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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 26, 2024
A Palestinian holds the body of a child killed in the Israeli bombardments of the Gaza Strip in front of the morgue to pray over them at Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir al Balah on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

[Editor’s note: America is committed to publishing diverse views on the pressing issues of our time. For additional perspectives on the war in Gaza, read “There is a right and wrong way for Catholics to criticize Israel,” by Karma Ben Johanan, and Gerard O’Connell’s interview with David Neuhaus, S.J. ]

“Americans should be against killing Israelis but also against killing Palestinians,” Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a 70-year-old physician and Palestinian political activist committed to nonviolence, told me in this exclusive interview by phone on Feb. 17.

Speaking about the war in Gaza, he said he wants a ceasefire now and, after that, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state or “one democratic state” with equal rights for both Israelis and Palestinians. The idea of one democratic state is not new; it has been discussed in academic and political circles over the last 20 years, as many came to realize that there is in reality only one state today, which is controlled by Israel.

Notwithstanding the conflict and widespread hate today, Dr. Barghouti told me he is convinced “we [Palestinians and Israeli Jews] can live together.”

Dr. Barghouti was born in Jerusalem and lives in Ramallah, the administrative center of the Palestinian state. He is secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative, which seeks to be an alternative political force to Hamas and to Fatah, the latter of which is currently the dominant faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization led by President Mahmoud Abbas. He is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and ran against Mr. Abbas for the presidency in 2005. According to the BBC, he is likely to run again for the post in the next Palestinian election.

He founded the Palestinian Medical Relief Society and is the president of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, a nongovernmental organization that provides health care and community services to people in the occupied territories, including Gaza.

He confirmed in the interview his commitment to nonviolence, just as he did in an interview with N.P.R. last October when he said: “I will never depart from this belief. I never changed my mind, even when the Israeli army shot me while I was treating an injured person in my white coat as a doctor. And I still carry the 35 shrapnels in my back. But that didn’t change my mind or opinion that nonviolence is the best way. I believe in that, and I practice that.” He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you read the situation in Gaza today?

It’s very dangerous. It’s unprecedented, and what we are subjected to are three war crimes in parallel: the war crime of genocide, the war crime of collective punishment and the war crime of ethnic cleansing. Israel’s continuous attacks for more than 132 days have created a very intolerable humanitarian crisis. [Editor’s note: Israel has denied accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing.]

The result is that more than 29,000 people have been killed so far, including 11,000 children and more than 9,000 women. That includes 7,000 Palestinians who are under the rubble and missing up to now. They have also injured 68,000 people, many of whom will die because there isn’t treatment [available]. Together that makes [up] more than 4.5 percent of the population of Gaza.

When people raise this question with Israeli leaders they say they have the right to self-defense and that Hamas is using the civilian population as human shields. What do you say to that?

They have not shown one single picture of Hamas people trying to cover themselves with other people. This is only a justification to justify crime.

Moreover, if Israel has the right to self-defense, why don’t Palestinians have the right to self-defense? And by which law [does] the occupier have the right to self-defense but the occupied does not have the right to resist occupation? What does international law say?

Notwithstanding the conflict and widespread hate today, Dr. Barghouti is convinced “we [Palestinians and Israeli Jews] can live together.”

The situation here does not start on Oct. 7. It’s much deeper than that in history. For 75 years, 70 percent of the Palestinian people have been evicted when, in 1948, Israel razed to the ground 520 communities, committing many massacres, forcing 70 percent of the people to become refugees. Today, 70 percent of Gazans are descendants of the refugees that were displaced in 1948.

I think [claiming] that because Israel has the right to defend itself, it has the right to commit war crimes—that is unacceptable. How can anybody justify genocide? The destruction that they have caused in Gaza is totally unjustified. It never happened in any war before, including the Second World War.

In the Second World War, Germany had 10 percent of its buildings destroyed. In Gaza, more than 70 percent of all buildings will have been destroyed. Israel destroyed every university, most schools, 30 hospitals out of 36, and they can always justify any crime by claiming Hamas is there. It’s not true what they are saying; it’s propaganda.

The Israeli position was very clear from the beginning when [Yoav] Gallant, Israeli Defense minister, declared that Palestinians are “human animals.”

