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Israeli government not the issue, occupation is, says Palestinian PM

  • Paula
I recently sat down with Palestinian Prime Minister Dr Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah to gauge his views on a range of issues including the Israeli elections.
by PAULA SLIER | Nov 07, 2019

“We know one thing,” he told me. “We know that [Benjamin] Netanyahu is no longer going to be [Israeli] prime minister. Obviously, it doesn’t mean that the person to replace him is someone we are in favour of.”

Would you prefer Benny Gantz, the former army chief and leader of the centrist-left Blue and White party, to Netanyahu, I ask him?

“I prefer that the prime minister of Israel is somebody who is ready to end the occupation that has occurred in Palestinian territories since 1967,” is his reply.

Still trying to push him, I ask if he would support some kind of unity government – a power sharing deal between Netanyahu and Gantz.

“The issue for us is not the formation of the Israeli government,” said Shtayyeh. “The issue is the content – the political content. What is it they are offering us? Israel has to say that it’s ready for talks to end occupation. We aren’t the ones who make offers. We aren’t the ones who make compromises. Israel has to make an offer to the Palestinians, and we are ready to accept any serious offer – two states, the end of occupation, the illegality of settlements. Somebody in Israel has to stand up to abide by international law and United Nations resolutions vis-a-vis Palestine/Israel.”

Born in the Palestinian city of Nablus, 61-year-old Shtayyeh replaced Rami Hamdallah as Palestinian prime minister in March this year. He holds a doctorate in economic development from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom from where he knows former South African president Thabo Mbeki. Shtayyeh has been to South Africa numerous times, and has a soft spot for the country.

But unlike the two previous Palestinian prime ministers who were ostensibly politically independent, Shtayyeh comes from Fatah, the political party of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. He is a long-term politician who has spent much of his life working alongside Abbas with whom he has a close relationship.

This past Sunday, rival Palestinian faction Hamas announced that an agreement had been reached between itself and Abbas to hold Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections in February next year. Hamas and Fatah have been at loggerheads since the Islamists seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 in a near civil war, a year after winning parliamentary elections there.

Shtayyeh, is in favour of such elections.

“We proposed [with Hamas] that we sit down and talk. We did talk, we have been talking for 12 years. We have signed four agreements with Hamas. Unfortunately, it has never implemented any of these agreements. Now we are saying the following: our model, our paradigm for reconciliation is based on one single thing – one authority. Hamas’ model for reconciliation is based on division of labour. It wants something underground, we take the above ground. We bring the money, it spends the money. We are the government, it is the ruling party. We don’t accept this. Our paradigm is not acceptable to it, its paradigm is not acceptable to us, so our president has come with an idea that we refer things to the people. Let’s hold elections. It’s crucial for our survival to be a democratic society based on the rule of law.”

The obvious follow-up question is what will happen if Hamas wins again in Gaza?

“That’s what democracy is about,” Shtayyeh responds. “We have to respect the outcome of the ballot boxes.”

But my colleagues in Gaza are sceptical. Palestinian politics have effectively been frozen since 2007, and multiple reconciliation attempts between the sides have failed.

What’s more, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is effectively bankrupt. A decision no longer to accept tax money that Israel collects on its behalf means that the largest resource in the Palestinian treasury has run dry. According to Palestinian officials, Israel collects and transfers about $200 million (nearly R300 billion) to the PA every month. But a decision to withhold more than $12 million (R177 million) monthly because it is given to the families of prisoners caused Abbas to reject all the money outright.

Why is it important for you to pay the families of those who have killed Israelis, I ask Shtayyeh.

“The 7 662 people who are in Israeli prisons, they have not all killed Israelis,” he points out. “There are kids who are there because they threw a stone. There are kids who are there because of raising a Palestinian flag. There are people in jail because they protected their land, their water rights, and so on. What do we do as responsible people? We have to take care of these people. More than that, this issue of payments to prisoners, it’s a social allowance. Yigal Amir who killed [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin is getting social allowance from Israel. If Israel doesn’t want us to pay for the prisoners, release all of them.”

But some of those prisoners did kill Israelis, I counter. By supporting their families aren’t you condoning violence?

“Not at all. On the contrary. When we take care of the kids whose father was killed by Israelis, we are accommodating them to be in the peace camp, in tolerance. There are three million Palestinians in the West Bank and two million in Gaza. From 1967 until today, one million Palestinians have been in Israeli prisons, so the issue touches the heart of every Palestinian household. There is a huge difference between supporting violence and accommodating the families of people who are victims of violence.”

I ask him what he thinks about individual attacks against Israel, such as if a person picks up a knife and stabs an Israeli? Israelis argue that the PA encourages such acts through hate speech and incitement?

He is angry, replying, “What about Israeli incitement? What about the settlers who are uprooting our trees? What about the settlers who are killing our kids? What about the checkpoints that are everywhere? What about all these aggressions [from] Israel against our land? This is the real incitement for violence. We have to look at the root and not the symptoms. The root of all these problems is occupation. If Israel isn’t happy about what is happening here, let it leave us alone.”

The million dollar question is what needs to happen for there to be peace between Israelis and Palestinians?

“There are five issues. One: clear terms of reference which have never been there. Two: good intentions – they have never been there. Three: confidence building measures to stop settlements – they have never been there. Four: an honest broker – that hasn’t been there. The United States isn’t an honest broker. Five: the time frame – that hasn’t been there.”

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