In our series of interviews with Palestinians and Israelis who call for one democratic state in historic Palestine, we seek to learn more about the people involved in this growing movement and the thinking behind their position. This month we feature Ramzy Baroud, a US-Palestinian journalist, media consultant, author, internationally syndicated columnist, and Editor of Palestine Chronicle.
1 Ramzy Baroud, many of our followers know you from reading one of your books or articles. The first time you came to my attention was when ‘My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story’ was published in 2010. But it wasn’t your first book. What compelled you to write, and when?
Many years ago, my family and I huddled around a small fire in our old house in a refugee camp in Gaza. The streets outside were like a battleground, between youth throwing rocks and Israeli occupation soldiers firing live bullets and teargas. This took place during the First Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in 1987. I was a child at the time, able to fathom the anger towards the Israeli army, but too young to appreciate the political complexity of our situation. Four children from our refugee camp were killed on that day.
My father was livid. He kept muttering, while he fiddled with the radio knob, that ‘no one cares’. There was no news of the local massacre on any of the familiar radio news programs. Not even the Arab media. I remember having a conversation with him on that day. He insisted that the lives of Palestinians are not valued by anyone. I insisted otherwise. “If people only understand what is happening here, they would be as mad at Israel as we are,” I said. He was never convinced. In fact, he died two decades later, still unconvinced.
I wrote the story of my father, my family and my neighbors and of many of the refugee children who were killed without much media fanfare, because I still want my father to know that the world will, someday, begin to care about us. I insist that, if people truly understand what is taking place in Palestine, they would be as mad at Israel as we are. I am hoping that time will prove me right.
2 ‘My Father Was a Freedom Fighter’ demonstrated your strength in storytelling, with it receiving outstanding reviews. The UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur at the time, Richard Falk, said, ‘A deeply moving chronicle of the persisting Palestinian ordeal. This book, more than any I have read, tells me why anyone of conscience must stand in solidarity with the continuing struggle of the Palestinian people for self-determination and a just peace'. Did you feel this book unleashed understanding of the reality of life in Gaza?
Yes. I feel that the book has challenged a fundamentally erroneous understanding about Gaza’s location within the larger Palestinian narrative. For decades, the situation in Gaza has been perceived as a marginal event from a geopolitical perspective. On the one hand, Israel and its supporters depict the Strip as a region of terrorists determined to disturb the peace of Israel’s ‘southern communities’. On the other hand, the pro-Palestinian camp has long perceived Gaza as the perfect example of Israeli violence and Palestinian victimization. Between the seemingly radically different interpretations, the real Gaza - the people, the history, the everyday acts of resistance, the bravery, the vulnerabilities, the hopes, the fears … - is completely lost.
I wrote the book in the hope that, as someone who was born and raised in Gaza and, therefore, understands the place at an emotional level and in a wholly different context, I would be able to reintroduce Gaza to the world. I hope I have succeeded to some extent.
I am happy to say that, since the publication of that book, new books and initiatives about and from Gaza have been introduced, presenting the place and the people in a different light. These initiatives are crucial, as it will take concerted efforts by many people and organizations to achieve a paradigm shift and to alter our understanding of the long-skewed interpretation of Palestine and the Palestinians.
3 Was it because of such a response that you realized the power of storytelling that compelled you to research the stories of Palestinian refugees?
We often criticize the Oslo Accords and the adjoining ‘peace’ industry that followed. Of course, time has proven us correct in our criticism. However, we often neglect to talk about how Oslo has altered the Palestinian discourse altogether. Since Oslo, the story of Palestine became the story of the ‘peace process’, the endless ‘negotiations’, the ‘painful compromises’ and other such misleading terminology that never truly reflected the actual meaning of what was taking place. Missing from that new and sanctified Palestinian narrative are the Palestinian people, whose lives, daily struggles, sacrifices and untold hardship were marginalized, as if mere irritants.
