The *FREE ARAB VOICE*
September 16, 1998
In this issue of the Free Arab Voice we present an exclusive interview
with Ahmad Qatamesh, the longest-held administrative detainee in
Definition of Administrative detention: the Zionist practice of locking
up a Palestinian for an indefinitely renewable six months period without
formally charging them with anything in court.
Ahmed Sulayman Musa Qatamesh has earned himself a reputation as one of
Palestine's foremost political activists and prisoners of conscience. A
writer by vocation and a revolutionary by nature, Qatamesh's involvement
with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) prompted
his Zionist interrogators to proclaim victoriously upon his capture in
1992: "there is George Habash on the outside and Ahmed Qatamesh on the
After 17 years in hiding, Qatamesh was to spend nearly six years in
prison without trial as the Zionists' longest-held administrative
detainee. His plight epitomizes that of all administrative detainees,
while his charm, intellect, and optimism color a thorough interview
that the Free Arab Voice had the opportunity of conducting with him.
As is frequently the case with depositories of the Palestinian
experience like Ahmad Qatamesh, the interview turned out rather longer
than our average FAV issue. However, we trust that the valuable
insights Qatamesh provides on the state of the Palestinian psyche, the
historical impact and context of Oslo, the status of the PFLP, and his
role as an agent in his own destiny will make for some very good
reading. Still, the longer unedited version of the interview is
available upon request.
[This interview with Ahmad Qatamesh was conducted for the Free Arab
Voice (FAV) by Fadia Issam Rafidie].
FAV: Even though you have lived in Palestine your whole life, one
could conclude that your imprisonment in the early '70s followed by 17
years of life underground and another 6 years in administrative
detention means that you have been 'removed' from the Palestinian
community at large for almost three decades. Upon your release, what
environment did you find yourself in? How do you think our "sha3b"
(Palestinian people) changed?
Qatamesh: Though I was not directly a part of the mainstream, I was
not away from the political scene because I was working underground
and engaging in political activities. Madrid-Oslo happened and their
impacts were drastic on the whole society. They cannot be reduced to
the fact that the Palestinian Authority is in 'charge' of 4% of the West
Bank and Gaza. OUR PEOPLE WERE PSYCHOLOGICALLY AFFECTED. Before Oslo,
the Palestinian people used to have an agenda and a common slogan of
liberation; now we have no agenda and no slogan. They have gone on
different paths. The Palestinian people in Jordan became a part of
Jordan. Their agenda is now a Jordanian one. In Lebanon, the
Palestinians are on their own. There is nothing to unite them.
Our sha3b is dispersed now and they have been swallowed up in the
environments of their Diaspora. Every segment started thinking on
its own and this led to isolationism, a very different environment from
that which the older generation grew up in when they were united toward
Many have begun to look at the struggle completely differently than
before. For example, they are now considering alternative ways that in
my opinion are not very effective. In the past, we used to say the more
you put pressure on the enemy, the greater your likelihood of
succeeding. Now many people see negotiations as the way to bring us our
rights. The phenomenon is that people are waiting to see what will come
of Oslo, looking passively and thinking that the future will MAGICALLY
bring them something.
I have noticed that the youthful generation now pines only for
recreation, happiness, luxury, fun, and entertainment. The reason for
this is that there is no revolutionary atmosphere anymore as a result
of Oslo. If you compare this with the atmosphere of the Intifada, you
would find, as you would expect, a drastic change. Now there is no
Intifada, no revolution. There is only the aftermath of Oslo.
In the '70s, people wanted to be cultured and well-read because it was
important for the cause. After Oslo, they do not care for that much
anymore. But without intellectual awareness, we cannot continue to
manufacture revolutionaries. Only 2% of our people read the press these
days and even fewer read books according to a recent poll. If our
political situation were different, this 2% would be much higher. There
is a direct relationship between the lack of a revolutionary
environment and the lack of people's desire to be intellectual and aware.
Instead, many people have just turned to religion.
In my opinion, the majority of people are searching for a revolutionary
alternative. Because there is none, people are frustrated, angry, and
negative about things relating to politics. The prevailing misconception
is that the conflict with our enemy is over. Oslo defeated our will to
struggle and to sacrifice. People used to be willing to be martyred
or jailed for the sake of liberation. Now, people are questioning
themselves. Why should I do this? Is it worth it? Instead, they begin
to tend to their personal affairs: how to live, what to eat, what to
buy, and how to find individual ways to survive. Some people are even
ready to sell their conscience for money with no regard to the ideals
of the previous period. They start looking for rewards whether through a
ministry or as a minister's assistant. They are thinking: it is time
for us to get what we deserve money-wise, fame-wise, and profit-wise.
We have finished our struggle: it is time to collect some of what we're
Yet regardless of what I said, or what I did not say, THE CONTRADICTION
STILL EXISTS BETWEEN US AND OUR ENEMY, between our sha3b and our
occupier. THE LARGER CONTRADICTION IS BETWEEN US AS AN ARAB NATION --
with its objectives and visions -- AND THE ZIONIST OBJECTIVES IN THE
AREA. The contradiction is still alive but the way to express it is
not represented revolutionarily. Our enemy's victory does not mean the
loss of our program for liberation. WE DID NOT LOSE OUR RIGHTS TO CONTINUE
THE STRUGGLE. At the same time, this does not mean that we lost our
perspective of BEING ONE ARAB NATION against the Zionists. EVEN IF
THEY HAVE WON NOW, TEMPORARILY, THAT DOES NOT MEAN WE LOST STRATEGICALLY.
At this stage, we have suffered a political failure. We are in a state of
retreat. This is not catastrophic nevertheless; it is temporary.
People in other struggles have gone through this: victories and retreats.
As long as we have a just cause, this sha3b demands its right of return
even in the 1948 areas. The subjective conditions that spurred our
revolution are still in place for people to use as a springboard for
revolution. But they need a revolutionary mechanism to uplift them
I predict that in the future, the people will explode again because the
conditions are still there for them to explode again. There are
examples to foretell of this. One is "meseeret el-mellion" [the Palestinian
million persons march] with people going down to the streets to express
their dream for Palestine, including the land occupied in '48. Another
is the events of digging the tunnel [beneath Al-Aqsa Mosque] creating
many martyrs and inflicting many injuries on people who were willing to
sacrifice. Recently we have even the police rising up in Gaza to face
down the army of occupation. The capabilities of our people will never
dry up. They are waiting for an incident or a spark to energize them
again as well as a leadership they can trust.
= = = =
The political strategy and philosophy of the US is TO MANAGE OUR PRESENT
CRISIS NOT TO RESOLVE IT. They want to prolong it years and years to
gain time so that they can change realities on the ground. Oslo did
not prevent the "Israelis" from expropriating 320,000 dunams of our land
after the so-called negotiations. Now they are expanding Jerusalem.
Every time they expand it, they take extra land from us. Since 1967,
they wanted a 'united' Jerusalem. Their project of expansion is still
existent, even after Oslo. The settlements are growing 30% annually.
This is despite the fact that 30,000 apartments built on the settlements
are still vacant. They do not need more apartments; they just want to promote
expansion. This expansion has the objective of creating a demographically
lopsided area of predominantly Jews. East Jerusalem now has 170,000 Jews and
They want to compartmentalize our territories so that we don't unite.
The West Bank is not connected to Gaza. We need their permission to
connect them but we cannot even have an economic unity without access.
This is their plan. They want our regions to be isolated so their
hegemony is more easily executed. THEY WANT MORE REALITIES ON THE
GROUND AND THEY WANT TO SEE MORE PALESTINIANS FULL OF DESPAIR AND
HOPELESSNESS. People are living in shock and despair.
The question is, what's next? We are still looking for a place
under the sun and we are still looking for our rights. For people to
continue, they need an infrastructure of leadership, solid preconditions,
the freedom to fight, democracy, and the Arab factor.
Israelis will not give you these!!
FAV: In some ways, your release from administrative detention was a
surprise, as arbitrary as your imprisonment. In other ways, it seems
that it was your inalienable right to be released and that no 'miracle'
took place that we should be in awe of. Would you comment on the
factors that led to your release and, through this, mention the role
of the "Israeli" left in making this possible?
Qatamesh: Let me point out that the current administrative detainees
are 90% from the Islamic movement. Leftists comprise 7-8% and 1-2% are
There is no change in the mentality of the Israelis toward administrative
detention. They still believe in that way of practicing 'state security'.
But, the people detained are smaller quantity-wise. In the event of a military
attack however, I assure you that they will detain hundreds. They do that to
reassure the "Israeli" people that they are on top of things and that they should
have confidence in the secret service, etc.
One of the roles of administrative detention is that of a propaganda
tool for the purpose of assuring the "Israelis" that their government
is tough on security. The question has been asked: why did they release us
(the PFLP members), particularly me? When they arrested me 6 years ago, they
tried to give the impression that I was the leader of the PFLP at that time.
From the beginning, they tried to exaggerate my case so that they could show off
their dominance over the PFLP, allegedly because they had captured whom they thought
was its most important leader in the West Bank. They claimed that I was part of the
politburo of the PFLP, that they captured millions of dollars with me, etc.
In reality, they only found $1000. At that time, they had not even
captured anybody beside me. I claimed that I was only an individual
that did not represent the entire organization. They wanted me to
admit to much more so that the media could inflate the 'capture.' Now,
after they released me, they tried to give the impression that they have
struck a deal with the PFLP through me. If they proved that we are PFLP
members, they would have convicted us. They did not convict us because
they never proved that we were.
= = = = = = = =
What is so great about steadfastness under interrogation is that you do
not tell them you are a member and they never prove it. This is the
meaning of being steadfast during interrogation. For someone to be
steadfast, s/he has to grin and bear it, sacrifice, go through hell,
and endure them and survive.
We force them to deal with us as administrative detainees individually.
As detainees, we had our own legal agency in the matter (of advocating
for our release). The detainees confronted the military occupation with
acts of protest for one year through hunger strikes, demonstrations, putting
fire to the blankets on which we slept, singing slogans, writing on the walls.
Then we boycotted the appeals courts because we were not getting
anywhere through them. We used to talk back to the army officers. We
even refused their sacred duty of daily roll call. When they called our
names to be counted, we simply did not answer back in objection. As a
result, they fired tear gas on us twice. We used to breathe really hard
as though we were rabbits in a research lab. There were 100 of us in
our section and they threw 240 tear gas canisters at us during that period
So in that sense we raised our own issues. As a result, there was
solidarity from some limited Palestinian institutions: Ra'i, Mandela,
Al-Dammeer, and likewise. The measures we took inside made it a
humanitarian issue and forced it onto the Israeli streets. Four
hundred "Israeli" intellectuals signed a petition calling for our release.
Amnesty International did a report on us with pictures and interviews.
B'tselem, the "Israeli" Human Rights Organization, wrote another very
detailed report about our situation. As a result, our issue was put on the
table and people could not deny or ignore it.
People inside the "Israeli" justice system started questioning the
legality of detaining us. The justice system does not have an
independent leadership role; it goes along with what the government
wants. Even if they discussed our situation, it was not in their hands.
It was in the hands of the government. Hashim Ma7ameed was the first
Knesset member to visit us in jail. After that visit, it took three to
four years to be introduced as an issue in the Knesset. Seven to eight
members visited. They used to request, "AHMED, WRITE A LETTER TO THE
ISRAELIS SAYING THAT YOU ARE AGAINST VIOLENCE!".
The question became: do I write a letter to reflect my convictions or
to make the state happy? Their other option was to not mention Oslo
(since they knew I rejected it) but to request that I At Least Call
For A Two-State Solution. I told them, are you asking me to write what
I believe, or what you want me to write for the "Israeli" public?
My jailers claimed that my past is violent and my future will be
violent. In interrogation, they said THEY WOULD STOP INTERROGATION
IF I AGREED TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY FOR TWO YEARS BUT I REFUSED. I refused
again when they tried to cut a similar deal through my lawyer. I told
them two things: I have no plan to leave the country and I am not
involved in any kind of violence as an individual. If I have a
relationship with violence, then try me based on that evidence. I told
them if you could not prove I engaged in violent activities, then you
are being the violent one by torturing and detaining me. You put me in
jail, you harmed me physically, you interrogated me, you put my family
through hell...so you're the ones who committed violence against me!
This position that you took proves that you are racist. Your aim is to
imprison me because I am a Palestinian and not because of the security
of the state of "Israel". You knew you couldn't prove anything as far
as violence was concerned but you still wanted me inside. This is
racism. Try me if you have something against me. THE ONLY THING THEY
CHARGED ME WITH WAS WRITING. In the end, no matter how hard they tried,
they knew I refused to be a spokesman for the PFLP so they could not try
to convince me to take conciliatory positions like some others in the PFLP.
