Mustafa Barghouti on Gaza, the unity government and Palestinian elections
"Immediately after the war Israel initiated a political and a propaganda campaign, including distributing false information about a coup d'état that was prepared in the West Bank, to divert Palestinians from unity. In other words Netanyahu is trying to achieve in political means what he failed to achieve in military ways. And we should not let him."
Sitting in a central London hotel, the General Secretary of the Palestinian Initiative is recounting a story from Israel's latest war on the Gaza Strip. Mustafa Barghouti was in the besieged territory during the latest Israeli bombardment; he met an 82 year-old man who had spent his life building a home for his family of 28 children and grandchildren. One day the old man woke up, went to the mosque for prayers and when he came back he found nothing. The whole house had been destroyed and all 28 members of his family had been killed.
"What can you say to such a man?" he asks. "It's so inhuman; I don't know what's happening to the world. I've seen atrocities beyond description. If somebody told me that story maybe I'd find it difficult to believe, but this is what I've seen with my own eyes. I've seen many families completely annihilated."
Barghouti has come to the UK to speak at the National Lobby of Parliament on Palestine. "I want to tell them the truth about what happened in Gaza," he says. "What I've seen there is unprecedented in terms of devastation and acts of genocide. The way the Israeli army behaved and the violation of human rights. There were war crimes and crimes against humanity."
It is "insulting" and "humiliating" that world leaders continue to talk about Israel's right to defend itself but say nothing of these same rights for Palestinians, continues Barghouti, especially given that it is Palestinians who have been dispossessed and are living under occupation. "If the world loses its sensitivity to such suffering and the Palestinians become just statistics, then there is something very seriously wrong with the world."
A driving force behind Israel's attack was to kill Palestinian unity, he believes, referring to the unity government that was sworn-in in June, as agreed by the two key Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas. During the war Netanyahu tried to occupy Gaza but failed thanks to the "heroic Palestinian resistance", and so has moved on to fighting an administrative battle.
"Immediately after the war Israel initiated a political and a propaganda campaign, including distributing false information about a coup d'état that was prepared in the West Bank, to divert Palestinians from unity. In other words Netanyahu is trying to achieve in political means what he failed to achieve in military ways. We should not let him," Barghouti insists.
"There is a lot of pressure from Israel and certain world leaders to break the unity because they want us weak. This is their way of dehumanising Palestinians. They tried to claim that this war was only against Hamas. But in reality this was against all Palestinians and they killed all Palestinians. It was not a war on Hamas; it was a war on the Palestinian people." Part of Israel's propaganda effort saw Netanyahu equate Hamas with ISIS so that he could portray the attack on Gaza as a war against terrorists.
Holding elections was a central part of the unity government agreement, but Barghouti doesn't believe that Palestinians will go to the polls. "I don't think any side wants to have elections. I don't think Israel wants us to have elections. If we do have elections they want us to choose the people that Israel wants. They can't impose that on us so I think that's why they don't want elections."
The main goal of the Israeli government, he claims, is to prevent Palestinians from having a free and independent state with a normal economy and freedom of movement. "What would people in the United Kingdom say if somebody said that because you live in London you can't go to Yorkshire, you can't go to Birmingham, you can't go to Liverpool?"
That the Palestinian right to self-determination is being denied systematically is clear to Barghouti; PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has so far gained nothing from negotiations with Netanyahu, just like nothing was gained from Oslo.
"Oslo is dead," he states flatly. Along with the US and some western efforts Oslo reduced the Israel-Palestine conflict to a dispute between two parties who are equally guilty and must find a way to solve their own internal problems. "In my opinion the Oslo process was the most genius idea the Israelis had to get rid of the impression that the world had during the first Intifada, that Israel is an occupying force oppressing occupied people."
The issue should be seen as a struggle by Palestinians who are demanding freedom from occupation and oppression, rather than a dispute between two sides over a disputed piece of land. What's stopping that from happening, and allowing Israel to continue to launch wars on Palestinians, is that they are not held accountable for their actions. "Israel would not have dared to commit such a level of atrocity if it wasn't for the complicity of many world leaders and if it wasn't for the fact that the Israeli narrative dominated the media for at least the first two weeks," Barghouti points out.
"That's why I think relying on negotiations with Israel alone is not going to lead anywhere as long as the balance of power is not changed. I think that hoping that the United States will put pressure on Israel is a false hope; the only way to change the situation in my opinion is through changing the balance of power through popular, non-violent resistance first, through BDS second, through Palestinian unity and also through helping the steadfastness of people on the ground. People are not going to give up."
According to Barghouti, Israel should be taken to the International Criminal Court and treated more severely than South Africa was. He believes that it would help if sanctions were placed on the country and the arms trade was stopped. "Israel has to understand that there is a price to pay for what it is doing. Unless the occupation, apartheid and oppression become costly, nothing will change."
Still, Barghouti describes the war on Gaza as a "turning point", explaining that inside Palestine the most successful boycott campaign they have ever seen is taking place. He believes that it will only gain traction from here as the Palestinian Initiative has already managed to bring down the consumption of most products by 50 per cent.
What would help this effort are stronger voices from Britain and Germany standing against military co-operation with Israel. But this is not going to be easy; Israel has a lot of vested interests in maintaining the status quo. "You're talking about a huge military-industrial complex which is using Gaza and Palestinians as a testing ground for warfare. If you saw the kind of weapons they used you would be so surprised. There is a huge military industry; Israel is now the third largest military exporter in the world and they make money. So there is a huge personal interest."
As far as this particular Palestinian politician is concerned, Israel has become a colonial, imperial power with a military-industrial complex. Of that he has no doubt. "The army itself is nothing but part of that complex because all these generals eventually become heads of companies that sell weapons and security apparatus." It is through their propaganda and extremists like Netanyahu and Lieberman that they've made the whole Israeli public racist, Moustafa Barghouti claims. "Of course it's not in the interest of anybody at the end of the day but the people who say that are those who have no particular self-interest, and the government in Israel is in the hands of those who do have such interests."
"Israel," he adds, almost as an afterthought, "is now the most immoral country in the world."
Published in Middle East Monitor