Ahmad Tibi urges Israelis not to ‘live by the sword’
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InterviewWith a state, Palestinians will 'invest more in computers and hi-tech than in tanks and an air force'

Ahmad Tibi urges Israelis not to ‘live by the sword’

Veteran Arab MK argues if Palestinian state established, Hamas can become state-like, admits Joint List must 'internalize' criticism from constituency after skipping Peres's funeral, believes al-Aqsa is 'in danger'

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

MK Ahmad Tibi at his office at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on November 3, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
MK Ahmad Tibi at his office at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on November 3, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The office of prominent Arab Israeli lawmaker MK Ahmad Tibi of the Arab (Joint) List has a distinctly Palestinian vibe. His desk and bookshelf contain numerous pictures of himself alongside Yasser Arafat, to whom he was once a close adviser on Israeli affairs, and Arafat’s successor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to whom he is also a confidant. Only images of his two daughters and mother are more numerous.

Those who know him would not be surprised by the ambiance of the lawmaker’s workspace in the Israeli Knesset.

Tibi, a gynecologist by training, was born in 1958 in the northern Israeli town of Taibe. Polls have shown him to be the most popular politician among Arab Israelis. To many Jewish Israelis, he is seen as a provocateur, albeit with a sense of humor, while to many Arabs in Israel, he represents a strong, smart and unintimidated leader who can stand up to Israel’s establishment.

In 2015, Tibi became the first Arab-Israeli MK invited to the White House, and has appeared at the United Nations — in Abbas’s entourage in 2012 — and in the European Union parliament in 2014.

Ahmad Tibi holds a Palestinian flag atop the Temple Mount, January 3, 2015 (photo credit: Channel 2 / Tamar Abidat)
Ahmad Tibi holds a Palestinian flag atop the Temple Mount, January 3, 2015 (Channel 2/Tamar Abidat)

As a lawmaker, he has been the foremost defender of the dual identity many Arab citizens of Israel carry: ethnically Palestinian, but a citizen of Israel. In 2003, Likud party lawmakers attempted to have him disqualified from Knesset elections due to his extensive work with the Palestinian leadership, but the attempt was blocked by the Supreme Court of Israel.

In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, Tibi argued this dual identity is the reason that Arabs in Israel, in accordance with recent polls, are actually twice as likely to support and believe in the possibility of a two-state solution than Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Joint Arab List member Basel Ghattas arrives at the Lahav 433 investigation unit in Lod, December 20, 2016. Ghattas is suspected of smuggling cell phones to Palestinian security prisoners last week. (Flash90)
Joint Arab List member Basel Ghattas arrives at the Lahav 433 investigation unit in Lod, December 20, 2016. Ghattas is suspected of smuggling cell phones to Palestinian security prisoners last week. (Flash90)

The perception of Tibi’s Joint (Arab) List party, which represents most Arab Israelis, has been rocked by two recent affairs. The most recent is the action of MK Basel Ghattas, who was questioned Tuesday and arrested Friday over allegedly smuggling cellphones and coded messages to terror convicts in an Israeli prison. When police first broke the story on Sunday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman called the Joint (Arab) List a “spy and traitor list.” (Tibi declined a Times of Israel request for a comment on the Ghattas affair, which erupted several weeks after being interviewed for this article.)

The second affair to harm the perception of the Joint (Arab) List was its boycott of former Israeli President Shimon Peres’s funeral. In the latter half of his life, Peres dedicated himself to improving relations between Jews and Arabs. So when Tibi and his fellow party members skipped out, many in Israel, including most Arab Israelis, felt they hadn’t shown proper respect for a man who was globally renowned for his peace-making.

Tibi defended his decision not to go to the funeral, arguing the boycott was really against the nationalistic character of the ceremony and not of the man. He said he later paid a visit to the Peres family at their home.

However, he acknowledged he and his fellow lawmakers have “done damage” to relations with Jews by not attending, and acted against the will of most Arab Israelis who, according to polls, supported the Joint (Arab) List’s attendance at the event. He said his party must “internalize” the gap between it and their Arab constituents over the Peres funeral affair.

“I honor those who criticize us because we didn’t participate. I am someone who accepts criticism. And we as the Joint List need to accept criticism,” he said.

