Salah Ta'amri – Senior Fatah Leader – Governor of Bethlehem

As part of the Annapolis process, a big investment conference is to be held later this month. It was clearly expected that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were to be well advanced by this stage – but they are not. So, the conference will be taking place in a surreal landscape, where there are daily – and nightly – incursions into Bethlehem by Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli security services, almost always ending with arrests, sometimes with deaths. Bethlehem’s governor, the legendary Fatah commander Salah Ta’amri, this is like a scene from a Chekov play, yet, he says, the conference should go on.

Yet, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is now making a major push to boost attendance at this Palestine Investment Conference, and announced that she will be sending a delegation co-headed by private U.S. investors including Palestinian Americans, and a senior U.S. State Department Official.

But, a recent World Bank paper destined for donor nations meeting in London this week said that “While the PA (Palestinian Authority) has moved ahead with its economic reforms, albeit slowly, there has been little progress on relaxing movement and access constraints”. The report said that the impact of these restrictions, including hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank, “cannot be overestimated”, Reuters reported. So, the $7.7 billion pledged by donors in December may not have the intended effect, without major change.

In this interview, Ta’amri reflects on the upcoming investment conference, on the current situation, and on the past and the near future.

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Question: How are preparations going for the Palestine Investment Conference that will be held in Bethlehem from 21-23 May?

Answer: Many people have their doubts about the conference, because of the closure, because of the Israeli measures, because of the lack of mobility for the Palestinians, because of The Wall. So, many Palestinians have their doubts about the possibilities of success of such a conference.

I believe it’s good to have this conference. I think it reflects support for the Palestinian people, political support. There is, there could be an opportunity for some investors, Palestinian investors. But the least I expect from this conference is, as I said to the local committee for the conference in Bethlehem yesterday, we’ll assume that two families want their son and daughter to get married in Bethlehem, and they booked every room in every hotel in Bethlehem. That is good.

Of course, we don’t have very high expectations from such a conference, again, not because there are no fields for investment – in fact, there are many fields for investment – but because of the Israeli measures. Even you as a reporter have difficulties in movement. That makes you imagine the difficulties Palestinians go through, whenever they move from one town to another.

So, I hope the conference will convene. I hope some cooperation between non-Palestinian investors and Palestinian investors takes place. Most of the guests or the investors who are coming from abroad, most of them are Palestinians, living abroad, and some Arabs, whether from the Gulf or from the States, or Latin America, or Europe. I think that is good. I think that is good. It is badly needed at this time of duress.

Q: Do you know who is coming?

A: So far, we haven’t verified the list. Over 350 guests are coming, so far. So far.

Q: Will it just be a conference of businessmen, or will there be political officials as well?

A: No, it’s business.

Q: And, are there specific investment opportunities that will be offered to them?

A: Yes, I think there are investments [investment proposals] for about $1.8 billion, almost $2 billion dollars.

Q: Are these Tony Blair’s proposals, these investment proposals?

A: No, the proposals came from the private sector, mainly the private sector, mainly the private sector. So far, in Bethlehem itself we have two major investment areas – cloth making and stone factories, and the handcrafts for Christmas. And, of course, tourism is the main investment when we talk about Bethlehem. But, although it will be convened in Bethlehem, it’s for the whole of Palestine.

Q: Do you have a breakdown?

A: No, it all depends. It depends on how things go during the conference, who connects with whom. It all depends also on the PR work of every investor. We’ll help them comment. They will know about every investor, whether those who came from abroad, or the local investors, they will know about each other, they can connect, they can plan together. But it’s mainly the private sector.

Q: Have you had contact with the Palestinians who are coming abroad for this meeting?

A: Yes, of course.

Q: Why would they come now, if they haven’t been willing to invest before?

A. To tell you the truth, many of them were very enthusiastic to come over the past 12 years and invest here, especially in Bethlehem 2000. But, the deterioration in the political situation made them refrain, and many of them had to leave. Again, it’s the Israeli measures, it’s the political situation that reflects itself on the economy, the lack of progress on the political track, all those are elements that hinder and sabotage any plans for major investment in Palestine.

Q: Are there going to be any guarantees for these investments, risk guarantees?

