Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Sami al-Kilani is a member of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks. A poet and short-story writer, he has spent several years in Israeli prisons and under town arrest in his home in Ya‘bad in the occupied West Bank. His brother Ahmad was shot dead by Israeli troops in October 1988. Joost Hiltermann interviewed him in Washington, DC, in December 1991.

I understand that members of the delegation held town meetings in the West Bank and Gaza after the Madrid conference.

Yes, more than 30 such meetings all over the Occupied Territories. I attended six: in Ya‘bad and in Tura al-Gharbiyya, a small village; in Bayt Wazzan near Nablus; in Nablus itself; in the Jerusalem suburb of Bayt Hanina; and a small meeting in Ramallah for political activists. It actually started before Madrid, after the names of the delegates were announced, at least for myself and Zahira Kamal. The delegates met in Jerusalem, and we decided that our relation with our people was an essential basis for anything we were going to do.

On October 23, two days before we left for Madrid, I went to Ya‘bad to visit the grave of my brother Ahmad, and to say goodbye to my family. I found that people had written slogans on the walls of my house in Ya‘bad. Opponents had written: “The blood of Ahmad al-Kilani won’t be sold in Madrid.” Supporters had written: “We support your national mission.” And: “Yes to this initiative” and “The PLO is supporting you.”

Some of the young people of the intifada wanted me to speak. Supporters wanted me to clarify what was going on and answer the accusations of the opponents. I liked very much the idea of addressing the people in town, especially the opposition. I told them that the only slogan they had written that was correct was that my brother’s blood would not be sold in Madrid! Our mission was a continuation of the struggle in which he and the other martyrs had paid with their blood.

Who was there?

We met in the yard of the secondary school. There were about three thousand people from Ya‘bad and surrounding villages. The opponents were a minority. They just sent those who were going to ask critical questions, not the masses — if they have masses. First there were some speeches by national factions, all in support, and then I spoke about the basis on which we were going to Madrid: that we are depending on the legitimacy of the PNC and the PLO Central Council decisions, and on the sacrifices our people have made since they started their struggle against foreign occupation. We consider our mission as an extension of that struggle. I also talked about Ya‘bad’s role in the resistance, about ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam who was killed in Ya‘bad by the British army in 1935.

Anyone who had a question could come to the platform. Supporters and opponents shared a concern about what we were going to get out of this process. Those who supported the process felt the PLO had taken the right decision, but they asked: “Don’t you think that the other side [Israel] is rigid and will not concede anything? What are you going to do if they don’t give anything?” The opponents said we were going against the decisions of the PNC and the Central Council. They understand it in a different way. They referred to “preconditions,” but our position is that these are not preconditions, they are phases that we have to go through. Opponents also charged that we were making concessions even before the process had started, and they didn’t understand why we should go on the invitation of the USA, the traditional enemy of the people.

How did you respond?

I was very frank: I told them we were not going to Madrid with guaranteed results. It was not like everything was ready and we were just going there to pick it up. The maximum aspiration was the objective mentioned in the letters of invitation: We would have this period of interim self-government for a gradual transfer of authority from the occupier to the occupied, which might then lead to independence.

The minimum aspiration was that Israel would create all kinds of obstacles and destroy the effort with its obstinacy. Then the siege around the PLO and the Palestinian people could be breached, and we would have easier circumstances than we have had until now. If we refuse to participate, I said, we would be the only ones to do so. You can refuse only if you are strong enough, and you have everything in your hand. However, we are not in a position to tell them “go and do what you like.” We would be isolated all over the world, and this would be very dangerous for our struggle.

I told them I could not give them any guarantees. If Israel was going to ruin this process by its stubbornness, we would return and continue our struggle, but in a different situation internationally and on the Arab level as well.

Were you attacked by your critics?

They tried to present emotional arguments, like: “How can you accept to participate in a conference with the killers of your brother and with American imperialists?”

