Renowned Israeli journalist Khaled Abu-Toameh spoke to a group of UCSB students and other guests in Isla Vista Theater on Thursday, Feb. 26, discussing the ongoing conflict in the Israeli and Palestinian territories.
Abu-Toameh has managed to use his status as both a Palestinian and an Israeli citizen to cover both sides of the conflict in Israel for over 20 years. He formerly worked as a journalist for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and now works for the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s largest English language daily. He is a graduate of Hebrew University and currently lives full time in Jerusalem. In addition to reporting for print news, he has also had the opportunity to make several documentaries about the conflict, including one for the BBC.
Abu-Toameh explained that as a Palestinian he has long had access to areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that are inaccessible to Israeli and international journalists, a privilege that has afforded him the ability to study the dynamics of the conflict as it has affected Palestinians in the occupied territory, as well as close contact with members of the PLO government.
He described in detail the corruption that is endemic throughout the ranks of the PLO, which was headed by Yassir Arafat until his death in November 2004. The PLO was the recipient of billions of dollars pledged by the international community under the rubric of the Oslo Peace Accords in order to build a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Abu-Toameh described how Palestinian bureaucrats wasted almost all of that money.
Among other things, the PLO used international funds to build a casino outside a major refugee camp in the West Bank, most of whose inhabitants do not even have electricity or running water. Abu-Toameh also described Arafat’s habit of bribing political enemies with arms that he was being given supposedly to enforce law and order in the Palestinian territories.
The militant Islamic group Hamas seized power in Gaza soon after its victory in Palestinian legislative elections held in January 2006. The Bush administration, and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in particular, hoped that free elections would enable the Palestinians to put a more moderate government in power that would have some modicum of legitimacy. Abu-Toameh chided the Bush administration for naively hoping that free elections would solve what has become an increasingly intractable dispute.
Since January 2006, Hamas has maintained power in Gaza while the PLO (controlled by the Fatah party, its single largest faction) has attempted to maintain control of the West Bank. Unlike Hamas, Fatah is a secular party that has acknowledged Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. However, Abu-Toameh pointed out that corruption has paralyzed Fatah so completely that its capacity to govern is virtually nil. He mentioned that in addition to the PLO’s overall struggle with Hamas for legitimacy, the PLO itself is wracked by internal turmoil that frequently turns violent.
Among the many problems that such an unstable government in the West Bank poses, Abu-Toameh said there is no individual who can confidently say that he speaks for the Palestinian government or people, not even Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
“There is no address on the Palestinian side,” he said, referring to the Israeli and American governments’ inability to maintain even a formal diplomatic dialogue with the PLO. Abu-Toameh predicted that until the Palestinians can make peace within their own ranks, then peace with Israel will remain illusive. He argued that Yassir Arafat’s tendency to search for outside scapegoats to blame for the Palestinians’ problems, instead of the failure within their own government, has made Palestinians unable to take the necessary measures to make such necessary reforms.
Gaza was the scene of an intense 17-day conflict earlier this year, during which the Israeli army launched numerous raids in the densely populated territory in an effort to root out terrorists who the Israelis alleged were firing home-made rockets into southern Israel. Public outrage reverberated across the world at Israel’s actions, which Israel responded were necessary in the pursuit of its own defense.
Gaza has been entirely under Palestinian control since 2005 when then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the unilateral withdrawal of all Israeli settlers and army forces from Gaza. Critics of Israel allege that since its withdrawal, Israel has restricted humanitarian aid from entering Gaza and taken other measures to make life unbearable for Palestinians living there.
Abu-Toameh said the Israeli governments’ refusal to allow most journalists into Gaza or the West Bank means that in the end there are few credible statistics or facts that can be substantiated, leading to allegations and counter-allegations by both sides.
Abu-Toameh was bombarded with questions by the audience, mostly concerning recent events he has witnessed in Israel. Somewhat morbidly, he predicted that at the moment, neither a one-state solution, in which all Palestinians are given citizenship in a bi-national Jewish and Arab state, nor a two-state solution, where two independent states coexist side by side, is viable. When asked if Palestinians in the West Bank would support unification with the Kingdom of Jordan, he responded with an unequivocal no. Jordan ruled the West Bank from 1949 until it was seized by Israel in June 1967, during the Six Day War.
As an Israeli-Arab, Abu-Toameh belongs to a unique demographic within Israel that accounts for roughly one-fifth of its population. Israeli-Arabs are Arabs who practice either Islam or Christianity and do not regard themselves as Jewish, but who are citizens of the state of Israel and enjoy the same political rights as Jewish Israelis. Israeli-Arabs are descended from Palestinian-Arabs who were living in 1948 in what is now Israel proper, and who for one reason or another were able to maintain possession of their homes during the initial conflict between Israelis and Arabs that ended in 1949. That conflict is now referred to in Israel as The War of Independence, although Arabs refer to it as “al-Naqba,” or The Catastrophe.
Abu-Toameh spoke at the invitation of the UCSB chapter of American Students for Israel (ASI), which as an organization seeks to advocate Israel’s right to exist while providing information and resources about the conflict to those who are interested. “We primarily wanted him to just show his perspective, knowing both sides of the conflict as he does,” said UCSB senior Maya Liss, President of the UCSB chapter of ASI. “We wanted to show someone who has lived through the conflict, so many people are trying to find answers, but have not been there themselves,” she said.