A: Well, I have no idea. With all honesty, regarding the Palestinians yes, if you talk about the law, yes, investments are guaranteed, are protected by the law. But, again, the freedom of mobility is not in the hands of the Authority, it’s in the hands of the Israelis. The borders are in the hands of the Israelis. So, we cannot give guarantees of freedom of mobility. It’s in the hands of the Israelis. And even the progress at the political level, it’s in the hands of the Israelis.

Q: Even the special measures that are being adopted for this conference, to facilitate the passage of the guests – do you thing they’ll be sufficient to make people comfortable, are they going to be driven around in buses, escorted by Israeli military jeeps with flashing lights? Are they going to have to take everything out of their suitcases when they come across Allenby Bridge?

A: Well, it all depends on the Israelis, I told you. I have no idea. They say they will make it easy, etc., the same way they said about roadblocks. They said they removed many roadblocks. In fact, from what we see in Bethlehem, no roadblocks were removed. We still are delayed at the main roadblock on the back road (Wadi Nar) between Bethlehem and Ramallah. And we see roadblocks everywhere around Bethlehem. And The Wall is still creeping on. So, they promised to make things easy – that’s what Dr. Abu Libdeh told me. But so far we haven’t seen any changes on the ground.

Q: Did they tell you what specific measures they were going to use to make things easy?
Did they make anything clear?

A: So far, no. I don’t have contacts with the Israelis, so I depend on what my colleagues tell me.

Q: Even for this conference, you don’t have contacts with them?

A: No. I don’t have contacts with them.

Q: Is it your choice?

A: It happened that way. In the past I had contacts with them. When I was in a prison camp, I was the main negotiator; I had contacts with them when I negotiated the departure of the deportees from the Church of the Nativity. I met with many Israeli officials when I was in the Legislative Council, at their request. But as a Governor, no, I don’t have contacts with them. There is a liaison officer (on the Palestinian side) who’s in charge of contacts with them.

Q: Is it a satisfactory arrangement, do you think?

A: Well, I mean, as long as it is implemented, it will be satisfactory, I think. But, will it be implemented or not? We have to wait and see.

Q: When Tony Blair stayed overnight in Bethlehem, he was actually right by The Wall, by the main checkpoint – just in case. But, that same night, there were Israeli arrests of citizens…

A: Oh, the incursions are every night. Every day there are Israeli incursions in Bethlehem.

Q: It’s actually a little bit bizarre, because the hotel people and everybody involved in the tourism sector is ecstatic that all the rooms in Bethlehem are actually full now and have been, and yet at the same time these incursions are going on now while the tourists are – what, ignoring them? I don’t understand…

A: [Laughing]. It is the surreal theater. It’s one of Chekov’s plays. We Palestinians are used to working / walking on a tightrope.

Q: Is it something you think the tourists should just be ignoring?

A: Sometimes, we have to. Or else we’ll go bananas. At some point, you need to ignore the occupation. Just ignore them, as if they are non-existent! If we don’t do that, we will not move forward, we will not even leave our homes. We will not even leave our bedrooms, even. We breathe danger. We drink in danger. We walk in danger, surrounded by danger. We plan for our future when there is a siege or a blockade, or a curfew – we have to do so. We have to ignore them. And we do.

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Q: How do you feel about the present state of negotiations?

A: I did not negotiate, so I don’t know. But, from the statements of both sides, I don’t see any progress. They say there is no progress. So…

Q: They also say, oh, it’s secret, we’re not telling the journalists, and we’re not making it public – but there’s really progress behind closed doors.

A: Well, I’m not a journalist. I’m one of the leading figures in the Authority, and in Fateh, and the PLO, and I know there is no progress. They speak about reaching an agreement before the end of President Bush’s term, but I don’t see how, I don’t see how.

Q: What is the President [Abbas] doing, then?

A: He is doing the impossible, trying to make a breakthrough in the situation. He cannot, he doesn’t have the luxury of giving in to despair. I think he will give it some time before he stops to reassess the situation and take a stand, whether to go on or to say goodbye to negotiations or to go to the international community and ask them to come and take over. Things are not moving anywhere.