He added that Abbas’s much praised attendance at Peres’s funeral was due to political calculation, as US President Barak Obama was attending, rather than purely altruistic.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the state funeral of late Israeli president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, September 30, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the state funeral of late Israeli president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, September 30, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

 

Speaking about the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the veteran lawmaker — 17 years so far in the Knesset — argued Israelis must believe that the Palestinian factions, including the popular Islamist group Hamas, which is considered by most western governments as a terror group, will become normal state actors once Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is finished and a sovereign Palestinian state is established.

With their own state, Tibi argued, Palestinians will “invest more in computer and hi-tech than in tanks and a Palestinian air force.”

He can’t provide evidence Hamas will change. He argues, however, the group’s violence is a symptom of the occupation, and if only it would end, then “like all nations after an occupation,” even the groups committed to violence would instead focus on state-building. If one cannot accept this idea, according to Tibi, “it means forever you will live by the sword.”

Gaza Hamas leaders Ismail Haniya, center, and Mousa Abu Marzouq, right, brandish a weapon as they greet supporters during a parade marking the 27th anniversary of the Islamist movement’s creation on December 14, 2014 in Gaza City. (photo credit: AFP/MAHMUD HAMS)
Gaza Hamas leaders Ismail Haniya, center, and Mousa Abu Marzouq, right, brandish a weapon as they greet supporters during a parade marking the 27th anniversary of the Islamist movement’s creation on December 14, 2014 in Gaza City. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

 

Tibi is not just a citizen of Israel, but also a product of the Jewish state. A self-described “lover of languages,” he speaks in eloquent Hebrew, and from time to time, his sharp tongue emits phrases in Yiddish at the Knesset to speak directly to the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, but also to arouse laughter. Unlike any other Arab politician, Tibi’s words can reach the larger Jewish public by piercing through the wall of mistrust with his humor.

And perhaps more than any other Arab politician, Tibi also has the ability to tap into the Jewish-Israeli consciousness, and speak directly to their hearts. A staunch critique of Holocaust denial in the Arab world, his speech for International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2010 was considered by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to be the best ever given on the plenum floor.

“I am still waiting for the prime minister to give a speech that parallels my speech in which I revealed my empathy of pain for the Jews,” said Tibi.

While Tibi’s reputation as a provocateur largely stems from heated shouting matches on the plenum floor — he recently protested a bill to quiet the call to prayer in mosques by reciting the call to prayer while speaking in the Knesset — he insists he isn’t looking for a fight, but won’t accept “being patronized.”

“I will never be quiet when someone degrades the Arab public or my people. I don’t have the attribute of turning the other cheek. But… I say that we always strive to close gaps, to create a dialogue that brings people together on the basis of mutual respect,” he said.

His arm is outstretched to work with members of the current government, he said, and he lists Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon as two men he does work with. He is also friendly with Rivlin “despite the political abyss” between them. Rivlin supports Israeli control over the West Bank, where Tibi hopes to see a Palestinian state built.

Speaker of the Israeli parliament Yuli Edelstein meets with Knesset faction representatives, including MK Ahmad Tibi, in his office in the Israeli parliament on December 03, 2014. Photo by Isaac Harari/FLASH90
Speaker of the Israeli parliament Yuli Edelstein meets with Knesset faction representatives, including MK Ahmad Tibi (right), in his office in the Israeli parliament on December 3, 2014. (Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Rivlin “distances himself from paternalism and condescension, and he is far more empathetic and shows more understanding [to Arabs] than the leaders of Labor or Mapai in their time,” Tibi said, referring to Israel’s first ruling party that later merged with Labor.

As the political battle wages over Jewish and Muslim access to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, known as the Haram al-Sharif to Muslims, Tibi did not hesitate to step into the ring. During the interview he declared his opposition to Jewish prayer on the mount, and said he does not believe the two ancient temples existed on the holy site.

Like other Muslim-Arab politicians before him, Tibi said he did not want to get into a battle of historical narratives over the sacred site.

“I think we will never arrive at an historical agreement, because in most cases when there is an argument between faiths, there is friction and confrontation,” he said. “I don’t want to negate your belief. You can believe what you want,” he added.

