So is Abbass just a tool of the Israelis?
The Free Gaza Organisation meets Dr Mustapha Bargouti.
I’ m walking through the lobby of the Sunflower Hotel Apartments with my new friend Giuseppe. We’re going to the beach while we wait for the wheels of the Free Gaza Organisation to organize a boat. We discuss whether political commitment and organizational skills can ever match each other in quality in the same organisation, and we agree that in this case they do not.
As we walk out of the Hotel, we see 2 men checking in. I hardly notice them, except that they look like business men, unexpected in a hotel otherwise full of people about to embark on a boat trip to Gaza . Still I do notice them and the quietly erect dignity of their bearing and an indefinable charisma that has the whiff of politician about it.
Giuseppe -Joe - says to me -"that’s Bargouti, no? I have seen him before - is it Marvin Bargouti?"
Later at our twice daily group masochism sessions, Dr Mustapha Bargouti is introduced to the group. Now he is dressed in Jeans too new and clean to be activist-chic; he is tall and rangy with short straight, thick hair on top of a friendly grandfather face, which he adorns with spectacles that he must constantly look over to read his continually ringing mobile phone. He gives the appearance of a gentle, unworldly academic rather than the medical doctor and politician that he is. He speaks softly and quietly, but with an authority that just assumes gravitas. No, he doesn’t resent being confused with his more famous cousin, Marwan Bargouti - a man often seen as the Mandela of Palestine, and who is similarly serving a life sentence. Marwan is a Fatah man, famous for his management of the Intifada, But Mustapha is the founder of a new political party: The Palestinian Initiative. Although there are only 2 MPs from his party in the legislative Council, he is the Minister of Information in the Palestine Authority Government of Mahmud Abbass.
He actually stood against Abbass for the Presidency and "came second". I am not sure whether this is a dry sense of humour, or a serious attempt to gain credibility. His attempts to come first are made difficult by the lack of a Party machine, and he overcomes it by a style of personal campaigning, face to face talking, which means that he can talk about the number of sons a father has in a village football team where he is supported, but is a serious handicap when it comes to campaigning in Jerusalem, say, or Gaza, where he is not allowed to go, but where the 2 main parties, Fatah and Hamas, have resident party workers and an ideological base that will support them anyway.
Fatah, the traditionally dominant party throughout the Palestinian Struggle against Israeli Occupation, and the party behind Abbass, thought that they had secured a major gain when they signed the Oslo accords which gave them a return to land - at least a foothold - in historic Palestine . But the joy which greeted Arafat’s return to Gaza in Palestine Airways first flight soon proved to have too high a price tag. More than recognition of Israel , Fatah was obliged to work with Israeli security forces in the dispossession of their land, and Arafat was obliged , also, to arrest Hamas and other rejectionists. It did not last long. When Arafat found that he could not negotiate further with the Israelis, who quickly bombed the airfield and power pant in Gaza, he released the prisoners, Israel invaded, Arafat was held captive and later poisoned and died in Paris. After a short while, he was succeeded by Abbass, who the Israelis had been pushing for the whole time. Dr Barghouti confirmed his agreement with this analysis in brief.
So is Abbass just a tool of the Israelis?
Bargouti refuses to discuss personalities or political parties for that matter, but he does say that "The Palestine Authority is not doing enough to relieve the siege of Gaza or to secure the release of prisoners held by Israel .
"Since the Annapolis Conference last November, which was supposed to lead to Peace within a year, what has actually happened is that the settlement building programme around Jerusalem has increased by 38 times. Not 38%, but if you double it, and double it 38 times, compared to the previous year. Tony Blair says that he removed 7 checkpoints, but the total number has gone up from 521 to 620. In the same period, the Israel army have killed 521 Palestinians, including 96 children. The Israelis do not intend peace. For them the Palestinians are a demographic problem and they want to cleanse their land of us. Their solution is to create some Bantustans and call it a state.. The Palestine Authority must do more to resist this."
Apartheid? - Racist Separation?
"Yes, of course, it is Apartheid."
Back at the Free Gaza meeting the purchase of a fast boat from Lebanon is being discussed. Some of the intending passengers are Palestinians resident in Israel , and since Israel considers itself at war with the Lebanon , this means that they could be indicted for treason, and spend a life in jail. Neither is this an idle threat.. Recently a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset has been indicted on just such charges , and 45 Members of the Palestinian Parliament are in jail in Israel without trial and without charges. I am always astonished by the bravery of those in this position when they simply agree that if there is no alternative, they will go on the Lebanese boat.
But the meeting goes on to consider why so many boat deals are falling through at the very last minute, and opinion is that there is Israeli pressure on the charterers. The Lebanese boat, on the other hand, is almost too good to be true. The credentials of the middle men are impeccable, but the distant owner’s identity is not known. It is decided that there are other options, and the Lebanese boat will not be pursued.
As I continue talking to Dr Bargouti after the meeting, someone’s phone rings in the room. I am asked to stop talking as my voice is louder in the earpiece than it is in the room itself. "The room is bugged, probably," says Bargouti. "We must assume everywhere is bugged, it is just part of our life. We cannot have secrets, everything we say is open. We will resist Israeli occupation and everyone must know it, it is not a secret"
The phone call ends. The Lebanese contacts have just rung to say that the boat is not, after all, registered in Lebanon , but flies a flag of convenience - the Comoros Islands . So the deal is back on, for the time being
I next meet Bargouti at the nearby Internet café/bar. Joe has arranged to interview him, and asks what connection Bargouti has with Italy . The doctor gives an impressive list of engagements there, and then lists the four point plan of his party in Italian:
1 Popular Mass non-violent struggle..
2 Palestinian Unity - Bargouti is insistent that his work towards a unified leadership can bear fruit.
3 Support for the population in their ‘Steadfastness’ (Samood in Arabic, a crucial term describing the determination of the population to cling onto their land despite the continuing ethnic cleansing of the Israeli government.) This support will take the form of social and welfare programmes - really just the sort of things that a western nation would take for granted, like doctors and hospitals, education, training and employment and welfare payments and the like.
