- Interview by
- James Hutt
Khalida Jarrar is one of the most celebrated — and targeted — leaders of the Palestinian liberation movement. A dedicated socialist and feminist, her organizing has taken many different forms over the decades, and has come at great personal cost.
Jarrar was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in 2006 and chaired the PLC’s Prisoner Commission. Prior to her election, Jarrar served as the director of Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association.
Jarrar has been arrested by the state of Israel four times for her activism. The first time was on March 8, 1989 for her participation in International Women’s Day demonstrations.
In 2014, Israel issued a military order to expel Jarrar from Ramallah. Soldiers surrounded her family home and attempted to transfer her to Jericho, where she would be placed under supervision. Jarrar refused to sign the order and appealed the decision. She won, but was later arrested in April 2015. She served six months without charges or trial under administrative detention, a procedure under Israel’s separate military court system for Palestinians. Jarrar was eventually charged with “membership in an illegal organization” (Israel designates all Palestinian political parties illegal) and “incitement.” She was released after fifteen months in June 2016.
In July 2017, Jarrar was leading efforts to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court when she was arrested again. She was held on secret evidence and her administrative detention was renewed several times until her release in February 2019.
Eight months later, in October 2019, she was arrested again and charged with “holding a position in an illegal association.” While in jail, Jarrar launched a program to teach Palestinian women in Israeli prisons and allow them to receive university credits for their studies. Despite Israel’s attempts to ban the initiative, several women have been awarded degrees, and the initiative continues today. In July 2021, Jarar’s daughter Suha unexpectedly passed away at the age of thirty-one. Despite international outcry, Israel refused to allow Jarrar to attend the funeral.
Jarrar was finally released in September 2021. To date, she has spent over sixty-three combined months behind bars. Since her release, she has accepted a position at Birzeit University, where she researches the historic role of female Palestinian political prisoners.
For Jacobin, Jarrar’s son-in-law James Hutt sat down with her at her home in Ramallah to talk to her about the current upsurge in resistance, the challenges facing the liberation movement, and what she believes comes next.
For months now, the West Bank has seemed like it’s about to erupt. I’ve heard Palestinians use the expression that “the situation is like hot metal.” There’s been a wave of Palestinian resistance, especially in the face of escalating Israeli violence. Some people have described it like the months that precipitated the second intifada. How do you understand the current moment?
There are daily invasions by the Israeli army into Palestinian towns. There are daily mass arrests. Daily, we wake up to news of Israel killing people. Besides that, the West Bank is full of checkpoints and we’re witnessing the Israeli army assassinating more and more people at the checkpoints. They have invaded Jericho many times recently, especially after their raid on the nearby Aqabat Jaber refugee camp, where soldiers demolished many houses and assassinated five people. If Israel thinks these people did anything wrong it could have arrested them, like normal. Instead, it is aiming to kill. Shooting people has become very easy now for the Israeli army.
Israel has started to demolish houses in huge numbers. It has always done it, but now in such large numbers that it’s clearly a new policy. It wants to remove Palestinians from Masafer Yatta and East Jerusalem, for example. [Israeli minister of national security] Itamar Ben-Gvir personally ordered the demolition of a building in Jerusalem that’s home to one hundred Palestinians. On the other side, the Israeli bureaucracy uses the excuse that these homes have been built thirty years ago and don’t have licenses. Of course not. Israel will not give licenses to Palestinians to build or to fix their homes inside Jerusalem.
The more dangerous element is the settlers, who are of course under the protection of the soldiers. I think the settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem number around one million people now. The roads are full of settlers. Their settlements are not little villages or towns either, they are full cities. The settlers have weapons. They attack Palestinians. They steal their olives and cut down their trees. They close the roads and throw stones at cars with white West Bank license plates. They kill people.
There is an escalation of the violence with this new fascist government. All Israeli governments violate the rights of Palestinians by arresting and killing people, but we look at this new government and see people like [Israeli minister of finance] Bezalel Smotrich or Ben-Gvir, who was convicted of terrorism against Palestinians by Israeli police. Now he’s not just part of the Israeli government — he’s the minister for national security.
Ben-Gvir has threatened more laws against prisoners and wants to bring in capital punishment. As minister, he announced his support for and gave a gift to a soldier who killed a Palestinian civilian in Shuafat refugee camp. The soldier beat the man and shot him at point blank. Ben-Gvir is not a civilian or even just a settler. He is an Israeli cabinet minister. Ben-Gvir told the soldier that he appreciated what he did and the world kept silent. [Since this interview, Israel has approved a new national guard under Ben-Gvir’s command that will focus on “Arab unrest.”]
