Palestinian ambassador talks peace as Israel attacks Great Return March protesters
Over the past three weeks, tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered as part of the 45-day Great Return March at the Gaza-Israel border and faced the brutal, efficient force of Israeli Defense Forces. So far, the result has been 30 Palestinians killed and nearly 2,000 Palestinian injured, shot, or otherwise harmed, many by IDF snipers.
So it was perhaps a particularly absurd moment for Husam Zomlot, Palestinian ambassador to the United States and adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to address Princeton University last week on the topic of peace.
He didn’t see it that way, though.
“Some of you would take it as a joke that I talk about peace now,” Zomlot told a room full of Princeton students and faculty as well as organizers, activists, and engaged New Jersey residents. “But in fact I think it is the right subject, this is the time when we need to talk about peace.”
Zomlot is just 43 years old. He got the ambassador gig right as Trump came into power. Trump soon acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, making it apparent, no matter what the Trump regime maintains, that sincere United States support for a two-state solution is nonexistent.
A Martin Luther King Jr.-like tragic optimist in his rhetoric, Zomlot instructed the Princeton room to not “focus on the unreal stuff.” The Jerusalem decision is devastating (“a black day for peace,” he told NPR when it was announced), but if you move through Jerusalem today, he says, you’ll see “nothing has changed.” At the same time, he glares at the past 26 years—since 1993’s Israel-Palestine peace accord—with disdain: It has been ineffective, pointless, asymmetrical.
That said, the two-state solution, the only way to go forward, must also be acknowledged as what it is: a compromise. Many think of it as a demand of Palestine, but it’s part of negotiation and “no one has negotiated more” than Palestine, Zomlot said.
“The best way is a two-state solution. Not because we see this as the best solution but because we are more interested in possibility than desirability,” he said. “The two-state solution is not a Palestinian demand, it is a Palestinian concession.”
Zomlot is aware of the limits to how “the conflict” is covered in the United States. Just Google around and you’ll find limited, clueless coverage that almost always frames what happens with a familiar, frustrating “both sides” lens. When the Israeli government fired on hundreds of Palestinian protesters, it was dubbed “a clash” by most newspapers. As organizations such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) indefatigably observe, coverage often reads as though IDF bullets, both real and rubber, just appeared on the scene or leapt from IDF guns. “Media’s Linguistic Gymnastics Mislead on Gaza Protests,” FAIR recently declared.
Coverage has gotten better over the years, though, Zomlot said—and besides, America is not the world and most of the world does not think like America when it comes to Israel and Palestine.
“Poor PR? Maybe in America, but not the rest of the world,” he said. “This might be very depressing at this point, and fine, but there are signs that reality is changing.”
For Zomlot, any hope for America lies in the younger generation: “These kids are on fire. They know more than their parents, thanks to social media, and they are pro-peace, pro-justice.”
It’s here that he becomes, well, the most positive, ambassador-like, perhaps even a PR flack , though his example is a good one. How many are aware that Palestinians often assist lost Israeli soldiers, he asked. Zomlot then recalled an incident where young Palestinians surrounded the vehicle of some lost Israeli soldiers. The scene got tense then terrifying—and quick. The Palestinian police arrived, approached, and fired into the air to scatter the young Palestinians and protect the Israeli soldiers. The soldiers were given directions back and that was that. It’s a feel-good story that is messy, imperfect, and therefore useful.
“Can you imagine the courage,” Zomlot asked, “to fire a bullet into the air to protect those soldiers?”
As we wade through a tedious conversation here in the States about what constitutes “peaceful” protest while the state has a monopoly on violence and right-wing maniacs and democratic centrists alike accept, it is easy to dismiss peace: It is, in its current context here, employed mostly as a conversation ender. Zomlot’s anecdote is a conversation starter. A “commitment to avoid the gush of blood,” Zomlot said, is not easy but if done right is “more powerful—and it provides results.”
Toward the end of the talk, Zomlot dropped the mirth from his voice and moved away from peace toward “justice” and what that might look like. It must begin with acknowledging what happened to the refugees—which includes people like him (he was born in the Shabura refugee camp in Gaza).
“People had to leave their home at gunpoint,” he said. “Denying what happened to them won’t lead to solution.”
He wondered aloud whether he would want to return to where his family was removed, where his “father lost his home and property,” where it now looks nothing like he or his family would remember. He isn’t sure what he would do if he had the choice—because he does not. He should be able to “choose freely,” and right now he isn’t allowed to choose at all. Currently, charged-up, fully armed IDF soldiers look across a fence and view Palestinians like Zomlot as “a demographic threat” to Israel.
Zomlot’s thoughts spiraled further out, and this pragmatist, who praised “possibility” over “desirability,” who believes in “multilateralism” via the United Nations Security Council is vital, provided a heartening, speculative fiction-like solution. One that he stressed was his belief, not the official stance of Palestine, President Abbas, so on.
What he envisions eventually is “a two-state solution that is virtual,” he said.
In name only, the virtual two-state system would exist to satisfy the concerns of Palestinians and Israelis but would not need to be enforced or even considered.
“And it would be one without borders,” Zomlot added.
Brandon Soderberg is the former editor of the Baltimore City Paper, former news editor of the Baltimore Beat, and the author of Daddy Lessons: A Country Music Zine for the Trumpocalypse. You can order it at daddylessons.bandcamp.com. Follow him on Twitter @notrivia.