Middle East talks skirt issue of Jerusalem


ALBERT AGHAZARIAN, Palestinian director of public relations and professor of history at the Bir Zeit University in Jerusalem, attended a conference on Palestine in Geneva on August 28. There he spoke to Frank Noakes from Green Left Weekly.

There's been much praise for the new Israeli Labour coalition government in the media. What is your impression of this government to date?

It is a government of deliberate ambiguity, so it remains to be seen. However, while on paper they have been making grand statements, we have not seen that interpreted on the ground. Already since Rabin has taken over, he has decided to annex a whole suburb into Jerusalem.

Palestinians have a new term, "pessoptimism". The people have what you might call a continuous optimism, but the Palestinians have also become very cautious. In some circles you might even find some indifference creeping in due to the lack of movement.

What about everyday life in the occupied territories?

There is frustration that cannot be underestimated, because while you have all this talk about talks, you have an increase in the level of harassment, petty harassment of the population. So the daily rhythm of life is not synchronised with what appears to be an upbeat motion, which we only hear about when we are outside the occupied territories.

While maybe harassment from the new Israeli government has declined at the level of organised set-ups, at the level of the man on the street it has in fact increased. When I say increased, I mean permission to leave, to come and go, taxation, rent harassment, the ability to move around. All these things have created discord between what goes on at the ground and what's happening on the surface of the talks.

There's very little in Western media today on the intifada. Why is this?

The intifada has had various components. In the first phase you were hearing of the incidents of the intifada; reports covered news rather than analysis. There are probably fewer cases of direct confrontation now, but the other dimension of the intifada was institution building — the building of people's organisations and structures. The institution building we consider no less important than the dramatic scenes of confrontation.

What do you think of the US government's moves to exclude Jerusalem from the peace talks? Is this possible?

There is absolutely no way to have a solution without Jerusalem. I say as a Jerusalemite that to keep Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem is destructive. I would prefer to live endlessly under occupation rather an sign a document that would give up our claim to Jerusalem, particularly since in Jerusalem today we are subject to what may be called war by the Israelis.

You have had the government involved in taking over houses and in expanding Jerusalem. The land area of Jerusalem in 1967 was 1500 acres; now it is over 16,000 acres. Without Jerusalem, there can be no solution. I think the Americans do realise that there is no solution: they are simply deferring the issue rather than trying to solve it.

You have complete Israeli municipal control over Jerusalem, you have Israel settling over 150,000 people in east Jerusalem.

What are some of the other issues confronting Palestinians in Jerusalem?

There is the question of the property owned by Arabs in east and west Jerusalem. In fact, 40% of west Jerusalem legally belongs to Arabs, although this is blocked pending discussion of the matter.

We should be asking for compensation, including public buildings in west Jerusalem. Most importantly, all the measures confiscating land in east Jerusalem, we have to ask for them to be rescinded. Eventually, the UN Security Council resolution concerning return or compensation has to be invoked.

One of the things we face is disinformation that says Jerusalem is united. In fact, it is far from being so. All the security measures concerning the West Bank do apply in Jerusalem. You have no Palestinian representation whatsoever in the affairs of the city. These are the issues that have to be addressed.

There will be a lot of pressure on the Palestinians to compromise their just claims. What's the bottom line?

The pressure will be there, but in the final analysis there is a minimum that Palestinians want. I think that statehood will be one of the targets that the negotiators will have. It is absolutely important, and it is high time that we take our destiny into our own hands.

In how long?

People are speaking of three to five years as a time frame.