On top of the escalation of violence and the continuous violations, there is high unemployment and poverty. That’s linked to how Israel is stealing money from the Palestinian Authority (PA). According to the Paris Agreement, Israel collects trade revenues and taxes that it is supposed to give back to the PA. However, Israel has started confiscating millions of shekels each month, which affects the budget of the PA and its programs. Palestine is also an agricultural country. Israel doesn’t allow people to dig for water or plant their lands. Palestinians have no access to land in Area C, which is 68 percent of the West Bank, so they can’t build or plant on their lands in that area. On the other side, there’s no right for Palestinians to have their own factories or their own economy. Our economy is tied to the Israeli economy and the Paris Agreement keeps squeezing us.
So you have a rise in poverty, in human rights violations, in killings, and in the expansion of Israeli settlements. Palestinians have nothing to do but resist this occupation, because there is no hope for them while the occupation exists. We are learning now that the majority of Palestinian youth are resisting in their own way. There is now widespread collective resistance, and we notice this new phenomenon of young Palestinians undertaking armed resistance on their own, because they see and they live the daily violations; because there is no hope for them. The occupation kills everything for Palestinians, it kills hope, it kills the future. So what can they do? Besides that, there is no punishment for Israel for violating human rights and international humanitarian conventions. We can’t see any punishment. We only see the opposite: the punishment of Palestinians seeking their liberty and justice.
Where do you think it will go? Will it lead to a new intifada?
Look, there are elements you need for an intifada. You need collective leadership and mass organization, for example. What I see is that there is a continuous resistance. Whether it will lead to an intifada or armed struggle, I don’t know. But the situation is very critical. The occupation keeps increasing the violence, so the Palestinian people will resist. I’m sorry to say it too, but the Palestinian people are not armed. Who is armed are the Israeli soldiers. They have tanks, weapons, and aircraft. They have an army. Palestinians have very little to resist with. But the spirit of refusal you can find in the Palestinian people. So what will be the name of this moment? I can’t say if it’ll be an intifada because it requires many elements that are not found today, but there is a continuous resistance that is developing. To what? The future will answer.
How would you describe the current state of the Palestinian liberation movement?
The internal divisions have badly affected the liberation movement, especially between Fatah and Hamas. They are the two biggest parties and they are satisfied with the current situation, with Hamas in control of Gaza and Fatah somewhat in control of the West Bank and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). But the majority of people want elections, which would change that. Elections are one part of the approach we need as a people. The other is a minimum agreement between all parties to work together. But the internal divisions and the private interests of each of the parties means they are more inclined to delay elections.
We haven’t had elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council since 2006.But the majority of people want change. Palestinians need to elect their leadership. It’s going to take popular pressure to make that happen.
There have been many agreements between the parties to hold elections. The last ones were supposed to be in 2021 but they didn’t happen. The president [Mahmoud Abbas] canceled them on the excuse that we couldn’t hold elections without the Palestinians in Jerusalem, whom Israel would not allow to participate. But it’s an excuse. Of course the West Bank could have elections without Jerusalem. And if we believe in a genuine democratic approach then we will find ways to include them and do it in Jerusalem.
The other question is that the liberation movement has moved toward what’s called state-building, which has different aims and activities than liberation. Part of the movement thinks about establishing an independent state and thought it could do it through the Oslo Accords, but it found out after twenty-five years that it’s just a slogan.
But now we see popular resistance from the people that will maybe force the liberation movement to adjust. It might force the parties and its leaders to evaluate and evolve, and to actually implement the national demands of Palestinians, which are: self-determination, the right of return for refugees, and an end to the occupation. So we need to switch from the aim of building a state and return to focus on liberation, and, in my opinion, it should be a democratic approach. Besides the national struggle we also have a democratic struggle, which includes social justice and equality between men and women. This is the content of liberation we need as a Palestinian people.
Speaking of divisions and agreements between Palestinian parties, I want to ask you about the Prisoners’ Document from 2006. That document seems like the closest the various parties have come to achieving a unified vision for a long time. Do you see anything new like that coming?
We have many agreements, but the main two agreements that answer the whole question and all differences between the political parties are the Prisoners’ Document and the Cairo Agreement in 2005, which was agreed upon by all parties to reform the PLO. The starting point, in my opinion, has to be the PLO, not the PA. Why? Because we are Palestinians living in the West Bank, in Gaza, in Jerusalem, and inside lands taken by Israel in 1948, with the majority of the Palestinians who are refugees. If we believe that all Palestinians should share in evaluating the political process and electing a new leadership, it should be a shared process with all Palestinian people.
