“I was kicked out of Washington and this was the price because we stood up and deprived Kushner of any possibility of a breakthrough.”
So said Husam Zomlot, the former head of the PLO mission to the US. He was vindictively removed by the Trump administration after the closure of the PLO office in Washington over the rejection of Jared Kushner’s disastrous Peace Plan in 2018 following the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He faced then one of the hardest moves in Trump’s ultimate strategy of exerting pressure on the Palestinian leadership while offering Washington’s long-time ally, Israel, greater protection and impunity. Still, Zomlot remained an inspirational figure for his people and a fighter for the Palestinian issue against the apathy of the international community towards the Palestinian struggle.
Now the head of the Palestinian Mission to the UK, Zomlot has led various official roles at home and as a Palestinian Authority diplomat. He was the strategic adviser to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and served as director of Fatah’s commission for foreign relations.
Born in Gaza, in a refugee camp on the Rafah border, Zomlot’s political activism was sparked by the refugee crisis that saw over 1.5 Palestinians living in the UNRWA camps. To this day no price has been too high for advocacy and resistance. In May, as ambassador to the UK, he strongly condemned Israeli aggression against Gaza and East Jerusalem.
While the US defunded the UNRWA to an unprecedented degree under Trump, the UK continued to be among top donors to it after Zomlot took office.
First, as a former ambassador to Palestine in US, familiar with US policies and agendas on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, how do you assess the US stance on the last Gaza war?
First of all, let’s not call it the Gaza war because this term has been used by the international media a lot. It isn’t a war, it’s an Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people everywhere. It started in Jerusalem and spread all over historic Palestine including Gaza and 48 areas in Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, Lod and Negev. And we’ve seen it spread over the West bank and in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Let’s call by its name: an Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people.
On paper, the position of the US is an improvement as it reverted to the long held US policy which is two states, the illegality of settlements, the illegality of what Israel is doing in Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, urging that it should stop, and calling on Israel to respect the status quo in all cities especially Al-Haram Al-Sharif, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
However, this policy didn’t deliver us anywhere and is lacking any action. We don’t see any action so far in the Biden administration, the only action we followed during the height of the aggression was the Biden administration’s approval of $735 million worth of arms for Israel. We believe that it’s the US’s legal responsibility to ensure that its arms and weapons don’t end up in the hands of states that commit human rights violations. Also, encouraging further normalisation, as with several Arab states, is rewarding illegality, so what is needed is quite the opposite, which is an action-oriented policy.
But there is a coalition government in Israel that ends Netanyahu’s 12 years in power and a new US administration led by Joe Biden. What do you expect of such new faces?
This isn’t about faces and individuals, it’s about the mindset. What we need to change is the Israeli approach and the mindset since the beginning of the peace process 30 years ago – which is to manage the issue of Palestine, not resolve it – right across the board, from Yitzhak Rabin who signed the Oslo accords to Netanyahu and now Naftali Bennett, who was the head of the settlement council in the Occupied Territories.
The root cause of all this is not the politicians, but the mainstream of the Israeli public. The attitudes of the Israeli public is pro right, so much so that they’ve elected the head of the settlement council prime minister and the Kahanism movement is now in the Kenesset.
There have been four elections in only two years. The issue of Palestine, affecting six million Palestinians, did not factor once. And this brings to the last point in this question, which is the role of the US and the international community. The Israeli public is comfortable about the cost-benefit. Israel believes that the cost associated with all this illegality is very limited yet the benefit is vast, as using the land, the water, the resources and our cheap labor.
The US, the UK and many Western capitals tell us that “Israel is an exception” because of the history and because it is besieged and because of many other factors. Israel doesn’t work under pressure. We have a discussion with Western politicians all the time that says, “If the carrot with Israel doesn’t work, we give them more carrots.” Israel has been given carrots for the last 30 years, including the Madrid peace process and then Oslo, and where did it lead us? Settlements have quadrupled from 125,000 to 700,000 settlers, a quarter of them in east Jerusalem.
The US administration is seeking to broker new deals with Arab countries to join the Abraham Accords. How do you see the Palestinian situation after the expansion of these deals?
This is one of the wrong approaches. In the US they call it “the outside end” as it focuses on the outside. Trump was desperate with Jared Kushner to show any breakthrough thanks to the Palestinian people and leadership, as they stood up to that bully and made the Deal of the Century a failure. I was kicked out of Washington and this was the price because, as the Palestinian Authority, we stood up and deprived Kushner of any possibility of a breakthrough, so they went for the show of the Abraham Accords and they wanted it to demonstrate in the Kushner CV that he made peace in the Middle East, but what kind of peace is that, when bombs are falling on Gaza families already? Settlement building reached its highest peace the year the Abraham Accords were signed.
By encouraging more of this deal Biden will damage the cause of peace.
Rebuilding Gaza without rearming Hamas has represented the main dilemma since the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. Is that the only challenge that stands in the way of Gaza reconstruction process?
Reconstruction is a national initiative supported by the international community to rebuild what was destroyed. It’s an international effort that can’t be undertaken by any one faction, group or NGO. We’re a nation that has a government and representative institutions which is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), we might need to negotiate with others in the PLO but that’s intact. Palestine has a seat in the UN. The world needs to leave us with our internal discussion and not to meddle.
