Interview with Salah Ta’amari

Interview with Salah Ta’amari, Palestinian Legislative Council Member, Bethlehem (and former PLO fighter), November 13, 1998. We met him his Bethlehem office.

My name is Salah Ta’amari. I ran for elections 2 years ago. I was elected by the people of Bethlehem. I was born in Bethlehem and grew up here.

We didn’t have universities in the 60s, so I had to look for a university abroad. The least expensive one was in Cairo. I hoped to graduate, get married, return and spend my life here. Unfortunately the 1967 war broke out when I was sitting for my final exams. My dreams were shattered. So the dream became a fixation. Coming back home was my dream.

I joined the P.L.O. (Palestine Liberation Organization), I picked up a gun. I’m one of those who was called a terrorist. I never killed anybody. I just wanted to come back to my country.

The sixties was the decade of youth. There were youth revolutions all over the world. And Palestinians – if we did not have this great cause – we would have become hippies and smoked marijuana (without inhaling, of course), but we joined the revolution in different ways…Che Guevarra, Nasser…we were part of the international community of revolutionaries and we were highly motivated. I wanted to be a teacher…

The PLO had a regular army but we were part of the military wing of Fatah (The P.L.O. faction headed by Yasser Arafat), which was more intellectually oriented. So many of them were killed…and finally there was a huge confrontation with the Israeli Army in Karama, Jordan. I was one of the only survivors of that battle. Most of my friends there were killed there…most of them were university students.

The occupation commanded our growth. You don’t know what it means to be under occupation unless you’ve experienced it. “Stand up!”, “Sit down!”, “Lift your hands!”. And if you ask why, the Israeli officer says, “Because I said so.”

We have to pass checkpoints even now. Jerusalem is permanently closed to us. We pass check points on the way to work, to our homes. And the Israeli army roadblock means humiliation, means undermining the other person. If you’re lucky, you will meet a human being at a roadblock…if you’re unlucky, you’ll meet a psychopath.

Even though I have a VIP card, I take the back roads everyday to avoid the Israeli military – it’s a major inconvenience. Last night I was watching a movie about the United States army and the Native Americans. If you just change the names, it’s us. The Israelis want us to resort to violence. The other day a huge Israeli bulldozer belonging to the army went to the village of Al-Khader and demolished a beautiful agricultural area. It was completely green…with rare and indigenous plants…I saw disgust in the eyes of some of the soldiers to be ruining such a beautiful place. They also demolished the only road that connects the villages in that area to the main road. Fear, uncertainty and lack of security equal a recipe for unrest.

The Israeli surveyors show up with no explanation then a few days later the bulldozers show up. They did write a notice to the landowners, but threw the notice in the field, as if the field is a post office box that the landowners should check every day. One of the houses became isolated because the road cut it off and also destroyed their water pipes. The owner went to the Israeli Officer in charge and said “How am I going to get to my house?” The officer said “You can rent a helicopter.” “What about my water?” “You can rent a tank.” This is violence. This is terror. When the Israelis came, they were not armed with a legal justification, but were supported by weapons and troops. What if a Palestinian said “You are coming to our territory armed to the teeth and what if we respond with violence.” Who is instigating this violence? The farmer, or the Israeli army who came with the bulldozer…which is the ugliest thing I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve seen alot in my life. It was a monster devouring trees and life itself.

No war is a just war – it’s all ugly. When I was in uniform I had so much anger…anger at injustice and anger at oppression and suppression, coupled with the lack of understanding on the part of the world. Many times I would be watching the tv and would smash the tv set because of what they would be broadcasting. When you see the inaccuracy, the distortion, one becomes desperate. You shout. When people have hope of convincing others and achieving their legitimate goals through negotiations, very few would go for violence, but if the road is blocked, then a larger number of people resort to violence. I always knew that it takes more courage not to pull the trigger than to pull the trigger. It happened to me. I did not pull the trigger. I thought; I trembled; sweated; quivered; but something in me told me not to pull the trigger. I was organizing resistance in Sidon. I thought about it for years. I wasn’t afraid. I was desperate. When you pull the trigger, the gun is the outlet for all your anger, frustration, injustice. When you don’t pull the trigger you have to burn inside yourself from the steam and transform it. It makes you more aware of others and their feelings. It brings compassion. As two fighting parties, we demonized the other.

I believe we need one state over historic Palestine – for Jews and Palestinians together. Now I believe that the ball is in the American and Israeli courts. We don’t want more than what the Oslo agreement spells out, but I hope it will be the turning point. The significance is the signatures on it. It shows the intention of both parties to avoid violence and go the path of dialogue. It turns the page of the past and looks towards the future.

