‘So Long As There Is A Single Palestinian Alive, We Will Claim Our Right to Palestine’

1991 Interview with Palestinian Leader Hanan Ashrawi

The following interview with Hanan Ashrawi was given to Argiris Malapanis by telephone on April 9, 1991. Ashrawi was in Ramallah, West Bank, and Malapanis in East Jerusalem at the time.

While first published 30 years ago,[1] many of the issues Ashrawi addresses in this interview remain central to the Palestinian struggle for national self-determination that has erupted now again. It is a timely reminder of the political context in which the most recent events have developed.[2]

The interview took place in the immediate aftermath of the first U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Ashrawi was part of a delegation of Palestinian leaders who met with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker—representing the administration of then U.S. president George H.W. Bush—in Jerusalem in March, April, and October of that year.

Led by Faisal Husseini, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)-sanctioned delegation delivered a letter to Baker stating the PLO “is our sole legitimate leadership and interlocutor, embodying the national identity and expressing the will of the Palestinian people everywhere.”

Hanan Ashrawi was an English literature professor at Birzeit University in Ramallah, and the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the university, at the time. Birzeit, like all other universities in the West Bank and Gaza, had been shut down by the Israeli occupying forces since the beginning of the first intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in December 1987.

Ashrawi was subsequently elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council representing Jerusalem in 1996 and was re-elected in 2006. She made history as the first woman to hold a seat on the highest executive body in Palestine, with her election to the PLO Executive Committee in 2009 and 2018, from which she resigned in Dec. 2020.[3]


Question: Can you describe the economic and social conditions facing Palestinian working people, especially during the U.S.-led war against Iraq and since the ceasefire there?

Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi with daughters Amal and Zeina, Jerusalem, March 16, 1991. (Photo: Esaias Baitel / Gamma-Rapho)

Answer: The curfew and other measures taken by the Israeli occupation forces have effectively destroyed whatever infrastructure we had in agriculture and industry.

Since the beginning of the war thousands of Palestinian immigrant workers in Kuwait, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia have lost their jobs. About 25-30,000 returned to the West Bank and Gaza to find no work in industry or on the land. Over 70,000 workers from the West Bank who used to work in Israel are out of jobs, prohibited from entering Israel. Agricultural crops and livestock have been destroyed because farmers could not go to their land. Many were not even able to plant this year.

A very cruel and illegal system of taxation and fines is resulting in the kidnapping of our resources. It all amounts to a very systematic policy of economic strangulation, an attempt to starve the Palestinian population. We never had widespread hunger in the occupied territories but we can now see the beginnings of it.

The work force is under extreme restrictions with the system of the green cards, magnetic cards, and the work permits. In addition, if you want to go anywhere, you need a permit. We cannot enter East Jerusalem, we cannot enter Israel. They have basically cut off contact between towns in the north and the south of the West Bank and between the West Bank and Gaza.

The majority of the work force is unable to find work. Unemployment, officially at 29 percent before the war, has now skyrocketed.

Any type of projects in the occupied territories requires Israeli permits which are almost impossible to get. No remittances from workers in the Gulf are coming in either. To put it in a nutshell, the economic situation for Palestinian workers and farmers is in an absolute shambles.

Socially they are trying to destroy anything Palestinian. So, in addition to the economic strangulation there is an attempt at cultural eradication, at stifling the Palestinian voice and identity. ·

Q: U.S. Secretary of State Baker is now visiting Israel for a second time since the ceasefire in Iraq. As you were part of the first Palestinian delegation that met with Baker, what do you think are the goals of the U.S. administration in conducting such talks? What is your opinion of these meetings?

A: Well, that needs about a couple of hours. The United States wants to start a peace process for both domestic and international reasons.

The U.S. administration, having waged a war [in Iraq] and having won a war, now wants to present the image of being able to wage peace.