Q: Is President Abbas making the decisions himself, or is there, does he have a group of close advisers…

A: No, we have the Council of the PLO, the Central and the National Council of the PLO. He has the advisers. He has Fateh with all the hierarchies of Fatah. So, no, he doesn’t work in isolation.

Q: So, even in the negotiations, every decision he will have to take …

A: Of course, he cannot take decisions by himself. Abu Alaa’ is a member of the Central Committee of Fatah, and he was the speaker of the Legislative Council, he is the main figure in the Fatah organization and mobilization, and he is the chief negotiator. So there’s a group of very intelligent, very capable, people with the President.

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Q: Why did you not meet Jimmy Carter when he was here? Why didn’t he come to Bethlehem?

A: [Laughing] Maybe he’s not a believer, to come to the Church of the Nativity. I don’t know. You’d better ask him. He didn’t come to Bethlehem…maybe he doesn’t go to Church. Does he? I thought he was religious. I think he’s religious. I like him. I think I met him during the first elections, when I ran for the Legislative Council…no, it was his daughter who came to Bethlehem. I like Carter. He represents the American people the way the American people think themselves to be, which they are not.

Q: What did you make of his meetings with Hamas?

A: Well, that was his own business, I mean. He’s free to meet with whoever he wants to meet with. And his intentions were good, and the man should be judged by his intentions and motives, and his intentions were good and honorable.

Q: Do you have any word of what happening in Cairo in the negotiations among the Palestinian factions and Egypt about a cease-fire?

A: To tell you the truth, I didn’t pay it much attention.

Q: Do you think it’s hopeless?

A. Not hopeless, I think it’s sometimes it’s … there are so many words but no deeds, and many of the statements do not reflect genuine thinking or genuine intentions. I mean, to say that we need, to reach a truce is very important. It will help our people in Gaza, it will ease up things for them. It’s unfair to make our people in Gaza go through what they are going through. And, if the Egyptians manage to reach an agreement of reconciliation between Hamas and the Israelis, that would be good…The situation in Gaza is tragic, and it will explode sooner or later.

Q: It may explode sooner – the situation with the fuel is terrible…

A: The fuel and everything. You know, everybody in the world is complaining about the increase in prices of bread, wheat, fuel, etc., without being under siege. So, you can imagine how things are in Gaza.

Q: Hamas, according to Reuters, is asking the Association of Petroleum station owners to release the fuel stored in Nahal Oz, but they are refusing because the quantities are not sufficient, and it gives them security problems at their gas stations that nobody protects them from. And, in Ramallah, Mojahad Salama said yesterday that Hamas took fuel from the Palestinian Authority depot…it’s completely chaotic.

A: Yeah, well, Hamas is politically-motivated in Gaza, and I don’t think it’s in their interest to allow fuel to come into Gaza. I think they are mobilizing the people in Gaza.
[Interruption for a phone call]

I’m reflecting my own views. I think this dialog between Fatah and Hamas, and between others and Hamas, I think it’s a dialog between the deaf. I believe the practical solution is elections. If Hamas wins again, that means this is the will of our people. Let them take over. Fatah can turn into the opposition. I hope in the next elections, the result would be more balanced, not like the one which Hamas won by a large majority. Hamas didn’t really … Hamas spoke about reform more than they spoke about resistance. Many Fatah people went for Hamas in the elections, as if they are taking revenge at themselves, at Fatah, at the Authority. They wanted reform. It’s not true that they adopted Hamas’s strategy of suicide bombings, and escalation in the military field. In brief, in my view, the last elections reflected the mood of the Palestinian people at a certain moment, and not the will of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people were in a certain mood, they elected Hamas, now I hope it’s different. We need a more balanced Legislative Council.

Q: Are the next elections going to be for the next president, or for the Legislative Council?

A: Both, it should be for both, at the same time. I don’t think there would be a break-through in the relations, a positive breakthrough in the relations between Fatah and Hamas before the elections.

Q: Will Mahmoud Abbas run again?

A: I don’t really know. That’s premature to tell.

Q: His term was supposed to end in 2009, at the beginning of 2009, and now there are reports that he either has already, or is considering, extending it by one year, until 2010…

A. That’s new. It could be. I am reflecting my own views. My own view, my own conviction: this is a dialog between the deaf. My own conviction: we need to drag ourselves without losing hope until we reach the time of the elections, new elections.

