Dr. Karmi is a physician and an honorary fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (IAIS) of the School of Humanities and Social Studies at the University of Exeter (UK). She is the author of Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine (Pluto Press, 2007). The interview previously appeared in Executive Intelligence Review.
Q: Dr. Karmi, one of the first points you make in your book is that the West has no idea how terrible it has been for the Arabs, with the creation of a state of Israel on their land. What would you say are the major issues that people should know?
Karmi: First of all, people need to understand that, from the point of view of Arabs, the establishment of the State of Israel in their midst was an unmitigated disaster. There is actually nothing — repeat, nothing — positive about the existence of Israel, as far as the Arabs are concerned. You know, sometimes there are events, historical events, that happen against people’s will. But, in time, they can find some positive aspect to something they didn’t want to happen in the first place. This is not the case with Israel. On the contrary, as time has gone on, the existence of Israel has only increased the problems for the Arab region. It has increased the danger in the Arab world and is a threat not only to the security of the region, but the security of the whole world. I’m thinking in particular of the recent Israeli campaign to try and force the United States, and maybe other Western powers, to engage in a military attack on Iran.
Q: So this goes far beyond the issue of Palestinian life and human rights. You’re concerned with a strategic issue, as well?
Karmi: I don’t think there’s any argument that the existence of the state of Israel was a total disaster for the Palestinians. They lost their country, they lost their homes, they lost their jobs, they lost the continuity of their lives, they became refugees or exiles.
And today, if you look at the way each Palestinian group has suffered, in its own particular way, you have the Palestinians under occupation, in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and of course, there has been a tremendous amount of exposure to the dangerous actions of Israel and its oppression of these occupied people. Most recently, of course, I’m thinking of the Israeli war on Gaza at the end of 2008, beginning of 2009. For those people, the existence of Israel is a daily oppression, curtailment of rights, and threat to their very survival and the normality of their lives.
But then, you have the Palestinian group that is inside Israel, the group with Israeli citizenship. And again, there is much information about the second-class status of these citizens, the way they are discriminated against, and the numerous problems that they face, in social and political terms, under Israeli rule.
Then, there are Palestinians who are living in refugee camps. We’re talking about 4.5 million people, who live in refugee camps and have done that over the last 61 years. This, of course, is not a situation that any human being would want for themselves or for their children.
Finally, there is the group of Palestinian exiles, people like myself, who have made good lives, often comfortable lives, elsewhere. But, again, not only without a homeland, not only suffering the effects of loss and lack of belonging, but the Palestinians who were exiled within Arab countries are not safe from the actions of the states in which they live. We know, for example, what happened to the Palestinian community in Kuwait in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War: 300,000 people were expelled from Kuwait and had to try and pick themselves up again. We know that this is related to the attack on Iraq. Subsequent to 2003, the Palestinian community in Iraq was evicted and lives in makeshift camps on the border between Iraq and Syria.
Q: How many people were there in Iraq, approximately? These are really the forgotten men and women.
Karmi: It was never a very large community, it was less than 100,000 people; but nevertheless, they have lost their homes. You have the same problem in Libya, where, after the signing of the Oslo Agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel in 1993, those people were expelled by the Libyan regime and are still, to this day, in camps on the border with Egypt, with nowhere to go. So the agony of the Palestinians is really without end as a result of the creation of Israel.
But what I’m referring to is the wider picture, which people don’t seem to be aware of, and that is the threat that Israel poses to the Arab region. Of course, we’re thinking of the recurrent wars. Since 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel, we have had some five wars, in a small region, which is quite extraordinary. Because of its existence, Israel has threatened its neighbors, it occupies Arab land — the Golan Heights, and until recently in Lebanon. I won’t go into all the other, perhaps, not-so-visible ill-effects that Israel has had on the region. But it amounts to a situation which I think is insupportable.
Here is a state, created quite artificially, in a region which didn’t want it, was never asked, was never in agreement with the creation of it, and it is imposed on that region.
