George Hazboun is a leading Palestinian trade unionist. He was dismissed from his elected position as deputy mayor of Bethlehem by a January 22 municipal council decision, spearheaded by Mayor Elias Freij, for his alleged abstention from attending council meetings since May 1982. Coming as it did three weeks before the convening of the Palestine National Council in Algeria, this dismissal was interpreted by the national movement as an attempt to clear the ground for pro-Hashemite elements in the West Bank to make their presence known in the Algiers meeting and to mute anti-Jordanian sentiment locally. Almost all the major municipal councils in the West Bank, elected on pro-PLO slates in 1976, had either resigned or been dismissed by the Israeli Civil Administration during the popular uprising against the Civil Administration in the spring of 1982. Most councils that were not dismissed took a decision of non-cooperation with the Civil Administration and were replaced by Israeli military officers. Among the notable exceptions to this policy of non-cooperation were the municipalities of Bethlehem, Gaza and Tulkarm. Hazboun, who is often associated with the banned Palestine Communist Party (PCP), is the only leftist member of the Bethlehem council. He abided by a collective decision of the national forces in the West Bank, taken on May 1, 1982, calling for the suspension of all non-vital services provided by the municipalities until the Civil Administration cancels its dismissal and (internal) exile orders against non-cooperating mayors. Hazboun’s dismissal was widely attacked by West Bank national circles, including dismissed mayors Karim Khalaf (Ramallah) and Bassam Shakaa (Nablus), and by the trade union movement. Beshara Doumani and Salim Tamari spoke with George Hazboun in Bethlehem a week after his dismissal as deputy mayor.
Can you give us a little background about your union history and your activities in the Bethlehem municipality?
I was one of the founders of the Bethlehem General Workers’ Union in 1964 and have been its chairman since then. Currently, our union has about 2,000 members, lt is one of the biggest unions in the West Bank. After 1967, I was one of the founders of the West Bank Federation of Labor Unions. From 1978 until today, I have been vice chairman of the executive committee.
As for the municipality, I entered the election in 1976 as an independent, based on a decision by the West Bank Federation of Labor Unions. I came in second—the difference between me and Freij was 71 votes.
What can you tell us about your dismissal from the municipal council?
The real battle began with Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977. At that time, the Bethlehem Council refused to sign a petition endorsed by all other national forces rejecting the visit and its implications. The Council also refused to participate in the Jerusalem conference, called by municipalities and nationalist institutions, which led to the formation of the National Guidance Committee at the end of 1978.
Elias Freij was in the forefront of those welcoming Sadat. His position has been consistently in harmony with Camp David. After the announcement of the Reagan Plan, in September 1982, Freij visited Jordan, met with King Hussein, and returned to organize the Freij document, or “surrender” document as it is known. This document was also signed by a number of other pro-Jordanian figures.
What happened with this document?
Mustafa Dudin announced his support, and other Village League figures began endorsing it. The organizers were then forced to retract, not only because the national forces opposed it but because the matter had become scandalous for them.
How do you see the issue of cooperation with the Civil Administration?
After the dismissal of several municipal councils, the Bethlehem municipal council met at the end of April 1982 to study the situation. Freij announced that there was a petition asking the council first, to suspend official operations until the deposed mayors were reinstated; second, to reject the Civil Administration plan; and third, to refuse to cooperate with Milson and his officials. Naturally, the suspension of official services did not mean that essential services—like garbage, electricity and water—would not continue through the municipal apparatus. The intent of the strike was not to punish our citizens, but to show our clear refusal to deal with the Civil Administration. The Bethlehem Council approved the petition. But even though it was signed in Freij’s own house, he was the first mayor to break the strike. He didn’t even observe it for one day.
We, however, as a union movement, saw that the Civil Administration—and any cooperation with it—served the “iron fist” policy begun by the Begin government in May 1980 with the deportation of Milham and Qawasma and the banning of the National Guidance Committee. During this period, there was a military order altering Jordanian Labor Law 83 concerning trade unions. Now names of union executive committee nominees had to be sent a month in advance to the military government for approval. The authorities can cancel any name without any reason. Anyone who was in Israeli prison for three years or more cannot be nominated.
In a similar vein, the military authorities issued Military Order 854 to control the universities, and 825 for secondary school students. This policy of systematic harassment of institutions includes the unions. The chairman of the Ramallah General Workers’ Union is still in prison since his detention two weeks ago. The military authorities summoned the secretary-general of the West Bank Federation of Trade Unions, ‘Adil Ghanim, and told him it is forbidden to hold any meeting of the executive council of the Federation without informing the military government three days prior to the meeting. These measures aim to paralyze the unions. It is in this context that Freij initiated my dismissal.
Hitting nationalist institutions used to be the prerogative of the military government. Now groups allied with the “surrender” line have raised their heads, thinking that after the Lebanon War there is a shift in the balance of forces in the occupied territories. They think that, in alliance with the reactionary Jordanian regime, they can attack the nationalist forces. In this scheme, Freij occupies first place, along with Shawwa and Hikmat al-Masri and others. In my view, they encourage the occupation authorities to attack nationalist elements in the occupied territories.
It is customary for the nationalist movement to distinguish between politically discredited elements such as the Village Leagues and the right-wing nationalist elements such as Freij and Shawwa. What about this particular period allows Freij to dismiss you?
Until 1977, Freij was sensitive to the wishes of the nationalist movement and went along with its line. My relationship with him was distinguished by my ability to ensure his commitment to the general national line. After Freij visited the Arab countries in 1977, and Bethlehem “twinned” with Abu Dhabi, it seems that he achieved harmony with the Palestinian right. He began to coordinate his position with Shawwa and others, like Abu Zuluf, the editor-in-chief of the pro-Jordanian al-Quds. Freij knows that there are consequences to his decision to dismiss me, but he thinks it is a storm in a teacup. Freij thinks people are concerned with a speedy end to occupation, and will not pause long on this issue. What is dangerous is that immediately after this incident, he traveled to Egypt and issued statements asking the PLO and Jordan to join Camp David, although not by name.
I see Freij as an expression of a political line that has begun to find adherents in the occupied territories. It presents itself as an alternative to the PLO, even though it may paste a slogan on its chest declaring the PLO is the sole legitimate representative.
When Freij came back from Jordan, I met him at his house and asked if he had any talks with Jordanian or Palestinian representatives about the municipalities’ strike. He said Jordan agreed to give the municipality 50,000 dinars; and Palestinian officials listened to his point of view. He felt this indicated indirect approval of his position on the strike. When I reminded him that others are still on strike, he said: “They don’t want to upset Bassam Shakaa, but they want the municipalities to keep working.” Anyway, he seems to be correct. He is smart.
King Hussein told him that the only guarantee Israel will not attack Jordan is to open up a dialogue with the US. Freij said: “I agree with the king because the continuation of the status quo means more settlements here, so we must save what can be saved.” But since 44 percent of the occupied territories have been confiscated for Israeli settlement, and 15 percent for military purposes, and Jerusalem is not negotiable, what is there left to save? Freij’s position is against an independent Palestinian state and against Palestinian self-determination.
The capability of the US to pressure Israel is nil. Yet King Hussein is unlikely to enter negotiations without some guarantee that he will get something out of it. This business about the occupation of the East Bank is not very convincing. How do you explain that Freij declares war on the nationalist forces, dismisses George Hazboun, meets Mubarak, blesses Camp David—at the same time knowing that the range of American intervention is limited?
Freij could not do this unless he had a green light from both Israel and Jordan. He, of course, considers that he has done a service to the nationalist forces. He has cast aside the Communists, whom he views as an obstacle to peace, especially as he considers that the political statements of Yasser Arafat are not far from his own.
As far as American pressure on Israel, Freij does not demand the dismantling of settlements. Freij believes, as do Jordan and others, that the PLO is weak after Lebanon and that Arafat’s diplomatic moves, such as meeting Israelis in Tunis, legitimate his own political moves. He wants to hit the PLO with its own slogans.
The king is also moving his men in the West Bank, commercial elements of the bourgeoisie who see in confederation an outlet for their own interests in the Arab market.
Surely there are elements of the bourgeoisie who support a Palestinian state.
Of course they want a nation—but they want it in their own image. A substantial segment of these bourgeoisie emigrated to the East Bank and opened up shops, offices and industries there. Of course, they cannot compete with Israeli goods, but things don’t stop there. We, as a working class, as a union movement, restricted our demands to those we are entitled to under Jordanian labor laws promulgated in 1965. Our objective has been to support local industries in order to create new opportunities for Palestinian workers and to stop their migration to Israel for work, lt is not a coincidence that 65.7 percent of the labor force are wage laborers—that is one of the highest percentages of wage laborers in the world. The bourgeoisie is afraid of the social content of a future Palestinian state that the working class demands, i.e., a state within the June 1967 borders, with the right of refugees to return. This is not the state the bourgeoisie wants, because its social essence will be democratic and progressive and therefore will not express the ambitions of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeois vision of a state is the development of a relationship with the bureaucratic bourgeoisie tied to Jordan.
Can you delineate the differences between Arafat’s and Freij’s current political moves?
Yasser Arafat’s movements are in harmony with the Aden decisions affirming the Palestinian right to self-determination and an independent state. His meetings with progressive Israelis in Tun is, for example, are within the guidelines stipulated in the Aden conference, as well as in harmony with the last three Palestine National Congress meetings. After the PLO’s departure from Beirut, Yasser Arafat initiated a vigorous diplomatic campaign that did not deviate from the Palestinian national consensus, at least as far as slogans were concerned. Yasser Arafat did not say “a Palestinian state according to the Reagan Plan”; he did not say “I agree with Camp David”; he did not say “mutual recognition.”
The PLO seems to be getting closer conceptually to the political program of the PCP but there seems to be a polarization over how these goals should be achieved. Some claim that the majority of the Palestinian people are for saving land at the expense of national rights because they are sick of occupation.
First, land and identity cannot be separated. Any compromise on either of them is a retreat on the rights of the Palestinian people. Convergence between all the PLO factions and the political program of the PCP is a healthy phenomenon. In my opinion, the program of the Communists is a realistic assessment of the local and international balance of forces. The unfortunate thing is that suddenly the Communists are being seen as the mostintransigentforce in the occupied territories. From 1967 until the present, the Communists have not changed their slogans. With the others, the changes are clear.
How do you see the role of the nationalist institutions—especially the dismissed municipalities and the workers’ unions, as discussions proceed on the Reagan Plan and confederation with Jordan?
These institutions represent the aspirations of the masses. National unity is the basic goal enabling us to achieve an effective role. The PLO confronts the task of concretizing this national unity through a clear and defined program—on the level of financial support, through representation of all effective forces, including the PCP, in the component institutions of the PLO. The decisions of the PLO’s central council meeting in Damascus were a step in this direction. National unity finds its application in stopping the divisions and factionalism that took place after the split of the Federation of Trade Unions in the West Bank. It is important to restore formal unity to the labor movement, the voluntary work movement, the women’s movement, the student movement and the national movement under the leadership of the PLO.
How realistic is your vision of national unity?
The strong, solid unions are the ones raising slogans for national unity. Newly formed unions that don’t have more than 10 or 20 members are not a reflection of the failure of national unity, and don’t mean the masses are divided. There is real and wide national unity in the base. The problem is at the top.