The Common Good
February 2005

Web exclusive: Full text of Hanan Ashrawi interview

by Rose Marie Berger | February 2005

An interview with Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi on feminism, faith, and the future of the Palestinian cause.

Hanan Ashrawi broke on to the global scene in 1988 during an interview between Israelis and Palestinians on ABC’s Nightline. Brilliant, articulate, pragmatic, and Christian - she surprised the world. Ashrawi’s father was a founder of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. She has been active in Palestinian leadership circles all her life. In 1991, Yasser Arafat appointed her as the official spokesperson of the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East Peace Process. She later served as Palestinian Minister of Higher Education and Research and as a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council for Jerusalem. In 1998, Ashrawi resigned from the Palestinian Authority in protest against political corruption and founded the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She is an Anglican Christian, a feminist, an author, poet, and diplomat, and a brave proponent of nonviolent resistance in the most violent situation in the world. Hanan Ashrawi was interviewed in September 2004 by Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger in Washington, D.C.

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Sojourners: Your father was a doctor, writer, and founding member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. How did your parents shape your political and spiritual perspective and commitments? Tell me about your family. I know that your father was very influential but your mother was too - in terms of your faith and also your political perspective.

Ashrawi: Well my father was a medical doctor, as you know. He was an intellectual. He was highly educated. He was a writer as well. And he was an advocate of women’s rights. He was quite progressive, socialist. My mother was very much a believer and she practiced her own faith. He was Greek Orthodox. She was Anglican Episcopalian. And when they got married, they got married in the Anglican church. And that’s where we were born and baptized. What can I say? They were both ahead of their times. Both active. My mother worked with him. She was educated. Both believed in human responsibility. My mother was much more let’s say calmer laid back than my father who was more involved and more active in political human issues. And I describe him as a humanist more than anything else.

Sojourners: What were some of the key lessons that you learned as a girl and young woman.

Ashrawi: I wrote about this in my book. It’s out of print by now. It’s called This Side of Peace, published by Simon and Schuster. I learned not to accept limitations placed on me by others. My father said we raised you not to feel in anyway that you are handicapped by your gender or your upbringing so do not accept to be defined or limited by others. To be daring. To be courageous. To speak up. To speak out. To stand up. To do things on issues of justice and what you believe in. Also the essential value of the human being. and the power of the intellect, the mind, as well as the power of values of course and in that sense I learned a lesson for example from my father’s treating of the Jewish prisoners of war during the war of 1948. He kept saying there are no different values to human life. Human lives are equal. And that has remained with me for a long time. And of course the value of peace and justice.

Sojourners: Say a little bit more about your father treating the Jewish prisoners.

Ashrawi: I don’t know that much. I just found out when I came back from studying abroad and I found some Jewish Israeli people in my house with my father. And I said, “What?! You are receiving Israelis in our house!” To me, at that time, that was traitorous. There was no fraternizing with the occupation. And he said, “Why don’t you hear what they have to say.” It turned out that they were people who had come to thank him for treating them and for being so human and considerate in the midst of that war. That was the way that I found out about it. Also the fact that in 1948 I was a baby when they left. So the person who got the truck or the vehicle in which my father put the family to leave Palestine was a doctor, a Jewish friend of his, a neighbor, so we, in a sense, became refugees from Tiberias.

Sojourners: Lead us in to how those values shaped your current political perspective. As you work and as you talk about the Palestinian and Israeli issue today, what are the main characteristics that you are looking for in terms of peace and human dignity?

Ashrawi: It’s not just peace and human dignity. First of all you need to have tremendous courage in order to speak out on behalf of peace and justice and human dignity and the integrity of life itself. This is very difficult given the fact that there has been so much devaluation of human lives and rights. The degradation of these values. And of course the violence and the cruelty and the fact that the Palestinians have been deprived of everything. And to be able to maintain hope and commitment and dedication and to tell people that you can not respond in kind. You can not do those things that you condemn when other do them to you. That doesn’t mean that it gives you license to do them yourself, particularly in terms of killing civilians.

But also in terms of speaking out and telling the truth. It’s very difficult because the truth is not a popular commodity. There has been tremendous populism on the one hand and a lot of rhetoric and excitement and on the other hand tremendous distortions and stereotypical approaches and racism particularly pertaining to the Palestinians so that we are excluded from human consideration. And I try very hard to break through both these things. And to address the issues as they are regardless. I’ve discovered that there is a tremendous response. The Palestinians tell me, even if what I say isn’t something that is happy or positive or what they want to hear, but the fact is that they respect the fact that I tell them the truth, that I respect them. I tell them the truth no matter how painful. This is very important. Because there has been enough manipulation of the facts, enough distortion, and warping of realities that the Palestinians deserve truth. I believe world public opinion needs to hear the truth and we need to challenge the prevailing version which is quite often erroneous, misleading, fabricated, and quite often racist when it comes to the Palestinians. So it’s a real challenge.

