Interviewed by Joel B. Pollak
Joel B. Pollak ’99 is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Cape Town. He was a political speechwriter for the Leader of the Opposition in South Africa from 2002 to 2006 and is a second-year student at Harvard Law School.
Bassem Eid is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG), which tracks human rights violations against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, regardless of who commits them. He is a former fieldworker for B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization focusing on the occupied territories. Eid’s work at PHRMG has concentrated on documenting violations by the Palestin-ian Authority against its own citizens. In recent years he has also moni-tored abuses committed by the Fatah and Hamas factions in their internec-ine struggles. Eid has received numerous human rights awards and frequently addresses Israeli and foreign audiences about the human rights problems facing Palestinians. Earlier this year, he teamed up with left-wing Israeli politician Yossi Beilin at the Doha Debates, arguing that Palestinians should abandon the right of return for the sake of peace with Israel.
New Society: Tell me about your life—where you are from, and how you came to be where you are today.
Bassem Eid: I am Palestinian and I was born in the Old City in East Jerusalem. I lived there for eight years, but then in 1966, for no reason, the Jorda-nian government established a refugee camp called Shuefat Refugee Camp near the French Hill in Jerusalem. The Jordanian government removed 500 families from the Old City, mainly from the Jewish Quarter. It was exactly one year before the 1967 war. I lived in the refugee camp for 32 years from 1966 until 1999. For the past four years, I have been living in Jericho.
I finished secondary school in one of the municipality schools in East Jerusalem. Then I attended Hebrew University for two years and studied journalism, but I couldn’t continue for financial reasons. After leaving the university, I worked as a freelance journalist for Palestin-ian and Israeli newspapers until 1988 before joining B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization that investigates rights violations in the occupied territories. In mid-1996, I resigned from B’Tselem and founded the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG), which is where I still am today.
NS: Why did you leave B’Tselem?
Eid: When the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established 1994, I noticed that most Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations continued monitoring the Israeli occupation, but that nobody wanted to pay any attention to the PA’s violations. In a meeting held in March 1996, the board members of B’Tselem decided that they would not concern themselves with PA abuses. That’s why I left. I wanted to fill a role that I thought was very important, but that was empty.
NS: So you left that same year?
Eid: Yes. The decision came out in March, and I left at the end of July 1996 to set up the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Our main aim is to observe the Palestinian Authority’s violations. Between 1996 and 2000, our publications did not cover Israeli violations at all. All of our reports and press releases responded to Palestinian Author-ity abuses. We only started collecting data on Israeli violations after the second Intifada broke out in September 2000. Then we started to investigate Israeli killings, assassinations, house demolitions, and the use of the excessive force. In the meantime, we continued to collect information about Palestinian Authority violations.
Today, we are probably the organization with the most extensive data on internal killings among the Palestinians. I believe we are the only organization, for example, that investigates the murder of col-laborators by Palestinians. We also investigate long-term imprison-ment without charge, torture, the conduct of the state security court, and deaths that occur in Palestinian detention centers. We collect information on these issues and update our reports everyday.
NS: Why do you think B’Tselem chose not to monitor the Palestinian Authority?
Eid: In my opinion, that was a wise decision. At that time, there were still large areas under Israeli occupation and B’Tselem still had a lot of work to do to expose rights violations by the Israeli army in the occupied territories.
On the other side, I think that if the Palestinians want to form a successful civil society, live in a democracy, and respect human rights, we will have to build institutions with our own hands. We should not lay our fate in other people’s hands. We have done so quite enough over the past sixty years. We are still demanding a state from the international community instead of building it ourselves. I think that it is the time for the Palestinians to start building their own democracy right now. I believe that democracy has never been offered by leaders or governments. Democracy is determined by the people themselves.
NS: How did the Palestinian Authority react to your new organiza-tion?
Eid: Creating a human rights organization under an Arab regime is like committing suicide. Yasser Arafat was used to doing whatever he wanted without being criticized or monitored. When I started watch-ing, investigating, criticizing, he started to look at me in a very bad light. The Palestinian Authority defamed us and slandered us. Among other accusations, they said that we serve the enemy’s interests.
When we started to publish reports on PA human rights viola-tions, the reports became sexy news material for the international community. They were particularly well-reported by the Israeli media. The issue was especially sexy because, as you know, I had spent the past seven and a half years criticizing only Israel. Arafat saw me as a traitor.
We had a very tough period and had to get through many tough moments. Sometimes, ironically, these fears and difficulties gave us more energy and made us become even more committed to the sub-ject. We decided to continue in spite of all the danger surrounding us. And here we are! We still exist.
NS: Has your work become easier or more difficult since Arafat’s death?
Eid: Well, I think the PA does not really exist anymore. It exists in the pages of newspapers rather than on the ground itself. The PA com-pletely destroyed itself during the past seven years. They got them-selves into huge trouble.
