The Terms of Consensus for Palestine: An Interview with Labib Terzi

This article was originally published in a 1979 issue of the Harvard International Review.

After repeated efforts, the Harvard International Review was able to secure an interview with Labib Terzi, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) observer at the United Nations. The meeting took place on November 21, 1979 at the UN Delegates’ Lounge. Terzi, a kindly, soft-spoken man grew vehement and fiery when discussing what he considers “a legitimate armed struggle to resist the forces of occupation and return to my home.” Born in Jerusalem in 1924, he joined the PLO at its inception in 1964 and has served as its observer to the United Nations since that post was created in 1974.

Middle East peace dialogues in 1989. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0

Middle East peace dialogues in 1989. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0

Let’s begin with your response to a New York Times quote that appeared on November 16. One Palestinian said the PLO went to Iran after that country took sixty Americans hostage because, “We wanted to tell them that attacking embassies and tak- ing hostages would not help them. We wanted them to learn from our experience.” Furthermore, I noticed the response to Nablus Mayor Shaka’s arrest and planned deportation was for every West Bank mayor to resign in a peaceful show of protest. I am wondering if this indicates a shift in tactics.

Well, I could not really say there is a shift. Sometimes one has to apply the proper tactical move at the proper time. The orders to deport Shaka resulted in overwhelming support by the mayors, and they all resigned. Unfortunately, The New York Times did not carry the story that the U.N. general Assembly voted with 132 positive votes against one—which is of course the vote of Israel—calling upon Israel to rescind the deportation order. The tactics to be used at one moment or another are to be decided by the people who implement them. But I will say this: the PLO has been gaining ground in the international community, and this is a very important step forward for us.

Could it be a step towards a more moderate stance?

I do not know what you mean by moderate.

Non-military.

Well, this is not moderate then. I would say we have to apply all methods in order to attain our aim, and our aim is already confirmed and reaffirmed by the United Nations: that we are a people, that we have the right to self-determination, that we have the right to establish our own state, that we have the right to designate our representative, and we have designated the PLO. After years, we have not been given any of those rights, so we are getting more support from the international community.

Given that Israel is a fait accompli, the question now becomes what kind of state…

Nobody can tell us what kind of state. The Palestinians will establish our state when they return to their homes and when Israel withdraws from the territories it has occupied since 1967.

Can you tell us if you are a terrorist organization?

I am glad you mentioned that. If you tell me what the word terrorist means I will be happy to. Our people are involved in a legitimate armed struggle against the forces of occupation. Now as for terrorism, the worst kind of terrorism is exercised by the state, like, for example, when Israel takes its American planes and drops bombs on refugee camps. This is true terrorism. When the Zionist organization sinks a ship called Patria carrying refugees from the concentration camps of Europe, this is true terrorism. I do not think and I do not believe and I do not agree that indulging in the right to resist foreign occupation is terrorism. If among the victims there are women and children, we feel it is very sad that a soldier brings his family into territories that are militarily occupied. He is a criminal if he imposes his family onto an occupied territory.

In the West the PLO is often identified as a terrorist organization. What non-military activities do you engage in?

In Kuwait, for example, we have 300,000 Palestinians. The PLO provides their children with schooling. In South Lebanon, especially, we provide schooling and medical care to 100,000 human beings. We have our health care centers and our Red Crescent, and it is thanks to these institutions that there are no epidemics in the refugee camps despite the miserable conditions.

Why did the PLO send a delegation to Iran to discuss the release of the American hostages?

Because the Iranians are expressing their emotions more than their prudence. You must remember, there is a latent hatred for American policy in the area, and people really feel vindictive. We will never forget that those planes that drop bombs on children are American planes. In Iran, it is because of the United States that the Shah inflicted so much suffering on the Iranian people. Yet, we are not so inhuman that we will not forgive the United States or forget the United States.

What did you tell the Iranians?

We wanted them to realize that eliminating those hostages would not serve their purpose. We told them, “Spare those lives,” but we were not mediators because that implies having some authorization of both parties to the conflict. And we support the Iranian people.

What happened when you arrived in Iran?

I don’t know. I wasn’t there. There were talks, and the aim was to spare the lives of the hostages.

Where was your con- cern for life at Munich?

You talk of Munich, but you do not talk of an entire village such as Deir Yassin, which was completely eradicated, and 253 women, little children, and unarmed men were butchered in cold blood. Besides, in Munich the aim was clear: we took Israeli athletes hostage in order to liberate Palestinian hostages in Israeli prisons. It was not the Palestinians who started the shooting. As a result, a number of Palestinians were killed in addition to those athletes.

Under what circumstances is the PLO willing to accept an autonomous state on the West Bank and Gaza?

Autonomous? We are for an independent and sovereign state.

In the occupied territories?

There is an international consensus that Israel should withdraw from the territories occupied since 1967. In those territories it is our right; we know it is our right; the international community says it is our right that we establish a sovereign state.

Would you be willing to stop the acts of terrorism? Would you be willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist if they grant you a West Bank state?

Look. Nobody gives anything to us. We take it. And we will take it without any conditions imposed upon us. This is our right. And it is not contingent on any prior conditions.

But you must admit Israel is a fait accompli to be negotiated with.

I don’t think anyone is doing us a favor by enabling us to establish a state in part of our country. It is enough that at this moment we are giving up the right to establish a state in all of our country.

