Nidal al-Azza, 50, is a Palestinian activist and the director of a local organization that works with Palestinian residency and refugee rights. Al-Azza is a Palestinian refugee himself, and was born and raised in a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, where he still lives. He has a Master’s degree in Human Rights Law from Columbia University in New York.
Like many other activists and community leaders in the West Bank, al-Azza has been dealing with the repercussions of the Trump administration’s foreign policy in the region, specifically the massive cuts to Palestinian aid and policy changes over the course of the past year.
Al-Azza sat down with Mondoweiss to discuss the current US foreign policy in Israel and Palestine, and the effects of Trump’s political decisions on the Palestinian people, Palestinian leadership, and the future of the Palestinian cause.
Mondoweiss: What do you make of the current American policy towards Palestine?
Al-Azza: The American policy towards Palestine has become very clear now. Historically the Palestinian people have believed that the US is biased, and has always been the strategic supporter of Israel. So during the what they called “peace process,” our leaders, the Palestinian leaders, tried to convince our people that we need to cooperate and depend on the US. They tried that strategy for so long, but now it has become clear that the US foreign policy is built on the support of Israel and support the denial of our fundamental rights as Palestinian people.
And now, I believe that the Palestinian leadership is stuck, because within the last 25 years since Oslo, they depended on the United States and they tried to believe that the US could facilitate in concluding a peace agreement with Israel. But now, they are shocked by the new policy of the new administration.
Mondoweiss: Do you believe that the shock displayed by Palestinian leaders is genuine?
Al-Azza: The leaders are genuinely surprised, yes, because they are the ones who got themselves in the process to begin with. Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) is the one who lead the negotiations during the Oslo period. He has a strong belief, and he never hesitated to announce it several times, that only with the United States can we reach a peace agreement with Israel.
I personally regard Abu Mazen himself as playing the major role in involving the United States in the so-called peace process. So when we talk about the current leaders, yes, they believed in the United States and its ability to conclude an agreement, and that the us would facilitate such an agreement.
I do believe they are really shocked. They didn’t expect this to happen. Our leaders have always attempted to positively market every new president of United States to the people. This includes George Bush. They tried to market him as a possible arbiter of a solution, despite the fact that in 2003 he publicly promised the Prime Minister of Israel at the time, Ariel Sharon, that there will not be return of refugees to Israel, Jerusalem will remain the “united capital of the state of Israel,” and that Israel has the right to maintain their illegal settlements in the West Bank.
So when they were negotiating about the Palestinian state, what they were really talking about was a kind of arrangement that would maintain what Israel created on the ground in Jerusalem and the West Bank, regarding the denial of refugee rights and the expansion of settlements.
So our leaders, they marketed Bush, they marketed Obama, who did nothing for Palestine, and also they even tried to market Trump to us, saying they expected that Trump would bring some benefit to the Palestinian people because he was talking about his insistence to achieve the “final solution” for this conflict.
President Abbas even visited the US twice since Trump took office, and the Palestinian intelligence had secret meetings with US officials, and they were waiting for what they thought could be a deal. But they didn’t expect that Trump will make this huge turning point by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and all the measures he has taken since targeting the Palestinian people.
Mondoweiss: Do you think the leaders were naive in their trust of the US?
Al-Azza: The former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, during his reign, said that 99% of the ability and power to have a settlement here in the Middle East, lies in the hands United States. So our leaders used the same strategy. And Abu Mazen himself said many times that “we will continue negotiations because we have no other option.” So he believed in that and he put all the eggs in this one basket, and went through the motions of this peace process.
At the same time, over the past the 25 years, Palestinian leaders have now developed their own interests. I believe that the PA has become something like a company, and the senior Palestinian leaders have stakes in this company, so they will do anything to protect their interests. Our leaders deal with the PA government as if it’s something that they own. And they know that if they stop cooperating with Israel and the US on security, they will lose everything.
Mondoweiss: Have you been surprised by all the moves that Trump has been taking against Palestinians?
Al-Azza: Honestly, no. And if you ask our people when you discuss this issue with them, they will say the same. The people never trusted the US from the beginning, they knew that the US is the strategic ally of Israel and has supported Israel at the cost of justice and human rights. It will support Israel no matter what. And this whole so-called peace process has been designed only to serve and secure Israel, and to gradually bring an end to the Palestinian claims over this land and our demands for our basic human rights.
