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“We are stronger than Israel”: An interview with Mohammed Aside

| 16 June 2005

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With the Israeli-Palestinian truce heading towards collapse, Ian Douglas in Nablus spoke to Mohammed Aside, leader of Islamic Jihad in the northern West Bank
Is it true that Islamic Jihad members were arrested recently on their way to a double martyrdom operation in Jerusalem?
This was in the news for a reason. We consider it an extension of the targeted Israeli attack on the Islamic Jihad movement from the first day of the truce. Up to this moment it didn’t stop for a minute. Jihad is officially committed to the truce. If it is to be broken, we will announce it to the world.

So you’re denying it?
Yes. The movement denied it in an official statement and emphasised its commitment to the truce, no matter what the Israelis say.

But they were reportedly carrying explosive belts.
This is a lie. This is an Israeli pretence, manufactured as justification to continue hitting Islamic Jihad. This campaign runs from the north of the West Bank to the south, starting with chasing the sons of Jihad in Tulkarem and killing them. The Palestinian Authority is also chasing Jihad. Shin Bet can pretend whatever they want. These mujahadeen were wanted from the very beginning, before the truce.

Do you believe Israel is a partner in peace?
From the very beginning, and amid all this talk about peace, Islamic Jihad hasn’t thought of Israel as a partner in peace. Along with dialogue went the confiscation of lands, the killing of Palestinians and the tightening of the space of freedom in their lives. Delaying the execution of agreements, peddling biased interpretations for its own sake, Israel also manipulated international law for its own benefit. It had the will and the ability to present itself as a country with a peace vision; after all, there is logic to it talking about peace, and presenting itself as being earnest about peace. In reality, this is all decoration: marketing to make peace a hot issue. Meanwhile, the violation of agreements, the killing, is ignored.

Jihad doesn’t see anything called peace with Israel because Israel is an intruder in this region, occupying Palestinian lands using violence and power. It forced people off their lands”a whole nation”and replaced them with other intruders. Thus, we don’t think it is fair to talk about peace with a state that uprooted a whole nation from its land and soil and took its place. That is not right. That’s why the movement believes that talking about peace with something called Israel doesn’t have any place in the lexicon of justice. The reality is that Israel occupied this area and the only right is the right for the Palestinians to demand Israel to leave. If we talk to the Israelis about peace, it means that they have a claim in the region.

In the absence of pan-Arab coordination, how will this situation be resolved?
Talking about a solution between the two sides is a difficult thing because there is an occupier and an occupied. The international equation is balanced in favour of Israel, because America controls everything in the region. The strategic rationale has nothing to do with solutions but is simply about protecting Israel, keeping the peace, maintaining security. The world over is revolving around American foreign policy concepts. It is not for Islamic Jihad to propose peace. Peace is not the alternative.

Our vision of a solution is that the international community pressures Israel to leave the region. Any alternate ‘solution’ is a question, or problem, for Israelis, not the Palestinians. Islamic Jihad believes that the problem will burn as long as Israel remains in an Arab-Islamic region. It is not a matter of generations. Maybe some Palestinians or Arabs and Jews can make peace with each other. The issue has to do with dogma, religion, history and the geography of the land. Peace negotiations will only ever lead to temporary agreements, so long as the State of Israel remains. Things may be cooled down for a while, but there won’t be a solution. There won’t be peaceful relations between two countries, Arab Palestine and Israel. Why? Because we cannot delete from our memory that this land is Palestinian, that the Israelis occupied and forced our people out of it.

So the problem is with the State of Israel, not Jews as such?
The issue is always presented to the world by the Israelis as being one of Muslims holding enmity towards Jews. In fact, it is not about animosity towards Jews. Our problem is not with the Jews. Our problem is with invaders who occupied lands belonging to others, regardless of religion or nationality. There were always Jews living in Islamic states, in Arab countries. The problem is not with the Jews and not with their dogma. Likewise, there have been always Christians. We have no problem with other religions so long as they don’t wage wars on Muslims and attack Muslim and Arab lands. Israel tries to propagate an opposite picture in order to stir up the issue and gain the sympathy of others.

