Nadia, the first time I heard you speak was at the ICAHD UK annual conference in 2018 and since then, I’ve heard you talk at other events, including in British parliament. But I know nothing about your background. Where were you born and where did you spend your childhood?
I was born in Kuwait which is where I grew up. My parents moved there when my father got a job with Kuwait Oil Company (KOC), but he and my uncles used to work at the port in Haifa, where they had purchased a house. But the house was taken in 1948 and a Jewish family moved into it. We are originally from Burqa near Nablus, but my father sought a job in Kuwait to avoid living in poverty. I came along seventeen years later followed by my three younger sisters. As a youngster, I had a nice life in Kuwait. When my father retired, he decided to take his family and return to Palestine. We moved to Burqa, which is where the extended family lived. I was a teenager at the time so that is where I went to high school.
Was it a shock to move to a place that was under Israeli military occupation?
I had an idea about what it would be like because annually while growing up, my father would take his family for visits to Burqa. When at the bridge to enter Palestine from Jordan, we experienced the humiliation of having to wait for many long hours and going through security checks. I can remember my mother whispering to us that we had to watch our language when we spoke to Israeli officials. My older brother had gone to study in Egypt however he wasn’t able to join us because he never got a Palestinian ID and it was horrible to have him separated from us.
So, was there a lot of talk about politics in your family?
Not really. It wasn’t until I began my studies at Bir Zeit University that I matured intellectually. It was such a stimulating environment and while there I supported the Communist Party. At the university, our studies were interrupted periodically due to Israeli military closure orders which resulted in whole year of study that was lost. Shortly, after graduation, the first Intifada began and I got involved in a lot of activism and although it was non-violent, I was arrested by the Israelis.
On what grounds were you arrested?
The Communist Party called for two states and when we were out demonstrating this was one of our messages. But at the time, Israel deemed this a criminal act and so I was jailed for two days and many of my friends were also arrested and for some it was for years even though what they were doing was peaceful. Even prior to the Intifada, some of my friends, who were not involved in politics, were arrested just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When I look back at our protests during the First Intifada, it was a unified struggle and we told the international community how to support us. There was so much that was good about it.
Israeli peace activists also stood with Palestinians at this time. Did you engage with them?
Yes, I did. They were with us as we demonstrated together, and they were also beaten up by Israeli authorities. These Jewish peace activists didn’t agree with the building of settlements. They were liberal Zionists who wanted the Occupation to end – they had the land that they gained for the Israeli state in 1948 so they also wanted a two-state solution.
What happened after that? Did you continue to work with Israeli peace activists?
My degree at Bir Zeit University was in English Literature and after working for a little while in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to do a post-graduate degree in special education in the States. When I returned to Palestine, it was during the Oslo Peace Process and I found that I was taking time to reflect on what was happening. Previously, through my activism in the first Intifada my personality was shaped and overall, it had been such a positive experience. But now I was learning to question what was happening in a more critical way. We knew that the negotiations were happening in Washington DC but details about the secret agreement were not known. We simply assumed that peace would come, and life would improve – but it didn’t! The checkpoints remained; settlement building continued as well as other acts of discrimination. I decided I wanted to be proactive by working with Israelis to bring change.
Is that when you got involved in the People to People Diplomacy Programme?
Because of the Oslo Accords, a lot of money was made available by international donors to bring Israeli and Palestinians together to work on joint projects and I became one of the coordinators of the programme. As Palestinians, we found that the Israelis came wanting to be friends but they seemed to be more interested in having a social life with us and they didn’t wanted to take a serious look at the settler colonial reality on which Israel was established. They also wanted the Palestinians to come to meet them in Jerusalem or other places within Israel and they didn’t understand the hardships that Palestinians had to go through to get through the checkpoints. Even when permission was sought from Israeli authorities to get permission to travel, it wasn’t always given. The atmosphere in our meetings became increasingly acrimonious. The donors worked through the Israelis and we felt the Israelis looked upon Palestinians as inferior and that we weren’t trustworthy. More and more Palestinians decided that they didn’t want to continue meeting with Israelis. It got so bad that the donors resorted to offering to pay Palestinians to attend the meetings. At this point I decided that I wanted to dig deeper into what was happening.
So, that is why you decided to come to Exeter University to do your PhD?
Yes, I wanted to prove that the entire ethos behind the People to People Diplomacy Programme (P2PP) wasn’t working. My thesis analysed the obstacles and difficulties that impede communication between Palestinians and Israelis. P2PP aimed to create a neutral setting where engagement between Palestinians and Israelis could take place. However, by removing the political aspect from such contact, the P2PP aided the Israeli neoliberal colonial process in Palestine, which in turn manipulated the interaction between participants. Without acknowledging the colonial context, P2PP accentuated Israel’s dominance over Palestinian life. I concluded that combining the international protection of Israeli privilege, donor funding and the Palestine Authority’s hindering of mobilised Palestinian resistance all contributed to the P2PP failure. In my recent book, I provide a critical analysis of P2PP within the framework of settler colonialism.
Was it while doing your research that you became disillusioned with calling for a two-state solution?
Yes, I came to realize how the international community redefined Palestine through the two-state paradigm and, in doing so, eliminated the settler-colonial process and the 1948 Nakba. In keeping with the international consensus regarding the two-state “solution”, the P2PP built upon the power imbalance that is favoured by Israel. International funding of the Palestinian Authority enabled structural weaknesses, while the two-state ideology removed all accountability from Israel. As a result of the PA internalising the colonial framework, Palestinians were never allowed a chance to explore a political alternative to the two-state imposition and this grieves me.
I see just how much Palestine has been fragmented and there simply is no place for two states; attempting to still do so will only serve the settler-colonial agenda. Increasingly, I believe passionately in co-existence and the dignity of the individual; I know that we can work together. There are genuine Israeli Jews who focus on our shared humanity and who also do not want to live in a racist country. These are the people that I want to live with. The way ahead is not for strong nationalism.
I have to live in hope. To survive, a colonized people must have hope. In our struggle, sometimes that hope has been weak, and at times we even felt that we were losing it altogether, but then hope returns. Without hope, the colonizer wins. I now look at what is happening with Black Lives Matter and I find hope. Also seeing the rising up of Native Americans that is happening even after all this time, gives me hope.
Dr Nadia Naser-Najjab is a Research Fellow at Exeter University. She is the author of Dialogue in Palestine. The People to People Diplomacy Programme and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and she on the steering committee of the One Democratic State Campaign. Nadia is a Patron of ICAHD UK.