As far as my work is concerned, I feel very secure right now. Eve-ryone knows me where I live in Jericho. I’m very satisfied with what I’m doing.
NS: What do you think of the prospects for Palestinians right now? Will there be a Palestinian state? Is the two-state solution still viable?
Eid: It must be possible to create a Palestinian state. The question is how. How will we deal with it? How will we build it? How will we unite to establish good institutions?
In my opinion, the establishment of a Palestinian state is not only related to the Israelis. It concerns the Palestinians. We have had a very bad experience with building a state, developing it, and keeping it alive.
That brings me to the September 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza. Everybody thought that the Israeli disengagement would be a kind of test for the Palestinians. It would test whether we are really able to build our own state and manage our daily lives ourselves. In my opinion, we totally failed to manage Gaza, develop it, and build infrastructure.
Today, fewer and fewer Palestinian voices speak up in favor of es-tablishing a state. Everybody has his own horrible troubles. The only people calling for a state right now are the politicians.
Politicians around the world are buying and selling blood. This is the only income that they have. And that’s exactly what Arafat prac-ticed with the Palestinians. I remember with great sadness what happened when he started creating an Intifada and threatening the Israelis. Palestinian security workers went to the schools, ordered the schoolmasters to close the schools, and then sent the schoolchildren to throw stones at the Israelis. That was a very horrible thing to do. Politicians sacrifice their people to achieve their political interests. This is unfortunately the Palestinian attitude.
Look at Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, who is saying, “No more resistance!” This is a huge change. One can resist, but one must also protect oneself and one’s survival. People were born to live, not to die. When you are alive, you can choose to resist, but you can also choose to build, to achieve things, to reach for what you want. When you die, you just die. This is a good lesson for the Palestinians right now: sacrificing ourselves will not help us achieve anything. We won’t achieve anything with violent resistance.
We are having to face the consequences of our actions over the past seven years. In my opinion, the Palestinians totally lost their way during the past seven years. Things will get worse if we continue in the same way. We will have to change our direction.
NS: What do you think should happen in Gaza?
Eid: Gaza is a big problem for the Palestinians, Israelis, and Egyptians. The international community becomes more and more afraid of the Palestinians because Hamas reflects such a negative side of Palestinian politics. I don’t think that Hamas will ever offer Gaza to back to Abbas.
The question is: Who is going to control Hamas? Hamas right now oppresses the Gazan people. But who will contain Hamas? I don’t think that dialogue will solve the problem.
We will all be watching whether Hamas can manage Gaza and keep it functioning. The Arab countries should put more effort into solving the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. The problem is that the Arab countries are so divided, some supporting Hamas against Fatah and some supporting Fatah against Hamas. This won’t help the situation.
I don’t think the international community can do very much on this issue, besides continuing to provide important humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. On the whole, though, it’s too early right now to tell what will happen to Gaza and Hamas.
NS: What about Hamas in the West Bank. Are they a factor?
Eid: They do exist in the West Bank, but what’s happening in Gaza could never happen in the West Bank.
This is not only because Fatah is stronger than Hamas, but also be-cause of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. Israelis will never allow Hamas militants to take over Jenin, facing Afula.
Of course, Hamas will still threaten to occupy the West Bank, to jeopardize any peace agreement, and to harm the Palestinian Presi-dent and government in the West Bank. I don’t think we will see peace in the near future.
Daily life in the West Bank will become a little bit easier, though, according to the promises of Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas. But I think the peace process will take much longer than anybody expects.
NS: What do you think is the main reason that the conflict continues?
Eid: I think there is a lack of good will and leadership on both sides. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also tends to become a commercial conflict. Everybody is making something off this conflict. There are countries that have an interest in perpetuating the fighting. The Iranians, for example, are trying to provoke a regional war using Hezbollah and Hamas.
I don’t think the Palestinians will have the same opportunities for peace that we were offered between 1947 and July 2000. Palestinian violence has probably caused some countries to want not to get involved anymore. The foreign policy of the international community is totally biased.
NS: When you say that foreign policy is biased, you mean in which direction?
Eid: Well, the problem is that the international community is not united. Countries are divided. Policies are divided. So many different biased policies are involved in this conflict. In this kind of situation, I don’t think that the Palestinians or the Israelis will be able to reach a kind of final peace or a final agreement between themselves.
NS: Do you think there’s a possibility that Israelis and Palestinians will be able to build something out of the cooperation that still exists between them in some areas? Are these areas of cooperation possible foundations for peace?
Eid: Small-scale cooperation is very important. But I don’t think a permanent solution is possible right now. Let us talk about a tempo-rary one, instead. This is what Abbas and Olmert are doing right now. Let us release few thousand Palestinian prisoners, let us evacuate a couple of checkpoints, let us open the gates of the wall between villages and clinics or schools, let us issue a couple of tens of thou-sands of work permits to Palestinians so that they can work in Israel—this is what we are negotiating with the Israelis now.
