Palestinian activist Samer Sinijlawi in Jerusalem, May 27, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)
Main image: Palestinian activist Samer Sinijlawi in Jerusalem, May 27, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)
Interview'Let’s not be prisoners of the current public opinion'

Palestinian activist wants both sides to see the conflict through each other’s eyes

Samer Sinijlawi maintains that the best way to ensure security for Israelis and dignity for Palestinians after the war is for their respective leaders to become best friends

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Main image: Palestinian activist Samer Sinijlawi in Jerusalem, May 27, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Despite the ongoing war in Gaza, Samer Sinijlawi radiates a sort of pragmatic optimism that has been rarely seen among Israelis and Palestinians since the Oslo Accords era of the mid-90s. Unlike the many who see naivete in the heady hopefulness of those days, Sinijlawi looks back wistfully.

“I believe that that period represented the Israelis and Palestinians better than this period,” he said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.

The native Jerusalemite, 52, has spent the past three decades as a political activist, building bridges between the two sides of the conflict. But he wasn’t born a pacifist.

At age 14, during the First Intifada, he joined the Palestinian Fatah movement and a year later was sentenced by Israel to five years in prison for violence committed during the uprising. Like many Palestinian politicians, he learned Hebrew during his time in an Israeli jail.

After his release, he became the international secretary of the Fatah youth movement, bringing him into contact with representatives of Israeli youth movements. Initially, he met with youth from the left-wing Labor party in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, then later with right-wing Likud youth, who did not come to Ramallah, but held joint meetings in Tel Aviv, Cyprus and the United States.

Since that time of rare openness between ideological opponents, he has sought to make each side understand the conflict through the eyes of the other.

”Most of the Palestinians see this conflict through the eyes of Palestinians. Most of the Israelis see this conflict through the eyes of Israelis. This will lead us nowhere,” he said.

Billing himself as a political analyst, Sinijlawi appears regularly on Israeli media, has written op-eds for outlets such as The New York Times, and participates in academic panels, bringing a voice from the pragmatic Palestinian peace camp into the Israeli debate.

But more importantly, Sinijlawi has been holding private one-on-one meetings with high-ranking Knesset members from the ruling coalition and the opposition, including party leaders.

“I sometimes joke with the Israelis that I know them better than they know themselves, because I talk to everybody, left, center, right. They don’t talk to each other,” he quipped.

While he requested that the names of his Knesset interlocutors not be published, he showed this reporter on his phone a series of at least a dozen pictures he took with Israeli lawmakers from across the political spectrum, including figures one would not normally expect to sit down with a Palestinian representative.

“I succeeded in meeting 90% of the people that I requested to meet,” he said. “Most of the Israelis are willing to talk to a Palestinian who knocks on their door. I didn’t see a problem.”

“The first meeting is always tense, short, cold. But the second meeting starts becoming more flexible. At the third meeting, you start seeing some type of personal relation, and it opens doors.”

King Hussein of Jordan lights Yitzhak Rabin’s cigarette following the signing ceremony for the peace accord between Amman and Jerusalem, October 26, 1994. (GPO/Moshe Milner)

What also may help Sinijlawi open MKs’ doors is that he is known to be a close associate of Mohammad Dahlan. The former PA Gaza security chief acted with an iron fist against Hamas in Gaza after the Oslo Accords and was ousted by the terror group together with many Fatah leaders. A prominent rival of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Dahlan was expelled from Fatah in 2011.

Dahlan lives today in Abu Dhabi, where he has been a top adviser to UAE President Mohamed Bin Zayed. He has denied allegations that he will take on a leadership role in postwar Gaza, but many believe he will be involved in reconstruction efforts thanks to his close ties with the leaders of the oil-rich Gulf country.

Sinijlawi sees his approach as trailblazing a new type of diplomacy that could break the longstanding stalemate in direct negotiations for a two-state solution.

“If my individual experience can become a mainstream official strategy of building ties, if the Palestinian political elites start building friendships with the Israeli political elites, my personal success will become a national success,” he said.

So far his person-to-person strategy is not being met with overwhelming enthusiasm from either side. But he sees it one day working at the highest echelons.

“If I were to advise any Palestinian president on the day he is sworn in, I would tell him he needs to make the Israeli prime minister his best friend. Reach out to him, spend time socializing with him. Get to know his family. Things will be much easier when you create this chemistry. And then you will be able to solve the hard issues,” he said.

