Read Time: 14 Minutes
Interview with Palestinian politician Mustafa Bargouti

'The West Bank looks to me like 224 ghettos'

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PNI leader Mustafa Barghouti on a recent trip to Germany Photograph: Hannes Alpen

In 2005 he was the only serious challenger to Mahmud Abbas. Mustafa Barghuthi explains to zenith why the constant postponement of elections weakens Ramallah's position - and why he calls Israel's Palestinian policy apartheid.

zenith: Do you see elections being held in Palestine in the near future as likely?

Mustafa Barghouti: We've been pushing to have elections since long time. It’s totally unacceptable that the public has been deprived from its right to vote for 10 years almost now. Internal division has been used for a long time as an excuse for not having elections, but now there is a bigger push to get elections. Not only in Palestine internally, but also worldwide, there is a demand that Palestinians bring back their democratic system. We've tried to help the issue of internal division by cooperating with the Central Elections Commission (CEC) and by proposing an initiative as the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI), to solve the problem of differences. It's an eleven-point initiative that was almost accepted by most of the political parties. And it paved the road for solving issues like having a fully proportional system which Hamas originally opposed, but now has accepted. It also includes the acceptance, although it's not what the law says, of separate Legislative Council elections and presidential elections.


Who was calling for the separation between presidential and parliamentary elections?

The president and Fatah. We would have preferred to apply the law, which says they should happen on the same day. Nevertheless, because this was a Fatah demand, we eventually accepted this separation on the condition that there will be three months period between the two votes.


What is preventing elections from being called now?

I can see three major obstacles. The first of which is that Israel may try to prevent us from having free elections in Jerusalem and in some other parts of the West Bank. In which case our response as the PNI is that we should not give the Israeli occupation the right to decide whether we have democracy or not. If they try to stop us from having elections in these places, we should still have them despite Israeli regulation.


Why would Israel seek to stop Palestinian elections?

Because they consider East Jerusalem as an annexed part to Israel. In 2005 and 2006, Israel allowed people to vote only in post offices, but prevented us from having election campaigns. I insisted on meeting with the people for which I was arrested five times by the Israeli Army during the election period. If the Israelis say no we should insist on having elections, and use it as a forum for non-violent, peaceful resistance.


What is the second obstacle to elections that you mentioned?

The second obstacle, which is a major one, is the necessity to have a free and fair atmosphere so that elections themselves can be totally free and fair. That is a big challenge because in West Bank all the powers are concentrated in the hands of the executive authority. And the situation is similar in Gaza. So that's why we have insisted on specific conditions for elections, including freedom of speech, prohibition of any kind of political pressure and any kind of political arrests. There should also be assurances that security apparatuses will not interfere in the election process and that all parties will have equal opportunity in terms of using the media as well as in terms of financing the election campaign.


And the third?

The third challenge is both internal and external; how can we get a guarantee that after we have elections that the results will be respected? We proposed a contract of honour signed by everybody which states that we will all respect the results of the elections. We can’t accept that the results of the elections will only be respected if some people like them.


Do you yourself intend on running as a presidential candidate?

I've done that before. What I did was really good and at the same time courageous because it was a very important act to consolidate the democratic system of pluralism and competition. I cannot give you an answer to this because this is not a matter that is in my personal opinion. It has to do with our movement and on the conditions in which elections will happen. This is a decision that will be made by our movement. I'm not saying it's out of the question.


How confident are you of widespread participation in any upcoming elections in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem, considering recent polling, which suggests at least a third of Palestinians wouldn't vote for any party at all?

That was the case before in the previous elections which has between 60- 70%. If we can get the same ratio, that's fantastic. The problem today is that many people, especially younger generation, feel alienated, because they are part of a whole generation, the majority of voters today, who have never participated in elections before. A major issue will be how to convince the younger generation that they can’t change their situation without participation in political life. And we always say to them: either you join a party that exists and make it better, or you make your own new party. That's what I did in 2002 when I created a new movement, the youngest political movement in Palestine.


How realistic is that new initiatives would come from this demographic?

It's difficult. One option we are going to support is the formation of a democratic coalition, which could include several movements especially youth and women initiatives. It would be independent of both Fatah and Hamas


Why is there talk of holding elections now and not earlier?

It should've happened earlier. The fact that it didn't happen for ten years is a big mistake. We should’ve had elections in 2010, 2014 and 2018. Today, the situation is even more urgent, especially after the dissolution of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), because now you have a government without accountability.


Why has President Abbas been reluctant to call elections?

