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Croatian MP Ivan Pernar and Palestinian ambassador Mohammed Nabhan exchange views about the Middle East and the Balkans

In early April, Croatian parliamentarian Ivan Pernar met in Zagreb with Mohammed K. M. Nabhan, the ambassador of the State of Palestine to Serbia, and discussed the various topics related to the Middle East and the Balkans. Here's the full transcript of the meeting.
Pernar and Nabhan (photo: Tanjug)

Pernar: Ladies and gentlemen, today I'm with the Palestinian Ambassador Mohammed Nabhan for the second time, and I ask him to tell what circumstances have brought him to the Croatian Parliament.

Nabhan: It is my honor and pleasure to be here in the Croatian Parliament today, to return the visit to my friend Ivan Pernar, who was visiting me in Belgrade to express sympathy for my [Palestinian] people. That is why I came here where he works, to thank him for everything he does for us, for the rightly Palestinian demands. It seems to me very logical that this country [Croatia], as a free country, a country of freedom-loving people who have acquired their freedom, to support the [Palestinian] people who are fighting for the same freedom.

Pernar: Exactly, for the same thing.

Nabhan: For the same thing. We quickly found that we have a lot of common, the common attitudes, because we both support justice and freedom.

Pernar: Tell us, how many countries have diplomatic relations with the State of Palestine? How many of them recognize Palestine?

Nabhan: There are 138 countries that have recognized the State of Palestine, and Palestine has an embassy in 103 states.

Pernar: But it is interesting that Croatia does not have diplomatic relations with Palestine. Can you explain what was going on in that field and what do you see as a major obstacle for it?

Nabhan: As for me and my people, there are no obstacles. I do not know there is an obstacle on the Croatian side, I hope it does not exist, and I appeal to Croatia and its leadership to do as soon as possible because, as we mentioned, Croatia is a free country and has the right to act in accordance with people who share the same values. Especially because Palestine is supported by two-thirds of the international community.

Pernar: Tell us, when there was a UN vote on Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Croatia restrained from voting, but how did the other countries vote?

Nabhan: Other countries, the vast majority of them, have voted for that resolution. A total of 128 countries have voted in favor of abolishing the American administration's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as it is inconsistent with international law that prescribes the destiny of the occupied city.

Palestinian childhood

Pernar: Please tell us about your birthplace, what happened with your people when Israel was founded in 1948, and what did your parents tell you?

Nabhan: Originally I am from a village called Lakish which is a very old biblical, even pre-biblical Phoenician place. Today it's a part of Israel. I was born in 1947, means before the creation of Israel. I am older than Israel. My family was forced to leave the settlement in 1948. My mother told me it was a nice place, but after they left it, the Israelis came and destroyed all the buildings there.

Pernar: One detail, why did they leave the village?

Nabhan: They left because of the bombardment, they [Israelis] threw bombs into that village, so a lot of the inhabitants were killed. Those who survived the attack had to leave it. Then the Israelis came there and blown everything up. They took remnants of stone houses for construction materials, sent bulldozers and razed everything, even burned trees.

Pernar: So Israel is being created by expelling the Palestinian population, not allowing them to return, and all the property of these people is taken away...

Nabhan: The recent events between Israel and Gaza are part of that story. These people were expelled from their homes, like I was expelled. And now, when Israel celebrated its 70th birthday, they wanted to show their problem to the world public: What about us?

Pernar: In 1995, the Croatian military operation "Storm" was conducted and, consequently, many Serbs fleeed from Croatia during this operation. Some argue it was organized by Serbian leadership in Croatia, but what is indisputable is that the military operation was associated with their exodus so we can assume that these two events were related. However, what is important for us is the following: did Serbs who fled lost their citizenship? No. Everyone kept their original citizenship and can return freely to Croatia. Unfortunately, many of their homes were burnt, but if they wanted to go back, they're allowed to reconstruct it. I just want to point out the differences between the fates of the Serbs in Croatia and the Palestinians in Israel. People do not realize that the expelled Serbs can return, and the expelled Palestinians can not. However, the Hague Tribunal of course did not condemn Israel, but only Croatia. I want to point the hypocrisy of the international community. There hasn't been any trial for terrible crime of ethnic cleansing 750,000 [Palestinian] people, or a million, who can not return to their homes. I know many of their cities have been destroyed. Can you tell us how many of them?

