Book cover for Where the streets
had a name (all pics courtesy of Pan
THERE has been an outpouring of rage and sympathy from many Malaysians, from across the political divide, towards Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza, Palestine. To gain a more nuanced perspective of the issue, The Nut Graph spoke exclusively with Australian author and lawyer Randa Abdel-Fattah via e-mail.
The Sydney-based Abdel-Fattah is an award-winning novelist who has written three novels for young adults. Her latest book, Where the Streets Had a Name, features as its main characters two teenagers living in Bethlehem, the West Bank.
An Australian of Palestinian and Egyptian descent, Abdel-Fattah has also been active in inter-faith advocacy. She is one of the original members of a Melbourne-Palestinian/Jewish women’s friendship group. Abdel-Fattah has also been active in a number of Palestinian human rights campaigns, the Australian Arabic council and various Australian Muslim women networks.
Cover for Abdel-Fattah’s book,
Does My Head Look Big in This?
When was the last time you were in the Middle East? What were you doing there?
I visited Egypt and Jordan in 2006 with my family. It was a short holiday and we were visiting family. My first and only trip to Palestine was in January 2000. We were fortunate to be able to go before the outbreak of the second intifada.
Some Muslim organisations and political parties in Malaysia are calling for a boycott of all Jewish and US products to help stop the carnage in Palestine. Do you think this works?
I am a keen supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. But a distinction should always be made between Jewish local businesses which have no ties with Israel, and businesses or corporations which actively and financially support the state of Israel. The distinction is important because our problem is with the occupation and Israel’s policies, not Jews in the West unconnected to Israel, who are merely making a living.
Incidentally, I have written a more in-depth piece on boycotting Israel, which was published in The Age newspaper in Australia on 13 Jan. In it, I argue that “[b]oycott and divestment are powerful forms of non-violent resistance to violence and occupation, mobilising people around the world in solidarity with Palestinians and the brave Israelis who work for peace with them.”
Many of Muslim groups also position Israel’s bombardment of Palestine and the Occupied Territories as a war between the US-Israel and Islam. Do you agree with this analysis? Why?
That kind of discourse misrepresents the movement for freedom from occupation as it necessarily excludes non-Muslim Palestinians and undermines their narrative of dispossession. Certainly Western leaders seem to use the same sort of rhetoric about the “war on terror” in voicing their support for Israel. The “war on terror” has also played out as a conflict between “Islam and the rest”.
But I think it does the Palestinians an injustice to exploit their struggle for independence and lump it in with the wider tensions that exist between the Western and Muslim worlds. These are both problematic labels in themselves, given that Muslims live in the West and both “worlds” can’t be subordinated to lazy homogenous categories.
What is the nature of the human rights movement to uphold the rights of Palestinians? Is it driven by a racial or religious agenda? Or is it more multi-faith and multi-cultural in nature?
There is no one movement. There are as many movements and motivations as there are Palestinians so it depends on who you talk to. There are those who use the movement to push a religious agenda; those who use it to push a secular agenda; and those who champion human rights for Palestinians on the basis of national unity. My opinion is that this is a struggle by an indigenous multi-faith population for independence from an exclusivist, racist, Zionist ideology.
Do you think there will be a third intifada?
I believe Palestinians remain defiant in the face of Israel’s brutal occupation and that as long as the occupation exists, the resistance movement will continue. There is no doubt that Israel’s occupation is crippling and strangling the Palestinians more every day as it becomes even more entrenched.
Why is there so much support for Hamas, and so little for Fatah, in Gaza and the West Bank? Why do you think Palestinians are opting to support an organisation that many perceive to be Islamist and terrorist in orientation?
I think firstly Palestinians revolted against Fatah because of its internal corruption and seeming complicity with Israel. For example, Israel relies on Palestinians in the West Bank to assist it in rounding up “terrorists”. Secondly, at the very least, Palestinians are opposed to Fatah’s impotence.
I believe that Hamas won [the previous elections] because it was an alternative to the corruption in Fatah. It was perceived to be a better defender of Palestinians.
Hamas also does plenty of social services work. This arm of Hamas has been a huge factor in swaying public opinion from Fatah. Again, it appears to be a more “caring” alternative to a more elitist Fatah.
Most importantly, the more brutal and belligerent the occupation, the more desperate Palestinians are for leaders to stand up in support of their rights and independence. The nature of occupation determines the nature of the resistance. Fatah failed to deliver so Hamas was a welcome, new alternative to try.
I think it is a gross over-simplification to denounce Hamas as a terrorist organisation. As much as we may have problems with its charter, it is a resistance movement. Indeed, any organisation deemed to be a terrorist organisation by the West is usually an organisation resisting tyranny and oppression.
We never question why Israelis support their leaders and parties, both left and right, which are the mouth-pieces of the most reprehensible state-sponsored terrorism. The war on Gaza is the clearest example of a state using terror against a besieged and starved people.
Ultimately, we cannot champion democracy when we refuse to accept democratically-elected governments because we don’t like them. We may disagree and loathe them, as Palestinians do of every democratically-elected “terrorist” Israeli government, but peace will only come when we negotiate with our enemies. This is the true test of democracy. Israel cannot have it both ways.
You are also involved in promoting interfaith dialogue in Australia. What has been the response among the different faith communities in Australia regarding Israel’s latest attacks on Gaza?
There have been brave Jews who have stood up to condemn the attacks. I salute them as they have come under considerable pressure from the wider Jewish community. But it also confirms that the Jewish community is not a monolithic block and dissenting voices do exist.
What do you think is the best way to achieve peace in Palestine?
Definitely the BDS movement.
Thanks for this nuanced piece. Makes a refreshing change.
E Hall says
I think that Muslims are waging a propaganda war. If Hamas had not fired 4,000 rockets into Israel first, then there would be no retaliation. Either you think that you can attack Israel and they should not fight back, or you have a far more sinister scheme, which means you are prepared to see your own children be victims of war when Hamas uses them as shields. The world is waiting to help Gaza with aid. It could be a prosperous city if they didn’t indulge in war.
I’m a Christian with pro-Palestinian sympathies. This is not a propaganda war — this is simply telling the truth as it is experienced by Palestinians. Regardless of who launched the first rocket, or whose government is more corrupt, people are suffering, and the ones suffering the most are the Palestinians.
It’s true that the current leaders of Palestine are hopeless. But in the first place, Israel occupied the location violently. Several hundred villages were evicted forcefully, the people uncompensated, and in many cases, the villagers were raped or murdered in frightening Old Testament barbarity (gutting the wombs of pregnant women, anyone?). In the end, it’s pretty obvious that Israel will occupy the entire Greater Israel / Palestinian land, as dreamed of by Christian Zionists and Jewish Zionists everywhere. But they won’t succeed in erasing the identities and stories of the people who’ve lived there for 2,000 years in their absence, and won’t succeed in re-writing history by painting themselves as perpetually innocent. Because they’ve almost been successful, until Gaza.
And either way, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s book is about the West Bank. The politics there is different from that of Gaza. I’m personally looking forward to it. Thanks for this book recommendation and interview.