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Journalists Rula Jebreal and Issandr El Amrani on Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Hamas and Palestinian Authority

Web ExclusiveApril 27, 2011
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Democracy Now! hosts a conversation between Palestinian author Rula Jebreal and Egyptian journalist Issandr El Amrani about the continued uprisings in the Middle East and Arab attitudes toward the U.S. Jebreal talks about growing up in Haifa and her autobiographical novel Miral, and El Amrani discusses the effects of the “Arab Spring” on Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue our conversation with Rula Jebreal — she is an author, a journalist, TV host on television, Italy, now living in New York. Her book Miral was just made into a film by Julian Schnabel. It is called Miral. And we are also joined by Issandr El Amrani, who blogs at Arabist.net. They are both here in New York for an event that’s taking place tonight.

Continue with what you were saying, Rula Jebreal, as you talk about the state of Israel and Palestine today. You, yourself — talk about your own history, where you were born.

RULA JEBREAL: I was born in Haifa, and I lived in Jerusalem. After my mother committed suicide, I lived in an orphanage. And I learned writing and reading, and I learned that through books I can really open my mind, and make me become critical thinker and ask many questions.

In 1987 — what you saw in Tahrir Square in January now, 2011, it happened in Ramallah in 1987, when I was 15 years old. People went in the streets, and they asked the same things: freedom, democracy and a life with dignity. And that led to the Oslo Agreement. That led — there was a lot of oppression, that was, you know, the military answer, the usual way they answer — killing people, arresting them. I was one of the people that was arrested and tortured. But in the end of that tunnel, we had the Oslo Agreement, which is a peace agreement that took place in 1993 in Washington, in the White House, between Arafat, Rabin and Bill Clinton.

Unfortunately, that didn’t lead anywhere, because it was never implemented. But it was an open box, and it was an open opportunity to both sides to understand that they have no choice. Either they have one country for everybody, where we have all the same rights, or two countries. But it has to be really two countries. And the wall that we are all talking about here in the United States, nobody understands that the length of the border between Israel and Palestine is 370 kilometers. The length of that wall is 800 kilometers. That means it’s double, it’s triple. That means it’s just annexed more lands. It doesn’t mean — it doesn’t have the function of a separation fence. It just goes inside annexed settlements. And that left on the ground only four percent of the Palestinian land. It means that we’ll have only one choice and one option on the table: it’s one country.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you describe what happened in Tahrir in relation to what has happened in the Occupied Territories? Was there an equivalent at some point?

RULA JEBREAL: Absolutely, absolutely, because what you saw in Tahrir Square, women and men — all the women, men, girls, kids, whatever. I mean, I talked with Nawal El Saadawi, who’s my hero in a way. She’s 70 years old. She was in Tahrir Square, sleeping for three days, screaming for freedom and democracy, screaming for change, recalling the regime to their responsibility, saying we want to be protagonists in our lives, in our country. We don’t want to be guests. This is what the Palestinians said in 1987 — women, men, children — in, actually, in another square in Ramallah, Liberation Square in Ramallah.

AMY GOODMAN: In Tahrir Square.

RULA JEBREAL: In Tahrir Square in Ramallah, the same name — and same history, in a way. The Israelis sent the militaries. They tried to break it down, to break the spirit of that movement. The fact that it didn’t lead anywhere, it created more extremists, and it created more confusion. Hamas came out of that experience stronger, because the option that was left there is not political option. When you — if you give the only answer, a violent answer, that will empower extremists and actually will break down the spirit of the movement. The original spirit of the movement is nonviolent movement, but then it turned something else.


ISSANDR EL AMRANI: If I may just go back to something that Rula said earlier, I think the Arab Spring, whatever you want to call it, is a much bigger challenge, actually, to Israel, I think. I mean, it does threaten, because, you know, even though here in the U.S. Israel is usually referred to as a democracy —- and, you know, I wouldn’t call it a democracy. It’s not. It’s a democracy for Jews. It’s a second-class democracy for Israeli Arabs. And it’s an autocracy, a military dictatorship -—

