Exclusive: One On One with the Leader of the Electronic Intifada
The Interview Ha’aretz Doesn’t Want You To See
Meet Ali Abunimah, the son of a Jordanian diplomat, a Palestinian activist, and the man who brings the hottest news of the struggle to thousands of people. His message: Forget two states, one will be tough enough to get it right.
The Interview before you was commissioned by one of the the big newspapers. For a reason that has yet to be clarified, this paper decided not to publish the interview. It’s published here, because it’s the opinion of the editor that it’s important that this be read by the Israeli public.
“First of all, it’s important for me to clarify that I’m not a leader, and I’m not interested in being a leader.” That’s how Ali Abunimah, 38, opens our two and a half hour interview. A Washington D.C. Born Palestinian, son of Palestinian parents of different villages in the Jeruusalem area, his mother a native of Lifta, a 1948 refugee, and his father, a native of of Battir, a 1967 refugee. Abunimah (@avinunu on Twitter) may renounce the label of a leader, but in the history that will one day be written, it’s probable that he’ll be described as the “harbinger of electronic revolution”, as the Electronic Intifada- the name of the website that Abunimah is of his founders and active members. There are Twitter users with many more “followers”, but there are very few who seriously deal with the Isreli-Palestinian issue, feeds voraciously on the web and doesn’t follow “@avinunu” and “E-Intifada”. He’s also a sought after and articulate interviewee on news networks such as CNN and MSNBC, for his consistent representation of the Palestinian position.
Abunimah is one of the most active people on the web in Palestinian Hasbara, and this without being identified with any of the political factions. His father, Hasan, served as a senior diplomat of Jordan, among other things its ambassador to the United Nations. But Ali doesn’t hesitate to criticize the kingdom where most his relatives live today, when he finds it’s time to do so. A portrait of a leader in the internet age- Unidentified, not representative, and doesn’t owe any one.
Recently, Abunimah surfaced into consciousness, after ruining [Ehud] Olmert’s little apearance-for-profit at Chicago University, when he abruptly cut his speech with the piercing question about the dissatisfyingly discriminatory killing that the IDF executed in Gaza, a year ago. Abunimah was joined by more protestors and Olmert couldn’t go through his speech as planned.
A few days later, Olmert tried to give a speech in San Francisco, and as in Chicago pro-Palestinian students got up and drowned his voice in shouts and protest. Ali Abunimah, in Chicago, wasn’t there for the second silencing of Olmert, that included an attempt of a “citizen’s arrest”, but he was there with immediate reports, updates and links to videos and Twitter, before anyone else, at the front lines of the unfolding events, as is the case, in the past few years. Nothing of importance happens in the field or in the virtual space that has to do with Palestine (but not only) without Abunimah’s keyboard being there to distribute, sharply comment, connect the incriminating dots, point fingers and supply background and context to each event.
Inviting Olmert? A “Miserable Decision”
The man himself, as I mentioned, is humble, on the conversation I had with him on the computer program, Skype. “I organized nothing that had to do with San Francisco, and I don’t want to talk second hand about how and what other people are planning.” He also doesn’t want to talk about other internet activists such as himself, for the possibility that he may forget to mention someone and that’ll open a possibility for offense. When I persist, he obliges in mentioning the International BDS committee, the Palestinian action organization for boycotting Israel, students and many activists across the USA and the BDS movement- acronym for Boycott, Divestment, Sanction.
In addition to the clear protest against Olmert’s actions and against Israel, Abunimah and others wanted to protest the actual decision to invite Olmert to speak.
“I think it was a miserable decision by The Harris School of Public Policy Studies, in my university, the University of Chicago, to invite a man who is- forget the war crimes- suspect of serious corruption offenses, by his own state, and to pay him tens of thousands of dollars for a speech. It just inappropriate.”
Be honest, it may have been inappropriate, but it created a great oppertunity to get your struggle some headlines.
“It helped, but at the same time, the school could have invited judge Richard Goldstone to speak about the findings of his report, that way we would have gotten a debate about the subject and the school wouldn’t have put itself in a the compromising position of paying an enormous sum to a corrupt person”.
Similar to the Struggle Against South Africa
I try to stir the conversation to the methods of organization that have been bringing Abunimah and his colleagues success, lately. But it seems he’s pleased- in an impeccably polite manner- to disappoint me.
“Not only did I not organize anything, I don’t think there’s such a quick organizers the likes of which you’re describing,” He says. “These are very spontaneous actions. Information is very decentralized today on the web. It reaches many people simultaneously. I feed on the flow of information more than I contribute to it. I almost want to say that I’m sorry we’re not more organized, but this is the reality and I think that in the grander scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.”
