"We need citizen-oriented policies"

The foyer is hung with pop-art pictures of Palestinian poets and thinkers such as Mahmoud Darwish and Edward Said. The Palestinian Ministry of Culture in Ramallah is keen to present itself as open-minded, modern – just like its new boss, Atef Abu Saif. Interview by Inge Gunther

By Inge Günther

Atef Abu Saif, 46 years old, grew up in Gazaʹs Jabaliya refugee camp. There he lived, teaching policy at Al Azhar University in Gaza City, writing books (among others "The Drone eats with me", a diary of the 2014 Gaza war) and guest columns for The Guardian and The New York Times. Until a brutal assault on 18 March, when masked thugs attacked the Fatah supporter, beating him half to death and smashing his fingers – in their eyes, fitting punishment for someone who dared criticise Hamas. In April Atef Abu Saif was appointed by President Mahmoud Abbas to serve as Minister of Culture in the new Palestinian Authority cabinet.


How is your right hand doing?

Atef Abu Saif: (moving his fingers) Itʹs fine now.

What exactly happened on 18 March? Do you know who was behind it?

Abu Saif: I donʹt like to think about it. For me this event belongs to the past. All I can say is that I was attacked by about 25 men. I had just visited a friend. He asked them, "Who are you?" and they replied, "Hamas."

It happened during the "We want to live" protests, when people critical of Hamas went out on to the streets…

Abu Saif: Indeed. During that period I gave four, five interviews to Arab media. I spoke not as Fatah but voiced my opinion as a concerned citizen: that these are legitimate demonstrations, where young women and men ask for a better life. I defended their position and said we should support these demonstrations. Nobody in Gaza spoke up for them in public. I was the only one. Most of those young people were my students. Many were humiliated and tortured – I saw them a few days after they were released from prison.

Hamas leader Ismael Haniya together with other high-ranking Hamas representatives in Gaza City on 14 December 2017 (photo: Reuters/Mohammed Salem)
Atef Abu Saif: "Es kann doch nicht sein, dass wir die Straßen planieren oder ein Hospital bauen und dann kommt Ismael Haniya als oberster Hamas-Repräsentant, um die Projekte feierlich einzuweihen. Wir geben Gaza nicht auf, das sind unsere Landsleute. Aber wir wollen nicht das Hamas-Regime in Gaza finanzieren."

Meaning they were beaten up by the police?

Abu Saif: They werenʹt just beaten. They were hung up by their feet from the ceiling, like in a slaughterhouse. I declared publicly that such treatment was inhumane.

Can you imagine returning to Gaza while Hamas is still in power there?

Abu Saif: Listen, for us Palestinians, Palestine remains our only home. I cannot imagine living in Europe. Before this most recent incident, I had already been arrested 50 times by Hamas. Whenever anything happened they would call me in and lock me up for a couple of days.

That means a life in constant fear.

Abu Saif: Of course. Hamas is the jailor of one huge prison called Gaza – that is the unspoken truth. There is an Israeli siege and a Hamas siege and they co-operate to contain the people of Gaza. But I will not let them decide whether I can live in my country. Even if they kill me.

Where do you derive your courage from?

Abu Saif: Hamas would like to see all secular liberal intellectuals leave Gaza. If you believe in an idea you should fight for it.

What are you fighting for?

Abu Saif: In 1948, my grandmother was forced to leave her wealthy life in Jaffa behind. She ended up in the Jabaliya refugee camp. During the 1967 war her husband, my grandfather, fled to Jordan. She refused to go with him. I will always remember what she told us children: "We will not make the same mistake that we did during the Nakba again." Gaza may be the dirtiest, most overpopulated place on earth. A place that is controlled by fundamentalists. Gaza may be all this, but it is the place where I feel at home.

Are your wife and children still in Gaza?

Abu Saif: Yes, I will bring them to Ramallah after Ramadan, but I will continue to visit Gaza.

How do you see your role as minister in the new Palestinian cabinet, among Fatah politicians like Prime Minister Shtayyeh?

Abu Saif: I am one of three new cabinet members under 50, which means I represent the younger generation in this government. The formation of the cabinet was a complicated business, taking place as it did after the collapse of the unity agreement with Hamas, and the imposition of U.S. and Israeli sanctions against the Palestinian Authority. On top of that we have the Trump deal to look forward to. For all of this you need a political government, made up not just technocrats, but of ministers with political opinions.

Nothing has weakened the Palestinians more than the political schism: Fatah in the West Bank, Hamas in Gaza. Would it not be much better to present a united front during these critical times? 

Abu Saif: For Hamas the schism represents a convenient means of remaining in power, which it seized by force in 2006. I am not saying that Fatah is innocent in all this. After the failing of all the Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, however, all that remains for the Muslim Brotherhood is Gaza. For Hamas, their offspring, that is more important than the national dream.

Swearing in of the new Palestinian Authority cabinet in Ramallah on 13.04.2019 (photo: F. Aroun/AFP)
Tiefer politischer Riss: In Ramallah wurde Mitte April das Kabinett des neuen palästinensischen Ministerpräsidenten Mohammed Shtayyeh vereidigt. Die meisten der mehr als 20 Minister sind Mitglieder der Fatah und Verbündete von Palästinenserpräsident Mahmud Abbas. Andere Parteien wie die Volksfront zur Befreiung Palästinas lehnten eine Regierungsbeteiligung dagegen ab. Sie fordern eine Einheitsregierung mit der radikalislamischen Hamas, die seit 2007 den Gazastreifen kontrolliert. Die Hamas kritisierte die Bildung der neuen Regierung und beschuldigte die Fatah, die Macht an sich zu reißen.

Isnʹt President Abbas also partly responsible for the misery in Gaza? After all, his cuts in financial aid has hit the population far harder than Hamas...

Abu Saif: We began curbing these measures back in December. But then Israel withheld some of the taxpayers' money we were entitled to, which we resisted by refusing to accept the balance. Apart from that, if Hamas controls Gaza, it must also assume government responsibility. It cannot be that we level the roads or build a hospital and then Ismael Haniya comes along as the highest Hamas representative and cuts the ribbon. We are not giving up on Gaza, these are our people. But we do not want to finance the Hamas regime.

The U.S. administration is to present its peace plan in June – Donald Trumpʹs so-called deal of the century. From what we can gather, it will not include a Palestinian state. How will the Palestinian Authority react to that?

Abu Saif: That is a decision for Abbas. But even Trump will not change our basic principle: We Palestinians will not disappear from this country. Ultimately, the Israelis must decide whether they want to make peace with us. Otherwise they have no long-term future here. Look, my family has lived in Jaffa for over a thousand years. I know all my ancestors by name. I am prepared to accept that Jaffa belongs to Israel as long as we have Gaza and the West Bank. The Netanyahu government rejects that. What do you expect from me? That I give up more? We have given up almost eighty percent of our old homeland. And now we should also share the remaining percent? No! That makes no sense.

What has your government to offer the younger generation? Many young people in the West Bank and even more so in Gaza would leave tomorrow if they could. They donʹt believe in the old dream of a Palestinian state like their parents did. They just want a normal life.

Abu Saif: I donʹt have an easy answer. If the younger generation gives up, our cause will be lost. We have to create new hope. But we live under occupation. Whether we can create jobs depends on Israel. There is one thing we can do, however: respect freedom of expression. We need policies that are citizen-oriented and transparent. Prime Minister Shtayyeh committed himself to that. No Palestinian should be arrested for expressing an opinion. I stand by that too.

Inge Gunther

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