Nabhan: 400 Palestinian cities and villages were destroyed.

Pernar: How about your parents, as time went by, were they expecting to return, or they were feeling suspicious about it when you were child?

Nabhan: They truly hoped for returning to their country, they died with such hopes. We lived in these villages as peasants, we were dealing with agriculture, but our cities were developed, we had two airports in [pre-1948] Palestine.

Pernar: You're living under a military regime, under occupation. Those who are not expelled or are residents of the refugee camps, are inside Gaza and the West Bank, however, you are fighting for survival in these impossible conditions. On the other hand, I see how the Croatian people flee from Croatia because the foreign salaries are somewhat bigger, and the Croatian people simply do not understand what it means to have their own country, to have the chance to participate on the elections and decide about the destiny of their country. Palestinian people have no opportunity to vote against the occupation. Israelis often claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East, but we all know that's...

Nabhan: That's a big lie.

Pernar: Indeed, that's a big lie, but explain to people what it means to have own country in the full sense of the word: having borders, not being under occupation, and so on.

Nabhan: We lived as second- or third-class citizens in all the countries where we ended up as refugees. In 1948, the term "Palestine" completely disappeared from the geopolitical map, even from the general use. They did not treat us like Palestinians but Arab refugees. We were undefined. This means you lose the right of citizenship, you can not travel, everywhere you are suspicious, they look at you through the prism of security, etc. We know what it means to have a homeland, we realized that if you do not have a homeland, you're nothing. A nation without a country that no one treats with respect. So I say: You people [Croats], stay in your country, what you have is a treasure. The treasure you don't know how to appreciate until it's gone. And anyone who goes from here, he knows he can go back, but one Palestinian does not have that feeling. You can not go back anywhere. That's what matters, so we say: They [Israelis] are speaking about paying and compensating, but no compensation can redeem...

Pernar: ...Your home.

Nabhan: Yes, your home. And that feeling that I'm safe here, so the Palestinians do not go anywhere. There were failed states in the Middle East, countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen... but the Palestinians have nowhere to go. And now, I say to these Israelis: in this country you call Israel, which we call Palestine, there are 13 million people. Half of these are Jews, half of them are Palestinians, and now is the right time to reach an agreement. If you do not reach an agreement, one day you will end up being a minority.

Israeli crimes and double standards

Pernar: Mr. Nabhan, I wanted to tell you that you are looking only for a just solution, and that's allowing the Palestinians to return. And recovering their property. This is something that the international community has been looking from Croatia, but what makes this Israeli behavior dangerous is that today or tomorrow some other nation can experience the Palestinian fate: someone may take their land, houses and other, and say: if Israel can, we can do it also. This is the problem of these principles, because once the international community turn everything upside down, it is difficult to fix it later. How do you comment on the Israeli moves in Syria? Recently we witnessed the Israeli bombardment of Syria, what's your view? Israel claims to be very concerned about Syria.

Nabhan: That's a hypocrisy. Why Israel is not worry about Gaza? Israel can not agree with its own citizens, i.e. with people who live up to each other. How can I understand their claims about being worry for Syrians, that's a lie. And who ruined Syria? Did we ruin Syria? Who sent terrorists and weapons to them? Who funded them, and so on? That's a hypocrisy of Israel, and of the United States. False crocodile tears.

Pernar: Yes, Trump and Netanyahu are shedding crocodile tears, like crocodiles while consuming their prey. Trump says that Assad is an animal because recently 70 people were killed in Syria, but when the Israeli army kills 40 people with lead bullets, then no tears. Trump does not say anything.

Nabhan: At the border with Gaza, Israelis have killed 40 young people, unarmed civilians, who were demanding their voice to be heard. And when we went to the United Nation to seek justice, the Americans blocked the resolution.

Pernar: True, it means the United States that allegedly stands for democracy, human rights and freedom, was the only member of the UN Security Council who voted against a resolution saying that Palestinians have right to a peaceful protest. So, the US simply does not believe in the right to protest if it's from the Palestinian side. Actually they encourage protests elsewhere, and here [in Gaza] they say it's normal to kill people because they protest.

Nabhan: That's why we're questioning their role and honesty, and we do not think they [Americans] will be correct in this process of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Pernar: We know they are not fair. What else can I say?