But to struggle for truth and peace in the middle of violence when your whole people are traumatized, when they are held captive, and they are really sitting ducks, they are targets, to an army, and occupation army that uses a no-holds-barred approach to Palestinians. To me it’s sometimes superhuman, but we have to keep at it. We have to keep, in a sense, not reinventing, but re-energizing people’s commitment to peace and negotiated settlement, rather than revenge and pain and a visceral response to our own victimization, which is the easiest thing to fall into.

Sojourners: When people are hurting so deeply?

Ashrawi: Yes, and so traumatized with no handle on reality because there is no hope. They don’t see any positive intervention. They don’t see any kind of recognition even of their victimization and their humanity. So, in a sense, to try to intrude on this pain and grief and loss and vulnerability by saying “no, you have to protect your own humanity and your own strength” this is an extremely difficult thing to ask.

Sojourners: What would you say to Christians, particularly Americans because of our connections to Israel? How can we support you? How can we live out our Christian values…?What do you want American Christians to know about the Palestinian situation and how can they support you in securing a solution?

Ashrawi: That’s exactly the kind of commitment and involvement that we need. I mean of course there has to be caritas, charity, when it comes to the Palestinians because we have been excluded. Unfortunately, the extreme churches, particularly the evangelicals and the Christian Right seem to think that we are dispensable and disposable. And that this marriage with the extreme Zionist movement and the neo-cons has undermined the chances of peace with justice and has dehumanized the Palestinians. So I believe it’s the role of the responsible, involved human and humane churches to address and redress the situation, to speak out and bear witness…

Sojourners: so, specifically addressing the Zionists

Ashrawi: the Christian Zionists

Sojourners : and the Christian Right

Ashrawi: The Christian Right. Yes, of course, and the distortion and exclusion of the Palestinians that they promote. The influence they have on policy - it’s amazing. I've never seen [anything like] it. It's lethal. And of course this has created barriers between the American public and the Palestinian cause and has created some sort of automatic and blind identification with Israel. This is very negative when it comes to prospects for peace because it has given Israel blind support and a blind check into whatever it wants. And this is one, to bear witness, to…. I've seen many come in solidarity, and I've said where governments have failed the people have succeeded, particularly individuals who came with the International Solidarity Movement, the grassroots international protection for the Palestinian people, we are seeing tremendous courage. And the human spirit…

Sojourners : Like the story of Rachel Corrie.

Ashrawi: Yes, I mean… To me that's heartbreaking. I can never think of Rachel without crying. She was just a remarkable young woman, really paid with her life. And I met her parents and I told them what I felt, but it's very hard. And people have died for what they believed in. I don't want people to die - I want people to live, of course - for what they believe in, for a sense of humanity, for, you know, their courage to stand up - literally, I mean. Literally and metaphorically, she stood up to the Israeli bulldozer and affirmed life in the face of destruction, and the human spirit and will, and she paid with her life. A young woman with so much to give, so much hope. Anyway.

Sojourners: So what about a Palestinian-based movement for nonviolence?

Ashrawi: It's not so much a movement. If you look at public opinion polls, you will see that the majority are still committed to peace. To me it's amazing that the Palestinian people as a whole - up to between seventy to eighty percent - are still committed to a negotiated settlement, and to a peaceful solution, even though many of them react viscerally to their own…to the violence exercised against them, and many of them see…and the violence practiced by some Palestinian factions as a response on kind, as a kind of revenge, and so on, an outlet - venting one's anger and one's frustration. But on the whole there has been a constant commitment to peace.

Now, within civil society of course, there are organizations, institutions, that still maintain this under--continue to try to articulate an agenda for peace based on active nonviolent resistance, even though many people are saying Israel understands only the language of violence because that's the language it uses against us and the language of power and so on. This sort of broad - I want to say coalition, but - a broad currency, a broad trend among Palestinians to try to re-legitimize the language, to re-gain, to reclaim our right to peaceful, to active - I would say proactive, intrusive - nonviolent resistance is very important. And at the same time, this arms Israel's use of military violence against the captive and largely defenseless population. Every once and a while we come up with statements. We come up with public statements that are published in the press and so on. But quite often we try to generate discussion on these issues. We have also meetings with different factions. Again, it's not easy, given the conditions.

