Interview'Before the Oslo Accords, we were at war and everything was permissible'

Abbas’s de facto ‘successor’ doesn’t want to talk about ‘the day after’

Jibril Rajoub, the veteran, oft-eulogized Palestinian leader, also keeps quiet about his terrorist past; says he’s a ‘hardliner’ in aiming for ‘a Palestinian state’

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Jibril Rajoub (R) with Mahmoud Abbas (Issam Rimawi / Flash90)
Jibril Rajoub (R) with Mahmoud Abbas (Issam Rimawi / Flash90)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — During my conversation with Jibril Rajoub, he repeated one sentence over and over. “Let us let bygones be bygones,” he said. “Why open old wounds?”

Jibril Rajoub (known also by his nom de guerre, Abu Rami), 63, was referring to a number of dramatic incidents that took place from the late 1960s to early in the last decade — incidents that are linked with his relationship to Israel.

These range from the terror attacks for which he was responsible as a young man, to the prevention of the evacuation from Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus of wounded 19-year-old Israeli Druze police officer Madhat Yusuf in 2000, when he was in charge of the Preventive Security Service in the West Bank. (Yusuf died of gunshot wounds sustained in fighting with Palestinians there.)

Still, it seems that one particular incident from the past, which is partially linked to Israel, has left a big scar that refuses to heal and influences his work in Fatah to this day. It happened in early 2002, when Israeli troops entered Ramallah during Operation Defensive Shield. Rajoub, who was then the commander of the only security agency that explicitly opposed using arms against Israel, received a telephone call one night from his operations officer. The officer told him that Marwan Barghouti, his close friend — and Israel’s most wanted man — was in his headquarters in Beitunia, west of Ramallah. Rajoub realized immediately that Barghouti’s presence could serve as a pretext for Israeli troops to storm the headquarters.

Madhat Yusuf (Courtesy)
Madhat Yusuf (Courtesy)

When Rajoub asked how Barghouti had gotten to the building, he discovered to his amazement that two high-ranking Palestinian Authority officials, Mohammad Rashid and his own close friend Mohammed Dahlan, had brought him there. Rajoub drove to the headquarters, where he met with Barghouti — who, it should be noted, was considered his political ally at the time. When Rajoub told Barghouti that his presence in the headquarters was a problem, Barghouti agreed to leave for the sake of the safety of the other men who were there. According to Rajoub, he drove Barghouti in his own car to downtown Ramallah, where they parted. From there, Rajoub drove back to the headquarters in Beitunia, only to discover that Israeli troops had begun raiding it.

The headquarters, which housed many troops and prisoners — the latter members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad — surrendered to the Israeli troops. Only the next morning did Rajoub realize the extent of the conspiracy — in Arabic, the mu’amara — that had been formed against him. Mohammed Dahlan, his colleague and counterpart in Gaza, whom Rajoub had guarded with his own men whenever Dahlan visited the West Bank, attacked Rajoub in the media and, together with members of Hamas, accused him of collaborating with Israel and handing over Hamas personnel to the “occupation.” In his attempt to destroy Rajoub politically, Dahlan attacked him everywhere he possibly could.

Dahlan’s efforts bore fruit, but only temporarily. Abu Rami was considered politically dead after those incidents, and many people said he would never return to politics. They were wrong.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas casts a vote at the Muqataa, the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the city of Ramallah, West Bank, December 3, 2016. (Ahmad Gharabli/Pool photo via AP)
Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas casts a vote at the Muqataa, the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the city of Ramallah, West Bank, December 3, 2016. (Ahmad Gharabli/Pool photo via AP)

Today, Rajoub is considered the strongest figure in Fatah, second only to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). He took second place in the elections for Fatah’s Central Committee (after Barghouti), but since Barghouti is in prison, Rajoub is well placed to succeed Abu Mazen when the time comes. He won support among Fatah’s younger and older members alike.

Another important point: Rajoub’s allies, unlike Barghouti’s, also succeeded in getting elected to the Central Committee, and the Central Committee is the group that will choose the next chairman of Fatah, come the day.

Of course, a lot could happen before then. But people in Israel, in the Arab world, and, of course, in Fatah and in the territories, are already aware of what this accomplishment means.

An image of Marwan Barghouti is seen painted on the security fence near the West Bank village of Qalandiya on May 6, 2016. (Photo by Haytham Shtayeh/Flash90)
An image of Marwan Barghouti is seen painted on the security fence near the West Bank village of Qalandiya on May 6, 2016. (Photo by Haytham Shtayeh/Flash90)

Rajoub, currently the head of the Palestinian Football Association, was born in the village of Dura, in the Hebron sector, in 1953, the oldest of 13 siblings. An outstanding pupil in his school, he was arrested by Israel for the first time at age 15, for aiding fleeing Egyptian officers. In prison, he met Abdul-Aziz Sahin (Abu Ali Shahin), a Fatah leader who was considered the spiritual father of the Palestinian prisoners. Sahin had taught generations of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, mainly about the importance of becoming familiar with “the Zionist enemy and his language.” When Rajoub was released four months later, he joined a secret Fatah cell that operated in the area. “I became a combat soldier,” he says. “They trained us in the use of weapons.”

