U.S. President Donald Trump decided to move the U.S. Embassy in Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem in December 2017. Despite all the reactions, the U.S. moved the embassy to Jerusalem on May 14. Meanwhile, May 15 was the anniversary of another important event. On May 15, 1948, by invading Palestinian lands, Israel was founded, and ever since, this day has been commemorated by Palestinians as Nakba Day; 70 years later, on the same day, 62 unarmed Palestinians including children were shot to death by Israeli soldiers during the protest of the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, while about 3,000 Palestinians were wounded.
Living in Turkey for 21 years, the family of Said ElHaj, a medical doctor who also works independently on Palestinian issues, has been residing in refugee camps for 70 years. Since Palestinians have never given up their cause, country and Jerusalem despite all the atrocities, ElHaj, who is a medical doctor, working as an independent analist on Palestinian issues at the same time, asserted that Turkey leads the Arab and Islamic world with its initiatives regarding this matter and has a special place for Palestinians. ElHaj also said that the Trump administration has encouraged Israel to an unprecedented extent and added: "Palestinians will never give up their lands, and they will never yield."
Daily Sabah spoke with ElHaj about the latest developments in Jerusalem and Gaza, how the Palestinian cause could be conveyed more efficiently, what should be done in the future and Turkey's initiatives regarding Palestine and Palestinians.
Daily Sabah: Let's start with the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem on the eve of Ramadan and the violent Israeli attacks on Palestinians that followed it. Are these events any different than previous Israeli aggression and assaults launched on Palestinians and their lands?
Said ElHaj: As you've implied, this isn't the first time we've suffered from such aggression; murders and political oppression committed by Israel on Palestinians are nothing new. Palestinians commemorate Nakba Day, which means disaster, annually; it's the day we lost our lands, exiled and become a state under Israel. However, there is an exceptional situation this year; the U.S. decided to move its embassy to Jerusalem. This decision aims to change the status of Jerusalem. We know U.S. power and its support to Israel; moreover, the U.S. isn't like any country. It's influential in the U.N. Security Council. After the U.S. decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem, several other countries made statements about moving their embassies to Jerusalem as well. The international decision-making mechanisms aren't only bound to sanctions, laws or texts; the more countries support a certain action, the more power to exact that action. As Palestinians, this is what we actually fear; the fear that similar actions of other countries might lead to the revision of Jerusalem's status.
Meanwhile, Gaza has been under siege for 11 years; Palestinians are deprived economically, politically, socially and humanely. It's not only Israel; Egypt has closed the Rafah border crossing. Egypt only opens the border for a couple hours or a couple of days every several months. Students from Gaza can't attend their courses and sick people in Gaza can't go to hospitals there. This even causes people's deaths. So, the situation is quite explosive in Palestine now. On the other hand, Israel is afraid of the resolution of the Palestinian issue. Even though the protests are peaceful, they oppose the foundation philosophy and narrative of Israel; this is a discomfort for Israel and seeks to eliminate this "discomfort" by killing people.
DS: Taking the U.S. and Israeli governments' approach towards Palestine and Palestinians into consideration, what would you like to say about the Arab and Islamic world?
SH: I can say that both the Arab and Islamic world is weak and polarized. Meanwhile, the U.S. used to seek at least a balance but has lost its intermediary stance and started to work towards the interests of Israel. In this respect, Palestine is facing an unprecedented threat of dissolution.
DS: So, the Trump administration's full support to Israel makes the situation more dangerous for Palestinians?
SH: Definitely. For two reasons: One is related to the Arab world, while the other is about the U.S. For decades now, the Arab world has seen Israel as a greater enemy and threat. In their eyes, Israel isn't a country belonging to this region; it's deemed as an imperialist project of the West that was imposed on the region. Meanwhile, the Arab world is stagnant in terms of economy and politics. After the phenomenon called the Arab Spring, which consists of revolutions and counter-revolutions, several influential Arab countries like Saudi Arabia have shifted their paradigms. Now, their greatest enemy is Iran rather than Israel. Taking Iran's influence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon into consideration, they have indicated that they are ready to cooperate with Israel. We really can see the signs of this cooperation in statements, discourses and actual policies. Enemy turned ally Israel is the greatest threat to the Arab world. In regards to the U.S., Trump is employing support provided by Israel and the Zionist lobby as a countermeasure to domestic crises. Meanwhile, he is surrounded by those who are Jews, Zionists or believe in Judaism; this includes his aides and advisors. They all serve the same cause.
