Conflit du Proche-Orient

How one of Palestine’s preeminent journalists lost hope for peace

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Nasser Laham, the editor-in-chief of Palestine’s biggest independent media outlet, used to be an ardent supporter Abbas and the peace process. But after decades of failed attempts, something inside him changed. Today he believes Palestinians must stop talking about peace. ‘We’ll wait a thousand years, the Israelis will be defeated. What’s the hurry?’

By Meron Rapoport

Nasser Laham (right) speaks to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. (Courtesy of Ma'an News Agency)

Nasser Laham (right) speaks to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. (Courtesy of Ma’an News Agency)

 

You won’t find a Palestinian journalist who understands Israel and the Israelis like Nasser Laham. He took advantage of the Hebrew he learned while serving time in prison to become the most prominent commentator on Israeli affairs in the Palestinian media, hosting a popular daily television show that analyzes and translates the Israeli media for the Palestinian public. For years he served as a daily source for many Israeli journalists, hosting them in his Bethlehem office, even in his home, and speaking to them on the phone. Many are daily readers of Ma’an News Agency, the popular Palestinian news site where he serves as editor in chief.

I have known Laham for over 15 years. Despite the bloody days of the Second Intifada, the international community still believed that if only Palestinian and Israeli journalists met, they would reach an understanding that would help usher in peace. In many cases, the meetings that did take place — in countries such as Cyprus, Turkey, and Jordan — only served to deepen the divide between the two sides. But Laham and I connected, and we have remained in touch all these years.

The phrase “man of peace” is a bit contrived, but throughout the years Laham continued to support negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, believing that a peace agreement was possible. He was close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, justifying the latter’s decision to establish a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders — through a negotiated settlement, rather than armed struggle — the moment Abbas replaced Yasser Arafat as the head of the PLO and the PA. Laham says Abbas even used to refer to him as “my son.”

A Palestinian man hangs posters of Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Nablus, March 14, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

A Palestinian man hangs posters of Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Nablus, March 14, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

 

Over the past few years, Laham has taken a different approach. Like many Palestinians, he has lost faith in Abbas’ path. The last straw was Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. A short while after the declaration, Nasser wrote an article titled “The Jews’ Journey has Ended.” In another piece, Nasser wrote that at this point, we can only discuss Jews leaving the country.

When his father passed away two weeks ago, I went to visit the family in a small hall in Dheisheh refugee camp, where Laham was born and raised. After shaking the hands of the men, Laham came and sat next to me. “My father was 90, he was older than the State of Israel by 20 years,” he told me. “He was 20 years old during the Nakba, and all his life he waited to return to his village in Beit Itab (not far from present-day Beit Shemesh, M.R.). He waited in 1949, he waited in 1956, he waited in 1967, he waited during Oslo. They told him he would return. When I moved from Dheisheh to Bethlehem in 2006, he told me: ‘why are you hurrying? We’ll wait.’”

My father was right, Arafat was wrong

In addition to paying my respects, I had traveled to Bethlehem to try to understand Laham’s transformation, especially since clearly he is not the only Palestinian to undergo it. I can’t say I left feeling encouraged. Although it often seems as if he is trying to be provocative, it is clear that his beliefs reflect something deeper: the growing sense among Palestinians that there is no chance for peace with Israel; that Israel is uninterested in peace. That Israel wants to continue to occupy and kill, and therefore the only solution is for Zionism to disappear and for Zionists to leave Palestine. Not by force, he says. But the solution is clear.

When we met 15 years ago, you had hope that the conflict could be solved. Why did you think that then?

“Because Yasser Arafat convinced us, the Palestinian people, that there was a solution, and that Israel had its own DeGaulle. Now we have discovered that we were wrong. We do not need to apologize to anyone. Israel needs to apologize. The occupation needs to apologize. The occupation needs to apologize to every Jew and Arab that has been killed. The occupation needs to apologize to the Jews and the Arabs. There was plenty of blood 15 years ago, but far less hatred.”

