An Interview with Nizar Farsakh, Former Adviser to the Palestinian Leadership

by Matt B. on April 30, 2011

Nizar Farsakh is a teaching fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. Before coming to Harvard, he spent five years advising Palestinian leaders in their negotiations with Israel.

In this interview, he shares his views on that negotiation process and on Palestinians’ efforts to achieve statehood through UN recognition.

MATT BIEBER: You recently led co-led Harvard’s first student trip to Palestine. [Full disclosure: I participated in this trip.] What were your goals?

NIZAR FARSAKH: Our goals were to expose the participants to the variety of challenges Palestinians face. Different Palestinians face different challenges. They’re kind of under the same rubric of lack of freedom, but different ways in which that displays or manifests itself, and then see how even those with the same kind of challenge deal with it differently….To have a more sophisticated picture of the Palestinians, as opposed to just, you know, “Hamas wants to destroy Israel, Fateh wants negotiations…” There is more to the picture than just that.

MATT BIEBER: Prior to coming here, you advised Palestinian negotiators for five years. Describe that work, if you would.

NIZAR FARSAKH: I have a degree in boundary studies, and my job was to do all the technical work [around] preparing the arguments for arguing the West Bank and Gaza boundaries. Basically, the Palestinian position was that we have a right to the 1967 borders. My job, along with a partner who was a legal adviser, was to come up with the argumentation, with the archival data, with all the technical stuff that needs to happen, and to support the advisers, or the negotiators in the negotiation itself….I also work on border-crossing issues.

MATT BIEBER: Before you worked for the Palestinian Authority, you worked for a non-profit in Palestine that monitored Israeli settlements.

NIZAR FARSAKH: I worked in Bethlehem for three years in an organization called Applied Research Institute, where we did applied research on environmental issues, but also focused on the geopolitical situation, because it affects obviously the situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. More specifically, how settlements and…the occupation project in general affect the environment. So the settlements, the uprooting, the house demolitions, the pollution that often happens because of the industrial zones, industrial parks in the settlements.

And my specific job there was to actually monitor the settlement activity and to report about it. So, what I found very valuable and rewarding…was that I…actually got to get a sense of the land, of the West Bank, very well, what the settlements are about, and how the different parts of the West Bank suffer from settlements…It’s not only the settlements – the bypass roads, the various military laws.

MATT BIEBER: Say a little more about how the creation and presence of settlements impacts the surrounding Palestinian communities.

NIZAR FARSAKH: In general, it’s a question of loss of land. So what happens is that the Israeli military authorities expropriate pieces of land that are owned by Palestinians, whether privately or publicly, in the West Bank. (All of it is occupied territory, and hence, is not Israeli sovereign territory.) And what happens is that people are deprived from their land. Usually, the land would have been used for cultivation, but sometimes it’s just pieces of land, like in Jerusalem….There are houses that get confiscated. So it’s a question of dispossession. So it’s not only about poverty and…loss of an asset, as much as the injustice of it.

A good anecdotal example that could make it more lively – I remember interviewing this guy who was in a village called el-Mughayer in the middle of the West Bank. Next to it [is the] settlement of Shiloh, which is a religious settlement. He had large parcels of land that he cultivated, and he lived off the land. He used to have agricultural produce that he sold, and his children would work with him. The settlement, the Israeli authorities, confiscated pieces of his land for the settlement, for expanding the settlement of Shiloh, and as they took more land, his land shrank and he produced less, so less of his sons worked with him. They started working in construction in Israel, or even in the settlements. It came to the point that his land became so small that he was working alone, and then he stopped working himself, because it just became economically not feasible for him….So, he ends up working in construction of settlements. One fine day, the Israeli contractor takes him to work in construction in the piece of land that used to be his.

…You have also Israelis who argue that these settlements provide employment for Palestinians. There are some of them that have hospitals and clinics where Palestinians go. Yeah, that’s true, but that does not negate the fact that they are at the expense of Palestinian land and assets. And in fact…Palestinians [see] that these lands are not confiscated for the public good. It’s confiscated specifically for the public good of the Jewish community or the Israeli community in Palestine and Israel.

MATT BIEBER: I understand than Israeli businesses in the West Bank are sometimes governed by different rules than Palestinian enterprises.

NIZAR FARSAKH: Yes. So, in general, probably contrary to popular belief, the West Bank is still occupied, even with the presence of the PA.  [The] PA has a function of administering the affairs of Palestinians, but the PA does not have any sovereignty. Israel retains ultimate control of the West Bank. So, everything that happens there happens basically with the consent of the Israelis. Even PA laws – the Palestinian authorities [are] able to apply them only to the extent that Israel allows them to, and at the moment, it can and does stop the PA from doing so.

So, when it comes to, for example, laws about…telecom licenses or about industrial zones, it’s not fair game, because at any moment, the Israeli authorities – Israeli military authorities, by the way; it’s not the government but the Israeli military authorities that’s responsible for the West Bank – they can decide that this company can get this license, this company does not get this license….Usually the catch-all justification or pretext is “security reasons.”

But sometimes, they use different…standards, [as in the case of] dairy products or agricultural products. They say, “This is not standard,” but at the same time, you have the Israeli products [being] dumped in the Palestinian market because they…want to keep the prices high in Israel. There is unfair competition. The Israeli companies have subsidies; Palestinian companies don’t. Israeli companies can penetrate the Palestinian market; the Palestinian products cannot penetrate the Israeli market very well. So, it’s all under their control, even if there is a veneer of some sort of free market flow.