Nabhan: I want to thank you, for all your efforts of alerting the government and people in Croatia, for educating them about what is happening around them, because because this what is happening in the Middle East is actually very close. Some people think it's far, but it is not. The Balkans and the Middle East are politically linked, so it is necessary to look at what is happening there, and to learn.

Pernar: I wanted to ask you, recently there was a Skripal case in Britain where a double spy from Russia was allegedly poisoned, and because of it this assassination attempt, as British claim, many Russian diplomats are expelled from countries all around the world. However, when the Israeli government is conducting political the political assassination all over the globe, have you ever heard that an Israeli diplomat has been expelled?

Nabhan: Of course not, unfortunately. Israel is being protected no matter what it does. This is a really sad fact. Beside it, Israel is being heavily financed by them. Recently I was reading a report which says the Americans, actually the American government, since 1948 to today gave around $2.7 trillion to Israel. It's a huge sum, a really huge sum.

Pernar: When you mention such big amount of money, the logical question arises: Is it possible that a particular lobby is the one that actually governs America, and it's avoiding a fair solution for the Palestinian question. What do you think?

Nabhan: I think that's true.

Pernar: Do you think it might be a coincidence?

Nabhan: No, that's not the case, nothing in politics is a coincidence. All this was very skillfully planned. They invented Israel to protect their interests, to get a geostrategic position important for controlling the flow of oil, and to be used for their further plans. They do not do it because they love the Jews, nothing in the politics is love, only interest. They neither love nor hate them. It's only a mutual benefit.

Pernar: I wanted to ask you, the world has a billion and a half Muslims and about 15 million Jews, so why is the US more concerned about the Jewish stance instead of Muslim one? Who is to blame, the Islamic world or the United States?

Nabhan: Look, we do not treat the Palestinian question as religious one, we treat it as an unresolved national question. Still, we are Christians and Muslims, so we seek support from both of them.

Pernar: Yes, but how do you comment on the Arab world, because most of these countries, especially the [Persian] Gulf monarchies, are not very interested in the Palestinian case?

Nabhan: Unfortunately, they are not. The Arab countries are not efficient.

Pernar: Even Turkey. Erdogan.

Nabhan: I'm telling you, it's all about interests. Nobody of them cares for the Palestinians.

Pernar: They have no political influence, they have no lobby.

Nabhan: Yes, they do not have a strong lobby, only they have on their side is justice.

Pernar: And the truth. But the international law is not is not interested in justice and truth.

Nabhan: Until this is changed, we will continue to suffer, but we have faith and hope that everything will be resolved.

Pernar: I'm curious about this: the US government was very interested in returning the Serbian refugees, and they really pressed Croatia arguing Serbs should return and that Croatia didn't put enough effort into that issue, but when it comes about the Palestinian return I didn't hear about any pressure. How do you explain this? Why does America care so much about the Serbs, and not about the Palestinians? And did they even care about the Serbs?

Nabhan: I do not know if they care about someone, they only care about their own interests.

Pernar: I asked it because only a few years ago, the United States bombed Serbs with depleted uranium.


On Syria

Pernar: Let me ask you, have you ever been to Syria?

Nabhan: Of course.

Pernar: Tell us, as a living witness of time, how did Syria look before the Civil War in 2011?

Nabhan: Syria is a very beautiful country. I have lived in Syria for some time, almost three years, in the center of Damascus. I was traveling all over Syria and I lived in other places. I want to emphasize that Syria is a secular state in the Arab world and all peoples are equal: Muslims, Sunnis, Alawites, Druze, Christians, and Syriacs, the eldest Christians. They still speak the Aramaic language, a language spoken by Jesus, and they live in our Palestine also. These are our people, Arabs, but Christians. In Syria there was no difference between religious groups.

Pernar: Tell us about a life from the practical side, could you find a job, and regular wages?

Nabhan: Yes, Syria has remained the least expensive Arab country. Also, any Arap could come in Syria without a visa, but not in the other Arab countries. The Palestinians lived in Syria as equal citizens, they could be ministers, commanders, anything.

Pernar: So when the Palestinians were expelled, Syria received them...

Nabhan: Of course.

Pernar: Syria has received these people, and Israel has persecuted them and does not allow them to return.

Nabhan: You should know, this region we call Levant, that is Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, these are the same family. One part on one side, the second on the other. There are families of mixed religious background.

Pernar: In the Western media they say that Assad was very cruel. You lived there for three years, so how did you feel what the Western media called "the cruel dictatorship," how a real life actually looked in practice?

