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from issue no. 09 - 2005

PERSONALITIES. Peace, dialogue, religion for the successor of Yasser Arafat

And now, Palestine

The first interview with the President of the Palestinian national Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. With an invitation to Pope Benedict...

interview with Mahmoud Abbas by Giovanni Cubeddu

The President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas, formerly known as Abu Mazen

The President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas, formerly known as Abu Mazen

There is hope throughout the world of real progress in the peace process between you and Israel. What are the conditions for eventual progress? What are you asking and what are you ready to grant to achieve it? Do you trust Ariel Sharon?
MAHMOUD ABBAS: Despite the fact that the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is a unilateral Israeli decision, and despite the fact that for more than a year the Israeli government has refused our request for bilateral co-ordination so as to guarantee orderly withdrawal, we are happy at the actual evacuation of settlers and of the occupying troops.
To judge this very limited step as the beginning of a reconciliation for the solution of the conflict, one needs to continue going ahead, the policy of colonization in the West Bank should not go ahead, nor should the policy of hebraization of Jerusalem go ahead, nor the building of the wall of racial separation.
We want this withdrawal to constitute the beginning of the application of the resolutions of the international legality of the UN, above all the Road Map, that clearly declares an end must be put to the occupation of 1967 and that the rest of the problems, such as that relating to refugees, be resolved.
This is the fundamental principle for achieving peace and guaranteeing security. I have already clarified this position both in my meetings with President Bush and in those with Premier Sharon. I believe that President Bush has understood, and the proof is his initiative and ideas on the solution of the two States. Sharon, instead, continues to repeat his famous three nos, already rejected previously by us, that is to say: his insistence on creating large settlement complexes on the West Bank; his refusal to negotiate on Jerusalem; and finally his refusal of the return of the refugees.
As for the question of my trust in Sharon, the matter is not personal, but concerns the destiny of two peoples. Peace cannot exist with the occupation, and to achieve peace we must acknowledge the other and respect him.
In your view, which is the better formula: to go through the various stages of the Road Map, or engage in negotiations for a definitive solution?
ABBAS: The Road Map indicates the point of departure and the point of arrival, therefore its stages are not in contradiction with a definitive solution that establishes the bases for an equitable and lasting peace and sets an end definitely to the occupation begun in 1967 that includes the West Bank together with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli side with its attitude is the one that has blocked and blocks the implementation of the Road Map. The Israelis began with their fourteen well-known reservations on the Road Map from the moment of its application and they then decided on this unilateral retreat from Gaza.
Recently you visited the United States, Canada, Brazil, Chile, Japan, China, Pakistan, India and other countries. What is your assessment of the results of all these visits?
ABBAS: The conflict in our region has repercussions for the whole world, there is thus international interest in the developments of that conflict. It’s therefore natural to go ahead with our relations not only with these countries but also with others. We believe that the international community has a role to play for peace in this area, proof is the very numerous UN resolutions issued since the start of the conflict up to today. The countries that I have visited, as the others I will visit in the future, can contribute singularly or as groups encouraging and helping Palestinians and Israelis to resolve the existing problems.
How do you view the behavior of the international community in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
ABBAS: The international community is following the process with interest. For us it is a source of satisfaction, but personally I hope that the quantity of economic aid increases in future. Unemployment at home has already reached peaks of 70%. 50% of the population lives below the poverty line. At the political level, we hope for greater commitment from the international community, above all from members of the “Quartet”.
President Bush has affirmed the need to create a Palestinian state. Is that premise sufficient for you?
ABBAS: President Bush is the first American president who has presented a clear initiative that covers the creation of a Palestinian state. This is a very important step forward. There is also American participation and an evident presence on the ground. I fully trust that President Bush, together with his administration, and after the liberation of Gaza, will push for the implementation of the Road Map and of the proposal for the two states.
The European Union has so far offered a good deal of economic aid to the Palestinian people. Are you asking for more political participation from Europe? With what means can the European Union contribute?
ABBAS: I want to express my sincere gratitude for the considerable economic aid offered by the European Union and its individual members. We have always asked for a larger political role for the EU as integral part of the “Quartet”. I hope that as soon as possible a balance is achieved between the economic role and the political role of the EU. I regret that Israel always tries to diminish the European political role in the problem, despite the fact that it is instead necessary because it can fit in with the American role, which all recognize to be central.
Mahmoud Abbas with George Bush 
and Ariel Sharon during the summit 
at Aqaba, in Jordan, 4 June 2003

