Interview with General Khaled Aref (PLO), Secretary of the Embassy of Palestine, Lebanon
It was not easy meeting General Khaled Aref. He is a very busy man. When I finally managed to reach his office, we arranged to have the interview the same day. While I was waiting for the general, I had the opportunity to talk with a few of the office personnel and meet a young man who was in charge of the commando unit. I watched some horrid images on Palestinian television of Hamas troops beating and taking presumably to interrogation and/or jail people who went out for the Salat, the Friday prayer. Hamas always claimed they have the means to protect the people of Gaza, to offer them a secure environment. The images taken in Gaza showed a Hamas that has transformed from protector to oppressor.
I had to wait two hours for the General to arrive thus I had plenty of time on my hands to talk to Palestinians and learn more about the Palestinian cause. The General apologized but I was actually glad it turned out this way. I do not remember the names of all the people I spoke with, and it is my turn to apologize but I want to thank them all, General Khaled Aref included.
WSN: Is the PLO present in each and every camp in Lebanon?
Khaled Aref: We have offices in all camps, and in some more than one. In Burj el-Barajneh we have about ten offices. One is for security, one for women rights, for handicapped people, students etc. In Beirut, in the North and in Beqaa, we established offices only two years ago. Most of our offices are there to help our people. Most are suffering and we try to do our best to help them. This is a big challenge. We are assisted by the EU, UNRWA, Arab countries and by thePLO.
WSN: Do you have offices in Nahr el Bared?
KA: Now? No, it was destroyed.
WSN: Yes, but did you have offices there before it was destroyed?
KA: We did. Our brothers remained there for two months maybe longer. Then the Lebanese army asked us to take the fighters out because it wanted to advance the operations and there was no need for the fighters to stay.
WSN: Did the PLO have information about the group of foreigners that entered the North camps carrying weapons?
KA: Yes we knew about them, but at first they did not enter with weapons. Their first stop was to Burj al Barajeneh and Shatila camp. They had no weaponry then. They came with Abu Musa and Abu Khader who referred to themselves as Fatah al Intifada. From the al Baddawi camp they relocated to Nahr el Bared. They moved their offices and took all the weapons of Fatah al Intifada or maybe Fatah al Intifada handed them the weapons. I don't know. They also took some of our weapons from both Nahr el Bared and Al Baddawi.
Now in the al Baddawi camp, we try to do our best to accommodate the refugees and we are waiting to meet Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, whom we have met many times before. Also, the European Union promised to support our efforts. We want to get the people out of the camps and back to their homes.
WSN: Who has the jurisdiction over the camps? Is it PLO or the Lebanese government?
KA: The Lebanese security and police did not pass into the camps until now. Nahr el Bared is the exception. All camps are PLO branches or Hamas and others.
WSN: Do you know how many factions are there within the camps? And do you have a relationship with all of them?
KA: There are many groups in all the camps and we have a relationship mainly with the PLO offices. We have meetings weekly, sometimes here in this office or in the camps with our leaders from the camps. Every once in a while we have meetings with others, too, but they are not followers of the PLO. With some we have a good relation, with others not.
WSN: Moving to another subject, what happened today in Gaza? Why are the Palestinians fighting among themselves?
KA: They are passing as we say in Arabic through the wall. Look at what they are doing. They try to put their hands on the camera. Look. If he is ashamed why does he do it? They feel ashamed and they do not anyone from outside to see this. This means they know very well that what they are doing is wrong, while we the democratic people...
Look, the soldier beats him because he tried to break away. They (Hamas) say, we are Muslims and we want to have a good relationship to all people. If they don't have good relations with the Palestinian people, then how can the world believe them when they are putting pressure on their own people? They cannot continue. I am sure they cannot continue. They are taking our people and our revolution I don't know where, maybe to the sky or the sea. They are doing their best to have a meeting with the Israeli leaders. We know very well that they are in Tel Aviv. Their spokesperson came and they are trying to do something. They are lying to the Palestinians and the Israelis. All they want is to remain in power in Gaza but I don't think they can continue this way.
No Israeli army can conquer us. For 30 years, the Israelis have tried and they failed. What happened today (in Gaza) at the Friday prayer is something the Palestinians will see daily. And this is not because of Abu Mazen. Look what they have on their faces (ski masks). This shows they are ashamed and know that they have chosen the wrong path. The people did not go out into the streets because Abu Mazen or others gave them orders to do so. People from the camps support the people of Gaza who took to the streets today. We in al Fatah do not beat, kill or imprison people that do not share our ideas.
