Ilan Halevi (photo: Igal Avidan)
Interview with the Jewish Palestinian Politician Ilan Halevi

With One Foot in the UN

In this interview, Palestinian politician Ilan Halevi describes the hurdles that have to be overcome on the road to statehood and speaks of the rapprochement and the animosity between Fatah and Hamas. Igal Avidan spoke to him at a conference organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin

The USA has announced that it will use its veto in the UN Security Council if a majority of members votes in favour of Palestinian membership of the UN. The PLO already has UN observer status; what strategy is it pursuing?

Ilan Halevi: We want to isolate the USA in the Security Council – which we now see is a very difficult thing to do – and then to ensure there is a vote in the General Assembly, where we are certain of getting a two-thirds majority. But a victory here will not influence the situation on the ground; this kind of vote will not give us a state.

So what else will the PLO do?

Halevi: First of all, Fatah is organising a massive, non-violent campaign that includes a boycott of goods produced in the Israeli settlements, international pressure on Israel, and the pursuit of recognition as a state by the UN. Secondly, our prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has been working to build up state institutions and strengthen our economy.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the 66th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations (photo: dapd)
Wrestling for international recognition: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas handed over Palestine's application for full UN membership to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in September

​​Thirdly, we are working towards national unity among Palestinians. Fourthly, we are looking for ways to resume negotiations with Israel, which must be based on the principle of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. This is also the position of Arab states.

Recently, UNESCO voted with a two-thirds majority to admit Palestine as a full member of the organisation, despite angry protests from the USA. What is the significance of this step?

Halevi: This is a historical victory; a symbolic, legal, and moral victory. The sheer scale of the international consensus shows that the United States' threats and attempts at intimidation no longer work. Practically speaking, we now have one foot in the United Nations.

The exchange of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners was seen as a victory for the radical Islamist Hamas. How does the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, view the situation?

Halevi: First of all, up until now, only 497 Palestinians have been set free. Yet we rejoice with every release of a prisoner because it represents a victory of freedom over oppression. Perhaps the Israeli government hoped to humiliate Mahmoud Abbas on account of his UN initiative by striking this agreement with Hamas.

Abbas, however, does not feel in the least bit politically damaged and has instead rejoiced with the Palestinian people over the releases because they also represent a step in the direction of the international recognition of Palestine.

Gilad Shalit (2nd from right) with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second from left) after Shalit's release (photo: dapd)
After more than five years' of negotiations, Israel and Hamas finally exchanged prisoners on 11 October; the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners

​​Is it important that Israel releases Fatah detainees in the next round in order to strengthen Fatah's position?

Halevi: Yes, this would be an important move. The fact that Hamas has obtained the release of almost exclusively its own people has not strengthened their position among Palestinians, who would prefer to see prisoners from other parties released as well.

So will Fatah now start kidnapping Israeli soldiers?

Halevi: No, we have committed ourselves to abstain from all forms of violence. Yet I would not employ the word "kidnap" in this case; Gilad Shalit was a soldier in uniform, and international law permits the holding of prisoners of war. He was not a civilian who was held hostage or was kidnapped. This was not an act of terrorism.

In order to make elections possible, Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement in May, paving the way for a new government of experts. How is this reconciliation progressing?

Halevi: Progress remains slow because there are numerous obstacles on both sides, not least among the security forces. The primary negative factor is the revenge mentality. Memories of all the blood spilled in recent years in this fratricidal conflict are still fresh in people's minds. Neither side wants to forgive the other.

Secondly, the mid-level bureaucrats – in contrast to the leadership – reject reconciliation as they don't want to give up any of their authority. Hamas governs alone in the Gaza Strip, just as we hold power in the West Bank. Many regard this grip on power in their respective areas of the Palestinian Authority as more important than sharing the entire territory. I condemn this position.

Is it possible that this division of power will remain – with Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank?

Halevi: No, this can only be a temporary state of affairs. Every important decision at international level requires us both to coordinate our separate judicial systems.

You recently said that Hamas is now assuming the position of Fatah with respect to Israel, albeit with a 30-year delay. So, is time on Israel's side?

Halevi: No, because Israel is not interested in a quick solution to the conflict. Hamas, by contrast, is becoming more realistic and is gradually coming to recognise the given reality and international law. This is to the disadvantage of Israel! However, Hamas is still divided into two factions: one pragmatic and the other dogmatic and inflexible.

The people of Gaza refer to the Hamas hawks as "Taliban" and the doves as "Erdogan". De facto, however, the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, recognises the borders of 1967 and allows President Abbas to negotiate with Israel on this basis.

Mahmoud Abbas, head of Fatah, and Khaled Meshal, head of Hamas (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
A thaw in relations: Khaled Meshal of Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, and Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, which rules the West Bank, surprised many by signing a reconciliation agreement in Cairo in May

​​Up until now, this has had no effect because the PLO has rejected a resumption of negotiations with Israel as long as the construction of settlements continues. However, there is no specific ban on the construction of settlements in the Oslo Accords.

In a formal sense, these treaties do prevent the construction of settlements because they stipulate that no unilateral measures are to be taken by either party that could impair the final status. The status of the settlements was to have been determined in a subsequent treaty. Yet after 18 years of negotiations and large-scale settlement building, the area over which we are negotiating on a daily basis continues to shrink.

What brings you, a French Jew, to commit yourself to the cause of Palestinian freedom?

Halevi: My father fought against the Nazi occupation of France as a Communist. I follow in the tradition of my parents in the fight for freedom and justice, even for oppressed Jews. Given a second chance, I would live my life exactly the same way. In my 45 years as a member of the PLO, I have always been accepted as a Jew. In the early 1980s, the Israelis attempted to force the PLO leadership to replace me as a negotiation partner. Arafat answered, "Ilan is our representative and this is our decision alone."

Igal Avidan

© 2011

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

Ilan Halevi, born in 1943 to a Jewish family in France, became a Fatah member in the 1970s. He has served as PLO envoy to the Socialist International and as Palestinian Deputy Foreign Minister. He is currently an advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas.

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