DS: Do you believe Turkey's call will be effective in this process?
I should make certain points about Turkey. First, Palestinians always treat Turkey differently; we see Turkey as our sibling that is also a regional power. Being the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation's (OIC) term president, Turkey is greatly appreciated for its calls and decisions. Yet, the current situation in Palestine is truly terrifying and is prone to greater disasters. For this reason, all have high expectations from Turkey. Turkey announcing national mourning for Palestine, expelling the Israeli ambassador and calling its own ambassador to Israel back to Turkey was truly appreciated. More is expected from Turkey still; this is because Turkey was left alone in this cause. No other country in the Arab or Islamic world has such a stalwart stance. During the most recent OIC summit, President Erdoğan called on the Islamic world to act; however, these countries did nothing more than talk about the issue. Condemnations, decisions and discourses are there, but we expect the OIC to act on the issue as well. Palestinians are facing humanitarian and economic crises, while Palestinians living in Jerusalem are being racially discriminated against. Those who leave Jerusalem aren't able to return. The tax rate is very high. This is actually an isolation policy of Israel to remove Palestinians from Jerusalem. The situation in Gaza is already known. 60 Palestinians were martyred in the most recent massacre, while more than 3,000 were injured. The injured weren't allowed to be treated elsewhere. Gaza is direly in need of humanitarian aid.
DS: What points should be emphasized to convey the Palestinian's plight to the international community?
The Palestinian issue isn't just about humanitarian aid; since its conception, it has always been a political issue as well. For this reason, the political aspect of the issue must be addressed. The OIC should ratify decisions that implement sanctions; this would send a strong message to all countries including the U.S. Countries that are thinking about moving their embassies to Jerusalem like the U.S. should be warned about the impact their action will have in economic and political relations. Chile and Guatemala have already announced that they will move their embassies to Jerusalem. This won't end here as the U.S. can press and incentivize countries to follow its example. If the 57 countries forming the OIC are stalwart in their stance, they can thwart this process, or at least slow it down. This needs to be taken seriously, otherwise many, including some countries of the OIC, will follow the U.S. example. This is what we are afraid of. This is what we are trying to explain.
DS: More importantly, what do Palestinian people think about this situation? In your opinion, is a new intifada at hand?
It has already started. It may not be officially an intifada; yet, since Land Day on March 30, everyday the Palestinian people are walking to the border. Even though 70 years have passed, our people haven't given up on the struggle; they continue to advocate that this is our land and our rights. Despite the recent massacre, people were on the streets again. As has been the case before, despite seemingly impossible odds, Palestinian people have opposed even well planned schemes. They were able to thwart or postpone some of these schemes. Palestinians continued their armed resistance after the British invasion and the foundation of the Israeli state. Whenever Palestinian people feel political and other means are blocked, whenever there is a great threat against their very existence and whenever the Arab and Islamic world is silent, they go out on the streets and prove themselves. I believe we're in such a period now. These protests will surely continue. While May 15 is named Nakba Day, June 5 is named Naksa Day which commemorates the 1967 invasion. Massacres never stopped Palestinians, and they never will.
DS: You've indicated that Palestinian people are in deep economic troubles. What could be done to remedy this situation?