Sojourners: Is there a role for Christians particularly in that conversation, to be able to open up a little bit of political space, because they're a minority both in Israel and in Palestine?

Ashrawi: Yes the Palestinians--I mean the, well, in Israel they are Palestinians. There are no Israeli Christians per se, there're no Jewish Christians-- [so they are all] Palestinian Christians. Unfortunately yes, the numbers are dwindling. Even though we don't think of ourselves of a minority, because we don't like the sort of minority mentality, we believe we are the true expression of the authenticity and historical depths and culture that are still Palestine--still Palestinian identity. So in a sense, the Christian for the oldest, longest ties with the origins of Christianity, with the history of the land, even though there are many who claim they go back to pre-Christian, pre-Jewish days, even the Caananites and so on. The question is Christianity is part and parcel of our culture, our identity, and so we try to affirm that even though numerically we are decreasing. I don't know whether you can say there's a different discourse. Well, for objective conditions, relations with the Western churches and so on, some use different means. Organizations like Sabeel, like liberation theology and so on, make a difference in that sense, in that they articulate an agenda stemming from a Christian recognition of the role and formulation of peace. But on the whole, the Christians are part of the Palestinian national movement, and so you'll find them everywhere. You'll find them in the cabinet, you'll find them in the Palestinian Legislative Council… and probably in larger proportions than their actual numbers.

And historically the Christians have been more, let's say, radical… when you look at the history of the revolution and the revolutionary movement there are many Christians who lead the more left-wing radical movements, probably the more violent movements. So I don't know whether it's over-compensation. But there are different movements. Christians are part of the mosaic, part of the political-social fabric of Palestine, so you find them in every component.

Sojourners: And who is the leadership in the Palestinian party or the Palestinian movement now that needs our support, that needs to be nurtured, encouraged?

Ashrawi: Personally I believe in empowering the young and the women and all the democratic forces in Palestine. We are paying the price of a very simplistic polarization that I talked about earlier, an authority being perceived as corrupt or abusive, and an opposition that is perceived as violent and terroristic, so the cause and the people are paying the price. The majority are neither, that's the thing. The majority are human beings who just want to live in peace and dignity and freedom. And this is what we need to support. So we need to have elections. We need to see a new leadership emerge, with a legitimacy of a constituency that has elected them and therefore can hold them accountable. And this means working with the young and with the women and the disenfranchised and the weak in order to act, in order to help with the evolution of the Palestinian, let's say - I don't want to say a political elite - but a political culture. That is more wedded to nation-building and to humanistic values and principles than to revolutionary values and principles that quite often are antithetical to nation-building, are incompatible with nation-building.

But one has to reach out really to the ordinary Palestinian - to the human being who feels vulnerable, who feels abandoned, quite often who feels betrayed. Because it's not just that he or she is victimized. The fact of victimization is denied, and the victim is being blamed and labeled. So there's multiple victimization. There's no security, there's no protection. You can lose your life, your home, your land, because you've lost your freedom. You lose your dignity, you're being daily humiliated, daily deprived of the most basic needs. You've lost your livelihood, and quite often you've lost your loved ones. So that there's this deliberate daily cruelty, and there is no recognition of that, and there's no help, there's no assistance. At least, give us compassion. Basic compassion is missing. The compassion, the recognition, the formation of this humanity, let alone any type of protection. I've never seen such vulnerability on the one hand or cruelty on the other. And yet there is this deliberate bashing, exclusion, and distortion of the Palestinians. And that's what drives people to desperation sometimes. T he truth is on our side. We need to get the truth out.

Sojourners: What should U.S. policy be toward Israel and toward Palestine?

Ashrawi: I wish I could do something about U.S. politics. The one thing it should not be is complicit with Israel. The U.S. is received as being complicit in the Occupation, not just in terms of the funding and in terms of the weapons that are used to kill and to shell Palestinians, but also in terms of the blanket protection that the U.S. gives to Israel to avoid any kind of accountability or blame. I think the U.S. has to learn the value of being an even-handed peace broker. A peace broker cannot take sides, and cannot, in a sense, vindicate the violations and abuses and the oppressor and of the occupier. There has to be a certain reaching out to the occupier and to understand that power politics and unilateralism and militarism cannot work, do not work. And they cannot be brought to bear in peacemaking. And if you keep your distance the situation will not sustain itself - it will continue to regenerate, because there is a power imbalance - there is a military occupation – and there are a people desperately fighting for their lives. And, I described this at one point as the deliberate deconstruction of Palestine. And you cannot allow this to continue.