That flow, ultimately, is controlled, and obviously, a good example of that is Gaza. A lot of Israeli businesses…start their production in Gaza factories, and then the finishing of the product is in Israel, so a lot of these… outsourcing relationships, right? And then, the politics of the Israeli companies competing with each other, if they know somebody at the border crossings with Gaza, they would like, for example, to make sure that the products of their competitor does not get through or gets delayed, so you have all of these politics that ultimately comes at the expense of the Palestinian businessman. And you can, of course, just imagine the kind of corruption that goes into all of that. So you have corruption on both sides of the crossing, where you have the Palestinian who has his Israeli counterpart, and they’re working the system so that they get products through and what have you.

Ultimately…the Palestinians do not have the capacity to regulate that, because ultimately the decision is usually an Israeli military decision, which the government does not interfere in. So, for example, there are several instances that I actually was a personal witness to, in which the Palestinian president was arguing with the Israeli prime minister over an issue that happened in the West Bank and that they need to, for example, lift a checkpoint or something in the West Bank. And the prime minister would tell him, “Okay, we’ll do that,” and then an Israeli military officer of the regional area in the West Bank would say no. So, that military officer has more power in the West Bank area than definitely the Palestinian president, but even the Israeli prime minister. So, just to give you a sense of who really calls the shots in the West Bank.

MATT BIEBER: Why would an Israeli prime minister ever allow his authority to be ignored by a relatively low-ranking military official in the Occupied Territories?

NIZAR FARSAKH: Okay. Some of it is structure. The Israeli government and Israeli political system is such where there is a separation of powers. So, in this case, because the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are occupied territories, they are actually not sovereign territory. They are under the responsibility of the Israeli army. So, actually, in a sense, the Prime Minister does not have jurisdiction over that area in the first place.

MATT BIEBER: But he does have some jurisdiction over the military itself.

NIZAR FARSAKH: So, to the extent that Israel is at war, he is chief commander, right? But as far as decisions that have to do with the West Bank, he needs to go through [the military], because they are ultimately responsible for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He’s an elected official. They are the military institution that is responsible for things that happen in the West Bank, so they are accountable….So they make decisions and they can override the prime minister’s decision.

MATT BIEBER: Let’s talk a little more about your time advising Palestinian negotiators, and in particular, about the pace of negotiations. Are they always underway in some form?  Do they ebb and flow on a regular basis? Are there are times when no one’s talking at all?

NIZAR FARSAKH: When I came in 2003, there were no negotiations. The Intifada was in full throttle. The last official negotiations [had been] back in 2000 in the Camp David talks and then the Taba talks [between PLO President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak]…. And then, the Intifada erupted in September of 2000, so that stopped the official negotiations. There were some second-track or behind-the-doors negotiations, unofficial, where people explored certain idea. The most famous – for others, it’s called “infamous” – Geneva Initiative was one such initiative, where a group of Israelis and a group of Palestinians sat together and drafted an agreement.

So, that was a good example of how you could come to some sort of agreement, even if those two sides were not representative of their constituencies. It just showed that an agreement is possible.…Why am I using this example? Just to say that everybody agrees that ultimately there is a package deal out there. You just need to know…where is that golden mean? The majority of the Palestinians and the majority of Israelis were, “Okay, fine, I can give you that on refugees, if I get that on Jerusalem,” right?

And also, it makes the case for a comprehensive agreement. We don’t think that anybody can come to a sustainable agreement if you don’t deal with all the issues, because ultimately, something’s got to give, and once you increase the pie, there is more capacity to sell the agreement. If people feel that they got something, then they are more willing to release something else.

So, when I came in 2003, the office where I worked [was the] Negotiations Support Unit—whose job was to try to seek initiative that would re-initiate the official negotiations. In 2005, we worked on the Gaza evacuation. Israel did not consider that [to be] negotiations, but as far as we were concerned, it did affect permanent status issues, so we did [considered them] negotiations. And then, in 2007, I believe, the Annapolis process began between Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and that was a full-fledged negotiation process, with several layers: the president and the prime Minister, and then the chief negotiators and then the technical people, which I was a part of.

The idea was we want to see what kind of final agreement we can get to, because if we recall the Oslo Accords, the way the Oslo Accords envisions the peace process was we’d have an interim period, where Palestinians would have some sort of autonomy in certain areas and would work on security, and the Israelis would give Palestinians some control over their affairs. And then, after a five-year period, there would be actual final status negotiations, the argument there being that you need to make it an environment conducive for negotiations.

So this belated, let’s say, final status negotiations that are enforced like 10 years past the deadline, it was an earnest attempt at trying…to see if it was possible to come to a final agreement, a permanent status agreement. So, both sides came to it with, let’s say, an experimental approach….Both sides had the motivation to do something.

What was missing was the fact that the two sides had different goals. The Palestinians were looking at, “How are we going to achieve the Palestinian state?” and we can reverse engineer the process, but we need to be clear about what it’s going to look like, what are we going to do with the refugees, and what have you. And the Israeli objective [was different] – which was “The Palestinians have Areas A. Let’s see what more we can give them.” So, it’s “Let’s do some more steps and then see where that takes us.” Well, the Palestinian approach was, “No, let’s agree on the endgame and see how we can reverse engineer that. It can take 50 years, but we need to understand what that endgame would be.”

So, in a sense, we were working [at] cross-purposes, and my experience was that every time we’d sit at the table, we’d be talking with certain assumptions in our head, and they would be talking with different assumptions in their head, and that’s why we couldn’t get anywhere. I mean, there was some little advantage in trying or getting to understand the other’s perspective better, but I couldn’t see any way in which we could actually come to a serious agreement on any of the issues, because our starting points were actually – and our end goals actually – were very different. So we had, I think, a year and a half of going round and round issues and not really being able to have any breakthrough because there were different goals.