RULA JEBREAL: It’s a regime.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: — for the people living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. So I do think that. And we’re seeing it already in Egypt. We’re seeing that the government, the military council, has to incorporate this public demand for — not for war against Israel, but for holding Israel accountable, for Egyptian foreign policy to be — to match the values of solidarity with Palestine. I think this is going to be a rising problem both in Israel’s relationship with its neighbors in the Arab states and in — for Israel’s image in the world. I mean, if, hopefully, Egypt and other countries do become functioning democracies, Israel will no longer be able to hide behind the fact that, yes, it is not only a more advanced, wealthier country, with a better economy and so on, but with a functioning parliament and so on — it won’t be so unique anymore. I mean, this is why — one of the reasons — what’s happening in the Arab world now doesn’t just change the domestic politics of the Arab countries; it changes the entire regional power structure. It changes America’s role in the region. It changes the Europeans’ role in the region. It changes the whole international perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, potentially.

RULA JEBREAL: And the game of power.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: It’s still quite early, but if we’re looking at this over five years, over 10 years, it’s, you know —

RULA JEBREAL: I think we should meet in September. September, the Palestinian state will be accepted as a member in United Nations. The votes are already done. I mean, more than 100 countries in the General Assembly already decided that the vote will go. That means Israel will be accountable, legally and diplomatically, for whatever they do from September on inside the West Bank. That means Palestinians can have an army. That means that Israel is not only not the only democracy; it has to face legal issues within their system and abroad.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the Israeli government officials going to Egypt, Cairo, for the first time with the new government, the temporary government, a few weeks ago.


AMY GOODMAN: Do you know about this? In the United States, it was described in the networks as the Egyptian government reading the Riot Act to Israel and saying, “It’s not going to go on like it used to go on, and you have to recognize the Palestinians.” Is this true?

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: No. I think the meeting was — from what I’ve heard of it — was much more routine. You know, obviously both governments have professional diplomats, and, you know, they had a meeting, I think. It was important — one of the first actions that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces did in Egypt was to —- one of its first declarations was that previous treaties will be respected. This was a signal to -—


ISSANDR EL AMRANI: — Egypt’s strategic ally, the United States, as well as Israel, just to say, you know, “We’re not crazies. We’re not going to go to war against you. We’re not going to abandon Camp David.” But further down the line — I mean, right now there’s a military government, and the military in Egypt has a 25-year relationship with the U.S. Army, gets $1.3 billion a year, definitely has a lot of interests to preserve, and Camp David is one of those interests.

But further down the line, as a democratic government hopefully emerges, I think that relationship is going to be put under stress. And it’s not just an Egyptian-Israeli one. It’s an Egyptian-American-Israeli one. I don’t think that it’s going to go towards a hostile confrontation, but I think we’re going to see Egypt probably play a much more active role. I mean, for instance, any day now, if it hasn’t happened already, there will be the first shipment of concrete through Egypt, through the Rafah Crossing, to Gaza.


ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Since the Gazans have been denied most heavy-duty construction materials ever since the 2009 war. Already, probably a lot of the Quartet demands on the Hamas government in Gaza are going to be probably ignored by the Egyptian government. It’s going to change the — it’s going to change the international approach to Israel-Palestine.

The other thing is, perhaps this is worth mentioning, is that Palestinians are planning to hold their own uprising, the Third Intifada, on May 15th. Now, we don’t know how successful this is going to be. Obviously, they’re working under terrible constraints. But this intifada is not just against the Israeli occupation. It’s also especially against the Fatah government —

RULA JEBREAL: Fatah corruption.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Mahmoud Abbas government. And, you know, the power of example —

RULA JEBREAL: It’s actually against three things: Hamas —

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Of course, and Hamas, too, yes.

RULA JEBREAL: — corruption and the military presence within the West Bank, the Israeli one.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Yeah. The most fragile is probably the Palestinian Authority government.

RULA JEBREAL: But the Israeli media already covered it, saying it will be very violent, it will be with rockets, it will be with weapons. And what you read in the blogs is actually women unions are the one that organizing them, and they are the one that are open to the nonviolent solution. And they have already relationship with Israelis, that they abandon the army.