If he grants Jews the right to believe what they want, and Jews believe the Temple Mount is their holiest site, then why does Tibi oppose Jews praying on the mount? To this he responds: “At a mosque, especially at Al-Aqsa, only Muslims pray there, because it belongs only to Muslims. All of it [the Temple Mount] is the territory of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is 144 dunam, and every meter of it is holy.”

The interview came to a close with the topic of violence against women in the Arab community, about which Tibi is a vocal critic. Though just a fifth of the population, Arabs represent half of the women killed in Israel each year. Frequently, the murderers — often family members — are never brought to justice.

Tibi described the murder of women as a “primitive phenomenon.” He said it harkens back to what Muslims call the Jahiliye, the time of ignorance marked by immorality before the rise of Islam. But he also railed against the terrible violence in general plaguing the Arab community, noting that since 2000, almost 1,200 Arabs were killed by Arabs.

“This is social terrorism, like the murder of women is gender terrorism,” he said.

What followers is a lightly edited text of the interview.

***

Recent polls have found that Arab citizens of Israel are twice as likely than Jewish citizens and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to support the difficult steps to make a two-state solution possible, and are also twice as hopeful that a peace deal can be reached in the coming years. Why are Arabs in Israel more hopeful than everyone else?

The personality of each Arab in Israel has two complicated components. First, the national component: we are Palestinians and part of the Palestinian people. And the civil component: we are citizens of the state of Israel. So our interests, both national and civil, for a solution to the conflict, the end of the occupation and the implementation of the two-state vision, are double.

I’m not surprised by the figures, and by the way, it was always like this. The Arab-Palestinian population in the State of Israel has always supported the two-state solution more than the Jews in Israel. And within the Palestinian people, sometimes those in the West Bank and Gaza were more supportive and sometimes us. But we have always been for the two-state solution, which has lately has dissolved because the building of settlements has hurt the chances for the establishment of a viable Palestinians state.

Perhaps during the time of Oslo, the proportion of Arabs who supported the two-state solution was bigger than it is today.

Todays it’s nearly 90 percent, according to recent studies.

I doubt whether this statistic is correct. But I’m not surprised that the Arab-Palestinian population in Israel really wants a solution to end the conflict and the occupation and establish two states.

It’s not just that they want a two-state solution, it’s also that they believe it can truly happen, the research says.

There is also wishful thinking. They want and also hope. Therefore, they express optimism, which recently, if I’m telling the truth, there isn’t really much of a basis for. The reality is a lot bleaker, more difficult and the chance to establish two states in the near future it’s truly not great.

Do you have another plan if the two-state solution is really in such jeopardy?

Look, there are two options before the prime minister: Two states or one state, which would be a bi-national democratic state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. I know that one state is a nightmare for many Israelis…. But Netanyahu always chooses the third option, which we didn’t suggest — the status quo.

It’s comfortable for him to leave it like this. And therefore, either you want two states, like most of our public wants, or you will be forced to deal more and more with the conversation of a bi-national state. The heads of Zionism say this is the end of Zionism, or the end of Israel in its present state. But you can’t have it both ways: to deny the two-state solution and to relate to the bi-national state as a nightmare.

How would you respond to Netanyahu’s argument that says he is for a two-state solution, but it’s just not reasonable now with the chaotic state of the Middle East?

Before the so-called chaos, Netanyahu had other excuses and didn’t do anything.

Let’s take his “excuse” seriously for a second. How would you respond to it?

There is no connection. In fact, in the face of the chaos, we need to create stability. The stability here in the country is dependent on the end of the occupation and the establishment of two states. That’s the solution. The solution is not to run from an agreement and to create excuses in order not to establish a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu has always had excuses. Now it’s chaos. Once it was Iran. Another time it was the Palestinians are divided. Once it was that the Palestinians were united, and he didn’t want to speak with Hamas. There are always excuses. And sometimes the excuses are contradictory. The important thing [for Netanyahu] is not to progress.

File: Arab Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi (left) speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Knesset session of a parliamentary committee of inquiry on violence in the Arab community, February 13, 2012. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
File: Arab Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi (left) speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Knesset session of a parliamentary committee of inquiry on violence in the Arab community, February 13, 2012. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

By the way, Netanyahu doesn’t support a two-state solution, despite the Bar Ilan speech [given in 2013]. In that speech, he called for a demilitarized Palestinian state. He’s never said an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. He thinks the Palestinian state needs to be a dwarf and under the patronage of Israel.

