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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

Interview With Courage
February 5, 2000

Meet Dr. Saeb Erakat, the Palestinian National Authority's chief Negotiator and Minister of Local Governments. You've seen him on TV, you've heard him on the meet him in person!


Monica and I had the honor of visiting Dr. Erakat in his office in Jericho last Saturday. As it turns out he received his BA and MA from the University of San Francisco, my old home! We had a great time reminiscing about San Francisco, that great city, so far away. Dr. Erakat had some really interesting things to share about his challenging job and his view of where things are headed in the peace process. Check it out.

Question: Can you give us a little background on the peace process in the region?

We are a people of so much history. Our present is shaped through history and our future will be history. I was born in Jericho, the oldest city in the world where it is said that the walls were destroyed. Outside my window is the Mount of Temptation where Jesus Christ fasted for 40 days and was tempted by the devil. To the south is the Dead Sea and Masada, the symbol of the great Jewish resistance.

The Romans, the Persians, the Ottomans... everyone has left their mark on my town. This area has witnessed so many killings, so many wars, so many conflicts. We were made to miss the point of why we had a Jesus, a Moses, and a Mohammed in this town. These prophets brought the message of peace, of healing, of reconciliation, and reconstruction; they never intended to make God a land broker.

Now we are seeing the consequences of turning God into a brokerage agency.

Click image for larger view
Interviewing Dr. Erakat
I am proud to be Palestinian. There have always been Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in Palestine. We were the refuge of Jews throughout history. We'd never had a sectarian clash. We lived together, married together. How many friends of mine had Jewish mothers? Nobody knows that....

We had a booming population, colleges, newspapers; until the Balfour Declaration in 1917 granted the Jews their own land. We were denied our existence. We were forced from our homes, our land, we were terrorized for many years. This continued until 1948 when we finally stood up for ourselves to let the world know what was going on - and they called us terrorists. Only now, after over 50 years, are we finally signing an agreement that says we are a people.

I want everyone that reads your webpage, all the teachers and students, to close their eyes for a few minutes. Imagine that one night you were asleep in your home in your own bedroom, and the very next night all that is gone and you are sleeping in a tent. Someone came along and just took the land from you, claiming that maybe this land was once theirs 2000 years ago as their justification. You study in a tent, go to the hospital in a tent, give birth in a tent, go to school in a tent.

We can hate, we can have a grudge, or we can walk the high ground. There's a big difference between historical and political reconciliation, but one day I feel there must be a historic reconciliation…I hope. It can never happen until Israel stands up and apologizes and takes a moral stance acknowledging all the suffering of the past century. A political reconciliation is another thing. It is easier. But we want a historical reconciliation . We have so much in common, our histories, even our religions and spiritual values, our dietary restrictions. We urge them (Israel) to reconcile but it cannot happen until they stand up and tell every Palestinian that they're sorry.

I am sorry for all the hardships the Jews have been put through. But it was not my culture that was responsible. It is not in our Eastern culture to be capable of inflicting the horrors of the Holocaust. It is unthinkable- the evil and hatred of anti-Semitism. It is not a product of our civilization.

I don't care if you are pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. I care if you are pro-Peace or anti-Peace...that is all. Pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, that is not the mentality of the future. It is not for people who want to reconcile. I have been denied by the world to tell my story rightly. I have every right to let my daughters live free to tell theirs. I was 12 years old when Israeli troops occupied my town, my country. I went to jail for my first time when I was 13 years old. I had no choice but to post flyers and throw stones to stand up for our freedoms and rights that were taken away. I want to give youth today an opportunity to have choices, to have a range of opportunities.

Reconciliation - To settle a quarrel or dispute, to bring into agreement
Reconstruction - To construct again, to rebuild
Conviction - A fixed or firm belief
Intifada - Series of demonstrations, strikes, and violence led by Palestinians and directed against Israel

Peacemaking here is not a job. You have to believe in it, it has to be a part of your life. If you don't have the conviction to stand up, to fight for peace, you cannot do it. Sometimes I wish I had remained a university professor. I could teach three times a week, I could write would be easier. During the Intifada, as a father, when Salam and Dalal would go to school, my normal worry was whether they would come back from school or not. For a parent to worry for their children like this everyday is not a life. I'm doing it for myself, as a Palestinian and for the Palestinian people.

We have made a historic compromise, agreeing to accept 23% of our original Palestine. If they want one unified secular state, we will agree. If they want to return to the boundaries before 1967, the ones the UN had outlined, we agree. But if they want to keep occupying our lands and keep their settlements, no, we cannot agree.

You should remember one thing, we fought back for hundreds of years. For eight years during the Intifada we turned to using the oldest weapons on earth, stones and dissent, to stand up to the expensive military equipment of Israelis.

The choice is theirs.

Moses was neither a prophet of hate nor war; nor Jesus, nor Mohammed.

Question: Was there ever a time when you came close to losing hope for your cause, and how did you overcome it?

Yes, there were times, there are times. I'm sure there will be more times.

One time I lost hope, was one day my little town was hit by floods in 1997, (on)October 20. Eighty-two homes were destroyed here in Jericho.

That day none of my Israeli grown-up friends, that I saw everyday in negotiations, bothered to call and ask if I needed anything, or if my family was okay. I was very sad, but that day, Dalal, my daughter, received twenty-three calls from Israeli kids, asking if we needed anything, if her mother and father were okay. They didn't call because they were on CNN or the Washington Post, but because they wanted to. It's these kids that are the future, and this is what gives me hope.

Question: What advice do you have for Palestinian youth in how they can have an active role in shaping the future of Palestine?

I don't want to think for them. I know that they're going to live in an age I will never see. I don't want to impose on them my views. They have their own two ears, their own two eyes, their own nose. They should use their own senses.

But I will say this. The function of ears is to transfer what they hear to their brain. I don't want them to use their ears to think. I urge this generation not to live through their ears.

Question: What kind of Middle East region would you want your daughters to grow up in?

I live in a complex region. Even when I envision what I want, the open society, with human rights and good schools, with a patronage of the arts and culture, the rule of law which I really want, I know that the Middle East will not be left alone to decide its own fate. The rest of the world wants to have part in the oil and land rights.

Maybe I can shape what kind of Palestinian state I want though.

Click image for larger view
Monica and I with Dr. Erakat

Question: What do you think about the Odyssey?

I would support any dialogue. I would support any attempt to bring people together. It's usually lack of knowledge, it's the not knowing, that enables societies to go to war with each other.

Computers, the Internet, websites, these are the instruments of knowledge. The more we know about each other, the less wars we will have. I am impressed that you have children chatting with youth in Dheisheh Refugee Camp..., hearing their words. I am happy that you are sharing our story with the world.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Related Links:


Abeja - Istanbul (Not Constantinople): They Might Be in Turkey!
Andrew - Strange Encounters in Turkey
Brian - Oh the places we'll go!
Jasmine - Odyssey Behind The Scenes: Secrets Revealed!
Kevin - Life, The Greatest Trek of All!
Kavitha - Kavi Gets MAD About Art

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