Seven Questions: Rafiq Husseini

Rafiq Husseini, one of President Mahmoud Abbas's closest advisors, discusses the recent tensions in Jerusalem -- and what it says about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

On Sept. 27, Palestinians hurled rocks at a group of visitors at the Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem; they thought the visitors were Jewish fundamentalists and wanted to ward them away from the holy site. Clashes escalated over the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, and Israel barred all male worshipers under 50 from entering the mosque. As happened during the first and second intifadas, violence spread throughout East Jerusalem, with Israeli police arresting dozens of Palestinian protesters. The paralysis over the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and continuing tension over Jewish settlement expansion in East Jerusalem added fuel to the flames.

As this tense situation unfolded, Foreign Policy interviewed Rafiq H. Husseini, chief of staff for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. They discussed how the conflict started -- and where it might lead.

Foreign Policy: Could you describe the series of events that have resulted in the recent tensions in Jerusalem and how the situation has gotten as bad as it is today?

Rafiq Husseini: The tensions did not start last week. The tensions have been ongoing since this new Israeli government [took] over, with its aim to fulfill its objective of ensuring that East Jerusalem is never returned to Palestinian sovereignty. An active program of putting Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem has been progressing, including evictions of Palestinians.

But the tensions have now increased. ... [N]ow groups of fundamentalists want to go inside the al-Aqsa mosque and the al-Haram al-Sharif, which is an Islamic holy shrine. Every day we fear that Israeli fundamentalist groups [will] declare that this area is the Temple Mount and that they want to build the third temple on the ruins of the existing Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

FP: Last week, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said, "[T]he battle is underway for sovereignty of Jerusalem and particularly over the Temple Mount." Do you see this as part of a struggle for Jerusalem between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

RH: Well, [the al-Aqsa mosque] is a Palestinian holy shrine. Why should there be a battle for it, or its sovereignty? This is a Palestinian, Arab, Islamic holy shrine that has been there for almost 1,500 years. Therefore, the battle is unfortunately not between the Palestinians and the Israelis over sovereignty. It is a battle by extremist Israeli groups backed by a government of extremists to try to re-create 2,000 years of history.

This is not acceptable. The issue has been turned by this Israeli government into a religious battle ... not only a clash of nationalistic viewpoints.

FP: Can you describe the difference, from your perspective, between the current Benjamin Netanyahu government and the Kadima government which preceded it?

RH: First of all, I think the Kadima government ... accepted that they want to put all the issues for discussion between us on the table, including Jerusalem. They also understood the sensitivity of the subject. Although they involved themselves in some settlement plans in East Jerusalem, they were much more receptive and understood the tensions and what these issues can bring -- how they can damage both peoples.

Also, there were channels of communication between the two leaderships, so when an issue like what is happening in Jerusalem was about to take place, these issues were talked about and solved, most of the time. Today, these channels are completely blocked and closed.


FP: President Mahmoud Abbas called for a general strike to occur last Friday. What does the strike hope to accomplish?

RH: Well, it hopes to ensure that the message is heard by the world. Because [this tension] is now bringing us back to square one. It is bringing us away from a supposedly negotiated settlement over issues that are related to the two peoples, two nations. ... Therefore, what we need to do is try to make sure that the world understands and the world then stops Israel from doing what it's doing.

Because Israel, as you know, is the power on the ground. It is the one with the guns, the police, and the soldiers. It is the one that is allowing settlers and fundamentalist Jewish groups to claim East Jerusalem and especially the Muslim holy shrines of al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. [They] continue to say that there is no al-Aqsa mosque and that there is no Dome of the Rock, that there is only Solomon's Temple. Unfortunately, this is what the Israeli municipality is saying officially in all its publications.

FP: Do you see a risk of this clashing getting much worse in the coming days?

RH: Well, I am not sure how bad [the situation will get]. We do not want these clashes to get any worse. All the intifadas in the later years have started with a clash around the mosque and around al-Haram al-Sharif. And we don't want this to happen.

[W]e are asking the Israelis to restrain these people, to keep them away, so that we do not go into another cycle of violence and then there is the total collapse of the peace process. Today, the peace process is in intensive care, and it is struggling.

FP: Do you accuse the Netanyahu government of wanting the destruction of the al-Aqsa mosque, like you accuse some of these "fundamentalist groups" of trying to do?

RH: The Netanyahu government is a weak government based, unfortunately, on fundamentalist groups. And therefore, they are taking the counsel of these groups, and this is why these groups can do anything they like and not fear any restrictions by the weak and incapable Israeli government of today.

FP: Is there any difference between the position of Hamas and the position of the PLO on the al-Aqsa issue?

RH: Well, I don't know if there is any difference on the al-Aqsa issue. But I can tell you that there is a big difference between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on all the political and social issues concerning the Palestinian-Israeli question. And therefore, whereas there could be similar positions [on this issue], that does not mean that we agree on how to resolve the difference. We want peace, we want coexistence, and we want a two-state solution. We want Jerusalem to be the capital of two states and three religions. This is what we want. And we are advocating diversity and tolerance. I am not sure that Hamas is advocating the same thing.

Rafiq H. Husseini is chief of staff of the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Thaer Ganaim/PPO via Getty Images


Interview: Joe Berlinger

Foreign Policy speaks with director Joe Berlinger about his latest film, Crude, which follows the story of the "Amazon Chernobyl" case.


Before American missionaries came to the small Ecuadorian village of Lago Agrio in the 1950s, it was a place virtually unknown to the outside world. Now, 37 years after the U.S. company Texaco came to drill for oil, the village and the surrounding area is a festering site of contamination, a literal "death zone" at the center of a $27 billion legal battle with one of the world's largest oil companies.

