Palestine-Israel Journal:There are soon to be elections on the Israeli side, Sharon has formed a new party, and there is a new Labor leader. How will this affect the overall political situation?

There is no doubt there have been some interesting political changes on both Israeli and Palestinian scenes. The new leader of the Labor Party is obviously someone who could play an important role in political life. There are now also expectations that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will form a new government, thus changing the entire political landscape.1 It is a dynamic situation; interesting changes are taking place, but, of course, it is very difficult to predict the final outcome. We have to wait and see; we have to keep a close watch on the changes and see how the results pan out.
On the Palestinian side, too, important elections are coming up [January 2006], with, for the first time, the official participation of Islamic groups. I think it is fair to say this is unusual in the region. We have maintained a clear and consistent position that elections should be open to all Palestinians and all political groups, irrespective of any reservations any party might have. Here again the political landscape will change. To what extent is not clear, though I expect the mainstream organization Fateh will keep its majority and will remain the main force in Palestinian political life. So, again, these are interesting times and we have to wait and see what will happen in the next few months.

There has been very strong Israeli opposition to specifically a Hamas participation in Palestinian elections. It poses an interesting point: if Hamas should put in a strong enough showing so that it cannot be ignored in the formation of a future government, this would seem to have very dramatic consequences.

As I said, we have held a very clear position vis-à-vis the right of every Palestinian to participate in elections and the right of every political group to do so. The Israeli position is an attempt to interfere in our internal affairs and probably to damage the democratic process; this is not acceptable to us. We have maintained that the participation of all forces is something healthy, useful to Palestinian society, and will strengthen the democratic process. Also, I think, it will impact the internal situation of Hamas itself. The transformation process, if you wish, will be encouraged by such participation.
Of course, we understand that there are certain decisions that must be taken along with a participation in the [Palestinian] Legislative Council. These include a clearer position on the broader ceasefire issue; a position on the existence of arms, especially in areas from which Israel withdraws; and, maybe, a stand regarding the targeting of civilians in Israel, which obviously violates international law. One has to look at such important matters from different perspectives - as ones who share the burden of fulfilling our responsibilities to the international community and under international law.
It's a complicated process, but we are doing good progress.

Do you think this is a process that is already underway? The mere fact that Hamas is participating would seem to be indicative of change.

That's true. We have to remember that in 1996 Hamas boycotted the elections and, in fact, I think there was some sort of fatwa against participation. So the decision to take part in the elections is in itself reflective of a major change. Nevertheless, matters are not going to stop here. This is a dynamic situation, and we will see further developments and further changes not only with regard to Hamas but with all other Palestinian groups. This is the nature of democracy.

The dynamics seem to have changed after the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. How do you see this has played itself out?

Personally I'm not very surprised. On the one hand, I believe what happened in the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank was an important development. It constituted a reversal of the colonization of part of Palestinian land. Settlements were removed; settlers were withdrawn; the army left from within Gaza, and this is important. Nevertheless, the political intention of Sharon and the Israeli government is clear in this respect. The context is not a positive one, although the act itself is important and positive.
This, in my opinion, explains the absence of solutions to very important elements pertaining to Gaza, at least for a long time to come, including Rafah, the airport, the seaport, the removal of rubble, the connection between the West Bank and Gaza. Recently, an understanding was reached on some of these issues which provides some kind of a solution. It's not perfect, far from it. Actually, I think it is structurally flawed. Nevertheless, we needed an agreement, we needed a solution, and we probably had to go along with what we concluded. The implementation, I think is going to be difficult.
The bottom line is that all this is linked with the political vision and the political intentions of the Israeli side, which does not appear to be genuinely striving to achieve a political settlement based on the two-state solution.

A two-state solution or a viable two-state solution?

They don't want a serious two-state solution. I believe that Sharon himself wants further disengagement in the West Bank leading to some cantons that could together form an entity within Israel that Palestinians might call a state, or even super-state if they wished. That doesn't make it a state. I am talking about a serious two-state solution, and this is not on Sharon's agenda.

