"The Middle East conflict must be resolved at the roots"

Headshot of Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh in conversation
Palestinian intellectual and former philosophy professor Sari Nusseibeh (image: Arno Burgi/dpa/picture-alliance)

Leading Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh on the Hamas massacres, Israel's war in Gaza and the distant dream of equal coexistence

Interview by Inge Günther

Mr. Nusseibeh, what went through your mind when you realised the magnitude of the Hamas assault on 7 October? When it became clear that Hamas fighters had not only broken through a high-tech fence, but had perpetrated massacres of Israeli civilians on an unprecedented scale? 

Sari Nusseibeh: The news about the massacres came later. What I was aware of initially was simply the surprisingly advanced breaching of the security barrier in different ways, and the concerted attacks against military targets. It seemed unbelievable that Hamas could muster such capability and courage. Then, in the days that followed, we started seeing the other side, namely, the extent of the civilian casualties that accompanied the breach. It is still not clear to me exactly what went on and how – by whom, even – but the pictures were horrifying enough to make me feel this was a major moral blunder. 

Many people in Israel and Palestine feel they have been living through a never-ending nightmare ever since. You too?

Nusseibeh: I simply feel utterly confused. The future seems even darker than the present. 

"There is so much hatred right now"

For decades you have advocated for peace on behalf of the Palestinians. Recently, in an opinion piece for the Financial Times, you wrote: "Our dream of a future for both peoples is the victim of this tragedy". Is all hope gone? 

Nusseibeh: There is so much hatred on both sides right now. It is very hard for me to see how the dream of equal coexistence can be realised any time soon. But I suppose we could draw some positive conclusions together and work to address them. Anything is possible. Of course, interim arrangements may well be found or even imposed by the international community once the dust has settled. 

But I'm not sure that will actually address the issue. The real issue is a Palestinian-Israeli one, and real peace can only be achieved if and when each side comes to fully accept, recognise, and respect the other. We are very far from that now.

Are you still in contact with Israeli friends?

Nusseibeh: I haven't actually been in contact with friends, Israelis or Palestinian, for a long time, I have kept very much to myself in recent years. But I maintain some contact with people I know, in the world of academia, for instance. I do not allow myself to be overcome by the rage all of us feel on both sides. My attitude to Israelis as individuals has not changed. I try to keep my thoughts under control to see beyond what is currently happening.

Israeli protesters hold up banners and placards during a night-time demonstration in front of Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence in JerusalemProtestierende vor der Residenz von Premier Netanjahu in Jerusalem
"If I were an Israeli I would be on the streets with other Israelis demanding that Netanyahu resign," says Sari Nusseibeh (image: Debbie Hill/UPI/newscom/picture-alliance)

"People only see their own rage"

So how would you respond to an Israeli who doesn't deny that 56 years of occupation have deprived a people of their rights – to someone who says, "You are right, but nothing can justify the terror of Hamas?" 

Nusseibeh: Except the terror of Israel. 

Do you mean that Israel is terrorising the Palestinian people?

Nusseibeh: Yes, indeed. What the Israelis forget is the state of terror the Palestinians have been forced to endure for years. The rage on both sides that I mentioned earlier is also relevant in this context. People tend to see only their own side, their own rage. They tend to see themselves as moral human beings, each in their own way. In the current instance, there are two sides – and two perceptions. For the many Israelis who now feel they were duped into thinking peace with us was possible, there are just as many Palestinians who feel the same about Israel. 

This is not only a result of what they see happening in Gaza. Many Palestinians feel this way because they have gradually realised that "Oslo" [editor's note: The Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993] and the end of occupation was an illusion. I speak of "terrorism" because Palestinians have been living under the constant threat and practice of force ever since the occupation began. Israelis and Palestinians alike feel betrayed. It is therefore impossible to convince either side in their present state of rage to look beyond the rage they feel.

In the initial aftermath of "7/10", however, there were also Palestinians who said they felt ashamed about the murderous behaviour of Hamas, at the killing of children, women and the elderly. They said this was not a fight for liberation. 

Nusseibeh: No human being can fail to be ashamed when other human beings are massacred. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a war, certainly no so-called war of liberation – as far as I know – that has ever been fought without the loss of human life. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the creation of the state of Israel itself was an act of force that exacted a heavy price on Palestinians in terms of lives and homeland. That said, genocide and massacres are still considered to lie beyond the pale of humanity. So one hopes that such horrors do not occur. When they do occur, they should be denounced in the strongest of terms, by everyone. Massacres cannot be divided into despicable on the one hand and morally justifiable on the other.

And yet the bloodshed continues, particularly in Gaza. How can we extricate ourselves from this maelstrom of violence?

Nusseibeh: I am neither a fan of wars nor the use of violence. In the past, there were opportunities for a top-down peace agreement through negotiations, but now I believe this is unlikely to happen. What is needed is to work at the roots. 

Both sides need to feel they can trust the other. It will take a long time. If one side or the other continues to believe that force is the answer, then force in all likelihood will be the response, but not necessarily to the advantage of the side that preaches and practices it.  

After the end of the Second Intifada with suicide attacks and military offensives, there were at least attempts to restart the peace process. Hamas' horrific behaviour, which recalled the methods of Islamic State, will be felt for generations to come. There can surely be no reconciliation.

Nusseibeh: This was not an intifada, but an act of war planned long in advance – two years, say Hamas spokesmen. But I don't believe Hamas' plans envisaged massacres. As far as I know from listening to their spokesmen, the breach had two limited objectives: a message to Israel not to continue its infringements in the Noble Sanctuary, and the release of Palestinian prisoners. For the latter, they needed to capture as many Israeli prisoners as possible – and ensure their good treatment once in captivity. Nonetheless, many civilians were killed. 

