Despite Economic Hardship, Palestinians Won’t Budge on Opposition to Annexation
Palestinian spokesman Ibrahim Milhim: No compromise until Trump walks back Israel bias
Ibrahim Milhim is the spokesman for Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh. He is highly recognizable as the PA spokesman on issues relating to the novel coronavirus. Milhim was a journalist and teacher before taking up his post in April 2019. The Media Line’s Felice Friedson spoke with him in the office of the prime minister in Ramallah.
The Media Line: Israel’s stated intent to annex land in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley that it conquered in 1967 has set off a chain of repercussions that appears to be only the beginning. What does annexation change in the status quo that prompts such intense reactions?
Ibrahim Milhim: “I can’t breathe.” This iconic sentence that was raised in the American streets reflects the status of suffocation, which the Palestinians suffer from by reason of the occupation that puts its knee on the neck of the Palestinian people. It [the Israeli occupation] suffocates the Palestinian people’s lives wherever they exist, as it aims to cancel the rights of the Palestinian people and the dream to establish an independent Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, which was approved by international legitimacy.
The Israeli policy of annexation isn’t new; the Israeli occupation had confiscated a lot of the Palestinian land, in addition to demolishing Palestinian homes and killing citizens; the latest victim was Iyad al-Halaq, the special-needs kid who was killed [on May 30], just like [George] Floyd in the US.
We demand of the international community, especially the US, to allow us to breathe justice and freedom, to breathe the ability to live peacefully in this land that the occupation is pressuring with its knee, to enable the Palestinian people to live life normally, just like all of the world’s nations.
TML: Do you think that there’s anything that might change what’s happening on the ground in terms of annexation?
Milhim: We believe in international justice that has recognized the Palestinian people, and it also recognized an independent Palestinian state on the borders of 1967. There are international decisions, but Israel is using brute force and relies on it blindly, in addition to its arsenal that’s full of weapons, under an American political umbrella.
We [Palestinians] are relying on the force of justice, freedom and what’s right, but chief among them is the international justice that was demonstrated by the ICC [International Criminal Court] when it adopted the [principle of] Palestinian rights and also decided it will consider the Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people.
We are demanding [our] rights and freedom, and we will fight peacefully to gains our rights, and I think the world will stand by our side. The European countries stand with us, and also the great American people that we [Palestinians] rely on, especially after it took it to the streets to triumph for justice and freedom, and also to highlight the values of what’s right, based on which the founders of America built their country.
Today the great American people have risen to [defend] those values, which [President Donald] Trump tried to cancel. Therefore, we [Palestinians] rely on the awareness of the great American people and its victory for what’s right, and also social justice. We call for our freedom and hope that the Israeli occupation will be the last colonization of our land. We are equal with the American people in demanding justice and freedom.
TML: What’s happening in terms of George Floyd isn’t exactly the same as the issue of annexation. There are some that say that President Trump may walk it back. Are you hearing this as well?
Milhim: I believe the US will back down on its support for Israel in terms of the annexation project, after it realized that there will be regional and international consequences in case Netanyahu implemented it on the ground, as the Palestinian people and all free people will not accept for Israel and the US to implement the annexation plan. But we rely mainly on the resilience of the Palestinian people and its ability to face all kinds of oppression, injustice and the occupation as well for 70 years now. We face this occupation, but we are sure of our dream that we will establish an independent Palestinian state, where this dream grows day by day, despite the occupation’s injustice.
We are betting on justice. And the international community adopted these principles, even if this conflicts with the US now, as we don’t rely on the US now under the ruling of its current president Trump, who turned his back to all values. There’s global consensus on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, including all former American administrations that used to affirm the Palestinian right of self-determination. And also, Jerusalem will be the capital of our future state.
TML: Has the Palestinian Authority had any communication with the United States at all? Are there back-channel talks?
Milhim: [There will be] no channels with this current American administration unless it changes and reverses all of its decisions that were contrary to international legitimacy. If the American administration backs down on the so-called deal of the century that’s an injustice to the Palestinian people, in addition to undoing all actions taken unilaterally to support Israel against the recognized national rights of the Palestinian people, the latter wouldn’t mind communicating with it [the US administration], but on the basis of international legitimacy resolutions, which guaranteed the Palestinians right of self-determination.
President Mahmoud Abbas cut ties with the US because he found out that there’s absolutely no benefit from communicating with its current administration, which played the role of unfair judgment. It even became a partner to the Israeli occupation in practicing injustice and ending the Palestinian dream of an independent state. The Palestinian leadership and president, as well as the people, will never accept to open channels of communication with the American administration on the basis of the so-called deal of the century.
If they cancel the deal, we can talk to them under an international umbrella, which depends and relies on international legitimacy resolutions, in order to find a solution within a negotiating framework that includes our right of self-determination with Jerusalem as the capital of the future state, and based on the two-state solution, in addition to a fair solution to the case of the Palestinian refugees in the diaspora, as stated in the Arab peace treaty [the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative].
