Interview: Palestinians in Europe

Numbering some 500,000 in the EU, they seek greater political representation.

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Zaid Tayem says Palestinians in Europe should be more politically active

On November 16, delegations representing Palestinian communities in EU countries gathered in Stockholm, Sweden to pave the way for a conference to be held in a European capital in May 2009.

Zaid Tayem, the head of the cultural division of the Union of Palestinian Minorities in Europe and a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), says the May meeting will solidify Palestinian ranks and push for political representation in European parliaments.

Tayem, who is based in the Netherlands, says he sees no reason why a Palestinian academic living in Europe as an EU citizen cannot become a member of parliament.

However, he warned that the Palestinians must unite their ranks and work to overcome their political differences. He also called on the international community and Barack Obama, the US president-elect, to honour UN resolutions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Al Jazeera: There were reports which indicated Barack Obama, the US president-elect, would support the Saudi peace initiative for Israel to return to the 1967 borders in exchange for official recognition by Arab states. What is the view of the Palestinians regarding Obama’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Tayem: We have received many promises by a number of US presidents. The Palestinian people are looking for credibility in their promises on dealing with the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian people do not want this situation to remain as it is. They want to reach freedom.

We hope the new US leadership will respect promises made towards the Palestinian cause.



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However, we should stress that we are not only dealing with the United States, but also with the Quartet and the whole world.

We want the UN resolutions on the Palestinian cause to be implemented; the Palestinian refugees’ right to return, an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 territories, al-Quds [Jerusalem] as the capital of a Palestinian state. This is what we want.

Neither Obama nor any other pundit can change these three conditions. If these conditions are achieved we will then acknowledge that a number of obstacles have been overcome. 

This is what we look for and what the PLO has signed. We are committed to the peace deals the PLO has signed.

We hope the new US leadership will be aware that the Palestinian people must be given their full rights according to the UN resolutions.  

What is the purpose of holding these meetings for the Palestinian Diaspora in Europe? 

We held a conference in 2005 in Geneva, and then in 2006 in Barcelona. The PLO attended the Barcelona conference. It was also held in the presence of the largest number of heads of Palestinian minorities in Europe.

The main goal behind these conferences is to bring together all Palestinians holding European passports and Europeans of a Palestinian origin, in order to raise awareness in the EU of the Palestinian cause in particular.

We are also coming together to create a group framework that brings all Palestinian people together to raise our voice from inside Europe. Doing this from inside Europe is more influential than doing it from outside Europe, particularly given the role the EU can play regarding the Palestinian cause.

We have toured various parts of Europe in an attempt to hold a dialogue among all sectors of the Palestinian society and prove the significance of the Palestinian presence in Europe.

Does the distrust and gulf between Hamas and Fatah affect the Palestinian presence abroad?

The general political situation in the Palestinian territories has been felt in Europe and the whole world.

However, we have definitely decided to work together under the unified Palestinian flag. We will not allow tension here in Europe … We will work under one slogan and under the umbrella of the PLO, the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

We do, however, admit that the PLO needs to develop, it is a natural right.

But we never allow ourselves to work outside this framework because the Palestinian people have sacrificed thousands of martyrs, injured people and detainees in order to get where they are today – recognised by 108 countries.

There will never be any tension between Hamas and Fatah abroad because we all work under one flag, the Palestinian flag.

The most important thing is Palestine and the Palestinian cause, they are more important that any faction or party or any dispute.

It is actually the most important cause in the Arab world and that is why we need to cooperate and deal with each other ethically and with transparency in order to reach our goal.

But tensions between Hamas and Fatah have led to outbreaks of violence with Gazans virtually isolated from the West Bank and vice versa.

Dozens of Palestinians have been killed in Fatah-Hamas clashes [EPA]

What has happened in Gaza is a sad, hurtful matter.

Any Palestinian would not accept the idea of divisions among the Palestinian people. This is dangerous. We always call for Palestinian national unity, because as long as our people are unified, our voice will be louder so we can clearly explain our cause.

Our main problem is not among us, it is with the Israeli occupation that has divided Palestine and separated each city and village from the other.

Israel has built the separation wall and committed massacres against the Palestinian people.

This is our major problem. Even Gaza itself is still under occupation and has turned into a jail, and so is the West Bank. No one there can move from a village to another without facing dozens of checkpoints, walls … etc. This is really sad.

We hold the Israelis fully responsible for what happened.

When the Oslo Accord was signed with our leader Abu Ammar [Yassir Arafat], they promised to establish a Palestinian state within five years, and this did not happen.

Israel, backed by the United States, has lied to us. And the EU stood idle.

We also hold the Europeans responsible for failure to give us our rights as it has been agreed upon. 

But we also hold Palestinian leaders responsible for Palestinian unity, as it should be the starting point for all Palestinian work. They should rise to meet their responsibilities.

We hoped last week’s Cairo dialogues with Hamas mediated by the Egyptian government could end in an agreement, but unfortunately Hamas’s withdrawal has led to a negative image of Palestinians.

We can have different points of view, but it is shameful to fight. Palestine is larger that any faction. And we, as minorities, are in desperate need for this national unity because it is directly reflected on us and any internal failure negatively affects us.

What role do you see Palestinians playing in Europe?

Palestinians can play roles in the media and in social and cultural sectors in their home countries in Europe.

We can facilitate communication with other Europeans, especially given the fact we are backed by a very large and respected Arab minority that can work with us to highlight the Palestinian cause.

We also enjoy considerable support from non-Arab Europeans.

We cannot give up our cause, especially that we must always remember we are Palestinian refugees and there are around eight million Palestinian refugees living outside Palestine.

In Europe, there are half a million.

All these refugees should not be abandoned, especially that many of them are academics and very influential figures who have reached posts in municipalities, parliaments and universities, in addition to students.

Even other elements of the Palestinian society, such as women and children, can play roles in the fields of culture, sports and media. They can play important roles that may influence society and link us to the European people. 

For example, the Palestinian minority in Sweden is 55,000 people. They have come to the country at intervals, as a result of the difficult Palestinian situation, starting from 1982 up until the present time.

In Sweden, there are many influential academics and others. We wanted to go to places where Palestinians were located in order to encourage them to play a role in Europe.

How do you see yourselves fitting into European society, their norms and traditions?

We should integrate into EU society, respect the countries and their laws and then try to obtain our rights through expression of opinion as the law guarantees this and allows us to do so.

Why can’t we be represented by a couple of Palestinian MPs? We have to allow Palestinians living here to take part in local and municipal elections, in the political process. This requires us to play a larger role and may take a long time.

We are trying to highlight this role by holding a conference – we have four proposed places for the venue: Romania, Netherlands, Austria and Greece.

The most probable option is Vienna.

We do not want to be isolated from the international community.

We have established the Union of Palestinian Minorities and Activities in Europe.

And the same goes for Latin America and Australia, where we also want to work within the community to express our plight. We then seek to bring all those together in order to raise our Palestinian voices. The Palestinians abroad should be seen as influential, creative and full of energy.

A good example of this is the film Paradise Now that was made in the Netherlands.

The film’s Palestinian director, Hani Abu Asaad, is now revered.

We are also looking to play a bigger role in Eastern Europe which has now joined the EU.

Source: Al Jazeera