mean the section that is east of the Green Line – is a Palestinian Arab city and control over East Jerusalem must be restored to the Palestinians. There is no difference between Jerusalem, Hebron, Bani Naim and Jenin; they are all Palestinian cities. Jerusalem has a special importance because it is the capital of our country and it contains many places that are holy to us, whether we are Christian or Muslim Arabs. Even if we were willing to concede certain places, here and there, after the establishment of agreed-upon permanent arrangements between the two sides, we cannot make any concessions in Jerusalem.
Because of its religious importance?
Because of its religious, historical and cultural importance, and because it is the capital of the State of Palestine.
In West Jerusalem, we have property that was abandoned. We are prepared to concede that property but we are not prepared to concede the territories that Israel occupied in 1967. According to Resolution 242 [passed by the Security Council] of the United Nations, Israel must return East Jerusalem, because it is occupied territory. There are places that are holy to the Jews in East Jerusalem, and we will guarantee the Jews secure access to those places, just as we are demanding that the Jews guarantee our right to completely secure access to the places that are holy to us and which are located in Israel's territory.
We cannot end our conversation without a question related to the defeat your organization, Fatah, sustained at the hands of the Hamas party. How do you explain this defeat?
The political aim of the Fatah party is the liberation of Palestinian land from the Israeli occupation and the building-up of the Palestinian state in that area which has been specified by international decisions and by Arab initiatives and on the basis of the Palestinian state's declaration of independence. This is Fatah's political aim and initially it produced several successful results; however, the Fatah movement and especially its leaders were unaware of the immense responsibility resting on their shoulders. It soon became clear that the movement's leadership was too weak to meet its responsibilities. The Palestinian leadership, which is essentially the Fatah Central Committee, proved to be negligent in its maintenance of the movement, in the development of the movement's internal organization and in the renewal of the movement as a whole. This leadership did not allow the party to develop democratically and closed its doors to young people who wanted to formulate a new position. All this brought about a weakening of Fatah and led to a loss of the people's faith in the party and thus to the painful electoral defeat.
As a result of Fatah's defeat and Hamas' rise to power, a difficult, complex situation has been created, and the most painful aspect of that situation is that the present state of affairs has made life much easier for Israel. Now Israel finds it much easier to pursue its policy of denying and ignoring the rights of the Palestinian people, as can be seen, for instance, in the continuation of the construction of the fence [separation barrier], in the continuation of the siege on the Palestinian people, in the continuation of its policy of imposing a new reality through the establishment of facts in the field, facts that make the revolutionary solution of two states for two peoples an impossibility. This is the most painful aspect of our [electoral] defeat.
Israeli election propaganda makes it clear that the Israeli government has adopted the principle that we commonly dub in Palestinian society the “low wall” (symbol of Israel's aggressiveness toward the Palestinians and its perception of the Palestinian government as a weak regime – A.A.). Especially after the rise of Hamas to power, the Israelis are making every effort to develop programs that are aimed at strangling the Palestinian people and impeding its progress; [for example,] Israel refuses to transfer to the Palestinian government the tax money that Israel collects [and to which the Palestinians are entitled]. In addition, the Israelis are preventing Palestinian laborers and workers from obtaining gainful employment.
What are the goals that express the essence of your vision?
I want to consolidate, formulate and re-engineer the party's struggle for the establishment of a Palestinian state. The relics of the previous era, which was characterized by various popular uprisings, are an uncertainty and a vagueness concerning that struggle, specifically, linking it to the implementation of the Palestinian vision. Many hollow phrases have become rampant in the political discourse of the Palestinians in general, and Fatah in particular.
For instance, during that previous period, a vociferous debate erupted in Palestinian society over the question, “Do you or do you not support the struggle [for a Palestinian state]?” This was a ridiculous question, which masked and ignored the essence of the debate. “Is political activity an expression of the struggle or is it merely an expression of surrender?” – that is the question that should be asked. Personally, I believe that political activity is one of the methods for conducting the struggle and that, in certain situations, it is even more effective than military operations. The Palestinian people has to be persuaded that it must obtain its rights through international consensus, even though this is an extremely difficult process.
Four years ago, an Israeli-Palestinian group was formed and it flew to Geneva to discuss the issues involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The group arrived at an agreement that was called the Geneva Accord. The question that immediately arose was: “Does the draft of an agreement that includes a detailed vision for the solution of the dispute that you leaders have formulated, after having isolated yourselves at the Dead Sea, in Cyprus and in various places in Palestine effectively address the issues of the present situation?” The current reality is totally counter to the Geneva Accord. The daily patterns of the occupation leave no room for rationalistic thought. The lives of the ordinary citizen and the Palestinian leader under the pressure of the Israeli occupation do not allow the implementation of the ideas that rationalistic thinking produces. What can we expect from a person who lives in a refugee camp, from someone who is on the wanted list and is being pursued by the [Israeli] authorities? What can we expect from them? Can we honestly expect them to engage in rationalistic thought?
There is a huge difference between, on the one hand, collaboration between partners who find themselves faced with a problem related to the implementation of a signed agreement or one that is about to be signed, and, on the other hand, unilateral stubbornness that insists on imposing a solution based on the aggressive use of power. Nonetheless, it is important to note that all the surveys that have been conducted by Israeli statistical institutes indicate that a significant portion of the Israeli public – between 54 and 72 percent – favors a “two states for two peoples” solution.
Anayem Al-Tayeb is a poet, translator and scholar of Arabic literature