I think you remember that President Arafat put Abdel Aziz al Rantisi and Sheik Ahmed Yassin in jail. It is said that Arafat put them in jail, but we know very well they were not jailed. The Israelis pressured Arafat and he tried to do what was good for both sides. They (Hamas) are doing things as if they are not our people.
WSN: Whom does Hamas represent? Does it represent half of the Palestinians?
KA: I did not want to say it now, but I wish we would have elections soon to see how many people in Gaza and the West Bank support them.
I know very well that the problem began with us. Our people in Bethlehem and Jerusalem voted for Hamas and they are Christians. They believed that Hamas would do something good. I think you heard that in Gaza Hamas went to the church (in order to create problems with the Christians) although President Arafat kept the Christians close to him. We do not differentiate between Muslims and Christians and we have Jews living with us in Palestine. We have good relations with the Jews. I feel ashamed talking about this situation with Hamas because they are Palestinians.
WSN: Did you open negotiations with Hamas leaders in Lebanon and/or outside it? Do you have any contact with Khaled Meshal and Ismayel Hanieyh?
KA: No. We have orders to be nowhere close to them. To solve the problems in the camps we may need to have meetings with them, but Oussama Hamdan knows we will not meet with them until they get back Gaza and solve this problem.
WSN: In your opinion, is it possible that we will see Fatah and Hamas join forces again?
KA: It is impossible. We cannot allow them to take the problems of Gaza to the West Bank and the camps. We are doing our best not to let them do what they are thinking. Not only in the West Bank but also in Lebanon. We are not looking at the numbers of our fighters here and there or at the number of those who are following us. We cannot let them destroy our revolution. We are leaving them to our people not to our fighters as you see they do in Gaza. They shoot those who do not agree with them. So far they have shot 300 people from Fatah in Gaza. We did not shoot at any of them in the West Bank or Lebanon and they are aware of the fact that we can do it but we will not. We want to have a good partnership with the European countries and not give them a bad impression of our people or our revolution.
WSN: What will it take to reach a genuine peace with Israel, not a truce or a “hudna” as you say it in Arabic?
KA: We want peace for our children and for their children. We want to continue what President Arafat started. We signed Oslo, Camp David, Cairo and many other agreements.
Also, the leaders have to live up to the agreements that they signed. The problem is not with us, it’s with them. Yes we have a small problem in Gaza but I am sure that it will end soon. The main problem is not with Hamas but with the Israeli leaders. Are they ready to give us our rights? Are they ready? Arafat agreed to take only the West Bank and Gaza. In spite of our agreements with the Israelis, every time they take a part of the land away. They came to President Arafat and said that he is a terrorist and that they wanted Abu Mazen to make an agreement with them. Abu Mazen came and they killed President Arafat as they killed Mr. Rabin. We know that the hands that killed Mr. Rabin killed President Arafat, too. We are not ready to talk about it at present. But soon. Anyway, they were not ready to give anything to President Arafat and they are not ready to give anything to President Abu Mazen. They want everything, the land, the sea, the sky etc. At the beginning I thought that yes it is possible to reach peace. Let them release the 11,000 prisoners from Israel’s jails. Let them dismantle some of the checkpoints.
KA: Did you visit Gaza or the West Bank?
WSN: No. Not yet.
KA:I wish you would visit it. You will see about 400 checkpoints only in the West Bank. This means that if someone wants to move from one place to another he needs at least two or three hours. This is proof the Israelis are not ready. They say that there are some terrorists and in their mind they mean every Palestinian person.
President Arafat agreed to take 45% - 46% of historical Palestine and we agreed with him because we felt that he was doing his best. After they killed Mr. Rabin, they brought Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon. When Sharon visited al Aqsa, he said he wanted to give us 10% from the 25%. This shows that they are not ready to give us anything. Changes must be made at the society level first and foremost. We are not fighting because we like war. We are fighting for our freedom and we are fighting to be like nay other people in the world: To have a flag, a nationality, a passport etc. When we do fight they say that it’s not good and we should try and put weapons aside because they want to make peace, too. All their leaders have said this. But look at what happened. I hope we will have peace one day and I will meet you in Jerusalem as capital of our Palestine.
WSN: You mean Eastern Jerusalem?
KA: In 1967, Jerusalem was divided in two between Jews and Palestinians. Since the beginning, the Christian churches have been with us. I think you know that many leaders in Palestine are Christians. To divide Muslims and Christians would be a very big mistake and we will never do it.
WSN: Thank you Sir.
Manuela Paraipan, WSN Editor "Broader Middle East", reports from Lebanon.