Q: What was interesting in Jimmy Carter’s summary of his trip was that he said he added to the agreements he got from Hamas a statement saying they would accept a peace deal that was approved by an elected government, as an alternative to ratification through a referendum. His OpEd in the New York Times this week seemed to suggest that Hamas meant even a new elected government, not going back to the now-disbanded National Unity Government.

A: Well, no government can be elected. Governments are not elected, governments are appointed. It is the Legislative Council that is elected. Anyway, I believe any agreement with Israel needs the people’s support. And, I don’t think Hamas accepts that; they don’t want that. Anyway, the situation is complex. It is in Israel’s favor. This split between Gaza and the West Bank is in Israel’s favor. Hamas will not give up their power in Gaza. It seems that it is true, they want to represent an Islamic model for the world. I hope that will not be the case. Hamas turned its back to our heritage, national heritage. That was a big mistake.

Q: What part of the national heritage did they turn their back on?

A: We are Palestinian Arabs. We are a national movement who did not become part of any regional alliance. We were not part of these conflicts, we were the mediators. And it was one of Arafat’s merits that he did not take sides, he was a mediator. He was a mediator between Algiers and Morocco, between Libya and Egypt, between at some point Syria and Iraq, and at some time between Iraq and Iran, between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. But Hamas launched us into the middle of a regional conflict, andsided with Iran. That means we lost our ability to be mediators. That means our issue was brought back to square number one. And they turned their back to all the agreement which were endorsed by the international community. It was not easy for us to be accepted by the international community. I remember the time when we were boycotted, even as students. And to become members of the United Nations, and to attend the General Assembly in the United Nations, to have more countries recognizing the PLO than Israel – that didn’t come without a price, that didn’t come without hard work on our part. Hamas can’t turn its back on this, and Hamas should build on what we have achieved.

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Q: What about the plans for the Fatah Seventh General Conference?

A: Sixth, you mean. I hope it will come soon.

Q: What’s the problem? It was supposed to have been held already…

A: Yeah, because we have to bring thousands of cadres in one place from all over the world, from Australia to Canada, from India to China to Europe to Africa, from everywhere we have to bring our central cadres.

Q: Where will it be held, then?

A: Well, that is to be decided. It’s not easy. In the past we convened in Syria…yes, and it was not easy. It needs protection. I mean, you have all the leading cadres in one place. That is not easy. That is dangerous.

Q: What do you think is the safe place to hold it?

A: We need to look for the safe formula. Then, the safe place.

Q: Is it being held up though, more for political disagreements about who will succeed whom, who will be elected, this reported disputed between the Old Guard and the Young…

A: That could be in the minds of some people. I belong to the Old Guard. But I want the conference convened. I’m keen to see younger leaders taking over. But that doesn’t mean every Old Guard has the same way of thinking. Nor every Young Guard has the same way of thinking. You will find different people with different views, with different motives. But on the whole, I think it will be convened. We had a very important conference in Bethlehem less than a month ago, when the district elected their own leading body. Something like 1,500 members convened. And it was free elections. They elected from the smallest framework to the largest, at the level of the district.

Q: Was there any change in the composition of the bodies?

A: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

Q: In what direction?

A: The old leading body, none of them came to the new leading body. Nobody came. And there are more women, which is good. There is a deeper representation of the community than before.

Q: Meaning?

A: I mean, the people from the villages could win, as well as people from the refugee camps, from Christians as well as from Muslims, which was good. And it was absolutely free, no intervention.

Q: And do these newly-elected younger members all have similar views, or are they very different from each other, and will have to find a common ground …

A: They are different. They are different. They are different from each other, they are different from [us]… Every generation has its own language. It applies to you, it applies to us, it applies to humanity. Every generation has its own language. Our generation had its own language. We loved poetry. We loved music. This generation, they talk computers. They breath computers, internet, etc. So it’s different, absolutely. They are different. Their minds are colder than our minds. We are more emotional. Our generation is more emotional than the new generation. We are more on the side of romanticism than the new generation. To us, 1 + 1 = 11. To them, , 1 + 1 = 2. Sometimes I feel that is the difference.