As I've said, I believe the political facet of this issue must be emphasized; yet, people are in deep economic trouble. Palestine is under the occupation of Israel; therefore, we're talking about self-government. U.N. and EU funds are only used for this government and security forces. This doesn't benefit the Palestinian people. Considering that UN and European countries are funding according to their own interests, responsibility falls to Arab and Islamic countries along with the OIC. In fact, the OIC was founded by a decision that was proclaimed after the Al-Aqsa Mosque was set on fire. For this reason, all initiatives regarding Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa and Palestine is the duty of OIC. Jerusalem and Gaza are the two places where crises are the direst; we expect OIC to take necessary steps to address issues there. Aid should be provided to educational and medical institutions along with Palestinians to ease the burden of taxes, while the siege on Gaza should be broken. It's not acceptable to leave Gaza under siege especially after all these massacres. The time is right for the OIC to act as Turkey is the term president and has a stalwart stance regarding this issue. Moreover, Turkey is a country that does what it says. So, this is a good opportunity for Turkey to consolidate its leading role in the Arab and Islamic world. Even though the country might seem lonely in this matter, we desire to see Turkey implementing more substantial decisions as it sets a high bar and host crucial summits.
DS: What should be done to increase awareness and sensibility about Palestine in the Islamic world?
SH: Palestine isn't a cause that concerns only Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims; it concerns everyone. It's a just and righteous cause. For this reason, everyone should do their part. States itself have certain actions that they can take, while NGOs, political parties and peoples have others. Responsibility also falls on the youth. In such times of crises and massacres when blood is shed, people are more emotional and sensible; they go out on the streets and protest the violence. There's nothing wrong about this; however, this ardor has to continue, not subside. There should be ongoing projects. Even though it's an important tool, social media isn't the sole platform for these projects. For Palestinians under siege, for our brothers and sisters under siege, we should transform these emotions into awareness. Israel uses Zionist propaganda asserting that Palestinians have sold their lands and now are breaking the deal. Historical sources suggest that only 6.3 percent of the land was sold. This was before the foundation of Israel and was supported by the British. Moreover, those lands were most likely sold by affluent Lebanese families who live outside of Palestine, rather than Palestinians.
DS: Could you elaborate on this propaganda? Is Israel justifying their occupation by claiming that those lands were sold to them?
SH: Yes. You can look at maps and statistics. As Palestinians, we have no issues with Jews; we only oppose Zionist invaders. By 1947, they were in possession of 9 percent of the total land in Palestine. They were already present in Jerusalem well before 1947. However, as time passed, they started to force Palestinians to emigrate and finally invaded the remaining lands after the Arab-Israeli War. Therefore, the Israel we know today emerged after this invasion. Israel isn't a country built by people who have been living in this region for thousands of years and fought for independence. All Palestinian soil is under occupation today. Even though people of the Arab world don't recognize it, this country, which invaded 78 percent of the Palestinian lands after 1948, is known as Israel. After 1967, the remaining 22 percent was invaded. Gaza, West Bank and Jerusalem is under Israeli occupation.
DS: How does this situation affect Palestinian refugees living outside of Palestine?
SH: My family has been living in a refugee camp for the past 70 years. They try to keep refugees out of the political conjuncture. The Palestinian Diaspora desires to return to their own lands. U.N. Resolution No.194 indicates that Palestinian refugees have a right to return to their land along with concessions. It's a resolution with international legitimacy, and it's our innate right. Ask any Palestinian living in other countries who have also acquired citizenship there; they will always identify themselves as Palestinians first.
DS: Aren't Palestinian refugees who have been forced to live in camps for decades an important argument to further Palestinian rights in the international community?
SH: We're trying to employ it; Palestinian refugees in camps gather and try to organize. A conference attended by the Palestinian Diaspora was held in Istanbul in 2016; some 6,000 people from 53 were present at the conference. There are 7 million Palestinians around the world, living away from their homelands. The diaspora is trying to be influential in the Palestinian leadership, while it also attempts to keep discussions on Palestinians' right to return live. There are Palestinians all over the world; they're living scattered and under harsh conditions in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Europe and the U.S.
Certain projects that aim to organize these Palestinians abroad, to enable them to live a relatively stable life and acquire citizenship in their country of residence were initiated. These initiatives will continue. Israel, on the other hand, sees these initiatives as a threat and does everything it can to prevent their return. For instance, the U.S. has stopped funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) with the Trump administration; this agency works to improve the conditions of Palestinian refugees. They want to close down this agency to deprive Palestinians and prevent even the thought of returning to their ancestral lands. These are simultaneous: announcing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and disregarding refugees. It is as if Trump is telling Israel to "take care of the details" and "do whatever they want."
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