Sojourners: What's the connection between Jerusalem and Baghdad vis-a-vis Washington, D.C.?

Ashrawi: I think that's also a case of misplaced priorities. I said the intelligence failure, or the intelligence deficit, was not just intelligence in terms of spies and information about WMDs. People do not understand that the key to the stability and peace of the region is Palestine. That the gate within which the U.S. is always being measured- in terms of its standing, its integrity, its influence and so on - has always been the Palestinian Question, and the way they treat the Palestinians. That the region has been destabilized, and has been armed, and has been held back in terms of its development…because of the Palestinian Question, because of the tremendous injustice done to the Palestinians. Therefore, if the U.S. wants to rectify its historic legacy of misdirected, misguided, and just plain erroneous policy - [they need] just to address the Palestinian Question, to end the Occupation, to see us as a free people. We are capable of building a democratic, humanistic state based on the rule of law, and we can do that. But we are being constantly held back by the Occupation, the land threat, the horrific war, the assassinations, the encroachments, the daily, daily brutality exercised against us. And so in many ways, the U.S. does not see that this is the real address--this is the real key to the region.

And of course there was a very misguided and wrong approach to the "war on terrorism" (quote/unquote). Instead of addressing the longstanding grievances of the region, and the ills and the problems and conflicts that have to be resolved, they immediately superimposed terrorism on Iraq - which wasn't existing. I mean, of course Iraq was never a fundamentalist country, it never had any connections with Al Qaida, and it didn't have any WMDs and so on. So it doesn't take much intelligence to see that now - I mean, post-hoc. But it was very clear to people in the know, you know, about this. It was used as an excuse to settle historical scores. So now that the U.S. is seen as an occupier in the region, the linkage with Israel is very detrimental to the U.S., number one. And number two, they have really have stirred up a hornets' nest. Look at what's happening in Iraq. You are going to see from Iraq, the generation of more extremism, more fundamentalism, more violence. The U.S. has done that with no sensitivity, no knowledge of the realities of the region. A real intelligence failure. And a serious lack of protection, of conceptualization of the future and of the consequences of their actions. Don't go into a war without exit strategies and without knowing why you're going into a war. And without having a peace plan, and a post-war plan. And they did that, and it was not a war--it was an invasion, I mean.... But anyway, so, the connection to the Palestinians and to the Arab world is very clear: that justice to the Palestinians is the key to stability in the region.

Sojourners: Some people would say that they're going about it the other way. That they're trying to stabilize the region and that that will provide some openings to Palestinians…

Ashrawi: That is not going to work. There is no way that - the only way to stabilize the region is through the Palestinian Question. Because the greatest liability to the U.S. is Israel and Israeli policies and the Israeli Occupation, in addition now, of course, to Iraq and the U.S.'s policy in Iraq. Of course, there the Abu Gharib prison scandal is a scandal because it was caught, but this has been ongoing with the Palestinians--the same methods used by Israel against the Palestinians are unacceptable. And also the linkage between Israel and the intelligence…the U.S. intelligence.

Sojourners: Has there been any revelation about Israeli trainers or torturers in Abu Gharib?

Ashrawi: Yes. We've heard about that. We cannot verify it, of course, but we've heard that mainly from American sources. And now with the Internet, of course, you have more access. The truth comes out more easily. But this is what we've heard. We've heard also of American agents being trained in Israel, and being trained by Israelis and being brought into the West Bank, even. We've heard of the School of the Americas training Americans. And of course there's the question of dual citizenship: I mean, somebody could be an Israeli and an American simultaneously. That's the one country where you can serve in two armies.

Sojourners: What gives you hope? I know that you're a poet and your background is in literature.

Ashrawi: Creativity, the imagination, yes…. If you don't have poetry in your soul, you can't survive. Really. Well, you need creativity and imagination, certainly, and we see very little of that these days except destructive…imagine, I don't know if you can have it, but… I think what gives me hope is the commitment to the Palestinian people, their essential human being, the fact that I see how for no fault of their own, the Palestinian people have paid an enormous price for being born in that part of the world, for being unwitting victims of history. And that kind of victimization, the human will and human spirit to endure, you know, something that ultimately has to triumph. And I've seen how despite all attempts, the Palestinians have not been defeated or broken, and it's that human spirit that gives me hope.

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners. To learn more about Hanan Ashrawi visit www.miftah.org.

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