It’s a bit strange to hear from a man that grew up in the house of a professional diplomat that organizing doesn’t matter for the public struggle, but Abunimah persists: “It’s a fact that the Zionists are much more organized than we are, in the campuses and an the US in general, and they have a huge budget, nevertheless, they haven’t achieved similar success in spreading their message. It’s not that I’m more skilled at using Twitter than anyone else. It’s because they’re trying to sell a 19th century message in the 21st century, and apparently even with 21st century technology, you can’t sell that merchandise.”
“It’s very similar to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, on campuses,” he continues. “The struggle was very decentralized there, too, and succeeded because of the undeniable justness of the cause.” This is where Abunimah doesn’t forget to mention that one of the lone states to keep tight relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa was Israel.
Beyond the massive volume of his online dealings with the issue, his education and what he had absorbed in his father’s home, one of the reasons that people turn to him in order to understand the Middle East conflict is his considerably rational stance that he vigilantly keeps: “We don’t boycott Israelis just because they are Israelis or work for an Israeli institution. If Chicago University would have invited some Israeli professor, then cutting him off in protest would have been silencing of freedom of speech. But Ehud Olmert isn’t a private citizen and it’s obvious he’s a legitimate target for this purpose.”
If You Give Up Territory, You’ll Take it Out on Your Arab Citizens
That said, those of you hoping to find a partner for a rational debate about coexistence within the two-state framework will be highly disappointed. Abunimah believes in a single-state solution, bi-national, completely democratic, in which there’s no state expression of Jewish/Israeli nationality. He also wrote a book about it: One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.
”It’s not that I oppose the two-state solution. I don’t think this solution exists. Those who try to repeat the mistakes of 1948 will find out that it won’t end less tragically, this time around,” he claims.
And still, let’s say that tomorrow we’re informed that Netanyahu and Abu-Mazen have signed an agreement that includes the pulling out of all that’s east of the separation fence and the founding of some sort of Palestinian state within the confines of what exists?
Before he answers this question, Abunimah specifies the way he sees the roots of the conflict: “First of all, expulsion of refugees from their land on a racial basis.”
Are you sure it’s correct to insist on the term “racism” in this context? It’s tribalism, our side and your side.
“Religious-ethnical basis, if you wish. It’s obvious that if they would have converted, they would have been allowed to stay. The second point is the racist treatment discriminating Palestinians citizens of Israel, and the third point is occupation and colonization. Something resembling a state, headed by Abu-Mazen, or anyone else, only solves the third point, because you can’t forfeit the right of return in the name of others.”
There’s a contradiction, or maybe discrimination, because you expect Israel’s government to give up holy places and historic regions in the name of the whole of the Jewish people, but reject the right of the Palestinian government to do so.
“We must discern “rights” that are based on a historical, half-mythological narrative that refers to events of over 2000 years ago, from the rights of people that some of which are still alive and were physically expelled, themselves, from their homes and lands. It’s obvious that the latter is more pressing than the former,” he argues.
“Referring to your question,” he continues, “do you really believe you can evacuate half a million settlers from their homes?”
I personally believe so, if there’s a will. It was also thought that it would be impossible to evacuate the Gaza Strip. Most of the people that need to be evacuated aren’t ideological settlers. They’ll give him money and he’ll leave, and with the ones that persist all the way, the security forces will deal with them.
“I don’t believe it’s possible, but even if it is, do you know what will happen? There won’t be two states that live side by side in peace. I’ll tell you why: The Israelis will be so full of a feeling that “we gave up so much, we gave so much. And we’re still stuck with a million and a half Arabs that only want more and more”, until the nationalism, aggression and will, that’s hidden within most, to ethnically cleanse, will surface, so the evacuation of the West Bank won’t solve anything, and will only change the identity of the Palestinians that are Israel’s victims. I think Meron Benvenisti sees the situation clearer than most Israeli analysts. I often disagree with him about the conclusions, but hi- analysis of the situation is very correct, in my opinion. He calls this land, Palestine, the state of Israel, whatever you call it, “a de-facto bi-national state”, and I agree with this turn of phrase”.
Using the Neighbor’s House as Collateral
Look, the essence of Zionism was to build a shelter where all Jews could flee in case of pogroms. Will this bi-national state that you envision insure this right?
This is where Abunimah’s answer splits in two: “Personally, I wouldn’t object that a bi-national, democratic, equal, state, after all the wrongs that were done to the Palestinian people are emended, would make a commitment to receive every persecuted Jew at a time of need. Palestine has a rich and ancient tradition of as a place of refuge to the persecuted, near and far, including Armenians, Caucasian tribes, Africans and also Jews, single people, families and sometimes whole communities, for generations, have used Palestine as a place of refuge.”
“But principally speaking,” Abunimah retracts, “It’ important to understand the the Jews of the world aren’t allowed to hold someone’s house as collateral in case the house they live in now burns. This idea that it’s the right of a limited number of Jews to hold on to this land, while oppressing the indigenous population as an insurance policy for people who don’t live here is absurd. Zionism presumed to create a safe haven for Jews. In effect, the majority of world Jews choose not to live in it, it’s a safe haven for no one, and to the people who live in it, an insurance policy is citizenship in another country, preferably one in the European Union.”