But not only that; it is armed to the teeth by the very same powers that helped to install it. It continues to enjoy diplomatic, political, military and moral support from Western powers, despite the damage it has done to the Arabs of the region! This is really, I think, unprecedented in history.
Q: You were born in Jerusalem. Could you tell us about your own history and that of your family?
Karmi: I suppose I am an illustration of the damage that the creation of the state of Israel did, because I was born in Jerusalem. I came from an ordinary family living an ordinary life. We had every reason to expect to grow up in an ordinary way and to die in our homeland, an expectation shared by billions of people across the world. However, because Israel was established in 1948, and that establishment was done against the wishes of the people of Palestine, there was conflict. And there was conflict before the 1948 war. So, as a young child, I was subject to the danger, the fear, the disruption of life coming from a kind of local war between Jewish militias and local Palestinians, which was happening before the formal establishment of the state of Israel. It was terrifying for my family and for other families in our part of Jerusalem, so my parents decided to evacuate us from our home and go to nearby Damascus, where my grandparents lived.
The idea they had, a typical, normal, natural idea for a normal family was, “If we evacuate our children from a place of danger, we can go and stay somewhere else, until the situation calms down, and then we’ll go home again.” That’s exactly what my parents thought. We left our home in Jerusalem in April 1948 — before May 1948, when the state of Israel was established — and left everything behind, because we thought we were coming back. That’s a story replicated thousands of times for Palestinians of that time.
Of course, having left, we were never allowed to go back home. For me, therefore, life before ’48, when I was a young child with few memories, nevertheless, it was a particular kind of life, and it ended, abruptly and cruelly, in ’48. From that moment on, I joined the legion of displaced people. In our case, we were displaced to London, and I grew up and made my life there. However, for me, as for all the Palestinians who suffered the same fate, the cause of Palestine, the injustice done to us, the sheer brutal unfairness of it all, has never died.
We cannot pretend that all is well. I have a comfortable life, I’ve had a good education, I have a profession. Even so, I cannot forget, I cannot ignore what happened to me, and what is still happening, and what Israel is still doing against the Palestinians.
Q: You have a draft resolution that you’ve spoken about at several different conferences. What would it mean for the United Nations to take up a resolution that actually addresses this issue of justice, fairness and what happened to the Palestinian people?
Karmi: Over the years, feeling as I do, I long ago accepted that there would never be a resolution of this conflict unless the country that I knew as my homeland, Palestine, were returned whole, not divided, not broken up and not partitioned. That seemed to me to be utterly self-evident. Now we know that, over time, the Palestinian leadership began to settle for what it thought it could get: a partitioned country, with a small part of the original homeland to be designated as a Palestinian state. I never subscribed to that, and there’s no living Palestinian who subscribes to that. It’s just that many believe they’re not going to get anything if they don’t go for a two-state agreement, because it gives them something, rather than nothing. That’s really the thinking behind it.
Now, we know that the “international consensus” about a Palestinian state, about partitioning the land of Palestine, got nowhere. And of course, it’s not going to get anywhere, because the problem that created Israel is still there. The ideology of a state that wishes to impose itself, no matter who, no matter what, hasn’t gone away. And it’s not going to go away. It’s got to be dealt with in a quite different sort of fashion. I have earnestly sought to persuade the international community that there really is no way forward for this conflict, unless we return the people of Palestine who were expelled to live together with the current community in Israel, and the two of them share the land, which must not be partitioned.
That has become called the “one-state solution.” It’s not a term I particularly like, but nevertheless, that’s how people understand it. And I realize that one way to advance this idea beyond the circles of debate and political discussion and intellectuals beyond those circles, to put it on the world map — was really through a UN resolution, where it would be debated at the level of the world body. In that sense, it would become an idea that people had become used to, had come to accept. And once that happened, the next stage, which is how to implement it, becomes much simpler.
