Khalil Mahshi is headmaster of the Friends’ Boys School in Ramallah. Joe Stork spoke with him there in late October 1993.
How do you assess the accord and its importance?
I didn’t know how to react. When Israeli friends asked me, “Why aren’t you happy? It’s mutual recognition, it’s the beginning of a real peace,” I said I wasn’t so sure on either account. I wanted Israel to recognize the PLO, which stood for our struggle for a two-state solution, but I have a feeling it’s more like a surrender than a peace agreement. When I read the text I saw some positive things. I think it’s something we can work with.
So now that you’ve reflected on it for another several weeks…
There was a lot of debate locally over whether it’s a bad agreement or a good agreement. My position was that whether we liked it or not, the agreement is going to be implemented, so let’s try to make the best of it.
What does that mean?
That means getting Israel to be as serious as possible about implementation.
But the process since the agreement…
This brings me to my feelings at the moment. I’m afraid there’s nothing to force Israel to implement it. Beyond that I have a bigger worry: that we are not really well-prepared for self-rule and for independence. Not only because Israel has not allowed us to be better prepared. Many Palestinians have expectations which will probably not be fulfilled. They have expectations that living conditions will improve, but that level is already higher than what we can really afford economically.
Second, many people have been struggling for independence, for peace, for liberation, and some of us have expectations as to sharing authority and being in positions of decision making. Many will rightly be frustrated because they have struggled, they want to be recognized, and there is not enough room.
Look at some of the people who are getting positions.
I don’t think we’re being very professional. I was asked whom I thought should be in charge of education. My choice would be somebody who knows what he is talking about, a professional in the field. I can understand why the top position might be a politician or a public figure, if that person is supported by a professional team. So far, I don’t see that we are well-prepared. We don’t have plans that we have shared with each other.
There’s a technical committee on education.
There is, but the only serious thing I’ve seen so far is work on textbooks and curriculum. That started before the agreement, a few months ago, when people thought that we should work on Palestinian curricula even under occupation.
What are the immediate needs in education?
We don’t have a plan for taking over the educational system. This would be the ideal moment to introduce badly needed reforms, but we haven’t thought of what changes we”re going to make, what are the detailed needs. I’m one of the people who works seriously in education, and I haven’t seen a plan. This is the source of my worry about not being democratic enough, not allowing enough participation.
I know from some members of the technical committee on education that they haven’t produced much so far. I was a member and then I withdrew — not in protest but because I didn’t think the structure was helpful or productive.
What’s the best thing about this agreement?
I never thought I’d see the day when Palestinian flags could be raised legally here. It broke a conviction that I’d die of old age before I’d see the occupation withdrawing. I was summoned by the Civil Administration less than two weeks ago. They said, “In July, we go. Are you ready?” I don’t know if they’re truly concerned, but they asked the right question. I said, “No, not really, but we hope we will be.” We wanted to get rid of occupation. What price we are paying is another matter. This is where people differ. But now we don’t have to spend all our time fighting occupation forces. We can start building.
How do you read the mood in the street here?
Listen, there are many who clap because they’re told to clap. Some because they see that, after all, we’re getting rid of occupation. And there are those, the majority I think, who are hoping that their lives will improve. The majority are for change and therefore are supportive of the agreement, not only because Fatah has a majority — which it has — but also because the majority want a change.
Do you have any thoughts on what sort of social transformation might come out of this?
I don’t want to use Marxist terminology, but there will be, well, some sort of class struggle. People in the camps will expect to have jobs, income, schooling, health services. I don’t know if this society is developed enough to insist on respectful behavior on the part of the police, the authorities. People are so used to being harassed and humiliated that I don’t know if they will protest if things are not better in this respect. This is my worry, because I don’t expect we will be treated any better by Palestinian police. I’m afraid we will end up like most other Arab countries. If we move in the direction Jordan seems to be going in, that’s not the worst.
Even within Fatah we will see opposition develop, and parties develop. I’ll give an example. There are 14 or 15 private schools in Jerusalem. After the Israeli municipality took over, Palestinians fled the public schools and these were created under the umbrella of the waqf and paid for by Jordan. When Jordan severed its ties with the West Bank [in 1988], the PLO took over paying salaries and expenses. Now the PLO can’t pay the salaries. Last weekend there was yet another strike — the latest of a dozen or so. The General Union of Palestinian Teachers is Fatah-linked, so the teachers went to the Orient House [where the Palestinian leadership has established its “state” offices] to demand — politely, for now — their salaries. We see the beginnings of people within Fatah who are disenchanted and frustrated, feeling left out.
One door that’s been opened further is explicit criticism of Palestinian authority by Palestinians.
Yes, we kept insisting that the US and Israel deal with the PLO, and one of the results is that now we’re dealing with the PLO. Today we are going to a meeting of community-based educators in Nablus. Since the agreement was signed, we’ve been asking ourselves what our role should be. We are non-governmental organizations with a vision of education in society. We support the authority to the extent that it adopts that vision. If the vision is not there, we will try to convince them. If they don’t respond, we will be in the opposition. People are ready to give the authority a chance. But if we are disappointed, we will shout.
So far the pattern of appointments from Tunis has not emphasized people who were in the forefront of the struggle against occupation. Instead you have people with significant economic or social weight — old families, people with some commercial ties to the Israelis. Is this a problem?
I would like to see better, but I would also allow a grace period of, say, a year or two, so that Arafat can pay people off and feel that he’s in control. But if this isn’t redressed after the authority is established on the ground here, then we will have a very big problem. He needs the support of people with clout. I have a problem with that, but I understand it. The first year or two — ma‘lish. Let them mess it up. But more than that and we’re lost.
How do you see the inside/outside dynamic working?
I don’t see it as inside/outside. It’s more who is put into power, how close he or she — and it will most probably be a he — is to Abu ‘Ammar [Arafat].
Do you expect the negotiations from here on out will be any more productive than those in Washington?
I think the Israelis will be difficult, but it’s in their interest to have this work. They’re trying to short-circuit things. They want now what should come after full agreement. I’m worried there’s not enough pressure to make the price on Israel high enough to meet our needs. People are trying to buy us off. “Here, take these millions of dollars and shut up.” These payoffs will not bring us a state, or a two-state solution. When we see the police getting trained with batons, we know what they’re being trained to do!
What sort of society do you expect to see here in terms of the social base of the authority, in terms of the secular-religious divide?
It won’t be a religiously dominated society. There will be some concessions to Hamas, but they are not in a position to extract a lot. The struggle is going to be around the question of democracy. The intellectuals will be primarily in the opposition. The middle class will keep quiet out of their concern to avoid economic disruption. The masses, at this point, want better living conditions. This will determine whether they will be opponents or supporters.