4 International Solidarity - We need an anti Apartheid movement, he says.
I ask if the social programmes are not just copying Hamas, who are famous for their programmes. Indeed, Hamas originally did not want any political involvement, and were even given tacit support by Israel . They preached that people should submit to God’s will, and relieve their suffering with Charity. But the social welfare programmes increasingly underpinned people’s lives as the failed Fatah experiment in compromise with the Israelis alienated the best and rewarded the most corrupt, and the Hamas leadership decided to enter the political arena, winning outright an Israeli supervised Election for the Government of the Occupied territories, leading to their proscription as a party and the current siege of Gaza, which we are all in Cyprus to break through.
Bargouti gets on well with Hamas, he says but he is indignant that he is copying them. I founded Medical Relief 30 years ago - before Hamas. We have always run Social Programmes.
So is his party just ‘Hamas-lite?’
"Palestinians have the right in law and in every moral way to struggle against the Occupation in every way that they can. But I believe that the most effective way is non-violent mass protests. Israel is very powerful - easily the most powerful army in the middle east. It has a huge arms industry and has just surpassed the UK to become the fourth largest arms exporter in the world. Israel has introduced nuclear weapons into the middle east and is responsible for any nuclear arms race here. Israel has at least 300 nuclear warheads. We cannot defeat this nation by military means.
"But the Jewish people were also unarmed in their moments of terror. They survived pogroms and the Holocaust of World War 2. They have survived the Spanish Inquisition, where they were expelled together with the Muslims. People forget that Jews have never suffered at the hands of Muslims before the creation of Israel, and they do not do so now; the ethnic cleansing of Spain was a pogrom endured by us together, and we survived all regardless of whether we were armed or not. But now we are the victims of the victims of the Holocaust, but it will not last. Even though this is the longest lasting occupation in the world, we will be free, but we must do it without weapons in our hands.
"International solidarity is also very important. Bargouti especially commends Betty Hunter of the UK Palestine Solidarity Campaign. But does this mean that this solidarity is small? "These movements are growing all the time - look at this Free Gaza Movement. When these boats arrived in Gaza for the first time it brought tremendous hope to the people of Gaza . It showed them that they are not alone, and the presence of myself and others from the West bank shows that we are still united as a people - more important than anything. But in the end, as a united people, we can only rely on ourselves. I believe in Self-reliance, and it will be enough to win in the end.
"This is fortunate, because when we look at the policies of other countries in the world we can find no assistance. The election of Tzipi Livni makes our position worse. She has already said that there can be no discussion on removing settlements, no discussion on the right of refugees to return, no discussion on Jerusalem . She also wants to keep Israeli control of all borders, all the airspace, all the roads and all the land and water. They have turned the Occupation into an apartheid state, and they will not give anything up."
"So where is Peace?", he asks
"In any case there cannot be peace while the mediator is the United states , for they are clearly biased in favour of Israel . There should be an international conference based on Israel ‘s compliance with UN Resolutions and with a neutral chair. But there is no one to oppose the USA . The EU is weak, and Tony Blair will not be allowed to do anything even if he actually tried. We can only rely on ourselves. But we cannot be reactive, we must be pro-active. We must win the world’s understanding by telling our story, so we are understood, and we must stand up to Israel for our rights. We should not negotiate for land until our right to it is accepted. Once Israel has agreed to end the Occupation, then we can negotiate on how to end it.
"One state or two states is not the major issue, and really this is Israel ‘s decision. Maybe 2 states is easier. But this question does not matter until we have secured rights equal to those of the Israelis. Once we have Justice, Freedom and the end of Apartheid, then we can negotiate the details of the rest.
"And in this struggle for equality, Unity is paramount, and that is why I am traveling to Gaza ."
There is not time for me to ask the unworthy question as to whether a personal visit to Gaza would increase the exposure and potential vote for this deceptively quiet man, because it is time to play Pool.
He plays slowly at first, but threatened with a whitewash he makes a remarkable comeback. You don’t start playing until you’re under pressure I suggest, and he agrees. "It’s in the character"
Next onto the table are the Hippies. There are 2 of them, dressed like a throwback to 1967, but cleaner than their dreadlocked hair would suggest. She is about 25, mousey, maternal, in the background. He is perhaps 35, shambling but very fit and clean. Nevertheless he mumbles in a manic sort of way, and when he suddenly shoots me a penetrating glare - the sort that you get from the Passport Official at the airport - I cannot decide whether this is the icy stare of a calculating spy, or the maniacal glance of a paranoid schizophrenic. I cannot decide because these same 2 hippies have followed the Free Gaza crew from Island to Island, turning up in every internet café and bar that they have used. Most of the crew think they are Mossad, but Bargouti is not convinced.
"I do not think that they are Mossad, Mossad can do better than this. But in any case, I don’t care. It will not be the first time that I have been followed by Mossad, but it will be the first time I have ever fought the Israelis when the terms were equal, and it is my duty to play and to win.
And he did.
Interview by Rod Cox
Postscript. Dr Barghouti has just returned from Gaza where he played a valuable role in arranging a multi party meeting including not just Hamas and Fatah, but the smaller parties as well. Islamic Jihad was involved by a seperate meeting. <p></p>
So is Abbass just a tool of the Israelis?