‘Abd al-Jawad Salih was born in al-Bira, Palestine, in December 1931. He finished high school there and later attended the American University in Cairo, where he received a B.A. in political economy in 1955. He taught briefly in Jerusalem, and then at a teachers’ training college in Tripoli, Libya. After being expelled from al-Bira in 1973 during his second term as mayor there, he served as an independent on the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization until 1981. He now lives and works in Amman, Jordan. Joe Stork spoke with him in Washington in October 1983.
When you were in Cairo, did you get involved in Palestinian political activity?
Yes, I was involved from the early 1950s. That was the most energetic era.
Did you help organize what later became Fatah?
No. I’ve never been a member of any Palestinian organization. I’m independent. After Cairo, I taught in Jerusalem briefly and then several years in Tripoli, Libya. In those days, Palestinians in Libya were looked down on as traitors for selling their lands and so forth. I wrote a lot in the newspapers to provide a better understanding of the Palestine question. I paved the way for the movement in Libya by providing a better perspective to the Libyans. Then I decided that I should not work outside Palestine, but inside. In 1962, I returned to al-Bira and started my own business. I was elected mayor in 1967, before the war, and reelected under occupation in 1972.1 was expelled a year later, in 1973.
What were your major accomplishments as mayor?
I think the creation of the Palestinian National Front—I’m not its founder, you know, it’s really a collective enterprise. We formulated in these seven years under occupation a new form of struggle: voluntary work and a movement of non-violent struggle against occupation. The Israelis considered this very dangerous to their security, so they expelled me. But I have never really been involved in any military thing.
Did your advocacy of non-violent struggle set you at odds with other Palestinians?
No, no. I never insisted on non-violent struggle alone. With the Israelis, it’s very difficult to depend only on political struggle. Look, I have lived ten years in exile. Even under the British emergency regulations of 1945, after five years of exile you could return. But this non-violent struggle might be the basis for political movement in the West Bank.
What has happened with the non-violent strategy since you left?
It’s continuing, but unfortunately there are different obstacles—local and outside forces who are either belittling this struggle or not giving it the emphasis and the support it needs.
Could you identify these?
Besides the Israeli measures disbanding it and making it unlawful, there was the attitude of the PLO. One week after the Israelis took a decision to outlaw the National Front, Arafat wrote me a letter saying that the National Front is not legal. In the same week! He wanted the National Front to be headed by [Gaza mayor Rashid] Shawwa and [Bethlehem mayor Elias] Freij. Neither I nor the rest of the leadership in the occupied territories would accept this. So he just blew it up.
He was able to do that?
He is, unfortunately, because the other organizations do not have enough weight to oppose Fatah. But it was essential to have a central leadership for the West Bank and Gaza. For the first time in the history of Palestine after 1948, there was a political unity between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It’s impossible to lead the West Bank through remote control instruments. Impossible.
Which was more devastating in your point of view: the Israeli decision or the PLO decision?
The Israelis, after my expulsion, decided to block any tendency toward this national movement. The PLO Executive Committee decided to reform the National Front. And we succeeded. But when political differences arose in the PLO, it was destroyed. Abu ‘Ammar wanted Shawwa and Freij on the central committee of the National Guidance Committee. These men are mistrusted by our people in the occupied territories. Bassam Shakaa, Karim Khalaf, Ibrahim Tawil—none of us would accept them in the National Guidance Committee. [The Palestine National Front, proclaimed in August 1973, was a coalition of nationalist political forces in the West Bank in which the local Communist Party played an influential role. The Front was crushed and disbanded in. the repression of West Bank opposition to Camp David and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of March 1979. The National Guidance Committee was a much looser structure of nationalist mayors and leaders of social institutions and trade unions which functioned in the aftermath of the PNF until it too was banned by the Israeli occupation authorities. —Eds.]
Why did Arafat and the leadership want Shawwa and Freij?
I don’t know. Arafat adopted wrong policies in many spheres concerning the occupied territories. Many, many.
What were the major ones?
I remember in 1976, when the Israelis decided to hold new elections, the PLO Executive Committee intended not to take a decision about participating. I was furious. People inside the occupied territories were furious. So I wrote to the Executive Committee. I told them, “I’ll resign and then I’ll come out in a press conference and make a scandal of your policies. Make a decision, either positive or negative.” I explained the advantages of a positive approach. Then they agreed to support candidates. It was a little bit late, but we succeeded. I told them, “If I don’t get you 95 percent of the councils in favor of the PLO, you can put me on trial anywhere you want.” Unfortunately, they don’t pay attention to the occupied territories.
Did this represent a means of keeping control over developments? It would seem that people like Freij and Shawwa need PLO endorsement in order to preserve their own standing at the nationalist level. In turn, they’d be more beholden to the PLO.
Exactly. Shawwa remained as mayor of Gaza because he was supported by the PLO. He was appointed by the Israelis, but he remained in office with the support of Abu ‘Ammar. I believe this attitude developed because Abu ‘Ammar was gambling on the Americans. He is their victim, as really Sadat was. He thinks that the Americans, through the Saudis, might give him a state. And that’s why he’s trying to mold policies, which really would receive the approval of the Americans and the Saudis. I think this is his biggest mistake.
From a West Bank perspective, what is the relationship between non-violent political struggle and the armed struggle?
If you study the 1936-1939 revolt, you find that they were more advanced than the PLO in the 1970s. They used to occupy towns and villages and destroy all the British institutions and apartments there. They did this in Hebron, they did it in Bethlehem, they did it in our town. But in this period, it’s just putting a bomb here and there. What was taking place under the name of armed struggle in the 1960s and 1970s was more words than actions.
Is your point of view shared by other major political figures on the West Bank?
I believe so. They also believe, rightly, that any divisions within the PLO will weaken their position vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation. In addition, they have an interest in maintaining good relations with the PLO and the Jordanians.
How do you evaluate the present state of the Palestinian national movement?
Frankly, before May 1983 I was so pessimistic. After the PNC in Algiers, I was really shocked. A leadership facing defeat in Beirut, leaving Beirut and doing what it did in Algiers was impossible for me to believe. I said that it’s impossible for my people to accept this. Before that, in Aden, they met and spent $12 million. Twelve million dollars, while the young Palestinian women who were holding the Kalashnikovs just one year ago, now are going with the American soldiers in Beirut. But after Abu Salih, Qadri and Abu Musa challenged Arafat, I see a light, a small one.
You see the movement that’s developed around Abu Musa as a remedy?
It depends on many things. First, if the Fatah people mobilize around this leadership to institute a democratic Fatah organization, have really free elections and accept whatever leadership comes out. Second, if the other Palestinian organizations recognize this leadership. What will make them an alternative to Abu ‘Ammar’s leadership is what practical steps they take towards the occupied territories. Israel is taking practical steps and I believe that we should do the same.
What steps would you recommend to them?
I would ask them loudly, so that people could hear what the occupied territories really want, for something concrete to be done. Our people are facing settlements, and are being expelled. They should bring back the quarter of a million who have left and find jobs for them in the West Bank. People who are working in Israeli establishments should work on their land in the occupied territories. We should have a specific policy to build—not only houses, but even caves in the mountains, to settle families in these mountains in order to stop the settlements.
Having jobs for 250,000 people on the West Bank is easier said than done.
I have done it. As mayor of a small town, I used to involve not just the laborers of our town, but those of 80 villages. I started from scratch—the skilled laborers, the masons who used to make five to seven dinars per day, I called them to work for 30 piasters, just to afford bread. When the Israelis opened their markets for our labor, none of our laborers went to work in Israel. The military governor often interrogated me, “What do you mean, threatening them?” I said, “You think they do not work for you because I threaten them?” The Saudis, who are spending millions of dollars, should pay this. And they should know how to pay for it, too. The Israelis every year decide to build so many settlements, and they build them. And they ask the Jewish people and the Western governments to pay for them. We should do the same thing. If we have a leadership, an independent leadership, not agents to these regimes, I think we could make these Arabs pay for them.
I don’t recall Abu Musa ever saying a word about the occupied territories. It doesn’t seem to be an issue for him. Also, my impression is that the popular sentiment in the occupied territories seems to be very much with Abu ‘Ammar and not at all with Abu Musa.
I think the Syrians made a big mistake in expelling Abu Ammar. Abu ‘Ammar planned this. Ninety-five percent of our people in the occupied territories, in Jordan, everywhere, were with this opposition movement. When the Syrians dismissed Abu ‘Ammar, things changed 180 degrees. The Syrians are not well-loved by our people. If it was a Syrian movement, really, I wouldn’t back it myself. I’ll tell you, those in the occupied territories who know the political arena of Fatah and the inside story of Fatah, and those who really are freedom fighters, not beneficiaries of Saudi funds, they still are with the new movement.
There hasn’t been much sign of independence from Syria.
I agree. Syria is not only a geographical fact for the Palestinians, but a political and military fact. This influence has confronted the PLO since 1976. But I’m not worried too much about this relationship now, because I believe the Syrians at this moment are taking a positive stance against Camp David, against the Lebanese-Israeli agreement. How this will end, nobody knows.
If you consider the record of the Asad regime, the future is very dubious.
Yes. When you don’t have a clear strategy, you are dealing with everybody on tactical grounds. This is our problem. That is why we want a piece of land—to have our state on it. I think when Syria decides to evacuate Lebanon, these people will not abide by the orders of the Syrians.
I know Abu Musa has said this, but haven’t there already been some withdrawals?
Haven’t they pulled out of Shatoura?
Well, the battle hasn’t yet ended. It doesn’t matter if they withdrew a few kilometers. But if Syria decides to withdraw—I don’t think it will, because the Israelis will never withdraw.
Abu Musa uses the language of the heroic guerrilla, and invokes the spirit of Karama. It’s understandable psychologically, but it doesn’t represent a strategy.
It’s true. The new movement is trying to grab the hearts of the Fatah people by going back to its roots. Some of them are taking it seriously, not just as a tactical point. I believe that the dangers of such policies are less than the dangers of surrendering the revolution.
Arafat has tried to secure a West Bank-Gaza state. This goal has a lot of support on the West Bank. Can the new movement be classified as rejectionists?
Not all of them. Some of them, yes. Nobody in the West Bank is against a Palestinian state. I am with Abu Salih and Qadri, and I am still with the Palestinian state. But where is it? The Americans or the Israelis will never recognize the PLO. If the Americans want to find a solution, they can still choose Arafat for doing this. I tell you, it’s really demoralizing to have this division, especially on our people in the occupied territories and in Lebanon. None of the Palestinians in the West Bank believe that any political solution is possible. The West Bank is going to be annexed.
The big question is not whether it will be annexed, but can the Palestinians manage to hold on there.
I believe that the poisoning incident was part of the tools and instruments Aharon Yariv spoke about. [In a lecture at Hebrew University in the spring of 1980, former military intelligence chief Aharon Yariv said: “Some people talk of expelling 700,000 to 800,000 Arabs in the event of a new war, and instruments have been prepared [for this contingency].” —Eds.] It will continue in a different form, in a different way. One of our problems is how to face this. They can do anything and call the response “mass hysteria.”
How will Abu Musa face this?
I don’t know. Anyway, I don’t care about verbal stands.
How important was the Jordanian dialogue in this split?
The only achievement of the PLO has been the recognition of the Arabs and the other foreign nations that the PLO is the sole legitimate leadership of the Palestinians. Going to a regime, whatever this regime is, and trying to share this achievement, or surrender it, is really a crime by itself.