Internal division was presented as the excuse. Two red lines should not be crossed. One, we can never accept to have elections without Jerusalem. Our solution to that is not to say if Israelis prevent us, we don't have election. The second red line is to have elections in the West Bank without Gaza, that would be a disaster because then it would consolidate the internal divisions rather than solve them. How do other countries solve their political problems? They go to elections and they form governments on the basis of the results of elections. That's the only way, there is no other way.


What will happen if elections are not held?

It will be disastrous for the whole political structure. It will be especially bad for any form of political organisation, including parties, because then people will ask the question, why should I join a political party? If we don't have elections, then we will be much weaker in front also of the tremendous challenges that the Israeli occupation poses.


Why has there been so much criticism of Abbas’ decision to form the Constitutional Court in April 2016?

We don't think that the Constitutional Court was formed in the correct way. We also do not agree with the Constitutional Court’s decision to approve the dissolution of the Palestinian parliament. The whole judiciary system has lost its independence completely. We would call for a new legislative council that could revise all the laws that were issued by the president and by Hamas. We have a situation today where the PLC, the parliament itself in all its existence since 96, issued 100 laws approximately. The president alone has issued 150 laws. Hamas has issued tens of other laws on its own. That is not normal because now you have two different legal atmospheres or legal systems in Gaza and West Bank.


What role should the international community in the electoral process in Palestine?

The most important role that the international community could play is to pressure Israel, not to prevent our elections, not to obstruct our elections. And also, by promising that the results of elections will be respected.


Germany has given the PA around $120 million  in 2018. Where was that money spent?

I'm not aware of all the details. I know that part of it went to support the government. And part of it went to civil society, which is very crucial for the survival of Palestinians and was spent very well. I know that part of that support goes to UNWRA, which was also very essential in terms of serving Palestinian refugees who have been displaced from their homelands in 1948. All in all, I think Germany is following a very meticulous control of the finances.


Would you like to see Germany do more? I'm thinking in particular of the German parliament equating the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement with anti-Semitism.

That resolution was wrong and unfair. It was the result of a very strong Israeli lobby. We all know that that decision is not binding. And I hope it remains unbinding. This whole attack on freedom of speech and freedom of expression is unacceptable, especially by a country like Germany, which believes in democracy. BDS is not anti-Semitic, it’s not anti-Jewish. It's about freedom of choice. Any impairment of the right of people of freedom of choice is not democratic in my opinion. I fully respect the suffering of Jewish people, during the Holocaust and the Inquisition, time and pogroms in Russia and the anti-Semitic time in Europe. But Palestinians have never been part of that and that the suffering of Jewish people should make, in my opinion, Israel is more sensitive to human rights and democratic rights of other people. Not the opposite.


Would you like to see more international pressure exerted upon Israel?

On the other hand, we’re worried about the lack of a European response to Israeli measures, especially the Israeli violations of international law. For example, the annexation of East Jerusalem, which is part of the occupied territories. The International Court of Justice resolution is absolutely clear. It says that an occupying power cannot annex other people's territory by force. It also says it cannot move their population and occupy territory, which is what settlements are about. There is no justification in any way for the lack of response to the Israeli violations of international law, especially when Israeli bulldozers come into area C which represents 62 percent of the West Bank and destroy European funded projects and Germany funded projects. This is a very crucial time because today the Israeli right-wing governments led by Netanyahu are destroying systematically the very last opportunities for a two-state solution.


What role would your party, the PNI, play in any elections?

Many polls show that no party can get an absolute majority. If there is a strong democratic camp that is not Hamas not Fatah, that manages to unite several groups in could gain a very important stand in these elections as a third alternative. We don't accept any support from external parties, so we know that we’ll will be running a very poor election campaign financially. That does not make us less optimistic. On the contrary, if people understand that what we do here is to fight the system of patronage and nepotism. We rely completely on Palestinian donations or personal donations and membership fees. Of course, we do not have any financial resources from the PLO for instance like some parties do on monthly basis.


You’ve recently said that one state is the only realistic solution. Why do you believe that?

We were never against a two-state solution, we were never against Palestinian independent and real sovereign state on Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem as its capital. But the Israeli measures are killing the two-state solution. In reality, there are three possible options. The two-state solution or what we have today, which is a real system of apartheid.


How would you define apartheid? 

