Sept. 24, 2007

Ashrawi denounces Israel's wall, economic sanctions and 'occupation,' but says she still has hope for peace

In Israel, a weak government is fighting to stay in power. Palestinians are in the midst of a constitutional crisis that is eroding their national reality and precipitating the rise of extremism. That is the view of scholar and political leader Hanan Ashrawi, who adds that the prevailing worldwide attitude toward peace in the Middle East is one of dismissal.

Yet, she asserted in a speech in a packed Bailey Hall, Sept. 20, peace is possible by ending "Israeli occupation" and creating a two-state solution by establishing a viable Palestinian state.

But Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the founder and executive director of the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Peace and Democracy and a veteran activist for human rights, imbued her talk on "Peace in the Middle East: Who Needs It?" with the spirit of hope. She explained that the situation in Israel and the occupied territories is not as dismal as meets the eye. For the first time, she said, Israelis and Palestinians are simultaneously agreeing to the idea of a two-state solution. There is also consensus, she noted, on what issues a potential peace treaty must address. Most importantly, there still exists a constituency on both sides that favors peace and negotiations, she said.

However, for peace to be realized, Ashrawi emphasized, such policies as the building of a wall separating Israel from the West Bank need to be reversed.

"It is horrific. It steals your horizon," she said, adding that the wall separates people from their land and prevents them from going to work. She called the barrier "a sign of oppression and of the continued occupation." And, she asserted, "Historically, walls have failed," citing the Great Wall of China as the only exception. Israel's wall only detracts from the peace effort, she said.

Ashrawi also condemned what she called Israel's punitive economic sanctions against the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. Although she is a member of the legislative opposition (representing the Third Way, a small centrist party she helped found in 2005), she asserted that U.S. and European Union economic sanctions against Hamas are perceived as the West's attempt to dictate terms to the Palestinians.

"It is not Israel or the U.S. who can usurp my right to be the opposition," she said. Palestinians have a right to conduct their domestic politics without interference from outside forces, she said, noting that this is important to the fabric of the Palestinian state and the future of its democracy.

Ashrawi noted that since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has been increasing its emphasis on building democracies in the Middle East, but that this has come at the expense of efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. America, she declared, should once again focus on the resolution of the Palestinian question. This, she said, is the key to democracy and to countering extremism. Extremists currently use the Palestinian question as a justification for acts of violence, she said, but with an independent democratic Palestine, there would be hope for peace and stability throughout the Middle East.

Her lecture was sponsored by Cornell's Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker series as well as by the Office of the Vice Provost for International Relations, Department of Near Eastern Studies and Alice Cook House.

Shriya Palekar '08 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.