When you talk about the state, the settlements, the borders, and the water, the Israelis say, this is so complicated, let’s leave it to the end. In the meanwhile, let’s do things step-by-step. That is how we are today negotiating with the Israelis. Many of these small things will probably continue to be delivered in the future.
NS: How do you feel about the situation? What motivates you?
Eid: I’m very angry and frustrated. I’m hopeless. I know my ideas provoke people, but I’m not a politician. I care much more about people’s lives rather than their lands. Land you can get everywhere in the world, but you can never replace lives. I don’t want to hear about killings, I don’t want to hear about shootings. I hate violence.
I am 48 years old. I had never, ever in my life seen a tank shooting until the past six or seven years. Since then, when I’ve gone to Ramal-lah, Bethlehem, Jericho, I’ve been so afraid. I’ve seen the kinds of things I never want to see again. I don’t like the way we are militariz-ing the conflict. It’s horrible. And I don’t like the way we’re making it religious. That brings great danger.
Looking back through history, one finds several examples of con-flicts that were solved without any kind of bloodshed. So I do believe that we can solve our conflict. We will have to learn from the experi-ences of others.
NS: What did you learn when you went to South Africa this year?
Eid: South Africa is very interesting. But it couldn’t be a model for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are some very good things in the South African case that we can learn from. The Truth and Reconcilia-tion Committee, for example.
The most important lesson is that the people in South Africa built their democracy and institutions with their own hands. Nobody offered it to them. I hope Palestinians will learn from that.
But otherwise, the South African case is very different from our situation. It involved people fighting against one apartheid govern-ment. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you are not talking about one government or one nation. It’s totally different. We are not fighting for a one-state solution. Of course we are not.
What I learnt in South Africa is that some Islamists in South Africa are totally disconnected from the realities and still believe that the solution will be one state—an Islamic state. I found that very horrible.
NS: Do people in the West Bank and East Jerusalem want one state or two states, or do they want something else entirely?
Eid: At the moment, I think the Palestinians want a three-state solu-tion for two nations—Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel. Of course, there are still some disconnected Palestinians and Israelis who believe in a one-state solution. But I think that the Palestinians dream of creating our own independent, democratic, anti-Islamist country. And I think the Israelis want their own Jewish, Zionist country. I think both people have a right to their own states.
NS: What do you think the role should be of the Palestinian Diaspora, people in other parts of the region and other parts of the world?
Eid: That’s a really a big problem right now. I don’t believe that all the Palestinian refugees would like to come back. Israel will never open its doors to those refugees. The Palestinians shouldn’t have to continue sacrificing themselves for the right of return, a dream that will never be applicable on the ground. There are refugees around the world. All nations have refugees. This is an international problem. Refugees should be able to move to the West Bank or other countries. They should be more realistic about the situation.
NS: How are your ideas received by other Palestinians?
Eid: I don’t think that most Palestinians agree with me. And politi-cians are completely ignorant of my ideas because they don’t serve their political interests. We are a totally unstable society. Our opinions change ever day. Sometimes we feel powerful and energetic; some-times we feel tired and hopeless. I prefer talking to people when they are tired. Then they are more likely to listen to new ideas.
NS: What are your perceptions of Israeli human rights groups? Are they succeeding in their work?
Eid: I think they are doing a good job. We, the Palestinians, have learnt a lot from the Israeli organizations. There are Palestinians who are critical of the Israeli organizations, but mostly they are people who have no real idea of what is going on. I know what happens inside the Israeli organizations. I think that they are doing the maximum they can do to improve the daily lives of the Palestinians. If you go to the High Court, you will realize that most of the appeals made on behalf of Palestinians have been presented by Israeli groups and Israeli lawyers, not Palestinian ones.
NS: Are you able to monitor what’s going on in Gaza right now?
Eid: That’s very, very difficult. Don’t forget that we are living under a Taliban regime in the Gaza Strip. Our fieldworker hesitates before investigating cases there. The situation for human rights organizations sometimes reminds me of the Saddam Hussein regime. We can’t monitor the Gaza Strip the way we used to monitor it when it was PA territory. We are trying to collect data from newspapers and other organizations that operate in the area. We are in touch with some journalists there. But we face serious opposition and danger.
NS: What advice would you like to give to the Palestinians?
Eid: The best opportunity for us to make peace with Israel was probably in 1978 or 1979 when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat visited Israel. He suggested that Yasser Arafat join him, but Arafat refused.
The most important thing for us to do now is learn from the mis-takes we made between 1947 and today so that we don’t repeat them. We should put these mistakes on the table and study them well. After studying our mistakes, I think the solution will be very easy to create.