Even if established by force, the State of Israel is nearly 60 years old. It is almost unimaginable that it will simply roll over, pack up shop and go away. In this context, aren’t your demands unrealistic?
Since it was established until now, Israel created a reality for its existence and imposed it on the Arab and Islamic world. It recruited international opinion for its right of existence and was successful, in part, because the Palestinians recognised it, or a big part of the Palestinian nation did. Islamic Jihad’s point of view is that the Palestinian right is a right that shouldn’t be given up, and it won’t change its opinion that Israel is an occupier in Arab and Islamic lands, no matter how hard Israel tries to recruit public opinion and accrue more power. Power shouldn’t dictate right. We wish that the whole world supports our cause because, in our opinion, it is a fair cause, and our demands are the least asked by a nation oppressed and dispossessed of its land. We take courage from the example of previously occupied countries, from international law that gives occupied peoples the right to fight back, to defend themselves against power. Strength may dictate, but it cannot impose right. If now we agreed on the right of Israel to exist on our land, the occupation would last forever.

So the current ceasefire is trivial?
Temporary compromises are possible, but they won’t solve the problem. The problem will remain so long as there is occupation. Right now, the world is concerned to maintain calm. But this situation is apt to explode at any moment. The world is trying to fix a culture: one of the impossibility of the death of Israel. This and other concepts are being fixed in the minds of Arabs and Muslims. This is what we call the psychological war. It is a propaganda war carried out by the West and Israel. We, in Islamic Jihad, are trying to build another culture against that idea: the ability and possibility of removing Israel and winning the conflict against it. It’s becoming like nobody is allowed to say that we can win. Islamic Jihad is trying to convince people that we can win. The other side is holding on to the opposite.

What is your assessment of the role Egypt is playing in Gaza?
We welcome the role of Egypt as a mediator. All the Arabs should have a role to play in the Palestinian issue. The Palestinian issue is an Arab-Islamic issue. To focus only on the Palestinians as though they were separate from the broader Arab nation is dividing it and making it weaker. For some time, Israel was trying to establish individual dialogues and refused all international conferences and meetings with Arabs in general. We need to oppose that logic.

We think that Israel will not withdraw from Gaza in line with the right of the Palestinians but just for the sake of getting rid of a burden. They were forced to do it by the resistance. If people think that Islamic Jihad doesn’t approve of Israeli withdrawals from here or there, they are wrong. We are with them getting out from every inch.

But this, too, is temporary? Presumably, if the State of Israel was disbanded and a single Palestine reestablished, Jewish settlements could stay?
The Jews present in Palestine are living in houses, or on lands, that belonged to Palestinians. How can the problem of a person or a nation be solved at the expense of another? The problem of X cannot be solved at the expense of Y, W or Z.

From the very beginning, they came and kicked the Palestinians out. Israel tries to give a bad image about the Palestinians, that they will kill and kick the Jews out. I repeat; our problem is not with the Jews at all. Coexistence with them as Palestinian citizens is possible. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of our nation. The Europeans made this Jewish problem here. ‘What shall we do with those Jews living here? They don’t have a land or a home.’ It became our fixation. This is the culture that the Europeans fixed over the last 50 years. It became the Palestinians’ problem to solve the problem of the Jews.

How much is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad driven by politics and how much by religion?
Jihad doesn’t separate between politics and religion. We think that dealing with political issues should be borne of a religious stance. Politics should follow religious regulations: the Holy Qur’an, the Hadith and the history of Islam, political fiqh [Islamic thought] and ishtihad [Islamic wisdom and practice]. For example, some people asked: Is entering the PLO halal [permitted] or haram [taboo]? This form”the PLO”is not found in Islamic regulations, so the movement resorts to ishtihad, which is followed and depended upon in Islam.