Maybe a good example of that was the fact that, process-wise, it was layered, so you had the Palestinian president and the Israeli prime minister talking to each other, and then the Israeli foreign minister and the Palestinian head of the negotiating team negotiating with each other, and then the technical people talking to each other. So the president-prime minister interaction was confidential; nobody was with them. The idea was that they can explore ideas, think outside of the box in ways in which they could not be attributed. Of course, we got the reports from President Abbas, and the Israelis got their reports from Prime Minister Olmert, and there was a sense that they actually did think of creative ideas on how to deal with Jerusalem, how to deal with the refugees.

They explored them, but they could not implement them because, I mean, they were experimenting with ideas, but they could not…nail them down to anything specific, and that’s why that didn’t go anywhere. I mean, it just showed that, yes, there’s a prime minister that’s willing to accept certain things, and that there’s a Palestinian president that is conceding things outside of the official position. But that doesn’t tie anything because the overarching principle in those negotiations was that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So even if Palestinians or Israelis said, “Okay, we can give you that on settlement or we’ll give you that on refugees,” none of that could be pinned down on either side until everything is agreed.

So, one of the concerns of the Palestinians is that the fact that Palestinians entertained certain concessions on settlements would be taken against them on the ground, and Israelis would argue that, “Oh, but the Palestinians said that this settlement is going to be part of Israel anyway, so we can build the wall here.” And that actually did happen.

MATT BIEBER: You’re referring to the Palestine Papers? Is that…

NIZAR FARSAKH: The Palestine papers were those negotiations, the papers about those negotiations, and we had mentioned those things. But even before that, we had cases where people would take cases of the wall in the Israeli court, and the Israeli military would say, “Well, no. Actually, this area, the Palestinians already conceded.” Well, that’s obviously a misinterpretation of what happened, because what was said was that Palestinians would [concede] these areas in return for something else. It wasn’t like, “Oh, of course, they can have the settlement, it’s a done deal.” Nothing’s [a deal] until everything’s a deal.

So, I just wanted to bring it as an example of how, yes, there is a theoretical agreement on a certain principle, but the way it plays out on the ground is one where somebody has a piece of information and they can distort it the way they want because they have the power….It’s an Israeli court and it’s the Israeli army, right? What is the recourse that the Palestinians can go to try to…convince the Israeli court that what the Israeli army is saying is not true?

MATT BIEBER: Right now, the Palestinian Authority is attempting to gain recognition for Palestinian statehood through the UN. A similar idea was also discussed about 20 years ago. Talk a little bit about this strategy.  What are its chances of success?

NIZAR FARSAKH: It depends on how you define success. If success is just getting this recognition and then in practice, you don’t actually have any power on the ground – for me, that’s not much of a success.

So, maybe some historical background: in 1988, the Palestinians—the PLO, had an observer’s status in the UN, right—so in 1988, after the Palestinian Parliament-in-exile declared the independence of the Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in Algiers, there was a diplomatic effort to get states to recognize this nascent Palestinian state, even if it’s under occupation. In fact, in 1988, more states recognized the state of Palestine than the states recognized Israel. So, that’s one of the interesting things.

However, that was just okay. You recognize the Palestinian state. We have a Palestinian embassy in Doha, a Palestinian embassy in Venezuela, or what have you, but what does that mean, really? On the ground, it doesn’t mean much. It didn’t have any legal implications on the ground besides what we could do in certain countries, because we have embassy status. It’s more, let’s say, a symbolic gesture or a symbolic move.

Now this latest one…if I’m not mistaken, it’s coming from what was mentioned in the Oslo Accords…which says that neither side shall take steps that would undermine or prejudice the final status negotiations. So, from the Palestinian perspective, this article means that Israeli should not build settlements or expand settlements, right, because that prejudices the final status. From the Israeli perspective, that’s read as the Palestinians will not declare a state, because that prejudices [the final status negotiations], right?

So, that’s one of the good examples of how those who thought that Oslo was good – because it was constructively ambiguous – that’s one of the cases where the two sides interpreted the same article very differently. So, the Israeli concern is that if the Palestinian state is declared and recognized, this is going to make…a legal fait accompli that puts Israel in the defensive, where they have to defend why they are occupying a country. So, it puts diplomatic and some political hurdles on Israel.

I don’t think that those are really—I mean, it gives them a headache, but I don’t see how that is really going to make Israel, for example, capitulate and suddenly like withdraw from West Bank – that’s just not going to happen. I don’t think it’s going to happen.

MATT BIEBER: It doesn’t strike me as the sort of thing that Netanyahu would respond to.  He seems committed to a certain course of action, and it’s hard to see this changing his mind.

NIZAR FARSAKH: Yes. And their argument would be, my guess, is that the whole point of the Oslo Accords was that the two sides would come and negotiate the disagreements. It’s not about imposing a solution on either side. And the argument or push would be that if you impose a solution, it’s not going to be sustainable. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, they feel like, “Okay, we’ve been negotiating for that 17 years, we’re not getting anywhere. We need some sort of leverage. We need some sort of push.” I was seconded to…Prime Minister [Salaam Fayyad’s] office for eight months, and I know that this is important to him, the recognition of the state, because that legally would allow us to be members of certain organizations, like WTO…where we will start to have some sort of leverage. Also, in the UN, we’ll be able to actually vote. So it’d just provide us with some benefits, which kind of improves our situation a little bit.