Mahmoud Abbas with George Bush and Ariel Sharon during the summit at Aqaba, in Jordan, 4 June 2003

There are those who propose Palestinian and Israeli entry into the European Union. Do you think that is realistic?
ABBAS: Europe has by now come near to us. Cyprus is a member of the Union, Turkey is negotiating membership, there are many agreements between the Arab Mediterranean countries and Europe, there is also the Euro-Mediterranean partnership born out of the Barcelona Process: all this shows us that in the near future the possibility exists for us and for Israel to find the best formula for relations with the EU. Meaning that if there is not full membership there will be at least privileged and very particular relations.
What quantity of aid comes from the Arab States?
ABBAS: The Arab world offers our people a lot of aid in various forms: economic aid; the chance to work for tens of thousands of Palestinians; political support and solidarity. I’m glad therefore to be able to affirm that our relations are good with all the Arab States.
You have taken the leadership of the Palestinian people after decades in which Yasser Arafat was the emblem of your cause. What is the situation in the PNA today after Arafat?
ABBAS: The PNA continues to lead the struggle of the Palestinian people, it affirms the Palestinian cause as the cause of a people that has the right to self-determination and not as a simple refugees’ cause. It should be said that the great leader Yasser Arafat laid the foundations of democracy through the setting up of institutions representative of the Palestinian people that have facilitated, after his death, the peaceful transfer of power through elections. That is how I was elected president of the PLO and of the PNA.
I can say that the PNA is solid: we have concluded the polling for the administrative elections and we have named 25 January 2006 as the date for the legislative elections to renew the Legislative Council. All the Palestinian factions will participate for the first time in these elections; thus, by democratic methods, the executive power will be created, that is the Palestinian Council of Ministers.
We want more Europe<br> We have always asked for a larger political role for the EU as integral part of the “Quartet”. I hope that as soon as possible a balance is achieved between the economic role and the political role of the EU
How will you be able to convince strong groups in your society, such as Hamas, to participate in the building of the Palestinian State?
ABBAS: First of all through the dialogue that has brought concrete results, such as the agreement reached with all the Palestinian organizations for their commitment not to use weapons during the evacuation of the settlers from the Gaza Strip. In fact they kept their word even after the cold-blooded killing of Palestinian citizens by Jewish terrorists. Through the exercise of democracy, the people will give their vote surely to those who want to build the country and develop it; they will give their vote to those who will chart their future with rationality and moderation. This is an important factor in convincing any organization or action.
How widespread is fundamentalism in Palestinian society? What are the means whereby to diminish the phenomenon?
ABBAS: Our people with its Christian and Moslem citizens are a religious people with a certain way of judging and a certain moderation. Historically Palestine is the country in which Jews, Christians and Moslems have lived together and in which each has practiced his own faith freely. If some forms of religious extremism have arisen recently, the reasons are varied: reaction to determined political moments and actions; a sense of frustration and desperation. Therefore I affirm that when hope exists or, to put it better, when Palestinian citizens fully enjoy all their freedoms thereby improving their living conditions, extremism will no longer have place in our society.
At what point are you with the integration of the security forces?
ABBAS: We have made large advances, but we continue to need more armaments and more training for the security forces. But the most important thing is that we need to get rid of all the restrictions Israel has set on the police forces, so that they can fulfil their task.
What do you think of the theories that talk of exporting democracy to the Arab world?
ABBAS: They are mistaken theories. Democracy isn’t something on sale. It’s about modes of government and real and proper culture. Every democracy is tied to the characteristics of a society. Instead of talking about exporting democracy to the Arab world, they could help these countries build civic society and the institutions of government. They could push for the amplification of popular participation in elections and should try to stop interfering from the outside, because that could lead to chaos if an Arab country turned out not to be sufficiently mature for the experiment.
Syria has withdrawn from Lebanon. What effect might possible fragility in the latter country have on the dialogue between you and Israel? And then what will happen to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon?
ABBAS: I hope there is stability in Lebanon and that our brothers both in Syria and in Lebanon can build good relations between them in the interest of the two countries. As for the dialogue between us and Israel, everything depends on the ending of the occupation and on the achieving of peace. The same is true of Syria, where Israel continues to occupy the territory in the Golan as well as the farms of Shebaa in the Lebanon. We are three agents united by the same cause, even if divided by some details.
