SPOTLIGHT ON SAM BAHOUR IN THE JERUSALEM POST

Sam Bahour is eager to open up the discussion concerning the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. But is there anyone to engage in the conversation?

Sam Bahour. (photo credit:TOMER ZMORA)

LISTENING
CLOSELY
Sam Bahour is eager to open up the
discussion concerning the IsraeliPalestinian
conflict. But is there anyone to
engage in the conversation? And why do
some members of the younger Palestinian
generation prefer talking of civil rights
rather than statehood?

NATAN ODENHEIMER  .. From Jerusalem Post Magazine

‘Why do you think Israelis want to hear you speak?”
I ask American-born Palestinian businessman
Sam Bahour in a Ramallah cafe.
“I’m a public figure, so when people come
to hear me, they know what’s on the menu,”
he replies. “There are all kinds of audiences. Some want to hear me
firsthand, others to challenge me, which many do, or to reinforce how
they argue against me outside, so they could say ‘I tried. I heard the
other side but I cannot change my opinion.’”
MANY SEE Bahour as a controversial figure. Perhaps this is because
alongside his business commitments he spends much time and energy
in “narrating,” as he puts it, to Israelis and American Jews the Palestinian
angle of the history and present of the conflict.
Bahour was born to a “very nationalistic family” in Youngstown, Ohio.
His parents, both originally from El-Bireh, raised him to know the
names and histories of their neighbors in Palestine better than that of
those living next door. During his college years, he became involved
with the Palestinian student movement, which was the PLO’s student
organ, and became a leader in the movement. After the Oslo Accords
were signed, he followed his wife back to Ramallah to work in business
development, hoping that the agreement would open the door for new
opportunities.
In the past 24 years Bahour co-founded Paltel, a telecommunication
company and the largest private-sector employer in the West Bank, served
on the board and as the treasure of Bir Zeit university, was a director of The
Arab Islamic Bank, and published opinion pieces in the Washington Post,
the Guardian and +972. Currently, he runs his own company, Applied
Information Management (AIM), specializing in business development
and focusing on information technology and start-ups.
In 2013, J Street U chapter at Brandeis University invited him to speak,
which some students found offensive since Bahour is a supporter of the
BDS movement and criticizes Israeli policy harshly.
Following the Brandeis event, a Committee for Accuracy in Middle
East Reporting in America (CAMERA) contributor, Ariella Charny,
published a blogpost titled “The Failures of Sam Bahour,” discrediting
him as an anti-peace activist.
But despite the many online descriptions of Bahour as a peace opposer
and Israel smearer, he didn’t blink before agreeing to an interview with
The Jerusalem Post, something that isn’t trivial in the current political
atmosphere. He believes that these sort of conversations – the kind that
is difficult to engage in – are key for moving forward.
“We as Palestinians,” he said, “failed in history in addressing Israelis
directly. We always thought that as long as we have an open door to the
US, an open door to Russia or the European Union, we can resolve the
conflict through a third party. I think it’s important but it’s impossible to
[resolve the conflict] without addressing the Israelis directly. I encourage
my people to do that in Hebrew as often as possible. Ultimately, this
dispute is no longer about Israel-Palestine. It’s about Israel itself.”
TWO EVENTS shaped Bahour’s political consciousness and fixated him
on what he sees as the Palestinian cause. The first was learning about the
Sabra and Shatilla massacre committed by Lebanese Christian militias
following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. When the photos started
coming out, Bahour, who was a college student at the time, organized a
demonstration against Israel on campus.
“I’m aware of the fact that more than one party was responsible.
However, without Israel’s invasion of Lebanon it probably would not
have happened. I blame Israel and all else who were involved.
“I asked myself then,” he says, “how could that take place? That was
before Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria – these were supposed to be tragic events
that stop the world from spinning, but they didn’t.”
The second event was the eruption of the First Intifada. “I was about
to exit university in the year 1987-8 and already politically engaged. I
couldn’t just sit still at home. I visited Palestine many times before, but
my main activity on those visits mainly involved sitting on my aunt’s
balcony stuffing myself with food. That year was the first time I came
on a political tour. Understanding where the United States sits in this
reality, a superpower supporting Israel, made this conflict doubly
personal as an American and a Palestinian.”
Bahour returned to Youngstown to work in software development,
but made room in his schedule for leading group visits to Palestine.
Slowly, the intifada was fading, and around this time Bahour married
Abeer Barghouty from Deir Ghassana, who followed him to Ohio. “In 1993,” Bahour recalls, “the Oslo Accords were signed – no one expected
it. I read the agreement, and I became furious. I was against it.
“What kindled my anger was that the Palestinian side started the
process by recognizing Israel, and in return Israel recognized the
Palestinian Liberation Organization. This lopsidedness didn’t make
sense. It’s like the US would recognize the People’s Republic of China
and in response the PRC would recognize the Republican Party. It was a
bad agreement, but at least it was dated. That was the good thing about
it. We thought, ‘We have already been under occupation for 30-35 years,
what’s five more years?’
“I advocated – spoke and wrote – against the agreement. Then, one
