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Palestinians Turn against ‘Interaction’ Committee

Critics say PLO panel that oversees meetings with rank-and-file Israelis is pursuing normalization, a move they call premature

A meeting in Ramallah between Palestinian officials and Israeli journalists has sparked a major debate in the Palestinian street. Held on Sunday, it was the latest in a series of encounters organized by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society.

Critics accuse the committee’s members of normalizing relations with Israel at a time when there is no prospect for a political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Activists add that with such activities, the panel is taking an alternative route to negotiations while breaking a boycott of Israel.

“I’ve been against this committee since its establishment [eight years ago], as normalization comes after a political solution is found, not before,” Hasan Khresheh, a senior member of the mothballed Palestinian Legislative Council, told The Media Line.

Khresheh urged the Palestinian Authority to communicate with its own people, end the division between the mainstream Fatah party and Hamas, and bring all sectors of Palestinian society together.

“These kinds of meetings are absurd and strike at the Palestinian national fabric,” he said. “The majority of Israelis are right-wing and believe in the Zionist project, which doesn’t include us as Palestinians, and assures that Jerusalem remains part of Israel.”

Hiba Wazani, a Palestinian journalist, told The Media Line that recent developments, especially the unveiling of the Trump Administration’s plan for Middle East peace, make coordination and meetings with Israelis worthless.

“Whether we visit them or they visited us, nothing is going to change,” Wazani said. “They don’t see the Palestinians as people or recognize their rights, so there is no point.”

Political activist Khalel Assaf believes the committee bestows upon Israel a positive image regarding its desire for peace “while in reality, Israel doesn’t want peace or work for it.”

He insists that unlike Israelis, Palestinians are seeking true peace on the ground, not meetings.

“We have the right to live in peace,” Assaf said. “We have been negotiating with Israel for the past 25 years, and all this time, Israel has been leaning toward extremism, which the elections results there show.”

The Committee for Interaction, chaired by senior Fatah figure Muhammad al-Madani, was formed by a decision of the PLO’s Executive Committee in December 2012 to build bridges with Israeli society. Over the years, it has sought to shape political, economic and security relations despite official decisions by the Palestinian leadership to boycott Israel’s government.

Ziad Darwesh, a member of the committee, told The Media Line that the main goal is to communicate with Israeli society in the absence of a political partner.

“Israeli people live right next to us,” he explained. “We have been holding meetings and activities in coordination with Israeli associations, universities and organizations for the past eight years, which is extremely important for us as Palestinians.”

Darwesh believes that Palestinians, through the committee, have succeeded in changing Israeli opinions, noting that the Israeli government “doesn’t like what we do and how we are affecting its society.”

He adds that Palestinians must learn to differentiate between society and a country’s political system, government and military establishment.

“We communicate. We don’t negotiate, as we aren’t authorized,” Darwesh said. “A lot of Palestinians don’t understand the meaning of the term ‘normalization.’”

The Israelis who took part in Sunday’s meeting, he said, included “journalists from all Israeli media – extremists, leftists and others…. All came to us to hear our story. They will end up writing about this visit in one way or another, which benefits us as Palestinians.”

The group met separately with Mahmoud al-Habbash, the adviser on religious affairs to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and with Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the PA minister of information.

When reached by The Media Line, Habbash said: “The meeting was meant to deliver the Palestinian point of view in an effort to affect Israeli public opinion.”

On Sunday night, Palestinian social media platforms flamed, with harsh criticism of the meeting and the overall work of the committee.

The Student Union at Birzeit University, north of Ramallah, organized a sit-in outside the administration building demanding the resignation of a member of the Board of Trustees who sits on the PLO’s Committee for Interaction.

Saif Rayan, a prominent member of the Student Union, told The Media Line that it rejects “any kind of communication with the Israeli occupation, at any time and in any form. No communication with the occupation.”

Adding to the sense of outrage was a meeting held last week in Tel Aviv by the Israeli Peace Parliament, a left-wing group. The meeting was attended by former PA cabinet ministers.

Habbash said he understood the Palestinian discontent over such meetings and respected it.

“At the same time,” he stressed, “we have a duty to our homeland.”