‘Either we exist, or we don’t exist anymore’ | Sanaa El Nahhal

Palestinian campaigner Sanaa El Nahhal argues that the present conflict in Gaza represents a final ‘do or die’ push for the Palestinian cause

Palestinian campaigner Sanaa Al Nahhal-Acis (Photo: Ray Attard)
Palestinian campaigner Sanaa Al Nahhal-Acis (Photo: Ray Attard)
Interview with Palestinian activist and campaigner Sanaa Al-Nahhal Acis.

Last Friday, just minutes before a scheduled appointment with Palestinian activist and campaigner Sanaa Al-Nahhal Acis, it was announced that brokers had secured a 72-hour ceasefire in Gaza. By the end of the interview two hours later, the ceasefire had already crumbled. Over 40 Palestinians had been killed in resumed shelling, and an Israeli soldier was reportedly abducted by Hamas.

This fact alone illustrates the sheer fragility of the situation in the densely populated Gaza strip, which has for years been the stage for sporadic warfare. Peace may occasionally be on the cards for a short while… but never for very long.

Apart from organising regular aid missions to Gaza since the strip was blockaded in 2007, Sanaa is herself an Ambassador for Peace: a title she was conferred by the Universal Peace Federation in the same year. And when I visit her in her Sliema apartment, she insists that peace is ultimately what the Palestinians want: to be able to live in peace, to enjoy tranquillity and freedom.

Yet I put it to her that this is not immediately obvious when looking at the present situation. Hamas – which is defined as a ‘terrorist organisation’ by Israel, the USA and the EU, but which is also the democratically elected regional government in Gaza – is committed to the destruction of Israel: a fact that permits Israel to cite ‘self-defence’ as the main justification for its military actions. And it was not always the case that Israel was the perceived aggressor. When the state of Israel was first proclaimed in 1948, the reaction of practically all its Arab neighbours was immediately to invade.

Looked back on in the context of today’s situation, does she think it was a mistake on the part of the Arab countries to declare war on Israel in the first place?

Sanaa replies by disputing that the problems began in 1948. “We have always had problems in Palestine between the Israelis and the Palestinians. To understand the story well: the war began in 1948, but it was in 1917 – when we under the British – that the issue started…”

Here she gives a broad historic perspective in which the British, slowly, between 1917 and 1948 – a time when Palestinians were already demanding a state of their own – brought in Jewish settlers with a view to eventually displace the existing inhabitants. From this perspective, she argues that the 1948 war was the inevitable consequence of a colonial policy to drive out Palestinians from their homeland in order to give it to others.

“A lot of soldiers from all over the Arab world came in, because we were under the Turks then as well. And we were about to win the war in 1948… soldiers came in from Libya, from Syria, from Jordan, from everywhere. We were about to win, because the Israelis were not as strong as us then.”

But this is precisely the crux of the matter. When she says ‘we were about to win’… what does ‘victory’ mean, exactly?

“To expel the Israelis,” she replies without hesitation. “To expel them from our country. Isn’t this victory?”

At the same time, isn’t it also precisely the reason this present conflict is taking place, with no end in sight? Hamas even has it written in its charter that the state of Israel must be destroyed. If there is no acceptance of the presence of an Israeli state in the region, doesn’t this make the prospect of lasting peace impossible to achieve in practice?

Sanaa initially denies that the ultimate objective is the destruction of Israel. I remind her that that is precisely what the Hamas charter states, in no uncertain terms.

“Maybe Hamas wants that,” she concedes. “I do not want the destruction of Israel. Not even Hamas… though maybe now, because they’re angry, because their people are dying… already the death toll has reached 1,400 and 7,000 wounded… already… in only 26 days. Who knows after a month?

“But this is not the question. Before, when things were normal… because things change when you see so much death… but before this war, I used to say: enough. We’ve had enough, we need to take a rest. We can’t expel the Israelis, the least Israel can do is leave us Gaza: to be able to go out, go back in, see our families… to have a little bit of freedom. I agreed with that, 100%. Even as a peace ambassador, I said: let us agree to this, it’s better than nothing.”