The starting point is the national council related to the PLO. But it needs more pressure because everyone from the two big parties is satisfied with the status quo. Without reforming the PLO, democratizing it, and making it representative of Palestinian people all over the world, including the occupied territories, I think the liberation movement will continue to be weak.
Why do you think the Prisoners’ Document failed to achieve its ends? What else is needed now?
The document didn’t fail, but there’s no ability to implement it. The problem is not with the agreement but the implementation of it. And implementing any of the agreements, including the Prisoners’ Document, depends on convincing the big parties that we should actually do it and not just keep organizing for new agreements. The last meeting was in Algeria and nothing happened. They signed, took a photo and celebrated, and nothing happened on the ground. We don’t need new agreements; we need strength to implement the agreements that all parties have already signed.
Do you think the vision of liberation has changed since that point in 2006 to now, in this current context? Is the strategy fundamentally different now?
I don’t think it has changed. We have the same aims since the Nakba. The national demands haven’t changed. The main goal for the liberation movement is to put an end to the occupation, the right to self-determination, and the right of return. The point is how you implement these national demands and how you agree to continue as a movement. What has changed is the situation within Palestine. Now there is a gap between the people and the leadership. The majority of people are not convinced of what the leadership does. There is no way to fix this relationship except through elections, and there are no elections, so it’s a complicated issue. It’s a matter of internal struggle. It might take time, but the situation and this kind of occupation will not give us, as Palestinians, anything. They want to kick us out or kill us and put an end to any type of self-determination. This means we will continue to balance between struggling against the occupation and reforming our internal situation as a people.
The last couple years, we’ve seen increased collaboration between Israel and the PA, with the PA even playing an active role in the repression of its own people. How much of a barrier to liberation is the PA and what needs to change?
When talking about the PA, you are talking about a government that has an agreement with Israel. The majority of Palestinians are against these agreements. I’m talking about the Oslo Agreement, the Paris Agreement, the Camp David agreement, and the White River Agreement — all kinds of agreements. These agreements make the national authority responsible for implementing them, so the PA has to do security coordination with Israel. However, the majority of people and the majority of political parties reject that.
In January, after the massacre in Jenin refugee camp, the Central Council of the PLO took the decision to end the PA’s security coordination with Israel, but the PA continues to do it. Now there is a huge gap between the people and the PA, and an open question about what the PA is for. Is it the authority’s role to squeeze people or to help people? Should it at least address the issues of daily life, like education and health care? Should it be reformed? Should it be related to the PLO? Should it be dissolved? Or, should we change its role to just overseeing daily life and not interfering in political or security issues? Does the PA make it easier or more difficult for the liberation movement?
Answering these questions should come from the people. You need a forum to discuss this, which should be the national council. We can elect new members. We can elect people in areas where we can hold elections and agree upon areas where we can’t. Let’s start meeting — not just to elect new leaders, but to evaluate the political process and to answer questions like these about the relationship to the PA.
Where are the leftist parties in all this? Why do you think they have not been more popular or more successful?
The majority of the leftists parties are weak except for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is the largest left party, but if you compare it to Fatah or Hamas you can see there’s a huge difference.
Why are they weak? It’s related to many elements, both external and internal. Externally, it’s like the situation of all leftist parties all over the world. Internally, it’s because you cannot differentiate some political parties from the PA and Fatah, for example. Many people don’t see that the leftist parties are different. So one of the aims is to unify the leftist parties, but we also need to evaluate and agree on political, ideological, and social goals. Maybe social and democratic terms we agree on, but politically there are still many differences between the leftist parties. There have been many attempts to unify them that still haven’t succeeded. Maybe the way to unify is on the ground, through resisting and struggling for different issues together.
How influential is socialism in Palestine today? How much is it guiding people, especially this new generation of youth?
Part of our analysis about why there are internal divisions, about why the liberation movement is divided, is because there is also a class struggle. There is a class that developed out of the Oslo Agreement that has no interest in liberation. It’s a very small class but it controls a lot of things. Socialism from my point of view is part of the solution. The socialist movement is very weak in Palestine at the moment. But when you talk about social justice, for example, or the democratic struggle, that provides an answer for the future of all Palestinians. Right now, the PA relies on the free market, and it will not solve unemployment or any of the social problems. It’s trying to implement neoliberalism, which won’t help the internal situation.
