In Focus: Sam Bahour
In this interview, we talk with the Palestinian-American who helped create a billion-dollar Palestinian telecommunications network and Ramallah's first western-style mall - about Trump, Oslo, and hope.
"We've had two intifadas as they’ve been called and they’ve been two very different kinds of events. One was a popular uprising and civil society was in the lead. It was for the most part nonviolent. The second what we call intifada that started in the year 2000 was an armed conflict between the Israeli Military and the Palestinian side. If you didn’t know how to shoot a gun in the second intifada you sat home and watched it on TV like I did."
This week we have a very special guest. He couldn’t come to see us so we went to see him. Live from Ramallah this is “General Ike”, with “Building Jerusalem”.
We’re here in the Pronto Café in Ramallah with Sam Bahour and we’re here to discuss Palestinian issues today – including Palestinian telecommunications; current life in the West Bank; and what Trump’s actions and lack of action over Charlottesville mean for the region here. So, Sam, hi.
It’s good to have you here.
Thank you, good to be here.
I was hoping we could start with just a bit of background about you. You were born in Ohio, I believe.
Yes I was born in Youngstown, Ohio, to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese-American mother. I was very active on Palestinian affairs during my upbringing and my college/university years and – long story short – I relocated to Palestine right after the Oslo Peace Accords were signed. The Accords were signed in September ‘93. I moved here in ‘94 and I was hired to implement one part of the accords, which was the creation of a separate and independent telecommunications network – that, today is called Paltel. It’s not separate and it’s not independent because the Israelis never gave us the ability to do that, but it is the largest private sector company in Palestine. Today it is a billion dollar company on the stock exchange and is a very successful company financially and otherwise – but it’s not yet separate and independent, because of the restrictions that Israel places on the sector. I have since left that company and I opened up my consulting firm – Applied Information Management – and I've been working in consulting ever since 1997 when I established the firm. In 1999 I was hired to put together the first Palestinian shopping center, a proper western-oriented shopping center. It’s called the Plaza Shopping Center. Everyone here calls it a Mall but it’s a shopping center; it’s not a mall, and that was completed during the days of the second intifada which was very challenging – and now I'm back fulltime into consultancy. I spend about 70% of my time in business consultancy and about 30% of my time donating time to civil society – talking to groups coming through; writing; speaking; I'm involved in a whole bunch of different kinds of NGOs, everything from the Palestinian Policy Network, from a political aspect, all the way to the Palestinian Circus School.
Okay so I remember you mentioned something about coming to see, moving back here after living in America and reading the Oslo Accords and I remember hearing you say that your reaction with reading it was ‘this will never work’.
Right. I actually need to make a correction. I didn’t come back to Palestine. I relocated to Palestine having been born in Ohio: I'm a full scale American, just as much as Trump (which is not necessarily something good these days). So when I took a decision to relocate it was to relocate from the US – being a US citizen – to Palestine. Unlike my wife who was born here: she was coming back home. That’s just a technical correction but it means a lot – coming here on a US passport in 1994 meant that I could only be here as a tourist. It’s the only way Israel allows non-Palestinian born Palestinians to be here. So I had to go in and out of the country every 3 months for 15 years until finally I was able to process a residency status. Remember the borders are all controlled by Israel. The residency status is totally controlled by Israel so that was a headache: to leave every 3 months for 15 years is hefty, both in terms of cost and time, and also in terms of being very anxious: every time you leave the Israel side, is it going to allow you to come back in? All the meanwhile you're building a family, building a business and every 3 months it gets interrupted. I read the Accords when I was in Ohio, when I heard that the agreement was signed or announced. I couldn’t find a copy in Youngstown. Youngstown is not like on the brink of technology. We’re kind of a little bit behind the times. Luckily I found a copy at the Jewish Community Center and was able to read it in full and I have jokingly said that I'm one of 12 Palestinians worldwide that actually read the agreement. Everyone likes to critique it but very few people have dived into the details of the agreement. I did, before coming, and I came to the conclusion that – you know – which is ‘this is not going to work – this is setting us up for a failure’. The agreement was so lopsided and is so lopsided that even without additional Israeli restrictions, just what's embedded and codified in the agreement made it sound like, to me, that we’re not going to be able to make anything change in the reality on the ground. I don’t take pride in being right on this, but not only were the restrictions very restrictive, but they also were accompanied by yet additional, un-codified restrictions that Israel placed on us which has made our life living hell.