But it was an illusory peace, she argues, because the territory was fragmented and divided.

“The Israelis have always worked this way: they want to divide us so that we kill each other. And that’s how it was for some time: Hamas on one side, Fatah on the other, one against the other. They (the Israelis) tried to play this game. Thank God Hamas and Fatah realised this, and came together. Before, the ordinary people were divided between Fatah and Hamas. Slowly, slowly… if we were not a clever and well-meaning [literally, ‘clean-minded’] people… we would have ended up fighting among ourselves, between Fatah and Hamas. And forget the issue with the Israelis...”

Here she claps her hands in a gesture of finality… as if to say, ‘it would have been over, finished.’

Leaving aside the issue of who caused the problems between these two political factions: some analysts today argue that Hamas’ victory in Gaza in 2006 was in fact a direct catalyst for the present situation. It was fear of Hamas and its policy to destroy Israel, they argue, that furnished the Israeli government with the main justification for a blockade.

Before turning to the implications: how does Sanaa herself view Hamas? Does she agree with the definition that it is a terrorist organisation?

“Personally speaking, there are things on which I agree 100% with Hamas, and other things where I agree 100% with Fatah. In the period between 2006 and 2013, let’s say I agreed more with Fatah. But today, 2014, I agree completely with Hamas….”

Here she breaks off to give an analogy of the different ways Fatah and Hamas reason. “Imagine I have 10 children. They kill four of them. Six remain. If, before, there came a moment when I would fear for the remaining six, I would have sided with Fatah. I would say, better that four of my children died, but I can do something to save the six. That was Fatah’s line. Better make peace, and save my six children. Four have died, I accept that: we won some of our country back, we got Ramallah, we got Gaza, and we’ve saved the six children. OK. Not that I’ve forgotten about the other four, but let’s say that I compromise to save the other six. But then, if you go on to touch my remaining six children, and kill five of them… are you going to tell me to save the last remaining one? I would say better he goes with the other nine… do you understand?”

Sanaa argues that this has been the case ever since the conflict began in 1948. “They kill us, and kill us, and always expect us to be calm. How long can you remain calm? Each time they kill us, we are told: remember that you’re not as strong as the Israelis. My neighbour comes and says, be calm, they’re going to kill another of your children. Be silent. So they kill four, I am silent. They kill another, I remain silent. But when they kill all but one of my children, then I say: kill the last one, too, and get it over with…”

Meanwhile, she pointedly admits that Israel’s ‘divide and rule’ strategy has worked admirably to its own advantage. “Now we are only talking about Gaza and Ramallah. We are no longer talking about the whole of Palestine. Isn’t this a victory for the Israelis? Before, in 1948, we spent years talking about taking back all of Palestine. This was supposed to be our right. If you were fighting for Malta, you would want all of Malta, wouldn’t you? But then you calm down, and eventually you say: OK, I’ll settle for only half. Give me half Malta. Are you calm now? They tell you we won’t give you half until you calm down more. Then they give you a quarter, and you have to keep calm. Now [in Palestine], we are talking about 12%. What will we be talking about next? 5%? Nothing?”

It has reached a stage, she adds, “where either we exist, or we don’t exist anymore.”

However, the Israeli government maintains that Hamas has fired more than 2,000 rockets into Israeli territory, and this is precisely why they have invaded Gaza. In what way, then, does Hamas’ strategy of firing rockets into Israel actually help the Palestinian people in their present plight?

She retorts by inviting me to consider Israeli aggression towards Palestinians. “When it was the Israelis who dropped bombs on Gaza, from 1948 onwards… and in Gaza they kill people, not like us. In the 26 days of fighting, how many Israelis died?”

In terms of civilian casualties, the answer (at the time of the interview) was three.