TML: Joe Biden also said that if he is elected he’s not going to move the US embassy back [from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv]. If the situation is not changing and America is not reversing its actions, don’t the Palestinians need to find a way to move forward?
Milhim: We don’t have to accept this destiny, where the US decides what is right and just for us, and what’s not justice and right for us as well. We rely on the American values, and we urge the American administration to go back to the values that its country was built upon. The Palestinian people is suffering from lack of freedoms and justice because of the Israeli bullying, and of the Israeli-American partnership that only supported Israel. We urge the American administration and officials as well to protect Israel from its self, to protect Israel from its own bullying, and also to protect Israel from the arrogance of its power and ego because, throughout history, we have learned about a lot of empires that reigned and ended.
TML: Don’t you need the Americans?
Milhim: We need a free America; we need the America that is biased toward what’s right and international legitimacy. We don’t need the America that does unfair things to others; we don’t need the America that supports the oppressor. We simply don’t need the America that doesn’t adopt the values of freedom, justice and human rights.
TML: Many believe Prime Minister Netanyahu will back down from annexation, in response to pressure from President Trump. Do you agree?
Milhim: Any international or American effort practiced on Israel to walk back on its procedures [taken] in violation of international legality is welcomed and forms a victory for freedom and international justice as well, and a victory for the UN resolutions. We know that such an effort must be followed by steps and decisions that go with it. Rejecting annexation has to be followed by recognizing the two-state solution for two countries, including an independent Palestinian state on the borders of 1967 with Jerusalem as the capital.
TML: President Abbas insists that the Palestinian Authority will seek redress from the International Criminal Court, and the PA is advancing a UN resolution condemning annexation, despite those legal experts who say the court lacks jurisdiction. What is the Palestinian Authority asking for?
Milhim: The UN is the cradle of international legitimacy. It represents justice. When we Palestinians face injustice, it’s normal to approach these bodies asking for justice. We want to complain of the American and Israeli practicing of illegal measures; we also want to try Israel at the ICC for its crimes against the Palestinian people. According to international law, settlements are considered a war crime.
President Abbas is going to these justice bodies of the UN and ICC to defend his people, and to regain their rights after the US and Israel confiscated them. Thus, in addition to our national resilience on the ground, and the Palestinian struggle on the ground as well, we adopt and fully believe in international legitimacy and laws, which would lift the injustice off of Palestinians and give them their rights. Annexation is also a war crime that Israel must be tried for in case of implementation.
We are demanding our rights. We demand justice; therefore we go to international bodies that are windows to freedom and justice, to claim our rights.
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TML: A mass rally was held in Tel Aviv [on June 6] against annexation and there were thousands of people that came out, but because of the virus, there are many that didn’t show as well. Is there any coordination between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli opposition?
Milhim: There’s communication with the Israeli peace forces and the left-wing forces, and all parties that believe in Palestinian rights. We believe that we win just by having such parties and forces, who reject and oppose the Israeli policy. The same thing goes for those parties, including about 100 [US] congresspeople, who sent a letter to President Trump asking him to intervene against the annexation, and also to recognize a Palestinian state and the Palestinian right of self-determination. Such parties we support and we want them to grow, as they can have a huge social impact in their societies. We welcome whoever supports us, inside Israel and also abroad and in the US.
TML: There have been mixed reactions to the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to accept tax and tariff money that Israel collects on its behalf. Critics say the Palestinian Authority is in no position to forgo 60% of its monthly budget, that when Israel withholds the money, the Palestinian Authority insists it cannot survive without that funding. Which is it? Can you go it alone or do you need that money? How long can you sustain things without accepting that money? Is it an idle threat?
Milhim: These sums are our money and our right. Israel doesn’t provide these amounts; rather it collects them on our behalf for a percentage. But when we cut all ties with Israel, the latter conditioned giving us these sums on meetings and discussions, where previously Israel used to hand these amounts over monthly without meetings. Even before the coronavirus period, these clearing funds used to be handed over remotely without meetings, but today Israel put that condition, to meet and discuss, contrary to our decision to cut ties.
If Israel really wanted to give us these sums, it would have followed the old procedure and just sent the amounts to us. We will not accept the Israeli blackmail and conditions on our own money; we will not accept its condition of resuming coordination in order to receive these amounts. We refuse to trade freedom for money under any circumstances.
TML: There have been countries from Europe and Arab nations that have promised money over the years and never came through. You are in a predicament in terms of how to maneuver, aren’t you? If you look at almost anything that you have here in the Palestinian Authority, whether it’s water, or you’re dealing with electricity issues, it’s tied to Israel. So how are you going to be able to function on the large scale and also on the micro-scale?
Milhim: Of course it’s huge pressure on us; we suffer economically especially with the coronavirus and how it affected and paralyzed the economy. We need the clearing funds and additional aid money from Arab and international countries. But when our money [the clearing funds] is being used as a tool to pressure our Palestinian people, after hijacking their money and using it to achieve political objectives, we refuse this blackmail. Our people sacrificed their lives, and money isn’t more important than land. Israel not only confiscates our money, but also our lands, water and resources, but that doesn’t mean that we have to accept it.