Nabhan: Listen, I do not deny that they have had some type of autocracy in Syria, but people did not feel it.

Pernar: Was it a cruel dictatorship in which people were harassed on the streets every day, depriving them of land and houses?

Nabhan: No, no, and no. They all worked. Syria is the only [Arab] country that has hardly imported anything, it produced everything: food, industry, machines... Syria was a highly developed country. Mosaic of various peoples and religions, very beautiful and rich, where you have never felt that there is a difference between them.

Pernar: Did you personally feel "dictatorship" in any way?

Nabhan: No, absolutely not. Even those who were at the university, i.e. students, had the opportunity to publish anything. The second thing, perhaps people do not know that, but there are various parties and coalitions in Syria. True, Assad was on the top, but political pluralism existed.

Pernar: To put it simply, we can agree that there's more democracy in Syria than in Saudi Arabia.

Nabhan: Of course, there is no comparison here.

Pernar: I'm saying it because Saudi Arabia is an American ally, and there's a very easy way to lose one's head there. Perhaps it also happened in Syria, but a lot harder.

Nabhan: There is no comparison between Syria and any other [Arab] regime. Perhaps I could put Egypt on the same list, a secular state where nobody felt endangered.

Pernar: I understand.


Friends of Palestine

Pernar: Tell me, you are in contact with other Palestinian ambassadors, so is there any other parliamentarian in the Western countries who is friendly to the Palestinians?

Nabhan: Of course, there are plenty of people who support us, in all European countries. In England, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Germany... So there are people who are freedom-loving, who believe in justice just like you.

Pernar: Well, it is really sad to live in a country that is actually managed from outside regarding every decision, including the recognition of Palestine. I can ask why Croatia does not recognize Palestine, and I assume an answer will be: "We are waiting our partners from Brussels and Washington to respond and then we will decide." That's probably the answer we will get.

Nabhan: But Sweden recognizes us...

Pernar: Yes, but Sweden has certain forms of sovereignty. Croatia is in a full subordinate position and we simply can not make any decisions on our own. The United States is meddling even in our domestic issues, like the construction of an LNG terminal on the island of Krk that we really don't need, but the US ambassador says it has to go, and that internal debate is interrupted. I remember Trump telling our President Kolinda [Grabar-Kitarović] that the terminal should be on Krk. The relationship between Croatia and other subordinate countries toward America is like children toward a teacher, and Donald Trump represents the teacher. However, the crucial thing is that Trump does not actually rule, because we see that the American policy has been the same for years, although the presidents are changing. Before Trump there was Obama, but nothing was much different, everything was the same. For the end, if you have a final idea, what message would you send to the Croatian government regarding the recognition of Palestine?

Nabhan: I appeal to the Croatian government to consider this issue as soon as possible, and to make the decision of recognition of the State of Palestine, as well as to enter into negotiations with our government on opening the embassy here in Zagreb. That would be normal, as 138 countries already recognize Palestine, and with such decision, Croatia would have a positive impact on resolving this crisis.

Pernar: Of course, but the question always remains: "What will our US partners say?" That's always crucial.

Nabhan: Those American partners will accept it when they see the whole world is recognizing Palestine. You see, when there was a voting about Jerusalem, they got only nine votes.

Pernar: Tell us, which countries sided with the United States on Jerusalem, against the UN resolution?

Nabhan: Well, only insignificant countries, largely Pacific, together they have some 300,000 inhabitants. Therefore, it's such a shame for a superpower because we, a small nation, got 128 votes.

Pernar: Beside, you don't have a strong lobby, then it's more than obvious that justice has won. I hope that justice will also win in Croatia, and I can give you, Mr. Mohammed Nabhan, my promise: I am a politician who rarely promises, but I can tell you one thing - when my political party, the Human Shield [Živi zid], forms a government in Croatia, one of our priorities will be the recognition of your country [Palestine] and, of course, we will advocate a fair solution regarding the Palestinian question. This means that we will always, either in the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member or at the UN General Assembly, vote for the rights of the Palestinian people, for their freedom, the right to self-determination, the right to their country, and a peaceful life. Thank you with all of my heart.

Nabhan: Thank you and good luck.

Marko Knežević

Marko Knežević is a historian and freelance journalist from Bar, Montenegro. He is a frequent traveller to the Middle East and East Asia.