Open Letter to the International Geographical Union: Enforcing Geographies of Justice

PACBI | 29 October 2009

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is deeply disturbed by the decision of the International Geographical Union (IGU) to hold its regional conference in Israel next July. We urge the IGU to relocate this conference to another venue in the region, and appeal to all geographers to refrain from participating in the conference if it is convened in Israel.

Academic and cultural boycotts can be effective measures towards putting pressure upon Israel to cease its campaign of ethnic cleansing against and colonial control over the Palestinian people and to respect international law. The 2004 PACBI call for boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions [1], like the Palestinian civil society”s widely endorsed call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) in 2005 [2], is based on the same moral principle embodied in the international civil society campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa: people of conscience must take a stand against oppression and use all the means of civil resistance available to bring it to an end.

At a time when the international movement to boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions is gaining ground in response to Israel”s flagrant infringement of Palestinian human and political rights, we urge you to reflect upon the implications of your decision to hold a regional conference of the IGU in Israel. As scholars, you are acutely aware that Israel has flaunted international law for several decades. Since the hegemonic world powers are active agents in acquiescence to Israel”s colonial and oppressive policies, we believe that the only avenue open to achieving justice is sustained work on the part of Palestinian and international civil society to put pressure on Israel and its complicit institutions to end this oppression.

The hosting of the conference by an Israeli geographers” body working under the auspices of the Israeli Academy of Sciences, as well as the fact that the conference steering committee is composed of representatives of geography departments at Israeli universities, makes this an event that is firmly planted in the academic establishment in Israel.

The Israeli academy is deeply implicated in providing the ideological rationale and “scientific” basis for Israel”s colonial policies. Geography, in particular, has played for decades a decisive role in (re-)producing the Zionist imaginative geographies and mythology that has denied the existence of the indigenous people of the land – a people without a land for a land without a people – while paradoxically justifying its erasure and the colonization of its territory – maximum land, minimum Arabs. As geographer Ghazi Falah has argued, the ethnic nature of the State of Israel and the Zionist colonial ideology in which it has been shaped, transformed the science of Geography into a powerful ideological and political tool and geographers, with rare exceptions, into uncritical agents of Israeli state policy [3].

The geographical knowledge produced by the Israeli academic establishment has been essential to assemble the spatial apparatus of ethnic segregation and destruction set in place by Israel”s civilian and military structures. Like the tank, the gun, and the bulldozer, as architect Eyal Weizman has so bluntly described, spatial planning and infrastructural development provide “not only the theater of war but its very weapons and ammunition” [4]. This is what sociologist Sari Hanafi has defined as spacio-cide; the systematic targeting of the Palestinian geography as living space [5].

Geography departments at Israeli institutions provide the academic scaffolding for the policies of ethnic cleansing, exclusion, dispossession, and racial discrimination practiced against Palestinians both within Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. They are complicit, whether by active collaboration with government and regional planning authorities through consultancies and research activities, or by their tolerance for racist academics masquerading as scholars. Take the case of Arnon Sofer, the Israeli geographer at Haifa University who has proudly and consistently claimed authorship of the idea of the separation Wall that illegally cuts into the West Bank separating communities from each other, annexing to Israel the most fertile lands and richest underground aquifers. He is also well known as the prophet of the “Arab demographic threat.”

Having Israel host the IGU regional conference under the theme “Bridging Diversity in a Globalizing World” is disingenuous to say the least. According to the conference website, “since [its] establishment, some 60 years ago, Israel has always envisaged a bridging role in the Middle East.” It claims that “no location better reflects the theme of “bridging diversity”” [6]. These assertions disregard at once the human suffering and material destruction brought about by the establishment of the state of Israel in historic Palestine. Israel, in its endeavor to build and “protect” a demographically exclusive Jewish state by means of outright expulsion of the indigenous inhabitants of the land, confiscation and theft of natural resources, destruction of urban and rural infrastructure, and far-reaching exclusionary and racist zoning policies, has destroyed every bridge to the indigenous people of Palestine, as well as to its Arab neighbors. Diversity is clearly incompatible with the segregationist nature of the Zionist settler colonial ideology.

Israel is lauded in the conference literature for its “imaginative ecological and environmental responses for sustaining the physical diversity of the national landscape.” The real story of Israeli colonial policy lies in the way Palestinians have been robbed of their land and water resources; the way Gaza”s aquifers have been deliberately depleted triggering further desertification; how the construction of the Apartheid Wall has broken apart natural and habitat corridors and the way it provokes periodic inundations of Palestinian agricultural fields during the rainy season; how systematic destruction and uprooting of trees ravages the environment and provides foliage for illegal Israeli settlements; and how Palestinian lands are dump sites and have became ecological minefields.

Further evidence of the local hosts” complicity in the apartheid reality of Israel is provided in the details of the numerous “exciting field trips” offered to conference participants so they may “explore the unique diversity that is Israel.” The tours are a stark example of colonial tourism; the tours depict a land cleansed of any traces of its past–or present–indigenous inhabitants and their society and culture. Palestinians simply do not exist.

It is unimaginable for an international body of scholars to have convened a conference in South Africa under apartheid; why should it be acceptable to hold a conference of geographers in Apartheid Israel?

We call upon members of the IGU and geographers around the world to press for the conference venue to be changed. In the event that this demand is not met, we urge a widespread boycott of this conference. No self-respecting professional body should wish to ally itself with a regime of apartheid!


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