TML: The Palestinian Authority also rejected COVID-19 medical aid coming from the UAE because it came through Ben-Gurion Airport. Again, aren’t you cutting off your nose to spite your face?
Milhim: Nations that fight for their freedom pay a price that includes sacrifices. Every nation that worked and fought for its freedom has paid a price; freedom wasn’t given for free. And we, Palestinians, are among these nations, so we are aware that we have been paying a price since the beginning of the conflict 72 years ago, since our Nakba. The Palestinian people faced challenges even bigger than the current challenge [of a tight financial situation], but each time, we managed to find a way out of the crisis.
TML: Ibrahim, you were the face of the Palestinian people during COVID-19, giving daily briefings. How is that going?
Milhim: During the first month of the COVID-19 period, I was the spokesperson on the coronavirus to the Palestinian people, where people interacted positively, and it created a relationship between me and the people. It raised confidence in the PA and trust as well, and as a spokesperson of the government, I was very happy that all the people listened to me and the precautionary measures I was providing for them. This honesty and clarity and freedom, especially since all the journalists were attending [the briefings] and asking freely about anything they have in mind, brought trust for the government and love to me as a man of the citizens, which made me very happy knowing that I eased the crisis on Palestinians by being honest with them without intimidating them, so they would be able and ready to protect and secure themselves from the virus.
TML: Thousands of Palestinians work in Israel daily. You have severed relationships and security coordination with Israel. Are there still relationships between Israeli and Palestinian security so that Palestinian workers can go into Israel and come back here safely, particularly because of the COVID?
Milhim: We understand that COVID-19 is a pandemic against humans. Therefore, since the beginning of its spread, there was coordination between us, in particular between the medical committees and Israel, to prevent the spread of the virus that started a war against humanity.
But coordination in countering such a pandemic requires commitment from all countries involved. Israel didn’t commit to these rules; it stormed Ramallah, Bethlehem, including my own house, and arrested my nephew after it sabotaged the house. During COVID-19, and while we were facing this pandemic, Israel was closing checkpoints, storming homes and arresting citizens; this formed a challenge for us, that Israel isn’t cooperating with us in facing the coronavirus. Israel was the party that broke the rules; they didn’t treat our workers with respect. When workers got sick, they used to drop them near checkpoints, in the street, and also they facilitated the illegal entry of some workers through illegal channels. One of these workers infected his mother who later died, and other workers brought the virus to some villages. A worker infected 100 people in his village.
TML: I know you were quoted as saying that the Israelis were using the virus against the Palestinians, and the Israelis are saying, no, they haven’t, they’re trying to bring workers in safely. So do you think that that’s a fair statement?
Milhim: Israel as a country would never spread the virus, but the Israeli practices on the ground did. There were pictures and video showing Israeli soldiers, settlers and citizens spitting in the streets, on ATM machines, in the West Bank. The soldiers didn’t wear masks when they used to come to arrest Palestinians. Why did they enter Palestinian houses during the pandemic? Was it helping spread the virus?
Israel as a country officially committed to the global protocols to face the spread of the virus, but there were practices that just didn’t. The same person [soldier] who killed Halaq was transferring the virus to Palestinian areas. We can’t say that Israel had a policy to do that, but some individuals did spread the virus, and I believe those Israelis are being encouraged by a general hostile Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The practices that helped to spread the virus in the Palestinian lands were fueled by Israel’s inherently hostile policies against our people.
TML: You’re blaming Israel and I understand where that’s coming from. Do you ever feel Palestinians are to blame too? Is there ever any kind of ownership that the Palestinian Authority accepts in terms of mistakes?
Milhim: The easiest thing is to blame the victim; when a person is killed, we blame the victim, because those who are strong and bullies can easily blame the victim. It’s very easy to say the victim was responsible for his own death. When people rise up, we don’t say people are making a mistake, as they are practicing their right to freedom and struggle, and to regain their lands and rights… we can never put the blame on the people for practicing their rights. Palestinians are under occupation and they are defending their lands and that’s their right, and the occupation actually bears the responsibility for anything that happens to the Palestinians.
Palestinians’ lives matter. Just like George Floyd’s.
TML: Summer is here, but so is the coronavirus. What will the Palestinian Authority’s youth be doing until school resumes?
Milhim: The whole world was surprised by this virus that froze and disrupted education in most countries around the world. As part of this world, we Palestinians worked and focused on e-learning, and we managed to transfer schools and universities to online education, including students [high school seniors] who are taking their exams during these days.
TML: Before I let you go, I want to thank you for your time. Is there one move that you are about to announce that might shock and shake the entire international community regarding annexation?
Milhim: It’s peaceful resistance; we will face this project with peaceful resistance. The Palestinian people have begun this resistance and will continue resisting for their land and rights, and the decisions announced by the Palestinian leadership are part of our reaction [to the annexation project].
TML: Ibrahim Milhim, spokesman for Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, thank you so much for joining The Media Line. I appreciate your time.
Dima Abumaria contributed to this report.