From Grievance to Action: Mapping Grassroots Movements in Palestine


Video and Edited Transcript
Mr. Adam Gallagher and Ms. Phyllis Bennis
Transcript No. 369 (10 July 2012)




10 July 2012
The Palestine Center
Washington, DC


Mr. Adam Gallagher:
Thanks for inviting me and to the Palestine Center staff for organizing this. I think it’s a pretty exciting time to be talking about non-violent civil resistance for Palestine. Today, I am going to talk specifically about the role of external actors in non-violent civil resistance movements. I am going to rely on some of my own academic research and study related to social movements, contentious politics and non-violent civil resistance in my discussion of the international solidarity movement and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement.

There is kind of a larger debate in the non-violent civil resistance literature between two dichotomized subjects: agency and structure. I am not going to weigh heavily into this debate, but essentially, proponents of agency say that shrewd actors utilizing effective tactics and strategies can determine the trajectory of a non-violent civil resistance campaign, so you think of [Mahatma] Gandhi, or [Dr.] Martin Luther King [Jr.], or Reverend James Lawson and these sorts of people. And finally, there are the structuralists who say that the material, political and economic conditions determine the trajectory of these campaigns.

So if you think about what we are talking about today, with non-violent civil resistance for Palestine, you would look at U.S. diplomatic support for Israel as a structural impediment to the success of non-violent civil resistance campaign for Palestine. Like I said, I am not going to weigh into this lengthy debate today, but I am going to talk first about some of these structural impediments, which I think are really important for both non-violent civil resistance in Palestine and for external actors.

I see four major structural impediments. The first is perhaps the most obvious, that being the occupation. I won’t go too deep into the details- I think we all have the general background necessary to understand how the occupation can be a structural impediment to non-violent resistance, grassroots mobilization and organization. But if you look at the way that the occupation has intertwined itself throughout the West Bank, you really see an exemplary counter-revolutionary, counter-protest model with things like Israelis-only bypass roads, settlements, checkpoints, and just the overall canonization of the West Bank. This is not even to mention the siege of Gaza and the effect that it has on reducing civil non-violent resistance and mobilization.

The second one I see really is the Palestinian Authority (PA). I was just talking to Phyllis a moment ago about a delegation I attended last year before the UN [United Nations] statehood bid with members from the PA and I asked them if they had thought about a plan B if the UN statehood bid failed—were they coordinating civil society about any extended grassroots mobilization, broad-based  organization or something like that? And the answer in short was no, they were not thinking about that possibility. More or less, you can see that the PA really doesn’t have much of an interest in that sort of thing.

We saw the repression in Ramallah in the last few weeks related to the visit of [Israeli] Vice Prime Minister [Shaul] Mofaz to meet with [President of the PA] Mahmoud Abbas to begin provisional talks again. And although the PA has done some things– Salam Fayyad has advocated settlement boycotts and created this national dignity fund to help get more Palestinian produce on West Bank markets, overall the record of the PA in this regard is pretty weak. More or less, they are too invested in the peace process I think, and at a time of financial instability where they rely on the international community to pay salaries, I don’t see them organizing and bringing people out into the streets. The PA security forces have been particularly brutal in suppressing protests in the past, you need to look no further than what has been going on in the past couple of weeks in Ramallah.

Palestinian factionalism I also think is a major structural impediment. Neither of the parties, Fateh or Hamas, have much to gain from a young broad-based movement that empowers a new generation of leaders to achieve Palestinian rights. I don’t think that either of these groups is pushing hard for it.

And then the last thing that I mentioned about a moment ago is U.S. diplomatic support. You saw the lack of support during the statehood bid and you have seen a lack of support for protest movements in the region at large over the last couple of years, the lackluster, tepid support the Obama administration gave for the uprising in Egypt once it was a fait accompli that Mubarak would leave.

Any one of these structural impediments alone represents a pretty daunting task to take on for non-violent civil resisters, indigenous [Palestinian] and external actors. Taken all together, I think it is a very challenging task, but it is important to understand all of these structural impediments when you are constructing a strategy as a non-violent civil resistance movement. Because of these structural impediments, I think that external actors are indispensable for non-violent civil resistance for Palestine. When I say “external actors,” this can range from almost anything, from states to international governmental institutions, diaspora groups, unions, student groups, artists, intellectuals, celebrities and [non-governmental organizations] (NGOs).