Now I won’t go into all the reasons why I think domestically the U.S. administration wants to start that—the fact that the U.S. economy, like other capitalist economies, is in trouble. But let us say that it wants to go down in history as solving the problems of the Middle East and solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian-Arab conflict, knowing that the Palestinian question is really the source of instability in the whole region.

Palestinian leaders Hanan Ashrawi (right) and Faisal Husseini (center) meet with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, Jerusalem, Oct. 16, 1991. (Photo: Esaias Baital / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

But there is tremendous cynicism here about U.S. intentions. First of all, we see a resurgence of the Pax Americana and the exclusion of international organizations which the United States activated during the Gulf crisis, such as the United Nations Security Council. All we are asking for is the implementation of UN resolutions. We are not asking for armies, we are not asking for Stealth bombers and B52’s because we don’t approve of war anyway. We don’t approve of the Gulf war either. The U.S. did not go there to liberate Kuwait.

We are asking for evenhandedness, for uniform standards. If you can activate and bring out of the closet an international institution like the UN to sanction war, then you should get the UN to act uniformly, by the same standards, to implement the 170 resolutions pertaining to the Palestinian question not a single one of which has been implemented.

U.S. double standards

So the charge of double standards still remains. We are afraid that the United States might try to decide on its own to control the peace process, to exclude not just the UN, but an international participation such as the European Community for instance, and at the same time succeed in playing the Israeli game.

When they talk about taking that approach we can say they want to deliver the Arabs to Israel and delegate the Palestinian question to the back burner and transform it into an internal Israeli issue which is what the Shamir government wants to do.

Q: Could you elaborate more on the point you made about “delivering the Arabs to Israel”?

A: Israel, you see, wants to pay the war debt. Israel is willing to carry out what they call CBM’s—confidence-building measures in terms of the opening of some universities [in the West Bank and Gaza], and cease some of its illegal activities—and as a result wants rewards. It wants to have peace talks with the Arab countries to end the state of belligerency, to establish economic ties, to end the boycott. So it is as if Israel wants to pay the war debt by stopping from doing something which was illegal in the first place.

At the same time Israel would like to conclude peace agreements with the Arab countries while attempting to suppress and undermine the real issue and the real cause of the conflict, which is the Palestinian question. They do this while trying to deny the national rights of the Palestinians, trying to deny the actual national existence of Palestinians, by relegating us either to being absorbed by the Arab regimes—part of an Arab delegation—or by saying that the Palestinians are only the inhabitants of the territories and that they don’t need official representation.

That’s why they are rejecting the PLO by rejecting our right to self-determination and therefore turning us into a minority within Israel.

All along Israel gives lip service to peace but at the same time is very busy creating facts and transforming economic, geopolitical, and demographic realities in the occupied territories.

We gave Mr. Baker—we prepared a paper—on all the measures that Israel took between his first visit and his second visit to prove to him what Israel’s real intentions and responses are. These included the confiscation of 70,000 dunams [17,500 acres], increased curfews and closed areas, the killing and deportation of Palestinians, the demolition of houses, confiscation of more resources and land, the stepping up of settlement activity, and so on.

We feel that this is the real face of Israel that people have to look at and not just talk about peace. If you allow Israel to continue subverting and undermining peace, by creating a counter-reality like this, which is illegal, then all talk of peace will become irrelevant, academic in the future—because the foundations of peace would have been destroyed. We don’t want Israel to use this as a means to buy time again, and to procrastinate, and to evade the real issues.

Q: Some Palestinian organizations and leaders did not think that these meetings with Baker should take place. What is your perspective?

A: We are not a monolithic society. The PLO approved the meetings, both meetings.

There are of course Palestinian activists and factions that do not approve of the meetings, who feel that they are needless, that they are playing into the U.S. hands and into Israeli hands. Many people are extremely cynical about American intentions.

They say that by doing this the United States, in a sense, is gaining a monopoly over the peace process, rather than bringing it up in the Security Council and the UN. And they are very skeptical about the U.S. because it is not an objective peacemaker it is actually party to the conflict. It has been Israel’s major ally and protector as well as benefactor financially and its attitude on the Palestinians has never been really positive.

