‘Pessimistic but hopeful’ – Durham hears from the Palestinian Authorities Diplomatic Representative to the UK

By Darcey Brough-Mylod

On Thursday 12th November Professor Hassassian, a leading advocate for Palestinian rights, visited Durham University and delivered a powerful, expressive speech on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. He spoke at length on the protracted conflict; covering history, flash points and the future from a Palestinian perspective.

Professor Hassassian has been raising awareness of the Palestinians’ position for over twenty-five years, including a speech in Durham several years ago. He highlighted how his position has changed since then, becoming more doubtful that a two state solution can really be reached. For him, the conflict could have been solved in the early 1990s, but this opportunity was lost with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin – the Israeli Prime Minister – in 1995. Professor Hassassian spoke strongly about the state of Israel now, under Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu was described as “a big liar we don’t trust” and Israel as a “false democracy”. He argued “it is an oxymoron to be both an occupier and a democracy”, and that Israel consistently breaches International Law with the support of the USA. He feels the current coalition government to be a “crisis of leadership in Israel”, epitomising fascism, with a ‘gung-ho’ mentality.

These opinions were backed up with examples of what Professor Hassassian felt to be Israeli atrocities, including checkpoints Palestinian children must cross daily in the West Bank – meaning it can take them over two hours to get to school – and a video of Israeli secret police questioning a thirteen-year-old boy. He drew on his own experience of these “daily humiliations” too; as President of Bethlehem University for twenty-five years Professor Hassassian had students who could not enter the city because their Palestinian IDs were confiscated in Jerusalem. Professor Hassassian felt these affronts amounted to “slow ethnic cleansing” – an underhand Israeli attempt to change the demographic makeup of these historic cities.

Despite his obvious anger and sadness, Professor Hassassian was careful to explain that his problems were not with the Israeli or Jewish people, but simply with the Israeli people who continue to occupy illegal settlements on Palestinian land. Professor Hassassian emphasised his decision to refer to these settlements as “colonies”, highlighting his opinion that the Israelis continue to breach International Law. This view has been backed by some Western governments; David Cameron has expressed that Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are illegal, but Professor Hassassian feels that governments are still not doing enough. David Cameron continues a strong arms trade with Israel, and even if the Palestinian borders of 1967 were restored this would constitute only 22% of historic Palestine.

Professor Hassassian also looked to the future and explained how he feels the Israeli position will be forced to change. He believes the Israeli government are over-reliant on the USA, who will not be a unipolar power indefinitely. He spoke of Arabs reunifying and Muslims refusing to sit idle while holy sights crumble if Israel do not begin to make concessions. What exactly these concessions constitute, Professor Hassassian remained vague on, being reluctant to give further advice under the current circumstances. It seems clear he hopes for change in the Israeli government and he was happy to admit that the Palestinian government may have some way to come too.

The speech was an insight into how deep this conflict runs; as Professor Hassassian highlighted, it is not simply a conflict over land but between “two epistemic communities” with a “psychological dimension”. He spoke wishfully about a peaceful future and the potential this could bring. He spoke of the beautiful valleys of the West Bank, bursting with agricultural potential and the opportunity for a peaceful Israel, Palestine and Jordan to become a “French Riviera in our part of the World”. I thought this last point was incredibly compassionate, showing Professor Hassassian’s deep wisdom and his dedication to a genuinely peaceful future. Last year we heard from the Israeli Ambassador, Daniel Taub, in a fascinating speech on the Israeli perspective, and Professor Hassassian has said he would be very happy to debate Daniel Taub in person. Perhaps then next time we will have the opportunity to hear from these two exceptionally knowledgeable men together, providing us with a balanced view of the conflict and an understanding of both states’ contentions.

Photograph: Gigi Ibrahim via Flickr

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