As a young journalist, I became aware of how the language on Palestine was regularly manipulated to present Israel as the victim and Palestinians as the aggressors; to paint Israel as an essential part of a larger “war on terror”, and so on. In other words, the war on the Palestinian people was not only taking place in the streets of Gaza and Ramallah, but also at a discourse level.
Later in life, I decided to confront the language that dehumanizes Palestinians, not only that of mainstream media, but of factional Palestinian and Arab media, as well. ‘History from below’, or ‘people’s history’, became the most rational platform to reinvent the Palestinian narrative altogether. In my work and research, it allowed me to liberate Palestinians from the confines of mainstream Western propaganda and Arab politics, and to create platforms where Palestinians can speak, unhindered. In doing so, the reader is reintroduced to Palestine and to Palestinian priorities, articulated by ordinary men and women who, contrary to common belief, are still united as a Palestinian people.
My research with Professor Ilan Pappe at the University of Exeter, where I obtained my Ph.D. in Palestine Studies in 2015, allowed me to explore new mechanisms to amplify the voice of ordinary people in a way that could be beneficial from a historical and political perspective. Since my graduation, I have published two new volumes, ‘The Last Earth, A Palestinian Story’ and ‘These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Jails’.
4 So, ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’, was published in 2018 and, of it, linguist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky, stated, ‘In the finest tradition of people's history, these sensitive, painful and evocative pieces provide a human face to the painful saga of Palestinian torment and the remarkable courage and resilience of the victims'. It must give you satisfaction to know what you have accomplished following that day when you left Gaza and your father, and to go on to find that you are respected by such eminent people.
Swimming against the current is a daunting task. Most Palestinian intellectuals often find themselves in the same unenviable position, as our authentic narrative is neither acceptable in mainstream intellectual circles nor, at times, in media and publications that claim to be progressive, liberal and so on. Therefore, the process of ‘getting the word out’ for us, Palestinians, is far more arduous than that of writers and intellectuals writing about and championing other subjects and causes. Every success in educating a new audience on Palestine follows a thousand failed attempts.
Reaching the point of being able to advance the Palestinian narrative whether in the media, in academia and in politics is extremely rewarding. Of course, this would not have been possible without the support and solidarity we receive from all over the world, from such intellectuals as Chomsky, Pappe and numerous others.
5 It appears you are driven for the truth about Palestine to be told. Is that why you took on the role of Editor of Palestine Chronicle?
I launched the Palestine Chronicle in September 1999. I was entirely on my own then, motivated largely by the immense frustration that I, and many Palestinians, have felt with the unhinged pro-Israel coverage in mainstream US media.
A few months later, the Second Intifada (uprising) began and, suddenly, that humble, personal initiative acquired new significance as one of the very few Palestinian English media platforms anywhere in the world. More people have joined in as the project has grown in its import over the years and, along with the Electronic Intifada, has become one of the main go-to places on Palestine, not only in English but, later, in French, as well.
Since then, I have tried to navigate my position as a journalist and columnist on the one hand, and as a historian and academic, on the other. The Palestine Chronicle morphed to become the media platform for my ideas on the centrality of people in the political narrative. In it, we challenge intellectual elitism (what Antonio Gramsci referred to as ‘intellectualism’) as we remain committed to exposing the crimes of the Israeli occupation and political corruption on the one hand, and cover the everyday happenings and struggles of ordinary Palestinians, on the other.
Through the Palestine Chronicle, I have learned that it is much more beneficial in the long run to speak for yourself, however muted your voice may be, than to implore others to speak on your behalf. For over 20 years, we have educated a whole generation on Palestine and the Palestinian struggle for freedom. The Palestine Chronicle is now a powerhouse in alternative media, thanks to the efforts of many wonderful editors, writers and volunteers.
6 With reference to Oslo, you stated that, “25 years of a frivolous ‘peace process’ and the competing narratives that resulted from this futile exercise, have increasingly rendered the refugees irrelevant, thus marginalizing the core issue of the Palestinian struggle. Without justice for Palestinian refugees, there can never be peace in Palestine.” Is it because of the refugee issue that you have not supported a two-State solution?
