You are now assistant deputy minister of culture. Would you have obtained your present position without the Intifada and your participation in the negotiations?

During the Intifada, Palestinians tried to find the means to explain to the Israelis why there was an Intifada. What I did, along with others, was to address the Israeli society in the strong belief that the only way to chal¬lenge the Israeli government is through its own constituency. I participat¬ed in many of the dialogues which took place between Israelis and Palestinians. As a result, when the negotiations began, I was asked to par¬ticipate. But in fact, I had engaged in dialogue with Israelis at home and abroad even before the Washington talks.

Why is there only one female minister in Yasser Arafat's administration?

The Palestinian government is no better than other Arab countries or the rest of the world. There are few female ministers in the Israeli government. Palestinian men in general are male chauvinists; they are not going to make an effort to have more women in the government. Women must fight for it.
There are political reasons as well. Arafat cannot fight two battles at the same time: women's issues and fundamentalism. His priorities are political. He has to handle the opposition; he will not make an issue of gender equali¬ty. Those in the government are political animals: they may support women's issues when the elections come, not out of conviction, but for the vote.

What can be done about that?

Women have to work with one another more. The Palestinian women's movement has been highly politicized, affiliated with different parties. Women activists belonged to different factions. For the last 20 years, women have subordinated the gender issue to the national one. I think it was a mis¬take. It is only in the last two or three years that a women's agenda has emerged and a number of women have started working on strictly feminine issues. Given a liberal family background, I have never suffered as a woman in my family; therefore, for me nationalist and gender issues are interrelat¬ed. I certainly don't give national issues more priority.

There is the impression that Arafat and his team were not prepared to take over the civil organization.

I do not think "prepared" is the right word. A number of problems are involved here. The qualifications needed for building a state are quite differ¬ent from those of a mobilizer or a politician. The PLO has succeeded politi¬cally in mobilizing the Palestinian people in the last 30 years. At least, it is the one organization which has made me conscious of my Palestinian identity.
I remember the exact date when this happened. I was living in Jordan at the time, but having been brought up in a family with a liberal father, I was never made to feel very strongly about being a Jordanian or a Palestinian, nor a Christian or a Muslim.
National identity was never a big issue for me. Then in 1968, the PLO and Fatah started talking about Palestine and organizing demonstrations in support of Palestinians. One day I decided to participate in such a demon¬stration. I was stopped, of course, by the school administration and the Jordanian army, but that was the beginning for me. Subsequently, I became totally confused. At school, when teachers asked who was not a Jordanian, I didn't know whether to stand up or not. All of a sudden I had become sym¬pathetic to the Palestinian issue and gained a Palestinian identity.
So I think the PLO has acquired skill in mobilizing the Palestinian peo¬ple. But now, the PLO has an entirely different job - building a state. This requires altogether different qualifications: it needs administrators to run the machine. In my opinion, Palestinians capable of doing that are neither those who are with the PLO, nor those who have lived under Occupation. The only way would be to attract those Palestinians living in the Diaspora. The problem is that Israel will not allow them to come back.

Tell us about your responsibilities right now in the Ministry of Culture.

Well, basically setting up a ministry. The Ministry of Culture is a new one. During the Israeli Occupation it was part of the Ministry of Education and the Israelis did nothing related to culture. Almost a year ago, Yasser Abed Rabbo (the minister of culture) and I sat in a room, looked at each other and tried to determine what would be the role of such a ministry. We looked at other culture ministries all over the world and in Arab countries. In Palestine, we are lucky. A lot of NGOs ran the cultural activities under Occupation without a ministry. There were various groups such as the al¬Hakawati and al-Kasaba theaters, the Sabrine music group, the Bir Zeit international festival of music and dance (which has been running for the last ten years). Now there is a ministry and there is a need to define the relationship between it and these groups. There is a concern on the part of the NGOs, who get their own funding from various sources, that the min¬istry will now monopolize all the finances and all the work.

Do these NGOs want to be financed by the ministry?

There are two schools of thought at the ministry: One favors centralization. The second, to which I belong, holds that the role of the ministry is to sup¬port directly or indirectly all the groups that exist, allowing them autonomy. I believe that this will give a multiplicity of thought in cultural activities.
An emerging authority tries to find a role for itself. Because most of the members came from abroad, it will take them time to settle into a natural relationship with their own people. The Palestinians are now going through what the Algerians or South Africans went through when the leadership came back from outside.

What is the role of the Ministry of Culture in Palestinian society today?