Less people are drawn to socialism today because they don’t understand what socialism is. We’ve never had an authority that wants to implement socialism. It’s a neoliberal PA. This is why the majority of problems are getting worse under it. Poverty is increasing. Unemployment is increasing. Inequality is increasing. The PA passes laws not to help the majority of people but to benefit the upper class. The comprador class is a new class, and it creates capitalist monopolies for all sorts of services and industries, like telecommunications. So we fight for the opposite. For example, we advocate for a resistant development, with cooperatives and policies that benefit youth, among others. But it’s all connected. We have a national struggle, a democratic struggle, and a social struggle, and they are all related.
One thing that stands out to me about these new armed resistance groups like the Lion’s Den is that they do not come from within one party. They seem to have members from all of the different parties and from people unaligned with any of them. Is that the sort of unity you’re talking about? And with the rise of groups like the Lion’s Den, do traditional political parties become less relevant?
The situation in Palestine is that all Palestinian people belong to parties. Not necessarily as members, but all of Palestinian society is politicized, and people are connected to parties in various ways. So underground, there is now a new phenomenon like the Lion’s Den (غرِن الأسود) and others in which people are working together. This gives you an answer. Why are people on the ground unified in struggling against occupation, but the leadership isn’t? Because of its own interests. So one of the problems is leadership. Maybe this is a new way to rebuild the liberation movement from the ground up, to use it to either pressure leadership to be unified or to reform the whole approach of the movement. I believe that the new or maybe the only approach is pressure from the bottom, up. From people working together, succeeding, and maybe this will pressure the leaders to be united, at least.
It’s not just about armed resistance either. There are many types of resistance in which people are unifying on the ground. Another example from a few years ago was when Israel installed metal detectors to restrict access to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. People organized themselves and worked together. They developed a shared program, and they demonstrated daily and held sit-ins in front of them. Eventually they succeeded and the occupation removed them.
How important is armed resistance as a strategy for liberation?
Do you want to send me to prison? [laughter] But in general, any people under occupation have the right to struggle and resist in all ways. They have that right under international and humanitarian laws.
Where do you think it will go?
It’s impossible to say. We can’t predict the future, but what we can do is take this phenomenon and ask how and why it’s established. We notice that it affects different areas and is driven by young people. We notice that it expands, maybe in other names, across the West Bank, and maybe with people who are not directly related to political parties but who are resisting the occupation. We cannot see where it will lead. But like I said, the spirit of refusal is in people now. People are trying to find their own way, refusing to live under this occupation.
Something I don’t think many people in the Global North are aware of is the sheer extent of Israel’s surveillance on Palestinians. There are facial recognition cameras at checkpoints between cities in the West Bank, there are drones patrolling the skies above them, and we’ve learned that Israel can now monitor every single phone call. What is it like organizing when Israel could be watching and listening to almost anything you do?
That’s a difficult question, both for me to say and for you to publish [laughs]. People here have a secret mechanism they use. I can’t publish that though. But people try not to be watched, for example. It’s more difficult than before. You can’t do things publicly. You can’t use technology. But there are many ways to resist. People are always developing their own ways to organize. If there are violations and punishments from the occupation, that teaches us too. We learn from them and how they operate. We learn from being caught and punished.
How important is prisoner organizing and solidarity efforts in this moment? For the larger movement overall?
Remember that we are a people living under occupation. Over one million Palestinians have been arrested by Israel since 1967 until now. It’s very rare to find a home here without either prisoners or ex-prisoners in the family. The plight of prisoners is still dear to the people. It’s highly respected. Anything that happens inside prison affects the outside too. Ben-Gvir, for example, has threatened new punishments against prisoners. So prisoners have organized an emergency committee of all parties and made a shared program for struggle. That affects the rest of the people and the shape of the liberation movement.
There is now a question if Ben-Gvir can actually implement his threats. If there is a collective struggle against it, and there will be, it will be difficult for all of the new laws to be implemented. You’re talking about six thousand Palestinian political prisoners inside Israeli jails, and they are organized. When Israeli guards invaded Damon Prison recently and punished the female prisoners there, all prisoners resisted and took action together. They succeed in forcing the guards to back down.
Prisons will be a focus of the coming struggle, and we will see what will happen. It will affect outside also. It might lead to a type of new struggle, one that emerges from inside prison, from the prisoners to outside. They are connected.
You have been imprisoned a number of times by Israel now and have faced severe repression. How have those experiences affected you, your political activities, and your outlook?
Look, prison will not break people. We are living under occupation. We are convinced that we have a right to represent our people and to be free. Of course, it’s hard because Israel sends people to prison just for talking about its crimes. But it’s very difficult to make people stop. We are guided by the experience of occupied peoples all over the world. No people who have been occupied will continue to be occupied forever.