So, with a small group of friends, we drew up a draft UN General Assembly resolution on the one-state solution. We asked many people how this could be put on the agenda of the United Nations, and we were informed that what is needed was one or more member-states to adopt the draft resolution and put it before the General Assembly for discussion. We have gone around trying to do that ever since the resolution was drawn up in 2007. Up to this point, our search has not been successful; however, I am, in fact, quite hopeful. If one looks at the situation today — the growing intransigence of the Israeli government, the apparent inability of any power, including the United States, to impose any kind of pressure on Israel — it becomes clearer that the idea of partitioning Palestine, and of having a two-state solution, is not one that is going to happen.
Therefore, not only to relieve the suffering of the people of that region, but also to resolve the instability and its potential for becoming a danger to world peace, we need to find alternative solutions to this terrible conflict. In that sense, the resolution on the one-state solution becomes a very important way forward, and one, therefore, which I and my colleagues are hoping, in the current changing climate, will be adopted, at least for discussion and debate at the world body.
Imagine what would happen if such a resolution were to come before the General Assembly and were to be discussed, quite apart from whether it’s voted on or not. One can, I think, foresee the tremendous effect that would have, certainly on Israel and its allies, which would ensure that the resolution remained a lively subject of debate, certainly for all the groupings in the world that feel aggrieved and that Israel cannot be allowed to continue like this. The basis of the resolution is Israel’s non-adherence to any international norm, and because of that, the United Nations, in our resolution, must take action to stop this destruction of international law.
The resolution goes on to explain that Israel, from its inception in 1948, has been given the most wonderful opportunity to behave itself, and it clearly has not done so. It’s flouted every single law, it’s behaved outrageously, it’s made a travesty of international and humanitarian law. On what basis should this state continue to be a member of the United Nations?
I’m not suggesting this is the first time this has been put into question, but people have to ask: Why is it that a state that behaves so consistently outside the law — to such detriment of other people — is allowed to do so?
Q: You mentioned that the Palestinians who live inside Israel do not have an ideal life. President Jimmy Carter has called it an “apartheid state.” Is this true? What fundamental changes would have to be made for Palestinian rights?
Karmi: It is quietly an apartheid state. What is amusing about the opponents of the one-state solution is that they don’t seem to understand that we already have one state. We don’t have a partitioned state, we actually have one state. But it is an apartheid state. Israel rules all of the land between the river and the sea. But, it does so in a situation of inequality and discrimination against the Palestinians. The step we need to take is to convert that reality, the one-state reality, into one which is not apartheid, where apartheid is fought and eradicated, as it was in South Africa. The importance of this is that we convert the struggle of Palestinians against Israelis, not for creating a partitioned land, but for ending discrimination against Palestinians and ending apartheid within the whole country, the one country of Palestine. That is, it becomes an anti-apartheid struggle, rather than a struggle over settlements and bits of land, which is what’s happened.
Q: To stay on this subject of UN resolutions, there is an increasing amount of despair or cynicism or skepticism about the United Nations. It was recently said at a press conference with Justice Richard Goldstone of the UN Human Rights Commission — by a journalist in Washington — that there hasn’t been a single UN resolution concerning Palestinian rights that Israel has upheld.
Karmi: There is no resolution that’s been passed on the Palestinian situation, asking Israel to comply with this or that requirement, that Israel has accepted. What I think is so serious about this is the use of the veto by the United States in order to spare Israel from any kind of censure. We know the Security Council resolutions that have been passed addressing Israeli maltreatment of Palestinians have never succeeded because of the U.S. veto. This is a matter of grave concern.
As to whether the United Nations remains of any use at all, we don’t have an alternative. It’s not as if we were saying, “The United Nations can’t do much, but therefore, let us turn to some other outfit.” There isn’t any. That’s what we’ve got. We’ve got to deal with that. The second point is that the United Nations, nevertheless, remains a very important international forum for debate, for airing grievances and for bringing issues to international attention. In that sense, we are hoping that our draft UN resolution could be advanced further by being discussed.