There’s no contradiction in saying that politics and religion are inseparable while holding that the problem is not with Jews but with the State of Israel?
As I said earlier, we do not discriminate on the basis of religion. Rather, we take wisdom for political action on the basis of our faith.

Traditionally, Islamic Jihad has been closely supported by Iran. What is your view of the pressures bearing down now on that country?
The pressures on Iran from the West are the same as the ones on the resistance movements Palestine and Lebanon. America imposes pressure on Iran because of its stance with the Palestinians. It is the same with Syria. And it imposes pressure on the Palestinian movements because of their stance against Israel. The Palestinian issue is a central issue. American favour depends on a given country’s relation with Israel. If Egypt holds an affable stance towards Israel, America is good to Egypt. If Egypt takes Israel as an enemy, America takes Egypt as an enemy. If Iran were to cooperate with the Zionist project, America would clear all the obstacles from Iran’s path, casting aside all of its claims about nuclear programs, and so on. Pakistan and India already have nuclear weapons, but America ignores them because they are working with the American and Israeli project.

So the war on terror is not cover for a war on Islam?
America supported religious movements against Russia. If Iran applied the religious as America wants, agreed on what America and Israel do, stayed away from international politics, America would keep silent. Islam in the mosque, that which doesn’t exceed the mosque, America accepts. But Islam that demands a political role, America is against. For us politics and religion cannot, should not, be separate.

Recently, Islamic Jihad organised a march in Gaza calling for Palestinian national unity. What do you perceive as the current threats to national unity?
Israel has always been betting on the unity of the Palestinians parties”that it won’t last long. Always, it has done all things possible to penetrate the small gaps and start fights between the movements. But the Palestinians are awake to this, and it hasn’t gotten to that stage. From Oslo or Madrid until now, the Authority put much pressure on the movements, even resorting to arresting the leaders and members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But even still, we didn’t reach the stage of open clashes. Hamas and Jihad were flexible in dealing with the Authority. Also, the Authority was flexible, to tell the truth. Dialogue was still there. During this Intifada, the dialogue became deeper and stronger. This made Israel lose its balance and self-restraint: to see that all of the movements, despite local conflicts and differences in ideology, agree upon one aim, which is the necessity of getting Israel out of Palestine.

The policy of Islamic Jihad was to stress Palestinian unity; it wanted to awaken the consciousness of the Palestinians. Jihad succeeded, to some extent, in opening dialogue between Fatah and Hamas, for example, to solve problems surrounding local elections. The demonstration in Gaza was a way of ringing the warning bell to the other movements, reminding them of the greater unifying issues. The refugees are still there, the land is still taken, and the Israelis still exist there. The killings and the invasions are still happening. So you, Hamas and Fatah, should talk, should solve issues in dialogue, and remember the bond of your blood, and that of all the martyrs who sacrificed themselves for the sake of the situation and this unity. It was a way of saying, ‘Do not waste that!’

Western media always talks about the Palestinian ‘factions’, as though there were a problem in Palestinian society, as though Palestinians have no real idea about democracy. On the contrary, of all the Arab countries, Palestine has one of the more vibrant democracies, with a healthy dynamic of opinion. To me, the movements are not factions but political parties, do you agree?
We don’t see anything wrong in the variation of points of view. Variety is a healthy phenomenon. It is a mistake to picture difference as a source of conflict. It can be an entry point towards agreement. It is all relative to the psychological build up of the individual and society. People can disagree in point of views but not the overall aim.

