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Interview Archives

Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Rami Nasrallah

Rami Nasrallah's work focuses on strengthening Palestinian civil society and addressing the implications of political agreements on all aspects of life for Palestinians and Israelis, with a focus on Jerusalem. In addition to heading the International Peace and Cooperation Center in Jerusalem, Rami is a research associate at the University of Cambridge, and lectures frequently in Europe, the United States and Canada. He has written and edited several books about Jerusalem.

  • Please give us a brief background about yourself.

    My name is Rami Nasrallah, I am 36 years old. I was born in Jerusalem and live in Jerusalem. I am head of the International Peace Cooperation Center, a center for policy studies. I was in charge of the Israeli relations at Orient House and an advisor for Faisal Husseini on Israeli affairs for many years. I became close to Israeli decision makers, social activists, NGOs and to people in the field of civil society. My main work is with the Palestinian parliament, I am the director of the Jerusalem department. My work is part of a cumulative process. I am not here because I have no other choices. I have many options and I perform my work because I believe in what I do. At the IPPC we try, as much as possible, to build cooperative relations with Israeli centers in order to study the conflict, its results and its effects. We try to draft social policies regarding issues such as Jerusalem, dealing with issues of economy, infrastructure, community development, transportation and tourism. At the Center we formulate policies that concern peace as a way of life. I don't perform my work because I love peace, but rather because it is in the Palestinians' interest, a way we Palestinians can change our position, build a democratic society and a strong economy which will provide viability for the Palestinian state. All this can be achieved only through peace. In my opinion, peace is a means of achieving our goal: a modern and democratic civil society. Peace needs to be implemented as a way of life that creates change and improves people's standard of living, this is our aim.

  • Please tell me about the International Peace and Cooperation Center.

    A group of young people founded the IPCC with the goal of creating change according to a Palestinian agenda. We had always expected to receive land, money or help. We never anticipated our needs or our demands. Because we all appreciate the significance of Jerusalem, we have made it our focus. There was never a Palestinian vision for what we wanted in Jerusalem. We didn't know what we want. We had to found a think-tank that deals with the issue of Jerusalem, and even the viability of dialogue with Israel. Dialogue with Israel should be based on Palestinian interests. When the Israelis initiated meetings in Europe that were funded by the Europeans, the Palestinians sometimes didn't understand the intent of the meetings and we didn't ask ourselves the right questions about the relations with Israelis. We were literally followers. This creates extremely negative reactions. Part of the people become "traitors" who work for Israel and part become nationalists who are against normalization. Can I free anything from Israel if I don't meet with the Israelis? I can't. The idea for the creation of the IPCC was the creation of a Palestinian agenda for the issues of peace, development and social and economic mobility. We would have liked to change society's structure, but we focused on the issue of Jerusalem. The IPCC was the first time a Palestinian team sat down and produced a number of studies about Jerusalem. Such knowledge is important. We can't present the facts of the conflict drawn on a map without knowledge. We should deliver our message in an effective way. The West doesn't regard our issue as a just, historical one. We should be able to send that message to the world.

  • How did you choose your Israeli partners?

    The most important partner concerning the issue of Jerusalem is the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, because they publish statistics about Jerusalem, so we have an interest in working with them. We requested to work with them but they said that they don't work with Palestinians from Jerusalem. They said the city is under Israeli control and therefore Palestinians have nothing here. We eventually managed to convince them to work with us and this led to a change. We started talking about an East-West and an Israeli-Palestinian Jerusalem.According to the Israelis' mentality, they are giving us things, but these things were ours to begin with. It is in Israel's interest the Palestinians have power and viability. The Israelis are not doing us a favor. The Israelis should understand that in order for Israel to exist the Palestinians should build their state on their own land, a state that is viable and democratic like any other country. Israel isn't a part of Europe or a part of the US; it is part of the Middle East. The only way to integrate the Israelis into the Middle East is to create a viable Palestinian state. There will be no solution before the Israelis stop viewing the Palestinians as a demographic threat that needs to be disposed of. The Israelis should abandon the idea of a pure Jewish state and stop trying to get rid of the two million Palestinians that they view as a threat to this state. The Palestinians are a part of the region and a partner and they have a part in shaping the region's future.