So what would you tell Israelis who says, “the second there is a Palestinian state, Fatah is weak so Hamas will take over, and we can’t allow that to happen.”

First, usually I do respect democracy. I think the whole world made a mistake when they did not allow Hamas to rule after the first elections [in 2006], in Gaza especially. Democracy should not be taken advantage of.

I say to you, if there will be a serious option for the establishment of a Palestinian state, most of the Palestinian people will choose a behavior that will advance the state and invest more in computer and hi-tech than in tanks and a Palestinian air force.

Do you have any kind of evidence that’s how the Palestinians will act once they get their state? They had elections once and the majority voted for Hamas.

Because they were still under occupation. There is a difference between Palestinian factions under occupation, and the behavior of the Palestinian leadership in an independent and sovereign state. This would be completely different behavior. Across the world, and in Palestine it’s no different, you can’t expect for them to be nice under occupation or to act according to protocol like independent states around the world.

Let’s imagine for a second that tomorrow Netanyahu agrees that it’s time to make a Palestinian state and the Palestinians somehow manage to have elections. The occupation would have ended the day before. Will the first government they vote in suddenly be different? We Know Fatah was afraid Hamas would win even municipal elections.

It’s not important to me who the Palestinian people will vote for. I will honor the entire leadership that is chosen. I assume that with the option to establish a sovereign, Palestinian state, and if the Palestinians will be convinced that it is near, their behavior will be different from a nation under occupation.

Hamas will be different?

I think that all the Palestinian factions, both Hamas and Fatah, will behave differently when there is a sovereign state. There won’t be a need for factions. There will be ideological parties, with work plans, not factions. There won’t be a need for a sovereign Palestinian state for factions with weapons.

It sounds like you’re changing Hamas’s ideology for themselves. They’ve never supported a two-state solution.

No. You are mistaken. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin [the spiritual founder of Hamas] and also [Hamas political leader] Khaled Mashaal spoke about the two-state solution. They said they agree with the two-state solution. Mashaal said it to Newsweek, I think. (Mashaal told Newsweek in 2010 if a two-state solution were ever brought about, his group would “respect the will of the Palestinian people.”)

But isn’t the reason I’m “mistaken” because, though Mashaal said it once to Newsweek, day in and day out, 99% of the time, the rhetoric of Hamas is that we are going take back the entire land of historic Palestine.

Because they are under occupation. And they are hearing day by day from this government that there is no Palestinian people and there won’t be any Palestinian state. We will cut down, conquer, bring down, this is what they hear from the Israeli side.

From your questions, one hears that there is a bad side — the Palestinians — and there is a good side, the Israelis under occupation. The Palestinians are the ones under occupation and the Israelis are the occupiers. You have to define that well, and to mention this equation.

Even if you accept this equation, why should the Israelis believe the Mashaal who spoke to a Newsweek reporter in 2010, rather than the Mashaal who speaks directly to the Voice of Al-Aqsa (Hamas’s radio station) everyday?

According to what you say, it means that forever you will live by the sword. It means that you don’t allow for a diplomatic solution. By the way, Netanyahu said this, that we have to always trust in our strength. I think this is a dangerous worldview. It’s not just the chaos in Arab countries harming stability in our region, but also the diplomacy of Netanyahu that obstructs a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians.

The decision not to go to the funeral of Shimon Peres shocked a lot of people in Israel, and also many others around the world. If someone who had dedicated the end of his life to making relations better between Jews and Arabs still doesn’t deserve the participation of the Joint (Arab) List party at his funeral, then who can?

I want to reveal to you that there was no collective discussion. We didn’t meet and decide whether to go or boycott the funeral. There were messages, and many didn’t like the ceremony of independence on Mount Herzl, or of the Dimona factory (where Israel is known to have nuclear weapons, which Peres played a role in founding). So therefore, we decided not to go.

Myself for example, I decided not to speak. That was a statement. And although I was in Moscow during the shiva (a seven-day mourning period practiced by Jews), from there I called the Peres family, to Professor Rafi Walden, surgeon and son-in-law of Peres, and Tsiki, his daughter, and I offered my condolences. When I came back, I visited the family in their house and paid condolences.

