In November of last year, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution elevating the status of Palestine from a non-member observer “entity” to a non-member observer “State.” Palestinians are now trying to move forward as a state while they struggle with the problems caused by the Israeli occupation and geographic and political divisions between the West Bank and Gaza. Toshio Motoya spoke with Ambassador Mr. Waleed Siam of the Permanent General Mission of Palestine in Japan, and asked him about such topics as the types of partnerships that can be created between Japan and Palestine, as well as the Arab world.
Motoya Thank you for joining me today on Big Talk. Ambassador Siam, you have been in Japan for a long time now, and I have had the pleasure of knowing you for many years. How many years has it been since you came to Japan?
Siam This will be my ninth year.
Motoya Has it been that long? That is amazing. And you have become the Dean of the Arab ambassadors in Japan. I have made a request to the deputy chief cabinet secretary for you to pay a courtesy call on Prime Minister Abe.
Siam Yes, the ambassadors from 19 Arab nations would like to meet with Prime Minister Abe.
Motoya And every year you kindly join us for the annual APA Group New Year’s party. This year, we are expecting ambassadors from 14 countries to join us for our party.
Siam I am looking forward to it.
Motoya Last November, the UN General Assembly approved by a majority vote a resolution that recognized Palestine as a state. That was the fervent wish of the Palestinian Authority, wasn’t it?
Siam That’s correct. At the UN General Assembly on November 29, we received the votes of 138 nations to upgrade the status of Palestine from a non-member “entity” to a “state.” The Japanese government has long been an extremely important partner of the Palestinians, and they voted in favor of Palestine in this resolution as well. We are extremely grateful.
Motoya Countries such as Japan and France voted yes, while nine countries, including the United States and Israel, voted against it. I am sure that there were many twists and turns on the path to this resolution.
Siam There are two types of UN resolutions, those of the Security Council and those of the General Assembly. As you know, the Security Council is comprised of 15 member states in total, among which five are the permanent members － the U.S., the United Kingdom, China, France, and Russia － and 10 non permanent members are elected for two-year terms. At first, the Security Council agreed to admit Palestine to the UN as a state, but the U.S. put pressure on Bosnia and Herzegovina, non permanent members, and the decision was deferred. As a result, we proposed that we first be recognized as a state by the General Assembly, and we were able to get the resolution passed. However, even though we were recognized as a state by the United Nations, it did not change the fact that we are still under occupation of another country.
Motoya Within the State of Palestinian, there are two political factions, Fatah, which represents the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, and Hamas, which represents the Gaza Strip. It is extremely difficult for the average person to understand the differences between those two. Could you explain that a bit?
Siam Hamas is an organization that has fought against Israel since the 1980s, separately from Chairman Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). They were opposed to the peace treaty between the PLO and Israel and undertook a number of actions. Fatah, on the other hand, is the political party that was the main faction of the PLO. As a step to be recognized as a state by the UN, democratic elections are critical. For that reason, in January 2006, elections were held by the Palestinian Legislative Council, at which time Hamas won 74 seats out of 132, giving them the majority. Presumably Hamas garnered popular votes cast by a criticism of Fatah, which had been in a leadership position up until then. Meanwhile, Fatah won 45 seats. In March of that year, the Palestinian Authority established a Hamas-led cabinet. However, the American President Bush claimed that “the election itself was democratic, but the results were not,” and so Europe, the U.S., and Israel took the position that they would not recognize the Hamas-led administration.
Motoya I imagine the reason was because Hamas has always denied the very existence of Israel.
Siam Then in March 2007, Hamas and Fatah formed a coalition to establish a national unity government. However, the position of the U.S. and Israel did not change. At the UN as well, the trend was leaning towards not recognizing this unity cabinet, the assistance expressed by countries around the world was suspended, and the Palestinian Authority was completely withered by it. The conflict between Hamas and Fatah intensified, and in June 2007 Hamas used force to occupy the Gaza region and staged a coup d’etat. The thinking on the part of Hamas was probably one of frustration in that, even though they had come to power by holding a democratic election as the UN had asked, they still were not recognized.
Motoya There certainly is some logic to that claim.