Two prominent Palestinians, Sabra Jiryis and Sayed Hammami, have said if Israel were to withdraw from the occupied areas and allow a sovereign Palestinian state there, they would relinquish military means in their attempt to achieve total reunification of the pre-1948 Palestine. Would you agree?

I cannot go to that extent. Speaking on behalf of our council’s decision and not my own opinion, there is nowhere in our council’s provisions any pre- conditions for our state. Giving up military means would be very unwise because it was thanks to our armed revolutions in 1965 that the world started listening to us. Until then, nobody cared about us—we were a matter of refugees. Until we used our gun. Unfortunately, this is the method the world understands and listens to. So I cannot give up my gun until I have attained my rights.

Is there a possibility you may amend your charter to recognize Israel?

Our charter has nothing to do with the issue. Our charter is the result of our situation, not the cause of our problem. We drew it up 16 years after we were expelled from our home, and we drew it up reflecting our conditions. If our conditions change, of course our charter could change.

Have not they changed? You mention yourself that international sympathy is on the rise.

The current situation is much worse than it was in 1964 when we drew up our charter. At least then we were on Palestinian territory. Since 1967 the totality of the Palestinians are denied the right of being on their own homes.

Yassir Arafat has hinted in the past that he could come to terms with Israel’s right to exist. Do you see this possibility at all?

The first constructive step is for the Palestinians to establish an independent and sovereign state on the post-1967 occupied territories. This can be interpreted in whatever form you want, but until then I do not know our next move will be. I cannot foresee it. I cannot impose it.

Israel claims security concerns with respect to establishing a Palestinian state on the West Bank.

Military security is a farce and you know that. What is military security? The United States has the Atlantic on one side, the Pacific on the other; it spends billions of dollars, and still it feels insecure. What is military security? The terrain between an Arab and an Israeli is so minute that one could use a small pistol. So military security is a farce be- cause the only security a state can have in such a densely inhabited area is good feelings and mutual respect. When Israel denies our rights and negates our existence, military security means nothing.

Are you saying there is no minimal security arrangement you can respect?

Security is something to be worked out between the parties. But I cannot really secure militarily the state of Israel when Israel insists on occupying my home. My main aim is to blow up that state and return to my home.

Did you say your aim is to blow up Israel?

Well, as long as they are sitting in my home, my aim is to get them out of my home, yes.

Does the PLO represent the Palestinian people? If so, what proof do you have?

I think this question is either very naïve or very malicious. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was declared by the international community as the representative of the Palestinian people. The Arabs accepted the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, and more importantly, the Palestinian people themselves say this. Even those Palestinians under Israeli rule insist the PLO in the soul represents them.

Is there as much support for the PLO among Palestinians in the occupied territories as there is among refugees abroad?

You know very well that in the occupied territories the support for the PLO is not qualified. It is absolute. Otherwise the U.S. government could have found a quisling to deal with the Egyptians. But it failed to locate even a quisling.

On November 20 The New York Times reported a decrease in Palestinian Arab resistance to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

That is wishful thinking by The New York Times. Wishful thinking.

For better or for worse, do you see any possibility for Jordan, Syria, or a Palestinian delegation joining the peace talks in the near future?

None.

What about Jordan?

Much less from Jordan. What has Hussein got to lose, what has he got to win? He was taken for granted in the Camp David accords and was even as- signed the task of policing the Arab inhabitants and preventing them from uprising against Israeli rule. He was given the role of mercenary to the Israeli occupation forces. I do not think anything could have been more insulting than that.

Is the PLO concerned about its image within Israel?

We are concerned about our image everywhere. That is why we have bridges and relations with a good number of Israeli citizens.

Do you not think so-called terrorist activities are counterproductive to a good image?

That is what the Israelis try to impress upon their people: that we are terrorists, that we are murderers. But I feel we are getting more and more understanding by some Israelis.

Why is that?

Because they learn the truth. I do not think any Israeli in his right mind, for example, would support the government of Israel when it decides to expel the mayor of Nablus. Just as an example, you know.

When all 25 mayors on the West Bank resigned in response to Shaka’s arrest…

We did support it, but it was their decision.

Does their resignation worry you in the light of the fact that the 1976 elections on the West Bank yielded a strongly pro-PLO leadership?

Not at all. Who will replace them? If they are not themselves re-elected, somebody more strongly linked with the PLO will be elected.

In his book The Disinherited Fawaz Turki, a Palestinian who grew up in Lebanon, expresses as much anger towards other Arabs as he seems to have for the Israelis. What is your reaction to this?

I can see his point.

So do the Palestinians feel like outsiders in the Arab countries? Turki seems to think they are treated very poorly.

Well, they are outsiders.

One common Israeli claim is that if the Arab countries really felt any great sense of brotherhood towards the Palestinians, as they say they do, then they would absorb them as citizens.

But the Palestinian does not want to. The Palestinian wants to return home.

Do you think the dynamics in the Middle East today are moving towards a Palestinian-Israeli settlement? If not, what would have to occur for such a climate to be created?

I know that the dynamics do exist. The support the PLO is getting from the world and, in this particular area, from Western Europe, is very significant. Frankly, the moment the Palestinians feel they have restored their rights, the conflict will be on the road to resolution. But not before that.

About Author

Labib Terzi

Labib Terzi was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) observer at the United Nations. Terzi was born in Jerusalem in 1924 and joined the PLO at its inception in 1964. He served as its observer to the United Nations since that post was created in 1974 until 1991.