“There. Now let’s look at it from the other side, because the whole world disagrees with the rockets that are being fired at Israel. Rockets have been fired into us since 1948: did the world say anything like it is saying now, in 2014? Rockets have killed thousands in Gaza since 1948… and the world only wakes up now, because rockets are fired into Israel and kill three people.

“The whole world is against Palestine. Why was the whole world not against Israel, when their rockets killed thousands of Palestinians? They just said ‘poor things’ (jahasra), and continued with their lives. Every time. Even Arab countries. Now, however, they don’t say ‘poor things’ any more. Now the whole world moves, because rockets fell on Israel.

“I don’t agree with rockets, from both sides. I don’t want death on either side, let me be clear. But wouldn’t you be angry, if bombs are landing on your home all the time, and when rockets land on Israel the whole world says: why don’t you stop, because otherwise the Israelis will kill you? Is that why we should stop? Isn’t it better to arrange things so both sides live in peace? Instead they tell us: stop, otherwise they will kill you….”

Sanaa here raises a familiar argument: that discrepancy in military capability between the two sides, as well as the extent of the retaliation by Israel, is disproportionate.

“Why don’t we look at it the other way, and tell Israel to stop? Our [rockets] are just fireworks, like the ones you have in the festa. Theirs kill thousands. Can they retaliate with such force, and everyone – the Arabs, the whole world – instead of stopping them, try to stop us? It’s like my daughter always says: it’s not fair. I hurt you a little, and in response, you come to my home and kill five [of my children]….”

On the subject of civilian casualties: part of Israel’s justification for the high death toll is that Hamas is using its own people as human shields… so that, according to this argument, the Israeli army has no option but to target civilian areas in order to hit military targets…

She rejects this out of hand. “Israel can kill Hamas, as it was at the beginning of this war. They can kill whoever they like. But now they are killing indiscriminately to frighten people. Do they need to kill children playing in a garden…?”

But does she believe that Israel is killing those children on purpose? She nods emphatically. “Yes, to frighten us. This is how it works now. It wasn’t like this before. Civilians who died before, died because they were walking in that place at that time… [the Israelis] wanted to kill that man on a motorcycle, and whoever was near him…” She shrugs. “It was the same with houses. They target one particular house, and if civilians die it was because they were in the house next door. Not now, though. You see it on the news….”

She refers to this week’s shelling of UN-operated schools which served as temporary shelters. “Those were refugees. They [the Israelis] can’t invent some story that someone from Hamas was in there with them. Even if it’s true, you wait for that person to leave. Are you going to kill children because a man was in there with them? Let’s say if, by mistake, a Hamas rocket landed on an Israeli school. Would the reaction be the same as when Israeli rockets hit a Palestinian school?”

She reiterates that Israeli strikes on non-military targets cannot be regarded as accidents. “If it was a Palestinian rocket I’d believe it was an accident. Hamas has rockets… I don’t know where they get them from: maybe Iran, but I don’t understand politics. So they have rockets, but they don’t have the technology to know where they’re going… and this frightens us, too. They aim for Tel Aviv, but they don’t know where those rockets will land. What if they hit a Palestinian village?”

In a sense this also reflects the argument – obviously made by Israelis – that it is in fact Hamas that represents a threat to Palestinian lives. Does anyone in Gaza feel this way? How representative is Hamas of the ordinary man in the street?

“Today, all of Gaza is behind Hamas. Not because they are Hamas, let me be clear. But we don’t want to go backwards. If we go back, we will have lost. Like the previous war, and the one before, and before that again. We are tired of losing. In this war, it is a case of: either we exist, and we get something, or we are nothing, and we get nothing. After this, there will be no other wars. We will be finished. This is our last war. Either we come away with something, or it’s over. We are going down for sure. Our rockets are about to finish. But we don’t want to go down empty-handed. And do you know what we are asking for? That the borders are opened. That people are saved. That our refugees are allowed to go back home…”

Her sentence trails away, but the expression on her face does the rest of the talking: is this too much to ask?