Interview: Diana Buttu on Palestinian unity and the way forward

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Originally published by Ma’an News Agency on April 26, 2014.

Diana Buttu is a Canadian-Palestinian lawyer. From 2000-2005, she served in the PLO’s Negotiations Support Unit as a legal and communications adviser.

Ma’an recently interviewed Buttu to discuss the recent reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the Israeli decision to end the peace negotiations, and the way forward for the Palestinian national movement.

What factors do you think led to the agreement? There was talk back in December and January about the possibility of a reconciliation agreement, but why did it happen now?

I think there were two main factors that led to this, one on the Hamas side and one on the Fatah side.On the Hamas side, I think they’re starting to feel the effects of the Sisi government and the closure of the tunnels, as well as the fact that the PA hasn’t really done anything on the Israeli side to ease up the siege. The siege as a whole was starting to really affect them — the fact that Palestinians couldn’t go through Rafah any longer, the fact that goods were not coming in as readily as before, and the fact of tunnels being closed down generally. At a certain point they realized that in order for the prison to get a little bit of air they needed to reach some type of agreement with Fatah.

The contours of the agreement had always been there, and they had been decided — as late as 2010, and as far back as 2008, but it was just a question of implementing it.On the Fatah side, it has a lot do with the fact that this April 29 deadline is coming, and that Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) has absolutely nothing to show for this 9-month negotiation period. Abu Mazen, unlike Fatah, is very concerned about the fact that he doesn’t have legitimacy.

He’s pulled a whole bunch of stunts over the past four years to try to boost his legitimacy. The first one was back in 2011, when he did the first push to go to the UN to declare statehood. But he didn’t push the issue in the Security Council, he just let it drop. But it was a big issue, he created a big ruckus, and then of course nothing happened. The same thing happened in 2012 — he went to go upgrade our status at the UN, and then he gets the upgrade, and doesn’t push it anywhere.

I think that what happened is that he realized that nothing was going to come of these negotiations, so he needed to do something to show that he is not only legitimate but very popular. And this was very convenient, so the interests on both sides coalesced. And that’s why I’m not so optimistic about it, to be quite honest.

Why not?

I’m not optimistic because they did not base their agreement on a national Palestinian strategy, or a national Palestinian vision, or an idea of what’s good for Palestine. They based it on their factional interests. And provided that their politics remain the same, then this agreement may stick. But if anything changes in one way or another, then we might just see a return back to division once again. It wasn’t that they went in with this vision that we are now going to have a unified strategy to confront Israel, to confront the occupation, to address all of the various issues. Instead, it was: “What are our individual political interests that have led us to come together?”

When you suggest that something could change and they could split back again, what kind of events are you referring to?

A few things could change. If the Americans come through and put pressure on Abu Mazen, particularly if we see economic pressure coupled with the condition that they not form a unity or consensus government, we might just see a split back to the old ways. In other words, the US through its economic incentives can — and just may — push the lever to push back.

You’ve talked about reasons for pessimism. Are there any reasons for optimism? Is this a potentially historic reconciliation like people are saying?

Potentially it is. I’m pessimistic only because I’ve seen where the parties have taken it over the course of history, but there’s a lot of power in this. It will be the first time that the PLO recognizes that neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad are going away and that they are legitimate players within the Palestinian political spectrum. That’s very powerful. And not only is that powerful — it can then lead to having combined decision-making and a greater say in addressing some of the various issues we’re facing … This definitely has the potential to be huge, and I hope that they seize the moment.

With Hamas’ inclusion in PLO, there was an opportunity for Israel to be negotiating with the major Palestinian political factions, both in the West Bank and Gaza, which seemed like an opportunity for more meaningful peace talks. But on the other hand, many people welcomed Hamas’ entrance and the collapse of the talks because they saw it as putting an end to the charade. What reasons for optimism and pessimism do you see with the end of the talks?

I think that there’s been no benefit that has come from this process of negotiation, and that there is no down side to ending these negotiations, to put it bluntly. This reconciliation agreement just shows how farcical Israel has been behaving.Firstly, there has been no reconciliation for seven years. If Israel was truly interested in peace, they could have at any time in those seven years ended the occupation and reached some form of an agreement.

