Interview: Professor Edward Said Talks About the State of Palestinian Leadership

Weekend Edition Sunday: June 23, 2002

Edward Said


Israel this weekend called more soldiers to active duty as the military moved tanks and troops into the West Bank town of Qalqilya. Israeli forces maintain their occupation of several other West Bank cities, including Jenin and Bethlehem. The latest military action follows a week of increased violence between Israel and the Palestinians. The occupation could impose new burdens on Israel to provide essential services to Palestinians living in occupied areas of the West Bank.

Edward Said is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He's the author of "The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After" and "The Question of Palestine," among many other books. He is also a former member of the Palestine National Council, and he joins us from his home in New York City.

Good morning, Professor.

Professor EDWARD SAID (Columbia University): Good morning.

NEARY: Professor, you wrote an article which appeared in the Arab newspaper al-Ahram. It paints a very bleak picture for the Palestinian people. I want to quote from that article. Among other things you wrote, `We have never faced a worse or, at the same time, a more seminal moment. The Arab order is in total disarray. The US administration is effectively controlled by the Christian right and the Israel lobby, and our society has been nearly wrecked by poor leadership and the insanity of thinking that suicide bombing will lead directly to an Islamic Palestinian state.' But you also write there's hope for the future and that you have to be able to look for it in the right place. Where is that place that the Palestinians can look for the future?

Prof. SAID: Well, I think the only place that one can look is among the people themselves. I think all the formal attributes of Palestinian collective life, certainly on the West Bank and Gaza, until now have practically disappeared. But several things functioned, and in many ways they still do. Education functions; there's a good health delivery system. Delivery of education, despite the many roadblocks, also continues. So I think the key is in the heart of the Palestinian people themselves who simply haven't, as Sharon believed they would, crumble. The authority has crumbled, and Arafat is flailing around madly trying to get a deal and keep himself going. But there is now an emerging civil order to which I subscribe and support.

NEARY: How can the Palestinian people draw on that leadership, the people you say kept life going, the trade unions, the health workers, teachers...

Prof. SAID: Yes.

NEARY:, lawyers, doctors? How do they draw upon them to change...

Prof. SAID: Right.

NEARY: ...the leadership, to change the policies of their leadership?

Prof. SAID: Yeah. That's a very good question because, of course, you know that the Israelis have now surrounded and, in fact, occupied all the main towns and they have made movement between the towns impossible. In other words, these are--approximately 200 enclaves control the entrances and entrance to which are controlled by the Israelis. But what has emerged are the group of civil institutions and their leaders who are known to the people for not being corrupt, for not being attached to the authority, just as the authorities people are known for their corruption and for their double dealing and for their closeness to Arafat and their cowardice and their unwillingness to help. And this group issued a call for the reorganization of civil life under an emergency grouping of people to give people a sense of participation and hope, which they didn't have under Oslo. People are beginning to speak about rebuilding and democracy and above all not paying all the attention, because of the media and others, that these Islamic groups have been drawing away to our detriment, as a whole.

NEARY: You call for the creation of an emergency committee that would have a mandate to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Prof. SAID: Right. Yes.

NEARY: How would such a committee function? Would it have anything to do with the Palestinian Authority?

Prof. SAID: No.

NEARY: Would it be completely...

Prof. SAID: No. The Palestinian Authority is, at this moment--you know, I don't know whether to laugh or cry--issuing calls for a return to the Clinton plan of 2000 or 2001. I mean, you know, that's like saying, `Could we please, please, please go back to playing in a nursery?' You know, `We're tired of being grown-ups. Let's go back.' After all the damage and the killing and the extraordinary suffering imposed on us as a people, for this authority to suddenly say, `Well, we really think we can come to terms with Sharon and the occupation,' has had the most terrible, demoralizing effect on the people. And this committee has said, `We are here to organize not only rebuilding but also resistance in the best way that we can.' We can't pretend, as the authority pretended all along, that it was a military force; it was wiped out in a matter of hours and most of the people ran away, because they were paid by Arafat to, you know, dress up in military clothes and do little else. There was a lot of brave fighting, resisting tanks and so on. But you can't fight F-16s and helicopter, you know, gunships with conventional means. The only way to do it, in my opinion, is to do it collectively and constantly appealing, as we have done, to the world community for solidarity, for monitoring, for presence on the ground, you know, of volunteers.

NEARY: If effective leadership did emerge at this point...

Prof. SAID: Yes.

NEARY: ...what would their responsibility be in terms of the suicide bombings, which you clearly indicate...

Prof. SAID: Well--yes, absolutely. I mean, all responsible members--I'm leaving aside now the authority, but all members of civil society have condemned these tactics. And I think one mustn't be fooled by the headlines and the sensationalism which says that the Islamic bombers are doing X and Y and Z. They have still, between them, Arafat and the Islamic parties, have not gotten more than about 40 percent approval. People may say, `Well, we approve because it's a form of resistance,' but looked at more closely, that breaks down. And, in fact, there's about 60 percent who are what you could call a silent majority who are very much in favor of a change and the creation of a new authority based on Palestinian and not Israeli legitimacy.

NEARY: You use the movement against apartheid in South Africa as an example...

Prof. SAID: Yes.

NEARY: ...of how an overpowered population can fight for itself. How can that be applied in reality for the Palestinian people?

Prof. SAID: Well, two very important things. I think the analogies are perhaps inexact in some instances, but in two main incidences it can be. One is to organize, something we've never done, an international campaign against occupation. And that is beginning slowly to appear all over the world and even in this country, which is so dominated by the Israeli lobby. The second instrument is--and this is something that I, myself, have been very insistent on--we have to be able to call upon Israelis, Israeli Jews and Jewish supporters of Israel throughout the world to join us in our struggle. I mean, not everybody--I mean, this is the understatement of the year--not everybody is a supporter of Ariel Sharon. And unless we can show that we are really talking about co-existence of two peoples, that this is a binational struggle, it's not just Palestinians against the Israelis, but Israelis against occupation, like the reservists who refused to serve. You know, that effort has to be made, and that's what the South Africans did. That was the genius of Mandela. He appealed to the whites as well. And we have to do that.

NEARY: Again, it was a question of leadership.

Prof. SAID: Yes, of course. It always comes down to leadership and clarity of vision, and this is the most important thing that we need right now. What is it that we're--what we want? It's no use saying `We want to negotiate'; you've got to be able to say you're negotiating for something in particular from which you don't deviate every 10 minutes, which is the curse of this wretched authority.

NEARY: Edward Said is professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and he's a former member of the Palestine National Council. He spoke with us from his home in New York City.

Thanks very much, Professor.

Prof. SAID: Thank you.

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Spring Lineup
From March 18 to June 21, 2002, Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen will serve as an interim host on All Things Considered, while its co-host Noah Adams is on leave to write a book. Until Hansen returns to Weekend Edition Sunday in July, NPR's Lynn Neary will host.