interview with Faisal Husseini
by Daoud Kuttab
Daoud Kuttab: How would you describe Palestinian-Israeli relations these days?
Faisal Husseini: Many political issues were considered taboo for both Palestinians and Israelis. These taboos are gradually disappearing: talking to the PLO was considered illegal; the thought of sharing Jerusalem with Palestinians, or the withdrawal from what was part of Greater Israel was intolerable. For the Palestinians, a two-state solution was inadmissible as was the idea of an interim period preceding statehood. These matters are more acceptable now, an indication that Palestinians and Israelis can change.
You meet with Israeli Minister of Police, Moshe Shahal, regularly. Have these meetings been productive so far?
So far, the meetings have not been regular. A step forward is often followed by some set-backs. We are sounding each other out; we are exploring possibilities for action. We have not been able to resolve any strategic issues on the ground. Some progress has been achieved in less substantive issues though. For example, we have managed to get the Israelis to partially lift restrictions on women, men over forty and residents of villages near Jerusalem wishing to go to Jerusalem. Having acceded to our demand, the Israelis then revoked their decision on security grounds. Finally, we have succeeded in having travel restrictions on women lifted, but men still need permits to enter into Jerusalem.
Is the Palestinian negotiating position stronger or weaker as a result of the Washington Declaration between Jordan and Israel?
Following the signing and all the Jordanian and Israeli statements attributing the responsibility for negotiating on Jerusalem to the Palestinians, I think this has been a positive development. In fact, we have succeeded in opening the Jerusalem file for discussions, and thus we have helped do away with remaining taboos.
How do you evaluate the work of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) shortly after its establishment?
When Israel withdrew from Gaza and Jericho, we were faced with an unusual situation. Jericho which was supposed to be the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, had no government offices, while in Gaza, offices were available for all the major governmental departments. Once this problem is dealt with, we have to turn our attention to the budget. Gaza, which generates little tax revenues, needs a great deal of money to be invested in it. The West Bank, on the other hand, which is richer and generates more income from taxes, is not under our control, with the exception of Jericho. Promises for grants by donor nations have yet to be fulfilled. Similarly, the much awaited Palestinian investment has not materialized. In fact, we seem to be caught in a vicious circle on this issue: Palestinian investors are waiting for the area to develop before financing any project there, while it is next to impossible to achieve any development without the injection of funds from the Palestinians in exile.
Secondly, the procrastination of Israeli negotiators, such as the delay in the release of prisoners and the absence of confidence building measures, has not been conducive in giving credibility to the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, some actions have even been outright embarrassing: a few days ago, a group of Palestinians were permitted to return, but when they reached the border crossing, they were stopped by the Israelis and denied entry.
You visit Gaza regularly. Are you satisfied with the progress of the Palestinian Authority there?
It is clear that the wheels have started to turn, and when I visit Gaza, I can see the progress on the ground. It is not going at the expected rate, but progress can definitely be detected in the solution of problems and the reduction of pain and suffering.
What is your official status in the Palestinian National Authority?
I head the Palestinian team to the peace talks as well as the steering committee for the Palestinian bilateral and multilateral talks. I am also the Palestinian representative in the Jerusalem committee with Israeli Minister of Police, Moshe Shahal, as my counterpart.
What about the National Authority?
I have no official post there.
What are the challenges facing Palestinians during this interim period?
Our top priority is to address the situation in the areas under Palestinian authority. Hard work is needed to build an infrastructure and a base from which we can expand the Agreement to include the other areas of the West Bank. We also have to resolve the various side issues that have not been settled yet, such as the issue of prisoners, deportees and the return of the displaced. Finally, we need to complete the return and the establishment of the PLO in Palestine.
What steps are you taking to prepare for the talks on the final status of Jerusalem?
We are working on a number of different fronts with the aim of obtaining the needed data about Jerusalem. We are looking at the geographic, demographic, economic, social and security issues. Maps are being drawn, and we are studying the various Israeli and Palestinian options.
Why have you not yet established a shadow municipal council in Jerusalem?
Various organizations are preparing different activities that will lead to practical steps in stemming Israeli actions in East Jerusalem. The Israelis are undermining the status quo and we have to prevent their attempts to change the situation on the ground before negotiations start.
Don't you think the time has come for someone to give all his time to the issue of Jerusalem? And don't you think you can be both a national leader as well as the leader of Jerusalem?
There is definitely a need for a number of people to concentrate all their efforts on the issue of Jerusalem. As far as I am concerned, I am trying to curtail my duties in all other fields so that I can devote all my time to Jerusalem. For this purpose, my responsibilities must be properly mandated and guaranteed, and the needed funds must be secured. We can't deal with the issue of Jerusalem as a media story. What we need is for all Palestinians, irrespective of their political affiliation, to unite over this issue. We need to isolate Jerusalem from all the inter-Arab maneuvers. We also need to mobilize Christians and Muslims from around the world for this issue. Jerusalem should interest Islamic countries as well as European, Latin American and North American people. Christians around the world need to be informed about the dangerous decrease in the number of Christians in Jerusalem due to emigration. Western countries, by and large, are very sympathetic to the issue of Jerusalem, but they are not very assertive in the face of Israel.
You are the head of the Fatah movement in the West Bank. What is your opinion of recent efforts to revitalize the movement by changing its by-laws?
The entire region is entering a new phase. It makes no sense to preserve the hierarchy which was in use when the movement was underground. The Fatah movement has taken upon itself the responsibilities of the new stage with all what this entails in the form of mobilizing the people. In order to do this, our movement needs to regain the allegiance of the independents who naturally lean towards Fatah. This requires new methods that allow the widest possible level of participation in decision-making which naturally means more democracy in the movement.
With the ban of An-Nahar Newspaper, do you think we are moving towards a police state?
What happened to An-Nahar,* and the manner in which it took place is unacceptable and reflects the nature of the transitional period. It still carries many of the remnants of the previous period which I used to call the militarization of the Intifada. Yes, I support the presence of laws and regulations as a framework operation. I also support the need for institutions to respect these regulations. But the regulations have to be clearly defined, and the institutions must have enough time to consider them. I am opposed to the haphazard way in which this matter has been dealt with.
is a pro-Jordanian East Jerusalem newspaper - ed.
Palestine-Israel Journal mourns the untimely death of Knesset Member Tawfik Ziyad, a man of letters and of political vision, who devoted his life to the struggles of the Palestinian people and to Arab-Jewish equality and peace.