Occupation must end, says Palestinian PM
Occupation must end, says Palestinian PM
Hamdallah is articulate and is a major proponent of Palestinian unity. “Unity is essential to end the occupation,” he said in an exclusive interview with Arab News. He was in the Kingdom to attend the extraordinary meeting of the foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Jeddah. He made an impassioned plea to the international community to help liberate Palestine.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: Mr. Prime Minister, you head a Palestinian unity government. What are the challenges you and your government face as a result of the latest Israeli onslaught on Gaza?
A: Let me first take this opportunity to thank Saudi Arabia and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah for his support and unyielding stance on Palestine. This is not something surprising since Saudi Arabia has always stood by us. The Kingdom has been at the forefront of the Palestinian cause. I am very grateful for the $500 million pledge announced by Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal toward the reconstruction of Gaza and the contribution of SR300 million by King Abdullah toward medical relief for Gazans. We highly appreciate the Saudi leadership and the Saudi people for standing shoulder to shoulder with us during all our difficult times. Going back to your question …
Q: About the challenges and the significance of the OIC meeting?
A: The OIC meeting was extraordinary. It was the second meeting in less than a month. This indicates the importance the organization attaches to the Palestinian cause. The stand that the OIC took this time was extremely helpful. This meeting was important since many ministers and representatives from all over the Muslim world attended. The decisions that were taken at the meeting are very important for us Palestinians. With one voice, the Muslim world asked the international community to intervene and stop Israeli aggression against Gaza. It called for documenting the crimes against humanity which Israel committed. There was a unified stand denouncing Israeli actions in Al-Aqsa. Israel is trying to divide the holy mosque between Muslims and Jews. This is very dangerous and alarming. The UN Security Council was reminded of its duties in implementing its resolutions on Palestine. I would like to thank OIC Secretary-General Iyad Madani for convening the meeting, and I am grateful to Prince Saud Al-Faisal for chairing it.
Q: What about the immediate need for help in reconstructing and rebuilding Gaza?
A: All the countries decided to attend the donor conference for the reconstruction of Gaza to be held in Egypt in early September. They all promised to contribute to the Gaza reconstruction fund. I also met Islamic Development Bank President Dr. Ahmad Mohamed Ali. He will attend the donor conference in Egypt and is expected to announce the IDB’s contribution for Gaza reconstruction.
Q: One major focus of the meeting was the unity government that you head. What is the significance of the coming together of all Palestinian factions?
A: All countries acknowledge our government. It is a consensus government that has been backed by all Palestinian factions, including Fatah and Hamas. All our ministers are technocrats. They do not belong to any faction. President Mahmoud Abbas approved the formation of this government. This government has been tasked with the reconstruction of Gaza. All countries of the world recognize us. When I say all countries, I mean all countries, except Israel.
Q: Except Israel?
A: Yes. Israel was against the formation of this unity government from Day 1 because they don’t want unity. They always wanted to separate Gaza from the West Bank. They did not even allow my ministers who live in Gaza to come to the West Bank for the swearing-in ceremony. We had to conduct the swearing-in ceremony via videoconferencing.
Q: What does Israel want?
A: They don’t want Palestinian unity. They want us to remain divided so that they can follow a divide-and-rule policy. When we were in negotiations with the Americans, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “Who will be in charge of Gaza if we reach an agreement with the Palestinians?” Now when we Palestinians are united, he says that our unity government is an obstacle toward a peaceful settlement. Netanyahu wants this government dismantled. He is using this as a pretext to stall any advancement toward peace.
Q: Now that there is a cease-fire in Gaza, what next?
A: We have many challenges to overcome. We cannot travel to Gaza, as ministers or as prime minister. Israel has completely stopped our movement. We cannot hold any meeting there. The other issue is that we still do not have full authority over Gaza. Hamas has not extended the kind of cooperation that was expected of them. In a sense, that is understandable because we are talking about differences that have accumulated over seven acrimonious years. But we are determined to unite the country, unite Gaza and the West Bank, and to work as a sovereign government that can run its writ over the entirety of Palestine.
Q: You are saying that Hamas has not been fully cooperative with the unity government headed by you, Mr. Prime Minister. What are its reservations? Is there any particular sticking point?
A: Hamas wanted to pay salaries to the people they appointed after 2007 (the year in which Hamas seized control of Gaza). They appointed nearly 50,000 employees. From Day 1, we told them we don’t have resources. We are trying to find a solution to this issue. A legal and administrative committee was formed to look into the matter. Until the committee makes its decision and recommendations, I hope we can find resources from donor countries to pay social benefits to these people. As I said, we have no resources to pay these people. This is a sticking point up until now.
Q: So you are hopeful of finding a solution?
A: Yes, with help from donor countries. I must tell you that we are running into a big deficit. Our deficit for 2014 is about $1.550 billion. We have to find resources to solve the issue of these 50,000 Hamas-appointed employees.
