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Branches of Peace: International Solidarity with Palestinian Nonviolence

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Video and Edited Transcript
Mr. Aziz Abu Sarah, Ms. Phyllis Bennis and Mr. Omar Baddar

Transcript No. 335 (20 July 2010)




20 July 2010

The Palestine Center
Washington, D.C.


Mr. Aziz Abu Sarah:

Thank you for having us speak here, I think I speak for the three of us, and for coming to this event, especially in this heat. I was in Jerusalem just recently and you know Jerusalem is pretty hot.  But coming here, I realized it is not that bad after all. You know, in the winter here, I was looking forward to the summer, because it was a pretty horrible winter compared, at least, to Jerusalem, and now I am looking forward to the winter again.

I want to start, at first, with telling you a little about myself and why I am doing what I’m doing and working [in] the peace movement and the conflict resolution.  And then we can move to some of the activities and organizations that are working for peace and for the end of the occupation in Israel-Palestine. I grew up in a place called Bethany, just outside Jerusalem - el Azarieh, in Arabic – a very small town, normal childhood, although there is really no normal childhood over there. And so my normal childhood, when I’m six or seven years old, included all kinds of crazy stuff from being shot at.  When you go to school you get your bag, you put your books in, but there’s other stuff, as a Palestinian, you have to put in your bag. Can anybody guess something? What’s something more important than your books in your bag, as a Palestinian? And it’s not stones. It’s not [an] ID.  I was seven years old. Passport? No. Onions. Yes. You were there, right? You know [it was] onions because [if] you were shot some tear gas, and onions is the way you can save your life. You can remember, in case you go to some demonstration or riot, onions could save your life. Actually, if you have tear gas, you cut the onion, you put it close to your nose, and that will make you not pass out. These are my early memories of the conflict. However, it got worse [for] me, much faster than I thought; you never think the conflict will actually hit your home.

When I was nine years old, my brother, my older brother Tayseer, who was 18 years old, was arrested on suspicion of throwing stones at Israeli cars. He was taken to prison and for 18 days he was beaten so that he would confess, which eventually, on the last day, he did. After he confessed, he was sentenced for one year in prison in which his health had gone very bad. Through that time, because of the beating, he had liver failure, he had spleen failure. Eventually, a little bit before a year passed, he was let go from prison, but it was a bit too late. We took him to a hospital in East Jerusalem, Al-Makassed Hospital, where he passed away a few days later. This happened when I was ten years old and you can imagine being in that situation, being angry and being very upset. I never thought, [at] that moment, that I would ever want to work with an Israeli, for anything. All I wanted to do was revenge and that’s the path I did. I was very active, growing up, in the Fateh Youth Movement until I was 18 years old.

Because of the way I grew up, I never learned Hebrew, never wanted to have anything with Israelis. But when I was 18 I decided it was important to learn Hebrew because of future wise, just because it is important to learn Hebrew if you live in Jerusalem. And that was the first time I actually met Jews or Israelis who weren’t the soldiers and the settlers. And that experience changed my life since then.  Because I realized, for the first time, there is stereotypes we can have, and those are built on reality, but also there are many others on the other side that are different. People who we can actually identify with, people who we can actually work with. It was the first time for me, as a Palestinian, to hear an Israeli talk about Palestinians having the right for freedom, It was the first time for me to hear an Israeli talking about a Palestinian state. My teacher said, I remember this very clearly, she said, “[the late Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat is going to be like [late Israeli Prime Minister Ben] Gurion for the Jews.  He is going to start the Palestinian state.” And thinking about that, for an Israeli to say it, it’s a big thing. Ben Gurion is the greatest, for many Israelis at least, the greatest figure, and they don’t, definitely, see Arafat in that way. And for me to hear that was just incredible.

In starting to meet more and more of these people, I realized how much it’s important to find ways that us, Israelis and Palestinians can work together because, after all, we are not really on different sides. We are on the same side.  Those of us who want to end the conflict, those of us who want to end the occupation, are not fighting against each other.  We are on the same side for peace, for justice, for freedom for all, for safety for all, for security for all. Not just Israelis, not just Palestinians, but for both sides. And this is what I realized in that class. I realized that we are not the enemies, as is being presented.  We [are] all against injustice that is happening. And you know, that in the face of injustice, in the face of suffering, in the face of pain, there is one thing that can unite us – it’s not race and it’s not color, it’s not nationality, it’s not religions – it is our values that can really unite Palestinians and Israelis in this struggle for justice and for peace. To be able to see that this conflict and the occupation, does not only, actually, affect Palestinians. It doesn’t only hurt Palestinians. It also hurts the Israelis. It also hurts the soldiers who stop at the checkpoints; just as it is destroying the Palestinian community; it is destroying the Israeli community. To realize that it is not just one side that is suffering, but both sides suffer out of the occupation, makes us more able to join hands and to work together.

Since I decided to make that shift, I joined a group called Bereaved Families Forum, that some of you might have heard of, which is an organization of 500 families that [have] all lost a family member in the conflict, that’s working for peace and reconciliation. And Bereaved Families Forum decided that education is the most important thing; that people don’t know each other, and when people don’t know each other they [are] afraid of each other, and when you [are] afraid of each other you [are] willing to kill each other.

The main project we started working on was education. We decided to start going to high schools and to speak to students. And I remember the first time going to a high school, to an Israeli high school, and in the beginning I asked the students, “How many of you have met a Palestinian before?”  Can you guess how many people raised their hands? Almost no one raised their hands.   Sometimes one or two would raise their hands. Then when you asked them, they would say, “Yeah we had an employee here, who cleaned our garden or cleaned our house, who was a Palestinian.” That’s not an equal relationship.  That’s not a relationship where you can get to know each other. But then when you ask them, “What do you think of a Palestinian?” Everybody raised their hands and everybody [had] an opinion. And it wasn’t a pretty opinion.  It wasn’t a good one. Then we would start talking.  And these are the kids that, a year later, were going to stand at a check point not knowing what is a Palestinian. When you asked them, they are really horrified.  You come, and they think maybe you got the tail and the horns and suddenly they see a normal person who sometimes could speak as good of Hebrew.  And to them that was a huge surprise.

I have to say it was the same also in Palestinian schools where the Palestinians have never met an Israeli, except for the soldier and the settler, which makes it impossible for us to have a normal idea of what an Israeli is. Normally, I am asked about the peace movement in Israel, and it existed for so long, yet growing up, until I was 18 years old, I never met anybody from the peace movement in Israel. Just like many Israelis never heard of a peace movement in Palestine. That’s normally the question, “Where are the Palestinian peacemakers? Where is the Palestinian [Mahatma] Gandhi? And where is the Palestinian [Dr.] Martin Luther King [Jr.]?”  Well, I’m here to tell you they do exist.

In the last few years especially, there has been a huge shift in the Palestinian community toward nonviolent resistance. And it’s not just a shift that is happening, it’s a shift that [is] happening and [is] being successful as well. If you’ve seen recently a movie called “Budrus” – done by an organization called Just Vision, for director Julia Bacha – it’s about a town, a small village in the West Bank, a few hundred Palestinians [for] whom the wall that was being built, was going to take about 1,000 dunams of their land. Well, they went to the PA [Palestinian Authority] and asked for some help. And guess what?  They didn’t get any. So they got together and said, “What are we going to do? Should we just give up our land or can we do something about it?” They made a committee and the committee decided that they are going to start, nonviolently, completely nonviolently, [to] fight against this wall. They had a brilliant strategy on how to do it. They targeted normally the bulldozers, not the soldiers; they didn’t have only a one day a week when you do it, so the soldiers kind of expect you to be there. But after a couple years of doing this they were actually joined by Israelis and joined by internationals. They were able to change the route of the wall, saving about 95 percent of their land. This is an incredible success [that] most people don’t know about. These are people who didn’t use one bullet.  They didn’t even use one stone and were able to do this. This is an example of nonviolence in Palestine, that unfortunately, nobody hears about. This is only one example.

The Bereaved Families [Forum], that I mentioned, does over 1,000 meetings in high schools every year, mainly in Israeli high schools, that reach out to the students, [to] be able to do educational work where two people, an Israeli and a Palestinian come into high school and talk, to be able to give people the ability to discuss, to talk, to argue, to fight, not being quick to pull a trigger against each other when you disagree, but to actually be able to have the conversation which doesn’t exist in normal situations. There are groups like Combatants for Peace, which is an Israeli-Palestinian organization of ex-Palestinian fighters and ex-Israeli soldiers, who together decided that violence was not the way for us to move forward. But they joined together.  Their logo is actually amazing because it is a picture of two people throwing their weapons and coming toward each other.  Its hundreds of these people that meet together, working together, demonstrating together, leading protests all over the West Bank, doing educational work as well in the West Bank and in Israel – in Palestine and Israel. It’s amazing to see these groups forming and growing incredibly fast, actually. They did a demonstration a while ago in Anata, in the Palestinian side, they had over 5,000 people there. It’s one of those that normally doesn’t get covered in the news, unfortunately, and many of those events are happening almost daily, if not weekly, regularly.

Other groups like Breaking the Silence, which takes Israelis to the West Bank; soldiers who lead trips to the West Bank, and they come to tell the people who come. Ex-soldiers, who take groups of Israelis and internationals say, “Here’s what we go through when we are soldiers. Here’s how it affects me as an Israeli soldier to serve in the military. Here’s the effect it has on my morality.  Here’s the questions I am faced with.” Something that, [if] you live in Tel Aviv, you really don’t know [about]. To be able to bring it to the people to say, “Look, here’s what you send us to do when we go into the West Bank,” is an amazing thing. But also, the growth in the nonviolent protests for example, in Jerusalem, in many towns and villages such as Ni’lin, such as Walaja, such as Beit Sahour. You know, everybody hears about Bil’in normally because it’s the only one that normally comes to the news. But really Bil’in is only one small example. There are tens of others where Israelis and Palestinians meet all the time to demonstrate, to work together, to say, “We are not on opposite sides.  We actually are together in this struggle.” And there might still a few people; it’s not tens of thousands [participating], that is true. Everything starts small and goes from there. It starts with a few, the few have turned [into] hundreds already, and I’m pretty sure the hundreds will turn into thousands. That’s how nonviolent movements happen. [There’s] no easy way. The price is pretty heavy. There have been people injured, people who have been killed. Nonviolence doesn’t mean that things are simple, doesn’t mean that things are going to just go perfectly. There are disappointments – that’s been happening. But eventually, it’s much easier than any other direction. And it is really the only way, I think, for us to end this as Israelis and Palestinians; to realize how important it is for us to work together, to reach to each other. And I think, as a Palestinian, this has been my goal while I’ve worked in Israel. It’s not just to organize Palestinians to work in the nonviolent movement, but to reach out to the Jewish community, to reach out to my friends who are Israelis and say, “We need you to stand with us.” This is what Martin Luther King Jr. did in America. He didn’t just speak to the black community; he spoke also to the white people and said, “You need to join us. Don’t be the silent majority.” And this is what we need from Israelis. This is what we need from the Jewish community in Israel, is to say, “We need you to come with us. We are not against you. We don’t want to fight you. We actually think we are together in this struggle.”

I’ve seen a lot of amazing stories come out of these kind of relationships where one of the Israeli guys who was with Breaking the Silence. Everything that happens, he’s always there. He’s a religious Jew who is observant, with a kippah. So he’s not the stereotypical person you think of who comes to the nonviolent events normally to demonstrate for Palestinians. And I met him, and I said “So, you’ve been doing this for a while. How many times have you been arrested already?” He said “200.” 200 times been arrested – that’s amazing. And I said, “Okay, tell me about the last time you’ve been arrested.” He said there [was] a town by Bethlehem that they wanted to confiscate and cut the olive trees there, so he took a chain with him and he went to this piece of land, and he chained himself to the tree over there. Well, he ended up in prison that night. But this is an amazing story of somebody who saw his value as a Jew, doing what he was doing.

Recently, when I was there - I was there just a few weeks ago – I was doing a speaking with another Palestinian friend of mine who is doing nonviolent work and organizing demonstrations in the Bethlehem area. And he said he started getting some calls from settlers close by, that they’re actually changing their mind and they want to join the protests. And he said, “We don’t know what to do with it because normally we don’t want to work with the settlers. But do I tell them no or do I tell them to come?” It’s a question mark that we’re still thinking, “How do you deal with it?” I went to Tent of Nations in Bethlehem that did a lot of peace work being hosting groups and dialogue, and they just got orders of demolition. I went there and the person I saw there working with them and trying to help them is a settler. And I thought things are not making much sense. But this is the point of nonviolence; because eventually it reaches out to the people you don’t even think it will reach out to. And it reaches to hearts of people you never thought it would. Thank you.

Mr. Omar Baddar: 

Well, thank you all for coming out and thanks to the Palestine Center and [Palestine Center Intern] Mikki [O’Leary] for the invitation. The Center has always been a hub for thought-provoking conversations around the question of Palestine and I feel privileged for being able to be a part of that as well. For many decades there has been a failure to articulate and convey the narrative of Palestine to the American audience, as well as an inability to build an effective solidarity movement in the United States with the Palestinian struggle for justice. And on the one hand, certainly this is in part, due to the existence of opponents who are very good at obscuring reality, at stifling open discussion about this issue, at curtailing criticism of Israel and at impeding the building of such a solidarity movement. But I think on the other hand, it’s important to note that the failure is also partly due to the failure of the Palestinian national leadership itself, which never framed the Palestinian struggle in a way that resonates with the American public, as well as has never pursued a strategy around which international solidarity could be built. For a long time, one arm of the Palestinian national leadership pursued the struggle for justice through negotiations, which is inherently flawed given that such huge disparity in the balance of power and that Israel had no reason to be negotiating in good faith because there are no costs for not negotiating in good faith. And we’ve seen that to this day: settlements continue expanding, the demographics of Jerusalem continue to be deliberately shifted and so on. And on the other hand, it’s a failure of strategy from the other side because the other side pursued a strategy of violence, and not only can you not build an international solidarity movement around violence, that violence also fed the narrative, Israel’s narrative, of victimhood and self-defense, as opposed to occupation and apartheid.

Thankfully over the past few years, as Aziz noted, Palestinian civil society circumvented Palestinian leadership and decided to play a leadership role itself in pursuing creative non-violent resistance as a means to fighting against the occupation. And that has not only been successful in leaving Israel disoriented, not knowing how to respond, but also that was instrumental in allowing for the explosion of the movement of solidarity with Palestinians around the world. And that is really what put us in the fight in the battle for public discourse in this country. And I think since then there have been huge successes that are worth noting.  The progress that has been made is really noteworthy.

Think of where we are. We are at a point where we can no longer lose this debate. Not because we’re any more skilled at the art of persuasion than demagogues like Alan Dershowitz. Not because we are any more committed than the religious zealots on the far right who think they are fulfilling some sort of prophecy by supporting all of Israel’s policies, and certainly not because we are more resourceful or organized than major pro-Israel organizations. But because the evidence has become so overwhelming, the reality has become so obvious, that you simply can no longer obscure it. All of the major international human rights organizations – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch – including Israeli human rights organizations, like B’Tselem, have made Israel’s violations very clear. The torture and the building of settlements and all sorts of things, and the ethnic cleansing, all of the major international law institutions, the United Nations General Assembly, Security Council Resolutions, even the International Court of Justice [ICJ] and its opinion on the wall, which effectively condemned the occupation on whole. And Israeli soldiers are increasingly refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories and are coming forward with their stories about the abuse they had witnessed, and how evil the occupation is and its repercussions on them as well. So for defenders of Israeli policy to be able to get anywhere with their argument, they would basically have to convince you that all the major human rights organizations know nothing about human rights, that all the major international law institutions know nothing about international law, and that the Israeli soldiers who are coming forward are essentially lying and that all the prominent figures who are coming forward condemning Israel’s policies are somehow anti-Semitic or what have you. It’s just preposterous.  But the fact that it’s preposterous has not kept many from desperately attempting to do just that.

That reality, that clarity among those who care to know what’s happening, has made room for more and more prominent figures to come forward talking about the reality of the situation as well. So you have people like former [U.S.] President Jimmy Carter, coming out with a book talking about Israeli apartheid that was virtually inconceivable just a decade ago. You have Aroun Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, you have mainstream political scientists like [John] Mearsheimer and [Kenneth] Walt at major American academic institutions coming forward to talk about the negative effects of Israel Lobby in influencing policy. All of these things are signs of a shifting discourse. 

Even when you look at the media you see some hints of a shifting discourse as well. 60 Minutes, not long ago, did a piece on how settlers are an impediment to a peaceful settlement and they did interviews with right-wing settlers about their insistence on taking over more Palestinian lands. Just a few weeks ago, Brian Williams on NBC had a piece about the siege of Gaza in which he basically described it as an open air prison in which 1.5 million people were trapped, which is an accurate way to describe the situation in Gaza. If you look at the coverage of Jon Stewart [The Daily Show] during Israel’s assault on Gaza; it was not only spot on, but more impressive was the reaction of the audience; they actually got it. It was not just Jon Stewart himself conveying the reality of how atrocious Israel’s policy is in Gaza, but that there has been a significant enough shift in discourse that the audience responded to it in a way that really demonstrated that they actually got what was wrong. You also see it when, a few weeks ago, Stephen Colbert [The Colbert Report] took on [Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.] Michael Oren about how they are not letting food into Gaza Strip and how that could not be justified on self-defense grounds. My favorite example is Bill Maher [Real Time with Bill Maher], who I was watching not long ago and who is, by the way, atrocious on this particular issue, and he was going about his schpeel about how Israel’s policy in Gaza is completely defensible.  The audience reaction was very tepid; there was hardly anyone who was supporting him. And then when Andrew Sullivan responded to him, basically pointing out why that was not the case – why Israel’s policy in Gaza was absolutely atrocious and how the siege was indefensible and how the bombing was indefensible - the entire audience cheered. And that was on Bill Maher’s own show.

So we’ve seen this significant shift in the way people perceive the issue; and even when we look at Congress, where the Israel lobby is actually most powerful. Earlier this year, 54 members of Congress called for an end to the siege on Gaza. That’s unprecedented, that’s really unprecedented, and that’s a huge sign of progress. So I think all of that, when you look at that together, what you end up seeing is a high percentage of awareness in the American public about the situation in Palestine, primarily due to the nonviolent struggle, in my view, which in turn allows for a wider solidarity with the Palestinians. It triggers for wider solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice which, in turn, also raises awareness even further.  So it’s kind of a self-propelling cycle that we end up seeing.

I think that momentum is important and it’s important not to lose sight of that momentum and to capitalize on it. At the same time, I think it’s important not to be too triumphalist about the progress that we have made. It’s good to note it, for sure, but it really has focused more or less on the progressive left within American society. When you talk about the viewers of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher and sort of the generation that got [U.S. President] Barack Obama elected because they believed in hope and change and all of that stuff, that is the generation that view themselves as global citizens, who identify with human rights, who have transcended their national and ethnic loyalties and all of that. And within that circle it is obvious why it is easy to make progress within that particular segment of society because the argument for Palestinian rights is most easily winnable on the grounds of justice, human rights, international law and so on. But that’s not sufficient to actually shifting policy in the United States. Shifting U.S. policy requires shifting the public discourse in the center as well, and that, I think, requires us to frame the issue also in the American national interest. And it is in the American national interest to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on just and equitable terms. That much is obvious.

We have seen some hints of progress on this front. We have seen [U.S. Army General] David Petraeus was talking about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a national security necessity and the Obama administration adopting that language in their national security strategy as well. So we’ve seen some level of progress but I don’t think it has been sufficient. I don’t think the shifting of discourse within the center of this country has made enough progress.  And as a result, we have not crossed the tipping point. As we have seen recently in the meeting between Obama and [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu is that when ultimately push came to shove, Obama was willing to describe Netanyahu’s policies as courageous and taking chances for peace because there is an election coming up and you can’t put Palestinian rights or justice in the Middle East above domestic considerations. The point is we have to shift public discourse in this county to the point that it is no longer an impediment to domestic electoral success to be advocating for justice in Israel and Palestine. While we haven’t crossed that threshold, another thing to also be mindful of is that the situation on the ground is getting worse by the day. The ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem continues. There has been some cosmetic changes to the siege in Gaza but the economic devastation and strangulation continues. Being mindful of that should remind us of the urgency.  We should never fail to recognize the progress we have made but I think there should also be no illusions about the progress that remains ahead and I think it’s important for us to keep working on this and pushing the momentum forward. Thank you.

Ms. Phyllis Bennis: 

Thank you all.  Thank you all for coming out this afternoon and thank you all for putting the interns’ program together.  Thank you interns and thanks to the Palestine Center. We’re talking about this question of the nonviolent movement inside the Palestinian Territories, inside Israel, as something that’s new, but in fact it, has a long history. Palestinian nonviolence itself has a long history.  The first intifada was clearly a nonviolent movement of mobilization. We’re talking about it today in the context of a rise in a global civil society which is something new. There’s always been global movements.  The fight against fascism in Spain led to the Abraham Lincoln Brigades and we’ve seen, before that and after that, we have seen global movements rising. But I think in the last decade we’ve seen a whole different kind of global movements, some of which has to do with the kind of communication that computers and the internet have made possible, but some has also been because people are more global in their thinking, in what they know, in their education. We saw this so powerfully, some of you will remember what happened around February 15th, 2003, the day the world said “No” to war. In the run up to the war in Iraq when people in 665 cities all around the world went into the streets to say “No” to the looming war that [former U.S. President] George [W.] Bush was about to launch. That was such a powerful motivation.  There were, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, something like 14 million people in the streets that day.  The New York Times was forced to acknowledge the reality of it and they called it the second superpower. This is now post-Cold War where there used to be two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and then there was only one superpower; only the U.S. was left. Then the New York Times announces, front page above the fold, “There are once again two superpowers in the world – the United States and global civil society.” That’s huge. That’s huge for them to be forced to acknowledge that. One of the things that made that possible was the fact that that superpower, the second superpower, wasn’t only people in the streets in all these capitals all around the world - 275 cities across the United States, and everywhere else in the world -  it was also that there were governments for their own opportunist reasons.  We can’t have any illusions about why governments sign on to do the right thing once in a while, and the United Nations [UN] itself, which was dragged kicking and screaming against all its instincts – to be cautious, to be careful, to do what the U.S. says – the UN itself was dragged into that resistance. So you had this three part superpower; the second superpower – people in the streets, governments and the United Nations. And that transformed a lot of how we see political realities changing.

On the question of Palestine there have also always been global movements, but they have taken off in a whole new way in this new period. The global movements that supported Palestinian rights fell apart in huge numbers in the early 1990s after Oslo [Accords]. Why? Because some people thought, ‘Well, with Oslo, we don’t need to do anything. We got the peace agreement now.  We’re going to have a Palestinian state.  Everybody’s going to be happy.  Everybody’s going to be rich.  Everybody’s going to be delighted with the world.’ Well, sorry, some of us said, “This ain’t going to work.” And boy, were we right and boy were we sorry to be that right. But the movement that was supporting Palestinian rights collapsed around Oslo.  Other people who knew that it wasn’t going to work that way didn’t quite know how to engage when the Palestinian leadership itself was saying, “We don’t need this.  We need this set of talks.  We need more talks.  We need dialogue.  That was all we needed.” That made it very difficult.  This is where you saw the difference between the Palestinian national movement and the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa; the strategic difference between the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] and the ANC [African National Congress]. A very hard thing to contemplate.  The PLO had a diplomatic strategy that had no real connection any longer to people on the ground or people internationally. The anti-apartheid movement, led by the African National Congress from the beginning, built a movement that had a four-part strategy:  a mobilization strategy for people at home, a small, but important symbolically armed struggle component, a diplomatic strategy and a strategy for international supporters.  That strategy had everything to do with divestment. We didn’t call it BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions]; we didn’t call it boycott, divestment and sanctions but that’s exactly what it was.

The BDS movement has now been reclaimed, not by the leadership that’s recognized internationally of the Palestinian national movements, but by Palestinian civil society who have said that this is how we’re going to build a movement that links our work in the Occupied Territories, inside Israel and in the diaspora, linking the three sectors of Palestinian life: those living under occupation, those living as second-class citizens in Israel and those who are exiles and/or refugees in the diaspora.  The BDS movement emerged from that. In 2005, some of you are aware, the Palestinian civil society movement called for a global movement of BDS to support Palestinian rights, based not on morality, not on slogans, not on “We stand in solidarity with the heroic people of blah, blah blah,” none of that.  It was based on international law and human rights. So it made it part of this global movement that was already rising. Now, keep in mind this was not the first time that BDS was being used. Here in the U.S., the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which is now going into its ninth year at [the Kansas City] national conference next week, had been doing BDS campaigns back in 2002 and 2003. But in 2005, Palestinian civil society called on the rest of the world to support that movement, to move towards what it would look like to have a movement that says, ‘Everywhere in the world, countries are different.  We need to do things differently everywhere but we need to have a unifying strategy that pulls us all together in support of human rights, international law and equality.’

So, it’s not about taking positions, for example, on one-state or two-states. We all have opinions. It won’t surprise you to know that I have my own opinion. But that’s not really my call. I’m a Jewish girl from California. I don’t live there. I don’t get to say two-states or one-state. My job is to fight for what my government is doing with my tax money and in my name. That means fighting for a policy in this country. And in every country around the world people are saying the same thing. If I’m French, I don’t get to say whether there’s going to be one-state, two-state, red-state blue-state in Israel and Palestine. That’s not my call.  People there are going to decide that. What I have to do is to decide that the French government is no longer going to be able to use my tax money to support Israeli occupation and Israeli apartheid without my protest. That I’m going to make sure that it’s not uncontested. So that’s what the BDS movement has created. And you now see it’s having a huge impact. We hear about it in the context of what Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Territories, has called, “the war of legitimacy.” Israel is losing the war of legitimacy. When it talks about how the so-called BDS movement is really just a cover for those who would discredit Israel -- yeah. Damn straight. Because the policies that now characterize that government are illegitimate policies that violate international law, violate human rights and are in violation of the domestic laws of a host of countries, including our own. Things like the Arms Export Control Act make it illegal for Israel to do what it’s doing with the weapons that we supply. So it’s a matter of law. We say that we are a nation of laws. Let’s make good on it. That’s what this is about.

In 2004, the year before the BDS call, the International Court of Justice issued an extraordinary ruling on the illegality of the apartheid wall that was then just beginning its construction.  It’s now almost finished, inside the Palestinian territory. It’s not on the border. This is not about Israel [having] the right to protect itself from people who might come in. If they want to do that, it’s what the U.S. is doing on the Mexico border. We, as Americans, can say that’s not okay, but it doesn’t violate international law. Imagine if that wall was being built inside Mexico, going for miles inside Mexico, with U.S. corporations that do in fact operate in Mexico on the border, and it was going around those factories and around land that we had stolen and say, ‘well, we’ll just call it security while we take that land.’ That would be a huge violation of international law and that’s what the wall reflects. And that was the basis for the ICJ to say that it’s illegal. And they also said that the settlement project it reflects is illegal as well. So the issue of illegality turns out to be very important for people around the world, but in this country as well.

What we’re seeing right now, the flotilla attack, the flotilla massacre, I think when we look back at history, is going to be one of many tipping points. There’s not going to be one tipping point in this struggle. There’s going to be many tipping points. And I think that we’re going to find out that that one was one. Ironically and tragically, it took the deaths of non-Palestinians to have the kind of impact that that flotilla had. But it did have that impact. Those nine people did not die for nothing, it turns out. They died tragically and illegally, clearly, but they did not die with no impact. The effect of their death has been a huge shift in politics in the region. The role of Turkey, which was always seen as the one Middle East Muslim ally of Israel, all of a sudden is not something the Israelis can count on. It forced the U.S. to small shifts in its rhetoric; not much.  The U.S. still prevented the UN Security Council from doing the minimal right thing of a full scale condemnation and call for an international investigation. But it was different. The U.S. is now isolated from the rest of the world because there is this global movement centered in civil society. The BDS movement has brought together all those different people so that it now matches the work that we do here focusing on the U.S. aid to Israel, U.S. military aid, which is really a kind of sanctions. We’re not talking about imposing some kind of economic sanctions on Israel. We’re talking about preventing the U.S. from continuing to sell arms and give ten billion dollars over three years -- thirty billion dollars in ten years has been promised to Israel specifically for military aid. Thirty billion dollars. That would pay for 600,000 good green union jobs here at home. You do the math.  What’s going to make us safer?

So I think that what we’re seeing around the world. The UN is now stronger on this issue, despite the fact that the U.S. is still preventing it from doing the right thing. [UN Secretary-General] Ban Ki-Moon, who is not known for having a backbone, let’s say, to be polite about it, is speaking with somewhat different language on this question now. And I think that when we see the Reut [Institute] in Israel, a well known “security foundation,” very mainstream, very influential in Israeli politics, say in the context of a discussion about Iran that the real existential threat to Israel is the “global justice movement.” That tells us something about how Israel perceives what is a threat. It’s not weapons – that’s their turf – they do better than anybody else on the weapons side. It’s the legitimacy. It’s the ability for Israelis to feel like they can go anywhere and people will welcome them as people who live in a democracy. It’s not the case anymore. So I think that that’s what we are seeing. We’re seeing the Israeli response to it in a drastic way. We’re seeing new attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel. The arrest and still holding of Amir Makhoul, who is the leader, the chair of the coalition of big NGOs that work in the Arab community inside Israel. He’s been held now for over a month already, I guess, being charged with treason of some sort because of whom he talks to. I mean, this is what the Israelis are now facing. Israeli activists are being called in and told that if the new law goes through – there’s a new law pending in Israel that would make it illegal for any Israeli to endorse BDS. Illegal. That’s telling. That’s telling us something. That’s telling us that BDS, on the global-scale, works. And so I think that when we look at the response to the flotilla, the response to the kind of rising global pressure, we need to see it in the context of this war of legitimacy that Israel is losing.

Now, that doesn’t mean we can be quiescent about it and say, “Well, they’re losing the war, we can just sit back and watch it happen.” It only happens to the degree that people are active around the world. I think, and maybe I disagree a little bit with my friend Omar, on the question of what’s required for U.S. elections right now. I actually think there’s been enough of a shift in the discourse that the Obama administration and members of Congress can in fact choose to cut military aid to Israel; to allow Israel to face the consequences of its actions in the United Nations, without it being political suicide. The problem is I don’t think they know it yet. I don’t think they get it. They’re not looking at the polls. The polls tell us that 63 percent of Democrats, President Obama’s party, say that Israeli settlements were built on confiscated land and they should be torn down and the land returned to their original owners. Hello? Sixty three percent of Democrats say that. You ask the White House and they would say that’s a marginal position that nobody accepts. Well, sorry.  But 63 percent of your party says that. So I think that we’re looking at a new reality in this country.

The challenge for us, and this is what I will leave you with, and this is the job of the Palestine Center, it’s the job of all of you individually, the job of all you interns when you go back to school and join your Students for Justice in Palestine organization, the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, which is the big coalition that’s three-hundred and twenty some-odd organizations around the country that brings together people working against U.S. military aid to Israel, supporting BDS and working on holding Israel accountable for the Gaza crisis. Join the U.S. Campaign.  Get involved in this work.  Take up BDS campaigns; it’s made for small-scale campaigns. Imagine a city council resolution; we don’t have to only be going to Congress. Congress is important, but they’re not the only power in the world. Look at what happens. Every city in the northeast buys snow-removal equipment. It’s hard to imagine at this time of year, but God knows, they do. Remember last years’ snowmageddon? Well snowmageddon is going to happen again and Washington, DC, like every other city, is going to have to buy snow-removal equipment. What if we had a campaign that said: “Buy any, except for Caterpillar?” So, we don’t buy Caterpillar snow-removal equipment.  We buy others. That would be a huge educational campaign. So I urge you to take up this challenge. BDS around the world is working.  But if we don’t follow up on it here in the United States, it’s not going to be enough. Thank you.

Ms. Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.  Mr. Omar Baddar is a political Scientist and Human Rights Activist.  Mr. Aziz Abu Sarah is director of Middle East Projects at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.

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



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