They also raised my past: I spent three years in prison for distributing pamphlets against Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977. They asked me what had changed. I said there are two differences between then and now: First, the international balance of power has changed; there is no Eastern Bloc or Soviet Union anymore; and there is no Arab solidarity anymore either. And second, the circumstances after the October war in 1973 enabled us to demand a comprehensive solution for the whole problem. Sadat had a solution for Sinai, and then added something, though not on the same level, for the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights. This was opposed by all the factions in the Palestinian national movement, as well as by the Arab world.

Some of the refugees from 1948 who live in and around Ya‘bad asked whether their situation was going to be discussed. I told them that this conference and the following talks will deal with two distinct phases: the period of interim self-government and the final status phase. In the final status phase, the question of refugees will be a subject of negotiation, and there will be a solution for that. I told them that they had not been forgotten.

Three thousand people is a large meeting. What was the Israeli army doing?

An army vehicle was driving back and forth. They knew what was going on. But the organizers of the meeting did not allow anyone to throw anything at the soldiers or provoke them. Some individuals tried to do something, but they were told, “If you are really serious about having a confrontation with the army, wait until after the meeting is over, and we are ready to go with you to face the soldiers, but don’t use it as a way of destroying the meeting.”

Did you have a sense that you had strong support in Ya‘bad for your negotiating mission?

Yes, I was very satisfied. Regardless of how confident you are about yourself and your position, sometimes you are worried what people are thinking about. I had been concerned about what the outcome of the meeting was going to be, because it would leave its mark on the days I would be outside.

After the meeting, I went to my brother’s grave with some of the participants, as well as my mother, my wife Nuha and my three children, and my brothers and sisters, and some friends. We visited the grave of Ahmad and recited the fatiha. Then I returned to Nablus.

My brothers [who support a different faction of the national movement] had been critical of my position, but the family bond is very strong. They came to the meeting and stayed near me. They did not ask any questions. They said they understood what I was doing. After Madrid, two of them showed their support publicly.

After Madrid you went back to Ya‘bad?

Yes, and to Tura al-Gharbiyya. Again we met in the schoolyard. This time it was more of a celebration than a meeting. I spoke about what had happened in Madrid, about Haydar [‘Abd al-Shafi]’s speech, about what we had achieved. I told people that this had been the outcome of their struggle. There was much less opposition now to what I said. Some critics said that the intifada had put the Palestinian question on TV screens much more than the Madrid conference had done. I told them, “Yes, you’re right. I’m not saying that Madrid is better than the intifada. I am saying that Madrid came in this period that we are being besieged from every point of view, and it has enabled us to regain what we lost during the Gulf war.”

We also talked about the olive branches after Madrid. We had agreed among the members of the delegation that we would accept these euphoric celebrations with olive branches only for a day or two. We didn’t want these celebrations to continue because the occupation soldiers didn’t respond at all to this manifestation of good will. We told the people that we wanted the intifada to go on because the intifada is the real backing for us, even in the negotiations. We have to continue to struggle, and negotiating is one form of this struggle.

People were also concerned about their daily lives. They were asking: “Are the Israelis going to make good will gestures? Will prisoners be released? Will taxes be reduced? Will families be allowed to make prison visits [to Ansar III]? Will people get permits to cross the bridge [to Jordan]?” — all these concerns that touch people in their daily lives. I said that we had presented a list of confidence-building measures to Israel and the co-sponsors, but that we didn’t expect the Israelis to concede so easily. I warned people that the Israelis were trying to sabotage the whole process indirectly, intensifying their measures against our people inside the Occupied Territories in order to make people reach a point that they say: “Hey, what are you doing there in Washington? Come home! It’s useless!” I warned them to be patient enough not to respond to their provocations. But patience does not mean that we will be making concessions all the time.

How to cite this article:

Joost Hiltermann "Why We Negotiate," Middle East Report 175 (March/April 1992).
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