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Former Palestinian ambassador to Cairo talks about Gaza war, ceasefire

Fatah figure and former Palestinian ambassador Barakat Al-Farra says Hamas embarrassed Palestinians by not accepting Egypt's ceasefire proposal, putting its commitment to Palestinian reconciliation in doubt

Bassem Aly, Wednesday 23 Jul 2014
Ex-Palestinian Ambassador in Egypt Barakat Al-Farra during an interview with Ahram Online, July 22 2014 (Photo:Bassem Aly)

In an exclusive interview with Ahram Online, ex-Palestinian ambassador to Egypt and permanent representative at the Arab League, Barakat Al-Farra, spoke to Ahram Online on Hamas, Israel and the Arab world amid the ongoing war on the Gaza Strip.

Al-Farra, a leading figure of the Palestinian Fatah movement who ended his diplomatic mission in both positions in June after six years, believes that Israel is “not telling the truth” when it comes to justifying its assault on Gaza.

“Israel claims Hamas should stop its rockets first, but the opposite should happen; Israel should end its war and crimes committed against the people of Gaza, as it was the side that initially began the attacks,” he asserted.

The veteran diplomat said Israel is engaged in “media propaganda” to make it appear it is under threat, though its military capabilities cannot be compared to those of the Palestinian resistance.  

Nevertheless, further casualties within the Israelis will impose pressure on the government of Binyamin Netanyahu to stop the war.

“The war caused huge economic losses to Israel, including the cost of weapons and reduction of the government’s monetary reserves. The Israelis didn’t also get used to sirens and hiding in shelters. You are speaking about a spoiled society in the end,” Al-Farra said.

He blamed the United States for ignoring human rights, democracy and respect for international law as long as matters are related to Israel, despite being the usual sponsor of peace talks.

“All these values evaporate when it comes to Israel,” Al-Farra said.

Hamas and ceasefires

Answering without pause, Al-Farra argued that Hamas should have accepted the Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire, adding that the Islamist movement lacks “political wisdom.”

“Palestinian blood is non-negotiable. Hamas could have accepted and then added its terms during talks,” said Al-Farra.

He added that Cairo’s initiative stipulated the holding of indirect talks between the warring sides, in Cairo, 48 hours after receiving their approval for the deal, which Hamas could have used to set its terms and conditions, including the release of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, the opening of crossings, seaports and the airport, and providing Gaza with its needs in goods and services.

Al-Farra considers Hamas’s response as “embarrassing for the Palestinians,” especially after Israeli acceptance of the Egyptian proposal, as it showed the former as being unwilling to accept peaceful solutions. On the proposal itself, he said it is not different to that of 2012 that ended week-long confrontations between Israel and Hamas.  

“International law gives the right to the Palestinians to fight occupation by all legal means, but we don’t have the capacity for war, because of the frightening gap of armed powers between the Palestinians and Israeli army. We should not fool ourselves,” he said.

Al-Farra used the example of Hamas rockets, saying they caused limited losses for Israel, whether in terms of property damage or deaths. The greater achievement — according to him — came during the ground clashes in the Strip.

He affirmed the existence of agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Egypt over the necessity of ending the war, established in a “fruitful” meeting between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas last week.

Future of Palestinian reconciliation

When asked why the international community is addressing Hamas, not the newly-formed unity government, Al-Farra said Hamas is the “force on the ground” in Gaza.

He made a linkage between inter-Palestinian reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, that led to a unity deal 23 April, and the latter’s position towards the Egyptian ceasefire plan.

“Hamas does not abide by the decisions of Abbas or Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, both of whom accepted the ceasefire plan. It looks like Hamas is not serious about reconciliation. The movement would’ve accepted the plan if it really was,” Al-Farra said.

Al-Farra described the visits of Abbas to Turkey and Qatar as attempts to persuade Hamas into accepting the ceasefire proposal, for both states enjoy good relations with the Islamist organisation.

“But it seems nothing has changed so far,” he stated.

Al-Farra said that Abbas even contacted all permanent members of the UN Security Council and all "parties ready to help stop the bloodshed in Gaza.”

Concerning the meeting of Abbas with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Cairo, in which they discussed the truce issue, Al-Farra said Paris had always maintained balanced positions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Al-Farra also spoke about the meeting of Abbas and Hamas politburo Khaled Meshal in Qatar.

“Khaled Meshal is the most understanding man in Hamas, but it seems that neither him nor premier Ismail Haniyeh are the decision-makers,” argued Al-Farra, referring to the Qassam Brigades — the armed wing of Hamas — as the strongest element in the movement.

For Al-Farra, Palestinian reconciliation is “tenuous,” and ongoing events prove this more and more. But he warned that any split weakens the Palestinian position as a whole.

On a related note, Al-Farra believed that the deteriorated relations between Egypt and Hamas following the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi seems to have influenced the stance of the latter on the ceasefire plan. “The interests of the Palestinian people are above all other considerations, and this should not happen,” Al-Farra said.

“Hamas has no friends in the regions now except Turkey and Qatar. We warned them several times that they should end their dependence on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and only act as a Palestinian resistance movement. This situation harmed them a lot.”

Yet, Al-Farra said the Islamist movement is part of the Palestinian people by all means and hoped they would accept the ceasefire because the war is destroying the Gaza Strip’s infrastructure, including schools, hospitals and homes.

Limits of the Arab role

Al-Farra praised the role played by the Arab League’s chief, Nabil Al-Arabi, and said he is a “respected figure who thinks about the Palestinian cause as his top priority.”

The Arab League has issued several statements in the last weeks, calling for international action, including protection for the Palestinians.

However, Al-Farra spoke about elements of the equation that hinder the expansion of the pan-Arab organisation’s influence, claiming that the Arab world’s international position is not commensurate with its abilities.

“About one third of the world’s petroleum comes from the Arab world, along with 20 percent of gas, in addition to waterways that no state can avoid using, such as Egypt’s Suez Canal, or Bab El-Mandeb strait,” he noted.

“But international relations are based upon interests, and we failed to persuade the world — specifically the US — that its interests are with the Arabs, and not with Israel, that represents a burden for them,” he said.

Al-Farra, previously an economics professor, mentioned economic and financial factors as key in this case. “There are no strong economies in the Arab world: we import most goods from abroad,” he said.

He stated that Arab countries annually import goods worth $1.6 trillion from several countries, such as Japan, China, the European Union and the United States. “If at least half of foreign Arab investments were directed to our countries, a totally different economic reality and growth would have been reached,” he claimed.

“For example, the (Mediterranean) sea separates Europe from the Arab world. However, in our meetings with European officials we usually tackle issues of illegal migration, terrorism and security instead of enhancement of economic cooperation.”

Al-Farra ended the interview by tackling the historical grounds of the Palestinian-Israel conflict, in which he largely blamed Europe, especially Britain.

He said that before 1917, the Jewish people were part of the Palestinian community as well as many other Arab states, as their “Zionist orientations” was still hidden until Britain provided them with support on all levels.

“The whole problem started with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, then Britain — and many European states — provided the Israelis with weapons to train their armed groups, allowed them to migrate to Palestine and gave them lands: the Palestinians did not sell their lands as many people think,” he said.

“Even the UN General Assembly’s resolutions 194 on the right of return and 181 concerning the partition plan, which gave 55 percent of the land to the Israelis and 45 percent to the Palestinians, were not implemented. The international community did not help us.”

 “All the Palestinian people want is a state with Jerusalem as its capital,” he concluded.

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