As for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, their presence in that country is temporary, waiting to be able to return to their own country. In the meantime, however, they should make use of their civil rights, above all the right to work and the right to own a dwelling. The Lebanese government has recently begun to remove some work restrictions on Palestinians and I am thankful for that.
After Iraq, do you believe that there will be conflict with Iran because of its nuclear program?
ABBAS: I don’t believe it will get to conflict. The results we see in Iraq show us that wars and conflicts complicate problems without resolving them. I’m confident that European efforts will be able to defuse this crisis and a solution to the problem will be arrived at.
According to the sharia Palestine is the Holy Earth, as Arafat was fond of repeating, sometimes even in Italian and Latin. For you personally, what weight has religion in the politics of the Middle East? And what do you think of the dialogue among the religions?
ABBAS: The Holy Land belongs to the three monotheistic religions. It is a truth that must be shared by every reasonable Moslem or Christian or Jew. The problem, according to my modest view, lies not in religion in itself, since faith is a question that concerns man and the Creator. The believer is a person who believes in man created in the image of the Creator. Whoever loves God loves his fellow men. The problem is another: it is the politicization of religion and the instrumental use of faith for political and sometimes racist objectives in denying the rights of others. The problem is the monopolization of God for one’s own causes and the mobilization of people through these dangerous concepts.
I am a believing Moslem, my real faith lies in all the Prophets, I believe in the others two religions, the Jewish and the Christian, I support and encourage dialogue among the faiths so as to find common elements that contribute to the development of this dialogue, as the late lamented Pope John Paul II wanted, who worked for harmony among the sons of Abraham.
John Paul II worked hard to avoid conflict among civilizations. Benedict XVI has declared that the Catholic Church will continue to improve its friendship with other religions. What are the means whereby this dialogue may give its fruits? What have you to say of the emigration of Christians from the Holy Land, including Palestine?
ABBAS: More dialogue, open the doors that are still closed. I believe that Pope John Paul II was an example in this, with all the journeys he made throughout the world, including the historic visit to Palestine. He listened to all the religions, he engaged in dialogue with every leader and with every people; suffice it to look at all the heir of Peter bequeathed, above all on the day of his funeral. It was the funeral of the century in the full sense of the phrase. Almost every leader in the world attended the event, recognizing everything that this very great Pope had done. He was bold a defender of the rights of our Palestinian people, he was tied by a particular and deep friendship to our dead president Yasser Arafat.
This great inheritance has now passed to His Holiness Benedict XVI, who promised, after his election, to carry on down the same path. I hope the cause of our people will be at the center of the interests of the new Pope, and this point is linked to the second part of your question. In reality the sufferings of our people, the siege it endures in various villages and various cities, including Bethlehem, has led to the mass emigration of our Christian brothers. It is a danger the consequences of which the Holy See has often denounced, above all so that the Christian holy places not be transformed into simple archaeological sights without believers and without prayers. After the Oslo Agreement of 1993 many Christian brethren returned definitely to Palestine, but with the outbreak of the second Intifada, with all the sieges, the closures and the brutalities committed by the Israelis, the continuous confiscation of Palestinian land and the construction of the wall, still going on, that is suffocating the Holy City of Bethlehem, many Christians have been forced to abandon their homes.
right, with 
Yasser Arafat in Ramallah in 2003

; right, with Yasser Arafat in Ramallah in 2003

Do you want to ask anything particular of Benedict XVI?
ABBAS: I ask him to use all the weight and spiritual and moral importance of the Catholic Church to put an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people, and to guarantee its legitimate right to create an independent state with east Jerusalem as capital. I repeat, finally, through your magazine, the invitation to His Holiness Benedict XVI to pay a visit to the Palestinian people in Palestine.
After Oslo what was the most serious mistake committed by the PNA and what was that committed by Israel?
MAHMOUD ABBAS: Our most serious mistake, despite all the difficulties, has been not to build the necessary institutions to go ahead. Israel’s is to have expanded colonial settlement not respecting the due dates agreed between the two parties.
Are you pessimistic or optimistic at present, and why?
MAHMOUD ABBAS: I’m optimistic because the end of the Israeli occupation and settlements has begun. I’m optimistic because I hear Condoleezza Rice and other figures talking about the necessity of not stopping with Gaza and going on with the withdrawal from the West Bank. I’m optimistic because of all the promises of economic aid coming from various states. Finally I’m very optimistic because the vast majority of Israeli public opinion has supported the withdrawal from Gaza. I hope that all the forms of violence soon cease so that the percentage of supporters increases both among the Palestinian and Israeli population.

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