So it is quite understandable why people are skeptical, cynical, and hesitant and will do nothing that might play into Israeli or U.S. hands at this stage.

There is, of course, another opinion that says the meetings are important, that people should not close themselves off from international contacts, that if you have a clear message, a clear position, you should present it to anybody and you shouldn’t be afraid of doing it. But if you close off communication then nobody will know really what is happening, what your demands are, what your rights are, and what your reality is.

Substance of Israeli occupation

I think it is really essential that Mr. Baker and everybody understand the substance of occupation, the human aspect, and what it means to Palestinians: the constant brutalization and dehumanizing; the constant humiliation; the violation of every single type of right, every human right. The right to life, the right to security, the right to health, the right to education— everything is being violated. Our land and resources are being stolen from us. The U.S. government holds responsibility for this situation.

Four Israeli soldiers savagely beat two Palestinian teenagers, Wa’al Hassan Jawda and his cousin Usama Jawda, on a hill overlooking Nablus, West Bank, Feb. 1988. The soldiers were carrying out orders by then Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin to “break the bones” of Palestinians resisting the Zionist occupation. The nearly half-hour-long torture was caught on video from afar by CBS cameraman Moshe Alpert. It caused world-wide condemnation of Israeli barbarism (Photo: Still from 1988 video). Two decades later, Wa’al Jawda, one of the two victims, told his story to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. He is shown here on the right, at the scene of the beating, in 2011. “We are a family of farmers. We weren’t involved in the demonstrations and events at the start of the uprising,” said Jawda, who still lives in Nablus and is now a father of three. The two teenagers were returning with their family’s flock of sheep when they were surprised by the Israeli squad, he explained. “We didn’t do anything. The sheep ran off. We just stood there until the soldiers grabbed us,” he said, adding jokingly, “The Palestinian rocks had mercy on us.” (Photo: Daniel Bar-On).

I feel this reality has to be made concrete so that people don’t make a mistake and assume that there is a symmetrical situation; that the Palestinians are in a free and democratic atmosphere and can indulge in an even-handed dialogue. We cannot, because our people are under occupation, with no rights whatsoever.

We have been systematically brutalized and Israel is allowed to hold the peace process hostage and to monopolize whatever developments there are. So it’s up to us to make our case heard, to present our case. And to do it in a forthright and as responsible manner as possible.

Q: Shortly after the ceasefire in Iraq, Yassir Arafat and other PLO officials made statements to the effect that the outcome of the war brought the Palestinian question more to the forefront, that somehow the fight for Palestinian self-determination was raised to a new peak. Were there any political or other gains made for the Palestinian people as a result of the outcome of the U.S.-led war against Iraq?

A: lt’s not a question of gains. There were no gains. The Palestinian question was moved to the forefront of the international agenda as a result of the intifada, which is the Palestinian human voice of resistance, as you know. Popular resistance.

But before the Gulf war, as a result of redundancy and brutalization, people became desensitized to Palestinian suffering. It became normal to have Palestinians killed every day. You know, 3 killed, 150 wounded, 4 houses demolished. This became part of reality that people could live with and so it was routinized and people became desensitized.

But the Gulf crisis showed that the real grievances in the region, the real causes of conflict, are not addressed. The real cause of conflict and instability in the Arab world, is the Palestinian question. The continuing injustice done to the Palestinians, the stalemate in the peace process, and the lack of any achievements.

This includes attempts at circumventing the real issues, the real representation of the Palestinians, and denying us our rights, including the right to self-determination.

U.S.-led war unleashed more instability

So the Gulf crisis showed that you can demolish countries and wage wars where tens of thousands of people are killed. That does not mean you have addressed the real issues. It means you have probably unleashed more instability and problems. So I think it’s important that now—with the imperialists having pledged, having gone down on record as saying that they want stability in the region—now they have to put their money where their mouth is.