time, I came back home and my wife told me, ‘What’s wrong with you?
The whole world is applauding this agreement through history. You are
the only person disliking it.’ She convinced me to reread the agreement
with a business eye, not a political one. She had a hidden agenda, of
course. She wanted to go back home. We just had our first child and this
Ohio thing didn’t work for her.”
Bahour gave the agreement another chance.
“There was an annex about every part of life, land, Areas A, B and C,
water, patrols, police – you name it, it was there. I came across Annex
No. 36, the Telecommunication annex, and the first paragraph was
great. I couldn’t have written it better myself. It said that Palestinians
have the right to build, operate and maintain separate and independent
networks. Long story short – this brought me back to Palestine. My
wife came back home, I relocated and got hired by a group of investors
that were negotiating with the Palestinian Authority to create the first
telecommunication company, Paltel.”
Life back home
However, when Bahour started working on Paltel, he read the rest
of the annex, and discovered clauses that limited the operation of the
telecommunication company taking its baby steps. “The annex said
that if we want frequencies and wavelengths allocated to us, we should
come back to the Israeli side and they alone will decide if it’s allowed.
Or, for instance, when we wanted to connect two Area As together, we
need to cross Area C, which is 62% of the West Bank, and every time we
wanted to do that we needed to get Israeli approval.
“You want to import equipment? You must jump through three Israeli
hoops, a hoop of customs, a hoop of standards and a hoop of security.
This slowed down our development process a great deal. So ultimately
the conclusion I reached over that year or so is that the political
lopsidedness of the agreement was translated into all of the sectors
setting them up for failure. It’s similar to me telling you you are welcome
to leave this cafe any time you want but I don’t tell you I sealed all the
doors and windows, and that there is no actual way,” he explains.
“Having said that, we did the best we could do within these limitations.
We built the largest private-sector company in Palestine, providing a
fixed-line network, a mobile network, and a telecommunication network.
It’s not separate and independent in the full sense of the word, but it’s
the best we could do. It also became very successful financially. Even too
successful financially, and that’s why I left. I felt like they [the directors
of Paltel] were making too much profit from an occupied people. Then
again, when I think back, I’m not sure the private sector, anywhere,
should be expected to [do] more than what it’s expected to do, which is
to hire people, create value and profit. I came with an illusion that the
private sector is part and parcel of the National Liberation Movement. It
was a mistake on my part.”
BAHOUR LEFT and opened his own consulting firm. The next year, he
was hired to put up the first shopping center in the Palestinian territories
(in Ramallah) called the Plaza Shopping Center.
During the Second Intifada, a lot of the clashes were very close to
the construction site and building the shopping center didn’t take 18
months as planned, but turned into a five-year challenge. Despite the
hardships, today the shopping center chain already has nine branches.
Bahour argues that the pace of the Palestinian economy’s growth is
limited by Israel and that if Israel eased restrictions on the economy,
even without solving the political crisis, the economy could grow
much more. “When my Israeli friends, especially those who are in the
supermarket business, visit, they are surprised by what we did here. I tell
them yes, it’s a ‘wow,’ but if it wasn’t for the boot of occupation on our
neck, we would have had branch number 50 by now.”
What do you mean?
“For instance, we aren’t able to have the frequencies we want, to be
able to put 3G on your smartphones. So every Palestinian smartphone is a dumb phone. It’s 2017 and Israel still refuses to
release the 3G frequencies. I’m almost embarrassed to
talk about it. I was in Denmark the other month and
they have signs there for 5G ‘coming soon,’ and we are
still begging for 3G.
“Israel, in my opinion, has full responsibility, not
over everything, but over the strategic economic
resources: water, frequencies, air spaces and borders.
For example, the Oslo Accords said we can make
bilateral agreements with any country as long as the
country has trade relations with Israel. Yet, we also
need to bring it to the Israeli side, not for approval,
but for acknowledging it, because they control the
border. We made nine agreements, and not one of
these agreements was recognized by Israel. Another
example is that Israel allows private companies to dig
marble on Palestinian land, which could have been a
resource used for stimulating Palestinian economy.”
You say that you spend almost 20% of your
time in speaking and engaging with American
Jews and Israelis. What’s the most important
thing for you to tell American Jews?
“Many of those I speak with are rabbinical students
that are here for studies or work in mainstream
organizations, and I show them what I know and
allow them to make the calculations of what that
means. Our people have a tendency to exaggerate the
reality to make their point. So if there are six soldiers
outside my house I put on that there are 600 to make
an impression, but at that point I lose my confidence
with my audience, so for me it’s important to lay out
the reality as we experience it,” he explains frankly.
“I do that comfortably because I know enough
about Judaism to understand that social justice is
a pillar of the religion and I think that this pillar
can be invoked if people would be better educated.
What I have seen in the last 15 years is that people
