By Frank Barat – Nablus, West Bank
On Saturday the 9th of August we headed out to upper Nablus where we'd arranged an interview with the ex-mayor of the city, Bassam Shaka.
Our taxi left us in front of a modern and impressive house (for Nablus's standard) and we made our way to the front porch. We gave Mr Shaka a call and a few seconds later an old, smiling man in a wheel chair appeared in front of us. He made us feel welcome straight away and started telling us his story.
Bassam Shaka was 18 years old in 1948. His family had four farms in the West Bank. They lost two as a consequence of the war and the two others after the agreement between King Abdullah and Israel which meant the annexation of the West Bank to Jordan. He lived through the whole Palestinian history but his story, as special as it is, is also the story of thousands of other Palestinians who went through the Nakba, the occupation, Oslo, Camp David as well as the first and second intifada's.
Bassam Shaka was elected mayor of Nablus in 1976 after spending most of his early years struggling against Israel's policies in Palestine. He joined the Arab army in 1948 immediately after Ben Gurion declared Israel's independence and went to Syria to train with the Arab army. He returned to Palestine to defend his country but the army was totally disorganized and lacked strong leadership (most of the leaders in the Arab forces had been killed during the Arab revolt of 1936). The Arab governments were not honest and did not really put any serious effort behind the war. Israel overwhelmingly won the war and the West Bank was annexed to Jordan. Shaka strongly rejected the policies of the Jordanians and even if he supported the left joined the Baas party after the communist party recognized Israel. After living underground for 2 years, Shaka left the Baas party following their association with Egypt and Syria and then stayed in Egypt for another 3 years as it was impossible for him to return to Nablus. When King Hussein's Manhunt stopped Shaka finally returned to his homeland and joined the national leagues in 1967. He supported the creation of the PLO in 1964 and started with others to use international law to defend Palestinian rights. Israel from the start wanted autonomy. An autonomy which will cut people from their land, erode the unity between Palestinians and will permit Israel to build more settlements.
At the beginning of the 1970's the national leagues felt that they could fight Israel by political means and accepted to organize elections. Shaka was elected in 1976 and accepted the position when he felt that his people were united behind a single goal: Self determination for the Palestinian people. For a while some successes followed. They stopped autonomy happening, blocked Israel's plan to build settlements near Nablus and kept their electric and water stations functioning in spite of Israel's attempt to destroy them. They also stopped Camp David (peace accord between Sadat and Begin) from being implemented in Palestine.
Shaka was invited to Ezer Weizman's (Israel's defence minister at the time) office in Tel Aviv where he arrived alone. Weizman attended the meeting and was accompanied by a big military delegation. Weizman threatened Shaka with physical liquidation if he was to continue his policies in the West Bank. Shaka was arrested in 1979 after he made public his meeting with Weizman. The military government ordered him to be deported but Israel's high court overturned the decision and all the resistance from the people in Gaza and the West Bank made his deportation impossible. He triumphantly returned to Nablus.
A few months after his release a bomb was planted in his car by a Jewish terrorist group (Gush Emunim Underground). Bassam Shaka barely escaped with his life but both his legs had to be amputated. He refused to be treated in an Israeli hospital scared that they were going to try to hide their crime. He had permission to go to Amman for surgery and then went to England for 5 months to finish his recovery. On his return to Nablus, the Israelis made his life impossible. He stayed under house arrest for days at a time, could not receive any visitors (even the visit of the consul of England posed serious problems), his house was under 24hour surveillance and his TV was bugged. He could not move without being spied upon. Those actions by the Israelis were counterproductive in some ways as they gave Shaka more support from his people. He continued as mayor of Nablus until 1982 when the Israeli military government (soon to be changed to Israeli civil government) dismissed most of the mayors in the West Bank and began to install Israeli military officials in their place. They stopped any elections happening till 2007.
Then Oslo happened. Shaka was strongly opposed to this. Oslo was signed secretly without agreement with the leadership of the PLO. Five people (including Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas) made the decision to sign Oslo. After Oslo was signed Israel tripled the number of settlements in the W.B, more checkpoints than ever were created and the wall was built. The Oslo accord did not change in any ways the racist policies of Israel. Nowadays the Israel Defence Forces (I.D.F) invade Nablus at will during the night, kidnap people, kill, destroy houses and control every aspects of the Palestinians daily life; socially, economically and security wise. In the meantime the negotiations continue between Abbas, Fayad and the Israelis as if progress were being made on the ground. Everything is ruled by Israel and the I.D.F and the Palestinian Authority cannot do anything. Why? Because of the Oslo agreement.
Dear Mr Shaka, do you think that there will ever be an agreement that is fair to the Palestinians?