The ‘two-State solution’ was never workable, even when it was still a popular buzzword among politicians and intellectuals alike. Oslo was never an opportunity to earnestly bring a just end to the Israeli occupation or to give Palestinians a truly independent State. It was a ploy, and many Palestinians at the time saw through it, but they were deliberately muted by the media and the political euphoria many years ago.
It was obvious that negotiating fundamental Palestinian rights was unwise. To some extent, Oslo allowed Israel to colonize the rest of Palestine with the consent of the Palestinian leadership. With time, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which once represented all Palestinians everywhere, was turned into a local body with the inception of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994. The rights of millions of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora were relegated. The West Bank was divided into areas A, B, and C, each governed by different rules, mostly under the control of the Israeli military.
The ‘Palestinian revolution’ turned into an agonizing process of ‘State-building’, but without State or even contiguous territories. Palestinians who rejected the horrific outcomes of Oslo – the protracted expansion of Jewish colonies, continued violent Occupation which was normalized through ‘security coordination’ between Israel and the PA – were often abused and deemed ‘extremists’.
Meanwhile, successive US administrations continued to fund and defend Israel, unconcerned about its self-tailored job title as the ‘honest peace broker.’
The PA played along because the perks were far too lucrative to be abandoned on principle. A new class of Palestinians had risen, dependent on Oslo for its wealth and affluence.
Even when the Trump Administration cut off the Palestinian Refugees Agency, UNRWA, of all funds and scrapped the $200 million in humanitarian aid to the PA, the US still released 61 million dollars to the PA to maintain its ‘security cooperation’ with Israel. ‘Israel’s security’ is just too sacred a bond to be broken.
Oslo was a horrific miscalculation and remains dangerous. It is not the agreement itself that matters, but the mindset behind it – the political and diplomatic discourse that is wholly manufactured to serve Israel exclusively.
7 Some argue that there must be two States first, then after five or ten years, people will be ready to move on to one State. How do you respond to that?
As I see it, the question now is: “Why does the West continue to use the two-State solution as its political parameter for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while, at the same time, ensuring its own prescription for conflict resolution is never to become a reality?”
The answer, partly, lies in the fact that the two-State solution was never devised for implementation, to begin with. Like the “peace process” and other pretenses, it aimed to promote, among Palestinians and Arabs, the idea that there is a goal worth striving for, despite it being unattainable.
However, even that goal was, itself, conditioned on a set of demands that were unrealistic at
the outset. Historically, Palestinians have had to renounce violence (their armed resistance to Israel’s military occupation), consent to various UN resolutions (even if Israel still rejects those resolutions), accept Israel’s “right” to exist as a Jewish state, and so on. That yet-to-be-established Palestinian State was also meant to be demilitarized, divided between the West Bank and Gaza, but excluding most of occupied East Jerusalem.
Yet, while warnings that a two-State solution possibility is disintegrating, few bothered to try to understand the reality from a Palestinian perspective. For Palestinians, the debate on Israel having to choose between being democratic and Jewish is ludicrous. For them, Israel’s democracy applies fully to its Jewish citizens and no one else, while Palestinians have subsisted for decades behind walls, fences, prisons and besieged enclaves, like the Gaza Strip.
Fed up with the illusions of their own failed leadership, according to a recent poll, two-thirds of Palestinians now agree that a two-State solution is not possible.
Therefore, it makes no sense to argue that the impossible two-State solution would have to occur first for the one-State solution to be implemented. This argument places yet more obstacles before the Palestinian quest for freedom and rights. If the two-State solution was ever feasible, it would have been achieved when all parties, at least publicly, championed it. Now, the Americans are no longer committed to it and the Israelis have moved past it into whole new territories, plotting the illegal annexation and permanent occupation of Palestine.
