Manuel Hassassian says the Israel-Palestine crisis will get worse before it gets better
Politicians failing Palestine, says envoy ahead of Nakba
This Tuesday, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK will be forced to spend the day in a long line waiting to renew his residency permit for East Jerusalem.
The fact that May 15 is also the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation is not lost on him. “Coincidence? I don’t think so,” Manuel Hassassian told The National. “They purposely chose to summon me on that date because they wanted to make sure I won’t be out participating in rallies or protests.”
It is, he says, a timely illustration of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian people that has taken place for decades at the hands of Israel. And the situation will get worse before it gets better, he warns.
“I live in East Jerusalem, and it is occupied,” Mr Hassassian says. “They can try to humiliate me by summoning me on May 15, I don’t care. I will accept this humiliation and continue our struggle against the occupation.”
May 15, known as “Nakba Day”, marks the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the conflict surrounding the creation of Israel in 1948.
In the build-up to the anniversary, huge demonstrations have been taking place along the Gaza-Israel border as protesters call for Palestinian refugees to be able to return to their former lands in what is now Israel. Israeli soldiers have killed 52 Palestinians since protests began on March 30 and more than 1,700 have been wounded by Israel army fire. No Israelis have been hurt.
Mr Hassassian, who has served as ambassador since 2005, joined hundreds of protesters in central London last Friday to express solidarity with the Palestinian people. His plan to observe Nakba day in East Jerusalem — "not for the celebrations, but to raise hell” — will not be affected by the need to renew his residency permit, he says.
“Even if they make me stand in line all day, I will find a way to join the protests afterwards and show my support.”
Palestinian anger has been fuelled by US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and to move its embassy there to coincide with the anniversary. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state comprising the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“In my entire life, I have never met a president like this one,” Mr Hassassian says of Mr Trump. “He operates completely outside of conventions. He is full of action, but all in the wrong direction.”
The ambassador does not have particularly warm words for European leadership either. “Everyone says they are in favour of the recognition of [Palestinian] statehood,” he says. “But still you have more land being grabbed, more settlements being built.”
The problem, he says, is that Europe is “totally subservient to Zionist forces”. Britain is as guilty as other nations, he said. “What’s it going to take for Britain to accept they shouldn’t be subservient?”
Public opinion in Britain is shifting in favour of an independent Palestinian state, he says. Polls show that opinion among ordinary people has shifted from 30 per cent to 70 per cent in favour.
But, the ambassador says, “there is a wide gap between the current government’s position and the popular view”.
Mr Hassassian’s time as ambassador, which ends this June, took in four prime ministers — starting with Tony Blair and ending with Theresa May. “But I failed during my tenure to secure the recognition of Palestine as an independent state by the British government,” he says.
“British policy has been consistent to Palestine. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.”
The UK has, he concedes, officially said that they believe in a two-state solution and that they are against occupation. They also took a stance against Mr Trump by voting against the embassy move in the UN.
“But my frustration with these statements is that they don’t translate into action on the ground, for example on BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement], or on the issue of apartheid by Israel. We don’t see any criticism of Israel for building settlements, or of the arms deals with Israel — why not?”
“Yes the British government can be friendly towards Palestine, for example you’ve had DFID [the Department for International Development] helping to build Palestinian infrastructure … but it’s not enough. We don’t want the pittance of charity.”
He brings up the controversial Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British government stated its support for the establishment of a national home for Jewish people in Palestine. “It didn’t even consider the Palestinian people,” he says. “It mentioned their civil and religious rights, but no mention of their political rights. That’s all it needed — just to add one word.”
However, Mr Hassassian believes that if the Labour party were to come into power, things would be very different.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time supporter of the Palestine liberation movement, “is even more radical than me”, the ambassador says. “If Labour win, there would be a dramatic change.”
The ambassador is supportive of the Balfour Project, which is pushing for British recognition of Palestine. “It’s a good project, it’s raising awareness of the key issues,” he says. He adds that the Council of Arab Ambassadors has just given £30,000 to support the project.
Mr Hassassian, who will be succeeded in his post by Maen Erikat, the former chief of the PLO Delegation in Washington, is set to become the ambassador for Hungary and Croatia after June. But the struggle for Palestinian statehood will continue, with the crisis set to get worse before it gets better.
“We are at the worst time we have ever seen in this conflict,” he says. “Internal issues with Hamas are not making things easier … it is unfortunate that Hamas is not co-operating with the Palestinian National Council.”
Nevertheless, he believes Hamas has no other choice but to accept a two-state solution and that they will eventually come around to this view. “They are subtly changing from their outright military conflict with Israel to political compromise,” he says.
“Our peaceful struggle against occupation will continue after May 15,” he adds. “And there also needs to be a diplomatic onslaught to get Israelis recognised as war criminals for their acts in Gaza.”