Bidding for peace

Bidding for peace 

Tirana Times -

Palestinian Ambassador Issam Massalha weighs in on Palestine’s journey to statehood. 

With Palestine’s bid for statehood to be submitted by President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations headquarters this week, Tirana Times sat down with Palestinian Ambassador to Albania Issam Massalha and Deputy Ambassador Hani Hussein to discuss the United Nations, Albanian-Palestinian bilateral relations, and everyday life. 

By: Anastasia Nazarko 

Though minute in size, Palestine has been the subject of immense controversy for over half a century. Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, numerous wars and violent conflicts, and Palestine’s determined bid for not only recognition as a sovereign state, but also observation of human rights and an end to the seemingly endless conflict are topics which have divided members of the international community and remained so contentious that little progress has been made in their resolution. 

Indeed, it is the apparent stagnation in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that motivated Palestine to seek official recognition of statehood from the United Nations this week.

“Heading to the UN is not a substitute for direct and honest negotiations,” remarked Ambassador Massalha. “But past efforts have shown that Israel prefers the process to actual results. Not once have they spelled out exactly what they want. Former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat accepted a Palestinian state along 1967 borders (which is 22% of original Palestinian territory) but then Israel made other demands. Every time we accept conditions, we are given more. It’s as if they don’t really want to reach an agreement. So what do they want?” 

“For a long time many countries have spoken of peace, human rights and a two-state solution. With the UN vote we will be able to see who truly supports this. At the end of 2010’s UN General Assembly, U.S. President Obama himself said that he hoped to see Palestine represented in the UN. Other countries have said the same. We were encouraged by such support; but where is it now?” 

In addition to citing fruitless negotiations with Israel and previous encouragement from the international community as reasons for Palestine’s current endeavor, Ambassador Massalha and Deputy Ambassador Hussein also addressed concerns which have been expressed by opponents of Palestine’s bid: the unilateral nature of the bid and an undermining of Israel. 

“To say that Palestine is acting unilaterally is inaccurate. In fact, following a peaceful, legal process and doing so in the United Nations—where all states are represented—is not unilateral at all. We just want to be a state and live in peace; and this is something we are pursuing in an open, legal manner.” 

“As for Israel, going to the UN and obtaining international recognition does not mean undermining the state of Israel as such, but the illegal occupation of Israel. The military occupation of Israel in the West Bank and Gaza is illegal through Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, in addition to other agreements and treaties (Madrid, Oslo agreements, Annapolis Statement, and others).” 

In addition, Ambassador Massalha expressed a desire that Israel recognize the benefits of working with Palestine. He noted that a Palestinian state would, in fact, be a peaceful contribution to the region. Since Palestine is important to other countries in the Middle East who do not have good relations with Israel, Palestine could serve as a mediator between both sides, which would in turn provide greater stability for Israel in the region. 

Yet despite the opposition Palestine faces, Ambassador Massalha notes with gratitude the good relations Palestine and Albania have enjoyed for a long time. Palestine has had diplomatic relations with Albania since 1968. The small Balkan country sympathized with Palestine’s struggle and supported its cause. These relations developed in 1975 when Albania recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the official representative of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian embassy was then opened in 1989. In 1996 then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat reaffirmed strong bilateral relations with a visit to Albania. 

In spite of over forty years of diplomatic relations, however, Ambassador Massalha notes that there is a general lack of awareness of Palestinian history in Albania. 

“The goal of our embassy is to develop bilateral relations between both states. We also seek to constantly encourage support of the Palestinian cause which seeks peace and an end to Israeli occupation. Yet this can be a challenge in Albania because the media here does not put much focus on the Middle East. By nature, Albanians are supportive but there is not a great deal of information out there for them,” he said. 

Interestingly, however, Albania is well-known in Palestine. Both Ambassador Massalha and Deputy Ambassador Hussein promptly mention two well-known Palestinian families with Albanian heritage. In fact, even the Ambassador and Deputy Ambassador reveal that they also have family connections to Albania. 

“This is why we decided to come here,” Ambassador Massalha comments. “I had the choice between Portugal, Sweden, Cyprus, Belarus and Albania. I chose Albania.” 

“Also, the culture is similar,” he adds. “People are very friendly and generous. I am able to live among the community and drink coffee with my neighbors without having to worry about safety concerns. They are very helpful, hospitable people.” 

“Albania as a state has also been very receptive and we believe it has given us as much as it is capable of giving. For this we are very happy. We do not seek tangible support like financial investments; but rather solidarity.” 

Indeed, it is exactly this kind of support that is being requested of all United Nations members this week in New York. Regardless of whether or not Palestine’s bid is successful, however, Ambassador Massalha remains hopeful. 

“If you saw the painful reality with which we, our families, wives and children, have been faced for over sixty years, you would be shocked. The only thing we can have is hope and follow all legal routes open to us.”