1 When researching your background, I discovered that part of your family is from Saffuriyya, one of the Palestinian towns that was destroyed in the Nakba. This is a location known to many ICAHD members because we visit it during our study tours. Tell us more about your family that lived in Saffuriyya before 1948.
My father’s mother was from Saffuriyya, which was located near Nazareth and before ’48, it was actually as big as Nazareth. My grandmother was the daughter of a sheikh who believed that education was important, so my grandmother learned to read and write at a school in Saffuriya run by the nuns. The school is one of the only buildings that wasn’t demolished in that locality during the Nakba. It is now run as an orphanage so that is what your study tours saw during their visit.
My grandmother was from a big family. She got married when she was 13 and moved to Birzeit with her husband; she was the second wife. However, she would return to Saffuriya for visits to her family, but of course, after ’48, there was nothing to return to. Her family were made refugees and went to live in Lebanon and Syria. Later, some of her brothers “escaped” and went to live in Nazareth which has an area that refugees from Saffuriya live in. My father remembers a few visits to Saffuriya when he was young and then after ’67 he, my grandmother and others from the family were finally able to connect with the family who were living in Nazareth after their many years of separation.
2 With a Palestinian father and an Italian mother, where did you grow up? Who were the primary influencers in your life and how much did Palestine play a part in your childhood and youth?
I was born in Irbid, Jordan, in 1967 just two months after the ’67 war when Israel’s occupation began. At the time my father was working there but because Israel then occupied the West Bank, my family couldn’t return to Birzeit. I grew up in the Arab diaspora – in the Gulf. My grandmother came to live with us and remained with us for 12 years.
My family was very political. My mother adopted the Palestinian cause and the overall feeling we had was that we were transient. We were Palestinian and we wanted to live in Palestine. My father constantly spoke about how he wanted to build a home in Bir Zeit and that is where he wanted when he died.
My parents were finally able to take me to Palestine in 1977, when I was ten years old. It was a wonderful visit! We were living in Dubai at the time with all its sand. For me, Palestine was a green paradise, I loved it and I knew that I also wanted to live there! Looking back, without doubt, my parents are the people who have had the greatest influence on my life - who I am and the choices I’ve made.
3 You studied political science at Cambridge University in England and gained your PhD from the University of London before doing your post-doctoral research at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. What led you to study politics? Did you always aspire to being an academic?
Getting a good education was important for my family. It started with my grandmother learning to read which was quite progressive for a girl in those days. My grandmother had five children – four sons and one daughter – and each gained a university degree.
I decided that I wanted to be a politician. As soon as I gained my degree, I got a job with the UN which had me working in Palestine in 1990 and 1991. After further study, I returned to Palestine in 1998 when I worked for a Palestinian think tank that focussed on the economy and the labour movement. When I went to Palestine, it was during the Oslo years and we were all thinking about helping to build the Palestinian state. But it didn’t take me long to realize that this would not happen, there wasn’t going to be a Palestinian state because Israel didn’t want one. How could I be a politician because Palestine didn’t have a state for me?
4 Describe how you came to live in the States where you are now the Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Your areas of expertise are Middle East Politics, Comparative Politics, and Politics of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. What is it like for you living in America, the country that continues to provide unconditional support for the state of Israel?
I married a European. Because of my Italian mother, I’d always felt more in tune with Europe and certainly until the 1990’s Europe was more sympathetic towards the Palestinian cause. While I was doing my PhD at London University, my husband and I lived in France. But then my husband was offered at job at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). I knew how America aggravated the situation in Palestine and I wasn’t happy about that. But I realized that America is a country of immigrants and they are able to assimilate there in ways that are not possible in France or other European countries, for that matter. I was willing to give it a go and I was determined to put down roots and make a home for my family.
What I learned is that the US has a history of resistance. Approximately every 20 years, different social justice movements come to the fore – civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, now Black Lives Matter. Yes, there is great inequality, especially between the northern and southern states. And there really are racial issues. But the US is a place of opportunity. You can be anything you want to be in the US (unlike in Europe). The US allows for integration and I’m very happy here.
I work at a great university; it’s public and not a private one with exorbitant fees. The University of Massachusetts, Boston is an inclusive, liberal university. Only once have I been intimidated with an attempt to silence me.
5 In 2001 you were awarded the Peace and Justice Award from the Cambridge Peace Commission, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tell us about the award and what receiving it has meant to you.
For years, the city has given this award to people who work on behalf of peace and justice. We’d moved there in 1999 and I was doing my post-doctoral research through Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Then the Second Intifada started, and I realized that most people had no understanding about what was happening in Palestine, so I went out into the community to talk to people. I went to schools and youth groups; I spoke at churches and I even went to synagogues. I was deeply touched to receive this award.
6 You are a strong advocate for the creation of one democratic state in historic Palestine. An area of your research is about the economic prospects for one state. You highlight the challenges presented because Israel has focussed on eliminating the Palestinian population and has succeeded in keeping the Palestinians under its economic and territorial domination. Can you summarize your arguments with us?
As I said, when I was living in Palestine in the 1990’s it became clear to me that there was not going to be a Palestinian state and since then I’ve believed that the future is for there to be one state. I’d been working on various aspects of the Palestinian economy. My first book was Palestinian Employment in Israel: 1967-1997. I learned that Israel isn’t dependent upon Palestinian workers. Its objective was to create Bantustans, and this was accomplished through establishing areas A, B and C. Then it created the checkpoints and the permits that are needed for travel which Israel argued were for “security reasons”. However, they are just more forms of oppression upon the Palestinian people in what we recognize as a policy of Apartheid.
It has always wanted the land without the Palestinian people. The thing is that the Palestinians haven’t left, much to Israel’s annoyance, and now we must look at how to overcome Israel’s system of Apartheid. I look at Apartheid – the separation between the two people groups with one group dominant over the other – and describe what is its opposite which is integration and equality into one state. The land can’t be divided!
The Palestinians who were young during the Oslo years of the 1990s were the ones who were excited about the creation of a Palestinian state and the possibility of a two-state solution. The call coming from young Palestinians today has shifted. For them, they want to have rights – equality which is more important than a nation-state. They have no faith that a Palestinian state will be created. There must be individual rights and I also believe there must be collective rights.
Several years ago, I began referring to Israel coming from a position of settler colonialism. We need to understand this paradigm. I studied Zionism and colonialism. I know that between 1971-1988 the PLO called for one state. Then Oslo came along, and Palestinians were afraid that they wouldn’t get anything so reluctantly, and under pressure, they accepted 22% of Palestine for their state. UN resolution 181 and 242 provided legal frameworks for this. But as I said, Israel was never serious about identifying borders and giving Palestine a state. The problem is that the international community, including other governments, accepted the idea of a small Palestinian state and for them they don’t consider any other way out of the problem. Amongst some people there is discussion about starting with a confederation, then going to a federation and then to one state. Some Jewish Israelis think that a bi-national state is easier to consider. But there must be equality, or it won’t work.
I conclude that working for a one democratic state is the most moral and the most viable option and it’s the most possible option. I believe that Palestinians and Israelis - Jews, Christians, and Muslims, can live together. There is room for all of them.
7 With Palestinians so fragmented within historic Palestine, is it unrealistic for us to expect them to take the lead in the movement for one state? What is the role of Palestinians in the Diaspora?
The problem is Israel. It’s so powerful and it will not willingly give up its power. The Palestinians who have come to understand Israeli society are the Palestinians who live in ’48. They must lead the movement for one state, along with Palestinians in the Diaspora. I also think that Palestinian MKs, the Members of the Knesset, have an important role to play. Although to serve in the Knesset, they cannot call for one state, they can continuously remind Israeli Jews about the Palestinian citizens of Israel who are not going away. Israeli authorities are afraid of one state and that is a reason why the Nation State Law was passed in July 2018. But this law demonstrates that Israel is a racist state. Israel claims to be a democracy but now we have every reason to challenge it and ask it to give up its privilege.
The Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestine Territory – the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza – are just fighting for their survival. We can’t expect them to lead this movement for one state.
8 What needs to be done to get Israel to give up its power and what part can international civil society play?
I believe that BDS – boycotts, divestment, and sanctions – are very important. Israel is so strong economically and now it is working with China and India as well. International civil society has a part to play with the grassroots movements that are happening. Israel must feel pressure; it should be sanctioned. The EU should be doing more to nudge Israel along. What is happening with the ICC (the International Criminal Court) is very important. We also need to look at what is happening in Syria and in the wider Middle East. There are authoritarian regimes in the Middle East trying to hold down its people. But we saw the Arab Spring and people rising up because they also want their rights. All these regimes must be held accountable.
9 So what is your final message to leave with us?
Nowadays, it is becoming easier to talk about Palestine in the US, so I see some hope. People are becoming more informed. There are many good movements here and a growth in intersectionality which is bringing together movements that address injustice and Palestine is right there, amongst them. Also, young Jews in America aren’t tied to Israel and they are outspoken, willing to criticize it. Then we see people in Congress speaking out about Palestine, which never used to happen before.
I think that during the 1990’s things changed in Europe. It had been more understanding of Palestine’s history and it supported the Palestinian struggle, but that ground was lost. Little by little messages in the media brought about a change so that people became more sympathetic to Zionist voices and now there is conflation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. I hope that organisations like ECCP (European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine) can help the EU hold Israel to account. The EU must do this.
10 Do you still aspire to be a politician back in Palestine?
Let’s see. I always keep the door open to what might unfold.