They wanted me to give them a statement that I was against military
operations and violence. My answer was that this is a big issue relevant
to the international laws of what constitutes violence and what constitute
terrorism and whether our right to struggle is this or that. This is not for
me to decide. The international community should decide if our struggle is
terrorism or freedom-fighting.
Take one thing from me: I WILL NOT CONDEMN ANYTHING MY PEOPLE DO TO
RID THEMSELVES OF OCCUPATION. Do not expect me to condemn any guerrilla
warfare against you by my people. I am not here to do that. As far as I
am concerned, I DID NOT COMMIT VIOLENCE AGAINST YOU BUT I WILL NOT
CONDEMN MY PEOPLE IF THEY DID. If you want to make deals with the
PFLP, either go to Damascus or the PFLP's office in Ramallah. Do not come
to me. THERE SHOULD NOT BE NEGOTIATIONS BETWEEN SOMEONE IN JAIL AND THOSE
WHO JAIL HIM. How could this uneven relationship be termed negotiations?!
The last option they gave me: you do not want to represent the PFLP or
be their spokesmen. How about being the spokesman of the administrative
detainees? I refused. The detainees were not a military threat to you.
They were in their houses and offices. They were civilians. None of
the administrative detainees engaged in violence because otherwise, you
would have tried them for that.
The second factor that led to my release was protest action by a group
of "Israeli" intellectuals who had influence. They were members of the
Knesset who defended us not as a matter of principle but because they did
not want the democratic 'face' of "Israel" to be blemished. We consider it
a racist, occupying power! They were with us on one item: opposition to
administrative detention. WE HAD OUR MOTIVES AND THEY HAD THEIR MOTIVES.
Do not try to sell us the idea that you are democratic, I say to them.
*IF YOU WERE TRULY DEMOCRATIC, YOU WOULD NOT BE OCCUPYING OUR LAND IN THE FIRST PLACE*.
Occupation and democracy are not compatible. Raise your voice against occupation,
settlements, our right of return, etc. and then we'll agree with you. Yet even if we
disagree on all those issues, we still welcome you to fight with us against administrative
There is no continuing threat so why do you put us in jail and then
release us? Up until now, it is unclear why they let me go. I cannot
tell you exactly why.
But I can tell you the only reason they imprisoned us was to suppress
our activity because we are act to support of our people and they want
to prevent us from continuing the struggle.
When they asked me about Arafat, I told them we are united against you.
Even if our vision is different, we are not going to give you the
pleasure of seeing us fight against each other.
Mahmoud Abbas tried an initiative (a main PNA initiative) to tell them
to release me. That is another factor. Since my name was brought up
in the Knesset and on the Israeli streets, Mahmoud Abbas felt comfortable
addressing the issue because it was already in the air. The PNA took it upon
itself to ask for my release after all of that. All the factors I mentioned
culminated in my release.
FAV: Comment on the common perception that the PFLP as a party has
Qatamesh: There still exists an historical task for the PFLP. The role
of the PFLP is not over yet. It's special. We should have a different
way of thinking, but it should exist with a new form and new approaches.
The people are going to say that we need an alternative to the Palestinian
Authority. That is why there is a need for the PFLP. The religious project
also has its agenda and approach. It has its vision and project. In between
these two camps, there is a large constituency and the PFLP should be concerned
with winning them over. Neither of them represents the needs and desires of the
sha3b. Still, within this framework, we'll find instances where we can ally with
the PA to tackle some issues, and with the Islamists to tackle other issues, while
remaining autonomous. There are daily battles that we can fight alongside both camps,
but this doesn't mean we melt into them. You need your own front to continue the struggle.
They say that religion solves all conflicts in life. If I were to
address Islamists, I would ask them, where is your development plan?
Where is their vision of how democracy ties into society? Where do they
see the role of the liberation and activities of women in society as
partners in life with men? Where is their clear political program?
Where are their political tactics whenever there is an incident/happening?
What is their position with respect to the unity of the Arab nation and
the united aims of the Arab nation? How do they look at the status of
other religions? What is their position on class struggle? 10% of our
people are half-hungry and the other 90% are really hungry. How are
they going to approach this? What is their position on imperialism?
Sometimes they are against America; sometimes they are with them.
Their position is not clear.