open their eyes and minds as I’m speaking to them.
It doesn’t happen overnight, it doesn’t happen at
once, but I can see a process taking place, and given
the number of people who come after the talks or the
engagements asking how to get involved, I know it’s
ringing somewhere.”
These discussions mostly take place in the West
Bank; among them are independent groups visiting,
some are organized thorough J Street, Encounter
Programs, Extend and other organizations.
Asked about the reactions he’s been getting in his
discussion, he replies: “At first, many American Jews
think that what I tell them accounts only for my
experiences or my opinion and that it doesn’t reflect
a broader community. So they try to limit my added value as a personal opinion, not of a community at
large. The second reaction is becoming pissed off at
their own establishment. These are grown people,
leaders in their community, and they are shocked.
They ask themselves, ‘How come I do not know the
entire story taking place on the other side of the
wall?’ Then comes the hard process of observing what
they learned without becoming ostracized in their
community. I think it’s a tiptoe act and I don’t envy
them for having to do it, because I know how hard it
is when you know something and want to act, but you
also don’t want to lose your roots and ability to work
within your community, and I think this gives people
a lot of pain.”
When did you find yourself in such a situation?
“There is a romanticism about Palestine that the
Palestinians over time created which has little to do
with the reality here. Let’s take, for example, the PLO
and PLO leadership. It was revered and upheld over the
years. But when you sit face to face with PLO operatives
and PA representatives and ministers and so forth you
start to see them for what they are. Some good, some
bad, like every government. Some competent, some
not. But definitely not an institutional body ready to
engage in the big struggle facing us. That was a wakeup
call for me. I encourage people not to romanticize
it, but also not to lose hope, to understand the reality,
each in its own way.”
What is your take on your Israeli audience?
“They are always the hardest ones. They come with
a very predefined notion of right and wrong. They
come with a possibly inherent racism or superiority
over Palestinians. They come rattling off very expired
thoughts, talking points that are 15 and 20 years old.”
Like what?
“They ask, ‘Who are you as a Palestinian?’ I thought
we were past that. That people understood we exist.
They go back to ‘God gave me this land’ so they put me
in a corner. What am I supposed to do? Defend God?…
The terrorism blocks them from seeing anything. To
evaluate anything. Two Israelis die, and suddenly the
entire 50 years of struggle becomes unthinkable.”
What is it that Palestinians want and Israelis
don’t understand?
“We desire the exact same things that every single
Israeli citizen desires when he wakes up: work, safety,
marriage, love, having a house, a car, a mobile phone,
tech, education for his children – Palestinians are no
better and no less than other people.“ What I don’t get is how the Israeli Knesset can both
tell its people that Gaza has nothing to do with Israel,
that it is not occupied, and at the same time maintain
the population registry; they register every newborn
child and issue them ID numbers.”
You think that Israelis are stuck in Oslo?
“I think the Israelis are stuck in Zionism. Zionism
was meant to create a state. That state was created,
and it turned out to be a very strong state. What they
should have done is put this ideology in the museum
and cherish it. Instead they took Zionism and rolled it
into all the institutions of the state.
“Fast forward to 2017, when Israel looks in the mirror
it doesn’t see Israel. They see a reflection of Zionism
and it’s very difficult for them to decide now – Are they
a state for their citizens? Are they a state among the
member states of the world (which means that there
are rules of how to act; having an occupation is not
one of those)? Or do they want to remain true to their
ideology which is exclusive by definition, and they
have to face that fall-out if they do.
“The current government doesn’t recognize this as
occupation. So I ask every Israeli I come across, if it’s
not occupation, then what is it? If it’s occupation,
it must end. Fifty years is far too long for temporary
occupation. If it’s not occupation, then I’m a subject,
in Ramallah, of the Israeli jurisdiction between the
Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River… I think
that they need to be wary: the next generation of
Palestinians may not beat their head against the wall
of statehood. My daughter may say, ‘You know what,
Israel? Congratulations. You win. You get it all. You get
the West Bank, west Jerusalem, east Jerusalem, you get
the water, we will throw in Gaza for free, and you know
what else you get? Us. And you know what more? We
heard there is free health care in Israel. Where do we
pick up our medical cards?’ If the next generation
drops the bid for statehood, what they will convert it
into is a bid for civil rights.”
This approach is becoming popular?
“There is a whole generation that speaks in this
language. I would encourage them not to do that.
Not because I don’t want civil rights, but because this
will force us into a one-state reality, but it’s not going
to be like Ohio and Pennsylvania, but like white and
black South Africa. We have 138 countries that said
yes to Palestine, nine that said no, of them, the only
two important ones are Israel and the US. We are
close to statehood. If we fail, we will not disappear or
vanish. We will convert our struggle into a civil rights
movement. If we do that, the game is over.”

1 Comment

  1. farouq shafie said,

    August 16, 2017 at 04:27

    Very well said, Mr. Bahour! One state for both peoples is the only answer!


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