Do you think that the global media narrative has changed after the latest events in Gaza?
It hasn’t changed. It has been challenged.
The mainstream media is stuck in the Israeli narrative. They start from the Palestinian reaction; they start from the Gaza war as if that is a war between equals. They always put us in the framework of terrorism and violence, not a people seeking self-determination and freedom. They blame the victim and seek to condemn them.
The biggest difference in the last few years, in the run up to the last few weeks, was in the Palestinian youth in Jerusalem and young activist leaders like Mohamed Al-Kurd and Mona Al-Kurd, young people in the West Bank and Ramallah, and our refugees in London and the US. The Palestinian youth used the power of the internet, the smartphone and social media, that wasn’t available years ago. While America has given Israel F-35s to fight us, they have also given us the iPhone.
In a push by Israel, thousands of our accounts were closed on social media. I had a meeting with the Facebook team in London several times, with Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh and the telecommunications minister, and we are now taking this to the highest level with a strong complaint and follow-up.
Our youth is linked to the global youth in Europe, the US and Asia. What makes the media coverage different this time is that the Palestinian cause has become not only right, righteous and fair but also fashionable because of young people on internet. There are fashion gurus like Bella Hadid who raised the Palestinian flag in the UK’s FA cup final, along with other singers and artists.
It is steadfast work over generations. The first generation was keen on standing up to pressure and keeping the land, the second generation was revolutionary, led by Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas who established the revolution and snatched recognition from the international community, which happened in 1974 when Arafat addressed the UN from Geneva. This speech has led to the recognition of the government of Palestine as its sole legitimate representative recognised by the rest of the world.
The third generation is the one holding a mobile phone, building on to their parents’ and grandparents’ strategy and inspiring the youth of the world like never before.
No doubt the two-state solution argument has lost credibility in the last few years of the conflict. Is there any other solution that the Palestinian Authority might consider?
Israel accepts only its non-solution agenda. It accepts neither a one-state nor a two-state solution.
In reality the two-state solution wasn’t a Palestinian demand in the first place, it was rather a concession that was made in 1988 when we declared the state based on the 1967 borders and in 1993 we recognised Israel based on the same borders. So, we accepted the international legitimacy and solutions.
The discussion of two states vs one state remains irrelevant while what we need to focus on is what was the people of Palestine have been struggling for, for 100 years, which is achieving three rights. The first is self-determination, which was promoted by Woodrow Wilson and the US would support the right of all nations to self-determination following decolonisation in the 20s, 1930s and 1940s. This right can only materialise when Israel ends its occupation including in East Jerusalem.
The second right is the right of return. Most of our people are refugees scattered across the world, away from the homeland; 80 per cent of Gaza’s population are refugees, and there are refugees in the West Bank and in neighbouring countries Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. These people have not only collective but also individual rights.
My mother was a refugee, and I was born in a refugee camp in Rafah, on the border with Egypt; that’s why I have like a soft spot for Egypt.
The third right is equality for our brothers and sisters and our people in Israel who have been treated badly not only as a second-class citizens but as fourth-class citizens with all that legislation against them, by the Knesset’s own laws they’re being discriminated against.
I call on the international community not to waste time on the discussion of one state or two states, that’s a luxury. We should just focus on those three rights.
For the first time in history, an Arab party will be a part of the coalition government of Israel. Will this make any positive difference for the Palestinians? Can domestic pressure change what has been persistent and unchangeable even under international pressure?
It’s very important to correct the terminology about Arabs in Israel, they’re the Palestinian citizens of Israel or the 48 Palestinians. It’s up to our brothers and sisters in the 48 areas to decide their own course. Theirs has been the most legitimate of struggles.
But reading the mood of the Palestinian parties in Israel, especially among the young, you can see that for decades since Israel’s establishment they’ve tried the approach of working from within the Israeli state to attain their rights but this has failed completely. They have only gained the Nation State Law, which was approved in 2018, while the self-determination right is only exclusive to the Jews. This means that the Palestinians in Israel can never have collective rights.
Israel’s continued aggression against the Palestinian territories seems close to re-escalation at any point. In your opinion, what may deter Israel politically and militarily in Palestine?
Applying the law, I repeat, applying the law, applying the law. This implies sanctions, including an arms embargo, banning settlement products, banning companies from working in illegal settlements, supporting our efforts in the ICC, because we need two things that are consequences: sanctions and accountability at the ICC.
What do you expect from Jerusalem flag march that will be held by Israeli settlers tomorrow?
It’s the most provocative of the fanatical right-wing extremist settlers who will march on occupied east Jerusalem inside the Old City. We’re holding our breath that things won’t escalate. We need the international community to focus on ending Israel’s sponsorship and protection of these groups and militias who are wreaking havoc in cities that have Palestinian residents.
The violence comes from Israeli settlers as they are so indoctrinated. They chant “death to Arabs and Palestinians” every time, while Palestinians only chant mainly “Free Palestine”.
Hundreds of cases of settler violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but none of these cases have been brought to justice as the Israeli settlers are immune and enjoy impunity. There are two legal systems in the occupied territories, civil law for Israeli settlers and military law for the Palestinians. In international law this is called apartheid.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly