W. Said was born in Jerusalem, Palestine and attended schools
there and in Cairo. He received a BA from Princeton, an MA and
PhD from Harvard. He is University Professor at Columbia. He is
the author of Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, Covering
Islam, Culture and Imperialism, Representations of the Intellectual,
The Politics of Dispossession, Peace and its Discontents,
and Out of Place. This interview is published with the
permission of ZNET.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: In your writings
and lectures on the Palestinian conflict, you constantly refer
to the centrality of 1948.
EDWARD SAID: I don't think you
can understand what's happening today and the situation of the
Palestinians unless you understand what happened in 1948. A society
made up principally of Arabs in Palestine was uprooted and destroyed.
Two-thirds of the Arab population of 870,000 people was driven
out by design. The Zionist archives are quite clear about this,
and several Israeli historians have written about it. Of course,
the Arabs have said it all along. By the end of the conflict in
1948, Palestinians were a minority in their own country. Two-thirds
of them had become refugees, whose descendants today number about
four and a half million people scattered throughout the Arab world,
Europe, Australia, and North America. The balance of the people
became subjects to the Israeli military occupation in 1967 when
the West Bank and Gaza, along with Jerusalem, were taken over
and occupied. Nineteen forty-eight is the date on which the Palestinian
search for self-determination begins. It doesn't begin in 1967.
That completed the Israeli conquest.
During 1948, not only was all
of the land of the Palestinians, roughly 94 percent, taken over
militarily by the state of Israel as land for the Jewish people,
which meant that the Arabs who remained and who are now roughly
20 percent of the population of Israel, were not entitled to hold
land. Most of the land in Israel is now controlled by the state
for the Jewish people. Second, 400-plus Arab villages were destroyed,
which were then replanted, so to speak, by Israeli settlers who
built the kibbutzim. Every kibbutz in Israel is on Arab property
that was taken in 1948.
So the festering wound of 1948
has remained, since at the same time Israel has said, we bear
no responsibility for what happened to the Palestinians; they
left because their leaders told them to. All sorts of propaganda
were used. Second, there's been no attempt by the Israelis, even
during the last meetings between the Palestinians and the Israelis
at Camp David in July, to consider the right of return of every
Palestinian to the place from which he or she was driven out in
1948. That is the core of the whole thing.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Talk about "the
EDWARD SAID: The peace process
began in 1993, when a secretive agreement was made between the
PLO and the Israeli government to give the Palestinians and the
Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasir Arafat some territory
and authority over that territory in the West Bank and Gaza. However,
given the tremendous disparity in power between the Israelis and
the Palestinians, in effect the peace process has been a repackaging
of the Israeli occupation. Israel still controls 60 percent of
the West Bank and 40 percent of Gaza. It has annexed Jerusalem,
and has filled the territories with settlers, including the ones
in Jerusalem where about 350,000 Israelis are there illegally.
These are settlements and a military occupation that is the second
longest in the 20th century, the longest being the Japanese occupation
of Korea from 1910 to 1945.
Essentially, the peace process
has involved the Palestinian leadership in accepting Israeli terms:
A small redeployment of Israeli troops; the settlements continue;
Jerusalem is still under Israeli sovereignty and settlement; the
borders and the water are controlled by Israel; the exits and
entrances are controlled by Israel; security is controlled by
Israel. What the Americans and Israelis were doing was to get
Palestinian consent to this repackaging of the occupation. It's
been presented to the public as moving towards peace, whereas
it's been a gigantic fraud. Only that could possibly explain the
extent and depth of the Palestinian rebellion that has taken place
since September 29.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: "Defense?"
EDWARD SAID: Of course, the Israeli
army is called the Israeli Defense Forces. The line has been that
the Israeli army is a defensive one. The media have presented
it as if they are defending Israel from Palestinians. The Palestinians
have no arms to speak of except for some small arms among the
police. It's been a population of stone-throwing youths against
Israeli missiles, helicopter gunships, tanks, and rockets. The
most important thing is that all the fighting has taken place
inside Palestine, because of the Israeli military occupation.
So to use the word "defense" here is a grotesque misnomer.
This is an occupation force inside Palestinian territory, whereas
the Palestinians are resisting military occupation and the Israelis
are prolonging the occupation, and making the civilian population
pay the price of resistance.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: How about "terrorism?"
EDWARD SAID: It's a very ugly
conflict and has been since the 1920s, when the Zionists introduced
terrorism into Palestine. It was one of the standard techniques
of the early groups of Zionist extremists, who put bombs in Arab
marketplaces to terrorize the population. This led to a crescendo
during the 1930s and 1940s, when terrorism
was used by the Zionists against the British to hasten their retreat
from Palestine, which they did in 1948.
Since that time, there has been
a great deal of back and forth. In all cases, it has to be remembered
that despite the horrendous loss of life, and there is no way
of excusing or making up for the innocents who have lost lives,
there has been a vast preponderance of Palestinian losses. Terrorism
in this context has been for the Palestinians the weapon of the
weak and the oppressed.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: The U.S. is portrayed
as an even-handed broker.
EDWARD SAID: Israel is the only
state in the world that has received U.S. military and economic
aid that now roughly totals about $170 billion. Every U.S. political
figure of note, whether it's a campaigner in a small district
in northern New York State or a presidential contender, has had
to declare himself or herself an unconditional supporter of Israel,
because of the power of the Israeli lobby and the fact that there
is a very active and
politically savvy and sensitively placed community of supporters
of Israel. U.S. policy has focused on the defense and support
of Israel in all of its ventures. Something like 60 UN Security
Council vetoes have been used by the U.S. to prevent censure of
Israel in cases that are flagrant violations of international
law, whether they range from torture to using helicopters and
missiles against civilians to settlements and illegal annexations.
So to say that the U.S. is an
even-handed broker is a preposterous mischaracterization. The
U.S. is very much in Israel's camp. It should also be mentioned
that most of the officials involved in the peace process, beginning
with Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, and Aaron David Miller are former
employees of the Israeli lobby.
The Economist, the conservative
British weekly, observed that "the new Palestinian intifada
is rapidly assuming the form of a serious anti-colonial revolt."
The occupation of the West Bank
and Gaza with settlers and settlements and roads and the constant
expropriation of Palestinian lands, the destruction of crops and
olive trees to make way for roads, the redesigning of the geography
of the West Bank to permit its greater control, all these policies
have, were it not for the amnesiac U.S. media, followed the line
of all classical colonialism. So what has happened in the last
six or seven weeks has been an attempt to overthrow this, including
the peace process, streamlining it so that the Israelis can control
without using so many troops, frequently using Palestinians to
police the people
on behalf of the Israelis. Ironically, a lot of the job of security
has been handed over to Palestinian police, who have to subdue
precisely the people who are now the anti-colonial demonstrators.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: You've pointed
out that there are no maps in this most geographical of conflicts.
Why are maps important?
EDWARD SAID: Given the notoriously
small attention span of the average TV viewer or reader of newspapers,
there's very little awareness of the history or the geographical
topography involved. Most people say, the Arabs and the Jews are
back at it again, giving the notion that there are two equal sides
and that one side is beset, being victimized, the Israeli side.
Whereas what has happened is that for all Palestinians, 1948 and
the founding of the state of Israel, meant that essentially 78
percent of historic Palestine that was Arab has become Israeli.
That's been conceded. The West Bank and Gaza together constitute
22 percent of historical Palestine, and this is what the current
fight is over. The Palestinians are not fighting over the 78 percent
that they've already lost. They're fighting over the 22 percent
that remains. Of this 22 percent, the Israelis are still in control
of 60 percent of the West Bank and 40 percent of Gaza. So if there
were ever to be a Palestinian state, there would be no contiguous
The Israelis have made it impossible
for Palestinians to move from one area to another, from north
to south from east to west. Greater Jerusalem, which is roughly
4 percent of the whole territory, has been annexed by Israel and
the Israelis plan not to give it back at all. The idea is that
this area will be controlled by Israel except for municipal services
and issues like health, all those problematic citizen problems
that they want to give over to the Palestinian Authority. Security
and borders are under Israeli control. Even today Yasir Arafat
can't go in and out of Gaza without Israeli permission, and they
can shut the airport, as they have, and shut the territory so
that people can't move. In effect, they are being choked to death.
This is the result of the peace process. This is not the result
of war. This is part of the disaster of the agreement between
the Israelis and the Palestinian leadership under the aegis of
the U.S., which is why it's blown up.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Where is your
information coming from?