So for me I wasn’t shocked. I expected this — that eventually, the US will reach a point where it stands completely and clearly with Israel, with no attempts to pretend to support the Palestinians. We have nothing. The Palestinian political parties have lost all their power in the last 25 years. They have no choice but to keep on going in this peace process negotiation.
And we know, as we learned from Oslo, that if you don’t have power you will not achieve anything on the table of negotiations. From the beginning, our leaders went through these rounds of negotiations with no power, and what we see happening today is the result of that.
Mondoweiss: In your opinion, what has been the most detrimental policy change that has been taken over the past few months?
All of these decisions — cutting funding of UNRWA, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, etc. — they all very dangerous consequences on our national and fundamental rights. It is difficult to compare between them.
But I would say that the US policy or strategy regarding UNRWA is much more dangerous strategically on the whole Palestinian cause. The targeting of UNRWA is not necessarily a new strategy. Since Oslo, not just the US, but all western powers have put pressure on UNRWA itself to terminate certain programs and to change its policy in dealing with refugees. Over time donors have conditioned their funds on specific programs, and have favored that policy over providing funds to the general budget.
This strategy is designed to gradually transfer UNRWA’s responsibility over servicing refugees to host states, and eventually end UNRWA’s existence so that when it comes time for a “final solution” there is no agency to represent the rights of refugees, and the 5 million Palestinian refugees around the world are settled in host states, rather than being granted their right of return.
Over the years, prior to the Trump administration, the US has implemented this strategy by providing project-based funding over general funding. This has had negative effects on UNRWA’s operations in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza. UNRWA has been struggling for years to collect money to cover the budget it needs to run its main programs such as education, healthcare, and financial relief for refugees in need, which are typically funded from the general budget.
Mondoweiss: What can be done to remedy some of these issues, aside from more fundraising on the part of UNRWA?
Al-Azza: We have been studying and following this phenomenon, and have sent many memorandums to the Palestinian leadership. For years now we have been trying to raise the issue of UNRWA, saying that the PA and PLO have to take concrete steps in facing the reduction in services. The whole financial structure of UNRWA, which is based on voluntary contributions, needs to be changed.
But there was no response from the government. The PA and the PLO’s focus was on the peace process and negotiations. And now we have to face this campaign targeting UNRWA, which aims to dry out the agency’s funds and to eliminate the international responsibility to Palestinian refugees. The current US and western strategy is to transfer the responsibility of UNRWA and Palestinian refugees to the Arab Gulf states and the host states. Then, within a few years the question of refugees will be an issue for the Palestinians and other Arab states to deal with, with no international responsibility. Which is dangerous not just in terms of services, but about the right of return and property restitution for refugees.
Mondoweiss: Is it possible to gauge the human cost of Trump’s policies over the past year?
Al-Azza: Currently we don’t have exact numbers, but we have estimates, yes. For example, UNRWA runs more than 700 schools. About half a million students are going every day to these schools. This is the biggest program at UNRWA. If UNRWA has no more money to keep running this program, these 500,000 students will find themselves in the streets. The PA and the host states cannot take on this responsibility alone.
If we look at the amount of people employed by UNRWA, we are looking at around 30,000 Palestinian employees currently working in different programs. If these programs stop, these 30,000 individuals and all their family members will find themselves without resources to live.
If we talk about health care, which is already insufficient, UNRWA runs decent clinics in different areas, providing very good basic healthcare for things like blood pressure, diabetes, pregnancy treatments, and vaccinations for children. These programs are very important for refugees and they get these services only from UNRWA. Ao if they stop these programs it will be a disaster for refugees.
If we talk about those families who are under living under the poverty line, I think UNRWA now in the West Bank alone provides relief for 38,000 refugees. These families are in dire need of such relief, they depend on it. It will be a human disaster for these families.
Mondoweiss: How long do you expect UNRWA to survive under its current conditions?
Al-Azza: I expect UNRWA will manage for this year, but the problem will arise again next year. Because of this i think there should be a strategic solution regarding the financial system of UNRWA and how to fund it. If we go back to international law and to the decisions regarding Palestinian refugees, it’s an international responsibility. So the UN General Assembly has to reform the financial system of UNRWA to secure at least the budget needed to run the main programs. And I believe that the Palestinian leadership has to take the initiative on this. They can draft a resolution through the Arab league, and I believe they can achieve the support of the vast majority of states in support of such a resolution to reform the financial system of UNRWA.
Mondoweiss: Aside from the human impact of these policy changes, what effects do they have on the current and future political climate of Palestine?
Al-Azza: I believe European countries are afraid of waves of Palestinian refugees that would leave Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine and go to Europe. If UNRWA gets shut down, they should be ready to receive 5 million registered Palestinian refugees.