Millions of Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews are living between the Jordan River and the Sea; they are already walking on the same earth and drinking the same water, but not as equals. While Israeli Jews represent the privileged, Palestinians are oppressed, caged in behind walls and treated as inferior. To sustain Israeli Jewish privilege as long as possible, Israel uses violence, employs discriminatory laws and, as Pappe calls it, ‘incremental genocide’ against Palestinians.
A one-State solution aims to challenge Israeli Jewish privilege, replacing the current racist, apartheid regime with a democratic, equitable, and representative political system that guarantees the rights for all peoples and all faiths, as in any other democratic governance anywhere in the world.
For that to take place, no short cuts are required and no further illusions about two States are necessary.
8 What attracted you to give time to be part of the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC)?
Perfect justice is not attainable because history cannot be erased. No truly just solution can be achieved when generations of Palestinians have already died as refugees without their freedom or ever going back to their homes. Nevertheless, allowing injustice to perpetuate because ideal justice cannot be obtained is equally unfair.
For many years, I have advocated a one-State as the most natural outcome of terribly unjust historical circumstances. However, I have refrained from making that my cause celèbre, simply because I believe that any initiatives regarding the future of the Palestinian people must be championed by the Palestinian people themselves. This is necessary to prevent the kind of cliquism and intellectualism that wrought Oslo and all of its ills.
Now that opinion polls in Palestine clearly communicate that the majority of Palestinians do not believe that two States are possible and a growing number support the one State, I am able to publicly take that stance as well. I support the one State - and ODSC - because Palestinians in Palestine are increasingly advocating such a rightful and natural demand. I believe it is only a matter of time before the one State becomes the common cause of all Palestinians.
9 Much of the time you are based in the States. Does that give you an insight into what role you see internationals playing in promoting ODSC?
First, real solidarity should be focused on listening to Palestinians, understanding and amplifying their voices and viewpoints. The same thing applies here, as most Palestinians are now walking away from the two-State illusion and more Palestinians believe that one State is right, moral and possible.
Second, solidarity activists around the world must familiarize themselves with the changing political dynamics in Palestine and position themselves as true advocates of the rights and aspirations of Palestinians as communicated by the Palestinians on the ground. Indeed, the Palestinian political landscape has changed vastly in recent years: the struggle for Palestinian rights has now finally broken away from the political regionalization - Gaza, West Bank, Palestinians in Israel, Palestinian Bedouins and so on - that has afflicted the Palestinian body politic for far too long. The PA has little credibility. Factions and factionalism have diminishing appeal among Palestinians.
Hence, advocating dead ‘solutions’ is a waste of precious time and effort. All attention should now focus on helping Palestinians obtain their rights, including the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees and holding Israel morally, politically and legally accountable for failing to respect international law. Living as equals in one State that demolishes all walls, ends all sieges and breaks all barriers is one of these fundamental rights that should not be up for negotiations.
10 What is the final message that you would like to leave with those who campaign for a just and sustainable solution for those who live in historic Palestine?
Advocating for justice in Palestine is not a charitable act, done out of pity or other sentimentalities, but is essential in our global struggle for freedom, rights and equality everywhere. Economic inequality, racism, populism, neo-fascism and violence are global ills. Palestine is, maybe, an extreme example of these tragedies but is also, itself, a microcosm of the greater fight of our generation, and for generations to come.
Frantz Fanon wrote, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it in relative opacity.” Our mission cannot possibly be any clearer: a just, peaceful and more equitable world; if we betray our mission, we betray Palestine and all other just struggles anywhere. And if we betray Palestine, we turn our backs on our world and our planet, which needs us more than ever before.
Ramzy Baroud’s books include ‘The Second Palestinian Intifada’, ’My Father Was a Freedom Fighter; and ‘The Last Earth’. His latest book is ‘These Chains Will be Broken’. To see the entire list and to learn more about him, go to http://www.ramzybaroud.net/