EDWARD SAID: Report on Israeli
Settlement in the Occupied Territories is a bimonthly published
in Washington. The editor is Geoffrey Aronson. It's a publication
of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. It's the single most
authoritative source drawn from Israeli, Palestinian, and international
agencies on the rate of settlement building, the holding of settlements,
the initiation of new settlements, the destruction of property
increase in the settler population.
Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel,
Pulitzer Prize-winner and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman,
PBS's Charlie Rose, and the Orientalist academic Bernard Lewis
pretty much all state that: Camp David collapsed because of Arafat's
intransigence and his failure to seize a unique opportunity; that
the Barak offer went way beyond anything previously proposed;
that it was a far-reaching and generous compromise.
It's factually untrue. Before
he went, Barak made it absolutely clear that he had no intention
of returning to the 1967 borders, which was the principle on which
the peace process was started-that there would be a return of
all the territory to the June 5, 1967 borders. Second, he made
it absolutely clear that there would be no return of the refugees.
Third, he made it absolutely clear that there would be no return
of Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty at all. Fourth, he made
it absolutely clear that he had no intention of uprooting any
of the settlements. These are the positions on which his whole
subsequent negotiation was based. He didn't concede anything.
He said, we will allow you a form of sovereignty in the holy places.
We will keep the Christian and Armenian sections. You can have
a little bit of sovereignty over some of the Muslim holy places,
but the real substantive sovereignty over East Jerusalem will
remain in Israeli hands. The vast majority of the city in terms
of area would remain under Israel. That was supposed to be a "forward-looking"
Faced with this, Arafat couldn't
agree. Not only because of the conditions, which were terrible,
but also for two other reasons. One is that Arafat was being asked
to end the conflict and end any Palestinian claims against Israel
and thereby ending any Muslim-Christian claims against Israel.
He couldn't do it. Secondly, he was also being asked to give up
Palestinian claims to the right of return and self-determination,
which again he couldn't do. Far from it being an opportunity for
Arafat to take advantage of Israeli generosity, it was an opportunity
for Arafat effectively to commit suicide and to give Israel the
last prize, you might say the cherry on the sundae, which was
everything they wanted in addition to what Arafat had already
conceded, which was 78 percent of what they had in 1948. He also
conceded West Jerusalem. The concessions Arafat made were vastly
more generous and ill considered than anything the Israelis did.
Another theme echoed by the pundits
is the image of Palestinians as losers. Barak in his Knesset speech
on October 30 revived the Abba Eban comment that the Palestinians
never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Israeli information, from the
very beginning, has always played on two levels. On one level,
there's what they call hasbara, the Hebrew word for information
for the goy, the foreigners. There is the depiction of Israel
as forthcoming, democratic, defensive, victimized, generous and
compassionate. In other words, an image crafted to appeal to the
Western liberal conscience. Then, on the other hand, there's what
Israel says to itself and what Barak says to his people. From
the very beginning, whether it was Peres speaking or Rabin or
Beilin or Barak or Netanyahu, they all said the same thing. They
said, this is a peace process in which we lose nothing. Rabin
said it just a few months before Oslo was signed in 1998. He said,
I wish Gaza would sink into the sea. It's such a millstone around
our necks. It's overpopulated, a million people living under the
most miserable conditions. Why should we be responsible? We'll
keep the best land and we'll give Gaza to the Palestinians. That's
the basis of Oslo.
If you look carefully at this
history, you realize what, in my opinion, a suicidal game the
Israelis are playing. The basis of their politics is that the
only argument the Arabs can understand is violence. The occupation
is a form of violence against which throwing of rocks and terrorist
outrage, horrible though they may be, is nothing in comparison
to the collective punishment of 3 million people that has been
going on for the last 33 years. Israel was the only country in
the world where torture was permitted. Twenty percent of the population
of the Israeli citizens of Israel, who happen not to be Jews,
Palestinians, are denied rights, not allowed to own land, rent
it or buy it. Their lands are regularly confiscated. Twenty percent
of the population gets one percent of the budget.
