What Is Palestine to Me? An Interview with Fatima Hassan

Fatima Hassan, is a prominent South African human rights lawyer who was part of a South African Human Rights Delegation that in early July visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.   The delegation undertook the mission in order to: “support those, Palestinian and Israeli, working daily, by non-violent means, to bring an end to the post-1967 Israeli occupation, to end all human rights abuses and breaches of international law, and to move towards peaceful relations and a just settlement . . . to express solidarity with those who are living in oppressive, restrictive and dangerous circumstances; and to draw attention to the injustice of the occupation and its devastating consequences.”  Mukoma Wa Ngugi interviewed Fatima Hassan on the solidarity visit and the implications of the Palestinian struggle for Africans.

MUKOMA WA NGUGI: Well, let’s get straight to it: an Independent newspaper article quotes you as saying, “The issue of separate roads, [different registration] of cars driven by different nationalities, the indignity of producing a permit any time a soldier asks for it, and of waiting in long queues in the boiling sun at checkpoints just to enter your own city, I think is worse than what we experienced during apartheid.”  But the same article goes on to say that “Ms Hassan herself said she thought the apartheid comparison was a potential ‘red herring'”.  Can you speak more about this?

FATIMA HASSAN: I think that the debate/discourse about whether this is Apartheid or not is not helpful.  Too often people get bogged down in whether this IS Apartheid or not.  And then use this as the measure of whether the situation in Palestine and Israel is intolerable from a legal and moral standpoint.  Of course there are similarities in respect of the indignity and inhumaneness of the consequences of the occupation.  And of course people in Palestine and Israel call the wall the ‘apartheid wall’ because it is premised on a policy of separation and closure.

But the context is different and the debate on whether this is Apartheid or not deflects from the real issue of occupation, encroachment of more land, building of the wall and the indignity of the occupation and the conduct of the military and police.  I saw the checkpoint at Nablus, I met with Palestinians in Hebron, I met the villagers who are against the wall — I met Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members, their land and homes.  They have not lost hope though — and they believe in a joint struggle against the occupation and are willing in non-violent means to transform the daily direct and indirect forms of injustice and violence.

To sum up — there is a transgression that is continuing unabated — call it what you want, apartheid/separation/closure/security — it remains a transgression.

MWN: Can you speak about the Palestinians in the West Bank and living under Israeli occupation?  Are they struggling for inclusion and equal rights within Israel or for a viable Palestinian state?

FH: I think I have realised that physically and geographically — with the massive encroachment of land — that a 2 state solution may not be realistic.  But it is not for me to determine the solutions for people who live there.

As for Palestinians, they stressed to us that they are against the occupation, not against Israel or Jews, but against the occupation and denial of human rights.  What they want depends on who you speak to and where they live.  Of course, everyone we spoke to stressed inclusion, dignity, autonomy.

MWN: Can South Africa serve as source of instruction to both Palestinians and Israelis?  In what ways?

FH: In some ways yes and in some ways perhaps not.  In SA we agreed to accept each other not as enemies but as people first , then we talked, and still do.  As Dennis Davis from our delegation commented — ‘they are talking divorce whereas we (SA) talked marriage’.  There are ways in which we cannot be instructive because we have limited experience — we had invisible barriers and one road for everyone.

They have barriers, check points almost everywhere and different roads!  They have children stoning other children who are trying to go to school (Hebron) — we had Bantu education and a language forced on us but not the scenarios we saw and heard of in Hebron.

We did not have deeply religious views and claims defining the injustice and land grabs.  In fact faith-based organisations mobilised against apartheid.  In SA we have some (limited) experience on race and dealing with racism — but not a racism rooted in religion.

MWN: Is there any instruction for the Palestinians in the South African struggle against apartheid?

FH: International solidarity and exposure of injustice is critical.  We used several means to struggle — international solidarity and sanctions, limited armed struggle and mass moblisation.  The Israeli and Palestinian joint struggle is perhaps the best place for us to offer solidarity as our struggle was also inclusive and mass-based.

MWN: Do South Africans have a special responsibility to Palestinians?  Is there historical solidarity between the PLO and the ANC?

FH: I think you have to ask the ANC about historical alliances. . . .  But of course they were historically linked.

I owe any community and people around the world solidarity if they face injustice anywhere in the world or in my own country — I owe it as a human being, and as South African — because they provided solidarity to us during years of terrible race-based oppression.  Yes we have a special obligation to condemn and respond to injustice given our own shameful history.

MWN: In the past African states have been very vocal in their support of Palestinians.  For example in the 1970s a number of African countries cut diplomatic ties with Israel.  What kind of actions can/should the present generation of African leaders take?

MH: Several small steps first – – build a consensus and voice to condemn oppression and injustice in Israel and elsewhere.

Ensure that companies that benefit from building the wall and benefit from the occupation are not given business.

Ensure that they visit ordinary villagers and peace activists who are engaging in joint non-violent struggles as opposed to only meeting career politicians from one or other ‘side’.

MWN: Did you get a sense of the ongoing struggle between Hamas and the Fatah movement?  What in your opinion is a constructive response from Africans to this split?

FH: We only had 5 days of visits so this is impossible to answer properly.  When I went to several villages there were activists who were originally part of both movements now working together to feed children, educate them and provide humanitarian relief as well as working with Israeli activists in a non-violent struggle.

MWN: What is the effect of the wall-barrier on prospects for peace and on the Palestinians?

FT: On the wall, fence, separation barrier, I think it is the biggest mistake and obstacle to peace — its physical presence, its emphasis on increased security, its ability to cut off people from their land, schools, neighbours and homes and from Israelis and Jews, will not and cannot make anyone think that peace is even on the negotiating table.

The parts of the wall that we saw, the many demolition orders that had to be taken against parts of the fence/wall, show an absolute failure to understand the livelihoods and lives of people on both sides of the wall — the wall has meant that thousands of Palestinians have lost access to their land and livelihoods (about 250,000 are affected — with 8,000 Palestinian families in the safety zone).

The wall cuts off neighbourhoods and to me only protects settlements — might I add that that many of the settlements are actually illegal and are considered illegal outposts.  For it to work they have implemented complex permit systems — even a horse needs a permit to get across.  It really is a shame.

MWN: Do you see a one state or a two state solution?  Considering that a one state solution is not even on the table, and it does not seem that Israel will allow for a viable independent and thriving Palestinian state, how do you see one of the two solutions working?

FT: I cannot comment on the prospects because I visited for 5 days only — I do not believe that I can comment on solutions — I went to learn.  Off course one must be hopeful for a single state based on human rights for all with dignity and inclusion for all.

MWN: Finally, we never get to hear about Jewish/Palestinian solidarity movements yet they exist.  Can you speak more about this?

FH: There is a growing number of such movements — they may be small and ‘fringe’ right now but I believe that their message is simple and universal — non-violence and inclusion of all people that make up Israeli and Palestinian communities.  They will grow in strength and with our solidarity.

Combatants for Peace, Anarchists against the Wall, Breaking the Silence, Bereaved Parents Families Forum are just some examples. . . .  And the Popular Committees in villages, Ta’ayush, Children of Abraham as well.

Their greatest strength right now is that they see everyone as human beings in a common struggle for peace; their greatest threat is that they talk about peace and human rights — they often told us that the greatest threat to removing barriers is fear — I think they are right.  People are scared in Israel and Palestine — they are scared of peace.

For more information on the solidarity visit, <www.humanrightsdelegation.org>.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is co-editor of Pambazuka News where this interview first appeared.

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