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Palestinian playwright Ghannam Ghannam: ‘The solution can only be a state for Jews, Muslims, Christians and even atheists’

The author and winner of the 2022 National Prize for Culture in Palestine laments that before the war in Gaza, the world had forgotten about the conflict and criticizes many Arab governments’ attitudes

Ghannam Ghannam Guerra Israel Palestina
Ghannam Ghannam at the International Theater Festival in Carthage, Tunisia, in December 2023.Ricard Gonzalez

Born in 1955 in the Palestinian city of Jericho, actor, author and theater director Ghannam Ghannam has had a long professional career, most of it in Jordan, where his family moved when he was 12 years old. For the past 13 years, he has been the director of the Arab Theater Institute of the Emirate of Sharjah, one of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates. His latest play, 1948 through my own eyes, won him the 2022 National Prize for Culture in Palestine. It was one of the highlights of the Carthage International Theater Festival, which recently concluded in Tunis. EL PAÍS spoke with Ghannam after his acclaimed performance in the Tunisian capital.

Question. Why does the title of your play refer to the year 1948?

Answer. It’s not only because the State of Israel was created that year, but also because there has been a partition of the Palestinian people ever since. Since then, we’ve talked about the Palestinian [refugees] of 1948, those of 1967, the Gaza Strip… Palestine is no longer Palestine. The message of the play is that the Palestinian people are one. Even though many Palestinians in the diaspora have another nationality, they are still Palestinians. This division only benefits Zionism.

Q. Do you feel that global support for Palestine has increased after the outbreak of the war in Gaza?

A. There is a greater awareness, yes. People had forgotten about Palestine; it was no longer a priority. Suddenly, they have realized that there is a bloodbath, many victims, and a level of destruction that we had not seen before. And many people have shown solidarity with Palestine. The war has been revealing; it shows how a thread links many governments to Zionism and imperialist interests, among them the United States, Great Britain and Germany, which is still scarred by the Holocaust, as well as the regimes in the Arab world. These retrograde Arab rulers remain silent or limit themselves to saying, “This is unacceptable,” but they don’t do anything. On the other hand, people should know that the war is not only taking place in Gaza, but there is also an undeclared war in the West Bank.

Q. Is it valid in the current Gaza context to talk about a two-state solution?

A. Those who dream of a two-state solution are living in a delusion. The solution for Palestine can only be a state in which Jews, Muslims, Christians and even atheists live together. You cannot link a state to a religion, as the Zionists do, because that ends up leading to ethnic cleansing. And once they have driven you out of your land, they want you to become a Jordanian, an American, etc., and forget Palestine. They try to turn the conflict in Palestine into one about religion, but it is not. And the proof is that one of the greatest Palestinian guerrillas was George Habash, a Christian.

Q. But they are not the only ones. The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas also puts religion at the center of the conflict.

A. Yes, but above all, Hamas is a Palestinian nationalist organization. Today it is probably the most popular faction, not because of its religious message, but because it is the main resistance movement against the occupation. Many of its supporters are not even religious. I am convinced that [the Israelis] have found the existence of a religious movement like Hamas convenient for dividing the Palestinian national movement, for dividing the West Bank and Gaza. Palestine must be a secular state where all religions and ethnicities coexist.

Q. Are you concerned about the effects of so much destruction of many schools and its effects on the level of education?

A. Of course, you have to consider that most of the victims are children. [The Israelis] know that the future depends on the new generations. I will give you an example: when they conquered the West Bank in 1967, they increased the wages of construction workers, for example. Their message to young people was: leave school, come to work, earn money. At first they succeeded, but then the young people went back. [After the war in Gaza], we will have the mission of recovering all that was lost at the educational level.

Q. What do you think of the normalization agreements that several Arab states have signed with Israel in recent years?

A. Those rulers are driven only by political and economic interests. Despite the war, they believe they did the right thing. But signing an agreement is not the only thing that counts; there’s also the reality on the streets. Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1978, and to this day the Egyptian people have still not normalized their relations with Israel. The government is going one way, and the streets are going another. One of the worst mistakes of those who make agreements with Israel is that they do so without getting anything in return. If Israel had at least given something in return, it would be understandable. So, given the current crisis, those states should [rescind those agreements]. They could use these agreements as a tool to apply pressure and warn Israel that they will cut diplomatic relations.

Q. Are the people in the Persian Gulf countries, where you live, also against the agreements?

A. The Gulf’s social reality is different from the rest of the Arab countries. The ruler also has religious authority, so the streets obey his decisions. But there is an awareness that the destruction [of Gaza] is unacceptable. That’s why much of the humanitarian aid coming into the Gaza Strip is from this region.

Q. Many analysts believe that if Saudi Arabia were to normalize relations with Israel, the Palestinian cause would be mortally wounded. Do you agree?

A. All those who normalize relations with Israel contribute to the end of the Palestinian cause. But what Saudi Arabia does is not so decisive. The Palestinians signing [the Oslo Accords] was more dangerous. Once we did it, why shouldn’t the rest do it?

Q. Which governments have you found to be supportive?

A. Both Spain and Belgium have shown a humanitarian conscience that we value very much. So have the Latin American countries that have even cut diplomatic ties with Israel. I wish many countries in the world would show the same humanism as the Spanish government, which should serve as an example for them to take that step, especially the ones in the European Union. But I fear that as long as the United States uses its right of veto in the United Nations, little will really change.

Q. After 75 years of struggle and in light of Washington’s position, where does the Palestinian people’s hope come from?

A. The conflict can last even longer than 100 years. We need to hold on to our rights and our fight. We must work to change and improve the Arabs’ mentality, and if we succeed, the struggle will be more productive. It is a long-term task, true, but not impossible. In fact, we’re already seeing a new generation with a different consciousness, more open to the world. That is a reason for optimism.

Q. What is your opinion of the Oslo Accords?

A. It has been 30 years since those agreements, and what have they gotten us? Nothing, Palestine continues to be occupied. Even Ramallah [where Palestinian Authority headquarters is located] is occupied. The Israeli army comes in, goes out and kills whenever it wants. Who stops it? [My] family tree is linked to Palestine going back 17 generations, [but] I cannot enter the occupied territories without the Israeli state’s permission. The Palestinian government now controls only 13% of Palestinian territory. If I were their advisor, I would dissolve the Palestinian Authority.

Q. What role should Palestinian artists play in the current context?

A. A very important one: [they] represent the path to awareness. Your audience must buy into it. Palestinian artists have always been very committed to the cause and to their people. They don’t need Gaza to be burning. We have a high-level culture, with figures like Mahmud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Tawfiq Zayad, etc. Of all the disciplines, poetry occupies a central place. After [the Six Day War of] 1967, Israel could destroy many things, but not Mahmud Darwish’s art. In culture, there is no defeat. That’s why his role is very important. The poet, the musician, the painter, and the author are the people’s soul.

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