Nasser Al Qudwa: If Arafat were alive, he would be in Gaza now, ‘a Kalashnikov on his shoulder’

The former Palestinian Foreign Minister tells Al Majalla that the war will result in big changes, including the departure of Netanyahu and a “new Hamas.”


Nasser Al Qudwa: If Arafat were alive, he would be in Gaza now, ‘a Kalashnikov on his shoulder’

Nasser Al Qudwa – the famed Palestinian political figure and a former leading figure in Fatah – is clear on what reaction was likely to the war on Gaza from one of the biggest names the movement has ever had.

Yasser Arafat would take up arms and head to Gaza to fight against Israel, seeking a revolution in Palestine, Al Qudwa told Al Majalla. And he should know. The late president, also known as Abu Ammar, was Al Qudwa’s uncle.

And the nephew has been seen by some commentators as a potential president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, perhaps a successor to the ageing Mahmoud Abbas, speculation addressed in this interview.

Arafat died on 11 November in 2004, making this time of year one when his leadership of the Palestinian cause is often remembered. Speaking in an exclusive interview a few days before the 19th anniversay of his uncle’s death, ther former Foreign Minister called the current international stance on Gaza a "scandal."

He pointed out that many countries in the West are closely aligned with Israel, and some are actively providing support to its war effort. He predicted the conflict will lead to three significant changes: Benjamin Netanyahu’s departure as Israel’s prime minister along with a restructuring of the present government, a change in Palestinian leadership and a new phase for Hamas.

Al Qudwa also emphasised that detailed discussion of the future was premature with fighting still going on. But said:

"A new Fatah must emerge, along with a new Hamas that actively participates in the new Palestinian government, operating independently of President Mahmoud Abbas if he remains in power. As for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), we should move forward with elections as soon as the Gaza Strip begins to recover."

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview, held on 8 November.

How can the war on Gaza, which has lasted for over a month now, be ended? And how can we emerge from this catastrophe?

“Regrettably, the prospect of a swift cessation of the conflict appears bleak, a conclusion drawn from the policies and actions that Israel is currently implementing. The actions taken by Israel do not appear to be solely aimed at targeting Hamas, as suggested by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Instead, it seems to be a sustained campaign affecting the entire Palestinian population, with a focus on Palestinian civilians. This pattern has recurred in previous conflicts, but the current conflict exhibits a higher level of violence, employing all available means of warfare within the arsenal of the Israeli occupying forces.”

How do you perceive the West’s stance regarding what is happening?

“It has become increasingly clear that despite the humanitarian efforts and neutral positions shown by various international actors sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, they may be unable to bring about an end to the conflict due to Israel's stance.

“This challenge is compounded by the unwavering alignment of numerous Western countries with Israel, with some actively providing support and endorsement. This development is deeply lamentable, as it appears to undermine the principles advocated by certain Western nations over many years.

“While it is possible that public opinion may exert pressure for a change in this stance within these countries, such a shift is likely to take time. There exists a stark contrast between the Israeli position and the near-unanimous Western support extended to Israel, with only a few exceptions. Despite the resilience of the Palestinian people, it is unfortunately anticipated that this conflict will persist for a longer duration than initially anticipated.”

Read more: Will the Gaza war push the Middle East to new realism?

What do you think about the Arab position?

“I would also like to highlight the failure of the Arab position in confronting what is currently happening.

“The initial Arab position was an unsuccessful one, which was evident in the meeting of the Arab foreign ministers, which was held at the Arab League Headquarters in Cairo. It was a weak and shaky stance. The Arab position subsequently began to improve significantly, but when the initial efforts falter, it usually takes some time for situations to evolve towards the intended outcome. We have not yet reached that stage.”

“In this regard, I want to emphasize that Arab countries must stand firmly against Israeli aggression and American-Israeli policies this time. This is not only in defense of the Palestinian cause or the Palestinian people alone but also to safeguard the standing of these Arab nations within the existing international framework.

“The ability of these Arab countries to assert their viewpoint – or at the very least, enforce respect for their perspective and key issues – must be clearly demonstrated. This is crucial, and I hope it happens, as it would be greatly beneficial on both the Palestinian and Arab levels.”