Where I push back on that—on that school of thought [that says] “Let’s get something and then work from there”—is that I feel like you’re not getting enough of the bang for the buck. It’s like, okay, so you have all of those small things, I don’t see how that’s going to contribute much to us getting closer to independence. I think the margin and the benefits are minimal. If we are going to come closer to statehood and freedom, we really need a game changer. We need to work on the grassroots and work on the pillars of the Oslo Accords….I feel this is a bit too little too late, and we’re barking up the wrong tree….I left the negotiations precisely because of disagreeing with that school of thought.

I do not think that trying to do these incremental changes is going to make that much of a difference. My fear is that what we’re doing is we’re just making the occupation a bit less difficult. I feel like we need to do something major. Those small things are not really helping us come closer to statehood. In my opinion, it’s making us fall back and it makes the one-state solution even more the default of what’s going to happen, not by design but just by mere facts on the ground. That’s why I feel like I’m unconvinced – that you cannot build the state without sovereignty. Before you have actual full control over your country, I don’t see the point of having ministries of planning, of having security apparatus….For example, we arrest somebody in a village in the West Bank, and the Palestinian police cannot get them to the jail in Ramallah, because there is an Israeli checkpoint. It’s just something as simple as that.

How can you build the state around all of these restrictions? I mean, it’s very admirable what Prime Minister Fayyad is doing, and I think it has a lot of good – ….You’re doing what you can do with what you have…in saying, “We’re building our state despite of the occupation.” I’m just not sold on this philosophy. I think, first things first, we need to work on actually having leverage, having something on the ground, which pushes the occupation out, and then we can work on our statehood.

The other side, which I guess I also need to mention—which I had a principled…objection [to]—is…this assumption that Palestinians somehow need to satisfy certain conditions before they are a state. I think freedom is an inalienable right, and to argue that a certain people need to prove that they’re worthy of freedom is a racist argument. I do not remember the American drafters of the Declaration of Independence…asking for permission and…trying to get certain conditions met before they asked for their freedom. I take this point very strongly.

MATT BIEBER: Let’s talk a little bit about endgames. So, the actual map of the West Bank is now pockmarked with several hundred settlements—I don’t remember the exact number.  And they’re not just on the other side of the 1967 border near the wall, but also much deeper into West Bank territory, including many in the Jordan Valley.  If you add to that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s commitment to expanding settlements, it seems hard to imagine how a contiguous Palestinian state ever emerges.

If it’s unlikely that an Israeli prime minister will move lots of the settlements, and if the Israelis insist that they be permitted to provide protection for settlers even after a Palestinian state is established, then is the Palestinian state an actual possibility at this point?

NIZAR FARSAKH: Well, it’s a conjecture….I’m of the opinion that many things in politics are possible. If you go back to 1947 and if you ask people back then, that the Jewish immigrants that were in Palestine were going to expel or make sure that 80% of the Palestinians in that area were going to get out of that place and you’ll establish the state of Israel, I would argue that 95% of the inhabitants of that area would have said, “No, that’s impossible,” right? So, a lot of things in the world are possible. In the same way, [take] the Second World War – after the First World War, everybody was saying, “Never again.” So, I just push back on people saying, “Is this possible? Is this not possible?”…History has proven us wrong so many times, so I would take that with a grain of salt.

So, as far as [whether] a Palestinian state is possible, yes, it is possible. If there is a will to do it, there will be [a state]. So I would begin with the Israeli argument, which is they would first say that, “We did remove settlers from Gaza Strip, so if we need to remove settlers from the West Bank, we’ll do that. It’s just going to be painful, but it’s doable.” And the fact that someone like former Prime Minister Sharon did it – and he was like the spearhead of the settlement movement – said a lot about how Israelis, when there’s a strategic interest, they would do it.

Similarly with the Sinai and the Golan. The Sinai has a lot of biblical significance, a lot of strategic military significance – still, the Israelis withdrew from the Sinai because there was a strategic interest in having Egypt be [at] peace with Israel….The Golan Heights is a smaller place, has no biblical significance, and Syria is less of a threat, and…they’re not willing to withdraw from it….When push comes to shove, like when there are geopolitical interests, they are going to do [it]….

The second thing…is that in general—and that’s across left and right parties—is that [the Israeli] approach is, “Let’s see where we can go.”  The Palestinian position [is] ”We want the Palestinian State on the West Bank and Gaza Strip; let’s see how we can get there.”

…In general, whether left or right…Israel political discourse says, “Okay, let’s see how this Palestinian State is going to look like, what territories we’re going to give them” – not give back. But the “give back” – you only hear that from…extreme left Israeli politics.

So, [it’s] not only Netanyahu that thinks like that. As far as the right, per se, and Netanyahu obviously…the Palestinian State is anathema to them. They want Palestinian autonomy at most, which is, You govern your own civil affairs, but ultimately, all of this is under Israeli sovereignty. So, they do not like the idea of a Palestinian state, to begin with, and many [on] the right would actually argue that Jordan is Palestine and the Palestinians should just go to Jordan, because they have a historical narrative that argues that in the First World War, the British, when they took control of Jordan and Iraq and Palestine, by creating the boundary of Palestine in 1923, (which is the boundary that we know now) and making the kingdom of Trans-Jordan, the ultra-right in Israel argued that that was a great injustice that the British did to the Zionist movement by taking out two-thirds of the Holy Land from what would be Palestine, what would be the Zionist state.

So, there is that historic narrative, so to come and tell them that you want the Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, that’s like you’re adding insult to injury. No, we already are truncated into this small Israel of 27,000 sq. km. You can’t really be serious and tell us that you want also the West Bank. Also, West Bank has a lot of biblical significance as well, right? So, there is that narrative.