Of course. As long as we continue to fight for our rights, a fair agreement will someday happen. Also, I think that America's influence in the world is dwindling. The world begins to change but it is a slow process, only the beginning. It still gives us hope for the future because it is our land and our memory. This land was always ours as far as I can remember. We were born here. We have the historical facts with us. Most of the Israelis came from Europe and Africa. Nowadays they even bring some from Russia that are not even Jews. They have a big demographic problem on their hands. They want to change the demographic facts but one day it is going to become impossible. They'll have to face reality. Also, Israel cannot continue with humiliation, war and conquests forever. They keep saying that they want us to be free, as Israel wants. We're free to do as they tell us. This has to stop. How can they do this to us? Who in the world would accept this?
Do you think the solution will come from the international community or from the Israeli people?
Both. The Palestinian cause is becoming international. It is a cause against colonialism and imperialism. The Israelis if they want peace in the Middle East need to renounce Zionism and their racist policies. Zionism was born outside Palestine with colonialism and the First World War. At the time of the Balfour declaration only a 10th of the population was Jewish. We use to live side by side. We used to be able to go to Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Nazareth, to talk to each other without any problems. Then the Jews became colonizers and they became the enemy. This cannot continue. Every empire has fallen and colonialism does not exist anymore around the world. The USA cannot continue and Israel also has to stop.
Why do you think that Mahmoud Abbas continues to meet with Israel and act as if progress were made towards a just peace?
Our people are not with Mahmoud Abbas. You have to remember that Hamas got 70 percent of the vote in the last elections. This was a big victory for Hamas, by a large margin. Mahmoud Abbas first priority is to be friend with the USA and the international community. The will of his people comes after. He thinks he deals on equal terms with Israel that he is on the same level. Like many members of the P.A. they think that they are bigger than they really are. Some of them think that after peace will be established with Israel they will rule the whole Arab world. A fantasy. They are getting more and more power while their people are getting weaker and weaker. They begin to think like imperialists.
You've often said that one crucial thing was to stay together, united in the fight against the oppressor. What do you think then about the infighting between Fatah and Hamas?
Fatah and Hamas are everything but united. This pains me a lot. Fatah now talks like Israel and the U.S.A. They want to talk but have pre-conditions that Hamas cannot accept. They want Hamas to give back Gaza even before the talks start. They want Hamas to accept the Oslo agreements. Hamas cannot do this. Hamas was elected because of Oslo. Abbas has signed Oslo and now cannot go back. He keeps saying that negotiations are closed and that we have a dark future. But he signed the document. He is to blame. He has to take responsibility. Cannot he see the facts on the ground? Listen, all the groups which entered negotiations for unity have found a solution. First with the prisoner's document, then with the Cairo agreement. But Abbas has always blocked this and this is entirely because of Oslo. The Oslo accords have rendered any unilateral solutions by the Palestinians impossible. They have to follow the Oslo route. All the time. When Hamas got elected I went and talked to them. I congratulated them but warned them against something. I told them not to accept to have the authority alone. I told them to ask Mahmoud Abbas to show that he respects the will of his people and to make new presidential elections straight away. This way the Palestinians will have discovered who the real Mahmoud Abbas was. Hamas did not listen to me. Fatah is really weak as a national movement at present. The people realize that Fatah is working hand in hand with Israel and is playing a really dirty game in the West Bank.
Should the Palestinian Authority be dismantled, then?
The Palestine Liberation Organization must return as a representative of our people. It must return to its roots before it completely looses itself. The P.L.O. was created to continue the struggle against the occupier and to fight for our national rights and the respect of international law. Many countries recognized the P.L.O before they recognized Israel! The P.L.O is as rich as Kuwait, they have millions! We have the facts for us. We have international law for us. We have respect of human rights for us. We need to win back the moral higher ground. We can do this by being a lot more active with the media, by publicizing our struggle a lot more. Unfortunately this is really hard. I am going to give you an example. A few months ago we tried to organize a big meeting with newspapers offices around the West Bank. They all refused because they were afraid of the repercussions. We recently had a meeting with a small newspaper from the West Bank. They were threatened that if the meeting was to happen, they will face problems in the future. They still came. The next day the newspaper office was burned down. Listen, the media is under control. If they go against big states, they get no money. That is why most of them support Mahmoud Abbas, for the money. However, there is still one option. We need the internationals to come to Palestine in bigger number than ever. Then we need them to go back to their home countries and to tell the Palestinian story. To make people think outside the box. The information is there. People coming here can go back and help others to open a little door. Then, everything could change for the best.
This Interview was conducted by Frank Barat from Palestine Solidarity Campaign (www.palestinecampaign.org) and ICAHD UK (www.icahd.org), John Hansen-Brevetti and Gabriella Pinto. John and Gabriella are currently writing a play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For more information check their website www.poliglottheater.org.
-Frank Barat contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.