If there was a smaller funeral, would you have gone?

We considered this. We considered everything. If you recall the funeral of Rabin, the Arab leaders participated. Why did they go to the funeral then and not now, even though Rabin is more connected to the Nakba than Peres? The Israel of 1995, of Rabin, who was murdered in a dramatic way, is different from the Israel of 2016 of Netanyahu, who alienates, who incites, who marginalizes Arabs. Look at his speech on Mount Herzl, it says everything.

But I say, I, Ahmad Tibi, on a personal and human level, I didn’t boycott the sorrow of the family. Also when people die in my town Taibe, or in Umm al-Fahm, sometimes I go to the funeral, and sometimes I go to the home or I call. You can’t say I boycotted, but I am aware it’s a controversial subject, also in the Arab community.

If you recall the funeral of Rabin, the Arab leaders participated. Why did they go to the funeral then and not now?

I think that polls that say the majority of Arabs wanted us to go to the funeral are correct. We need to internalize this….Mazen Ghnaim (the mayor of Sakhnin) and Arab local leaders went to the shiva, and consoled. There were politicians that criticized them, but I defended them. I think that they didn’t make a mistake.

 

If they didn’t make a mistake, then how is it that you didn’t make a mistake? If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who went to the funeral, was right, the how can you also be right?

Abu Mazen (Abbas) went because Obama was going. For Abu Mazen there are political considerations. He was there because the [US] president was there. And the treatment to Abu Mazen from Netanyahu, was, you know: sitting in the front row was the president of the Palestinians and Netanyahu didn’t mention him in his speech. It was a shameless speech.

But we aren’t talking about the funeral of Netanyahu. It was the funeral of Peres.

No, no. It’s all together. You can’t separate the two. And I am aware there is a first-stage Peres and a second-stage Peres. In the second stage, he was more pacified than he was from the stage when he supported Sebastia, (An illegal settlement setup in 1975 and defended by then defense minister Peres).

I say again, I honor those who criticize us because we didn’t participate. I am someone who accepts criticism. And we as the Joint List need to accept criticism and internalize it. I am convinced by what I did by not participating in the funeral, but I consoled the family. A politician that doesn’t listen and internalize his criticism is a failure.

You said Abu Mazen went to the funeral because of political interests. Didn’t the Joint List also have political interests not to hurt relations with Jews in Israel and worldwide?

The relations between Arab and Jews shouldn’t be dependent on the attendance of a funeral.

But it did hurt, right?

I am aware of the fact that it caused damage. Sometimes politicians swim against the current. Sometimes they must take steps that aren’t popular. But like I said, I am convinced I did the right thing, and so did the 13 (Arab) lawmakers.

I think the relations between Jews and Arabs should not be built on death and funeral, but rather on life and hope.

But death and funerals are a part of life.

No. So even if we didn’t participate in one funeral, as important as it may be, and as symbolic as it may be, when usually, important Jews in Israel don’t participate in funerals by Arabs, usually they cause funerals. For example, they caused 49 funerals during the Kafr Kassem massacre (which took place in 1956). Just a week ago, an Israeli minister (Tourism Minister Yariv Levin) said there was no massacre in Kafr Kassem. He said it’s not known what happened there. He said to a journalist, ‘you weren’t there so you don’t know.’ I want to say to you and to the entire public, I was never in the Holocaust. I was never in a death camp: not in Majdanek, nor in Auschwitz or Birkenau, but I will never deny the Holocaust was a terrible crime against humanity. Minister Levin should recant his hurtful words, or the prime minister, who boycotted us because we didn’t participate in the funeral, should internalize that also we have emotions.

An undated photo of bodies of Arab-Israelis who were killed in the Kfar Kassem massacre in 1956 (photo credit: YouTube)
An undated photo of bodies of Arab-Israelis who were killed in the Kafr Kassem massacre in 1956 (YouTube)

No prime minister or president has apologized in the name of the Israeli public and taken responsibility [for the massacre]. When Shimon Peres was the president, I asked him to go to Kafr Kassem and apologize. When he got to Kafr Kassem, he said ‘I express great sorrow.’ There is a difference between an apology and expressing sadness. I am still waiting. I am certain that President Rivlin will be the first. His speech in Kafr Kassem was important, and I am sure it will have a continuation.