So what you see is, everybody’s scared of what’s happening, but what’s happening actually will force finally Israel to — you know, for one year and a half, we heard Bibi Netanyahu saying, “Yes, I will resume peace talk. I will resume peace talk.” We’ve been hearing this since Rabin was killed. When Rabin was killed, the last words he said, “I am making peace, not talking about it.” The key word was “making.” “Making.” Nobody else that followed him — and seven prime ministers came after him — none of them did any concessions of any kind. They said, “We did, we did, we did.” Nobody ever did. The truth is now maybe Netanyahu, for the first time from his presence in the office, will try to do something that will try to save him, because for now he tried to save his coalition and his position as a prime minister. That’s what he cared about: his personal agenda, his seat. Now he cannot do this anymore, because the risk around Israel is so high, and not in terms of security, in terms of isolation, because for the first time they are seeing that what’s happening around them will influence the region, definitely.

They are talking about Syria. Syria, it has an uprising, too. You know, they were scared of Assad, but Assad, for 40 years — then they occupied the Golan Heights — there was never a bullet shot in that area. Never. So it was quiet. And now they are scared that Assad will go away, even though he was the enemy.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: I mean, the garrison state strategy of Israel can’t continue. That’s the lesson. I mean, it might be able to continue when all the regimes around it, autocratic regimes who are focused on domestic stability and repression, but in this —- and the Middle East, you know, is, as we’re seeing, just changing completely, and we’re not sure what the final shape is yet. It -—

RULA JEBREAL: But Avraham Burg said it for Israel. He was the president of the parliament, of the Knesset. And he wrote a beautiful article in Ha’aretz saying Israel have a vital choice today, crucial choice: is there to be democracy, a real democracy, that means we have to withdraw from the occupied territory —


RULA JEBREAL: — 'til the last outpost of settlement and settlers and military, or we will disappear. We will disappear, because the communities disappear. And he wrote it in an article. Communities disappear, and I'm not really sure that Israel, the way we think it, will exist in the long term.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: This ambiguity, I mean, just for instance, about the borders. What are Israel’s borders? The Israeli government has never said. It’s never said — you know, it argues over the '67 borders. It says it wants maybe, you know, land swaps or things like that. But, you know, some, including cabinet members in Israel, would like to see much more, would believe the whole of the West Bank or Judea and Samaria are part of Israel. I mean, this ambiguity can't last, you know? It’s an abandonment of [inaudible] security.

RULA JEBREAL: The Arab voice is heard even in the Knesset. The Arab voice is shaking even the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, because now, for the first time, every day inside the Knesset, they debate about what’s happening in Libya, what’s happening in Tunisia, what’s happening in Egypt, and what’s happening in Syria. And now they are not sure that Assad is really an enemy, and maybe he should stay there. Maybe they can help him some kind of way so he can stay here. So what’s happening is you’re seeing the incoherent position that Israel held for so long, for a long time, that irreasonable position, and that has absolutely to change. And it will change.

AMY GOODMAN: Issandr, the poll that I read before, the Pew poll, it said two-thirds of Egyptians are optimistic about their country.


AMY GOODMAN: It goes on to say — let’s see — 52 percent of Egyptians disapprove of how President Obama has dealt with this year’s political uprisings in the Middle East, with a plurality of those saying he showed too little support for change. And 54 percent of Egyptians want to annul the peace treaty with Israel, compared with 36 percent who want to maintain it. Preservation of the treaty is a major priority of Israel and the U.S. government.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Mm-hmm. On the question of rating Obama’s performance on this issue, I mean, I think you can’t help but notice, you know, when Secretary Clinton came out in the very early days and said Egypt is stable, that they got it wrong. And they were — I think, in a sense, the Obama administration is still catching up. It’s overwhelmed. It’s clearly overwhelmed by what’s happening region-wide, not just in Egypt. And it’s because — because, you know, as I said, it’s not just about the domestic politics of this country. It’s a fundamental questioning of the U.S.-driven strategic shape of the Middle East that’s existed since the 1950s. And the Obama administration is hesitating, I think. The foreign policy establishment in the United States is hesitating. You have a military establishment and diplomatic establishment that’s so used, for so long, to working a certain way, it doesn’t know what the new Middle East is going to look like. So, partly it’s because it’s a failure of imagination, perhaps. But partly it’s also, you know, we have this huge national security and foreign policy bureaucracy in the United States that’s slow to adapt. Obama put himself in a particularly tough pickle because of the Cairo speech and this aspirational talk about democracy and so on, and whereas democracy — where, you know, the U.S. is being very quiet in Bahrain. You know, we saw earlier, as you saw Susan Rice, strong words on Syria, but Bahrain is where people are being kidnapped in the middle of the night.