  • How does the political situation affect relations and meetings with the Israelis?

    The Israelis aren't the main thing we deal with. Relations with the Israelis never stopped, even in the most difficult circumstances. We used to meet despite bombings in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or incursions in Gaza. I was one of the founders of the organization, and the head of the director's council. The main reason we founded the organization is in order to maintain equal and comprehensive relations with the Israelis; we Palestinians need to strengthen our abilities. We need to reach a certain level of intellect, professionalism and culture in order to be partners with the Israelis. I am not, and will not be a member of an organization that sets peace as its goal. I believe in building our capabilities as Palestinians in order to achieve equality in partnership with the Israelis. This is the goal. We focus on designing policies for the future of Jerusalem and Israeli - Palestinian relations in terms of the implications of a political agreement on the lives of Palestinians and Israelis in social, economic, political and environmental terms. Peace has become confined to one issue, political agreement but a political agreement will not achieve peace. What will achieve peace is building a system that changes people's lives for the better. Signing papers called the Oslo agreement or Camp David or Taba is not an achievement of peace, but an agreement between political parties. Real peace is achieved through fundamental change and by providing security for Palestinians, and at the same time allowing Israelis to enjoy the benefits of the peace. This did not happen in Oslo. There is a need to distinguish between an agreement and real peace. Most of the work is developing scenarios and policies for relations with the Israelis. We aren't an organization that exists in order to achieve peace. We are a think tank that works on issues related to Jerusalem from an internal Palestinian perspective, with Israelis, and with foreign groups. We are working on a project in association with Cambridge University concerning the buffer zones and frontiers between East and West Jerusalem. We are trying to assess the dynamic relations between the two parts of the city. Most of the IPCC's programs try to build a new concept for the relationship. The main objective for me is the establishment of the concept that we need peace for leverage. A weak partner cannot be a partner for peace. We need to strengthen Palestinian society so it can face a modern and civilized country like Israel equally. We cannot speak of a fair and secure peace without good relations with the Israelis. We are afraid of relations because we don't believe in normalization, but Israelis themselves don't want any relations with Palestinians. They created the wall. The wall is also a means for mental separation. They don't want to see the Palestinians. People in Kfar Saba don't want to see the people in Qalqilia, so they build a wall 8 meters tall. Israeli mentality depends on not seeing the Palestinians, and separation is fundamental. We Palestinians tied the issue of a political solution to an agreement. We didn't accept any relations with the Israelis until after an agreement was achieved. This is acceptable, but we shouldn't stop the dialogue with the Israeli side. When the communication stops with the Israelis we won't be able to build any bridges for understanding. Therefore we have to prepare for the next level of positive cooperation. This can be done only through meetings. I studied at the Hebrew University, a Palestinian student from Jerusalem who did not know a word in Hebrew. But I learned the language and received a PhD, and started to understand who this enemy is. I used to think that the enemy was the soldier that checked my ID at the checkpoint. I used to think that the enemy was the settlers. I discovered that there is a civilian side to the Israelis that we might reach an understanding with. The time I spent at the university changed my view generally and my perception of the Israelis. We Palestinians really don't know at all who the Israelis are. We know the Israelis as the soldiers at the checkpoints, we know them by the Hebrew words, but do we know the Israeli civilian life? No. That was my motivation for building a comprehensive relationship among civilians.

  • What is your vision of peace here?