You need a vision and a program that the people can be convinced of.
These are big issues and the Islamic front has to answer them so we can
analyze them and work with them. Whoever gives the right answers to the
people to convince them will win over the masses. Taking in foggy generalities
will get you nowhere. If Islam solves all problems, then what about the countries
in the world that aren't Islamic but which flourished like Japan, the US, China, etc.?
It is not enough to preach a solution; you must go into detail how you are going to
achieve a solution.
The PFLP is a necessity and it is needed but it has a crisis within
itself organizationally and this should be dealt with to lift it out of
its crisis. Its crisis is not in its vision but in its organizational
aspects. If everything in life progresses, the PFLP should progress too.
The PFLP lost many members as a result of Oslo and it needs to reevaluate
how it's going to approach people in the future.
We should restructure the PFLP to put it in a better situation. This is the
main question the PFLP is facing. If they can do the transition/restructuring
well, they will be the true leaders of the future. We should have a restructuring
that does not only accept the theoretical thinking we had before; it has to renew
itself to cope with the new realities, in structure as well as leadership.
FAV: What should the sha3b's relationship with the PA be?
Qatamesh: The PA's historical choice for livelihood is America and it
depends on it for everything. There should be another philosophy instead
of just depending on America. There is lots of corruption going on in
the PA now. There is bad administration. People are lost and do not
know what they want. They are not enthusiastic about anything. They are
ready to accept anything. If we are to present an alternative, it
should be a clear one. It should be a different vision from their
vision. The relationship does not prevent us from joining forces on a
daily basis on issues that relate to civil society. We should mobilize
our forces with them in attacking these issues. We should not allow
the Palestinian Authority to contain us and prevent us from having our own
identity as the PFLP. I am against any political discussion with
Arafat. [he digressed a bit in private about the Arafat meeting with
Habash and Hawatmeh].
Using his program/agenda will legitimize him and his political thinking
more than helping us achieve unity. Any group willing to discuss an
alternative to Oslo would be beneficial to engage in. Every meeting is
called for the sake of political unity but we should not be calling for
that right now. What is needed now is not political unity that we used
to raise as a slogan in the past; we should be asking for people's
unity. The institutions in Palestine should get together and promote a
program for the improvements of society. Unity among the people through their
institutions instead of the political leaders should be our objective. It is
better for the PFLP to unite its forces, fight occupation, help the masses ... not
to sit with Arafat. The PFLP should have its priorities. There are many more issues
to discuss. Arafat already made his line clear and we know it so why bother? Some PFLP
leaders involved themselves in the Labor Ministry (wizaret el-a3mal).
They should not have. They should not have joined the police, the Information
ministry, and the security department. If people were confused about the PFLP's
position in the past because of these things, let me make at least that point clear.
Arafat chose a certain path through the US, and some say he will achieve his goals.
He depends on the US to support him financially and every decision should be agreed
to by the US. Anything he wants to do is related to the United States. The other
ideology is not to tie one's self to America because it will not give us the solution
we need. MY SOLUTION ENTAILS DEPENDING ON OURSELVES AND BUILDING A GOOD RELATIONSHIP
WITH THE ARAB MASSES AND CONTINUING THE STRUGGLE WITHOUT DEPENDENCE ON AMERICA.
FAV: Many FAV readers are living in the Diaspora. What advice or
suggestions can you give them to be involved in the struggle?
Qatamesh: Each person regardless of place of residence has his/her own
role and they should complement the role of people elsewhere because
our struggle is not over and the conditions we fight against are still
there. They should not be competing with each other; they should be
complementing each other. There are certain issues that are still in
common between those on the inside and those living outside. We have a
battle: they are trying to get us to forget about our identity. We
should attack this battle jointly.
Since people are in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and elsewhere, our enemy is
trying to make this division permanent, not temporary, so that we will not ever
be unified. They want each segment to solve its problem through the area it is in
so we should stand against that. If they succeed in tackling us as shoe-boxed
Palestinians, it will be easier for them to overcome us. If they try to tackle us
as one people, they will fail. Regardless where our people are, they believe in One
People And One Common Cause and this is what unites them and makes them work together.
We have a lot of capabilities. Our people need to understand our history, attempt
to prese rve our language and culture and, besides that, they shouldkeep in contact
with the people back home through visiting them so that they keep the relationship
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