A major role is building a cultural infrastructure - we have been left with no cultural infrastructure whatsoever. We have no theaters (except for al¬ Kasaba and al-Hakawati in Jerusalem), no concert halls, no dancing, no cinemas, no cultural centers in all the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). The Ministry must also provide equipment, the cost of which runs in the millions of dollars - basic things that people take for granted.
We also feel the Ministry should have a role in human resources, training people in the different fields. So far most of us who worked in the cul¬tural field, whether in architectural conservation, music, theater or paint¬ing, did so out of passion. Very few people went to college and studied the¬ater or music. So one role the Ministry could play is in training - sending people abroad to universities or training schools or apprenticeships.
We are very keen on the conservation of historic buildings. In every Palestinian town or village there is an old center. The restoration of these areas would generate an important amount of income for the Palestinians from tourism. The Ministry of Culture is focusing on the potential of all these historic places.
A major problem facing the Palestinians is cultur¬al isolation during the Occupation. For 27 years Palestinians' travel was restricted by the military gov¬ernment. Persons under the age of 35 still have to stay out at least nine months if they leave the country (unless they have a special per¬mit). Therefore the majority never left the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. This meant isolation in general but also cultural isolation from the world. Most seriously, Palestinians were isolated from the Arab countries: culturally, a whole generation that grew and lived under the Occupation was totally cut off. The level of creativ¬ity among the people of the OPT has deteriorated, and the artistic level is quite mediocre, to say the least.
We have to reunite culturally with the Arab world, as well as with the rest of the world. We plan to either get artists to Palestine or send Palestinians to Arab countries or abroad to participate in cultural activities. This is why we have started placing emphasis on international festivals. This year we've had international festivals in Bir Zeit and Bethlehem and we are having two more in Nablus and Gaza.
The basic role of the Ministry is to restore normalcy in our lives: to sit in a cafe, to go to movies, to relax, to sit in a park with one's children, to do things that are taken for granted by other nations. People in the OPT are under tremendous stress. It is felt in their behavior. Any opportunity with which we can provide them, to enjoy themselves, would be a great achieve¬ment on the part of the Ministry.

What other difficulties are you encountering? Are you facing any difficul¬ties with the Israelis in running the administration?

I'll start with the Palestinians. A major problem is lack of experience. Salaries are so low that there is no way to attract people with experience or competence. Some individuals have indeed come to work because they believe in this period of transition and the importance of giving.
Another problem is setting up the whole structure of the government. As a ministry we cannot function unless the whole government is func¬tioning. We need more employees and proper civil service regulations.
On the other hand, we are still functioning under occupation. At the outset we were treated very shabbily by the Civil Administration. The Ministry of Culture was the first authority to be transferred to the Palestinians, yet our office was threatened with closure by the Civil Administration on the grounds we did not have a permit to operate. So far there has been no follow-up, but the attitude towards the Authority is one of just pure harassment or an attempt to undermine the credibility of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
Also the overall atmosphere is not conducive to work. For example, we were not sure whether it was a good idea to hold festivals while the hunger strike for the release of prisoners was going on. And it takes forever to obtain permits or visas for a group to come to the territories.
The mobility issue has become very serious and is causing a tremendous amount of difficulty that we are feeling right now. In the Ministry, for example, we have an office in Ramallah and one in Gaza. None of our Gaza people can come to us in Ramallah and vice versa: I don't know what my employees look like. It was much easier for me to get a permit to go to Jerusalem before I became part of the Authority. Now it takes me three months to get a one-month permit. The rest of the employees in the Ministry cannot even get a permit. It is impossible to get any work done between our offices in Gaza and the West Bank.

Will things improve once you have negotiated the final agreement?

I hope so. The interim period was an Israeli creation because the govern¬ment was not ready to transfer the authority to the Palestinians or give back the territories. It was a means of getting their population to accept the fact bit by bit. For the Palestinians this transition period is not very reassuring.

Is there anything you might like to add?

I would like to talk about how I saw the Israelis at one point and how I real¬ly worked very hard and believed strongly in the Israelis trying to convince their government about the importance of peace.
Oslo was forced on us. I personally don't think there is a fair solution for the Palestinians after what happened to them historically, and I am saying this from the heart: the two-state solution is the minimum possible of what is acceptable to Palestinians psychologically and emotionally. Israelis do not try hard enough to understand what is really acceptable to Palestinians on the psychological and emotional levels. I understand Rabin: he is a mil¬itary man; he wants to get as much as possible. If he really wants peace he must have a solution acceptable to both parties.
Initially I supported Oslo totally, but now I feel that even Oslo has not been respected by the Israeli government and I do not feel there is enough pressure by the left or the peace camp; they just accept whatever has been imposed on the Palestinians by their government. I must admit that on a personal level, I feel somewhat demoralized. I am especially disappointed in the attitude of those Israelis who have accepted Oslo but now are bar¬gaining again not to implement it. For a long time now I have refrained from participating in many of the things I used to do in the past, such as dialogues or shared activities with the Israelis. I have been greatly disap¬pointed, especially by the left; Oslo has demobilized them.