We interviewed the humanist Deputy [to the Chilean National Congress] of the Frente Amplio [Broad Front], Tomás Hirsch, given his recent visit to Israel and Palestine, asking him first of all in what context and why this trip to the area took place.
Tomás Hirsch: I belong – although I am a little special case – to two parliamentary friendship groups. The Chile-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group and the Chile-Palestine Parliamentary Friendship Group. I belong to both because somehow I wanted to give a signal that instead of seeing them as opposite and antagonistic poles, we must seek bridges of communication, dialogue and reconciliation between the two peoples.
The Chile-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group organised this trip to get to know the reality of Israel and Palestine, but coordinated from that group. Simultaneously and unfortunately, a trip is also being organised from the Chile-Palestine group, which is going to Palestine and also briefly to Israel. I say unfortunately because I would have liked to be in both groups and share the experience more deeply. But it happens in these contexts and in my personal case, I decided to go because I have been closely involved in this process for many years. First, for family reasons, since I come from a Jewish family, but then above all for the attempt we made from 2010 until 2014 to bring Humanism to both Israel and Palestine and try to bring a new look to the resolution of the conflict. We didn’t do well, that process deeply engages the whole region and we failed in our attempt. But I wanted to go back to the area and see what is happening at the moment, what are the views from Israel, from different sectors, and from Palestine, both from the government and from other sectors, on the current and future situation.
Pressenza: And in those previous visits, between 2010 and 2014, you made many friends and made contact with progressive organisations in the region, so you already had a previous vision of the situation. How did that image change with this trip?
Tomás Hirsch: Today there is a strong pessimism, a sense of deep discouragement, a kind of crushing of all those who somehow aspire to a resolution to the conflict that is just and appropriate for all parties. Specifically, I am talking about the world that one might call progressive, left-wing. What is being experienced is a situation that has deteriorated sharply. In Israel there is an ultra-right installed in the government and that in the name of security maintains a status quo in which nothing advances, nothing processes, there is no possible way out of the conflict but, on the contrary, an infinite postponement. In Palestine on the other hand, with the people I was with, it is experienced that there is a government that is also immobile, that there is a lot of corruption, that democratic elections are not held, that everyone is waiting to see what is going to happen to President Abas, who is going to be his replacement because he is very old. And somehow a sensation that I take with me, and that is registered in this progressive world, is that the two leaders of the establishment on both sides maintain this status quo, it suits them and justifies their permanence in power, but in reality it does not change the situation, it does not process.
That in Israel generates a tremendous frustration in very broad sectors of society, but which in turn are not in the majority in elections or cannot change the direction of events. An important fear has been generated, they believe they are surrounded by enemies who are preparing to attack, and according to that fear the occupation continues to be strengthened, the settlements increase, the wall is reinforced, and all this generates a great impotence, which is something different from what I saw in previous visits.
During this trip they never stopped talking to me about Oslo, about the moment when they were closer to peace, about Isaac Rabin, who at the time had already agreed on the process with the PLO, and Yasser Arafat. That was recurrent now – not so in previous trips – describing as something not integrated the assassination of Rabin and the process that was truncated so violently.
Pressenza: What about the situation in Gaza?
Tomás Hirsch: I was in Israel and in the West Bank, in Ramallah and in East Jerusalem, I was not in Gaza this time. The situation is curious because, on the one hand, there is great tension. Gaza is not in the hands of the Palestinian National Authority, it is in the hands of Hamas, which has a completely different political, religious and national position from that of the PNA. In fact, power is taken violently, many people are killed and it is precisely the Palestinian National Authority that blames them for not being able to develop a democratic election process.
Because they say they have “kidnapped” 2 million Palestinians in Gaza. On the other hand, they are in a permanent conflict with Israel, very violent, because they are being shot and killed people, young people, children from Gaza who are approaching the border fence. But at the same time, it is curious, it is the place from where Israel withdrew, vacated those territories, dismantled settlements. Curiously enough, there is a demonstration effect in Gaza that it is possible to withdraw from the territories, dismantle the settlements and hand over power to the Palestinians. That has already been done.
Pressenza: After everything you saw, so many conversations, meetings and encounters with the most interesting people in the area, what could you conclude and recommend?
Tomás Hirsch: Of the more than 25 meetings, conversations, with official worlds, with the military, with various progressive worlds, academics, scientists, NGOs, environmentalists, from different spiritual currents, at the end of the day I was left with something that, at least when I proposed it is quite simple and I would even say categorically clear: the first thing here is to comply with the resolutions of the United Nations.