“Had this been the case on the morning of October 7, the Palestinian Authority president would immediately have gotten into a car to Jerusalem, knocked on the door of the Israeli prime minister disregarding protocol, given his condolences, condemned the acts by Hamas. And then he could have told him ‘Hold your horses. Let’s think together how we can solve this crisis. Let’s build an international coalition to fix this problem.’ This could have put us in very different circumstances today.”

The following conversation was lightly edited for clarity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the state funeral of late president Shimon Peres, held at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The Times of Israel: Why hasn’t Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas officially condemned the atrocities of October 7?

Samer Sinijlawi: Because he’s stupid.

Why hasn’t any other Palestinian leader done it?

Why hasn’t any Israeli leader condemned the thousands of children killed in Gaza? Because both sides are stupid. Both don’t have the courage, nor the leadership.

Building bridges with Israeli decision-makers does not appear to be the strategy currently pursued by the Palestinian leadership. Instead, the PA is trying to push Israel into a corner on the international stage by applying diplomatic pressure. How do you view the recognition of the State of Palestine by three European countries that came into effect last week?

This is part of our broken strategy as Palestinians. I don’t think that it is effective to keep scoring votes in the General Assembly of the UN. It’s symbolic. It’s important. But will it solve the problem? I’m not sure.

I’d rather invest my efforts into trying to get Israel to recognize us

I’d rather invest my efforts into trying to get Israel to recognize us. It’s good to keep friendships with everybody else; sometimes we may need to request the help of someone in Washington, DC, or London. But we need to adopt a strategy to persuade the Israelis themselves, to touch their hearts and minds.

We don’t want to continue using our broken strategy of depending on others to push them. Why do I need to travel 10,000 kilometers to Washington, when I have the Israelis 10 kilometesr away? The breakthrough for us will never be via Washington, but via Tel Aviv.

Illustrative: The municipality building of Ramallah, the West Bank seat of the Palestinian Authority, is adorned with the flags of Spain, Ireland and Norway on May 24, 2024, in appreciation of the three countries’ intent to recognize Palestinian statehood, announced the previous day. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)

I believe both Israeli and Palestinian societies are moderate by nature, but in both, the mainstream hasn’t been able to block the extremists, who have come to dominate the scene. Both sides need to return to moderation.

It is also possible that one side starts the process and then drags the other along. And I feel it’s a responsibility of us Palestinians to take the first step, because we are under a sense of urgency to come out of this conflict, more than the Israelis.

Surely, Israelis feel the impact of the conflict, they need to go to the army and do reserve duty, they feel unsafe and their economy is suffering. It affects their lives, but they can still travel, enjoy life, feel free. They live in a democratic system that guarantees their rights, at least for Jews.

But for us Palestinians, it’s a different story. The conflict affects 100% of our lives.

Palestinians flee the area of Tal al-Sultan in Rafah with their belongings following alleged renewed Israeli strikes in the city in the southern Gaza Strip on May 28, 2024. (Eyad Baba/AFP)

Do you see a partner for peace in Israel for the Palestinians now?

In my view, the psychological barriers that we are facing in attempting to engage the Israelis are twofold. Firstly, extremists are ruining their minds. The current leadership under Netanyahu wants to distance Israelis from the possibility of separation from the Palestinians and from a two-state solution.

But also, there is fear inside the hearts of the Israelis. Our national goal as Palestinians should not be to defeat the Israelis, but to defeat the fear inside the Israelis. If we release them from the fear, if we can convince them that we are able to coexist, if they really feel that any Palestinian entity that will come will be the best ally for Israel, as a society and as a state, our goal is achieved. So I’d say that our best potential partner for peace in Israel is the people.

But that fear in the hearts of Israelis is there for a reason. They are killed in terror attacks. We know the level of anti-Israeli incitement that permeates Palestinian society, even textbooks. Is it possible to convert the Palestinians to peace-seekers?

I think both Israelis and Palestinians can be pushed into reconciliation more easily and more quickly than we think.

I’ll give you a personal example. As a teenager, I began throwing stones in the streets of my city because I wanted to “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” I was put in jail. Three months later, in April 1988, Arafat from Algeria announced the Palestinian Declaration of Independence to establish a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, on 22% of the land.

