19 July 2006

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Ten eyes for an eye, ten teeth for a tooth

While blaming Hizbollah for provoking Israel’s wrath former President Prof. GUIDO DE MARCO considers the Israeli reaction as lacking a sense of proportion.
Instead of the proverbial “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”, according to De Marco this is a case of “ten eyes for an eye and ten teeth for a tooth”.
The former President’s advice is that peace and security can only be achieved through diplomacy. Other wise any attempt to right wrongs by sheer military might can only create an endless spiral of reactions, which create new wrongs.
But diplomacy should not be based on equidistance. Citing Italian statesman Gulio Andreotti, De Marco argues that diplomacy can only work if the west seeks ‘equivicinanza’ (closeness) instead of ‘equidistanza’ (equidistance) in its relationship with the Arabs and the Israelis.

Was Isreal justified in attacking Lebanon after Hizbollah kidnapped two of its soldiers?
No country in the world would like to see its soldiers kidnapped by somebody else. By kidnapping two Israeli soldiers, Hizbollah was responsible for starting the conflict on the Lebanese southern front. Following such an action, an Israeli reaction was expected. But the Israelis have not shown any sense of proportion in their reaction. In criminal law self-defence is qualified. If I punch you in the face, you have no right to shoot me with a revolver.
On this particular episode it is clear that Hizbollah has provoked the conflict with Israel. If one forgets what was happening in Gaza at the same time, if one forgets that as a reaction to the abduction of one Israeli soldier, Israel has jailed five Palestinian cabinet ministers, if one forgets the Israeli attacks on Gaza… it is a fact that Hizbollah provoked the conflict. The difficulty is that the Israeli reaction was not a proportional one. It was not a case of an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. In this case we have ten eyes for an eye and ten teeth for a tooth.

The Israeli ambassador Ehud Gol has lambasted western critics of the Israeli actions hitting civilians in Lebanon by saying, “we deal with vicious people that don’t act to your codes. You are part of a western world and you never understood their codes.” In view of the historical threats of annihilation faced by the Israeli people, do you understand the Israeli distrust of the Arab world?
The Israeli people have a long history of suffering. With such a terrible history, the Israelis are prone to react in a way, which defies a sense of proportion. But one should remember that the concentration camps - a stain on the entire human race - were not made by Arabs but by European countries. To put everything into perspective we have to look at the facts in history. We have also to look at the historical truths of the Palestinian people who have been living for the past decades denied of a homeland of their own.

But in today’s scenario Israel is confronted by militant groups like Hamas in Palestine and Hizbollah in Lebanon who deny Israel’s right to exist. Is this not sufficient reason for Israel to feel threatened?
Naturally this threat is a real one. Yet one should also remember that Israel is a strong country. It has one of the most powerful armies in the world with an arsenal of very sophisticated weapons. It has the backing of some of the most powerful countries. We are not speaking about a Kuwait, which was attacked by a stronger neighbour. Secondly, we should also try to understand how a group like Hamas was democratically elected in Palestine. We had a situation where Yasser Arafat was subject to continuos humiliations. Despite being awarded the Nobel Peace Price and together with Shimon Perez and Yizhak Rabin signing the Oslo agreement and trying to ensure that a future Palestinian state would be a secular one, and despite his willingness to accept that Jerusalem should be a capital for both nations, he was treated badly.
No Palestinian was ever ready to concede so much. But what did he receive in return? He was kept confined in a bunker in Ramallah. If one acknowledges this injustice, one can understand some of the reasons why Hamas was elected. In the eyes of the Palestinian people, Arafat and his people were not strong enough to resist the Israelis. Arafat was only allowed to move out of Ramallah when he was practically moribund and only after the pleas of many. The rise of Hamas was also the direct consequence of the treatment reserved for Arafat when he was still alive. One mistake provokes another mistake. This is why things are worsening and we have an escalation.

But Hamas is now a political reality. Israel says it will not talk to Hamas because it is a terrorist organisation. The United States and to a similar extent the European Union also exclude Hamas for the same reason. How can we have peace if one of the main interlocutors is excluded?
In the long run diplomacy is always the most effective way forward. The occupation of another state by another is also terrorism.

Can one remain equidistant in a struggle where both sides feel wronged by history?
We have to understand the plight of both peoples. When we are close to the Palestinian people, we are not pitting ourselves against Israel. We are simply saying that both people should coexist by abiding to the United Nations resolutions.

Today we are facing two different realities, one in Lebanon and one in the occupied Palestinian lands. How far are these issues inter-related?
The two realities are interlocked. An Arab nation stretching from Morocco to the Indian Ocean exists. This nation feels humiliated and deprived of something, which they feel, is theirs by right. Throughout their history, all sides have committed wrongs. But there is one fundamental truth; the Palestinians do not have a land of their own.