Having said that, we’re very resilient people and we were able, and are able, to wake up in the morning and go to work and try to make the best with what we have; but I think that we may have reached our limit. I don't think we can make much more strategic changes in the community without a different set of parameters and those different set of parameters is either peace and Palestine emerges as a full-scale state or some kind of rearrangement that is a little bit more even-handed in allowing us to build a different reality on the ground even if the occupation doesn’t end. One of those two things has to happen. I don't think we have a status quo, even though it’s been kind of quiet for the most part. I don’t think the quietness reflects the status quo. We have a deteriorating status quo. Every morning there's more settlement buildings, there's more house demolitions, there's more arrests. We are moving downward every day – even if there's not outright violence – and the international community needs to understand that that so-called quietness is actually a tinderbox about to explode. And that's why I feel there's a great sense of urgency to address these issues before we reach another downward-violent spiral which will be very, very difficult to get out of yet again.
Okay so this downward spiral ... – you mentioned that the way we’re headed now it could be worse than any of the previous intifadas?
I believe so. I mean the first thing, we use the word intifada as we know how to define it. That may be a misnomer.
We've had two intifadas as they’ve been called and they’ve been two very different kinds of events. One was a popular uprising and civil society was in the lead. It was for the most part nonviolent. The second what we call intifada that started in the year 2000 was an armed conflict between the Israeli Military and the Palestinian side. If you didn’t know how to shoot a gun in the second intifada you sat home and watched it on TV like I did.
So those are two different kinds of events. What I mean in terms of we might be heading towards a downward spiral of violence (this time being more dangerous) is the fact that the first intifada there was a civil society in the lead, there was a unified leadership on the Palestinian side.
In the second intifada the Palestine authority was in the lead. Today what we’re seeing are acts of violence which are individual. The Israelis are calling them lone wolf attacks, things that are not orchestrated, not politically organized and definitely not under one central command. That to me is a much more dangerous reality than having a popular uprising or a leadership that has asked its people to engage in a violent conflict.
Today we have individuals that are taking in their own hands the desire to disrupt the reality of occupation, and to me that can go so that one wrong shooting – all shootings are wrong, but one dramatically wrong shooting can turn the place upside down in 24 hours and I hold my breath that doesn’t happen; but the amount of acts of individual violence that we’re seeing, especially in Hebron, especially in Jerusalem...
I don’t think it’s by chance that those two places are seeing the acts of violence because those two places are under extreme attack by the Israeli Military. They are being suffocated in a serious way and the response has been these acts of individual violence. I give the Palestinian community at large a lot of credit that the vast majority of Palestinians are still constraining themselves to acting in a nonviolent way – even if that means doing nothing.
Because the reality on the ground – if it was placed in Ohio, I can guarantee you people wouldn’t be sitting at home waiting for the international community to come and resolve our issue: Americans (Trump included) would be invoking the second amendment and the right to bear arms and would have already clashed militarily with the other side.
Luckily we’re not there, luckily the Palestinian leadership (as weak as it may be) is maintaining a sense of a nonviolent posture for the community at large.
But as has been seen, that doesn’t mean that he can have control over every single individual – especially the individuals that are under Israeli security control, like in Jerusalem.
So when there's active violence in Jerusalem, I kind of chuckle when Netanyahu says it’s the PA’s fault. At the same time he says the East and West Jerusalem are the unified capital of the state of Israel which means it’s under Israeli security control. So you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you want the Palestinian authority to be responsible for the security situation in Jerusalem you have to give them the right to be able to operate in Jerusalem but you cannot deny them the right to operate in Jerusalem and then hold the Palestine authority accountable when something goes wrong in Jerusalem or even worse in Tel Aviv; so the situation to me is very, very crucial right now.
Could you tell me a little bit more about what the situation looks like day-to-day for you trying to operate your business?
Sure. I mean I have probably the least damage being done to my business because of the occupation. That doesn’t mean I get away with no damage. There is no company that gets away without any damage at all. My company is a knowledge-based company. So it’s a consulting firm. So basically I'm selling time and knowhow to clients. There’s no physical movement of products. Where there is physical movement of products immediately the border control and the border delays become an issue. I don't have to deal with that. I do have to deal with Israeli checkpoints and movement restrictions from Ramallah to any other location whether it be in the West Bank or definitely Jerusalem (which I don't have access to now because I have been given an Israeli residency card: I'm a West Bank resident, which is a residency status issued by the Israeli Military). The day I got that, I can no longer reach Jerusalem, unless I get Israeli Military permits to do so; and I don’t have access to Gaza, which is where 40% of our population under occupation live. So the movement and access becomes a restriction on my life like it does everyone else’s. I could have met you in Jerusalem if this was before May 2009, because before I got my Israeli residency I was a US citizen – which meant I had access to go to Jerusalem. The day I became a Palestinian in the Israeli system, I no longer have that access. So that’s one part of the constraint. Another part of the constraint is because I work in the business community we’re always trying to reach out to foreign direct investors whether it’s franchisors, investors, or startups abroad to use Palestinian skills, and we’re always faced with the following challenge: before people will deal with Palestine as a community of skilled laborers or engineers or otherwise, we always have to work through the political layer to convince them we have a stable enough society that we are able to have electricity so our computers work and having a connection. The outside world looks at the entire region as a conflict zone. They think that today there is an attack on every street. For us to be able to work through that stereotype to explain to foreign investors or people who are interested to work with us is a level of effort which is above and beyond what an average business person anywhere else in the world would have to do. So we have a double sell. We have to sell Palestine and then we have to sell our service. So that’s the business side of things.