Q: Did the disunity in Palestinian ranks encourage Israel to attack Gaza?
A: Israel has attacked Gaza many times. In 2008, 2012 and now 2014. Our division always served Israeli interests because they always used it as a pretext for not moving toward a peace settlement. Since all factions back it, this government now has an excellent opportunity to move forward, to unite the country and reconstruct Gaza. We should not miss this opportunity.
Q: When was the last time you visited Gaza?
A: It was in May last year.
Q: What is the scene in Gaza now? During your address at the OIC, you painted a very heart-rending scenario.
A: Gaza has been under siege for more than seven years now. There is a humanitarian disaster. There is no electricity, no water, no sanitation, no infrastructure — nothing. Absolutely nothing. Gaza has suffered three Israeli onslaughts as I mentioned before. This aggression was the worst. Nearly 2,000 Gazans were martyred. Around 10,000 have suffered injuries. More than 30,000 homes, mosques and churches have been destroyed. Gaza is suffering. When you put someone in an open-air prison, what do you expect? It is a disaster.
Q: Gaza is an open-air prison?
A: It is. You talk about 1.8 million Palestinians who have no access to the outside world. They can’t move out. If they want to move to other places, they have to seek permission and this permission may take months to get. Gaza is under attack from the air, from the sea, from the land. This uncivilized and unprecedented aggression has added immensely to the people’s suffering. I hope once this war is over and a permanent cease-fire is reached, we can move toward rebuilding lives in Gaza. We want to reconstruct the Gaza airport, seaport. Now is the time for the international community to liberate Palestine – and to help end this occupation.
Q: Is there any estimate of the total cost of reconstructing Gaza?
A: We are still counting the costs. A Cabinet committee has been established. We are working with international agencies. Before the end of this month we will have the rough estimates. But, for sure, it will run into billions of dollars.
Q: There are voices within the Palestinian diaspora and the international community that after all this destruction, nonviolent resistance should be given preference. What is your take on that?
A: We are looking for a peaceful settlement to end this occupation. We believe that nonviolent resistance is our way. I must say that we, President Abbas and my government, believe that nonviolent resistance is a good way to get rid of this occupation. We have a good example in India with Gandhi and South Africa with Mandela. Their nonviolent resistance is a good and successful model.
Q: Is it getting any support?
A: You have got to understand that we are not equal to Israel in terms of military might. Look at what has happened in Gaza. Nearly 2,000 Palestinians were killed. Casualties on the Israeli side are only in double digits. There is no balance of power. Israel has been using massive ammunition and aerial bombardment. This is why I think we should use nonviolent resistance in order to achieve independence and freedom.
Q: Mr. Prime Minister, there are many out there who lose hope after seeing the carnage in Gaza and the babies being killed. Did you lose hope?
A: No. We should never lose hope. A Palestine state will prevail — shall prevail. We have been under occupation for decades. We have a just cause. When we went to the United Nations in 2012 seeking non-permanent membership, we received the support of 138 UN member states. That is incredible. We have been under occupation since 1967. This is the longest occupation on Earth. We should not, and we will not, despair. The whole world is behind us. Look at what happened during the attack on Gaza. All people in all countries, even in Washington and London, took to the streets in our support — all European countries, Arab countries, Muslim countries, Pakistan and India. Hundreds of thousands of people came out in our support. We are grateful to all those nations and their people for their support to our cause.
Q: What role has Egypt played during this crisis?
A: The Egyptians have done their best in brokering a cease-fire. We fully support their initiative.
Q: There is a section that believes that Palestinians would have been better off to accept the Egyptian cease-fire initiative when it was floated the first time.
A: Yes, I wish Hamas had accepted the Egyptian cease-fire initiative in the early days of the aggression. We could have saved thousands of precious lives. All factions accepted the same proposal in the end. So, yes, it was a missed chance, but what has happened has happened.
Q: You quoted from the famous last sermon of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) while concluding your address to the OIC ministers. What is the responsibility of the Muslim world toward Palestine?
A: When we talk about Palestine, Palestine is a Muslim country; it is an Arab country. Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site for Muslims, after Makkah and Madinah. So we wanted to tell our brothers that Palestine is not the sole responsibility of Palestinians. It is the responsibility of everyone to help liberate Palestine through peaceful means.
Q: Final comments?
A: I would tell my friends that we Palestinians have excellent human resources. We have excellent natural resources. We have gas, discovered in 1998 in Gaza, but we are not allowed to extract it. We have petrol in the West Bank, which we cannot drill. I would tell you, if we are given a chance to live in an independent Palestinian state, I am sure we can turn Palestine into the Singapore of the Arab world because we are rich in human resources. We have engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs. We Palestinians have built the infrastructure of many countries in the world by our hard work. We are ready to build our country. But first, this occupation must end.