    I don't do this work for the benefit of Israelis or for peace. I do this for the benefit of Palestinians. Creating a viable and democratic Palestinian State is both a Palestinian interest and an Israeli interest. I work for the Palestinian interest. We and the Israelis are neighbors; one lives in a posh villa with a swimming pool and guards, and the other in a chicken coop. The average annual income for an Israeli is about $15,000, while a Palestinian earns no more than $1,700.1 The poor neighbor will always try to steal from his rich neighbor. In this situation there can be no peace. My work aims to strengthen the Palestinian side on all levels. When we started working on Palestinian-Israeli relations in Jerusalem, we met people who felt inferior to Israelis. We have the feeling that the Israelis are subcontracting the Palestinians. The Israeli peace activists approach peace as a kind of mental therapy. They say "Ah, there is a good Palestinian." I believe that all Palestinians want peace, stability and security and I also believe Israelis want peace. It is not an issue of good against evil but all Palestinians are being accused of terrorism, including myself. When I go to a checkpoint I am treated as a terrorist and not like a person who wants peace. This situation must be changed. We try to look at the conflict from a different perspective and not deal with the ethno-national conflict as such, but to examine at the urban fabric and the dynamics of life, which are related to the conflict. We try to focus less on the causes of the conflict and try to come up with futuristic ideas about how to deal with the obstacles, which can prevent achieving peace. Stopping these obstacles from taking control over the whole process is the crucial issue. Signing a political agreement doesn't mean achieving peace. What we are trying to do now, as the IPPC, is to engage Palestinian society in learning to become aware of their role and their contribution to social, economic and political mobility. We try to empower them to be democrats, because democracy can't be taught. If you are an architect you should know how to use architecture to create change. If you come from the field of communications and media, you should know how to use your profession as a tool for change. The same is true for all the other professions. We are trying to bring all the young Palestinians together in order for them to establish their own agenda for change. It is the people themselves who are going to carry out changes But without establishing the capacity to bring change, nothing will happen. We use professional scientific methods, like scenario building in order to determine best and worst case scenarios and try to develop strategies of intervention. If we want to change the Palestinians' situation, we should rethink what peace contributes to the Palestinian cause. We should reconsider our leadership's behavior and be more critical. We should not attack the leaders, but we should have a say in bringing in concepts and fresh ideas from inside Palestinian society, and not have these imposed by outsiders. I think looking at the whole spectrum, at all the aspects of peace - the economy, politics, society, and culture - trying to deal with these issues and coming up with practical solutions will contribute positively to peace building. I differentiate between peace building and peace making. Peace making is an agreement with elites. Peace building is engaging the majorities on both sides to benefit from peace on both a collective and an individual level.

    • 1According to the United Nations, the average income of Palestinians is less than Rami estimates: The "average income [of] Palestinians fell from $1,750 a year in 1999 to $1,040 last year. Overall, 72 percent of Palestinians live below a poverty line of $3.60 a day." Fowler, Jonathon "U.N.: Most Palestinians live below poverty line" Associated Press 9/30/04 http://www.miftah.org/Display.cfm?DocId=5006&CategoryId=12 According the World Bank, Gross National Income per capita is $1100 in the West Bank and Gaza and $16,240 in Israel (2003). http://www.worldbank.org/data/databytopic/GNIPC.pdf

  • What are your next activities as an organization?

    Our next activities try to look at the issue of youth as agents of change. There are three generations in Palestinian society. One is the traditional nationalistic generation of leaders, still part of the revolutionary culture. It is incapable of building a civil society that will help us as Palestinians to build our society, in terms of economy and democracy. The second generation lived under the Israeli Occupation. This generation is aware of democratic values but is still influenced by the traditional leadership, because there is no political solution. They can't move forward because there is no solution to the political dispute. This prevents them from moving from the revolutionary mentality to the more civil mentality and they are stuck in between the national movement and state-building. This generation sometimes uses violence in order to legitimize their leadership. Because there is a struggle and occupation, fighting the Occupation is perceived as legitimate by the Palestinians - this approach belongs to the revolutionary mentality.1 I am afraid the third generation will follow the first and the second generations. I am afraid they will not be able to think about the future, and will use the same methods as the first and second generations. We have to prevent this. We have to provide this generation with the tools to use their energies positively and not negatively. We can fight and kill the Israelis, they can also kill us, but this will not contribute to building a state and a democratic society. In addition, we are also starting dialogue with Israelis who are not left-wing but are more from the mainstream about how to transform Jerusalem into the capital of two countries. Jerusalem should be a city without a wall separating it into two cities. Jerusalem can never achieve international recognition without the Palestinian capital's existence. The more positive relationships we can establish between the two sides, the more effective the international role will be because this city is of importance for all Christians, Muslims and Jews, the Western world and the world as a whole. We are also working on the media's role in constructing the image of the other. How can media play a positive role in implementing change? It is about the public agenda for the Palestinians because the conflict turned us into a society that is incapable of organizing its agenda or priorities. Sometimes we just blame it all on occupation, but we should also work on our internal agenda. Occupation does play a role, but that's not all -this is what we are trying to highlight through media. We are also studying the image that we have of the West, Israel and anyone that falls under the title of "the other." Working on conflict resolution means we have to acknowledge that the conflict is not only political, but also social, economic and educational, regional and local. We need to figure out how to deal with all these conflicts within a single framework. Political conflict could be solved but the educational, intellectual, conflict will continue to exist, so the region should be in synch to be able to work it out. Civil society is one of our largest concerns; we work with a lot of NGOs in Palestinian society in order to consolidate the Palestinians' vision and figure out various scenarios to implement change. Our main concern is our role as Palestinians once the Occupation ends and how to prepare for this.