It also must be said that Israel
signed peace treaties with two Arab countries, Jordan and Egypt,
and still 20 years of peace with Egypt have remained essentially
cold. The Israelis say, we tried. We sent missions. But Israel
is seen everywhere as responsible for the use of massive weapons,
disproportionate violence against civilians, the continued expropriation
of land, the building of settlements, the trampling on Palestinian
rights. This has made Israel a pariah state in the Arab and Islamic
world of three hundred million Arabs, 1.2 billion
Muslims. That's why I say it's suicidal, because in the end Israel
is a state in the Middle East. It has the support of the U.S.
But how long can that last? At some point the numbers are going
to be against it. I figure that by 2010 there will be an equal
number of Palestinians and Israelis on historical Palestine. There
will be demographic parity between Jews and Arabs. At which point,
how much can the Israelis control? By 2030 there will be twice
as many Arabs as there are Jews. So the Jews in Israel will be
in a minority.
It's certainly acceptable that
they should have political self-determination. But it can't be
guaranteed by military means. That is not a long-term policy.
The only option is peace, and it has to be a real peace between
equals as opposed to a peace that is imposed on the weaker party
by the stronger one.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: In the 1987 uprising
the Palestinians living in Israel were rather quiescent. However
in the 2000 intifada that has dramatically changed. Why?
EDWARD SAID: One reason is that
the treatment of the Palestinian Israelis by the Israeli government
has historically been appalling. They were ruled by military edict
until 1966. So for 18 years, from the beginning of the state in
1948, they were an outcast people in their own country, discriminated
against in every way. They were not allowed to move, to be properly
educated, to have certain jobs. In 1966 the military government
and they were given a measure of improved conditions. They were
represented in the Knesset. They could vote in elections. They
can't serve in the army. They can't own land. During that period,
from 1966 on, they watched the alienation of their land continue
to take place. Many of the villages, like Um El Fahm, which was
probably the largest Arab village in Israel, lost 10,000 dunams,
about 2,500 acres, of its village land ceded to the Israel government.
It was expropriated for military purposes. They were going to
turn it into a
target range. So there was a massive sense of being discriminated
against for the simple reason that they're not Jews. It's a kind
of racism that affected the whole community, and they finally
rose up against it. They saw what the Israeli army was doing in
the West Bank and Gaza and they identified with the Palestinians
there. That's the second most important thing.
What the Israelis have tried to
do has been to destroy the sense of unity of these people, who
are divided by geography. The Palestinians of Israel are Israeli
citizens and the people in the West Bank and Gaza used to be Jordanians,
or in Gaza they used to be Egyptians. They're now in an indeterminate
state. The Palestinians in Jordan and Lebanon are stateless people.
One of the most important achievements of the PLO was to make
the people feel as one people. I think the whole of the policy
of the U.S. and Israel has been in the last 20 years to keep digging
away at Palestinian identity, to fragment it, so that people didn't
feel that they were part of the same entity who have suffered
collectively as a people.
For any Israeli, the thing to
do now is to confront the problem within their borders. Israel
is unique in many ways. It is a state that has no constitution.
It is government by a set of basic laws. It makes very radical
distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, right down to the statistical
abstracts. Everything is governed by who's a Jew and who isn't.
This is unworkable. It's a state that's run effectively by religious
authority. So many citizens of Israel are genuinely worried about
the fate of secular Jews who will not accept being ruled
by Orthodox and Conservative clerics. Rather than confront this
in an open way, there is this return to the traditional response
of the Israelis, either to deny or to reaffirm something completely
different that has very little to do with reality.
The Palestinians bear a great
responsibility, Palestinian intellectuals, but even Palestinian
citizens and other Arabs have a great responsibility to make this
known to Israelis, and to say, we are here, you are here. You
can't deny, you can't repress forever. You have to seek out the
truth in your past, the truth in ours. Maybe through a truth and
reconciliation commission such as the one that took place in South
Africa. What's stunning about this conflict is that for 50 years,
these two communities have been working on totally opposed
principles. The Israelis have said that they have a right to this
land. There was nobody here. In one way or another they've been
saying this all along. It doesn't matter what happened in 1948.
Let's try to deal with 1967. Those are unacceptable responses
in the 21st century. It behooves everyone to say, this is unacceptable
behavior. You can't wipe the slate clean to suit you and your
policy. You have to face the other party and try to take responsibility
for what you did, the way everybody has.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: You wrote a series
of articles in Al-Ahram Weekly entitled "American
Zionism." In the lead article you discuss an interview you
had with Avi Shavit of Ha'aretz, the main Israeli newspaper.