He was arrested again in late 1970, this time for throwing a grenade at an Israeli army bus. (“Let’s not talk about it. Why open such wounds?” he says in his effort to avoid discussing the terror attack in which he was involved.) Seventeen years old at the time, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

“I learned Hebrew and English in prison,” Rajoub recalls. “I wrote two books. I translated Menachem Begin’s entire book, ‘The Revolt,’ into Arabic. I studied your history. I read about the Torah and also about the Oral Torah. About Rabbi Akiva, and also, of course, about everything that had to do with the Zionist movement.”

Jibril Rajoub (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Jibril Rajoub (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Rajoub had other well-known prisoners as cellmates at various times during those years, including Marwan Barghouti, Qadura Fares, and Hussein a-Sheikh, until he was released in 1985 during the Jibril prisoner exchange. He spent the next two years in and out of administrative detention. He married Hiba, the mother of his four children, in 1987, and was deported to Lebanon on January 13, 1988.

From there, he made his way to Tunis, where he was appointed Yasser Arafat’s close adviser on “occupied land” affairs. He returned to the West Bank in 1994 with the Palestinian Authority as head of the Preventive Security Service, the strongest organization in the territories at the time.

“I was against the use of arms in the Al-Aksa Intifada,” says Rajoub, of the onslaught of suicide bombers and other Palestinian terrorism . “Abu Mazen and I were the only ones who opposed the use of violence and terror attacks. I thought then, and think today as well, that it was a mistake that caused us terrible damage. I support popular resistance. We should and must act against the occupation, but not with terror attacks or weapons.”

Which Jibril Rajoub should we Israelis believe? The one who said that if the Palestinians had a nuclear bomb, they would use it against Israel, or the one who says that he is opposed to terror attacks?

“I did not say that. I said before the Oslo Accords, we were at war and everything was permissible, and if someone had a nuclear bomb, he would use it against Israel. But everything changed after we signed the accords, and that is over. All the rest is incitement against me and nonsense. I did not say that, and I do not plan to say such things.”

Then why have you called people who stabbed Israelis with knives, and were killed in the act, “shahids” (martyrs)?

“We regard anyone who is killed fighting against the occupation as a halal [he uses the Hebrew expression for “fallen soldier”] — a shahid. We honor him. And we will not ignore the fact that he fought for the Palestinian people. He sacrificed his blood and his life.”

Rajoub is known for his excellent connections in Israel among left-wing politicians, Jewish and Arab Knesset members, and businesspeople. His familiarity with Israeli politics is comparable to that of reporters on party affairs in the Israeli media. During my interview with him, he receives quite a few telephone calls from Israeli friends and acquaintances. “Do you know the kubbeh place in Or Yehuda?” he asks me. “Their kubbeh is the best.”

Tell me — you haven’t given up on the two-state solution yet?

“The Israelis must realize that there is no other option except establishing a Palestinian state. I am not working according to any personal plan, only a national one. I spent a total of 17 years in Israeli prison. I sacrificed everything, and will do everything, so that one of these days when I cross the border, the one who stamps my passport is a Palestinian police officer and not the racist occupation. That is my dream, and that is what I am fighting for. Your definitions — ‘moderate,’ ‘hardliner’ — do not concern me. I am sticking to the solution of establishing a Palestinian state, and I am a hardliner about that.”

So you are the successor? After all, you were chosen for the second slot after Marwan.

Rajoub quickly distances himself from the title of “successor.” Each time I try to talk about the topic, he uses the evasion tactics of a seasoned, experienced politician. “Marwan was a friend, a close friend, and he remains a national symbol for all of us. I do not see myself as Number 2 or Number 20. I work according to the mandate I was given. For me, Abu Mazen is the only one who leads Fatah and the Palestinian people, and there is no number two or three below him. We are all below him.”

But what will happen on the day after?

“It is not important who will be chosen the day after. It’s important that there is a leader and that he has support. He received a mandate. Games such as ‘who will it be on the day after or the day before’ are not part of my culture. Fatah has elected Abu Mazen once again as its leader. And I hope that the public in Israel and all who believe in peace will understand the message of Fatah, which has chosen a suitable leader who has set his mind to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

What about support for Fatah among Palestinians? After all, Dahlan and his associates did not even attend the General Assembly.

“The question of who was there and who was not has nothing to do with the assembly and its outcome. The assembly was held according to all the laws and amendments. But yes, we do have a problem, and my colleagues of the Central Committee and I will invest all of our time in improving, fixing, and carrying out all the vital reforms in order to strengthen the movement.”

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