You have a wallet that you like to show tourists coming through which I feel really gets that message across.
Can you describe what that wallet is and how it works?
Yes it’s basically my passport wallet
– It has the passport which I use (one of them – because I've had many), for 15 years, and it’s full of Israeli stamps, visa stamps because they used to stamp the visa every time we enter and because I had to cross the border every 3 months for 15 years I have a lot of stamps;
– and then I show the specific passport that when I tried to enter one time the Israeli side gave me a 3 month visa and they handwrote on my visa: “last permit” in Arabic, English and Hebrew (just in case I don't understand); and that was a shakeup for me. That meant I had 3 months to resolve my status or I would be forced to head back to the States or be separated from my family.
I lobbied very hard and I was able to finally get my residency status processed (again by the Israeli side – they're in control of the population registry) and I was issued an Israeli residency status which gives me the right to remain in the West Bank without having to leave every 3 months.
Also in that wallet are also a lot of permits that I have received from the Israeli Military because the day I got that residency status I no longer had access to Jerusalem.
I no longer had access to Israel.
I no longer had access to the Tel Aviv University where I graduated.
So any time I wanted to go to any of those locations (even until today), I have to request a permit from the Israeli Military, and if they issue the permit (I don’t always get it) – but if they issue a permit, it’s issued from 5 o’clock in the morning to 7 o’clock at night. And that allows me to go to a specific location and I have to be back in the West Bank by 7 o’clock and I show in that wallet about 50 copies of different permits ... and I have many more at home.
And then I show my business card, which to me is my validation – that I'm a business person; and I also then show a card in that wallet that Israel requires me to request from them which is a business card: it’s a magnetic card, where they validate, one card says that I'm security cleared, another card says I am a business person and have been vetted by the Israeli side and both of those cards are in addition to my Israeli issued residency card.
So those 3 documents are not my business card and not my passport – those are all Israeli issued documents which goes even further to show that every move in our life is controlled by an Israeli decision to allow us or not allow us to enter or to exit our city.
More recently I requested a permit, and for the first time ever, I was denied a permit to go to Jerusalem. And the reason, I was told – and it was given to me orally because they don’t document this stuff – is that “I don’t use my permits often enough”!
And that, kind of, ... I had to laugh – because some people don’t get permits at all and can’t go into Jerusalem; and when I get a permit, I use it when I'm supposed to use it – which is for business reasons.
So I have a meeting or 2 or 3, a month, and I was refused a permit because they said I don’t use it enough.
So I asked what does ‘enough’ mean? Do I have to use it every week? Every day?
And they said we can’t tell you, that’s a security issue.
So I have no idea what criteria are being applied to me; but I do know that I was refused the permit so I can’t come to visit you in Jerusalem – this is just 2 weeks old.
Jeez, man (they laugh).
That will be the next part of my story next time I give a talk.
The story kind of never finishes. There's always something new. There's always a new restriction, a new requirement, a very absurd arbitrary kind of decision that basically keeps us very off-balance.
I actually think the purpose of all of these is to make life so miserable that people take a decision individually just to leave. I didn’t come here to leave so they're playing with the wrong person. I'm not going to leave because of a restriction in movement and access.
Wow that really sucks to hear man.
Sorry for the very long story.
That’s exactly what I'm here to hear. Do you have the wallet on you now?
It’s in the car.
It’s in the car?
I just want to try and describe physically what it’s like carrying that.
You can see it as I take you back to the bus station.
Yeah sure. For our listeners, I want to just try to describe what it’s like carrying this thing. It’s, you sort of open it and there's like a wallet, there's a passport there and just these endless attachments all like stapled together, sown together.
Separate pieces of paper.
Separate pieces of paper.
Each one is by itself yeah.
And it just feels like a sort of.
Like an accordion (they laugh).
Like an accordion that’s exactly what it’s like. It feels like some monstrosity out of Kafka.
You know bureaucracy finally managing to strangle a person into ... security.
So all of this stuff, the sort of sense of futility that comes from having every aspect of your life regulated by an authority that you don't understand but you have no recourse to. What is that doing right now to the psyche of the people you interact with, to the people that you know?
That’s a hard question.
I mean I mentioned earlier that I believe a lot of the youth are losing hope – which to me is worse than anything else. If you’re losing hope then you don’t see a reason to live.