    • 1Khaled Abu Toameh wrote about "a sharp dispute between representatives of the grassroots younger generation and veteran Arafat loyalists who returned from Tunis in 1994." Rami appears to be describing the same political division. "Palestinians turn out in droves for municipality elections" Jerusalem Post 5/5/05 http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1115259514951

  • What are the greatest challenges you face?

    The greatest challenges are daily mobility and facing the occupier. It is hard for me to face the Occupation every day and see the power of the Occupation. This situation raises an important question for me: why am I doing this when a 19-year-old soldier can close a checkpoint and punish hundreds of people? The reality of the Occupation is the toughest thing I face daily.

  • Did you ever have doubts about your work or doubts about doing the right thing?

    I didn't have doubts about my work itself; I had doubts about timing. Sometimes I have a feeling that we are not prepared, Palestinians and Israelis, for a historical compromise. Each side, especially the Israelis, has its interests as terms of reference before reaching an agreement. They are scared of demography,1 but want to keep occupying the land. With this mentality of building walls and eliminating threats, we will not have peace. They consider us a demographic and terrorist threat. They accuse us of not belonging here. Their solution is to build a wall. Either we build our viable and democratic state on the lands occupied on the 4th of June 1967, or we will continue fighting and killing each other for another hundred or two hundred years.

    • 1Demography-- a term used to denote the ethno-religious make-up of the population-- is at the center of a national debate about the State of Israel's Jewish character. Conferences and councils convene to discuss this issue. Galili, Lily "A Jewish demographic state" Haaretz 6/27/2002 http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=181001

  • Was your involvement with Israelis surprising for your family and friends and what does your community think of it?

    I think this is a silly question because if you are part of a community you serve the community. I am not doing my work as a stranger to the community. Your question was structured as if what I was doing is a crime and not accepted by the community. The way the question is formulated is already a judgment. I am involved in hundreds of things. I am involved first of all with my people and not with Israelis. We interact with the Israelis and the international community but we have many international partners from the US, Europe, NGOs and political organizations - a wide partnership in which Israelis are not the main thing. Peace will not only depend on the Israeli side. It will depend a lot on the international community.

  • What have you learned from experience?

    I think we should deal with the conflict based on a cost-benefit approach, and assess how we are dealing with the conflict and the resolution of the conflict. We consider our interests as Palestinians, which don't contradict the Israeli interests. Our interests are according to our needs as Palestinians, not according to the needs of the Israelis. Peace should be based on the real interests of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Until now the only agenda for peace was the Israelis'. Oslo was based on Israel subcontracting security and was a double bureaucracy. When you went to a border crossing, you gave your passport to the Palestinian police whose only authority is to give it to the Israeli authorities behind the scenes who made the decision as to whether you could pass or not. This is not peace. We should be able to make our own decisions about our political identity, and not do the job of the Israeli Occupation. The result is that the Palestinian Authority today, during the whole reoccupation of the Palestinian territories, did not force Israel to take responsibility for services for the people. It has become a free occupation. Israel enters the Palestinian cities to occupy and kill, but they do not take responsibility for providing anything! They leave it up to the Palestinian Authority to pay for health, education and all the services while we are under occupation. This is an open occupation and is the result of Oslo.

