Interview: Alice Walker

The author and activist, who is setting sail for Gaza on a humanitarian mission, says Israel 'is the greatest terrorist' in the Middle East.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker will join the flotilla of ships next week that will try to break Israel's maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip. She says the goal is to bring supplies and raise awareness of the situation there. Last May, during a similar attempt by activists, Israel raided six ships. On one, clashes broke out and Israeli commandos killed nine people.

Foreign Policy reached the author of The Color Purple in Greece, where she is preparing for her departure.

Foreign Policy: Why are you taking part in the flotilla mission?

Alice Walker: In 2009, I was in Gaza, just after Operation Cast Lead, and I saw the incredible damage and devastation. I have a good understanding of what's on the ground there and how the water system was destroyed and the sewage system. I saw that the ministries had been bombed, and the hospitals had been bombed, and the schools. I sat for a good part of a morning in the rubble of the American school, and it just was so painful because we as Americans pay so much of our taxes for this kind of weaponry that was used. On a more sort of mature grandmotherly level I feel that as an elder it is up to me and others like me -- other elders, other mature adults -- to look at situations like this and bring to them whatever understanding and wisdom we might have gained in our fairly long lifetimes, witnessing and being a part of struggles against oppression.

FP: How long have you been involved in Palestinian activism? What drew you to it?

AW: It started with the Six Day War in 1967. That happened shortly after my wedding to a Jewish law student. And we were very happy because we thought Israel was right to try to defend itself by pre-emptively striking against Egypt. We didn't realize any of the real history of that area. So, that was my beginning of being interested in what was going on and watching what was happening. Even at that time, I said to my young husband, well, they shouldn't take that land, because it's actually not their land. This just seemed so unjust to me. It just seemed so wrong. It's really unjust because in America we think about Israel in mythical terms. And most of us have grown up with the Bible. So we think that we are sort of akin to these people and whatever they're saying must be true -- their God is giving them land and that is just the reality. But actually the land had people living on it. The people were in their own homes, their own towns and cities. So, the battle has been about them trying to reclaim what was taken from them. It's important, when we have some new understanding -- especially adults and mature adults -- we must, I think, take some action so that younger people will have a better understanding of what they are seeing in the world.

FP: Is the goal of this mission, though, to just raise awareness, or is it to actually deliver supplies?

AW: Well, our boat is delivering letters. So what we're trying to draw attention to is the fact that the blockade is still in effect. On the other boats there will probably be supplies. I haven't checked but probably things like sewage supplies.

FP: But Egypt has partially reopened its border with Gaza. So, couldn't you get supplies in through there?

AW: No, you can't. You can get two suitcases. Not only that, they closed it. They opened it and then closed it. So, that has not been worked out. I know people like to rally around what they think is a positive thing, but it's not that positive yet because it's not firm. They limit the number of people. They close it. They say two suitcases. You can't build a sewage system with two suitcases.

FP: Israel's ambassador to the United Nations said the stated goal of "humanitarian assistance" was a false pretext for your mission -- and it's actually designed to serve an extremist political agenda, and that many of the groups participating in the mission maintain ties with extremist and terrorist organizations, including Hamas. Your reaction?

AW: I think Israel is the greatest terrorist in that part of the world. And I think in general, the United States and Israel are great terrorist organizations themselves. If you go to Gaza and see some of the bombs -- what's left of the bombs that were dropped -- and the general destruction, you would have to say, yeah, it's terrorism. When you terrorize people, when you make them so afraid of you that they are just mentally and psychologically wounded for life -- that's terrorism. So these countries are terrorist countries.

FP: How is the United States a terrorist country?

AW: It is. Absolutely, it is. It has terrorized people around the globe for a very long time. It has fought against countries that have tried to change their governments, that have tried to have democracies, and the United States has intervened and interfered, like in Guatemala or Chile. I feel that it is so unreasonable, and I don't quite understand how they can claim everyone else is a terrorist and they are not when so many people right this minute are terrified of the drones, for instance, in the war in Afghanistan. The dropping of bombs on people -- isn't that terrorism?