Siam Through this chain of events, it became impossible to bring any materials into the Gaza Strip; as a way to survive they dug tunnels underground from Egypt and were able to bring in various goods from there. Also, there were some Arab countries that were supporting Hamas, and they were providing financial assistance as well.
Motoya Even without assistance from Europe and the U.S., Hamas has been able to maintain governance of the Gaza Strip.
Siam Yes, that’s right. Fatah could have chosen to enter the Gaza Strip and fight Hamas, but it didn’t do so. Further internal conflict within the Palestinian state is not desired and is against our laws.
Motoya One of the materials that Egypt provided to Hamas was Iranian long-range rocket artillery, which allowed Hamas’s rockets to reach as far as Israel’s main city of Tel Aviv. Israel initiated the attack by assassinating a top Hamas military leader, Ahmed al-Jabari, in November of last year, and furthermore, they carried out airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. It seems safe to say that a sizeable amount of military goods entered Gaza through the tunnel, correct?
Siam For the people in the Gaza region, they are using the tunnels to procure the food and arms they need to live and protect themselves from daily closures and attacks by military occupation. After all, Palestine is divided in two － the Fatah government led by President Abbas, which governs the region on the West Bank, and the Hamas government in Gaza under Prime Minister Haniyeh. However, Fatah bears an overwhelming portion of the financial burden. There are approximately 2,500,000 people in the West Bank, while about 1,600,000 people are living in the Gaza Strip, but the Fatah government is paying 70 percent of the electricity, water supply, and other social infrastructure costs for both regions.
Motoya Who are they paying for?
Siam Israel. That’s because we rely on Israel for all our electricity, water, and so on. Also, if you look at the wages of the roughly 150,000 government employees, Fatah is paying for 120,000 government staff, while Hamas is only taking care of 30,000. Despite that, Hamas is misappropriating the duties on the goods imported from Egypt and elsewhere. They also have other sources of funds that they are using, including taxes within the Gaza Strip and assistance from abroad.
Motoya So Hamas is letting Fatah shoulder much of the burden while they are increasing their income.
Siam President Abbas is trying to find the way to unite Fatah and Hamas, but Israel and the U.S. call Hamas a terrorist organization and are against the unification. There are some Arab countries as well that strongly dislike Hamas.
Motoya But didn’t the UN recognition of statehood refer to the entire Palestinian territory including the Hamas-led Gaza Strip?
Siam That’s correct. It also includes East Jerusalem. The origin of the Palestinian Occupation issue was in 1947, when the UN General Assembly passed the UN Resolution 181 (the Partition Plan of Palestine), which allocated 56.5 percent of Palestinian land for a Jewish state and 43.5 percent for an Arab state. If you consider that 80 percent of the population of Palestine was Arab, it was difficult to accept that more than half of the land would be given to an Israeli state, but despite the unanimous opposition of the Arab nations, it was approved. Accordingly, the state of Israel was established in 1948.
Motoya Immediately after that, the first Arab-Israeli War broke out, and Israel, which was thought to be in a weaker position in terms of population (but not in the size of weaponry and experience), was the victor.
Siam Subsequently, after the third Arab-Israeli War, under UN Resolution 242, the territory allocated to Arabs in Palestine was decreased to 22 percent. Even though Arabs accepted this, Israel went on to increase their settlements. Currently, the territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority is 12 percent, but Israel is demanding to decrease that to eight percent. The basis for that demand is that 3,000 years ago, there was a Jewish empire on this site, which was again created by the occupation of the indigenous population there.
Motoya Military force must be important, is it not? They have not invaded the territory controlled by Hamas, which has military strength. After all, you can’t maintain territory if you don’t fight to protect it. Of course, I don’t support Hamas overall, with its purported ties to Iran, but I do think on this point they are impressive. Does the fact that they have a relationship with Iran mean that Hamas belongs to the Shi’a sect?
Siam No, both Hamas and Fatah are Sunni. Hamas and Iran are not connected religiously; they are connected by their defense schemes. The launch of rockets from Iran is not a significant threat to Israel since it is done from a distance. However, a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip is a threat. That is why Iran is assisting Hamas.
Motoya Hezbollah is also supporting Hamas, aren’t they?