Q: How important were the findings of the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza War, headed up by a number of jurists, including South African Justice Richard Goldstone? The vote on this has been put off, and the findings were that war crimes were committed by Israel, and also by Palestinian groups who attacked civilians. But, of course, the war-crimes charge against Israel is something that has not been heard.
Karmi: That is why this fact-finding mission is extremely important; it’s a real precedent in dealing with Israel on its behavior. Israel has not [previously] been formally accused of war crimes by a body this important, and it has definitely set a precedent. It would be difficult now to go back on that. Even though Israel and its friends have done their utmost to destroy the significance of the Goldstone Report, and even though they are still working night and day to prevent it from getting any further than just being a report, it is an important landmark in the history of efforts to control Israel’s lawless behavior.
It’s really very significant that this should have happened, and that the judge who presided over the fact-finding mission is, himself, not only Jewish, but a Zionist and a supporter of Israel. So, although we do not yet know the final outcome or fate of this report, the fact that it’s happened at all is extremely significant.
The Israelis know it. That is why they are fighting so hard to destroy the report. They know it’s very important. Even if we didn’t realize how important it is, we’d know from the way they reacted.
Q: You’ve said that the two-state solution is not going to happen, and that’s becoming increasingly obvious. How do you see President Obama in this?
Karmi: It’s difficult not to feel disappointed in President Obama on this issue. Of course, we should still say that we haven’t seen everything that he’s capable of doing. We haven’t really seen, perhaps, the end of this story with Israel. What we do see is open to this interpretation, at least: Although President Obama’s intentions would seem to have been the right ones, and he actually was quite serious about finding a resolution to this terrible conflict, it’s almost as if he took something on without understanding its consequences or its implications.
It’s not a nice thing to say about Obama, who struck a sympathetic chord in hearts throughout the Arab world, particularly when he made his famous Cairo speech. It’s not something that Arabs want to think, but they are worried. It seems that he took on the Israel lobby, and so far, if this is a contest, he’s lost. He’s lost very significantly. The Israeli prime minister has behaved with great arrogance, and a great sense of satisfaction that he’s actually beaten off what he sees as the attack from the United States over a very simple issue: the issue of not expanding settlements.
It’s almost as if Obama took the Israelis on, with their supporters, maybe underestimating that this is a game they’re very experienced at. They’ve played it with many previous presidents, and they’ve been able to continue illegally building [settlements] and stealing Palestinian lands without interruption by any U.S. administration. It seems this one is no different. Unless Obama understands that there will be no movement in the Middle East peace process without meaningful American pressure on Israel, unless he is willing to grasp that nettle, I can predict with confidence that nothing whatever will happen to resolve this conflict. On the contrary, it will get worse.
Q: Over the years, you’ve known and worked with many Israelis, and we have mutual friends like [the late] Maxim Ghilan. Inside Israel, how do you see the mood among the Jewish population? Are they tired of the wars? Are they going to exert influence on finding a solution, a final status?
Karmi: My sense of the Israeli public is that they are very tired of wars. They want this conflict resolved. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. Numerous public-opinion polls have shown that to be the case. The problem, however, is that they don’t understand that there is no resolution of this conflict without Israel’s giving up something. That’s the problem. It’s almost as if they have an abstract longing for something called “peace” or “an end to the conflict,” without any awareness that you don’t get that for nothing. It doesn’t just go away. My sense is that most Israelis want it to, but can’t understand that it won’t unless Israel takes steps that most of them don’t understand and would not be willing to concede.