Palestinians accepted a very painful compromise when they agreed to a two-state solution. You can understand the position [of the Israeli government] by listening to what [Bezahel] Smotrich, the finance minister of Israel, said when [the ruling coalition] came to government more than a year ago: that Israel will fill the West Bank with settlements and settlers so that Palestinians will lose any hope of a state of their own. Then, Palestinians have to choose between leaving, which is ethnic cleansing; or accepting a life of subjugation to Israelis, which is apartheid; or die, which is genocide, what they are doing now.

I don’t think that anybody can justify the war crimes that they are committing, including the siege on Gaza that is depriving Palestinians in Gaza of everything, including food, water. Now, according to the World Food Program, 600,000 Palestinians are starving; 50,000 pregnant women don’t have a place to give birth; 64,000 breastfeeding women don’t have food or milk or vitamins or anything. [We’ve had] 132 days without vaccination of children. And now we have an outbreak [of disease] because of Israel’s destruction of infrastructure and lack of clean water. We have an outbreak of epidemics: We have already 7,000 cases of hepatitis, more than 140,000 cases of respiratory infections. In total, there are about 600,000 sick people now in Gaza.

Israel says it is respecting international law. What do you say to that?

How can they be respecting international law if they kill 11,000 children? And destroy all the houses, and hospitals and clinics, and kill 326 of our nurses and doctors and health professionals? And they also killed 126 journalists. [Editor’s note: The Committee to Protect Journalists reports 88 journalists and media workers have been killed since Oct. 7, including 83 Palestinians, three Lebanese and two Israelis.]

Israel recently charged that 12 UNRWA employees were involved in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, and has sought to end the relief organization’s operation in Gaza. How do you read this?

The [Israeli] attack on UNRWA has been planned for a long time because they want not only to kill UNRWA but the right of the Palestinian refugees to return, the right that was agreed by Resolution 194, [which was] approved by the United Nations General Assembly.

The goal of Israel is to liquidate the Palestinian question. They tried to do that through normalization, to marginalize the Palestinian question. They try to do that by killing UNRWA, and by killing N.G.O.s in Palestine and by killing the work of the United Nations in support of Palestinian survival.

It’s a plan. It’s very clear. Your readers should look up what [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu did in the U.N. General Assembly two weeks before Oct. 7. He stood up in the General Assembly carrying the map of Israel that was annexing all of the West Bank, all of [the] Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Even though they were claiming that they had withdrawn from Gaza, [Mr.] Netanyahu was showing the map that showed the annexation of Gaza.

Did you expect the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel?

No! I didn’t expect it. We were surprised. But we expected a response to what Israel was doing. Because Israel was killing Palestinians in the West Bank left and right; we had more than 240 Palestinians killed before Oct. 7 [since the beginning of 2023], including 60 children. We had the settlers starting a campaign of settlers’ terror. We had an expansion of settlements in an unprecedented manner. We saw the map of [Mr.] Netanyahu, and all that was happening in the Al-Asqa mosque, and the attacks on Muslim worshippers as well as on Christian worshippers. Many Palestinian and foreign priests were attacked by Israeli settlers, spit on, harassed. It was an ongoing expansion of harassment in a very wide manner.

I don’t justify attacking civilians anywhere. But I don’t accept somebody telling me only about [the killing of] civilian Israelis but nothing about [the killing of] civilian Palestinians.

There was also another factor, which was that Gaza was under siege for 17 years; people were deprived of everything. People only had electricity for six hours a day. They didn’t have clean water. Eighty percent of Palestinian young people were unemployed. Seventy percent lived below the line of poverty. It was a total disaster, so Gaza [with a population of 2.3 million people] became the largest open-air prison in the world.

Yes, Cardinal [Pierbattista] Piazzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, said that to me.

Exactly! And the big question for your readers is very simple: Are we—as God said—are we all equal human beings or not? If we are equal human beings, then the American people should be against killing Israelis but also against killing Palestinians. What we see is that all the time they are talking about 30 Israeli children who were killed, and I don’t agree with killing them, of course.

You don’t justify the Oct. 7 attack?