There will be new wave of violence in the area. And I expect that refugees will create something revolutionary — maybe outside of the PLO, maybe against the PA, maybe in support of other radical movements in the area. This is the natural result of the ongoing disregard of their rights. They will not remain silent. I’m sure of this. There will be something revolutionary, maybe against Israel, maybe against the PA, against the host states. This is the expected reaction when people feel the international community, for 70 years, has continued to ignore their fundamental rights.
Tens of thousands will manage to reach Europe, but what about the others who can’t? They will not just sit back and do nothing.
The vast majority will remain in the host states and they will not accept to be ignored any more. So they will make a change, and they will not accept the failure in this peace process. So they will react. How? I don’t know exactly. But there will be a strategic change.
Mondoweiss: What is the lasting impact of Trump’s presidency on Palestine?
Al-Azza: The PA or the the current leaders of the PLO will continue playing this role in between: not completely against the US, and avoiding getting in real challenges against Israeli policies. They will continue using these nationalistic speeches encouraging Palestinian people to be “steadfast” and “resist” the occupation, but without doing anything on the ground. They will continue doing this to maintain their control over the people and those relationships under the table with other states.
On the other hand, on a popular or community level, I think people have reached the point where they do not accept this strategy of the leadership. The people need something new, something new in terms of having a clear strategy regarding liberation or freedom or achieving our rights.There is a change happening, people are being more critical of the PA and the Palestinian leaders. The leaders believe that we need the support of the international community and international civil society. But we shouldn’t depend on these alone, we have to mobilize the Palestinian people to have a new strategy. People have started to discuss a future in terms of a final solution, and what would be the best, in light of the facts that Israel has created on the ground. So people have started to question whether the two state solution is workable or applicable. Or if we go with a one state solution, how should it be.
So I feel that a new political movement is going to be created out of all of this. They are not organized yet, but these ideas will lead to something new which is very good I think.
Trump will continue imposing these policies attacking us, but this will only accelerate the creation of a new political movement in Palestine. I think the people can learn from the lessons of the past and they can build on a new strategy.
I have debates and talks with many of these activists and actually now they are talking about the urgent need for a new political movement. It is impossible to reform the Palestinian Authority. It is worthless to revive the PLO or the established political parties. So let’s go back, they say, to the roots, as Palestinians. We have fundamental rights and we can learn from our long experience.
Mondoweiss: What do you say to the international policy makers that still promote the two state solution as a viable option?
Al-Azza: The Palestinian people have never been given the opportunity to choose for ourselves. In the 1920’s, the international community through the league of nations imposed on Palestine the British mandate, and in that document they included the Balfour Declaration to create a national home for the Jewish people.
So it wasn’t our choice. We didn’t select that. The international community decided to do that here. In 1947 here, the international community decided to divide Palestine against the will of the people and the surrounding Arab states. And they gave the Jewish people 56% of Palestine, despite the fact that they were less than one third of the Palestinian people at the time.
It wasn’t our choice to divide people from one another. Before that, the Palestinian people, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other religious minorities lived together as one. The international community decided to divide us.
Also they decided in this peace process, that the best solution for the Palestinian people or the best solution of the conflict that was imposed on us, is to have two states. On state for Palestine on borders of 1967, and the rest of Palestine, more than 78% of Palestine, for Israel. It wasn’t our choice.
The international community has no authority to decide in the place of Palestinian people what they need — including the two-state solution. If we trace all these “solutions,” we can see that they were designed to serve Israel.
So I want to say that if you want to solve this conflict, you have to address the root causes of the conflicts. We are talking about colonization, an institutionalized discriminatory regime in Israel, supported by western powers. So we have to deal with these root causes: colonization, apartheid, and ongoing forcible transfer and displacement of Palestinian people, and then we can reach a durable and just solution.
So I believe that the international community should listen to the Palestinian people and if they want to end and uproot the conflict, they have to deal with the root causes, not with the results or the features of the conflict. It’s not just settlements and expansions of settlements and a matter of borders, and services and the right to movement. We have institutionalized discrimination, a regime of colonization, a regime designed to continue displacing Palestinian people and preventing them from returning. So they have to deal with these issues. And then things like Jerusalem, and religion, and right to movement will become administrative issues that could be dealt with by any municipality.
Because of this, I am with having a solution based on human rights for all. And logically, this will not be a two-state solution. This will be a one state solution, so we have to have a strategy of how we will achieve this.