We have seen all these sorts of things become active in BDS and the International solidarity movement. They can provide a whole host of different types of support: material support, which can range from anything like direct funding to equipment, legal resources, press coverage (which I think was really critical in the recent hunger strikes), information gathering and knowledge diffusion. I won’t talk about this too much because I think that Phyllis is going to talk about this a little bit more, but I think that the U.S. Campaign to End the [Israeli] Occupation has a really interesting campaign related to exploiting the austerity politics that we see in the United States and Western Europe right now, where they are basically just saying, look at how much your Congressional district gives to the military every year. Look even just at yourself—I think it is something like $21.64 that each individual taxpayer in the United States is responsible for military aid—they ask you to offset that by donating to their campaign.

This is what scholars of non-violent civil resistance call “frame bridging” where you take two seemingly disconnected frames—we have austerity politics, what is going on in the U.S. today in the recession, and then we have U.S. military assistance that supports the occupation. You try to bridge these frames together to support your cause. I think that from what I have seen this has been a really shrewd campaign so far, pretty successful , and something that I found really interesting.

Other sorts of support can just be basic skills training, whether it’s mobilization, organizing, media training, these sorts of things. And then the major things you think today about the international solidarity movement for Palestine today, like Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions. All these things work to chip away at the pillars of support that support the occupation, the continued denial of Palestinian rights at large.

It is important to know, too, that external actors cannot bring about a grassroots movement into existence. What they can do is augment the political capabilities of a given grassroots movement, and I think that after the BDS call was offered in July 2005—this was preceded by the 2004 Palestinian academic and cultural boycott call—both of these were indigenous grassroots mobilized calls that represented Palestinians throughout the different parts of the Palestinian people. The BDS call sought to achieve rights for all three groups of Palestinian people: those under the occupation, the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the refugee population.  The call basically asked for an end to the occupation and colonization of Arab lands (so you have Palestinians under occupation , their rights), a full acknowledgement of the citizenship rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to be full and equal citizens with Jewish Israelis, and then respecting the rights of refugees as laid out in the UN resolution 194.

These were preceded by some other developments which got the ball rolling for these indigenous calls for Palestinian rights that had then been augmented by external actors—I won’t get into the timeline of that, but I think it is important to know that the BDS movement was the first grassroots organic movement that rose up. The external actors that have taken part in it since, although they had been working [on these issues] before, have joined on to this and augmented [the movement’s] capabilities.

We have seen a lot of successes just in the last few months alone, I won’t go into detail into all of them. Some of the major ones were the TIAA-CREF (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund) decision to divest over, or close to $73 million worth of shares from Caterpillar [Inc.] because it sells weaponized bulldozers to the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) which they use to uproot olive trees and knock down Palestinian homes. The Quakers also decided to divest about $900,000 worth of shares from Caterpillar [Inc.]. Both the Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church have recently adopted resolutions urging the boycott of settlement goods.

I think a really important thing is that states are becoming more involved. South Africa has recently made a decision that it will now brand all goods that come from settlements as “made in Occupied Palestine” and Denmark has made a decision to do something similar, although I am not sure exactly how they’ll denote these products.

Again, all of these things have happened since May—the ball has really been rolling quickly. The UK National Union of Students has promoted a new campaign reaching out to student groups throughout the UK to push for divestments for their universities. [At] Arizona State University, a major school, the student senate has also passed a resolution urging the school to divest from any companies that profit from the occupation.

Another thing that is not quite as tangible or quantifiable is the discursive effects. The way that people talk about the conflict, the way that they talk about the occupation and the denial of Palestinian rights is much different than it was five or ten years ago. Thomas Friedman actually wrote an article in Fall 2011 talking about the Israeli lobby, and I read the article a few times because it shocked me that Thomas Friedman was writing about this in the Op/Ed pages of The New York Times. I compared some of the sentences to [Stephen M.] Walt and [John] Mearsheimer’s book [“The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”] and they were almost mirror images of each other. If you think back five or six years ago when the original article came out, the hysteria over it was insane and now we have Thomas Friedman writing things like this. There are of course a whole host of other similar anecdotes, but this was one that I thought was the most interesting.

The logic of all of this Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, whether it’s from non-violent civil resisters in Palestine or whether it’s from external actors, is to compel Israel to realize that it is too diplomatically, economically, politically costly to no longer comply with international law. The challenge here really is to translate these successes, the divestment from TIAA-CREF, the discursive effect, all of these things to real tangible achievements for Palestinians on the ground in terms of winning some of their rights that they have been denied.

Of course, Palestinian grassroots mobilization has also been an important part of what has been going on in recent years and recent months. Of course, there is the hunger strikes which I think were really a watershed moment. Palestinians through non-violent resistance were able to compel a policy change from Israel. Whether or not it is going to be fully implemented I don’t know. The most recent thing I read about it is that it is up in the air, but I also read this morning that Mahmoud Sarsak, who went on a 91-day hunger strike came home to Gaza today. He went to the hospital and went home to meet his family. Things are changing. There are still Palestinians engaged in hunger strikes, some who are in the 50-day range, there is one who is close to 100 days now, which is really an incredible thing, but these people are using the only weapons that they have to resist the occupation and the denial of their rights which is their bodies.

Then we’ve seen other grassroots mobilizations- the March 15 movement of last year which was actually directly not at Israel but directed at Palestinian factions- directed at Fateh and Hamas- and trying to bring them together. Ostensibly, it worked, but we see that neither party has never really implemented a deal today; there’s no unity government or anything like that. And there are a host of other things like this, weekly protests against the Wall and so on, that have continued to take place.

But again, the real question here is how to you translate that into successes on the ground, both the grassroots mobilization and the actions of external actors here? I think it’s important to note that the BDS movement and the International Solidarity Movement work to achieve rights for all three components of the Palestinian people that I was talking about before: those under occupation, refugees, and those in the diaspora. The diplomatic effort, the top-down diplomatic effort, engaged in by the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], the PA, the United States, Israel and the Quartet [on the Middle East] really essentially leaves out considerations of Palestinians in Israel and their rights and is willing to sort of throw a token to Palestinian refugees but certainly goes very far from working to achieve their rights according to international law and UN Resolution 194.

I think that external actors can be incredibly important in helping all three segments of the Palestinian population achieve these rights, particularly given the fact that the political apparatus, the Palestinian Authority, don’t seem particularly interested in this. Actually, Akiva Elder, who is an Israeli journalist, just had a piece published in the National Interest about the turn in Israeli politics and the effect this has had in the PA. He more or less said that the PA has kind of gotten into this place of complacence where the peace process is more of an industry than anything, and I think this rings true if you look closely at it.

If you look back to South Africa, you can see how external actors can be incredibly important, and while the grassroots mobilization of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela, and student leaders like [unintelligible] were all important, I think some of the roles that external actors play were incredibly important as well. The U.S. Congress actually passed a resolution, I think it was in 1987, called the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which was a critical component of the overall boycott movement against South Africa. Obviously, we can’t expect anything like this from our U.S. Congress related to Israel/Palestine, but I think that these are the kind of things that external actors can push for with other states, and it can be incredibly important.

Moving forward, I think it’s important that non-violent civil resisters and external actors understand that sometimes you just can’t reach your opponent in a sort of contentious politics situation. You just are going to be unable to really resonate with them. And scholars in non-violent resistance talk about extending the great chain of non-violence which means essentially you just try to bring everybody under your umbrella that you can. So if you can’t necessarily bring in Israel, or you can’t bring in necessarily a larger component of the Israeli body politic, at least you can extend the chain throughout the international community.

So I think an important factor, or an important campaign to undertake, and this is something that the BDS movement has done, that it has continued to do, is to pressure states- Latin American states, Western European states- to really get on and do the sort of things that South Africa and Denmark have done recently. And I think that that can really help to turn international tide, in some ways. I also think that it’s important not to just work to get divestment from corporations like Caterpillar [Inc.]  and Motorola, but to actually pressure those organizations to no longer sell equipment to the IDF, no longer sell weaponized bulldozers, no longer sell communications equipment, and these sort of things. And this is something that has obviously been worked on, but I think that if the pressure was really ratcheted up, it could really help the cause of non-violent resistance in Palestine.

In closing, I think that this is a, like I said, a really exciting time to be talking about this sort of thing, and I think it’s also a really propitious time for non-violent civil resistors in Palestine in general, given the attention of the international community on the region. I have heard a former foreign minister of Jordan a few times, Marwan Muasher, state that he has no idea what would really happen if we saw something like the first Intifada happen again. With the way that the international media is focused on the region, if a wholesale slaughter, detainment, deportation that took place after the first Intifada, or during the first Intifada, could happen again. So, despite these structural impediments, particularly the occupation in this regard, I think grassroots mobilization and protest in the West Bank is of critical importance and can really be the last piece of the puzzle, and this is where external actors could help out a lot, through training and a lot of the other things that I highlighted earlier.

Ms. Phyllis Bennis:

Well, thank you all, thanks to the interns of the Palestine Center and thank you all for coming. This was a very good background of the situation on the ground.

I’m going to start from the vantage point of the failure of diplomacy, and I say that as somebody who usually, when we’re talking about U.S. foreign policy, I’m the one who’s always saying, “No wars! We need diplomacy! We don’t need war against Iran; we need more diplomacy. We don’t need war against Syria; we need more diplomacy.” In Palestine, the way they define diplomacy pretty much is over. It ain’t working. Because it’s diplomacy that’s based on a false premise. It’s a diplomacy that’s based on the idea that the two sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, can be brought to the table as equals and the goal becomes reconciliation: how do you end the conflict?  [This is] without taking account of the conditions that create this vast disparity of power between the two sides, so that you’re talking about bringing to the table as if they were equal, a country whose military is the fourth most powerful military in the world, by far the most powerful military in the region, the only nuclear weapons power in the region, the twenty-third wealthiest country in the world, and the one country which the sole superpower in the world is pledged by law and commitment  to defend no matter what they do. That’s one side.

The other side, you have an occupied population without a government that has actual power. You have an authority with a derivative, you know, some crumbs of authority granted to them on occasion, but without any actual power, which has no independent economy because it’s not allowed to export anything, that is besieged and occupied in all of its territory, controlled by another country, and where issues like the idea that after there are “two states” that that state would have control over its own territory (meaning the borders) control over its own air space, control over its own water, or would be allowed to have a military like any other country. It’s simply taken for granted that none of those things apply.

So those are the two supposedly equal sides that are brought to the table. That’s why it hasn’t worked. Twenty one years of this so-called peace process, and it hasn’t worked. So, in the context of that kind of a decades-long failure, it’s not surprising that when the Obama administration or anybody else announces that we may be seeing a resumption of the peace talks, it may happen, people are looking at them and saying, “Yeah, and what’s your point?” Because after twenty one years of failure, they have the idea that we’re going to go into the same procedure and go to twenty two years of failure, or twenty five years of failure… This isn’t anything that I think anyone is looking forward to.

We need an entirely different kind of diplomacy. Not the same kind. Not more diplomacy, but different diplomacy. And that diplomacy has a lot to do with the United Nations, and international law, and human rights, rather than power as the question of what’s the basis of how we’re going to solve this thing. So, you have now a scenario, just to touch for a minute on some of the points that Adam raised about the non-violent movement inside the Palestinian territories, which I agree is a hugely important issue, it’s a somewhat separate issue from the credibility of the various political parties, the credibility of Hamas, the credibility of Fateh, the credibility of the left parties, the credibility of the PA.

All of that is problematic, but for me as an outsider- I’m not an Israeli or a Palestinian, I don’t get to choose who’s the legitimate representative- but I can look at the question of what is my government doing about the issues of international law and human rights? And, is our policy, our foreign policy, based on even what we claim in other places? Even if we don’t implement it, at least we claim that in other places it’s based on those things, in the question of Israel/Palestine there’s not even that claim that is made.

But we do have a scenario where now there is this independent movement which is essentially saying that the diplomacy as we have had it for twenty one years is simply irrelevant. Some people oppose it, some support it, but for most it simply doesn’t have any bearing on changing the situation, on ending the occupation, on achieving equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel who have the rights of citizenship but don’t have the rights of nationality. When you have a country where only half the rights are citizenship rights and the others are nationality rights, it’s fundamentally legally unfair, and where the refugees have so far no hope in any of these diplomatic processes of seeing their rights even acknowledged, let alone realized.

So the question of what that movement looks like is one of the things that led directly to the call in 2005 for a global campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions coming from Palestinian civil society. Overwhelmingly popular, over 170 organizations, Palestinian women’s organizations, and trade unions, and student groups, pretty much everybody, supported the call for what became known quickly as BDS.

And that doesn’t mean that calls for boycott and divestment movements started suddenly in 2005. Caterpillar [Inc.] has been a target of divestment campaigns ever since 2003 when an Israeli soldier driving a Caterpillar bulldozer killed Rachel Corrie in Gaza. So these campaigns have a longer history. But 2005 was key because of the emergence of Palestinian civil society as an actor in its own right saying, “You can’t just deal with the PA and think you are dealing with Palestine,” anymore than for people around the world—thank heavens, most people around the world realize that when they are looking at the United States, they can’t only look at whoever is in the White House and the Congress and the Pentagon. They also have to look at the people. That’s a huge distinction.

The question of where it goes is of course the main challenge. How do you transform a change in discourse into a change in policy? And that is true on the ground, how does Palestinian Civil Society transform their own leadership to the UN bid going to happen? There was a huge struggle inside Palestine at the civil society level, at the PA level, within the parties, about the UN initiative of last year, to join UNESCO, consider applying for membership in the Security Council, where all of that was going to go.

There was a lot of debate about it because it wasn’t an all-sided win for everybody.  If it had gone further, if there had been success for example in joining as a full non-member state of the General Assembly, even if it couldn’t be as a member because that would have to be the Security Council. There are some great things that could have come from that. Palestine would have become a member of the International Criminal Court, which could mean a way of getting around the Security Council veto to finally hold some Israeli military and political leaders accountable for potential war crimes, for example in Gaza during the 2008 – 2009 war. That was one potential real advance.

But there were also potential disadvantages, one of them being that right now at the UN as a non-member entity as it is called, Palestine represents all Palestinians because the word Palestine is officially equated in UN documents with the PLO, not with the PA, which means that refugees and the diaspora are included because the PLO represents all Palestinians. The PA does not. If you have a government of a state, presumably, there would be some struggle about whether the Palestinian refugees would be represented by that government. It’s not impossible, any government can claim to represent its own diaspora and some governments do, but it wouldn’t come automatically. And given that the view of most Palestinians—not all, but most—is that the Palestinian diplomatic team in and around the UN has not sufficiently represented the interest of refugees when they are supposed to be, because they are supposed to be the PLO. There is still a problem of whether they would still be doing it when they are not even supposed to be doing it. There was some serious debate about whether this was an all-sided advantage.

What we are now seeing is a scenario where the functioning of the PA, regardless of what we think about the policies or the diplomatic strategies or whatever, is almost impossible to be made real, not least because a huge component of the members of the PA, democratically elected members of the parliament, are in Israeli jails. 27 members of the parliament, 24 of them on administrative detention, 3 that have been convicted in military courts, so they can’t even function. Palestinian legislators cannot move between Gaza and the West Bank to meet together because the Israelis don’t allow it.

So it comes back to the question of the reality of occupation trumps anything else about the divisions between Hamas and Fateh, the division between the PA’s authority in Gaza versus the PA’s authority in the West Bank. All those are real. The Palestinian disagreements are legion, and they are real, but none of them at the end of the day really matter, even if they weren’t there, they wouldn’t be able to meet because the Israelis don’t allow it. They wouldn’t be able to meet because 27 of their members are in prison.

So we have a reality of settlement expansion that is going on, the Gaza siege getting tighter and tighter despite the calls on Israel to open up the Gaza crossings, ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem, and now the latest move from the Levy Commission, a recommendation to the government that they simply legalize all of the supposedly illegal outposts. Israel has a very interesting way of dealing with legality. They put aside international law pretty much across the board and pretty much openly. They basically say, “We are not obligated to abide by it.” But they have their own laws. By their own laws, some of these small settlement outposts that have been built in the last few years are illegal by their standards, meaning they were not officially approved by the government. In almost every case, the government actually cooperates with these young settlers in each of these little hilltop things where they connect them to the electrical grid, or they pipe in water, or whatever it is, and they send soldiers to guard them—crucial! But officially, they are illegal. So there has been this struggle inside the Israeli political scene about what that means. [They ask themselves,] What do we do about that? There was a court order, as you may know, just a couple of weeks ago, calling for a couple of these small outposts that are officially illegal in Israel to be taken down. One of them was, 30 families. It was a very big deal. But the new commission that the government has asked to come up with a policy has said, “Let’s just legalize them all. That’s the best answer.” And this is now what Netanyahu’s government is about to debate.

Inside the territories, we are looking at a scenario where the non-violent mobilizations against the Wall, against the expansions of settlements etc., are continuing but are having virtually no impact on the Israeli policy. The question then comes back to the point that Adam raised, how do you turn that into a policy shift?

Well, one of the ways is to move that to a global campaign. That’s where Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions comes in. And this is where there is a model with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Not because Israeli apartheid looks like South African apartheid, it doesn’t, it’s very  very different.  It’s based on a different economic set of conditions. But what’s key is apartheid is not just about South Africa. In international law there is something called the International Covenant for the Suppression of the Crime of Apartheid, which makes very clear that it is not only about South Africa and Namibia, which at the time it was past were still apartheid states. It’s about a very simple concept- that if you have a piece of territory where there are two sets of laws, two legal systems, for two different groups of people, that’s designed to privilege one group at the expense of the other group- that’s apartheid. It’s actually a very simple concept. The American South during the Jim Crowe period was an apartheid region under the terms of the international law. It was passed in 1973, so it probably didn’t exist for most of the Civil Rights period, but that’s what it was about.

Israel has two or three different legal systems for different groups of people living in the same territory. So if you’re in the Occupied West Bank, if you are a Palestinian kid who gets arrested by somebody for throwing a rock against a car, you will be arrested by Israeli soldiers and put on trial by an Israeli military court- even if you’re a kid. If you’re a settler kid who throws a rock against a car, you will be arrested by Israeli civilian police, maybe, and put on trial (if you are) in the Israeli civilian juvenile court system. And you could do that from ten feet away. [These are] ten year old kids, identical except for the fact that one is a Palestinian and one is an Israeli and is a settler.

So, that’s the scenario we’re dealing with on the ground. So then on the external side, how do we, outside, come to use that international law as a way of mobilizing pressure, bringing non-violent economic and political pressure to bear on Israel to end these violations.

So one is in the context of the United Nations. Now, the White House position is that there is no alternative to direct negotiations between the two sides. My line is, “Yeah, there is! There’s all kinds of alternatives!” First of all, that one hasn’t worked, and it was Albert Einstein that said if you do the same thing over and over again and expect the result to be different, that’s the definition of insanity. So, okay, you can call it what you want but it sure isn’t working.

So, what would a UN-run proposal look like? There are a lot of possibilities. One was mentioned in 2006 by then president of Brazil, President Lula [da Silva]. Brazil always opens the general debate at the UN every year; I’m not exactly sure why, but it’s a tradition- Brazil gets the first speech after the Secretary General. And in Brazil’s speech, it was a sort of generic speech about what Brazil’s plans were for that year, in the middle of it he says, “On the question of the Middle East, we should be clear that the major powers have controlled the diplomacy for all these years and they have failed. Isn’t it time for the smaller countries of the world, the countries of the global south, in the context of the United Nations, to take up a new proposal.” So, what does that look like? It means that Brazil isn’t going to take it up on its own. It means that we need a partnership between the civil society globally and the United Nations.

Now there is a history of that if you look to the run up to the war in Iraq. The role of the UN in that period, there was an eight month period, where the UN was under so much pressure because countries, their own governments, were under so much pressure, not to sign on to the U.S. drive towards war, that the UN emerged as a partner of civil society in mobilizing against the war. That was a huge moment, didn’t last very long, it lasted eight months and then it collapsed and the UN gave in to U.S. pressure and signed of on the “legitimacy” of the US occupation of Iraq.

But that can change. You know, if you look at the question of accountability, how do we force accountability for violations of international law? Well, first we have to change the discourse. That’s not enough, but it’s a start. So, you have organizations like the Russell Tribunal, which has had three international sessions so far- one in Turkey, one in London, and one in Malaysia, I think it was, and is having one in New York this fall which is going to look specifically at the role of the United States and the United Nations in preventing the implementation of international law as the basis for ending Israeli violations, in terms of occupation, in terms of the right of return, and in terms of the second-class citizenship of the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. That pressure on the UN is crucial.

The UN charter begins with the words, “We the peoples of the United Nations.” Not ‘we the governments of the United Nations’- it’s about people. We have to reclaim that. Now, it’s not going to be any easier any time soon because the new Under-Secretary [General] of the United Nations for Political Affairs, who is supposed to be the main advisor to the Secretary General and is in charge of, among other things, the UN’s role on Israel/Palestine, a new guy has just been appointed, and who is it? It’s one Jeffrey Feltman, who just happens to be, up until now, he was first the George Bush the second’s administration’s ambassador to Lebanon and under Obama has been the head of the Israel/Palestine desk at the State Department. This does not bode well. This does not bode well to have a US official moving into that position. We’ll see how that plays out.

But I think, just in ending, I think that we have to look very carefully at the history of the UN and how we can use it. In 1982 and 1983, there were resolutions passed in the General Assembly that called explicitly for what we would now call BDS. It was actually more dramatic language than for anything that we have ever called for, countries to not only stop selling arms to Israel, stop military aid, but it calls for a complete cut-off of diplomatic ties with Israel, with the goal of isolating Israel. And it was because of that time there was a recognition globally that what Israel was doing was a violation of the then ten year-old anti-apartheid law, the Covenant Against the Crime of Apartheid, and that meant that this was an opportunity for the world to come on board to say the way to deal with it is the same way that we dealt with building a movement against apartheid in South Africa, which is to isolate the proponents of apartheid.

Now, I don’t think that language is particularly helpful today, but I think it is important to recognize that this recognition of what is possible from the General Assembly, from the United Nations, goes back much further so that we can actually look at when the UN Secretary General, backed by the State Department, attack Richard Falk who is the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the U.S. refuses to protect him when he tries to carry out his mandate by going to the West Bank and he is instead arrested by the Israelis at the airport, held in jail overnight and deported the next day, we can do something about that.

There can be mobilization as there was from the whole range of Palestinian human rights organizations when the division for Palestinian rights is threatened with being defunded as it is routinely every year, which is the Secretariat’s arm working on Palestinian rights, when UNESCO faces a cutoff of 22 percent of its budget because the U.S. claims, “We have no choice, there’s a law” (as if no laws have ever been changed or violated in this country by those in power). All of this is something that comes back to the role of civil society. Our pressure on the UN, our claiming that the UN is ours, not theirs, is how this has to start. The discourse isn’t enough, but the discourse that we work on changing, how we change, how the press covers these issues, is a necessary first step to making all those changes. Thank you.

Phyllis Bennis is a writer, analyst, and activist on Middle East and United Nations affairs. She is currently the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and a fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. In 2001, she helped found and remains on the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. She works closely with the United for Peace and Justice anti-war coalition and co-chairs the U.N.-based International Coordinating Network on Palestine. She continues to serve as an adviser to several top U.N. officials on Middle East and U.N. democratization issues.

Adam Gallagher is a widely published writer on Palestine and non-violent protest. He is currently pursuing his Doctoral degree in Political Science at George Mason University. His academic interests include U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, social movements, and non-violence. He is also a contributor to the academic blog Tropics of Meta. He was the Program Manager at The Tharwa Foundation from 2008 to 2009.

This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.