The lawsuit is still in flux, and the stakes are high: The plaintiffs -- 30,000 indigenous Amazonians -- are suing for the environmental cleanup of a polluted area roughly the size of Rhode Island. They think the oil contamination has led to mass death and disease. Lawyers for the defense argue that Chevron, which acquired Texaco in 2001, no longer operates oil wells in Ecuador and that the cleanup of its drilling sites met with the requirements of Ecuadorean law. The case, they say, is nothing more than a ploy by the plaintiffs' "Manhattan lawyers" to cash in on big "juicy checks." Chevron also maintains that the increase in cancer and various skin diseases in the area is the result of "poor sanitation" and "has nothing to do with oil."

This David and Goliath tale is the subject of director Joe Berlinger's newly released film, Crude, in which he explores this epic 16-year-old legal battle with all the excitement and flair of a John Grisham thriller. Berlinger, whose other works include Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, was approached by Steven Donziger, the lead American attorney for the plaintiffs, who eventually convinced Berlinger to visit the site and meet the people there. The filmmaker saw a chance to tell a story he thinks addresses a "moral responsibility" that transcends even the best legal argument.

FP: Have the people of Lago Agrio seen Crude?

JB: I have not gone to show it to them, but I have [given permission to] community leaders to screen the movie ... free of charge all over Ecuador. We had a really wonderful screening [at the] Ecuadorean film festival. There was a line around the block. They jammed 1,400 people into the theater.

It was the best screening -- in terms of emotional response -- I have ever had anywhere, anytime. Pablo [Fajardo, the leading attorney for the plaintiffs] received a 15-minute standing ovation. People kept coming up to me to express their gratitude. The vast majority of them -- Quito [residents who live] middle -class lives -- had no idea that [the devastation] was taking place. It took an American filmmaker for them to become aware about what was going on in their own jungle.

FP: In Crude we see then-newly elected President Rafael Correa visit Lago Agri0. He is outraged and champions the plaintiffs' cause. Has his support continued?

JB: It is an interesting turn of events for the plaintiffs. [Correa was the] first president of the region to visit the affected area and to show sympathy for the plaintiffs. Correa is a controversial figure in [Ecuador], written off as a left-wing Chávez protégé, anti-American, anti-American big business. Some of this is true, but it is precisely [the] cozy relationship between right-wing Latin American governments and big business that has been responsible for a lot of environmental abuse in extractive industries, and that is kind of the larger theme of the film.

Correa continues to support the case, in that he is aware of it. He is pro-plaintiff, [but] he is not meddling in the case, as Chevron has accused him of. Correa is trying to walk a more environmentally aware line. [He] is trying to, with mixed results, [to] inaugurate [a new] program where instead of drilling and extracting the oil from the ground, he will sell [the oil] to people who want to keep it in the ground. [It's] a novel way of dealing with having a resource that has economic value [while] trying to preserve the environment.

­­­­FP: What was your relationship with Chevron like while you were making the film?

JB: The first two years of the film I did not reach out to them. I did not disclose who I was simply for safety reasons. We were in a dangerous, somewhat lawless part of the world. These oil towns are like Wild West towns with a lot of crime. We were at times a mile and a half from the Colombian border, where the FARC guerrillas are very active, where drug runners are very active.

I am not saying that Chevron executives in the United States would ever order a "hit" on a filmmaker; I am not that jaded or cynical. However, there is a history of these cases in places like Nigeria where people, who care about the chain of employment based on the local interest of the larger multinationals' interests, take actions into their own hands and things happen. .... Our hotel was ransacked on one occasion; we thought we were being followed. I am not making accusations -- that could [have been] drug runners.

[Since I contacted Chevron,] our relationship has been interesting. Initially, they did not believe [I was trying] to do a fair and balanced film.   

I tried to get them to let me do other things like sit in on their meetings.  I said, "Hey, take me on the toxi-tour" --  everyone calls it the toxi-tour, including Chevron -- "from the Chevron perspective and I would love to be on the ground with you at these sites, and you explain to me whose responsibility this is and how this happened." They denied that. Literally up until the [eleventh] hour they were friendly but not granting any interviews.

[The Sundance Film Festival deadline] motivated them, and [Chevron] agreed to do interviews. It was their idea to provide me with Ricardo Raez Vega, the legal architect of this case, and provide me with Sarah MacMillan [Chevron's chief environmental scientist].

When I was setting up my shot, another crew arrived and started setting up gear. [Chevron] had booked another crew to film me filming the interviews so they would have a record. They did not mention it beforehand. They said they would like to have a record of the interview. It was not necessarily an intimidation [tactic], but their way of saying, "We have a record of this; do not manipulate this." I have filmed all sorts of people in all walks of life, but I have never been filmed doing my interviews before.

FP: What has the film taught you about this sort of lawsuit?

JB: I think the legal structures we have are inadequate for addressing these large-scale environmental and humanitarian crises. It has taken 17 years to get to this point and it's probably going to take another 10 or 15 years before there is a resolution. There has to be better ways of resolving these conflicts. In the Exxon Valdez situation, it took almost 20 years for the fine to be paid by them; they delayed and delayed and it only got paid off late last year to people who were waiting for compensation for lost livelihood. They waited 20 years for that payment, and then in the [eleventh] hour it was reduced by 80 percent. So there has to be a better way to resolve these conflicts. The people who are the alleged or supposed beneficiaries wait a lifetime for relief. And in this instance, in the Amazon, there is poisoned water and massive pollution, which is unacceptable.

Courtesy of Radical Media