Right wing Israelis burn the Palestinian flag and shout racist slogans, during an anti-Palestinian protest at the Gush Etzion junction, next to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, following the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers four days ago, West Bank, June 16, 2014. By: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org

Right wing Israelis burn the Palestinian flag and shout racist slogans, during an anti-Palestinian protest at the Gush Etzion junction, next to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, following the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in June 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

 

“Today there is hatred in every home. Hatred has turned into a wild beast that roams the streets. This hatred needs 100 years until it disappears. Never in my entire life have I seen such hatred. The laws in the Knesset, the racism, the fascism, the Nazism, the barbarism. The Zionist movement is the worst in history when it comes to sowing hatred between nations. There is no hope for peace with it. No possibility for peace.”

But there was no return of refugees during Oslo. What did you tell your father back then?

“My father wanted to return to his village near Ramla. When he heard that Arafat had agreed to reconciliation with Israel, he said: Arafat is wretched, and I thought that my father was wretched and that Arafat was a great leader. In the meantime both passed away, and now it has become clear that my father was a great leader and Arafat was wretched because the Israelis killed him. My father’s fears were justified. You cannot make peace with Zionists unless you force them. We cannot fight them, we do not want to kill them. We have no armies, no weapons, no means, and no possibilities. That is why we need to respond to hatred with silence, with apathy. We will liberate Palestine quietly.”

What does that mean?

“All the politicians, from the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, have said that we must find a solution to the conflict. Then came Kissinger and the rest of the leaders of the world and asked the Arabs: “What is your solution?” Until this very day the Israelis think that the Palestinians must come up with a solution. I am telling you that there is no solution. I am from Ramla and I want to return to Ramla. There is no other solution. There is no solution in Ramallah, there is no solution in any other city, and no Arab country can provide another solution. If the Jews and Israelis have a problem, they must solve it themselves. Trump and Nicki Haley are responsible for the devastation of the next 100 years. Let them solve your problems.”

Palmach troops overseeing the displacement of Palestinians from the central city of Ramlah in July, 1948. (Photo: Palmach Archive)

Troops belonging to the Palmach, a pre-state Zionist group, oversee the expulsion of Palestinians from the central city of Ramla, July, 1948. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were kicked out of the city during the Nakba. (Photo: Palmach Archive)

 

“So how do we find a solution? We wait a thousand years. The Israelis will be defeated and flee. What’s the hurry? Why are the Arabs hurrying? You remember what Hafez al-Assad told Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton at Geneva? They said: if you don’t do this and that, there won’t be a solution. He responded: we’ll wait another 100 years. And I’m also telling you, we’ll wait another 100 years. What’s the problem? There is no solution apart from taking all of Palestine and living in all of Palestine. From Metulla and Naqura until Eilat. The solution is waiting. No initiating any talks. The Palestinian leadership is wrong. Abbas is wrong to look for a solution. In France, in Italy, in Germany, in America. Why is he searching for a solution? Let the Israelis search for a solution.”

The Israelis must search for a solution?

“This is the Zionists’ problem, let them find a solution.”

The Palestinians do not have problems?

“No. I don’t have a problem. I am a fighter, I have patience, I hold steadfast to my occupied country. It is my honor to be here, it is my honor to be a prisoner, it is my honor to be a shaheed, respect to the people of Gaza for living under siege. Israelis should be ashamed of being Israeli. Abbas is old and I wish him health, but after he goes, I don’t think you’ll find a single Palestinian who will talk to you about solutions. Not Saeb Erekat, not Majd Farj, and not Jibril Rajoub. No one will dare say “I have a solution.” The solution is for the occupation to end.”

Israeli security forces arrest a protester in the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank, July 4, 2018. (Oren Ziv)

Israeli security forces arrest a protester in the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank, July 4, 2018. (Oren Ziv)

 

You’re not giving your people any hope.

“The people will wait.”

You say the Jewish journey has ended. Does that mean there is no room here for any Jews?

“This place isn’t convenient for you. You can go live in America. The Americans love the Jews. If the Zionist movement decides to move to America, the Palestinian leadership will travel to the airport in Lod and wave them goodbye. The Jews can return as tourists without visas. Why should they stay, fight, and die?”

There are six million Jews here. That’s the reality.

“Nations have moved throughout history. The Tatars, the Kurds. It happened. Zionism expelled six million Palestinians (referring to the current number of Palestinian refugees – M.R.). It happens. I think that the best place for Jews is America. What are you looking for in the backwards and Islamic Middle East?”

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