Siam That is because Hezbollah is a Shi’a group that has close ties with Iran, and they are sharply opposed to Israel.
Motoya An Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip was avoided through the intervention of Egypt’s President Morsi. This President Morsi is revising the constitution and trying to build his country in a way that brings the Islamic nature to the fore, and he is fighting domestic opposition forces. After the people went to the trouble of overthrowing a dictatorship through the Arab Spring, now it seems that the Muslim Brotherhood is stealing the fruits of their labor.
Siam It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood took the fruit of the Arab Spring, but that may not last if they continue steering towards a political Islamic State. President Morsi was elected not by the majority of Egyptians. Voter numbers didn’t represent the registered Egyptians. However, if he steers towards a progressive democratic state, then maybe it will survive. But we don’t want the conflict in the Middle East to be based on religion. Religion must be separated from the state ideologies, which were the root causes of World War I and World War II. We do not need religion to be the cause of World War III, believing some elements are waiting for it to happen.
Motoya The munitions industry is like the construction industry and others who handle public works － they always want a war. Taking a broad look at what has happened since the end of the Cold War － the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War － I can certainly agree with what you say.
Siam There are certainly forces that are trying to take control of resource-rich areas such as the Middle East by creating chaos through wars. Those powers are fomenting war.
Motoya The civil war in Syria is also gradually taking on the appearance of a religious war. President Assad, who is receiving assistance from Iran, Russia, and China, belongs to the minority Islamic Alawi sect. The opposition forces that are expanding their strength are Sunni. So there is an element of this kind of religious conflict as well.
Siam That’s right. In the region known as the Middle East, the French and the British formerly worked to implement the “divide and conquer” principle, which led to Israel being formed. Today, once again, it is divide and conquer, and they are making the Shi’a, Sunni, and other sects within Islam fight one another. They are trying to use this chaos so they can reap the profits while others are made to fight
Motoya Today, throughout the entire Arab world, it is a similar situation to the Palestinian divide between Hamas and Fatah. At first, the “Arab Spring” was in large part a citizen revolt against dictators, but now in Egypt and Syria, it has become a fight between Muslims within those countries. It certainly does seem that there are forces that are trying to profit from the chaos. However, it is important to not simply regard Hamas as a terrorist group, but as a force that is striving to protect its own national territory. Fundamentally, it should be a common goal of all religions to ensure that people can live happily. But religious wars have been occurring throughout the ages. The U.S. is also a fine religious nation, but it is no exaggeration to say that the last world war was a religious war, or a war in which religion was used as an ideological conflict to create enemies and threats. Today, the ideological conflict of the Cold War has switched into another conflict using religion as the source of conflict. We need to somehow find a way to eradicate such conflicts being created throughout the world to keep the world divided….
Siam I completely agree.
Motoya In Japan there is the concept of eight million gods, so it is difficult for religious conflicts to emerge, but Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all monotheistic, and since each claims that its god is the legitimate one, the wars are everlasting.
Siam On the contrary, from our perspective, there are no walls between Islam and Judaism or between Islam and Christianity. It is Zionism and capitalism that are in conflict with the Arab world. However, President Bush made this conflict into a religious war between Islam and Christianity. This was not something that we wanted.
Motoya If everyone could understand that point, I believe it would open the path towards peace.
Siam That is true.
Motoya Incidentally, there has been a change in the administration in Japan with the emergence of the administration of Shinzo Abe. I have always been a supporter of Mr. Abe. Many of my friends have succeeded in gaining cabinet posts, and Mr. Abe is now implementing many of the things I have constantly been advocating. I think he is right to first be focusing his efforts on economic policy. Over the past 20 years, Japan has had zero growth in its real GDP, while over that same period, China’s real GDP has grown tenfold and the scale of the global economy has nearly tripled. Other countries have been taking advantage of Japan’s economic decline. Russian President Medvedev and then President Putin broke with the precedent set by their Russian and Soviet predecessors and visited the Northern Territories; South Korean President Myung-bak Lee landed on the island of Takeshima, over which our two neighboring countries have been engaged in a dispute, and made comments that were insulting to the emperor; and Chinese boats and planes have been infuriating Japan by infringing on our territory around the Senkaku Islands. This could not have happened when Japan’s economy was overwhelmingly strong. I hope that Mr. Abe will swiftly get rid of that atmosphere. How do you view the Abe administration, Ambassador Siam?