They will have to prove whether they will implement those principles they claim to espouse and address the real causes of instability. That’s why the Palestinian issue came up to the forefront again.

But from their point of view there isn’t any justice to the Palestinian cause or a rightness that has to be pursued. It has a dynamic which is not subject to external factors but subject to the fact that we are resisting a brutal occupation. We have rights that have to be addressed and unless these rights are addressed, unless the grievances are redressed, then there will constantly be conflicts and insecurity and instability in the region.

At the same time, the U.S. has made new clients in the region, not just Israel, but among some Arab regimes who are now facing problems of credibility with their own people as a result of their alliance with the United States.

In order to gain some credibility they will have to appear to be champions of the Palestinian cause. So they will have to pretend to deliver something. And this is a new reality now. The United States is trying to deliver something to its new clients, to its new allies—people who were part of the U.S. alliance, who served American interests in the region. Now the U.S. will have to give something back in return even if it is just superficial appeasement.

Annexing land, expansion as a source of security, has been proven false. Because it’s not as Bush said. It’s not geography that creates peace or stability.

They may expand and acquire more land and steal more land from other people. It doesn’t mean that they are going to have security. It means that they are merely perpetuating the situation of instability and conflict. And, of course, now Israel, in the region especially, is not a strategic asset, as Reagan used to say, but is a liability when it comes to an Arab-Arab conflict. Because they had to bribe and cajole Israel to stay out of the war because it was a liability.

Q: We have been witnessing in Kuwait, after the U.S. military victory, the widespread victimization of Palestinian workers. Attacks on Palestinian fighters have also been frequent in other Arab countries, like Syria and Egypt. Similar attacks against Palestinian militants have also taken place in Iraq.

A: It’s true there has been repression of Palestinians in Iraq, as well as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gulf countries.

Q: What do you think of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s goals in this invasion, and his subsequent “linking” of the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait with the Palestinian struggle?

A: I know that there are longstanding grievances between Iraq and Kuwait. I know of the whole question of the Rumaila oil fields, the Bubiyan Island, and the question of scheduling of debts. All these are concrete issues and they should have been dealt with between Iraq and Kuwait or in an Arab context. They did not necessitate war. They did not necessitate an invasion of Kuwait. As a people under occupation we cannot but oppose any occupation, including that of Kuwait.

Palestinian issue manipulated by Arab leaderships

So the “linkage” came after the fact. It is the unfortunate fate of the Palestinian issue to be manipulated and used by the Arab leaderships historically for their own ends. You see it is an acid test, a source of credibility. It is part of the “credentials” of any Arab leader. And most Arab leaders have succeeded in oppressing their own people, using the pretext of a national cause, which is the Palestinian cause. They have manipulated us for their own ends, whether economic, political, regional, or international.

U.S. forces in tanks and other military vehicles in Iraqi desert on second day of massive invasion from Kuwait into Iraq, Feb. 25, 1991 (Photo: AFP). In this 1991 photo, on right, then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein holds up a gun in Baghdad, in one of his demagogic postures (Photo: Reuters). Saddam Hussein’s “linkage” of the withdrawal of Iraqi troops—which had invaded Kuwait before the U.S.-led assault—with the Palestinian struggle, “came after the fact,” Hanan Ashrawi explained. “It is the unfortunate fate of the Palestinian issue to be manipulated and used by the Arab leaderships historically for their own ends. You see it is an acid test, a source of credibility. It is part of the ‘credentials’ of any Arab leader. And most Arab leaders have succeeded in oppressing their own people, using the pretext of a national cause, which is the Palestinian cause.”

So I think Saddam adopted the Palestinian cause, the “linkage” issue for his own ends. First of all because it was a Palestinian demand to apply international legitimacy uniformly. If you want to end one occupation why not end all occupations, especially the long-standing occupation of Palestine.