But why should the occupation of Palestine affect Arabs living far away in other countries with their own problems and realities?
The Arabs feel a strong sense of belonging to the Arab nation. They have a strong sense of Arab identity just as Europeans profess having a European identity. Arab identity is even stronger because they have a common language and most of them have a common religion.

On Sunday the G8 countries, the most powerful countries in the world, have squarely blamed Hizbollah for the current crisis and made a call for a cease-fire conditional on the release of the Israeli soldiers. Do you agree?
In this case it was Hizbollah who provoked the crisis on the frontier with Lebanon by kidnapping the soldiers.
In these circumstances it was understandable and correct that the G8 should take such a position. There was also another positive development in the G8 declaration - the possibility of sending a peacekeeping force under the mandate of the United Nation to supervise the frontier between Lebanon and Isreal. Although I am sceptical on whether this is possible, if it happens it will have a positive impact.

Yet Israel is saying that the entire Lebanese government is to blame for not assuming its authority on the Lebanese southern frontier and thus allowing Hizbollah to launch attacks on Israel…
The Israeli government is justified to blame the Lebanese government for not enforcing its authority on its border with Israel but one should not forget the historical background. One should not forget that some years ago Israel also occupied southern Lebanon. Naturally, the memories of those who have suffered during the occupation survive. That is why I am very much against wars. Wars always leave open wounds. I still remember the scenes in a hospital in Gaza where I saw a Palestinian young man with his gutted intestine as a result of being shot at. People continue to live these memories. That is why hatred breeds hatred. That is why Malta, by being close to both people should do its best to promote peace.

Malta is a small country. What role can it have?
This is precisely our advantage. Nobody can suspect that we have a hidden agenda. The only thing we can gain is peace. Malta should continue acting in the role of serving as a bridge between north and south as augured by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Malta in 2001.
When I was President of the Union Nations General Assembly, the Palestinians were foolishly siding with Saddam Hussien who had just invaded Kuwait. On that occasion, I warned the Palestinians that after winning their independence they will be a small state like Kuwait and that they are obliged to side with Kuwait and those defending its sovereignty. I was not patronising them as I also hailed from a small state. The typical Palestinian response was to highlight the fact that while the oil-rich Kuwaitis immediately found international support, the Palestinians were completely ignored.
Is this because we do not have any oil running in our veins, the Palestinians used to ask.

You have previously spoken on the need of an international conference for the Middle East. Does this mean that the road map has failed?
The road map had its advantages and disadvantages but it has not taken us any further. The road map has only served to tell the Palestinians; if you behave properly you will some day after many years become a nation. Can we expect the Palestinians who have been hearing this since 1947 to continue believing in this fairy tale? On Christmas day 1999 just a few days before the millennium I was visiting the Holy Land to attend the traditional mass in Bethlehem. Towards midnight of the 25 December, Arafat called me for an urgent meeting. He pleaded with me to pass a message on his behalf to Israeli Prime Minister Barak; ‘tell him that I don’t mind being humiliated but how can he expect me to lead my people towards peace when instead of reducing the Israeli settlements these were triplicated?’

Still Arafat and Barak were very close on reaching an agreement at Camp David. Was it not Arafat who at the end of the day refused to sign the peace deal?
I had talked to Arafat at length on this matter. It is true that the two sides were closer. But the Israelis were not prepared to discuss the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the issue of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Arafat could not accept an agreement which did not address these two fundamental issues or have them discussed at a later stage.

Yet can there be peace when countries like Syria fuel tensions in the region by supporting militant groups?
Syria has its own grievances which cannot be ignored. Syrian land - the Golan heights - has been occupied by Israel since 1967. What can we expect from Syria as long as Israel occupies part of its own land? Israel has not only occupied this piece of land militarily but has also proceeded to construct its own settlements.

Israel says that its ultimate aim is peace and security, can it achieve these aims through military means?
Just see how secure is the general situation in Iraq now. In life, diplomacy seems very slow in delivering results but at least in the end it does deliver some results. What results are achieved by force in these circumstances?

Which countries have the greatest influence on the ground?
Russia is growing as an economic power through its control on vast energy resources. The current crisis is pushing up the price of oil to the limits in a way that we all suffer. Europe stands to lose its economic competitiveness. The European Union should affirm itself more strongly. Arafat used to tell me to talk to the Europeans as in the circumstances, only they only can bring some balance. But in the end it is the United States, which has the greatest influence on Israel. I believe that that the USA is exercising diplomatic pressure on Israel leading to a solution to this complex question - the result of a long string of political mistakes and difficult encounters in history.

Prof. Guido de Marco was interviewed by James Debono

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