Smoke billows following an Israeli strike on Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza strip on Novembr 16, 2023

What unfolds in Gaza has a direct impact on who will dominate the Middle East region, which Israel is striving to do.

Are you worried at all about the prospect of the displacement of Palestinians to Sinai and other places?

"This has been the real Israeli objective behind targeting the entire Gaza Strip and nearly destroying it entirely, along with targeting civilians.

"It is evident that this has been the Israeli goal from the start. Palestinian resilience against this, along with Egypt's decisive and firm stance against what is happening – for both Palestinian and Egyptian motivations – and perhaps the position of Jordan and some other Arab countries have all contributed to a setback of Israel's plan.

"However, I believe this setback is tactical more than anything, as there has been a resurgence of this stance later on. Netanyahu has stirred up this issue with some Western countries. So far, he has not gained outward support from these countries, although there has been some fluctuation in the positions of certain countries, and we have witnessed both positive and negative changes in positions."

What do you have to say about the US announcement rejecting displacement? In my opinion, this issue remains a serious consideration, despite the repeated denials from the US in recent days.

"I believe it is still very much on the table. There is a risk of forced displacement, and there is also a ramping up in blocking the entry of humanitarian aid, even through the small Rafah Crossing. Furthermore, aid is being limited to the southern part of the Strip and has not been reaching the northern part at all, including major hospitals like Al-Shifa Hospital and the Jerusalem Hospital, which is managed by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

"Besides being a humanitarian tragedy, there has been Israeli brutality and Western cruelty in dealing with Palestinian humanitarian needs and the living conditions of the Palestinian people.

"All of this once again indicates that what is happening is not only targeting Hamas, even if it is the [main] target, but it is also targeting the overall Palestinian national existence, as well as Palestinian civilians, as a secondary target."

How do you interpret the connection between what is happening in Gaza and the geopolitical strains caused by the emergence of a new world order?

"Undoubtedly, there is a connection. What unfolds in Gaza has a direct impact on who will dominate the Middle East region, which Israel is striving to do.

"Part of the Israeli agenda is regaining the prestige and power that was lost on 7 October.  Israel aims to, once again, control this [Middle East] region politically and economically. If Arabs want to be the decision-makers regarding their fate and the future of the region, they must first assume a clear stance on what is happening.

"Moreover, this ever-evolving world with no clear entity as the helm will listen more and respect more the forces, countries, and parties that impose their agenda and positions and enforce the necessity of respecting these stances on the international stage.

"Whether we like it or not, what is happening is undoubtedly related to, and has an impact on, the overall global situation and the future of the international system, especially on the future of the Middle East region."

Read more: Israel's conflict management: What could possibly go wrong?

US President Joe Biden with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv after the Hamas attacks

You must have read and heard a lot about what will happen when fighting stops, in what commentators are calling 'the day after' the war. What is your opinion on that, and what is your vision about how it might look like for Gaza?

"Perhaps it is still early to delve into specific details, but based on experience, it is always appropriate to start thinking and exploring various alternatives. From my point of view, what is happening will result in three issues.

"Firstly, a change in the current Israeli government. I believe Netanyahu's time in power is over at this point, but this still depends on the Israeli stance vis-à-vis the matter and the decision of the Israeli voters, and it is not for me or anyone else to intervene in this issue. However, logically speaking, such a change might be on the horizon.

"Secondly, there is a need for a change in Palestinian leadership.

"For a while now, there has been a call for a change in Palestinian leadership, and I note that the only elections that President Abbas went through were in 2005. The basic Palestinian electoral system talks about four years that can be renewed once, i.e., eight years in total. [There are claims that] Abbas is still in the first term because elections have not taken place yet.

"They prevent elections and then claim Abbas is still in his first term and that there is plenty of time ahead, as the president inches closer to his nineties. I do not wish to delve into further details about governance failure and constitutional matters. With that said, change must happen, and I believe it has become necessary, especially considering the current situation in the Gaza Strip.

"I think the current [Palestinian] Authority, in its present form and with the men leading it, is unable to even set foot in the Gaza Strip, let alone handle the major tasks required at this time.

"Of course, we must maintain the unity of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and we must demand, without a shred of a doubt, the necessity of a political framework that determines the final outcome of any political process. Here, I emphasise the importance of the existence of a Palestinian state and a mutual recognition agreement [of this state] between Palestine and Israel.