Both the wanton bloodshed of civilians and the breakdown of Israel's image as a secure haven for Jews will have a profound impact on the Israeli psyche for years and generations to come. Did Hamas, which planned the breach and defined its limited objectives, really appreciate what the consequences would be? I personally doubt it, partly because the shock caused was way too much for Israel to accept those "objectives" as negotiable ones. This of course explains – though it does not justify – Israel's own disproportionate reaction. Israel is now proving its hubris in Gaza, but also in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. The result? Israeli rage simply begets more rage. 

US-Außenminister Blinken mit Palästinenserpräsident Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah.
Long discredited: the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In the photo Abbas shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Ramallah (image: PPO/AFP)

What will come after Hamas?

What do you expect on the day after, when there is not only a pause in fighting, but a real ceasefire? Who will rule Gaza after Hamas, supposing it is really defeated? 

Nusseibeh: All I think about is the day after. And not just the day after, but the weeks and months and years after. Because this is a conflict that must be resolved at the roots and not by superficial cosmetics. It will take time. I don't really know what might happen. I know that people assume the Israeli army will be able to crush the Hamas militants. It is possible, but I'm not really sure they can. Maybe we will be stuck for a long time in an awful situation with ups and downs of violence.

Part of the problem is that there is no real Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah is weak and mistrusted by its own people. 

Nusseibeh: I don't back Hamas in any way, shape or form. But if you ask me is there a leadership among Palestinian people, my answer is yes, it is Hamas.

Does Hamas still have the backing of the Palestinian majority? 

Nusseibeh: Let's not forget that at the last elections we had in 2006, it was Hamas not Fatah who won. Then came a total refusal by the West to accept Hamas and a coup was staged that ousted Hamas from government, replacing it with the "good guys" from the PA, or Palestinian Authority. Over the past 15 years, these good guys have failed to achieve anything, either in the peace process, or internally in terms of in self-governance. Seen from this perspective, Hamas has more legitimacy. But Hamas also enjoys legitimacy among Palestinians because it has assumed the mantle of resistance. Palestinians can see Hamas in a leadership role.

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Chance of a new beginning?

Is there a chance that a new Palestinian leadership will arise that is neither Hamas nor the PLO old guard? A re-start with the support of the Palestinian majority? 

Nusseibeh: I doubt it. If we had elections today most Palestinians – young and old alike – would go with Hamas. These are the facts, whether you like it or not. Therefore I think the only approach that makes sense is for Israel to talk to its enemies, who carry far more weight than someone like Abbas. Of course, this is not going to happen. There will be attempts when the dust has settled to come up with interim arrangements, primarily in Gaza, as well as in the West Bank. Let's hope that in five or six years' time, there will be some young "good guys" in Palestine who will flourish as a result. It all depends on whether Israel can accept that we deserve to be respected as a people, with the same rights as everyone else. 

Yet what is happening in Gaza now is likely to create new hatred, maybe even birthing a new generation of militants. We have seen that before.

Nusseibeh: We are in a far worse position than before, on both sides. People belonging to the Israeli "Peace Now" movement are expressing a degree of rage towards Palestinians that I have never heard before. And it is the same among Palestinians: people who were once in favour of peace are now expressing diametrically opposed sentiments. 

Let's look to Israel, where the obvious crisis of leadership has been postponed. What do you as a Palestinian think about Netanyahu's contribution to the current escalation? 

Nusseibeh: If I were an Israeli I would be on the streets with other Israelis demanding that he resign. In my view, Netanyahu has done everything that is harmful to Israel. He hasn't succeeded in steering Israel in the right direction, but instead has steered Israel towards becoming a fascist, right-wing, almost classic colonialist, racist country. There are some people who think that things are predetermined. I believe on the contrary, that Israel could have become and can become what it wants. Netanyahu took it in the wrong direction with his fantasies about a Greater Israel. People around him have the same kind of attitude. They talk about what has been described as "Palestinicide" – the obliteration of the entire people. When I first began talking to Israelis many years ago, none of this was there. Yet I still think Israel can get a grip on itself and exist as a normal state in this region. 

The Israeli secret services also failed. According to a report in the New York Times, they stopped monitoring Hamas radio communications a year ago, assuming they had Gaza under control anyway.

Nusseibeh: There's a saying: power is like a prostitute; it comes and goes. Israel has relied solely on power to make itself the country it wants to be. In my opinion, it would do better to invest in building bridges to the hearts of the other people living here, the Palestinians. 

It is often said that things get worse before they get better. Could 7/10 become such a turning point? Like the Israeli Yom Kippur war, which ultimately led to Israel signing a peace accord with Egypt, the first with an Arab state. 

Nusseibeh: We are in a far more difficult situation, totally different from Egypt in 1973. And it will take much longer. The Israelis will not easily relinquish occupied territory, but they have to accept that there is a partner on this land, equal as they are, with the same rights.

Interview conducted by Inge Guenther

© Qantara.de 2023

Sari Nusseibeh, 74, was a philosophy professor in Jerusalem and former dean of the Palestinian Al Quds University. He is regarded as a Palestinian pioneer for peace with Israel. In 2001, he briefly served as a PLO diplomat in Jerusalem. In his autobiography "Es war einmal ein Land" (Suhrkamp), he outlines his vision of a harmonious coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians.