Palestine and Serbia are celebrating 30 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations
The Ambassador of Palestine, H.E. Mohammed Nabhan has been linked to Serbia for several decades – he studied in Belgrade, his children were born here, and since 2006, he has been the Palestinian ambassador. In an interview with Diplomacy & Commerce, the Ambassador talks about the celebration of 30 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, while hoping that Serbia will soon open an embassy in Ramallah, as well as about what connects the two peoples who have gone through similar challenges.
In the 1960s and the early 1970s, numerous students from Arab countries studied in Serbia, yourself included. How would you describe that phenomenon?
— Back then there was Yugoslavia, which was the leader of the NonAligned Movement and was developing the relations with the Arab and other countries that made the Movement, in all possible aspects. The exchange between the then Yugoslavia and those countries, especially the Arab ones, was enormous in all areas, including culture, tourism and education, and this explains the phenomenon of a huge number of people from Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Libya and other Arab countries studying in Belgrade and other centres of former Yugoslavia. I can vouch that the students who graduated in Serbia now occupy high positions in society, the administration of their countries and represent the bridges of friendship and cooperation between their respective countries and Serbia. For instance, the former Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs was a former Belgrade dental student and there were also five ambassadors who studied in Serbia. These people are now renowned businessmen and members of local governments in the Palestinian cities they live in.
What connects Palestine and Serbia? How would you rate the relations between them?
— Palestine and Serbia are connected by adherence to international law and international legitimacy. Our states are trying to use international law to achieve and consolidate their independence. Both countries are under the pressure of great powers while trying to preserve their independence. It’s not easy. That is why Palestine and Serbia have a wide political space for cooperation and mutual assistance. This year, the two countries are celebrating thirty years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, and they will both mark this jubilee in their own way. We are going to have a lot of guests from Palestine and hold a series of meetings which will improve the relations between our two countries in all directions. The opening of the Serbian Embassy in Ramallah is also expected to contribute to the improvement of relations in various segments. I hope that that will come soon. Palestinians are diligent and educated people and as such, they are present in the economies of many Arab countries, especially in the Gulf States. Wherever they are, they seek to develop economic relations between the said countries and Serbia, which is clearly seen in the investments that the Gulf States made in Serbia. The external trade between Palestine and Serbia is also developing but it is difficult to express it in numbers because Palestinian business people often come and make business deals in Serbia as citizens of other countries.
How similar are the mindsets of an average Serb and an average Palestinian?
— Serbs and Palestinians have gone through similar challenges. Both of them had a part of their territory snatched away, they were treated badly by certain great powers, some of their people have been turned into refugees, and they were both targets of aggression and attacks. That’s why their view of the world is similar. They see the world through the filter of justice, morals, honour and the values that are, unfortunately, increasingly less present in politics. They are sensitive to the issue of their independence and national identity. The explanation for this probably lies in the fact that they were, in some ways, deceived by many, as well as by those which they thought were the closest to them. Palestinians and Serbs have never been a source of evil, nor have they participated in conquering other territories and aggressive wars. That is why they feel that they suffered from somewhat unfair treatment, while both of them have been trying to exercise their inalienable rights and using peaceful methods to achieve them. I hope that this will be enabled to them soon.
How would you comment on Serbia supporting Palestine’s bid for UN membership?
— Of course, Serbia supports Palestine in front of the international institutions whenever it can, and Palestine highly appreciates this, both its President Abbas and all the Palestinians. For this reason, Palestine also, wherever it is deemed necessary, votes in favour of Serbia, and advocates respect for Serbia’s right to rectitude and territorial integrity. We have been helping each other regarding this issue. We also seek the implementation of Security Council resolutions relating to Palestine. You cannot ask something for yourself, and not for the others. International legitimacy must apply equally to all. Since we want that for our country, we have to advocate it for Serbia as well. The Serbs have always been tied to Kosovo. However, the Jews did not live in Palestine until the end of the First World War, more specifically after the implementation of the Balfour Declaration. Since then, the suffering and injustice done to the Palestinian people culminated in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of nearly a million Palestinians from their towns and villages. The very fact that Palestine and Serbia have a political issue for which they seek support on the international plane has created conditions for the coordination of activities and mutual support in various international organizations and institutions, which, in turn, required regular harmonization of stances and collaboration in many segments.