"There must be a commitment to this from all parties, from the very beginning, regardless of when the agreement is implemented. The commitment should be clear and decisive from the outset.

"[Thirdly] a new Hamas will emerge. I believe Israel will fail in the goal it set for itself, which is to end Hamas. This will not happen because Hamas goes beyond just a group – it is an idea and an ideology present among the Palestinian public –and it is almost impossible for the Israeli goal to succeed.

"Israel may be able to harm Hamas and significantly weaken it militarily and politically, though.

"Logically, from the perspective of Hamas and the perspective of those overseeing the new Palestinian political system, there should be a change in the political structure, in the vision of Hamas, and in the extent of Hamas assimilating into the Palestinian political system and aligning with the  [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] PLO and the common political stance, among other matters. This will be challenging, but we must try to impose it, and I believe this is very important. We should not slip into the rhetoric propagated by some external parties."

A new Hamas will emerge. I believe Israel will fail in the goal it set for itself, which is to end Hamas. This will not happen because Hamas goes beyond just a group.

Netanyahu talked about security control in Gaza. Former US Peace Envoy Dennis Ross mentioned Arab monitors and forces. We have also heard about international observers and various scenarios. What is your opinion on these?

"I would like to begin by noting that Netanyahu's statement reflects the significant Israeli confusion in this regard.

"The Israelis don't know what they should do. In the past, they did not make such statements; on the contrary, they claimed not to be interested in occupying Gaza either wholly or partially. Then Netanyahu says he will retain Israeli security supervision. At the same time, I heard that there is a publicly declared American position against this statement – that it should not happen.

"In the end, Israelis will not be able to stay in Gaza, and they have already had a bitter experience. The people of Gaza will not allow Israeli presence to go on so easily. Even if Netanyahu thinks he can destroy Hamas and remain in the Strip, things will not unfold according to his devices."

What is your opinion about the talks around internationalisation?

"The issue of internationalization is nonsense.

"Can you imagine bringing someone from Finland to Jabalia or to Shujaiya? In a nutshell, this is Palestinian land, and this is a Palestinian people who will only accept to be governed by Palestinians.

"This goes back to what I said about the issue of the Palestinian Authority. The best solution is for the authority to change in a way that enables it to make a real positive contribution to the future of Gaza, the West Bank and, by extension, the future of the Palestinian people as a whole and the independent state of Palestine."

Do you propose restructuring the PLO with a new Fatah and a new Hamas authority? And should the latter or the new PLO govern Gaza?

"I propose this discussion regarding the [Palestinian] Authority and not concerning the PLO. Yes, we must have a new Fatah and a new Hamas, and they must be seriously immersed in the new Palestinian government, which should be outside the direct control of President Abbas, even if he remains in office.

"As for the PLO, elections should be held as soon as Gaza recovers and some issues are resolved in the West Bank – including the matter of authority and government. These elections are the reliable and new way to rebuild the PLO because the elected members of the Legislative Council will be members of the National Council.

"Then there is the possibility of electing the second third from representatives of the diaspora, Palestinian communities, and popular unions. An agreement can be reached between the concerned parties on the remaining one-third, leaving the PLO as a national front. While the ballot box remains an essential part of this national front, it is not the only way for its existence."

Did the events of 7 October bring us nearer to or farther from the possibility of a two-state solution? Was what transpired on 7 October beneficial to the Palestinian cause?

"I strongly disapprove of the term 'two-state solution' due to its association in the minds of the public with the unsuccessful peace process.

"This is why we see the collection of statistics and interviews that highlight the opposition of Palestinian youth. In reality, Palestinian youth do not oppose the concept of a Palestinian state, the right to self-determination, and national independence, just like all other peoples around the world. However, their resistance lies in the repeated cycle of negotiations and a peace process that has continued for two decades without yielding any concrete results.

"There is a fundamental issue with the terminology, even though I firmly believe that the establishment of the State of Palestine, achieved through the right to self-determination and national independence, is the only viable path forward.

