Israel, Turkey, Hamas and Offshore Gas: Interview with the Ambassador of Palestine in Greece, Marwan Emile Toubassi

Interviewed by Charalampos Tsitsopoulos

Regional Realignments and Palestine

Tectonic changes are currently taking place in the Mediterranean region. How do Palestinians view Greece’s regional role, especially given the traditionally strong ties between Greece and the Arab states?

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of unipolarism, important changes came about in the global political system. Region-wise, the policies of each country are a reflection of their particular interests. Everybody wants to maximize their regional gains while at the same time circumvent-if possible- America’s omnipotence. Before the rise of this state of affairs, the role of each country was rather predetermined, by virtue of its belonging to one of the two camps. In this context, the European Union rose rapidly, trying to emerge as a third pole in the global order.

It obviously failed to do so for many reasons, the most important being policy divergences between its member-states. Russia capitalized on that in order to re-emerge as a global powerhouse in this new order and expand in areas where it was thus far absent. A potential Brexit would further contribute in this direction.

Greece was obviously affected by all these changes, as was the wider Middle East, the latter mainly because of a new factor, namely Israel. We, as Palestinians, understand the reasons for which this new state was established. But many people don’t see them as it is today obvious that its main function is to serve foreign interests. The Americans see regional stability as threatening, especially if it is a product of the involvement of a local powerhouse or the European Union. In this context, Greece has for long tried to find its position in the muddled European context, while undergoing immense pressure by the great powers due to its strategic geopolitical position.

We Palestinians view our relations with Greece, traditionally strong and of historic importance, as paramount and for a number of reasons. First, because due to its geographic proximity to the Levant while belonging to Europe. Second, by virtue of both Greece and the majority of the Arab countries having been part of the Ottoman Empire. The result of this was a plethora of interactions. Greece has undergone occupations and persecutions beyond the Ottoman Empire, as for example in the case of the Nazi occupation. It is part of the Christian Orthodox world and, as well known, there are many Orthodox Christians in Palestine. Such common factors bring us closer. At the same time all this make our relations with your country highly important. Greece can definitely contribute to stability and peace in the region.

Turkey, Israel and Palestine

Q: Speaking of regional stability, could you expand a bit on how Palestinians view the recent Israel-Turkey rapprochement, which seemed to have been received with mixed feelings: certain members of Hamas opposed the deal, while the Palestinian Authority seems positive towards it.

A: Hamas as a group welcomed the deal. It had been informed in advance and had consented to the rapprochement. The situation in the Gaza Strip was also a factor taken into consideration in this process.

Q: Are you suggesting that Turkish President Erdogan’s intentions regarding Gaza are what meets the eye?

A: We welcome any international stance or initiative that aims to put an end to Gaza’s blockade and the trials of its people. With regards to Palestinian divisions, I would think that ending the latter could only have positive repercussions for the Palestinian issue. For this reconciliation to come about, however, Hamas should modify its position and consider itself part of the PLO and not as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Greece and Cyprus

Q: Greece and Israel have been forging strong ties. Indicatively, in a recent article on Haaretz, former Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath claimed that Greece is moving so far away from the Palestinian camp that it looks like a “betrayal”.

A: Recent developments in the region have been rapid. Our expectation of countries that have had strong ties with the Palestinian people is that they continue to defend international law and human rights. This has been exactly the stance of successive Greek governments. The pronouncements of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have always been clear. Greece is against the settlements, against the occupation and for an independent Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. Greece’s position is identical to that of the other EU countries. Our question is how this stance can be translated into more effective action. Israel is an outlaw state that deems itself about international law and not binded by its principles. If the latter are to be considered as a yardstick, it’s an illegal state. As known, UN Security Council Resolution 181 called for two states.

Nabil Sha’ath has always questioned why there would be such a blatant double standard in the case of Israel, especially given the sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime, Iran, even Russia. With regards to his article, it’s very possible that he expressed a personal opinion. One should not forget the role of the Israeli press, which often tries to undermine Greek-Palestinian relations. Still, misunderstandings are common even between friends.

Greek-Palestinian relations are currently stable. Greece is of the mind that settlements are illegal while it supports the embargo of imports to Europe of products originating in the settlements. The recent adoption by the European Parliament of the French initiative shows the way. The visit by Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, to Palestine didn’t evince any disagreements between Greece and Palestine.

Delving into the past. Yasser Arafat’s visit to Greece amidst the Lebanese Civil War in 1982 speaks volumes. In mid-June, there was a visit by a sizeable delegation of Syriza members to Palestine, headed by Mr. Panos Rigas. And to be fair to Greece, there is a tendency by parties across the political spectrum to visit Palestine to assess the situation on the ground themselves. Recently, in a World Health Organization summit, Greece kept a brave stance by joining the condemnation of Israel regarding the conditions of detention of Palestinian political prisoners as well as Israel’s stance towards medical teams. There have, generally speaking, been many common positions between Greece and Palestine regarding regional developments. The most important of which is agreement on the urgent need for stability in the Eastern Mediterranean.

This stability is predicated upon two conditions: a) a termination of the Israeli occupation by Palestine, which is a major impediment to regional democratization, b) a comprehensive defeat of terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State and Al-Nusra, whose field of activities has been expanding. Most importantly, terminating the occupation will deprive these organizations of one of their major excuses for their actions, namely the Palestinian issue. They only exploit the latter for their own benefit.

Q: Of particular interest to Greece and Cyprus: it is rumored that when the Greek Cypriot negotiator Andreas Mavrogiannis ran for President of the UN’s 71st General assembly he failed to get the Palestinian vote. And this was –allegedly- justified by the Palestinian Representative in terms of Cyprus having become “too pro-Israeli.” What is the story behind all that?

A: I have no information regarding the issue. Our position towards the Cypriot issue have always been very clear: we are for the legitimacy of the Cypriot government and view Cyprus as a unified democratic country. Our position on Turkish troops is identical to that of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs: they should be withdrawn, as should Israeli ones from Palestine. We never apply double standards. This goes back to the time of Yasser Arafat and still holds. And this is why we have no representation in the TRNC. Our position has also been articulated within the workings of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. We call for a solution of the Cypriot issue on the basis of international law. And here lies the importance of belonging to the international community. The only alternative to the application of international law is chaos. The world will be divided into groups of bullies with mafia-like tactics. Perpetrators of crimes should be punished. He who repeatedly commits crimes but remains unpunished will continue to commit them.

The question is thus: why doesn’t the international community take an initiative to end the Israeli occupation, which can’t end of its own accord? We see some light in the tunnel with the European Parliament’s adoption of the French peace initiative. We sincerely hope that Greece will be active in promoting such initiatives. An international summit on the Palestinian issue would be highly important for two reasons: a) it would be a major blow against Israeli intransigence; b) it would put Israeli colonial practice of settlement expansion (which will in this rate come to include 85% of Palestinian territories) under the microscope. As knows, Israel has benefited majorly from the negotiation process, which allowed it to expand its settlement activity. Another hindering factor, of course, is American indecisiveness vis-à-vis the peace process. For 22 years, Israel systematically backtracks on its promises. Thus, the only way to come up with a decent solution is via an international summit. What has happened between 1947 and 2016 is the biggest land theft in history. Ending it would be of major benefit to Greece as well.

Gas Reserves off Gaza

Q: Since 2000, there have been serious indications that gas reserves lie off the coast of Gaza. Israel has forcedly limited Gaza’s maritime zone to between 3-6 nautical miles. This started in 2000 and was officialised in 2009. There is the Mari-B field. What is going on there?

A: We Palestinians, following our recognition as a state by the United Nations in 2012, are a country with access to the sea. We have been a party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) since 2015. Our major foreign policy goal has been to accede to as many international organizations as possible, in all fields. We thus hope to activate the legal dimension –and perception- of the State of Palestine. Thus, we believe we should be a party to all regional deals regarding hydrocarbon reserves and get our share. We are optimistic about Greece’s position on the issue and thus view Greece’s tripartite cooperation (with Cyprus and Israel) and that with Egypt positively. Israel has no right to get involved or attempt to control areas, such as territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones, which have long been the object of a set of international laws. Any deal Israel might sign on territory and water outside its sovereignty is in our view illegal.

– Charalampos Tsitsopoulos is a freelance journalist writing on the Mediterranean. He holds degrees in Communications (Athens, Greece) and Middle Eastern Studies (Edinburgh, UK). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: c.tsitsopoulos@gmail.com

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