You ask me if I believe it’s possible to uproot half a million settlers. Do you really believe that Israelis and Palestinians can merge into one state?
“I understand your question. Hate exists within both sides and in order to examine it, we must examine the root of the conflict. But the major mistake of those dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the thought that it’s so unique. It’s not. In northern Ireland there are two communities, with a longer lasting conflict, and each one with its own contradicting narrative, just like us. The colonial dynamics are also similar. In order to solve the conflict, first there’s need of recognition of its root causes, recognition of the wrongs, and recognition of the rights of the victims. Yes, each Palestinian and his family that has been uprooted from his land has a right to return to their homes. It’s also not as impossible as it sounds. The state of Israel has backup plans to receive a million immigrants, if the need be. So the possibility is there.
But first of all there must be recognition of the right. Then there can be talk of application. No one promises that thousands of Palestinians living well in the Middle East and the rest of the world will run to live in the homeland, and of course there’s the ability of the existing population to receive immigration, to consider. But the right has to be acknowledged. First of all there’s a need to erect institutions and policies and mechanisms that will foster true equality. Quality accommodations, police that is perceived as an honest broker and not as a one sided militia. Like Northern Ireland, like other places, human beings find a way to reconcile and shatter imposed structures of hate”.
Northern Ireland as an Intermediate Stage
So you do support a solution like in Northern Ireland? Because there the land was distributed.
“It’s true that the island has yet to be united there, and I believe that in the end it will happen. If there will be an intermediate stage in which there’s one state for the local indigenous population, like the Republic of Ireland, and also a completely bi-national state, with complete equal rights and specific immigration arrangements for each population (the Northern Ireland Protestants, for example, have a right to freely immigrate to Britain), then maybe it could work. But who wants that? There’s this kind of religion of two-states, and I call it a religion because it doesn’t base itself on evidence. They say that Israelis really want that, and that Fatah really wants it, and almost 20 years they’re working on it, so how is it that it isn’t happening? It isn’t happening because no one wants it to happen, because both sides understand that it’s impossible. It’s only Israel deluding itself that it can continue sustaining occupation forever, when occupation itself is an anachronistic term. There can be occupation for a few months, maybe even a few years, but 40 years of occupation and settlements and assimilation? The world is beginning to understand what’s going on and it won’t have it.”
And this is the point where we return to the aims of sites such as the information site Electronic Intifada and of the BDS movement.
“That’s right. We believe that in spite of the existence of a very small Israeli left, the majority of Israelis will be delighted to continue going to the beach, watch movies and shows and it in good restaurants, while at a distance of less than a hundred Kilometers from there children are starving. As long as they don’t understand that the current policies only bring them suffering, that it constricts their stride and detaches them from all they want, they won’t want to listen. We’re waiting for them to be ready.”
Do you know the terms “switch a disc” and ”burn in the consciousness”?
Abunimah elegantly ignores the opportunity to savor the irony and answers seriously: “There must be a struggle of ideas to change all our current ideas about our possible future. These are the struggles I believe in. There’s nothing that binds these struggles to the spilling of blood.”
A Culture Lesson and Optimism (depends for whom)
You read Hebrew, follow the media here and you also chose to take a course in Hebrew poetry in the university. Among your writings we can also find a small effort to promote the works of Jewish artists of an Arab ethnicity, especially those who created in Arabic.
“Yes, I think that one of the biggest crimes of Zionism was actually perpetrated against the Jews and their spiritual world. In that it debased all that was “exile-esque” [גלותי], it detached itself and the people under its authority from their roots. There was harsh oppression of both the Yiddish culture and the Jewish-Arabic culture.”
This is correct, and in the past generation there’s a growing awareness of this, and already a whole generation’s-time it isn’t shameful to become interested in where the grandparents came from and to revive their culture. On the contrary.
“That’s right, and it’s wonderful.”
And what about the new Hebrew culture? Is there something, out of the huge variety that has been created here, that you can relate to?
“Without a doubt there’s an existing Israeli-Jewish culture, but it’s very tough for Palestinians to view it out of the prism of the conflict, not to mention that Israel uses culture explicitly for Hasbara purposes. The solutions I suggest may free the Israeli-Jewish culture from these confines and find recognition and respect within broader circles.”
To conclude, you’re one of the biggest promoters of a bi-national state in what is today referred to as Israel and the Palestinian territories. Are you optimistic?
“I’m very optimistic. I think it will happen in the lifetimes of the 1948 refugees. There’s not much time and they should be able to see justice before they pass on.”
And then you’ll come to live here?
“I can’t say for sure that I will. I don’t know. But I won’t give up my right to do so.”pulsemedia.org electronicintifada.net