Can you tell me something about the Popular Resistance Committee, which seems a way of ensuring this unity?
Arranging and organising the parties is a must. Islamic Jihad thinks that individual efforts are scattered and useless. There should be an agreement between parties and a general policy set by the nation and the Palestinian Authority. The Authority working in isolation from the public doesn’t serve the Palestinians cause and vice versa. Intra-Palestinian dialogue is critical, as is that between Palestinians and the broader Arab nation. I want to point out that Islamic Jihad even attended one of the Arab summits, to give voice to the Palestinians, and try to gain the support of Arabs and Muslims for the Palestinian cause. Others sometimes try to make Jihad look closed, always refusing dialogue. The truth is the opposite. I disagree with the PLO and Fatah in many things, but I encourage dialogue with them so we can be in the same stream of resisting the Israeli occupation. We believe that Jihad alone won’t be able to liberate Palestine; it cannot work in isolation from the other movements.

Isn’t the Popular Resistance Committee principally a means of coordinating the armed resistance? Political coordination is one thing, but joint action on the ground is another.
There is an arrangement there. But, honestly, I don’t separate the military part of a movement from the political. If dialogue is closed from one side, it will be closed from the other. It all goes back to the prevalent culture and way of thinking. The military and the political in Palestine complete each other.

I’d like to ask some questions that specifically concern Islamic Jihad. On 6 June there was a pretrial hearing in Florida for several men”including University of South Florida professor, Sami Al-Arian, accused of running a funding cell for Islamic Jihad in the 1990s. Do you have a comment?
Anybody who tries to offer any sort of humanitarian help [to Palestinians] is accused. I think it is clear when you look at the campaign orchestrated against some charity funds. In the Gaza Strip, America put pressure upon the Palestinian Authority to close the accounts of charities handling donations for orphans. Those donations are not even sufficient for orphans to buy food and essential needs. America can arrest and charge anybody who offers help to a martyr’s family, or the family of someone injured, as a terrorist. Human rights organisations should pay attention to this because it gives the state license to arrest whoever it wants. It is so clear now, and I read many articles of complaint by those who call for the defence of freedoms in America. It does not only touch Islamic Jihad members, not even Palestinians; they can be Europeans one day. It is not a fleeting issue; it has to do with the future, and the future of freedoms in America.

In the US State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2004, published last month, Damascus is named as the principal headquarters of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Is there any operational basis to this claim?
The Palestinians departed from their land for other countries like Lebanon and Syria. Israel and America want to get them out from Syria now. They are there because they were forced there, not by choice or free will. If anyone is to choose where the Palestinians should go, it is the Palestinians. Or should we be thankful that the United States regards Palestinians as a more urgent case, more important to find a solution for, rather than looking for one for the Jews? How many times can one be made a refugee in a lifetime?

At the beginning of May, Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the killing of Rami Al-Malakh in his village near Tulkarem. Allegedly, he confessed to collaborating with Israeli security forces, giving information that led to the killing of Islamic Jihad activist Shafik Abdul Ghani. Isn’t there another way of dealing with the problem of collaboration aside from mirroring Israeli tactics of extra-judicial killings?
Islamic Jihad calls for the application of the force of law on anybody who attacks the Palestinians, either by revealing where resistance members are, in order that Israel kills them, or by themselves killing them. Throughout the second Intifada, Islamic Jihad has been asking the Palestinian Authority to take such individuals to court, as they are doing with those resisting Israel now jailed in Jericho. Do you know any country that doesn’t charge spies? Collaboration, or spying, is the biggest factor preventing the Palestinians from winning the war with the Israelis, or exercising the pressure necessary on them. If Jihad took the law into its own hands and killed somebody, then it has to do with the resistance members on the ground where it took place. This is something the movement itself can’t always control in detail.

This instance highlights an endemic problem in Palestinian society, the absence of trust.
There is trust between Palestinians, and instances of collaboration are but small in number. They are dangerous, though, and something should be done to prevent them. Israel doesn’t only kill, but by illegal means makes people fall into immoral ways that are dehumanising, like exerting financial pressure, using psychological games, taking certain photos of a wife or sister, spreading drugs and alcohol. Israel does all of this in front of the whole world, but when the Palestinians kill a spy it becomes a morality question. Protecting the Palestinian nation is not separated from resisting the occupation. Killing won’t solve the problem”we know that. But there are big cases and in such instances something must be done. The guy you mentioned admitted to collaborating with Israel, not only in providing information that led to movement members, but in agitating in the Palestinian street. His killing will protect many others.