Secondly, Netanyahu is the very person who said that he can’t negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas because he doesn’t represent the entire Palestinian polity, and because he doesn’t control the Gaza Strip. So now, you’ve got somebody who is presumably under the umbrella of an actual consensus government, and the Israelis are saying that now we can’t negotiate with them because Hamas is included! So it’s a farce. This agreement coming together has really highlighted what a farce Israel is and the farce of the position that it has taken when it comes to these negotiations. This is why if anything, now is the time for us to regroup, to re-strategize, and to think about what the next steps are. There has been far too much time — 21 years in fact — spent on negotiations, and not enough time spent on the alternatives.

What kind of alternatives are you thinking about?

There is a lot of things they could be doing, specifically encouraging popular resistance and encouraging boycott, divestment, and sanctions. The reason I think encouraging popular resistance is important is because if you think back to the first Intifada, what brought Palestinians literally into the homes of Israelis was the Intifada, and the fact that there was popular resistance. For the first time, Palestinians weren’t these invisible people just living in the West Bank, and the “situation was complicated.”

Or that these people were in a worst case scenario the workers, these invisible people who made Israel’s life easier. The First Intifada was the first time that Palestinians were now in Israeli living rooms, on their television screens. I think that there’s a power to that, and I think that’s what led — not to Oslo — but to recognition that Palestinians have a right to self determination. They need to go back to that strategy of popular resistance, and supporting it, instead of doing what Abbas and Fatah have done, which is to wag their finger at everybody and say “Thou shalt not.”

They don’t empower us to do something, they just tell us what you shouldn’t do. That’s why I think popular resistance is an important strategy.The second thing is BDS, for the same reason — it brings into the Israeli home exactly what Israel is doing in their name. It holds the government to account for its actions, which it has never been held to account for before. The third thing is that we have to start focusing on the “sanctions” part of BDS, which is really important. With this upgraded status, there is a lot that the PLO could be doing, like pushing for sanctions and for Israel’s expulsion from various international organizations. Just like South Africa did.

When you talk about the push for popular resistance, what kind of goals do you see emerging in the medium term?

The main goal is to hold Israel to account. Whether it is holding them to account in an international arena, or by holding them to account through popular resistance, they need to begin to see that there is a price to be paid for the continued occupation and the continued racism inside ’48….There has to be a price that is paid for this continued occupation. I’m talking about popular resistance, not armed resistance. But I think that this image or belief that the PA had — that somehow the international community is going to save us — has been proven to be a false one, the international community is not going to save Palestine, and I think the only thing that we can do is save ourselves and make this costly for Israel. And it’ll be costly on us for a long period of time too.

That said, we’ve been proven to be a little bit more resilient. I think about this all the time — the resilience is amazing. The Israelis put up a checkpoint and people go around it. Men get imprisoned, and then go to court like a good Palestinian, and ask that they be allowed conjugal visits. The court says no, and then the Palestinians smuggle out sperm. I mean, where does this exist? The resilience is mind blowing! From as tiny a thing as checkpoints, to the demolition of schools and the fact that people continue to rebuild, that people aren’t going away even though they live in Area C and they know that their homes are under threat of demolition. There’s a resilience there that the PA hasn’t tapped into.

What do you think about possibility of resurgence of violent resistance?

I don’t think that that’s going to happen. If it were going to happen, it would have happened. The Israelis let loose during this period of negotiations, with more than 60 Palestinians killed, bombing in Gaza, continued imprisonment of Palestinians at even higher rates than before, land confiscation, home demolitions, and the building of more settlements.

The one issue touching on the religious aspect? They’ve already been doing it by going to Al-Aqsa and depriving Palestinians of the ability to attend Easter processions. All the elements are there, and yet Palestinians have behaved with incredible restraint. I don’t see that its going to be a return to violence, but I also don’t have a crystal ball. This might be a powder keg and there might be a spark that happens tomorrow. But it would have happened whether there was a national unity agreement or not.