Do you think that the peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians is attainable?
— I am convinced that the peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians is attainable. We all need to look towards the future and not live in the past, because you can learn a lesson from history, but you don’t have to live in it. We need to agree on the criteria and the platform in order to reach a solution. These criteria and platform cannot be arbitrarily determined and they cannot be defined to suit everybody’s taste – there is already international law in place, and there is the UN that is responsible for peace and security in the world and possesses tools for resolving international disputes. This organization adopted a series of resolutions concerning the Palestinian question and the issue of Kosovo. We must adhere to these resolutions. If everyone wants to push their version of the solution, we will get chaos or strained relationships. As far as the Palestinians and the Israelis are concerned, and there are a total of 14 million of them today (of which 7 million Jews and 7 million Palestinians), all living in a narrow strip stretching between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea which the Israeli call Israel and the Palestinians call Palestine, there are two possible solutions. Firstly, they can divide this strip of land into two neighbouring friendly states in which two peoples would foster good neighbourly relations and cooperate, or have all 14 million people live in a democratic country as equal citizens. There is no third solution. The both nations are forced to find resources to live together as good people in that narrow space that God has not promised to one at the expense of other because God is not a real estate dealer. I hope that this reality will quickly be absorbed into the consciousness of people who govern Israel. Ability to compromise is a virtue of wise people, and I believe there is enough of it both among the Palestinians and the Serbs.
Since you have spent many years in our country, are you familiar with all socio-political developments here in order to give a comment about Serbia’s current position on the global political scene?
— Serbia now occupies a very high position on the international scene. Serbia opening to the world, renewing friendship with all countries, finding investment partners, maintaining the policy of peace and giving everybody in the region and the world a helping hand demonstrates that Serbia is the most important factor of stability in the Balkans. With the help of the Serbian President, Foreign Minister, Ivica Dačić has been very active in trying to reinstate the relations that Yugoslavia once had with Africa, Latin America and Asia in all segments, and this is commendable because, today, a country’s worth is measured by how many friends it has.
You have been living in Serbia for such a long time. Which country feels more like home – Palestine or Serbia?
— Yes, I have been living here for a very long time. I graduated in Belgrade, my three sons were born here and it is only normal that I feel I have two homelands, Palestine and Serbia. It would be great if I could split my retirement days between Palestine and Serbia. This has always been my wish and I hope it will come true.
STUDYING IN SERBIA
You came to Belgrade in 1978 to continue your studies at the Faculty of Political Sciences. How did Belgrade and Serbia look then, and how do they look today?
— I have very good friends from that period. People were more open back then. It was a different system. We were treated as one of you. We lived in homes, families, dormitories. Many foreigners got married here. It seems to me that life back then was simpler and more humble. I lived in the 4th April Dormitory for a certain period and there were Chinese students in the room next to mine. When I became the Palestinian Ambassador to Serbia, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the Chinese Ambassador, who recently ended his term in Belgrade, was my neighbour in the dormitory. We laughed a lot about that and reminisced about our student days, about eating pasulj in the cafeteria and about everything that we remember fondly from those days. We also remember eating hotdogs and hot burek in Belgrade that we didn’t have to pay for. That was Belgrade back then which we remember as a city with wide streets, without too many people and not much hustle and bustle. In those times, Belgrade looked beautiful and unassuming. There were many students from Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America staying at dormitories. Young people were hanging out at dances and went to the disco. Nevertheless, Belgrade now looks much nicer, more modern, more open and offers an interesting tourist programme to foreigners. Also, today’s Belgrade strongly aspires to become one of the main tourism metropolises in Europe justifiably so, which is very nice.