You drew certain conclusions from that interaction.
EDWARD SAID: The distinction I
was trying to draw was that the Israeli position is that the Palestinians
are there, but they are a lesser people. The Israeli right wing
says we conquered them and they have to be our servants. The left
wing says we can rearrange them in some inoffensive way. Today
because the Israelis live there and they see Palestinians every
minute of the day, as their servants and waiters in the restaurants
of Tel Aviv or their
chauffeurs and taxi drivers, all those people who work in the
occupied territories and in Jerusalem, they know they're a physical
presence. So that's the Israeli Zionist awareness, consciousness
of Palestinians. The American Zionist by contrast really doesn't
think of the Palestinians as a real thing at all. There's a kind
of fantasy element in which Palestinians are a gratuitous ideological
fiction created to harass the Israelis and therefore avatars of
anti-Semitism. That's what Bernard Lewis keeps saying all the
time, this is Arab
anti-Semitism. Zionism is much more dangerous than Israeli Zionism.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: A couple of
years ago you made a documentary film for the BBC called In
Search of Palestine. After being shown on BBC 2 and then on
BBC World, it has more or less disappeared. The BBC was almost
totally unsuccessful in getting it on U.S. television. Why was
EDWARD SAID: There's a history
of films from a Palestinian point of view in this country. There's
an organized response from the Zionist organizations to try to
stop it, try to block it. They try to argue it down. They try
to make sure that the advertisers pay a very heavy price for it
in withdrawn support. If they want to show one Palestinian film
they have to show five films from the Israeli point of view. What
happened to my film was very much of that order. Nobody would
take it. The BBC couldn't place it in this country. Finally, through
personal connections, I was able to get it on Channel 13 in New
York, PBS, to show it once, and I think it was shown on public
television in San Francisco, also once. Effectively the film has
DAVID BARSAMIAN: What can be done
to reverse what you call the unhealthy quality of public discussion?
EDWARD SAID: One has to begin
first by mobilizing the community of supporters in this country
of which there are many for the rights of the Palestinians and
a genuine course toward peace and reconciliation between Palestinians,
Arabs generally, and Israelis. So we need to mobilize opinion
in this country. We must have more pressure, because the polls
that I've seen since the early 1970s all have shown that most
Americans, when given a
quarter of a chance, will see the justice and the injustice of
the situation. So I think the constant monitoring of the media,
as some are beginning to do all over the country, to show the
imbalances is important. NPR and the networks, the newspapers,
like the New York Times, should be constantly bombarded
with alternatives and letters and organized campaigns to change
their coverage. Second, I think the most important thing is to
delegitimize the Israeli military occupation. It has gone on for
33 years. The U.S. sells 40 percent of its entire arms outlay
to the Middle East, whether it's the Gulf countries or Israel.
They're the largest purchasers of arms in the world. What we also
have to do is to take the curtain away so that the debate about
the Middle East is not hobbled by the fear of inciting the Zionist
lobby. Just because the New Republic or Commentary
take after somebody doesn't mean that they should stop. One shouldn't
be afraid of what is a paper tiger. They have very thin support.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: In light of the
2000 intifada, what does that mean for your proposal for a binational
state where Palestinians and Israelis would live in one country?
EDWARD SAID: I think now the preeminent
thing is the end of military occupation. The Palestinians and
the Israelis are so integrated; the territory is so small that
you can't have a situation in which one population has imposed
itself militarily on the other. I'm very much against evictions
and driving people off. I do think, however, that the settlements
have to be dismantled and the populations have to face each other
not only as neighbors but as co-existents in one basically homogenous
state which we call historical Palestine, whether you call it
Israel or a Palestinian state. The economies and the histories
are so intertwined that I still think that in the end a bi-national
state is the only long-term solution. In the interim, one would
have to have two states in which one is free of military occupation
and then is able out of that freedom to pursue policies that integrate
it not just with Israel but with Jordan, Lebanon, the other small
countries that make up this very densely populated and highly
integrated part of the world. I still think it's the optimal solution
and will come. But alas, a lot of time has to pass and some of
these tremendous vestiges of the past have to be worked through.
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