Regarding empathy towards others, I think I am the last person you have to direct that question to. The speech I gave in the Knesset on [International] Holocaust Remembrance Day, the current president (Rivlin), who was then the Knesset speaker, said it was the best speech [ever in the Knesset]. I am still waiting for the prime minister to give a speech that parallels my speech, in which I revealed my empathy of pain for the Jews.

Where does your empathy come from?

My speech on the Holocaust stems from the fact that we live here together. Denial of the other is perpetuating the conflict. Recognizing the pain of the other is an important condition in order to decrease the gaps, to understand each other, to understand the sorrow, the history and the happiness.

Denying the Holocaust is terrible; it’s a mistake. And therefore, I spoke against Holocaust denial in this speech and I continue each year to participate in the “to each man there is a name” ceremony. This is my way of my life.

Some consider you a provocateur, using your gift of speech more to attack your Jewish peers than building bridges with them.

When I answer political questions, I usually answer in a pointed and rational way. Sometimes the argument gets heated. This is totally legitimate. I always speak at eye-level. I am a proud Arab, a proud Palestinian. And I want to be considered an equal citizen. I don’t accept be patronized. I loathe people who try to condescend, like journalists who tell us to “act humane.” I will never be quiet when someone degrades the Arab public or my people. I don’t have the attribute of turning the other cheek. But… I say that we always strive to close gaps, to create a dialogue that brings people together on the basis of mutual respect.

Can you give me an example of someone you are working with now?

President Rivlin, despite the political abyss between us, ideologically, he is for Israel having the entire Land of Israel, and I am a proud son of the Palestinian people who wants to see the end of the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. We are divided.

But on the issue of the Arab public, the stances of President Rivlin, also when he was speaker of the Knesset, and when he was a member of the Knesset, they are civic stances, he distances himself from paternalism and condescension, and he is far more empathetic and shows more understanding than the leaders of Labor or Mapai in their time.

But who are you working with practically?

Zehava Galon from Meretz. In the struggle against racism, against racist laws. In this government for example, though we are talking about the most extreme government there has ever been, I think I work excellently with Aryeh Deri, the interior minister, and Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister. I think there is a shared language.

Friends for a day? Israeli-Arab MK Ahmed Tibi (R) sits next to United Torah Judaism's Moshe Gafni (L) at a meeting of the Knesset opposition (Photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israeli-Arab MK Ahmed Tibi (R) sits next to United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni (L) at a meeting of the Knesset opposition (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

There is a political gap. We are the opposition and they are the coalition. I’m a national leader for the Arab public, and I don’t have a problem to sit with the prime minister if needed. I’ve sat with him a couple of times. In order to bring laws, I must cooperate with people from the coalition. It doesn’t happen often, but when it works, it works….It is in the interest of the minority to continue to build bridges, even when those before you try to burn them all the time.

Since I started my work in the Knesset in 1996 and before that, I’ve always advocated for bridging gaps alongside the struggle for civil equality and national pride. There are Israeli politicians who are bothered by my national pride. Yesterday I corrected the Hebrew of a Likud MK, and he said to me, “Why do you do this to me?” I said to him I correct people’s English too. Why this sensitivity? I love languages. There are those that don’t want that someone named Ahmad will correct their Hebrew.

But you are just assuming it’s because your name is Ahmad. Maybe he doesn’t like his language to be corrected at all.

So he shouldn’t make mistakes. If I make mistakes in Hebrew or in Arabic, people should correct me. This happens sometimes. Even I make mistakes.

You recently threw your hat into the conflict over the Haram-al-Sharif/Temple Mount. You said that you believe there were no Jewish Temples there. Why get involved in this debate at all?

We have a belief that will not change. I don’t want to negate your belief. You can believe what you want. But I believe that synagogues are for Jews, churches for Christians and mosques for Muslims. The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the first place Muslims directed their prayer. It is third holiest place. It was a mosque, it will remain a mosque, and it is a mosque for Muslims to pray in. End of story. After this point, I don’t speak a lot. I won’t convince you. You won’t convince me. Archaeologist by us say that there is nothing that contradicts what I say about Al-Aqsa, despite what Netanyahu contends, and so I think we will never arrive at a historical agreement, because in most cases when there is an argument between faiths, there is friction and confrontation.