That’s different from feeling that there's a weakness in the process or the peace process hit a hiccup. Throughout the years there's been many ups and downs, but hope is something the Palestinians cherish; it’s kind of what keeps us ticking.
As we’re seeing these individual acts of violence I claim a lot of that is people who have found themselves in a corner with no way out and violence is the way they're articulating the way out.
They know very well what are the ramifications of a violent act. Israel has not hesitated to articulate and to show in practice that if you engage in a violent act you will be killed without a second thought – and yet people are engaging in violence.
That says people are not seeing the value of living. That's a dangerous reality.
Definitely there's a part of the community – I would like to say it’s a minority part of the community – which has reached that kind of loss of hope.
There's a much more dangerous reality which is: what is the effect of this occupation, this prolonged 50 year occupation on an entire second generation that is growing up in it?
Especially in Gaza, especially in Gaza.
It’s one thing to say my kids grew up in occupation, didn’t have the right to go to the sea, didn’t have the right to go to Jerusalem, lived a few wars, were always fearful that the army would come to the house arrest me or something. That's one level.
It’s a very different level when you're living in Gaza and you have 4 to 5 hours of electricity per day for 7 years.
That reality is creating a population which is – I want to say thick-skinned but that's too positive. They're creating a generation which is basically being thrown back to the Middle Ages and out of a Middle Age generation – anything can go.
And my fear is (again) that the Israeli side has been successful in doing that which will result in a community that adopts violence much more easily – just like the Middle Ages adopted violence much more easily.
So it depends where you are under occupation, which kind of affects the impact of this occupation.
I can tell you as personal witness from the 30% of my time I spend in civil society. I work with one specific organization which is a medical oriented organization which focuses on trying to improve the mental health sector in Palestine. We are seeing damaged kids (especially in Jerusalem) where drugs and worse have been introduced in a very serious way because that community’s under constraint. It’s under attack – especially the Old City.
So one of the things we do is we have mental health professionals going to the schools at very young ages to find out as soon as possible which kids may be troubled so that we can actually put them into a mental health program as early as possible. We have mental health professionals going into general practitioner doctors so when the kid comes and says “my stomach hurts”, what it might be is that he is affected by something and is trying to articulate it in a way that would be less damaging – because mental health issues in the Arab world in general are taboo issues.
So we want general doctors to know that when the stomach hurts it could be something much more. Again our goal is to get people into counselling as soon as possible if there are issues.
We’re not able to keep up with the demand. So there's a systemic kind of damage being done to the generation which is growing up today; and above and beyond that, we have these extreme parts which are turning to violence as I said earlier, possibly because of the loss of hope.
[Sounds] (It’s a wedding – going by...) This is what we call ambience. I love this. I feel like I'm a real reporter on the ground now.
So this actually leads me on to something I really wanted to ask about: we’re now on the main road of Ramallah?
We’re on actually right next to the road that goes form the middle of town all the way to Giv'at Ze'ev which is on the way out towards Tel Aviv.
That road is the road that I used to go to Tel Aviv University for 2 years 3 times a week. That road today is no longer travelable.
It’s closed, there's a jail, an Israeli prison there and there's a checkpoint on the way out. So we can no longer use that road and the issue of the controlling of the road network is a story in itself.
That’s why when you came into Ramallah today you used the crossing at Qalandiya checkpoint which is a rather catastrophic kind of crossing because of the amount of traffic. That is not normal traffic. That is traffic that has been, by force of the Israeli Military, directed towards a single exit in the south of the Ramallah area so even the traffic has an orientation that the occupation can define.
By closing roads as they did they're making streets that were made for X number of cars take X times 100 number of cars.
Something I noticed about that is that it wasn’t just about how people get to drive between cities – but even more permanently, there was... I noticed when you were driving me around before showing me Ramallah that Ramallah doesn’t seem to be expanding outwards like a regular city might, as much as it seems to be expanding in a straight line.
Absolutely. The natural development of the Ramallah area is not natural by any stretch of the imagination. On one side we have a wall. On the other side we have the Qalandiya checkpoint and on the eastern side we have a row of settlements, Israeli settlements. The Israeli occupation by design has only left the northern corridor open for development and as I showed you last time, where we are allowed to develop we develop. People are putting their money and building buildings in commercial zones and residences where we’re permitted to do so. But by design the Israeli side has blocked off 3 sides of the city which are not able to develop naturally. This is a Military orchestrated masterplan. We are not involved in the planning of our own future. That is part of the invisible occupation. You can take a picture of the wall. You can take a picture of the checkpoint. You can take a picture of the settlement. You can’t take a picture of us not being involved in development plans of our city – and that’s just as damaging as the wall.
So that damage has an obvious psychological component. What does that mean practically?
Practically it means a lot.
First and foremost: people who have lands that are in areas that Israel designated as not being able to be developed lose the value of those lands, the day the Israelis make that determination.
We have some lands in our own family which are on the eastern side of the city which are partly settlement and partly out of the settlement but not allowed to be built because they're too close to the settlement. So where you have lands that are very, very valuable, overnight you have zero value.
In addition to that you have villages which are being isolated even more because the metropolitan area of Ramallah in a normal setting may reach them, but with this masterplan which allows only northern corridor development the Palestinian villages on the other side of the wall or the other side of the settlements are becoming isolated even further.
I believe the thinking behind all of this has a single goal – to allow the Palestinians to be frustrated to the point where individually, family-by-family, graduate-by-graduate, individual-by-individual, they take a voluntary decision to leave.
And this becomes part of the Israeli what I think is a 70 year trajectory which is to gain as much Palestinian geography as possible with the least amount of Palestinian demography on it.
In 1948 and in 1967 there was a physical pushing of people off the land. In 2017 there's a suffocation of the community hoping that people by themselves would leave – that wouldn’t make, and it doesn’t make, headline news. But in 1948 it was headline news. In 1967 it was headline news.
Today Israel is getting the same impact of people leaving but on a much more slow-burner kind of way and with the least amount of attention globally. The damage is the same.
Is that something that you see? Do you see graduates leaving in large numbers here?
Yes. Absolutely, we have 40,000 graduate every year in all disciplines. The private sector is able to absorb I think it’s something close to 7,000 per year. The public sector is able to absorb something like 5,000 per year so that mass majority of graduates are sitting in the coffee shops right now or leaving or being recruited by extremist organizations because they can feed their family through that kind of affiliation. Again it’s a structure which is taking us in the wrong direction in a very serious way. People leaving will only leave if they have the resources to leave.
Anybody in the Israeli right wing who’s getting a lot of excitement that people are leaving needs to be remembered that the Palestinians are not going to vanish en masse. People who will leave will be people like me. I have a second passport. I have the means to be able to leave.
What the Israeli side will be left with are the Palestinians that do not have the resources to change reality on the ground. Is that the kind of neighbor that Israelis want? I would hope not. That’s a situation which is going to reach the heartland of Israel sooner rather than later. Heavy kind of answers. It’s a heavy topic.
Yeah it’s a really heavy topic, especially now. So could you talk a bit more about, I think this is something that’s really difficult to get a good sense of abroad, just the sort of practical stuff, just going back to Oslo for a second and trying to trace this back, so what was it about the Oslo accords themselves that looked completely unworkable to you?
Actually it was the declaration of principles which was the actual first step in the Oslo process which was very clear to me that we were on the wrong track.
The Palestinian side started the process. The entire Oslo process started by the Palestinians recognizing in writing the state of Israel.
In reply the second step of Oslo was that the Israeli Prime Minister on behalf of Israel thanked us in kind for recognizing the State of Israel and recognized what would you expect? The State of Palestine.
Instead the recognition was that the PLO is representative of the Palestinian people. That’s similar to the US recognizing the People’s Republic of China and China saying yes and Trump is part of the Republican Party.
That lopsidedness was the first step and to me that was the wrong indication. It was an indication that the mismatch between the obligations of the two sides was going to be catastrophic.
When the Oslo Accord text actually showed up it was very lopsided. All the keys of building a different reality on the ground remained on the Israeli side. All of the costly issues like running a healthcare department or running a healthcare system or running an education system or running a municipal government system were dumped on the Palestinian land, but without the tools and the resources required to make it happen.
That's why a donor community was identified to mitigate the difference. So donors started to pay for us to be able to run those systems at a bare minimum, while Israel watched laughing all the way to the bank because legally they are responsible for the people under occupation and they found an agreement where donors would underwrite their responsibility and they're getting away with that crime up until today.
What was it specifically about the rules under Oslo that made, as you say, the ability to create change on the ground impossible?
I’ll give you some very quick ones.
Israel remains in control of all the borders which means it remains in control of collection of all custom fees. Customs fees make up 70% of the Palestinian operating budget. If I control 70% of your home budget I can make you dance whenever you want. Israel controls 70% of our operating budget as a Palestinian authority. They have huge leverage on what the PA can and cannot do just by turning on or turning off the faucet of funds.
Secondly, in telecom, which I know best, we have the right to build separate and independent telecom networks, but the allocation of frequencies, which is required to do that, remains in Israeli control – even until today. Turn on your smartphone in Palestine today; we don't have 3G. The 3G frequency remains under Israeli control, and they refuse to give it to us.
I'm almost embarrassed to talk about it.
The world has reached 5G, and we’re still begging the Israeli side to release the 3G frequency above the West Bank so our telecom companies can give 3G services.
Those are the real kind of life issues which are intrusive across the board, in all sectors, in all cities.
Go to Gaza, take everything I said and times it by a hundred and you find the reality on the ground is catastrophic and thus the need for urgency in addressing the reality.
If Israel is allowed to continue on the current path we will be in a violent conflict yet again I would say in no time. In no time. The indications of that are already there and if you look at the Netanyahu possibly being indicted for corruption charges and so forth all the more potential for him to use Military action on the West Bank or Gaza to turn attention off of his own case.
We are in a very dangerous time right now. Add the Trump element to all of this and I don’t sleep well at night. It’s a lot, huh?
Yeah. What are some sort of sparks that you see as really close to the powder keg right now that can easily push us all into violence?
Gaza for sure, always is. Jerusalem for sure, always has been, during the last 10 years. Hebron is a hotspot. Silwan (the neighborhood outside Jerusalem) where the settlers are taking apartment by apartment (similar to what's going on in Hebron). These are all places where the flash point can be. Of course the Old City as we saw 2 or 3 weeks ago.
Luckily the response this time (maybe because it was led by the community and not by the Central Authority) – the community in the Jerusalem area nonviolently put 30,000 people on the street over a week or two of activities to force the Israeli side to reopen the Old City and to remove the metal detectors from the Dome of the Rock. This is major. It’s a major testament to the power of nonviolent resistance if used smartly.
So in lieu of all the negative flashpoints that we can see coming down the road we also have this positive example. We have diplomatic activity, like the recognition of the State of Palestine, it’s a positive development.
Could you talk a bit about the Old City thing, for those who are up on that?
Yes there was an act of violence in the Old City which is not unheard of given the Old City is under Military occupation as identified by international law. Only the State of Israel recognizes it as not an occupation. Every other country in the world (including the US) does. So there was an act of violence from someone who was living under this occupation against the occupier. Israel.
What was the act of violence?
They shot a policeman I think (or two).
The response as usual was exaggerated from the Israeli side (out of proportion).
They closed the Old City doors. They put metal detectors around the Dome of the Rock, the mosque, the Al-Aqsa Mosque. This is crucial because that specific area of this religious site is under the auspices of Jordanian agreement with the Israelis from 1967 so they disrupted a longstanding arrangement that had kept the peace there for the most part for the last 50 years.
The reaction from the Palestinian community was almost a kneejerk reaction – without some kind of centralized planning – the community organizers put together 30,000-35,000 prayer-goers to pray in the street because they weren’t able to reach the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and over several days that created enough international attention to the issue. And Jordan as a country got involved as well, since this also damaged the relationship between Israel and Jordan – to the point where Israel was, I would say, forced into going back to what the situation was before this violent attack, which means they opened the doors of the Old City, removed the metal detectors, and allowed people to pray at the Mosque.
This was a serious nonviolent way to address an Israeli violation. I would hope our community got that lesson and uses it more often because it’s a way to get the younger people involved – but also to be able to live the day after getting involved – and that’s a key issue when you have people who are willing to die because they don’t see they have a future.
Would you see that model as working effectively on other issues?
Of course absolutely.
Nonviolence resistance is a very creative mode of operation. It needs a lot of leadership, maybe more skills than our current leadership has. All the more the current leadership has to be renewed so people can find the leadership that articulates a resistance against the occupation because: we’re not going to make history – we’re not going to be the first people under Military occupation that wake up one day and say hey, you know what, I kind of like this Military occupation. We’re not going to do that. We will resist.
The question is how? We tried violently, it doesn’t work. We’re up against the fourth strongest Military in the world, a nuclear power. We would be stupid to think that we can override Israel militarily. We have to be more creative. We have to take the boxing champion and challenge them to a ping-pong match.
And I think we've started to do that – in the streets of Jerusalem, in the Chambers of the UN, in many different venues like Unesco and elsewhere, we have taken Israel outside of its comfort zone of violence, and put it some place where it has to face a challenge to its legal standing; and the more we do that I think the more advancement we’ll have in ending this occupation.
And could you address, something I just heard on the – I don't want to say – Israeli side but the more pro-Israeli side, in the sense of like the sort of people who tend to view events through a more pro-Israel side and they were bewildered by the fact that Israel retreated on metal detectors and they thought the metal detectors were an entirely reasonable response to the shooting and the argument was the metal detectors are everywhere that security is a problem. Why is it that the metal detectors in your view were such a problem?
The issue are not the metal detectors themselves. The issue is the application of metal detectors in a Military occupied zone which is not under Israeli jurisdiction. That's the issue.
The Israeli right, Netanyahu included, made it sound so normal, so simple – “it’s just a metal detector, what's the big deal?”
The issue is not the metal detector the issue is what Israeli jurisdiction under Military occupation is all about, and what body of law applies, and what bilateral relations are in place, to maintain peace on this very volatile piece of land. That’s the issue. So people who are not able to see beyond the metal detectors are probably the same people who don’t recognize that this is a military occupation.