FP: Of course Israel and the U.S. aren't the only ones that use bombs. Hamas has fired rockets at Israel in the past.

AW: Yes. And I'm not for a minute saying anybody anywhere should fire rockets. I mean, I would never do it. Nor would I ever supply such a thing to anyone. But it's extremely unequal. If people just acknowledge how absurdly unequal this is. This is David and Goliath, but Goliath is not the Palestinians. They are David. They are the ones with the slingshot. They are the ones with the rocks and relatively not-so-powerful rockets. Whereas the Israelis have these incredibly damaging missiles and rockets. When do you as a person of conscience speak and say enough is enough?

FP: Are you concerned at all that your trip could be used as a propaganda tool for Hamas?

AW: No, because we will never see those people. Why would we see them?

FP: You don't think you're going to see anyone from Hamas?

AW: No. I don't think we would. If we manage to get through with our bundle of letters we will probably be met by a lot of NGOs, and women and children, and schoolteachers and nurses, and the occasional doctor, if anyone is left.

FP: But doesn't Hamas control the security apparatus of Gaza?

AW: They may well control it, but we're not going to see them. It's like everyone who comes to D.C. doesn't see the president.

FP: I have to ask, since the previous flotilla trip ended with an Israeli raid on one of the ships and nine people dead. Are you frightened?

AW: Sometimes I feel fear. And the feeling that this may be it. But I'm positive -- I'm looking at it as a way to bring attention to these children and their mothers and their grandmothers, and their grandfathers and their fathers, who face this kind of thing every day. I grew up in the South under segregation. So, I know what terrorism feels like -- when your father could be taken out in the middle of the night and lynched just because he didn't look like he was in an obeying frame of mind when a white person said something he must do. I mean, that's terrorism too. So, I know that feeling. And this is what they are living under. And so, if you ever lived under terrorism yourself -- you know terrorism USA, Southern-style -- then you understand that people don't like it and they should not be subjected to it anywhere on the planet.

Monica Morgan/WireImage


Interview: Ehsan ul-Haq

Pakistan's former head of Inter-Services Intelligence discusses 9/11, bin Laden and Pakistani security.

Gen. Ehsan ul-Haq took office as the head of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate in October 2001, and by the time he retired six years later he had risen to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.* Those positions placed him at the center of the post-9/11 hunt for Osama bin Laden and prosecution of the war in Afghanistan, in which the relationship between Pakistan and the United States on intelligence and military matters was a roller coaster of collaboration and suspicion. Haq spoke with Foreign Policy's Charles Homans in London -- where the general was addressing reporters at a Thomson Reuters Foundation seminar on security and terrorism -- about the Afghanistan war, Pakistan's recent security troubles, and just how much the ISI knew about where bin Laden was.

Foreign Policy: Where were you when you heard about the 9/11 attacks?

Ehsan ul-Haq: On 9/11 I was corps commander* in Peshawar, with responsibility for the western border with Afghanistan and security in the tribal areas of Pakistan and our northwestern province, what is now called Khyber-PK. And of course, it was shocking news for everybody -- it was for me personally. And I didn't realize how much it would impact on my personal life, how the world would change, how Pakistan would change.

FP: From there to the end of your tenure in 2007, what was your understanding or suspicion of where bin Laden was?

EH: I was asked [to take over as lead of the ISI] on Oct. 7, 2001, when the bombing of Kabul began.… Of course, our awareness of al Qaeda at that stage was very limited because al Qaeda was not operating in Afghanistan -- it was an Arab phenomenon. Yes, it was transiting through Pakistan and Iran and other countries, but since they had not really operated in Pakistan, so we were not much aware of its dimensions, its role, its intentions, its objectives-these were things that were new to us, and it took time for us to really reconcile with it. But very quickly, we did achieve very substantial successes and close cooperation with other intelligence services, particularly the CIA.

As far as Osama bin Laden is concerned, frankly speaking, after Tora Bora we only heard the information that was shared with us at the time. After that, there were never any authentic reports on Osama bin Laden until his killing in Abbottabad.

