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Middle East: Palestinians Vow Statehood And Internal Empowerment

By Charles Recknagel and Mehdi Falahati

Prague, 18 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The following is an interview given on Friday (Jan. 15) to RFE/RL by Palestinian academic and politician Hanan Ashrawi. Ms. Ashrawi is an outspoken proponent of Palestinian rights and a leading Palestinian negotiator in the peace process with Israel.

Correspondent Mehdi Falahati asked Ashrawi about the prospects of the Palestinians unilaterally declaring statehood in May, about Palestinian relations with Israel and about inter-Palestinian politics.

Q: Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has repeatedly said he will announce an independent state of Palestine on May 4, 1999, when the Oslo interim peace accords end. How real is this prediction?

Hanan Ashrawi: "Well, I think it is very important that we do announce sovereignty over Palestine as occupied in 1967 on that date because it was the date that was signed in accordance with the (Oslo) agreement. And, as you know, statehood was declared November 15, 1988. This is an exercise of sovereignty, knowing that the right to statehood is based on international law, UN resolution 181, and is a right which is not subject to negotiation. And I believe that the Palestinians, although we do appreciate the symbolic aspect of it, the most important aspect of it is the building of the institutions of statehood. And, of course, internal empowerment."

Q: Have the Palestinians normalized relations with Israel by their lifting (in November last year) from the Palestinian charter resolutions calling for the destruction of the Jewish state?

Hanan Ashrawi: "We haven't normalized (relations) with Israel at all, we are still negotiating and, obviously, this (present Israeli) government is not committed to the implementation of signed agreements, it is reneging on its commitments, it is using the language of extremism and ideology and we are not in the least bit interested in normalizing before Israel pays its dues and in a sense proves its total committment to peace and restores the land to its rightful owners. Israel is still in occupation of most of the West Bank and some of Gaza. It is still occupying and has illegally annexed Jerusalem. Israel is still behaving as an occupier rather than as a peace partner. And I think normalization comes only after there is genuine peace and after Israel returns the land it occupied to its rightful owners...."

Q: Many Islamist groups in the Palestinian territories oppose the peace process. But what is the position of Palestinian leftist groups? Do they cooperate with Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority in the peace process?

Hanan Ashrawi: "Well, there is still an ongoing, let's say, national dialogue. Many of the leftist organizations, the left-wing opposition including the Popular Front (for the Liberation of Palestine) and the Democratic Front (for the Liberation of Palestine) are opposed to this peace process, they feel that Israel has undue influence and that Israel is using the peace process in order to consolidate its hold on the land and in order to create facts on annexed territory. So they are opposed to this process although they are not opposed to the principle of peace and they want to exercise a corrective influence on the conduct of negotiations and they do not have any confidence in the Israeli government. So, it is not only the (Islamist) HAMAS or Islamic Jihad groups that are very critical of the peace process, it is also the left wing and, at the same time, they are not opposed, as I said, to a just peace which would guarantee implementation of our rights. But they don't believe that this (present peace) process itself is capable of leading to that."

Q: But if the peace process reaches its end, will all these groups participate in a Palestinian state?

Hanan Ashrawi: "Yes, I believe that we must have a democratic state, we must accept political pluralism, diversity and the right to oppose and the right to defer, to disagree, within the law, of course. And there is an ongoing national dialogue which leaves room for channels of communication, of participation, (and) if they don't want to participate in the (peace) process they certainly can participate in the process of nation building. And, of course, we believe that the role of the opposition is to articulate the message which can be a corrective influence on the mainstream or on the official political discourse."