The Palestinian state is in [the] Israeli interest because of the demographic fact there, the growth in the Palestinian population. And the whole world now, if you compare to 20 years earlier, they cannot think of not having a Palestinian state. It’s such a truism almost that Palestinians are going to have a state; it’s just when and how.

People who are skeptical because of the settlements, argue that now, with over 450,000 settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, they do not see how [these] can be removed. In negotiations, our working negotiations, the technical answer to that is that actually, somewhere between 60-70% – some people argue 90% – of the settlers are there for economic reasons. So if those people are given economic incentives, they would leave the settlements, so it’s just a question of money, and then you’ll have to deal with only 10%, which is like 45,000 people, which becomes a much smaller problem and it’s manageable.

It’s not a game breaker. What is a breaker is what settlements stand for. As far as Palestinians are concerned, whether they are people who are for or against negotiations, all Palestinians see settlements as proof that Israel has no intention of withdrawal. If Israel was genuinely interested in withdrawing from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and having a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, they would not be expanding settlements. So, the problem the Palestinians have with settlements is that it eats at Israel’s credibility. They don’t believe Israel when they say, “We want you to have a state.”

…In negotiations…the Israeli negotiators would come to us when we were arguing about the boundary, and they would say, “Our interest, as [the] Israeli government, is to remove the settlements, if possible, because that’s just [a] political hazard for us. We would want to deal with less people. Gaza was 8,000 people and it was a nightmare. The less people we have to move, the better.” So, our argument at them is, “Okay, fine. If you realize that this is a swelling problem, why on earth are you bringing even more people in? If you realize that that’s a problem and that’s hampering your capacity to compromise, why are you making it a bigger problem?”

…That communicates that there is actually no genuine intention [in] having a viable Palestinian state. At most, what you see is a common denominator in the Israeli political arena for autonomy for the Palestinians. We believe them when they say, “We want nothing to have to do with the Palestinians. Let them deal with their own affairs.” But that translates into jurisdiction over human beings and not over territory.

MATT BIEBER: On one hand, you believe that much of the world now sees a Palestinian state as an inevitability. But on the other hand, the Israeli government has been occupying the West Bank and Gaza for 44 years, and continues to expand settlements in the West Bank in a way that you believe shows their real intentions.

What difference does it make what the world thinks?  Israel has been pretty comfortable resisting world opinion for a long time. What’s the game changer you seek that would actually change that reality, that calculus, for the Israelis?

NIZAR FARSAKH: …That’s a good question. In general, yes, Palestinians and Arabs, in general, have been wrestling with this immunity that Israeli has to international pressure. It doesn’t matter what the international community does, Israel doesn’t budge. It can kill nine people on a Turkish ship in international waters, and nothing really happens, right? They can get away with it.

So that explains the resort to violence….Like, why the hell do we [Palestinians] even bother catering to the international community, when they are incapable of putting any pressure on Israel? Israel only responds to violence. So there is that school of thought.

The other one is the school of thought that says, “If only we, as Palestinians, can show our credentials and show that we are actually capable of delivering on security, of delivering on statehood…then those countries would have an argument against Israel and…push Israel to do something. That is just a question of time.

But I also don’t subscribe to that, because I don’t think that that’s actually in [the] international interest. Because when push comes to shove, it costs less to push the Palestinians than it [does] to push the Israelis, especially in American politics, because there are domestic consequences to that.

But also because they actually have interests, right? Political interest in the Middle East and what Israel does, but also…economic, financial, scientific research, military – there is a lot of interest. Similarly, Europe is the main trading partner of Israel….The people who are paying the price are obviously the Palestinians, with their protracted conflict. But unfortunately, the international community does not feel the urgency. The international community is fine with conflict management. And I would argue, even the Israeli government [is] fine with conflict management, because that does not affect them in the votes.

MATT BIEBER: Does this mean that the game changer you seek would have to come from the Palestinian population itself – through some sort of social movement or protest movement, perhaps?

NIZAR FARSAKH: It needs to come from, yes, protesting…but [also] arguing from a values point and not from pragmatic point – We need to state because that’s good for Israel.

No, we have rights. We have a right to be free, and we, as Palestinians, need to engage the Israeli public on that value. Why do I say that? Because I feel, and I fear, that a lot of the pressure that’s being put on Israel is pushing and consolidating the victimization narrative in Israel: Nobody understands us; the Holocaust happened and nobody protected us. Only we can protect ourselves. So, the bad relationship that Israel has with the UN is part of that. When push comes to shove, we get screwed over….The world does not protect us. So they have very little faith in the world. They have faith in the US, but they don’t have faith in the world. So that kind of pressure only consolidates that isolation and that pariah-state mentality…

Similarly, when we argue with the people on the boycott – boycotting Israeli products – we argue that we need to boycott Israel for Israeli policies, and not Israel because they’re Israelis….You’ll want to use [the boycott] to change Israeli policy, not because you just hate Israel. But very few are picking up on that….The prime minister, [Fayyad]…when he asked the European states and the Americans to put pressure on Israel, he argues that, “You need to push Israel, not because you think you’re taking the side of the Palestinians, but you’re taking the side of the two-state solution, that Israel needs to stop building settlements because that destroys the two-state solution. Not because we’re pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel, but because we are for two-state solution.” I think that’s important as a message.

But as far as the Palestinian grassroots level, I think we need to stop putting pressure on engaging the Israeli society on how are we going to be able to live together if we don’t realize that each of us has a right to self-determination, and we need to learn how to exercise that right of self-determination, not at the expense of the other. So even if the Israelis are afraid of or have the experience of the Holocaust and do not believe that they are safe anywhere else, we need to address that. We need to address the Israeli concern of 5 million refugees coming back to Israel, because as far as they are concerned, if they are going to be a minority, their experiences [have] been such that…ultimately, at the end of the day, they will get discriminated against….So, we need to have an answer for that. We cannot just assume, “Oh, that’s their problem. We have a right of return.” Of course, we have a right of return; we have many rights. The question is, how can we exercise those rights in a way that does not undermine the right in the first place?