AMY GOODMAN: And Saudi Arabia is helping.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Oh, of course, and with Saudi Arabia. So it’s all open for us to see, this schizophrenia in American foreign policy. You know, it’s been the story over the last decade, especially on the democracy promotion issue, is that you — the United States has been vocal about democracy promotion, but in practice really what it’s encouraged is incremental reform. And we saw what most of the Arab people want is not reform; they want rupture. They want something — a radical break.

RULA JEBREAL: And also there’s — about the American perception in the Arab world, there’s one issue that — if you talk to a Tunisian person, they will tell you, you know, “Our mind is in the West, because of the literature, because of the art, the culture. But our heart is in Palestine. And until the United States doesn’t change their policy and their double-standard policy in that region, in that place, we will never freely totally love the United States.” If you ask any Arab person walking in the street in any country, even in Bahrain, even pro-government, against government in Libya, anywhere, they will tell you, “You know what? They are — they use double standards toward Palestinians, and the unjust policy that they’re using there and support, the blind support for Israel, is what’s damaging the United States today in the Arab world.” That’s one of the major issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Rula, the Israeli government will say that Israel is a democracy for Israeli Arabs. That is —

RULA JEBREAL: I have an Israeli passport, and I never really —

AMY GOODMAN: And so, can you talk about that?

RULA JEBREAL: Well, unfortunately, it’s very tough to talk in New York, because of the Jewish lobby and because of the Jewish also consideration for Israel. It’s like touching barbed wire. Touching this argument in this country is touching electricity. And that’s the truth. And the media have a very clear idea that Israel is only the victim, and Palestinians are all the criminals, fanatics, whatever. But what Israel is applying is a system, where if you’re a Jew, you have full rights, even before — even when you — even if you are born in Brooklyn. If you’re a Palestinian and you’re born in Jerusalem, like my sister — I was born in Haifa, because my mother was from Haifa. By coincidence, I got a passport. My sister, who was born in Jerusalem, she doesn’t have a passport. She actually has a laissez-passer, they call it. It’s a travel document. So she’s not citizen. And we are the same family, same parents. This is the state of Israel. So I have certain rights, but she doesn’t have any rights at all. My rights are — cease to be rights when it comes to national security. I go to demonstrations, nonviolent ones, just to say, “No corruption in Israel” or “No abuse of power” or “No use of power against children in the West Bank and Occupied Territories.” These rights will cease to be my rights immediately. And I saw it when I was a teenager in the Occupied Territories. I used to go to teach children how to read and write. I was beaten so many times by the police. They would grab my hair. They would, you know, use their stick on me and all kind of harassment, simply because I told one of the soldiers not to arrest a kid. He was trying to arrest a kid that was 11 years old. The kid was terrified, so I tried to take him away from him. Or other things. Just being in a simple manifestation, you cease to have any rights, if you are an Arab. One of the demonstrations in the village, inside of Israel, near Haifa, in 2001, the Israeli soldier killed 13 people, 13 Israeli citizens that were Arab. They were shot in that manifestation. So, you know, when it comes to certain details, Israel is really not a full democracy when it comes towards Arabs.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds. Why did you choose to write your life as a novel, calling yourself Miral?

RULA JEBREAL: Miral is my daughter, actually. It’s the name of my daughter. I wanted to hand her the baton. So she can read my story. She have — or what other girl, she can process information. And because I cared about that orphanage. That orphanage saved my life, saved the life of thousands of girls. Today it’s almost empty. There’s only 30 girls, and not because of there is less orphans, simply because there’s a wall that forbids to go — to come from West Bank and the Occupied Territories and Gaza to this orphanage. One of them, her name is Amina, she wrote on her Facebook that she will marry a man that’s 39, and she’s only 14, because he can feed her and feed her grandmother. Does that really guarantee security for anybody?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, and I thank you so much, both, for being with us. I look forward to your event tonight at the 92nd Street Y. Rula Jebreal’s new book is called Miral. Issandr El Amrani is an Egyptian journalist. He blogs at Arabist.net, writes for publications around the world. Thank you so much, and I look forward to seeing you in the future and interviewing you again.

RULA JEBREAL: Thank you for having us.

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