Number two it is a very emotive stance. It appeals to the Arab masses. If you look at who supported Saddam and who did not you will see that it was the people who were poor, the people who were oppressed, the people who watched this obscene and inequitable distribution of wealth in the region, the people who are part of the south as opposed to the north, or the people who do not have oil wells.

In a way it was a regression to a messianic approach. Instead of placing your faith in the power of your own people and the determination of the popular movement, you started to place your faith in an individual, which is against the intifada ethos.

The intifada, the Palestinians, and the PLO had succeeded in removing the Palestinian cause from Arab patronage and manipulation, and placed it on its own terms within Palestinian hands and under Palestinian sovereignty. We speak for ourselves, we don’t want to be manipulated by anybody, and we don’t want to be a justification either for the Arab regimes’ repressive policies or a means of raising funds and so on.

With the Gulf crisis there were many complications on the Palestinian issue. As a result, and again it is a part of our sad fate, the Palestinians are left at the mercy of the host countries. As you know, one-third of the Palestinians are under occupation and two-thirds are in exile. The people who are in exile have no rights, no protection, and most of them don’t have any papers, passports, or identity cards—especially those in the Gulf countries. They have nowhere else to go.

Unfortunately, at the end of the Gulf war the Palestinians were systematically victimized in Kuwait and in the Gulf countries. In Saudi Arabia they lost their jobs. They were told to leave, they have nowhere to go, and a real human tragedy has developed which very few people know about. The fact is that now the Palestinians—for the third, fourth, and fifth time—have become refugees.

Most of them are educated people who have either spent all their lives in the Gulf countries or were born there and who served these countries. They are now stateless people. They cannot come home either, since Israel does not allow them to come back to the West Bank or Gaza. The minority who have come back are destitute, having lost their life’s wages.

In Kuwait it is even much more desperate. Individuals and the whole community of Palestinians are being subjected to very brutal and inhuman treatment. Many were killed, imprisoned, tortured, or deported.

We made many appeals on their behalf. You mustn’t punish individuals, you mustn’t punish people for political positions. We hope that this will stop. We have assurances that it will stop. But I am not very confident that the whole process of vindictiveness and cruelty to Palestinians will stop immediately. Any day that this goes on is one day too long.

Intifada: A massive popular upheaval

Q: What do you think are the accomplishments of the intifada and what in your opinion are the prospects to win the fight for Palestinian self-determination?

A: The intifada is a massive popular upheaval. It enjoys not just the support but the actual full participation of the whole Palestinian population under occupation. So it is a real democratic force which starts from the base up, with several dimensions.

Palestinians throw rocks at occupying Israeli army, West Bank, 1987, when the six-year-long Palestinian uprising known as intifada began. (Photo: AP)

One dimension is that of overt resistance as expressed in demonstrations, marches, strikes, and so on.

The second dimension is a dimension of building the institutions of a Palestinian state; of embodying the Palestinian state, of social transformation as well; of delegitimizing the Israeli occupation and legitimizing the authentic Palestinian voice and will. And this is the battle of wills also—the battle to reject the artificial and illegal reality of the occupation and create your own authentic reality, even under occupation. It is the defiance of all attempts at eradicating your own identity and reality.

The third dimension is a political dimension because ultimately the intifada is a political statement. We committed ourselves to a political settlement of the conflict by accepting the decisions of the international community and the resolutions of the UN under the broad title of international legitimacy—that we adhere to the November 1988 resolutions of the Palestine National Council (PNC) for a two-state solution. Therefore, this political dimension means that we have embarked on a new phase in the history of the Palestinian struggle.

‘Myth of Israeli democracy’

Among the other accomplishments of the intifada, in addition to these three dimensions—and I think state building and nation building is very important—is the fact that we have put the Palestinian issue back on the international agenda. We have, for the first time, been heard articulating our own cause, our own narrative, and not through other peoples’ eyes. We have reversed the myths of Israeli democracy and benign occupation. We have proven what the occupation is really like and exposed Israel’s real underbelly, if you wish.