So, maybe my answer was a little bit all over the place, but that’s because we actually don’t know. I mean, we’re still wrestling with that question. The Palestinians are still new to this experience of…self-determination, because 60 years is actually not a lot. It took a lot of generations of failures as well for us to realize what’s really important to us, what’s important about Jerusalem, what’s important about the statehood, what’s important about the refugees.

This is a conversation that’s not been had in Palestine, even—and I experienced it personally. When Arafat, the late President Arafat, went to the peace talks in 2000, I was really scared that he was going to compromise. I was genuinely scared – “Oh, my God, he’s going to sell us out.” And when he did not, we were very happy. So when he said to former President Clinton and to Barak, “I cannot sign” – he did not say, “I will not sign” – he said, “I cannot,” because he knew very well that we would kill him, literally, if he had signed it. So, just to give you a sense of how we were scared of, “Oh, we’re giving up this, and this is not fair.” So, there was no internal Palestinian discussion of what do we want out of this peace process. What are willing to give and what do we want in return for what we’re willing to give up? That discussion never happened, and we need to start having this conversation.

MATT BIEBER: My sense is that the common perception of the conflict in America is one of two populations squabbling over land. It’s always been this way, as long as anybody could remember. It ties back into deep historical narratives and deep religious claims to the land. And so on.

I don’t think many Americans have a sense of the narrative you were just describing – of the Palestinians having gone through a 60-year process of experimentation and a number of different strategies for asserting their rights and resisting occupation.

NIZAR FARSAKH: …One of the things that the Palestinians find problematic [is] the stock [perception] that…Palestinians resort to violence. When the Palestinians would argue, the problem is not the violence. The problem is what’s causing the violence, right? There’s an occupation, there is actual dispossession—that’s daily—there’s an actual occupation, right, that’s fomenting the violence. If Palestinians resort to non-violence, great, but that’s not an obligation. All peoples have a right to resist occupation and the transgression of their freedom.

…There was a Palestinian six-month strike that was non-violent against the British – because the Palestinians were very concerned with the way that the British Mandate, the British occupiers, were giving facilitation for the Zionist movement to take land and to allow more European Jewish immigrants to come to Palestine to achieve the Zionist project – and that was non-violent. So there are antecedents; it’s just that depending on the context, Palestinians have resorted to different tactics, depending on what they thought would be effective.

In 2005….when President Arafat passed away and there were elections…and people elect Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] because he’s popular – in fact, he was not popular. He was looked at as the guy who’s like on the sides. His positions are way too compromising and conciliatory for the mainstream Palestinians. But people voted Abu Mazen because they felt, “Okay, the Israelis like him, the Americans like him, maybe he can do something.” And after a year, he wasn’t able to achieve anything, so people got to the conclusion, ”You know what, if even Abu Mazen is not good enough for the Israelis and Palestinians, then nobody is good enough. Maybe we should vote Hamas, because then we will have real change.”

So, people are not pro-Hamas or pro-Fateh because they like them. The real constituency of Hamas and Fateh are probably 15-20% max for each. The main thing [is that people] vote negotiations or vote violence more out of conviction on whether this is going to actually achieve results or not. So, Palestinians are for two-state or for one-state, because they feel this is possible, this is plausible, this is going to give me something, some dividend or not. And that’s very important to understand. So when people in Budrus and Bil’in resort to non-violence, it wasn’t because they are pacifists or because they’ve been drenched in Gandhi readings and what have you. It’s because they’ve had a certain experience. The [realization that] the Intifada didn’t work. They say, “This is not working. Let us do something else. It’s as simple as that, and that’s what’s beautiful about it is that it’s completely organic. It’s not imposed.

That’s something I feel like people still underestimate. There is still a very strong presence of the colonial experience in the whole Arab world, not only [in] Palestine. Arabs and Muslims and Palestinians, in general, are very sensitive to [the] imposition of external values. Part of the currency of the Islamic movements is precisely because they challenge those western values. So, a lot of well-intending westerners…try to engage Palestinians and tell them, “Why don’t you resort to non-violence? Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you resort to what-have-you?” It comes across [as] very condescending and very neocolonialist. So, the Palestinian reaction to that is very – and understandably so – viscerally getting offended and “Who are you to come and tell me what I’m supposed or not supposed to do when” – in the Palestinian narrative – “Europe created this problem in the first place? I mean, Israel was created thanks to European racism. Why should we pay for European lack of tolerance?”

And to speak to the narrative that claims that Jews and Arabs are always at [war] with each other, that’s not true.

[My father] lived in Jerusalem for 10 years when he was a kid. He used to say that in the Old City, when there was the Sabbath, they would turn on the lights for their Jewish neighbors. I mean, there wasn’t that issue. There were just Jews, there were Christians, there were Muslims…the problem was with the Zionists, with people who wanted to take their land. Even before 1948, like nobody thought that something as big as the Nakba [“the catastrophe” in Arabic] would happen.

They realized it was a problem, that’s why you have the demonstrations in 1929 and then 1936….But they never thought that something so big would happen….The Arab contention with Zionists is that it calls for the right of self-determination for the Jews, and at the expense of the Arabs. So, Arabs don’t have a problem with Jews living with them. They have a problem with Jews living instead of them. Yeah, that’s a problem.