Probably the people who don’t recognize that East Jerusalem is not the undivided capital of the State of Israel but is rather the capital of the State of Palestine and there needs to be a political solution to find out how the two capitals can live together, hopefully in open space.
The issue is political, it’s not technical. The issue is not that the 3G frequency is not being given to us because technically they can’t solve the issue. That’s not the issue. The issue is Israeli Military control over resources which are valuable resources, whether they're frequencies, whether they're quarries and mines or whether they're water and land which control a different population which is not under their sovereign jurisdiction.
That’s the crux. That’s the fault line in this debate. And until that fault line gets resolved you're going to have people who don’t view the occupied territories as occupied – and think where we’re sitting, which is smack in the middle of Ramallah, is part and parcel of the State of Israel.
And I think that’s where leadership needs to come in, to decisively make sure the populations understand that regardless of what you may feel in your heart, your mind has to come to the conclusion that this – the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza – is not Israel. And for the Palestinian side whatever we feel in our hearts, whatever historic wrong was done to us, we have to come to the conclusion that our minds now have to understand that we have recognized the State of Israel and Haifa and Yafa and Nazareth are part and parcel of the State of Israel. We can still debate, for example, how Palestinians are being treated there. We can still debate, for example, how Jews have or don’t have access to the occupied territory.
That’s a different discussion. But the issue of sovereignty, state sovereignty, has to be resolved. The more the two parties live some kind of dream of what's in their heart, the more we’re going to be emboldened, and end up in continued rounds of violence; and that requires leadership at this stage.
Okay so getting back to the issue of powder kegs specifically like you gave me Gaza, Jerusalem, Silwan and Hebron as very like the spots for things to turn violent, what sort of event would kick that off and how would that spiral out of control?
Too many to list, too many to list.
In a general sense: any act of violence where there's a loss of life, and the younger that loss of life the more dramatic the event will be. We’re seeing what's happening in Madrid and what’s happening in the UK and what's happening in Charlottesville. Any nutcase can make havoc happen by himself or herself.
So we have to be aware that this is no longer political violence which has a leadership behind it. What we’re seeing is settler youth burning people in their homes and we’re seeing Palestinians stabbing somebody in the street who has nothing to do with anything. These are individual acts that cannot be controlled.
So I would be wrong to start thinking of the number of acts. I don't think violently; so I'm sure a violent person can give you many more than me, but I do understand that violent acts could become so dramatic that a reaction could be out of proportion from either side and we could find ourselves not being able to have this conversation in 24 hours.
In 24 hours?
If something major happens, Qalandiya closes you can’t come here and I can’t get to you. I already can’t get to you, so half of that is already done.
So we’re really standing on the brink right now?
I do believe so.
Okay so given that we’re standing on the brink right now, what are some ways that it could start getting better?
It could start getting better?
What would the first step away from the brink look like?
Again – this is speculation, but there are one thousand and one things the Israeli side can do to reduce the restrictions on society – things that have nothing to do with the state of security:
– releasing the 3G frequency so our kids can develop applications on their mobile phones is doable;
– removing the 400 checkpoints inside the West Bank which separate kids from their schools and families from their other families and workers from their work places – this can be done;
– allowing access between the West Bank and Gaza not only could be done but Israel committed to it in Oslo and never allowed it to happen. There are supposed to be I think 4 safe passageways between the West Bank and Gaza.
I need that passageway created so I can create hope for somebody in Gaza. If you don’t allow me to do that, Israel, then all you're allowing in Gaza is the only game in Gaza which is Hamas. So don’t be surprised when people align with Hamas.
Allow the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to interface each other and then you have competition to the only game in town. I think Israel’s getting a lot of satisfaction of having created only one game in town and they can keep pointing to it as a source of extremism, a source of violence – and avoid having to enter into a political discussion which is: the hard decisions that need to be made.
So that's how I would answer that.
So that's something, the Israeli Military could do to start taking a step away from that brink.
I think there's a hundred things they can do, those are just a couple.
Right so for people who aren’t in the Israeli Military so let’s say for…..
I think I would correct here something.
I don't think it’s an Israeli Military issue. This is a State of Israel issue – because really the military is an apparatus of the State.
We’re talking about the State of Israel could do these things. The political echelon in the Israeli State can make a decision that they want to reduce the tensions in the occupied territory – one great step would be to identify it as an occupied territory so we understand where we’re heading but even if we can’t do that, reduce the tension: you are fully in control to reduce the tension on the ground.
– Stop demolishing houses.
– Stop arbitrarily arresting people.
There's a lot that can be done to reduce the tension.
– The more you reduce tension, Israel, the more you give us in the private sector the ability to sell hope, to market hope; the more you give community organizers the ability to mobilize people non-violently.