"As for discussions about a one-state solution, it's crucial to acknowledge a clear division among those who support this idea. On one side, there are those who advocate for the complete liberation of the entire Palestinian territory, which is an idealistic concept that deserves respect. On the other side, there is a newer, somewhat impractical notion that suggests accepting the existence of the Greater State of Israel and then working towards attaining individual rights within it.

The notion of achieving 'individual rights' in this context raises significant concerns. It might not be reasonable to expect those who refuse to coexist with the Palestinian people and reject a state on 22% of historic Palestine to willingly grant you rights, making you an equal citizen alongside them."

Read more: Overstretched hospitals are no longer spared in Gaza war

I was speaking to a diplomat yesterday. He shared his view that what Hamas did counts as "suicide," but it will be beneficial in the long term for the Palestinian cause. What do you think?

"I believe that what happened on 7 October  exceeded all expectations, including those of the ones who actually planned it. The complete collapse of the Israeli system that occurred was not expected. Not in this way. The entry of large numbers of Palestinians to Israel other than Al-Qassam, who were tasked with carrying out the operation, led to many unforeseen consequences.

"There are many contributing factors, and perhaps a kind of divine intervention, that will lead, God willing, to real changes. But as Palestinians, we must always be ready to understand one another, to accommodate each other, and to unite on the basis of unity and collective action.

"You need a Palestinian political system that accommodates and encourages the new Hamas. The current political system cannot do that, and this is another reason why it needs to be overhauled so that we can rebuild the entire Palestinian system, God willing."

Some say you aspire to succeed President Abbas.

Such a thing is not an ambition of mine. Fortunately, I have learned that there are more beautiful things in life than power.

Including the Palestinian Authority?

Especially the Palestinian Authority. Spending quality time with your family is probably much better than anything else, so I don't have a craving for authority, and I don't dream of anything like that. But ultimately, the fate of the Palestinian people is a collective duty, and I won't skirt this responsibility if it comes down to it. I neither dream of it nor am I eager for it.

If President Arafat were still among us, what would he do?

"If Yasser Arafat were still present today, we would not have reached the current situation, especially the prolonged division.

"I once said that if President Arafat 'Abu Ammar' were here and the division occurred, he would have put his Kalashnikov on his shoulder, came to Gaza, met with the people, and urged them to handle matters as true Palestinian nationalists.

Many things would have been different but this is the fate and destiny of the Palestinian people. May Abu Ammar rest in peace. In his lifetime, I felt uneasy about my personal relationship with him, and I may have taken a critical stance. Following his martyrdom and upon reflection, I came to the realisation that I had been mistaken in various aspects. Arafat remains unparalleled".

If Yasser Arafat were still present today, we would not have reached the current situation, especially the prolonged division.

Getty Images
A file photo for Yasser Arafat with a Kalashnikov in Jordan

What would Arafat have done in the current context, this far into the Gaza war?

"Well, he would have undoubtedly mobilised the situation and possibly initiated fundamental changes, including fostering a unified national Palestinian front.

"He would have worked toward reshaping the Arab stance. We were discussing a little while ago that there an Arab Summit took place a month and a half after the massacre began. Who is responsible for such a thing? In my opinion, the Palestinian leadership is responsible.

Based on my first-hand experience, Arabs grow up with a love for Palestine and a deep resentment towards Israel. However, once they start forming a better understanding of their interests, they learn how to manage them differently. If we do our work as we should, show respect to ourselves and others, and avoid a transactional approach to dialogue, we could all rally under the same cause.

"Palestinian people are known for their good principles. I am convinced that the Palestinian leadership cannot progress without Arab support. Any other talk is futile. Arab support exists, but it requires different Palestinian efforts and strategies by the Palestinian people."

Read more: With the rise in settler violence, are Israel's far-right groups actually militias?

Would Abu Ammar have gone to Gaza?

"Perhaps he would have. We are currently in the throes of war, and one has to rise to the occasion.

"While the tactical considerations may have differed, Abu Ammar would have certainly turned the world upside down and caused a revolution in the Palestinian, Arab, and perhaps international actions, which are now nothing but scandalous, I think.

"How could this even happen, and on such an international scale? The Palestinian absence remains a significant part of these unfortunate circumstances. If Abu Ammar were present, this absence might not have happened in the first place, or at least he would have seriously tried to address this flaw."

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