So, for example, often, the Israelis would cite that the Arabs rejected the partition plan in 1947. In 1947, the UN General Assembly came [up] with a suggestion to partition Palestine. General Assembly resolutions are not binding. But even that, I mean what was the General Assembly back then, because most of the world was still colonized?…Arabs rejected the partition plan, while the Zionist Movement accepted it. Arabs said, “Why should we partition a land that is predominantly Arab?” Back then, the Jewish population was less than 30% of the population in Palestine, half of whom were new immigrants in the first place.

So, that’s a very important thing also to realize, that the claim that the conflict is one of two peoples is not true. It’s a conflict between two national projects – one national project that is exclusively Jewish and calls for a state for the Jews, depending on their ethnicity and religiosity, [and gives] rights according to that, another one that argues for a state in Palestine. And now, after the experience of 60[+] years of war and dispossession, Palestinians are accepting this two-state solution as the political solution, not because they think it’s fair or valid…just because they’re sick and tired of conflict.

So, that element also needs to be there, that there’s a pragmatism to it where you say, “Okay, fine. Now, this is not [working].…We accept to have our state on 22% of what was historically ours,” and that’s why we have issues [with] Israeli saying, “Oh, we’re giving you land.” “No, you’re not giving us land. You’re giving us back our land.”

Similarly, the issue of refugees, it’s not a question of just having reunification [for families that have been split]. We actually have assets. We used to live in those houses and we have the keys to those houses. So the issue is not, Oh, well, you know, there are population transfers, they happened, all these wars, and that’s natural – there are Jews who were kicked out of Iraq and Egypt and what have you. And our argument, “Well, fine. Then these people should be restituted their rights, just as much as us.” The problem is when a Jewish asset somehow has superior title over an Arab asset; just because somebody is Jewish…that’s one we address and we need to restore, but the Arab asset should not be restored? The Jews have a right to return to biblical land, because they were kicked out of it 2,000 years ago, but the guy who was kicked out of it 60 years ago does not have a right? The guy who actually has the deeds to the house? So, it is that differentiation in treatment that is problematic.

Now, of course, that is, in principle, the problem. Palestinians also appreciate that there’s a practical element to it – “Okay, fine. The 5 million refugees have an inalienable right to go back to their homes, even if they are inside Israel.” The question is, how are you going to do that, and do you want to do that? That is a right that needs to be discussed with the house owner. We cannot just write it off. Writing it off is a transgression of their right, and so are we writing it off because this person is not Jewish? If that person was Jewish, they would have a right to go to Israel and get Israeli citizenship just by landing, and they can live in a settlement in Jerusalem or next to my village, just for the mere fact that they can prove that one grandparent of theirs has Jewish blood in them.

So that unfairness in treatment is the problem. Differentiating just because you’re Jewish or you have a lineage that’s Jewish, you suddenly have more rights in this land than somebody who’s been there for several hundred years.

MATT BIEBER: We’re here in a school that’s dedicated to public policy and government and, I hope, to providing a space for dialogue. I’m wondering if you would be comfortable talking about the kinds of interaction that take place between the Israeli students and Palestinian students here at the Kennedy School.

NIZAR FARSAKH: …There is this general approach, you know, “Let’s get to know each other at a personal level and see.” We have an opportunity to engage with each other in a way that’s different from our default when we go back home. Every class tries to do that. Some are more successful than others.

The learning for me, I believe…is the extent to which these things come out as much as you try not to bring them up, not only because of the fact that there is a history and every time you look at an Israeli, you’re reminded that they have the capacity to go and live and do and have land, and you don’t, so you’re constantly reminded of them, but also because everybody else is looking at you, “Oh, you’re the Palestinian, and you’re the Israeli.” So, people in the school expect you to be the ambassador. So if something happens, they ask you, “What do you think of…?” You don’t have the right or the luxury of not having an opinion; you have to. So then, there is this pressure of, you know, you have your Palestinian friends. What will they think of you if you say something or don’t say something?

So you always have that tension among the Palestinian[s] and among the Israeli[s], as well as the other tension, which is, “Oh, you, guys, have to talk to each other also.”…Why is there the assumption that we have to talk to each other? What would happen if we didn’t talk to each other? Who would we disappoint? Just like there is this pressure that we need to perform and be politically correct and be polite with each other, because everybody expects us to.

So there is the—I don’t want to also call it neo-colonialist but there is a condescending attitude for the non-Israelis, non-Palestinians who engage the Palestinians and the Israelis as if they’re only the conflict, and if they do not talk to each other, then there’s obviously a problem. I have a feeling of saying, “Well, it’s none of your business.” Whether the Israelis and Palestinians talk to each other is the Israelis’ and the Palestinians’ business – it’s nobody else’s. It’s good for people to be interested. It’s very nice that they want something to happen, but ultimately it needs to happen because both sides want it to happen.

Having said that, it is actually a very good experience, because you get to talk about things and explore areas where otherwise you wouldn’t. And maybe, I can say this because, for example, going on the Palestine trek, the second I landed in Tel Aviv Airport, it all came back to me. I’ve been here for over two years, and because I left with very bad feelings, I just stopped following the news. And a lot of my capacity to deal with Israelis and to talk to them and to see them at a personal level was thanks to the fact I completely cut myself [off] from the news. And the second I read something, I do not want to read it, because it angers me.

Because from my perspective, and also a lot of Palestinians’ perspective, and Arab perspective, a lot of what happens happens thanks to the fact that a lot of Israelis do nothing about it. So there is a group of people who have privileges, thanks to the fact that they are Jewish, only because they are Jewish, and there is something they can do about it, and they don’t. Now, they come back to us and say, “Well, what are you doing about it?” and what have you, to bring all this on the victim again.