Q: In this new group that’s been elected, is there any difference between those who stayed here, and those who were on the outside and came back with Arafat?

A: No, I don’t think so. The only difference is in the collective memory. That’s all.
It is the collective memory that is different, that’s why it should be one of our objects to unify the memory, to create bridges between the collective memories of the Palestinians in the diaspora. The collective memory of Lebanon is different from the collective memory of the West Bank. The West Bank is different from Gaza, different from Syria, from Kuwait, etc. That’s the only difference – the collective memory.

Q: How do you think bridges can be built between these collective memories? Really, people here don’t know what you when through outside, they don’t know.

A: Well, by time they will know. By time, it will become part of our heritage.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: [Pause] Well, not deep regrets. I regret I smoked for 35 years.

Q: Have you stopped?

A: Oh, yes, six years ago. On small things, I have my own regrets, on small things. But not on major things in my life.

Q: And in terms of the movement, the Fatah movement, the Palestinian movement?

A: No, no, no, I have no regrets. I joined it when I was a kid, and I have no regrets. But on minor things, yes, I have regrets.

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Q: Can I ask one last question? I know it’s a difficult one, and I’ve lost friends because of discussions of this very issue. But, when the matter was raised, before the Annapolis Conference, about the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the Palestinian reaction was so negative. I don’t understand…

A: Because it’s not a Jewish state, because there are non-Jews in it. And they are not a small minority.

Q: But for the people who feel insecure…

A: We are not going to respond to the Jewish paranoia. Every time they are paranoid about something, we have to cut our noses to please them. If they are paranoid, they’d better do something about it.

Q: But it doesn’t cost anything…

A: No, it does, to us it does.

Q: It doesn’t mean that the refugees can’t return. It doesn’t mean that the Arab citizens of Israel will be expelled…

A: Well, they cannot even talk about return.

Q. But if they feel deeply insecure about this …

A. That’s not our problem! No. That doesn’t show any kind of recognition of the Palestinian people’s rights by the Israelis. I mean, first of all, we pay the price for a crime that was not ours. We did not invent Nazism. Nazism was the invention of Europe, Christian Europe. And if Nazism won, we would have been second on the list to be uprooted, and terminated. We paid the price, the international community paid the price, not only the Jews. And that was not our invention. It was a European invention. Why should we pay the price for that?

Q: Because now, you have to live with them.

A: Yes, because we have to live with them, they have to accept the fact that, no, Israel is not a Jewish state, because when you say a Jewish state, that means tomorrow, yeah, go out! Leave! You will recognize us as a Jewish state, we do not want non-Jews amongst us.

Q: Maybe it doesn’t mean that …

A: Maybe it does.

Q: Can’t you ask for guarantees? Even international guarantees?

A: Well, we are not going to get any guarantees better than the guarantees – the mother and the four kids who were killed a couple of days ago, and the many Palestinian children who were killed, and the 12,000 prisoners who are in jail. No, I think the Israelis should deal with their paranoia, I think the world should also deal with their sensitivity and cowardice when it comes to Israel. Why should Israel get away with whatever they do?

We don’t hate the Jews. We hate occupation. It’s not my mistake, it’s not my fault that the occupiers are Jewish. We hate occupation. The minute they become non-occupiers, then we are not going to hate them. So, I believe this is a very sensitive issue to the Palestinians. We have our own insecurities. And this year we are celebrating 60 years of Nakbah. It started yesterday, and I don’t think Palestinians will forget their country, will forget their villages, the 380 villages which were uprooted, and disappeared from the face of the earth, for somebody coming from Poland living there.

They have the right to be afraid, they have the right…[No]. Their security lies in their positive and peaceful coexistence with us.

The saying goes: “We are doomed to be together”. We can turn it into: We are blessed to live together. It all depends on how do we educate ourselves, how do we accept each other.

But, coexistence as occupier and under occupation, like slaves and masters, it doesn’t go, it doesn’t work. Living under occupation is a form of slavery. And we cannot be, we don’t accept to be slaves forever. It’s whether we become free or not free. There’s no half-way between slavery and non-slavery.

To us, peace means freedom.

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