We have gained international consciousness, if not conscience.

But it does not mean that we have solved the issue. It’s a very, very long and arduous journey. We have tremendous opposition. Israel must never be underestimated. It has succeeded in hijacking not just the peace process but Palestinian rights in denying our existence here. We have dehumanized ourselves in some people’s eyes.

We also have a long way to go because right now the issue of self-determination has become crucial in the world. And yet people’s rejection of our legitimate leadership, which is the PLO, and people’s rejection of our right to statehood, which are both expressions of our right to self-determination, is clear. We are being told that a right which is given to everybody by right—every nation has a right to self-determination—is withheld from us by virtue of occupation. We want to be treated like any other people in the world; to be able to choose our own leadership, to build our own reality, and to have our own state.

As you know, we did have our own reality, our own state, before 1947-48. We have made an historic compromise. The restoration of Palestinian rights is essential, if there is to be any real peace in the region. Otherwise, so long as there is a single Palestinian alive, there will be the challenge, not just to Israel, but to the world community, that there has been an historical injustice done. As Palestinians, we will claim our right to Palestine.

Two-state solution: ‘Relative justice’

Q: Since 1970, the PLO adopted program was for a democratic, secular Palestine, where Arabs and Jews can live together. Is the new position of the PLO for an independent state in the occupied territories the only realistic way forward?

A: It is not what we call absolute justice. It is relative justice, in view of the geopolitical conditions that were created in the region. It is not historic justice, it is not national justice. But we have come to grips with the fact that it is the only realistic approach. In proposing the secular, nonsectarian, democratic state, we felt that this would be a much better solution to the region. But unfortunately Israel rejected it. They insist on having an exclusively Jewish state.

In Palestine the majority of the land was Palestinian. Since that wasn’t applicable, the PNC position of November 1988 was to accept the principle of the partition of the land.

Because, while people sit back and talk and discuss and while resolutions are made and filed and are gathering dust in the archives of the UN, Palestinians are dying every day. The land is being stolen from us. Our resources are being stolen from us.

You know that more than 75 percent of the water of the West Bank has been stolen by Israel? You know that more than 55 percent of our land in the West Bank has been stolen, confiscated? You know that there are thousands of Palestinians who have died since 1967. They will make life so unbearable for us that we will not be able to stay here.

l think Israel should be stopped before it manages to eradicate the Palestinian reality altogether here and before it creates irreversible facts. We don’t want to wait. We don’t think that we will appreciate a sense of guilt from the world after the fact when it is too late. We want things to be remedied now so that we can maintain what is left of Palestinian land, of Palestinian lives, on Palestinian soil.


[1] This interview first appeared in the May 3, 1991, issue of The Militant newspaper.

[2] Hanan Ashrawi gave a televised interview to the U.S.-based news service Democracy Now on May 14, 2021, discussing the recent Israeli bombing of Gaza and Palestinian resistance to the Zionist occupation and oppression. World-Outlook published major excerpts of that interview, which can be found here:

Related news analysis can be found in the May 21, 2021, World-Outlook article, “In Response to Israeli Barbarism, Palestinian Resistance Bursts onto World Scene”:

[3] Hanan Ashwari resigned from the PLO Executive Committee as of Dec. 9, 2020. “I believe it is time to carry out the required reform and to activate the PLO in a manner that restores its standing and role, including by respecting the mandate of the Executive Committee rather than its marginalization and exclusion from decision-making,” she said at the time.

“The Palestinian political system needs renewal and re-invigoration with the inclusion of youth, women, and additional qualified professionals. It is incumbent upon us all to assume our individual responsibilities and to carry out our duties with honesty and integrity, including by facilitating this needed change. 

“As I have reaffirmed to President Mahmoud Abbas, I will continue to serve the Palestinian people and our just cause in every capacity, albeit outside public office.”

Ashrawi’s entire statement was printed in The Palestine Chronicle:

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