Our biggest setback was the assassination of Rabin. When you look at the present government, sometimes you think it’s the government of the settlers. The policies of this government will double and triple the number of terrorist incidents. When you keep Palestinians under siege, when you round them up, when you confiscate their land, when you keep them from employment…These acts produce terror. Suppose I go back to my village and talk about peace? The young people would ask me what peace has to do with the bulldozer ripping up the land and why she cannot travel to Jerusalem because of the permanent closure. Normalization between Israelis and Palestinians would have taken no time if the Israeli Government would have abided by the spirit of the agreement.

Yes, we have problems within the Palestinian Authority. I myself turned down a ministerial position. I was supposed to be part of the last cabinet. We Palestinians were a liberation movement. We followed different laws. We had no experience in government. To change our mental habit s is very tough. But there is more a lack in efficiency than of corruption. Favoritism and tribalism yes. So we would employ our relatives but it’s not alien to us.

We lived for 30 years under occupation. Certain vices turn into values. Lying is a moral value. If you don’t confess, it’s a value. You use all means to survive. Sometimes a Palestinian who spent 20 years in exile acquires a job based on his history, not on his qualifications. His past heroism wouldn’t make him more qualified. What allowed such a situation to arise is that our opportunities have lessened. Part of the reason that our police force is so large is because we have no retirement or social security. Yes, we have corrupt people, but they are less in number than in the smallest city anywhere in the world. And we are not indifferent.

As for Arafat, believe me, sometimes you’d think I hate him. Arafat was elected by the people. He has insight, vision, and like any other great leader, it’s costly. His presence in the field is amazing. He works night and day. His presence was felt night and day and in time of crisis. When we lost most of our men in Karama, I buried 45 of my colleagues and I thought it was the end of the world. But Arafat always reflected hope. When Arafat left with the ship from Beirut and the journalists asked him where to next, he said, “Back to Palestine”. In the siege of Beirut, he was the only leader who refused to leave under the white flag of the red cross. He was under the most bombardment, but he remained firm and never lost his vision or hope. In a refugee camp in Lebanon in the 70’s, at least six people were killed in a shelter. He was not even trembling.

When there was a change for peace, he endorsed it immediately. Other leaders had to weigh it…would it effect their popularity, their positions, but he endorsed it immediately. He is sincere. Now he thinks he’s the embodiment of the Pal. dream, of the state. Ad in our minds he became the patriotic figure. And there’s a limit to how far you can go in criticizing him. Arafat is a very decent leader but he is a one man show. He ran the show for so long alone. Now we have to show him that we are here to help.

After Arafat? We have the Palestinian Authority and the PLO and we have Fatah…all historical establishments. We have our Basic Law which we signed on the third reading in the Legislative Council. I believe it will be a more profound democracy, and that we have nothing to fear from this.

The oppressed are always more creative, because they need it. I remember when I first met a Jew. I was in the union of students. There was a young man with a broken leg. He had a Jewish name. We indulged in politics and we betrayed ourselves. I told him, why should you be concerned for Israelis? He said there were no guarantees that nazism would not resurface. I heard his feelings. Feelings are the most important…

When we were under Jordan rule, we felt secure. We were angry, but the Jordanians did not bring people from Russia to take our land. We felt that there was enough security on the thickness of the walls of the houses we lived in.

We are a stubborn people. We can make it, even without the donations from other countries. When we define peace, we define it as freedom. For Israelis, we are a trapped market of 3 billion. Sometimes the competition becomes not only unjust, but criminal. They will flood our market or not allow us to compete. At the peak of the season they will close the Gaza border, where much food is grown. Peasants in Gaza would throw their products on the ground because it becomes so cheap, when the same product is expensive on the west bank. But I believe I will make it. it is unfair to pass judgment on the pal. authority based on the current situation, because our hands are tied by the Israelis in almost every area.

We are not beggars. We are not a society built on charity. We can make it. Just we want the occupation to get off our backs. We are sick and tired of occupation.

I believe if this agreement is to be implemented, then there will be a Palestinian state in the end. There may be some restrictions about arms, etc. (and I prefer to buy computers instead). If the Israeli Government delays, then we will announce our state May 4th (1999). And even if Israel annexed areas b and c, it will be an illegal annexation. The labor party said they were not against our state. We as Palestinians are very sensitive to injustice. We believe in democracy, transparency, and this will be our task.

I returned to Bethlehem 4 years ago, after 27 years in exile. I resumed all monologues and dialogues as if I never left. Everything was the same. Even the weeds that grew in the crack in the wall…my neighbor’s wall with smooth concrete which I used as a black board to write my test questions. I could not recognize every place, but some places I passed by every day just to indulge in them. I feel sad a bit because the section of town where I live is less lively. There are no kids anymore…the shouts are in my imagination. I made a mistake of bringing my mother back. After 30 years I brought my mother back and she resumed the same argument with the same neighbors.

First published in The Compassionate Listening Journal, November 13, 1998

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