I and the other inmates in my section, all minors, jumped in jubilation upon hearing the news. We shifted immediately away from the slogan “from the river to the sea” and embraced the slogan of a “two-state solution.”

If a leader comes along today and presents Palestinians with a concrete plan, and if the people feel there is hope, they will follow.

Palestinian men and women take part in a protest marking the anniversary of the 1988 symbolic declaration of independence by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the Damascus gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. November 14, 2012 (Photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)

I’ll give you another example. After the surprise Yom Kippur assault in October 1973, Israelis grew suspicious and hateful of Egyptians. Egypt became the enemy. Then in 1977, president [Anwar] Sadat came to speak at the Knesset, and overnight, he overturned Israeli public opinion. After that, Israel was willing to pay a price for peace with Egypt and returned Sinai. Let’s not be prisoners of the current public opinion.

Ok but what about the incitement in Palestinian textbooks and the media?

I agree with you. We need to revise both educational systems because unfortunately, we both are feeding our kids incitement and hatred. Maybe it’s more obvious in the Palestinian curriculum, and less in the Israeli one. But maybe you will find it dominates the classroom discussions on the Israeli side. It’s there. Our kids are raised up by both sides to be the enemies of each other. We need to stop this.

We also need to fix things in the media. The Palestinian media always talks about the bad side of Israelis, but never invites them to talk. The Israeli media rarely invites Palestinians, and also only show their bad side. There is no reason why it should be this way, except maybe that it brings better ratings. It keeps everybody in their comfort zone.

Our kids are raised up by both sides to be the enemies of each other. We need to stop this

The media needs to be fixed. Each side needs to show the good things about the other side, and there are many. This will help to build trust, to fix the education systems, and to create a leadership that talks a different language.

Eventually, we want to put in motion a new dynamic, build a mechanism that every day gives the Israeli a better sense of security, and the Palestinian a better sense of relief.

File: A woman instructs children on arithmetic multiplication in a classroom at a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) at the Shati camp for Palestinian refugees, west of Gaza City, on May 7, 2024. (AFP)

What do you mean by “relief”?

You need to relieve the Palestinians from the humiliation. You need to guarantee Palestinians that their human dignity is respected. Human dignity is a value that was brought to humanity by Judaism. The sanctity of life is also a Jewish value. We have it also in our religion [Islam]. But unfortunately, in the name of religion, we are killing each other as if it is a holy mission.

Let’s move now to Ramallah. What is happening within the Palestinian Authority? Are there any preparations for taking over control of Gaza? Is that what Mahmoud Abbas and his entourage are thinking about now?

I see Abu Mazen [nom de guerre of PA president Mahmoud Abbas] as totally disconnected from reality. He is on the sidelines, unable to produce ideas or plans that can have an impact. He has been holding the Palestinians hostage for 19 years and has not been able to achieve any progress. He has dealt with nine different Israeli prime ministers and six different American presidents, and he couldn’t succeed with any one of them. Why? It means there is something wrong, and I don’t think it’s his intentions.

I think the problem is the way that he has chosen to impose his regime, and fight his competitors. No strong and smart leader can rise next to Abbas. Either he shuts his mouth or he will be deported. That’s what happened with personalities like [Mohammad] Dahlan, Nasser al-Qidwa, and others.

[Nasser al-Qidwa, the nephew of former Palestinian Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat, is a former PA diplomat and prominent Abbas critic who attempted to establish a breakoff electoral slate and mount a challenge to Fatah in 2021, after which he was ousted from the party. He now lives in the US.]

A member of the Dahlan family displays pictures of exiled Palestinian politician Mohammad Dahlan, at their family home in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 24, 2021. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Abbas is a coward, he is weak.  He has destroyed all our institutions. He dismantled the parliament; all the laws are now issued by presidential decree. He controls the executive branch and the security apparatus, which is mostly employed to defend his regime.

So why don’t Palestinians revolt against him?

They cannot revolt, because there are 20 IDF battalions in the West Bank to prevent a regime change on the Palestinian side. The security establishment in Israel believes it’s better to keep Abbas in power and not shake up the security apparatus that is under him, which is in possession of a lot of weapons and provides Israel with intelligence.