FP: Did you have suspicious as to where he would have been?

EH: There were all sorts of insinuations; there were all sorts of assessments … that [bin Laden] might possibly have been killed … [or] that he was possibly in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was sometimes a finger raised that he was in Pakistan. We would reject that and say simply, "Look, if you have information that he is in Pakistan, say he is in Pakistan. If you don't have information, to say that since there is no information, therefore he is in Pakistan, is not fair." My view was, we don't know where he is, so he may well be here, or he may be in Afghanistan, or he may be anywhere. But since we don't know, to conclude … he is in Pakistan is wrong.

FP: It would appear that the lessons the U.S. intelligence community and the Obama administration have taken away from the last couple years is that they have seen more success operating unilaterally in Pakistan than they have collaborating with the ISI. We've seen this in the Raymond Davis case, the bin Laden raid, the drone strikes. Let's say you're still at the ISI: You're sitting down at the table with Gen. David Petraeus as he's starting out as CIA director. What's your pitch? How do you convince him to go back to a collaborative relationship?

EH: I think that if [General Patreaus] looks at the relationship, if not earlier than post-9/11, he will find that there were far greater successes in our collaborative relationship between the ISI and the CIA than in unilateral actions by the CIA. Secondly, if they expect us to be a partner, and they accuse us of a double game, then we should be very transparent partners. Don't they realize, since they have picked up Osama bin Laden from Abbottabad, have there been any casualties in the United States? Where have the casualties, the consequences of Osama bin Laden's capture been? In Pakistan. Isn't it fair for Pakistan to seek that there should be close cooperation, that Pakistan should be on board with anything that is done?

FP: The recent attack on the naval base in Karachi has raised alarming questions about the ability of militants to infiltrate the military's infrastructure in Pakistan. What's your take on that incident? Does this raise serious questions?

EH: This is a failure of the security arrangements of that base, which are being investigated. But one must look at tactical actions in their true perspective. When you look at the strategic capabilities of Pakistan's armed forces, those are much, much bigger. When there are terrorists operating, and it's a very volatile environment post-bin Laden's death, one would expect incidents like these. But to think that they would create some strategic failures, I think, is far-fetched. Strategically, Pakistan's armed forces, Pakistan's defense capabilities, Pakistan's security capabilities, are adequate for the security of Pakistan and for safeguarding its vital national assets and security assets. This, of course, is a failure, a failure that could occur anywhere. It has occurred, and I think it is being investigated. It shouldn't have occurred.

FP: The Syed Saleem Shahzad assassination -- the suspicion that many have taken away from this, considering the extent of his sources in and reporting on the ISI, is that the ISI is a plausible suspect in this. Is it? Has the ISI done this kind of thing before?

EH: There is no history of the ISI being involved in the killing of any journalist or media person in the past. Yes, there have been reports or accusations of harassment. But harassment and killing are two very, very different things. And, I do not think this journalist had any piece of information that was so critical of Pakistan or its security system that it would warrant such a response. So I don't agree that the ISI is involved. But I think this whole thing is being investigated on a very responsible level. And I'm confident that if there is any complicity of any individual, this certainly is not the policy. But if there is some individual, the law will take its own course.

FP: What do you envision as the endgame in Afghanistan? How does this conflict end?

EH: There is no other way except for seeking a political solution. There is no military solution. And as long as we keep using the military instrument to seek a solution, we will continue to push back the possibility of a political solution.

FP: By which you mean some sort of deal between the Karzai government and the Taliban.

EH: Of course. There has to be some kind of dialogue. Of course there is ISAF, NATO, Karzai, everybody, but the principals in my view are the United States on one side and the Taliban on the other side. The rest are all there, but primarily it is the United States that has to decide what sort of an exit strategy it wants. And it must be a political one.

*Corrections: Ehsan ul-Haq's final position before retirement was originally misstated in the opening paragraph. Also, due to a transcription error, Haq's position on 9/11 was originally misstated.