Issa Kassis, mayor of Ramallah: ‘There is no room for negotiation with this Israeli government’

The mayor of the Palestine administrative capital assures in an interview with EL PAÍS that he never imagined the violence unleashed after October 7

Guerra Israel Gaza
The mayor of Ramallah, Issa Kassis, in Barcelona this Wednesday.MASSIMILIANO MINOCRI
Josep Catà Figuls

Issa Kassis, the mayor of Ramallah, the city in the West Bank where the seat of government of the Palestinian National Authority is located, traveled this week to Barcelona to participate in a round table at the Smart City Expo World Congress. The 56-year-old Jerusalem native flew to Spain from Amman (Jordan), where he grew up and where his father still lives since he was displaced by the Six Day War (1967) between Israel and several Arab countries. Kassis — a Christian Palestinian — made a career in the world of finance and studied and lived in the United States, but in 2000 he decided to return to Ramallah, where his entire family is from. There, he obtained a Palestinian identity card, for which he had to give up his U.S. residency. He did not doubt — as he does not doubt now — the future of the West Bank, despite the crisis caused by the Israeli war in Gaza unleashed after the Hamas attacks on October 7.

Question. What is it like living in Ramallah right now?

Answer. Living in Ramallah these days is very, very tense. People are worried, scared. Businesses are losing money, schools have gone back to virtual classes, there are demonstrations almost every day in the streets. People are afraid of the Israeli settlers, and almost every day there are raids and arrests by the Israeli army. There have been more than 2,000 arrests in raids in a single month, and constant killings — two days ago, a man crossing the street in Ramallah [was killed]. Beyond what is happening in Gaza, the West Bank is not safe in many ways. It is very worrying.

Q. At the Smart City Expo World Congress, you are participating in a panel discussion titled “Cities In Pursuit of Talent and Economic Vitality.” Has it ever been possible to focus on this topic in Ramallah?

A. The quick answer is yes, and therein lies the resilience that Palestinians have built up over the years. Yes, we live under occupation, but life cannot stop. For our mostly young and very equal society, for the entrepreneurs and those starting a life, for the university graduates. We continue to build the city, at a slower pace and with higher costs because of the occupation, but economic prosperity is the most important thing.

Q. What changed on October 7?

A. That day showed everyone that the risk [of violence] remains, and it is enormous. When fear enters people’s heads and hearts, it pushes them to alternatives: either to leave or to stand by and do nothing, and it is in this vacuum that people lose hope. The West Bank has achieved some economic growth despite the occupation. After October 7, it has been [and will be] more difficult, but we don’t want opportunities for talented and skilled people to be lost.

Q. Settler violence has increased. What is the role of the Israeli army?

A. Since this Israeli government came to power, settler attacks have increased dramatically, but mostly systematically, and therein lies the problem. This creates a threat to the Palestinian Authority, because it has to secure control of the West Bank while adhering to the Oslo agreements [which establish areas of Israeli military responsibility in the West Bank]. On the other hand, what we see is that the settlers are protected by Israeli soldiers, I can’t say they don’t stop them, but they are with them, while the Palestinians can do nothing but run, throw stones and get detained. This makes the settlers more and more daring. And the soldiers have closed off the cities with cement blocks; it can take you an hour or more to get in or out. There are big restrictions, and I don’t see [the Israeli army trying to] stop the settlers, rather they are [encouraging them] with their own means.

Q. What is your priority as mayor?

A. My priority is to develop good citizens, people who believe in democracy, who know how to convey their demands. Both Ramallah and Palestine are places where everything could be done better under better circumstances, places where people want to stay.

Q. President Mahmoud Abbas has said that he is open to participating in the Gaza government, provided there is a comprehensive solution that includes the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well. What is this solution?

A. The president is asking for justice, and justice is built on peace, on Security Council and U.N. Assembly resolutions, on treaties and agreements that have been piling up [over the years]; [a solution for] an independent, connected Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a just agreement for the return of refugees. Our message has not changed: justice is the prerequisite for peace in Palestine.

Q. Do you fear that Hamas will gain popularity in the West Bank as a result of the crisis?

A. Hamas is a part of Palestinian society. What every Palestinian wants is justice. True, its popularity may have increased, but I can’t think about that now, because what we all want now is a cease-fire. The international community has to impose it. We all know the figures: [the death toll in Gaza has] exceeded 10,000, more than 4,000 of them children. It is devastating. The lives of Palestinians matter, as do those of the Israelis. We do not want anyone to die; we have been killing each other for 75 years, and it is clear that it is a recipe that does not work. We need to sit down and talk, and have formal elections in Palestine and Israel. I’m sure nobody wants war, it’s not a good way to win votes. [A better strategy is] to go towards justice and peace and prosperity, to gain respect that way,

Q. In this congress there are various representatives of European and American cities. What do you say to them?

A. I tell them that what happened on October 7 is a very big alarm that has awakened the world and has made the civil society of their countries [stand up] against the war. Israel cannot win this war because nobody can win it; there are no winners. There are innocent people dying, and why? Because their lives don’t matter. Why does the international community allow it?

Q. How would you describe the role of the European Union in the conflict?

A. It has always supported us, and it is still close to us: it supports the budget of the Palestinian Authority, it generates employment... And I ask them to continue [to do so], not to lose hope. Because otherwise people will lose interest. Either you are a fair mediator or you continue to support a system that accommodates the occupation.

Q. The level of destruction in Gaza is unprecedented. Did you imagine that something like this would happen?

A. I never imagined that this would happen. This question always comes up: how long will we tolerate this, how long will we accept the settlers confiscating the land, how long do we have to prove that we are normal people who deserve a life, how long will the occupation last. Superman will not come to save us. I, as a Christian Palestinian, believe in peace and even in loving your enemy, but not if you are weak. I believe in the future and continuing negotiations, but it is not happening, so how long will the West Bank tolerate it? What happened on October 7 is a reaction; people are suffering from a 17-year siege. The occupation is not just weapons or soldiers — it’s in your head, it prevents you from dreaming, and it’s very complicated to understand it from the outside. Young people see on their cell phones what life is like on the outside, and this raises many questions for them. Some cope well, but others lose hope. We don’t want to reach the point that Gaza has reached. We did not expect these mass killings, from both sides.

Q. Is there room for dialogue?

A. They are [exacting] revenge, to save the reputation of the [Israeli] army or whatever, and they maintain their feeling of superiority, [believing] that Palestinian lives don’t matter. They insist on seeing all of us as terrorists. Dialogue will not begin until we see and treat each other as equals. There is always room for negotiation, but definitely not with this [Israeli] government.

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