So the asset that the IDF is really protecting is not Abbas himself, but rather his security apparatus. It is a very lousy conception that is poised to fail. It’s akin to the conception that the Israeli establishment adopted in controlling Gaza, which resulted in the October 7 disaster.

I believe in security coordination between Israel and the PA, but it should go both ways, not only be focused on protecting the lives of Israelis – which are important. But we should also care in parallel about the security of Palestinians. We should avoid bloodshed on either side.

Jenin’s acting governor Kamal Abu al-Rub, center left, and retired governor Akram Rajoub, center, attend a ceremony to decorate Palestinian security officers, who responded to an arson attack by angry protesters on the Jaba police station in July, at the governorate headquarters of the West Bank city of Jenin, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

So how do you get rid of Mahmoud Abbas? You wait for him to pass away?

It’s a challenging question. Polls show that around 90% of the Palestinians want him to leave. Their will should be respected by all those who are doing business with Abbas, especially after US President Joe Biden said last November that the PA should be revitalized. He should stop the talk and walk the walk. The world should push for real reforms in return for providing financial aid to the PA.

The world should push for real reforms in return for providing financial aid to the PA

What Abbas has been doing so far are cosmetic reforms, but he still holds all the power in his hands. He was elected for a four-year term that ended in 2009, and ever since, he has never asked the people if they really trust him.

Let’s move to Gaza now. What leadership do you envision for the day after the war? You are in close contact with Mohammad Dahlan. What role do you see for him?

The Gaza Strip is very hostile to Abbas. And Israel also doesn’t want Abbas there.

But there is a new Palestinian leadership that is emerging, composed of a whole camp of people working together. It mainly includes opponents of Abbas, such as Mohammad Dahlan, Nasser al-Qidwa, Marwan Barghouti if he is released.

[Barghouti is a popular Palestinian leader seen as a unifying figure by both Fatah and Hamas supporters. He was arrested by Israel in 2002 and is serving five life terms for planning three terror attacks that killed five Israelis during the Second Intifada.]

This type of group work is good and healthy for us Palestinians. We don’t need another father-like leader like Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas. We need a group leadership that is democratic at the top.

When it comes to ruling Gaza after the war, there should be consultations to form a political body to run the administration, maybe with some affiliation with the PA, maybe a technocratic body.

Ideally, all the Palestinian forces should be consulted, including the opposition to Fatah, and what is left of Hamas

Ideally, all the Palestinian forces should be consulted, including the opposition to Fatah, and what is left of Hamas. Hamas cannot sit in the administration, but it also cannot disappear from society. Thus, we need to transform it into something new, a demilitarized political party that adopts the two-state solution.

The new ruling entity should be able to address numerous challenges. It will have to find solutions for 2.3 million Gazans with no drinking water, no food and no housing, who will still be living in tents.

Palestinian children sit on a hill next to tents housing the displaced in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 30, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

And how do we prevent Hamas from making a comeback? Because it’s going to be very easy to recruit new members. We need to act quickly and jumpstart the reconstruction because that will bring employment. And with employment comes a better economic situation, and stability.

When Gazans start seeing that something new is replacing the destruction that Hamas brought about, their thinking will shift from seeking revenge to developing themselves, using their talents for something constructive.

We estimate that it will take at least $70-$80 billion for the reconstruction. The planning will depend on how much donors are willing to contribute. If Gaza receives $100 billion, it can plan for example to improve the coastal infrastructure, build tourist resorts.

The Israeli army should withdraw, and an Arab security mechanism should be devised to stabilize Gaza and train Palestinian security forces. Every country will be welcome to participate and contribute, but without manipulating the situation and pushing an agenda. We cannot give exclusivity to any country to dominate the scene in Gaza, the way Qatar has done.

Palestinians receive financial aid from Qatar at a post office in Gaza City, June 20, 2019. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Once a security mechanism is in place, we can convince the Israelis that there is some stability, and maybe we can open up Gaza to the world. Of course, we understand that the Israelis don’t want any connection with it. The borders between the Strip and Israel can remain sealed.

The final goal should be to transform Gaza into a better place for Palestinians, with zero security threat to Israel.

It is now the responsibility of regional actors to bring to an end a conflict that benefits nobody. In the past, Arab countries used to mostly talk about solving the conflict, but they were not serious. Now they are serious. They want this to end. They want Israel to be integrated into the Middle East.

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