An Afternoon in Ramallah

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Today was devoted to meetings with various leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Our group met first with Hanan Ashrawi, the well-known Palestinian leader, negotiator and academic – and currently a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. (That’s her above, on the right, together with me and fellow trip member Susie Coliver).

Ashrawi greeted us warmly but told us we were visiting during a very difficult time for the community. As we had been told by many Israelis and Palestinians previously, we heard grave disappointment from her that the promises made post-Annapolis are not matched by the reality on the ground, and most troubling, that there is an increasing skepticism among Palestinians over the viability of a two-state solution.

Ashrawi explained that this was an inevitable response to the despair of their daily reality: the clamping down at the checkpoints, the growth of settlements and outposts, and the increasing violence of the settlers. Ashrawi said to us sadly that she believed Palestinians who believe in the two-state solution (like herself) are now a distinct minority. Interestingly, she also told us she believes that while Palestinian intellectuals and solidarity groups abroad tend to advocate a one-state solution from an ideological point of view, Palestinians in the territories are essentially coming this position due to the dismal reality of their situation

She also had a great deal to say about the lack of trust that Palestinians have in Bush and Blair, and the increasingly stagnant economic straits in the West Bank. I was most struck, however, by her analysis of the situation in Gaza. Ashrawi believes Hamas is quickly losing support of Gazans – largely because of the brutal way they took power and the harsh nature of their Islamic fundamentalist rule. Ironically, she says the economic blockade imposed by the US and Europe really only serves to strengthen their popularity. (This was not the first time we have heard such an analysis.)

We also visited with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayed at his office (below). By contrast, Fayed told us that compared to where life was in 2006 (i.e, the Hamas coup in Gaza, Israel’s war in Lebanon), he felt there had been important progress. In particular, he pointed to the PA’s implementation of their security plan in Nablus, where the police were recently able to disarm gunmen and curb local violence. These measures were an important part of their commitments to the first phase of the Road Map – and Fayed he felt that this had improved life for Palestinians to an important extent. (From his point of view, there was still critical work to be done in the area of services and social welfare.)

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It was interesting that while Ashrawi chose to focus on the overall political reality, Fayed chose to speak about local Palestinian politics – and though the PA admittedly has limited power to institute change, he saw their efforts beginning to bear meaningful fruit. It seems to me that the difference in the presentations stemmed largely from their respective points of view: Ashrawi is a political veteran who has been in the trenches for many years. She has seen the rise and fall of the Palestinians’ political fortunes – and while some of our group heard her words as largely pessimistic, it seemed to me that she was simply relating to us the hard reality of the situation as she saw it. Fayed, on the other hand, is a political technocrat. As a prominent international economist, it seems that he understands the way systems operate – particularly the slow and gradual nature of progress in the life of a community. In end, despite what we might think about the nature of their leadership. both Ashrawi and Fayed represent the forces of moderation in the Palestinian community – and do I believe they need our support now more than ever.

Back in Jerusalem, we had dinner with Tsvia Greenfield, a remarkable woman from the ultra-orthodox community who is also a member of the Meretz party slate. (If Meretz had received one more seat in the last election, she would now be a member of Knesset.) Here is a woman who single handedly dispels many of our preconceptions of a Haredi woman: she received her MA in philosophy from Hebrew University, helped found the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, supports religious pluralism, a two-state solution, and gay/lesbian rights. (Yes, you heard me correctly!)

Tomorrow it’s back to West Bank for the last full day of our trip. Among other things, we’ll be visiting with a settler family in Gush Etzion. There’s still more to come…

3 Replies to “An Afternoon in Ramallah”

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Ashrawi’s comments on the very nature of Israel. The following is from Anna Freedman’s account of your meeting:
    http://btvshalom.org/resources/brit_tzedek_20080117.shtml

    Finally, Dr. Ashrawi expressed her general dislike for nation-building on the basis of identity politics. Specifically, this would mean defining a state solely by one or more characteristic of its people, including race, religion, or ethnicity. She posits that any state, Israel included, should be a state for all its citizens. This statement really called into question the idea of a Jewish state, and elicited a strong emotional reaction from some members of our group. The question called up in me a very difficult question: In a nation where the separation of church and state is written into the First Amendment of our constitution, how can we, as Americans, also be Zionists, believing in the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state?

  2. Yes, indeed, that was a powerful aspect of our discussion and one I think Anna described very well. I think that part of our discussion with Ashrawi challenged many of us to examine our preconceptions about nationalism and identity as Americans and Jews. At the same time, I thought she was remarkably open to hear some members of our group when they discussed their vision of Zionism – one that is based Jewish peoplehood, one in which there is a true separation of religion and state and one that truly extends equal rights to all its citizens At the end of the day, Ashrawi told us Israel’s insistence on the recognition of their “right to exist as a Jewish state” is somewhat moot in the current circumstances. In essence, her messsage was “Israel exists as a Jewish state whether I like it or not. It’s clearly not going away, so let’s see if we can find a way for our two nations to live in two side by side states before it’s too late…”

  3. One has to wonder how a Palestinian (or any other)nationalist can challenge the concept of “identity politics.” While Dr. Ashrawi is a respected voice in the west, in terms of Palestinian nationalism and the Palestinian nationalist movement, she appears to be another in a long line of failed politicians (we’ve got more than our share of those as well.) In her role as an Arafat aide/advisor, she did not bring her people to peace or even a “partial” state. As a human rights activist — the mission which she tried to recreate for herself — she did little to reform or increase human rights within the PA. And as a non-Muslim, she has done little to stop the increasing Islamist disrimination within the PA and the areas. She has done little to make it a secular state. One could argue that through her silence, she has played a role in making it worse.

    Like many politicians in that region, she may be an effective spokesperson toward the west, but I’m not sure she’s a leading voice there. While Prime Minister Fayed apparently made some reference to Palestinian confidence building measures toward Israel and Israelis, I didn’t see any such reference from Dr. Ashrawi in either Rabbi Rosen or Ms. Freeman’s comments.

    Again, thanks very much to you and the members of your group for bringing us the range of views that you gained on your trip.

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