The United Nations has many defects, many weaknesses, without a doubt they have to be completely reformed, but in the meantime, it is the organisation that we count on at world level to respond to the conflicts that countries, cultures or societies are confronted with. And the United Nations has issued very clear resolutions on the subject, not a few, but many.
They all say basically the same thing: “The occupied territories must be returned”. In the Middle East there is a complex conflict between Israel and Palestine, which has various edges and various issues to which solutions must be sought. But there is a previous question, and I would say that for me that was the most important thing of this trip, to understand the previous question. Today there are territories occupied by Israel, by a State, which has occupied territories that do not belong to it. That is so clear and even nobody in Israel is going to deny it to you.
In the face of this, what I am saying is that we must return the occupied territories, as Silo proposed. Return the occupied territories! All the resolutions of the United Nations say that: return the occupied territories.
It is said there “we cannot return the occupied territories for security reasons”. False. Security is guaranteed. First, by one of the most powerful armies in the world. Second, by a wall, which we will have to see what happens, but for now it is there. Except in Gaza, in general the violence has decreased. For example, on Israel’s border with Syria, which is a country with which it is in a state of war, there is no conflict and it is a fence, nothing happens on the border. So the question of security is an excuse because Israel has a management of its security like few countries in the world.
Two, it is said that the occupied territories cannot be returned because there are settlements there with 450,000 to 500,000 people living. Well, Israel has already dismantled settlements three times: in Gaza, in Sinai and in the West Bank itself. And it did. Once they made the political decision, approved by the Supreme Court, he did. It can perfectly well do it again. But there are also other solutions, maintaining the settlements – at least 80% of them with an agreed exchange of territories – that is, there are formulas.
The first thing is to return the occupied territories, from our point of view. Once that has been resolved, we can discuss the issues of the relationship between Israel and Palestine. We believe that the solution is two States, on the basis of the United Nations agreements and the partition that took place in 1948. We have to discuss the issue of return, that of compensation for confiscated land, issues of religion, language, many issues. But they have nothing to do with the occupation of territories that has been going on for 51 years. And the question that several are asking is: How much more? 50 more years? 100 more years?
Returning the occupied territories establishes the minimum condition for dialogue; a fundamental dialogue, a solution to the conflict, is not possible if there is not first a return of the occupied territories. There is no excuse, other than reasons of internal politics, because that allows the Israeli extreme right to remain in power by feeding the feeling of insecurity and fear, that fear that unites them, that fear that sustains them.
Pressenza: One last question regarding the Middle East area, beyond the area you visited.
Tomás Hirsch: The situation in that area is much more complex than you see, because it is not only a conflict between Israel and Palestine, there are important interests of the great powers.
There is the United States that sees Israel and other countries as settlements for its interests in a wide area that extends to Asia and even to North Africa; there is Russia that has gigantic geopolitical and economic interests to move its own oil and gas, but above all to extract oil and gas from Iran to the Mediterranean and the rest of the world; there are the interests of Iran, which is a huge power even if you look at it as less important, but which is a very large country, with 5,ooo years of history, with a powerful religious and cultural background, with a large population, and which clearly has its own geopolitical interests. China is there, you see it much less because it has its forms that we already know from other parts of the world, low-profile, it acts in another way, in a gentle way, it doesn’t sweep the Yankee away, but it has strong interests and maintains a very deep relationship with Israel, above all because of the science and technology of Israel, which is a subject that they are interested in. So all that comes together here.
And then there are the conflicts within the Muslim world. The Sunni world has nothing to do with Iran’s Shiism. So there are issues that are hard to understand from here, but there are links between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which see a common enemy in Shiism, and Egypt which is also Sunni and closes the borders to Gaza, because they are totally closed.
In other words, this is a conflict and an area in which gigantic political, economic, cultural and religious interests of many other actors converge. And that, instead of facilitating, makes it extremely difficult to resolve the conflict.
Not to mention the arms industry. For the American arms industry, whose biggest customers are not in Israel but in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and some other states of the Persian Gulf, which in turn are the biggest oil producers in the world. The same Israel-Iranian arms struggle, which of course feeds Russian industry, which has big interests in Iran, but at the same time is not interested in Iran’s “excessive advance”, then slows it down in Syria. Curiously enough, Russia is Iran’s friend and enemy at the same time. It allows it to advance on certain aspects, it provides it with military development on the one hand, in Syria it slows it down by saying “no more” and ends up fighting Iran, keeping it weakened.
It is a very complex situation, a model in scale of the world situation in that area. And there, unfortunately, it is the peoples who pay the cost of this whole situation. The Palestinian people in the first place and the peoples of the area in general.
Translated from Spanish by Pressenza London