Arab-Israeli Member of Knesset, Ahmad Tibi, visits the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, on Tuesday, February 25, 2014. Photo by Sliman Khader/Flash 90.
Arab-Israeli Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi visits the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, on Tuesday, February 25, 2014. (Sliman Khader/Flash 90)

The problem now is that Al-Aqsa, which is not just holy but also sensitive, is under occupation, under a foreign authority….Muslims can be prevented from going to Al-Aqsa, they can get hurt because of tear gas, or in the year 2000, they were shot inside the mosque and people were killed. The world has decided to point out the violations of the foreign authority and the Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem. And this bothers the government of Israel. I understand it’s difficult to deal with global criticism.

Do you really believe that Al-Aqsa is in danger?

I want to tell you what happened yesterday in the Knesset. MK Yehuda Glick held a discussion, in which participants included the speaker of the Knesset and ministers, that called for the prime minister to change the status quo and allow Jews to prayer at the mosque.

That’s a danger?

That is the greatest danger. It’s a danger to the mosque and also the entire region. It is the behavior of pyromaniacs who want to light up the entire region.

After the ministers left, a Jewish activist in the discussion said Muslims should be forbidden from entering and just Jews need to pray there. Here in the Knesset this was said. And as part of a discussion that ministers were involved in. If this isn’t a danger, I don’t know what is. More than this, recently there are distributing pictures and drawings of the area of the mosque without the mosque, and with a picture of the Jewish Temple in its stead. Is that a danger? It’s a threat.

And so the behavior of the delusional right-wing that was delusional 10 years ago, is today mainstream and threatens all of us, Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Okay, so then how does the idea of you have your narrative and I have my narrative work when it comes to Al-Aqsa. If you allow the Jews to have their narrative, that it is their holiest place, and you really accept their narrative. then to tell them that they can’t utter a single word of prayer there is wrong, no?

At a mosque, especially at Al-Aqsa, only Muslims pray there because it belongs only to Muslims.

But what about Jews praying just on the mount?

All of it is the territory of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is 144 dunam, and every meter in it is holy.

If you are an Arab women in Israel, you are far more likely to be killed by a family member than Jewish citizens. Can you explain why you think that is? What are you personally doing to change this?

If you follow my time in the Knesset, I am the one who has dealt the most with the issue of the murder of women, especially Arab women…I proposed a law, and I turned to the chief of police to get the police to cease using positive terms for the murder of women, such as “for family honor” or “crime of passion.” Because romance and honor are positive terms. They accepted my proposal. I have also initiated conferences on violence and especially violence against women.

I think the phenomenon of murdering women, and that is how it must be referred to, is a primitive phenomenon, terrible and outrageous. It happens also in other places within the Arab world. In Arabic, I called it a jahiliye phenomenon (In Islamic tradition, the jahiliye is the time before Islam, when people were considered ethically misguided.) During the jahiliye they killed girls. Just two weeks ago I participated in a protest, organized by women, against the murder of women in Jaffa. I was the single male lawmaker that participated. This was a statement, because it is part of my perspective on life. And I have said in the past and I say again, a man that murders is a man without any honor.

Why often in the Arab community are the police blamed for the high murder rate?

It is both a problem of the police and also our social problem. When there is already complaint by the woman before her murder, and this doesn’t prevent the murder, this is a problem. But when there isn’t a complaint, and a brother murders his sister, whether in Lod, or Jaffa or in Ramle or in Jordan or in Libya, this is something terrible. Also the murder of Jewish women in crimes of passion is something equally awful, and this does happen. Murder of women is something that all of us must deal with by all means possible.

Are there programs within the Arab community?

There are more in more with each outcry. Just a week ago, we met in Taybe with the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, and for the first time, we put out an agreed upon message–by all the parties and movements– against the murder of women. It was a tough message, with clear and unambiguous language. We must speak out about this and to raise awareness in the street, in the schools, in the media, at home, in the mosque–everywhere. In the Arab community we are suffering from the murder of women especially and violence in general. Do you know that since the year 2000 until today, almost 1,200 Arabs were killed by Arabs. This is social terrorism. This is social terrorism, like the murder of women is gender terrorism.

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