In that sense, I’m quite gloomy about the Israeli population. I don’t think it seems to understand. But, there appears to be a growing number — it is modest still, but a growing number — of what I would call “disaffected Israelis” who do get the point, in different ways and to different extents. These are composed of soldiers who were shocked by the war on Gaza and felt they had to speak out; of soldiers who have resisted serving in the army that occupies the Palestinians. There is a revulsion against the occupation among groups of Israelis. This is a promising trend, because these groups will sooner or later link up with each other and may form a significant movement. Against the background of a public mood that is tired of war and is conflict, it’s possible that we might get somewhere. When, I do not know.
Q: The Palestinian political movement is much divided right now. How does the current split between Hamas and Fatah or Hamas and the PLO fit into the long history of Palestinian freedom and resistance organizations and movements?
Karmi: The division between the major Palestinian groups is not only tragic but I think it forms the pinnacle of achievement for Israel. Of course, colonizing powers throughout history have always tried to divide the opposition. That’s their policy.
Q: “Divide and conquer.”
Karmi: That’s right, “divide and rule, divide and conquer.” Israel is no different. They have worked to destroy Palestinian unity, and it looks as if for the time being they have succeeded. As a result, and entirely due to the Israeli occupying forces, on which I place the total blame and total responsibility, they and their Western backers have been able to bribe, seduce and control a sector of the Palestinians, represented by the current Palestinian leadership and the people around it. They, in return for favors provided by the occupying power, Israel, look as if they have abandoned the national cause, leaving the other party, Hamas, to be the only voice of resistance, properly, among the Palestinians. But Hamas also can be criticized on many counts. So, this is a terribly sad situation on the Palestinian side.
How will this pan out? We don’t as yet know. At the same time there is this division, there is a deep awareness among Palestinians inside and outside the land of Palestine of how dangerous this situation of fragmentation is, and that it must end. Many efforts are being made to try and unify these two groups.
What will the outcome be? I can’t as yet say. But we now have a really extraordinary situation, in which you have the operation of two opposing forces, one wanting to divide, and the other wanting to unite. The forces wanting to divide the Palestinians are powerful, and are using money, threats and intimidation in order to attain their ends. It remains to be seen whether the Palestinians will be able to resist this and put an end to it. That must be our hope. I think it may well be a reality. Because we’re too aware, all of us, of how dangerous this is.
Q: Is there now a voice for the Palestinians, like yourself in exile, or among the Palestinian refugees? Is there an organization that represents all Palestinians at this point, the way the Palestine Liberation Organization once wore that mantle?
Karmi: It is very tragic that the Palestinians in exile and those in the camps — who form the majority of the Palestinian people, 60 percent — have no representation. They don’t, because of the success of Israeli policy in destroying the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
The PLO was the single unifying body for the Palestinians and all of us in exile. All the refugees knew they were represented by the PLO, from 1967 onward until 1993, because Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO at the time, agreed to go back into Palestine and bring with him the majority of the leadership of the PLO. From that moment on, the PLO began to fragment and became irrelevant.
Tragically, this started a chain of events that has led us to the most recent Fatah conference in Bethlehem, which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas presided over. It was a transparent attempt to try and give Abbas and his leadership some legitimacy in Palestinian eyes. With his attempts to revive the PLO, what we have is an organization dominated by the party that has been much discredited, because of the way that it has succumbed to the Israeli lure under occupation. Therefore, we still do not have the PLO as we knew it.
There have been many attempts since 1995, some of which I was involved with, to try and revive the PLO as a body that represented the Palestinian people, very much as it used to be. To date, these attempts have not succeeded, but they are ongoing.
Q: If you could speak to our Congress in the United States, what would you say to enlighten them?
Karmi: I would ask the Congress to ask itself what advantage supporting Israel in that way confers on the United States. What is the actual advantage, for the United States, of having an Israel supported to the hilt in this way? They must spell that out. They have, in all honesty, to face that themselves. They have to ask themselves — quite apart from the money that they get from the Israel Lobby, quite apart from the self-interest of being reelected — about the well-being of their own country. What advantage does Israel confer on the United States? And the corollary to that question is: What would happen for the well-being of the United States if Israel were not supported in that way?
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