– The more you arrest, the more you do house demolitions, the more you bomb Gaza, the more you attack our communities, the more you're giving the extremist part of our communities fertile ground to recruit from – this is not nuclear science.
That’s in general, I would phrase it that way.
Okay so stuff like arbitrary arrests: I really don’t understand the extent to which the Israeli Military makes its own decisions and the extent to which it follows orders from the Knesset.
I don't know either, I wish I knew: arbitrary by definition.
So then I guess a question would be: then what could someone do if they were in the Israeli Military rather than a soldier on the ground, someone who is a conscript, 18/19 years old who found himself in West Bank?
I think first and foremost we have to call the Israeli Military for what it is, which is a formal army, under central command and control: the individual soldier on the ground takes orders. So I can’t really lay blame on a conscripted military, on the soldier, because the soldier’s there by the sake of law. He’s not there by the sake of, like the US, voluntarily wanting to serve.
– So first and foremost I would encourage people not to serve in the occupied territory, serve in the military but don’t serve in the occupied territory.
– If you do serve in the occupied territory, follow orders, and where you believe orders are outside the realm of law (and that’s something applicable to soldiers everywhere in the world) don’t follow orders.
That’s a hard thing to say to a soldier, especially in Israel, where you'll be tabooed – right?
– Thirdly, once you served in the military hopefully you didn’t violate laws – when you come out of the military say what you saw, say what you did.
Be the next Breaking of Silence member. Be articulate in what's happening, because if you remain silent then if you're not caught on camera like that one soldier in Hebron, these kinds of events happen and just propagate over and over again.
Luckily we have cameras today. Luckily there's a couple of cases that have been caught and have become high profile cases.
Sadly those that were caught became rallying points for the Israeli community (including the Prime Minister himself) to try to not hold them accountable. And that’s a very bad indication of where the Israeli society’s going.
Forget Palestinians. The Israeli society is heading in the wrong direction.
I'm not familiar with this one could you explain more the situation?
– An Israeli soldier found a Palestinian who was injured, shot probably, on the ground, not moving – squirming, basically – and fired a round in his head and killed him in front of about 20 other soldiers.
– He was indicted, he was found guilty, he appealed.
– All through the process the Israeli community (including the Prime Minister’s office) rallied around him, rallied in support of what he did.
Is that the value system in Israel that’s being taught today?
It’s dangerous in my opinion. It’s a dangerous development.
Okay so what then could someone do, what could someone in America do? An average American?
Organize, organize, organize.
First and foremost find likeminded people in your community and find those organizations (and there are plenty which are working on this issue) and get involved with them.
And from that point on I don't have a prescribed way of what somebody can do.
I used to say do this do that do everything. I've become much more nuanced in how I answer that question and I first want to understand what the person’s interests are.
– If you're an educator, talk about the education sector. Come volunteer in the education sector if you can;
– but if you're a doctor, then doing education might not be your thing. You might want to do about the mental health sector. You might want to volunteer your time like many doctors do to come and do surgeries here. You might want to work on training doctors. You might want to open scholarships for doctors.
– If you're a business person like myself, connect to the business community.
So my answer to your question is more related to: what kind of person is asking? What type of person is asking? What is their skillset? What is their interest? We need people who can engage in all different sectors.
To say that there’s one generic thing you can do to help Palestine today is trying to make everybody be exactly the same, and it doesn’t work that way. We do need people to be articulate on the legislative front, speaking to congressmen, speaking to senators, speaking to the executive branch, making their voice heard about the urgency and the need for the US to be on the right side of history here.
We don't want to be the last person or the last country to announce the end of apartheid. We are almost the last country to recognize the State of Palestine.
Let’s get ahead of the game and recognize the end game and I think that would contribute to getting the parties to reach the end game.
If you keep the end game open both sides will continue to articulate what’s in their heart and not what should be in their mind.
What do you see as something that you see people doing in an attempt to help the Palestinian cause, that you feel ends up undermining the efforts to move things forward?
One general reply would be aligning with people or groups which are extreme in their vision, although they support the end of occupation, possibly because they are against Israel itself. So people who are aligning with anybody without understanding who that anybody is could be very counterproductive and we know in the States that there's a lot of anti-Semitic organizations for example which raised the slogan of ending the occupation.
Ending the occupation is very important to me but it’s not everything in my life.
I have to be able to have a world view of who I want to align with and the value system has to be more than just the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
So David Duke is against the occupation but David Duke is a racist that I have no intention to align with even if he calls for a Palestine in the sky.
That kind of relationship has to be clear in my opinion.
We have to be world citizens before we are activists around Palestine Israel.
Spectacular. Sam thank you so much. Do you have anything you’d like to say in closing to any of our audience around the world today?
I can be contacted at epalestine.com and I'm one of three Palestinians worldwide that will reply to your email.
Alright, God bless you and keep you safe.
From Pronto Café in Ramallah.