So that is experienced as victimization also, when they ask the victim to have agency and to do something about their victimization. Why do you always talk about how Israel is horrible? Why don’t you talk about what’s nice about Palestine? Well, because there is very little things that are nice about Palestine, thanks to the occupation. So that pressure to not talk about our victimization is experienced as a form of victimization, and so we feel wronged when we’re asked not to say what we really think about our Israeli colleagues.

MATT BIEBER: Do people ask you that?


MATT BIEBER: Who? Teachers?

NIZAR FARSAKH: Teachers and Israelis. Why do you keep talking about that? Why do you keep bashing Israel? So there is a push back, like there is disappointment. Why don’t you transcend that lousy narrative? And I would argue, okay, why don’t the Israelis stop talking about the Holocaust? Can I say that? No, I cannot say that. So, that is an experience of injustice. It’s perfectly fine for you to raise the Holocaust every single day, but I cannot talk about the Nakba, I cannot talk about the occupation, because that hurts your sensibilities…

That’s another one, which [is] a neo-colonialist approach to the Palestinian, that the Palestinian need to be clean and kosher and, you know, be against violence before I can talk to you. Okay, that’s your problem. If you don’t want to talk to me because I believe in violent resistance, that’s your problem, not mine. Before they can talk to me, I have to be for non-violence. I’m for non-violence because I believe it can achieve our goals, not because I’m scared for the Israelis or because I believe in the Zionist movement. It’s like almost the Palestinian has to be non-violent before they can talk to an Israeli. So there is also that dynamic that’s very difficult to push back on, and very few Palestinians are capable to do that.

There was an incident in which the Israeli Caucus [at the Kennedy School] did a wine-tasting…event in which they would raise funds for charity….They would have wines from Israel for people to taste Israeli wine. So, of course, I flipped out, but I wrote a cordial email, saying, “Oh, this is interesting. It’s very good that you’re doing this charity, and what have you, but you may want to, for the consumer’s rights, to indicate which wines are settler wines and which ones are not, because I’m sure your consumers, some of your consumers, will not be interested in participating in an illegal act in buying products from illegal settlements.”

And I sent it to the school, the way the advertising was sent to the school. So, the Israelis really got very angry with me for doing that. A [non-Israeli] came and thanked me for it. They said, “Finally, we get the other side of the story. We never get the second side of the story.”

But at any rate, we…talked about it, myself and my other Palestinian friend and ten Israelis that were in my year, and then I realized how, yes, I was vindicated because I gave them a bloody nose, and they were angry at me: “Why do you bash Israel and [talk about] Palestine? This is a social event. Why do you need to drag politics into this?” Well, for me, it’s like, well, all of life is politics. It’s not up to us, as Palestinians. All Palestinians talk about politics, because it’s our daily life.

In a sense, it was transformation for me, because it was the first time where I felt…powerful suddenly. It was, “Wow, that’s interesting!” They genuinely feel victimized. Ten of them talked to me…“How could you do that to us?” So I got this rush of, “Oh finally, I’m at the checkpoint and I’m beating up the Israeli soldier,” so I got to live that fantasy. But at the same time, I realized, “Wait a second. I’m the one who’s giving them that power. I’m making myself a victim by looking at them, ‘Oh, they are my victimizers.’” So, I started to understand this counter-dependency, and it was only after that point that I could actually relate to them at the personal level.

I became very good friends with an Israeli friend of mine who was actually quite right-wing.  She doesn’t believe in the Palestinian state, she’s very right-wing. But I could actually see her at a personal level, first because I went through my transformation of “Okay, you gave a bloody nose – happy now?” I realized that I needed to do that, because I need to be equal. But then after I did that, I realized why I was not equal – because I was telling my victim narrative. I was focused on my – that every time I see them, I see my oppressor. And that was actually my choice, and there was something I could do about it.

I realized I suddenly gained agency, and realized it’s up to me what I do with it. I can just continue talking about my victim narrative, or I can try to understand where they’re coming from and understand that I am more than just a victim. I am Palestinian. There are things I can do, besides being a victim and advocating for Palestine.

MATT BIEBER: Do you think it took being away from the conflict for that to happen? It sounds like that would have been something much harder to do back home.

NIZAR FARSAKH: It is not impossible. So for example, that’s what I love Budrus and Bil’in [two villages in the West Bank that are famous for their civil disobedience campaigns against the wall] and what’s happened there, because these people give a beautiful example of how this happens. When Israelis, average Israelis come and get beaten up by Israeli soldiers with their Palestinian counterparts fighting the wall, and they get beaten up by the Israeli soldiers, that Palestinian is seeing how Kobi, the Israeli, is getting beaten up like he is getting beaten up, while the Palestinian president is sitting in his office and doing nothing.

And in fact, if you remember from the movie Budrus, [one of the Palestinian] girl[s]…was very active. She was surprised to make friendship with those Israeli solidarity groups, because all her experiences was with the soldiers only, and she came to know them at a personal level. And then, when she went to Bosnia to study medicine and met people who are anti-Jewish and started saying all sorts of anti-Semitic stuff, she was defending the Israelis: “Hey, no, Jews are not like that.”

So, it’s very interesting that it’s a Palestinian who’s fighting anti-Semitism in Bosnia. Why? Because for her, as far as she’s concerned, Kobi and Efrat and the others, they are family. These are her people. Because these are the people who share her values, who believe in freedom and believe that human rights are for everyone, not for one ethnicity and not for the other. I believe these are the real transformations that are going to make a difference. We’re going to realize that ultimately, what matters to us is what kind of life we want to have and what kind of people we want in our state.

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