But the two are crimes: he “allegedly” was an accessory to murder and those who killed him are murderers. Not only that, but such actions undermine the moral standing upon which the Palestinian struggle is founded.
Perhaps.

What is your view on the disarming of militants?
Israel is striving towards that and America is helping it. To go along with disarmament would kill the resistance. If we were disarmed how should we resist? Resistance wouldn’t mean anything. We think that if the Authority did what it was asked to do, it would be a success for the Israelis, principally in dividing the Palestinians. Jihad will refuse to give over its weapons. It is taboo and the Authority knows it.

But one of the conditions of negotiations is to do this.
There are many things that the Israelis should do to allow for negotiations. We are always the ones who give. The arms that we have are negligible compared to those that they have. But we don’t have to think of ourselves as weak. Though we don’t have weapons, we think we are strong: we are strong morally, because we are owners of right. In this, we are stronger than Israel. They always speak about”are obsessed with”security, because they are always afraid, while we talk about our rights with ease.

Indeed, the Palestinians cannot be disarmed of their principal weapon, which is moral right.
It is this weapon that frightens Israel, not the guns we keep.

So you’d say that when Israel talks about peace they really mean getting the Palestinians to forget their rights?
As I said earlier, peace lessens the importance of Palestinian rights. But it’s bigger than this. Sometimes Israel enacts massacres, and then some Arabs, even Palestinians, come and say: ‘Let us forget about what they did this time.’ The Israelis are doing all that they can to kill the national sentiment; that is, whatever the Jews do, or whatever the Israelis do with the Palestinians, we have to ignore, both this and the occupation. Yesterday, there was reaction for the killing of two, but today the killing of 200 or 2000 or 200,000 doesn’t elicit reaction. This didn’t come all at once; it came following humiliation after humiliation for the Arabs and Muslims, to force them to this point. They got to a point where even if a whole nation and land was occupied, the Arab summit and the Arabs wouldn’t do anything. The will to defend the nation was killed. For example, Iraq was occupied and massacres enacted, with atrocities committed in Abu Ghraib, with the Holy Qur’an desecrated and dishonoured in Guantanamo Bay. How did Arab leaders react? All this has to do with the future and something bigger than limited killing.

What is Islamic Jihad’s strategy for moving forward?
Our strategy revolves around recruiting the Muslim Arab nations on the side of the resistance, which we see as the only solution for stopping the Israelis and pushing them to give the Palestinians their rights. Four years ago, there was nothing called the apartheid wall. With this they are trying to create a new reality. The Islamic Jihad, with the other movements and the ‘alive’ powers in the Muslim Arab world, think that peace with this entity is a fake solution. Palestinians will never be able to build their country so long as there is Israeli occupation because the Israelis won’t let that happen. This is proven historically and has to do with logic and dogma: if there is Israel, there are no Palestinians. If anything like a limited Palestinian state were to be permitted by Israel it would be temporary; to give them some time to reorganise themselves, and for the Palestinians to relax a bit, tired after such a long period of continuous pressure on them from the world and Israel. In my opinion”not only me, or the Islamic Jihad, but all Palestinians”there is no way to coexist in peace and security as they claim because on their terms there won’t be justice and it wouldn’t be fair. If justice is absent the reasons to fight will remain. In the absence of justice, the solution is the resistance, which is a legal right for every occupied nation.

The interviewer is visiting professor in political science at An-Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine.

This article was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly, 16-22 June 2005, Issue #747: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/747/re9.htm
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We negate and we must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm — Friedrich Nietzsche