I don’t justify attacking civilians anywhere. But I don’t accept somebody telling me only about [the killing of] civilian Israelis but nothing about [the killing of] civilian Palestinians. When you see 11,000 children killed, nothing in the world can justify this crime. It’s unacceptable. But that has happened with American weapons, with American bombs, with total and unconditional American support. Instead of punishing the occupier, as they did to [Russia for attacking] Ukraine, they are punishing the occupied in Palestine.

The pope and 153 states have called for a ceasefire. Do you see a ceasefire happening now to enable the release of the hostages and the prisoners in Israel and to stop the suffering of the people in Gaza?

[Mr.] Netanyahu doesn’t want a ceasefire because he wants the war to continue, for a simple reason, because he knows that once the war stops he will be investigated for a failure on Oct. 7, and he and his generals will be investigated by a commission about their failure then. And he knows he will face three cases of corruption in the court, and he will be probably sent to jail. So this man wants the war to continue, hoping to somehow… free himself from prison.

The only country in the world that can impose a ceasefire now is the United States of America. [President] Biden has entered this war with Israel hoping that it will bring him re-election. I think he realizes now that the public opinion in the United States has changed dramatically, and 70 percent of young Americans don’t agree with [Mr.] Biden’s policy in Palestine.

How do you see Palestinian-Israeli relations after this? Looking from the outside, there is great hate between the two populations.

Hate will stay if we allow leaders who promote hate to stay [in power]. But the question is as follows. Israel displaced 70 percent of Palestinians, so there are seven million Palestinians not allowed to come back home. On the land of Palestine today, if you include Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, the number of Palestinians on the land of historic Palestine is equal to the number of Jewish Israelis, if not a little bit more. So what is the solution in this case? Either the two-state solution, where Israel would have to withdraw from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and take their settlements out and allow a Palestinian state there.

This immediate situation has to end by an immediate ceasefire as soon as possible because otherwise, we will lose thousands and thousands of other souls, especially children.

If you don’t want that, the only second option is one democratic state. We don’t mind, we would love that: [a solution in which] we and the Israelis would live together where we did before the rise of Zionism in Palestine, and…co-exist with democratic, national and civil rights for everybody.

We can live together. I know there is a lot of hate now and a lot of [desire for] revenge. But who could have imagined that France and Germany could be cooperating in the European Union at one point in time? I am sure that you could still find a German man and a French woman who hate each other, from the older generation. But now they learned how to coexist, and that’s what Israelis have to learn, and they have to accept us as equal human beings.

So you are hopeful that Palestinians and Israelis can build a future together?

Yes, but without fascism and without extremists like [Mr.] Netanyahu.

How can religious leaders contribute to peace in the Holy Land? How can the Vatican contribute to peace?

By taking a stance against fundamentalism. What we face in Palestine is Jewish fundamentalist supremacy. And you have settlers in the West Bank who have transformed Israeli religious parties from being on the edge of moderation to becoming the most extreme, led by people like [Bezalel] Smotrich and Ben Gvir; they are promoting fascism and extreme Jewish fundamentalism. That has to change.

Is religion an important factor in bringing peace?

It can be an important factor to bring peace, [but] it can also be used to create animosity. It depends on who is trying to use religion.

What would you say to the pope if you could sit and talk with him?

I would say to the pope, please apply Christian thoughts. Please apply what Jesus Christ said: that all human beings are equal and wish for others what you wish for yourself. I think that’s what we need. We wish for the Israelis to wish for us what they wish for themselves, and vice versa. There is no other way.

How do you see this conflict ending?

This immediate situation has to end by an immediate ceasefire as soon as possible because otherwise, we will lose thousands and thousands of other souls, especially children. And then what we need is a true political process that leads to a solution, not to animosity.

Are you hopeful that coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis can happen?

Always. I never had any doubts, and I know now that it’s the most difficult atmosphere. But I still believe in it because I am optimistic by nature, and I know that the only way we can live together is without domination, without racism, without one side oppressing the other.

And you have always advocated peaceful means, you have never advocated violence as a solution?

Of course, I don’t believe in violence. I believe in nonviolence, but I also believe in our right [to] resistance, to resist injustice. That’s what Jesus Christ did. He fought injustice. You don’t have to be violent to fight for justice.

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