Siam For the Middle East, Japan is a country that holds an important position both economically and politically. Despite that, my impression is that, over the past 30 years, Japan has not taken an active approach toward the Middle East. The Arab world has a population of 300 to 400 million people, and it is also a rich market. Why hasn’t Japan tried to make more use of this? Japanese private companies are afraid, so they do not try to enter the market. That’s despite the fact that a strong relationship already exists since Japan imports 80 percent of its crude oil from the Middle East. That is very vexing to us.
Motoya You are quite right.
Siam The countries of the Middle East that have abundant capital can rescue Japan. Of course they can serve as a major market for Japanese goods, but they can also invest in Japan. The obstacle is language and culture. If we could break that wall down, large amounts of capital would probably flow from the Arab world into Japan. Money has no religion (laughs). I hope that the Abe administration will work to tear down that wall.
Motoya That is true. With help from the countries in the Middle East, Japan can once again become a strong economic power, and by supporting newly emerging countries, we can contribute to world peace. And from a security perspective as well, in order to ensure that war does not break out in Asia, it is important that Japan strengthens its defensive capabilities so that it cannot be pushed around. We have to be a country that has a strong military force backing up our strong economy and must contribute to the world. For that purpose, I think that as an economic policy, we need to work out a 10-year plan that would include a second income-doubling plan and a living space-doubling plan. And we must work quickly to revise the constitution.
Siam I think that the next generation of wars will be economic wars. It will become wars in which we think about how to economically destroy the other party. For us, it is very encouraging to have a friend like Japan that will support us economically. Currently, the global trend is to cut military spending. The countries of the Middle East have been pouring too much money into the military, and it has ruined our economies. That is the fundamental reason for the political revolutions in Libya and Egypt. On that point, I think Japan made the right choice in minimizing its military expenditures and expanding its economy. If Palestine can further reduce its military expenditures, I think it can increase its economic strength to enable it to fight the next war.
Motoya That is true. In order to have an economic revival, nuclear power is necessary. That is the popular will as well, and even in the last general election, those parties and candidates that proposed “ending” or “abolishing” nuclear power were overwhelmingly defeated. Those nuclear reactors that can operate should be restarted right away. And our nuclear technology, which is the most advanced in the world, should be rapidly exported worldwide. If we do so, we can prevent the spread of inferior nuclear reactors from China and South Korea.
Siam The Palestinians and others in the Arab world think highly of Japan and we also have high expectations of Japan. We would like to work together in the future as solid partners. However, if Asia is unstable, there is a concern that the Middle East will end up paying a price for it. So it is our heartfelt desire that Asia remains stable.
Motoya I agree. The sticking point is China, and there is a fear that as its economic growth slows down, it will lose its cohesive force, and the danger of a split is increasing. Finally, I always ask my guests to offer a “word to the youth.”
Siam Over the nine years that I have been in Japan, I have seen many young Japanese people. I certainly hope that young people will carry on the knowledge of their Japanese ancestors. Thinking like a Japanese person is a very precious thing and I hope that will spread around the world. It is said that recently Japanese young people are not going abroad as much, but you need to look more outwardly, just as those in other countries must as well. I hope you will pay attention to Palestine and the rest of the Middle East. I hope as well that you will visit the Middle East, absorb many things, and bring those experiences back to Japan.
Motoya I agree. I have visited 77 countries around the world, and have held debates with influential people in those countries, and everywhere I go, they hold Japan in high esteem not only for its economic strength but also for its ideology and culture. However, within Japan, because of our masochistic education and media, we Japanese ourselves are unable to take pride in our own country. I believe that it is important to know the real Japan and to take pride in that.
Siam I agree.
Motoya Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
H. E. Mr. Waleed Siam
Born in 1955. Studied Politics and International Relations at university. He served as the Director of North America Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1994), Director of Japan and Asia Department (1996), and as the non-resident Ambassador for The Permanent General Mission of Palestine to Japan and South Korea (1999). Since 2003 until today, he has served as the Ambassador for The Permanent General Mission of Palestine to Japan and South Korea.