  • Why did you choose to do this work and not trust the leadership to take care of the situation?

    The leadership is not able to think of creative ideas about how to make a just peace. They know what to demand but they do not know how to build systems to achieve peace. Part of my duty is to think of the system. Peace is a whole system. Everything should work together in an integrative way. Economy, education, democracy, culture, trade, infrastructure, etc., should work together smoothly as a part of a peace agreement. The leaders are responsible for signing the agreements and we should find ways to implement them. Peace agreements will not tell us how to do it, rather what piece of land we will get. I assume that if we get all that we demand, we will ask the question, "What are we going to do with what we achieved?" I want to answer this question, irrespective of when the Israelis are going to leave us to establish our state in all the areas occupied in 1967. If we are strong as a society and as an economy, we can be part of the equation, if we are not strong we can't. I was attracted to learn from the Israelis how to build and improve our collective attempts by sharing intellect and qualifications and dealing with issues not only based on sentimental considerations. Their return to this land was not based only on sentimental values; they had a complete agenda. Regardless of how this agenda affected me and of the tragedy it caused the Palestinians, it was an effective program. If we want to deal with the Israelis as equal counterparts we can't do it without comprehensive knowledge of the Israeli side. I had the opportunity of studying at the Hebrew University and dealing with Israelis. I am informed about the economic political and social dynamics of the Israeli society. I felt I had to present the situation to the Palestinian leaders and politicians. Our view of the Israelis is not always accurate. We sometimes view the bombings inside Israel as part of the liberation of Palestine. The Israelis don't see it that way. The Israelis view a bombing in Tel Aviv not as an operation to liberate Jerusalem or Ramallah, but as a threat to their existence. It is important that we understand Israelis' fears, mentality and interests. It is important that we understand the Israeli considerations while making decisions, so we can deal with these decisions in a better way and not base our reactions on sentimental motives that lead nowhere. The change I experienced is the understanding of the other side. The Israeli society isn't a sealed fortress; it is like any human society in the world. It is also a society that succeeded in building itself in record time and putting itself on the regional map in an incredible way. We should learn from the Israelis how to build a society, a state and an economy. The Israeli economy is valued at $120 billion.1 This is more than the economy of all the Arab countries combined!2 We can use the conflict as a means of strengthening ourselves.

    • 1According to the CIA World fact book, Israel's Gross Domestic Product is $129 billion. http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/rankorder/2001rank.html
    • 2Measured by GDP, this claim Rami makes should not be taken seriously. Egypt and Saudi Arabia's GDPs are each over $310 billion - nearly $200 billion more each. http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/rankorder/2001rank.html

  • How can the conflict be a source of strength?

    There is an ongoing conflict, and we need to establish ourselves as strong people economically and socially. We can't build a national movement without institutions. The existing Palestinian institutions don't have a connection to the people. The PA or the government is totally separated from what is happening on the ground. We didn't manage to build something that unites the Palestinians. Our economy has collapsed in the past ten years. We didn't manage to build our economy and focus on how to strengthen ourselves. We focused on how to deal with Israel through negotiations. Without political, economical and social strength there is no hope for a Palestinian State.

  • Is there anything you'd like to add?

    We are involved in planning and developing Jerusalem as the capital for two countries. We held meetings with the people and got them involved, and there was a participatory approach to the planning. We should work more disseminating information and creating public awareness inside the Palestinian community. We shouldn't only work on the level of creating policies, options and scenarios for the decision makers or the international community or the donors or others, we should also work with the people. This is what we changed recently - we are trying to create a connection with the people. Not all of the people are literate and we have a problem about how to involve people. People have hardened and they've lost hope. When you present them with reading materials they say, "Leave us alone, we want food to eat first." This is a failure of the society as a whole.

  • What are ways of involving the people?

    We should build hope. The people should start dreaming about what they want. End.