One of the main criticisms by Palestinians of the disengagement was that it was unilateral, that it wasn't a step on the Road Map. What chances are there that the Road Map will start being implemented?

I hope it will, but I have my doubts. The main issue here is not the Gaza disengagement; it is the Israeli plans and activities in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Here, obviously, we all know that settlement activity still goes on, the construction of the wall still goes on, and so too illegal Israeli actions in and around Jerusalem. Against such a background, one cannot expect the resumption of the implementation of the Road Map.
On the other hand, I think the Palestinian side has to make of the settlements and the wall a central issue. You can't expect any progress toward peace, or toward the resumption of the peace process, including the implementation of the Road Map without a complete cessation of settlement activity and the construction of the wall. The two are incompatible. We have to make this our top priority. If we do obtain a halt to illegal activities, it would be a promising beginning and pieces would start to fall into place.

The key here strikes me as being a Palestinian strategy that focuses on the role of international parties, particularly the U.S. I think we saw with the Rafah agreement that the U.S. can be effective when it wants to. How important is the U.S. role in terms of pressuring Israel to cease its settlement building and the construction of the wall?

It's crucial. Not only the U.S. - the Europeans, the Russians, the whole international community, the Security Council if need be. It is very important; the question is whether they have the will to go along. This is our challenge, but we have to try.

Is there an alternative strategy beyond persuading the international community?

This is not the core of the strategy. The strategy, in my opinion, is to maintain a clear position that is understood by our own people as well as by the international community, and to maintain steadfastness in one's position.

In other words to say no…

If need be, to say no. And then you ask the world to come to your support.

How important are the PLC elections in this context, in terms of unifying the Palestinian position?

They are very important for Palestinian society, the political regime, and the future of the Palestinian people. Like it or not, some decay has permeated this political regime because of the absence of such elections and because of the void created by the demise of Yasser Arafat. It is true that we have been able to fill part of this vacuum, but it is also true that we couldn't accomplish all that is needed. Elections are, obviously, very important, and not having them is very dangerous.

It would appear that a real danger exists of confrontation between various Palestinian factions and the PA, and even within groups themselves, especially Fateh, where there seem to be deep divisions that often play themselves out on the street. What are your observations?

It's not really divisions. I used the term decay, but you could also use other terms: weakness of the social fabric, for instance, or weakness of the political regime. Both, in my opinion, are the direct result of Israeli policies and practices. The occupation, the extensive destruction caused by the occupying Israeli forces - this destruction targeted the economy, the security apparatus, and all aspects of life. Now, you have the wall, the direct Israeli interference.
This is not only occupied territory; it is occupied territory that has been subject to colonization for quite a long time. The Israelis to this day are not behaving as occupiers but as colonizers and this by necessity means negating our national existence. They are the strong party, so you can imagine what they have done to the Palestinian side. Many of the negative phenomena we now see originate from this basic fact. This, I think, is the central problem, not political divisions. On the contrary, I see more convergence than division now in the political position.

This issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal is on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Perhaps you could say something about how this conflict feeds Islamophobia and anti-Semitism here and around the world?

Of course, the conflict feeds these things. What the Israelis do clearly causes an increase in anti-Semitism, at least among those who believe in the justness of the Palestinian cause and feel with the Palestinian people. Now, this is probably a mix-up on the part of these people between what Israel does and what Jews do or feel. It is an unfortunate fact.
And then, the reaction of the Palestinian side, including some illegal tactics such as targeting Israeli civilians, feed Islamophobia. Gradually, these acts have come to be linked with Islam. Again, this is wrong, but it is also an unfortunate fact.
It seems to me that this conflict has an important impact on many issues around the world, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Let me add something though. The tactics of the Israeli government is not helpful to effectively fight anti-Semitism. Some Israeli circles are trying to link political positions vis-à-vis the conflict and vis-à-vis Israeli policies and practices with anti-Semitism. This is extremely dangerous and must be condemned and rejected.

It also appears to be a very effective political tool in America in particular.

In America in particular because of a lack of knowledge, unfortunately.