Apartheid is the domination of one nation over the other. Of one people over another. A system where you have two systems of laws for two people living in the same place. Israelis have Israeli law, whereas we are subject to military law. We are discriminated against in terms of land control. Israel takes away 85 percent of our water. It allows every Palestinian to use no more than 50 cubic meters of water each year, while Israeli settlers can use 2,400 of water from the West Bank. We have segregated roads inside the West Bank. Few politicians know that. Highways cutting West Bank, east, west, north, south that are segregated and exclusive for Israel. If we walk or drive on them, we can be put in jail for six months. This did not happen even during apartheid in South Africa.


Is the situation in Palestine today worse than in South Africa during apartheid?

Much worse. That's not my opinion. It's the opinion of many politicians from South Africa itself, including one of my friends, Ronnie Kasrils who as a leader in the ANC and a white Jewish person struggled against apartheid. When he came to Palestine, I had a joint press conference with him when I was minister of information in the unity government. And when I said it's like apartheid, he stopped me and said, it's much worse than what we had.


And what is the third option?

The third option is a one state solution with one full set of democratic rights for everybody. One hundred percent full equality. We say the alternative to a two-state solution is not apartheid, is not giving Palestinians some kind of self-government in small Bantustans, which I call ghetto-stans. They are much smaller even than Bantustans, they look like ghettos.


Why have you decided to call them ghetto-stans? Isn't that particularly provocative?

No, its not provocative. It resembles to a large extent the same suffering the Jewish people had before, which we condemn. It was one of the most horrible mistakes of some European countries that they kept the Jewish people in ghettos. But when I look at the West Bank, how it has been divided in 224 small islands, enclaves, where people are deprived of basic rights, it looks like ghettos.


Would you like to see more support from Palestinians living inside Israeli to help prevent this situation worsening?

Our common struggle with our brothers in living inside Israel is that we all should fight together to bring down the system of apartheid. That should be a struggle not only of Palestinians, but of Jewish people too. Because there is nothing more shameful than having a system of apartheid in the 21st century. Politically-speaking, they should do what they've done. Stay united in one list, defend the rights of Palestinians to have total and full democratic equality and continue to support our struggle to end the occupation.


Is there a viable partner for the PNI in the Israeli political system?

Unfortunately, not in the main parties. There isn't much difference between Netanyahu and Ganz when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Meretz may be the closest the party to supporting real peace, but they are a small party, unfortunately. The two major camps are not really different. Netanyahu says, I want to annex the Jordan Valley Ganz says I want to keep the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu and Ganz both say there is no place for a Palestinian state. Moshe Yaalon is calling for increasing the number of settlers to 1 million. Yair Lapid who is part of Ganz's coalition is saying that we are sick, and we need psychological treatment.


What impact does Netanyahu's recent indictment have on Palestinian politics?

His indictment consolidates the belief that every country should have a democratic system which keeps everybody accountable, including the prime minister. Palestinians are very upset and angry at Netanyahu because of his severe racism. This man has single-handedly with his Likud party killed so many dreams of peace through the campaign which he has conducted since the Oslo agreement was signed not only against peace, but against statehood and against Yitzhak Rabin. He was personally responsible for aggravating the Israeli public to the level of having some Jewish extremist shooting and killing Rabin.


You said recently this year that there would be another uprising in Palestine. What do you see the prospects for that now?

This system of oppression and discrimination could lead to a new uprising. But the uprising I speak about is a nonviolent one that will take the form of civil disobedience against the injustice that is practiced against us. I hope that we do not get to that point if there is sufficient pressure on the Israeli government. But we have no way but to struggle for our freedom, to struggle for our rights, to struggle for justice, and to struggle for our democratic rights as well.


The PA has come under criticism recently for abuse perpetrated against Hamas inmates in its prisons. What's your response?

Any violation of people's rights, whether in West Bank or Gaza, is unacceptable and should be stopped immediately. We should not allow any form of torture against prisoners. Everybody should be allowed to have a due legal process. All security structures should be subjected to the control of the elected political structure.


Do you think that a peaceful solution is possible with the current administration in the US and with the announcement of the legalisation of the settlements?

No, not with the Americans. The Trump administration has it has lost its ability to be a broker. It has not only totally sided with Israel, which is no different to other administrations, it is making alliances with the most extreme elements of the Israeli establishment. Europe can play a role if they want. But Europe needs to have courage and to do that.

Mustafa Barghouti, 66, is the general secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI) also known as al-Mubadara. In 2002 he left the Palestinian People's Party to found the party, was nominated as the its candidate in the 2005 presidential elections in Palestine in which he gained nearly 20% of the vote. He also briefly served as communications minister in the short-lived 2007 unity government. Having trained as a medical doctor prior to entering politics, Barghouti also chairs the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS). 

Calum Humphreys