Abunimah: There is a tremendous struggle to be waged, to force Israeli introspection, and change

by Ali Abunimah on December 4, 2009

Nearly two weeks ago we reported on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, the highlight of which was a speech by Ali Abunimah. We posted video, and kept promising to get a transcript up. What follows is text of the body of Abunimah”s November 21 speech. We have left out the humorous opening, about Prilosec, and the Q-and-A (which is also gripping).

I want to talk about a little bit of history, not too much, and then I want to talk about where I think BDS fits in to where we”re going in the struggle for justice, and why I think it”s going to work.

If you look at the history of Palestine over the past 62 years, ever since the destruction of much of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel on its ashes, I think it can be divided roughly into three phases of roughly 20 years. The first phase was from 1948 to 1967, that was the establishment of Israel, the ethnic cleansing of 90 percent of the population from inside the boundaries of what became Israel, the systematic destrucitoin of 500 towns and villages, and the exile of the indigenous population of the country. And of course the remaining Palestinians inside Israel subjected to military rule and to continued ethnic cleansing and removal from their land.

The second phase, beginning in 1967 with Israel”s 3-fold expansion, its conquest of Egypts” Sinai peninsula, of southwest Syria, of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was really the heyday, the era of maximum Israeli confidence, and the moment in which Zionism as we know it today became rooted in the American Jewish community. Before 1967 American Jews had for the most part not been captured by this ideology of Zionism and the virulent and racist nationalism that accompanies it. For Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it was the beginning of long occupation and colonization that continues to this day. It was also, from Israel”s perspective, a period of what I call a luxury occupation. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were relatively quiescent, they were a source of cheap labor, Israelis allowed themselves to travel freely throughout the occupied territories, and it was bliss, it was a situation where Israelis said well, this is fine, we can stay like this as we build settlements, there”s no pressure on us to do anything, we don”t have to formally annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which would require us to give civil rights and voting rights to the Palestinians living there, so we just keep things as they are.

This period of luxury occupation ended in 1987 with the beginning of the first intifada, which I suspect is around the time many of you in this room were born, which makes me feel quite old. But it”s important to know this history. And what the first intifada showed was the impossibility of Israel maintaining this cost-free occupation, where it exploited Palestinian labor and land, denied any civil and political rights, and continued to advertise itself as this wonderful liberal democracy and a light unto the nations.

So began the beginning of the third 20-year period, and this is the period of the Oslo Accords, beginning sort of a long period of working up to those accords that were signed in 1993, and it was the period really of managed occupation, and the idea here was to coopt. At one point the Israeli leaders said it. Shimon Peres, who is now the president of Israel, recalled talking to Yitzhak Rabin who was the prime minister at the time, and saying, Why do we need Yassir Arafat, who was then the PLO leader of course, making trouble for us outside the country, let”s bring him here, we can watch him and we can keep him under control. So the idea was to coopt the Palestinian leadership and subcontract the management of the occupation to them, all the while creating the illusion of forward movement, of a so-called peace process which would culminate in an independent Palestinian state.

But actually as we knew and know now, that”s not what was happening. What was happening was the acceleration of occupation, the tripling of the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and the tightening of the control, the creation of a regime of colonial control, effectively apartheid, that is unique in history. We make many comparisons to apartheid in South Africa, but as many South Africans themselves have pointed out, There was never in South Africa a separate road system for blacks and whites. There is no occasion in which the white South African apartheid government used its warplanes to bomb the townships, to bomb Soweto. It never happened. Incidentally you should know, and this is part of the research that should be part of the BDS strategy, that most of the weapons that the South African government used to enforce apartheid were supplied by Israel in violation of an international arms embargo on South Africa. Even the water cannon that they used to suppress demonstrations were made in a kibbutz in northern Israel. And the warplanes and the gunboats of the South African navy were all supplied by Israel. Nevertheless, South Africa never used these weapons against its own people inside the country.

The situation over the past 20 years of managed occupation has come to an end. Many people don”t realize it, many people hope that it can be revived, but we are reaching the end of the third phase of a coopted collaborationist Palestinian leadership which is able to keep the Palestinian people quiet on behalf of Israel. And the edifice is now slowly crumbling. I can”t tell you how long that crumbling will take, I can”t tell you how it will end, but it”s something that can”t be put together and restored. The Palestinian leaders who signed the Oslo accords, and agreed to become the enforcers of the occupation for Israel while promising their people that it would end in a state have lost all credibility, they can no longer play the game. I think that this is a moment, really it”s not just a moment of truth for the Palestinians, but also for Israel, because the collapse of the Oslo regime, the collapse of the managed occupation lays bare the reality: that you have through historic Palestine, Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip taken together, you have a reality of a de facto binational state. You have a country of 11 million people where just over half of the population are Israeli Jews and where just under half are Palestinians, but the trend is clear, that Palestinians are becoming a majority once again.

We can all describe in detail the suffering inflicted on Palestinians in Israel”s attempt to ethnically cleanse them, to reduce the population, to change the demographics of Jerusalem. Literally every day now houses are being demolished in occupied East Jerusalem and in Silwan. And every night the Nakba that began in 1948 continues to expand. Every night there are new families sleeping in tents by the rubble of their homes. The Nakba is continuing in 2009. Despite that, despite that, I would say the following: if the goal of the Zionist project was to take this country which had an indigenous people who were Arab, who were Palestinian who were Muslim, who were Christian, and turn it into a country of European Jews, then this strategy has failed, because there are more Palestinians living on the national soil of Palestine than ever before, and there is no part of Palestine today where there are not Palestinians living. Whether it is in the Naqab, in Gaza, in Galilee, at the center of the country, throughout the West Bank, there are very few areas where there is not a Palestinian population. So this is the tremendous failure of the Zionist project, the failure to ethnically cleanse this country. And despite the suffering it inflicted and that it continues to inflict, that is something to celebrate, that the indigenous people are still there. That they still exist on their land.

But of course it leaves Israel in a dilemma, because how can you have a Jewish state when the majority population will soon not be Jewish. The ideal solution from Israel”s perspective was to conceal this reality with the endless peace process, with the managed subcontracted occupation. But this no longer is working. So we”ve reached a moment of truth. And I think it”s important to recognize that the way these things end– nobody can read the future– but again we heard this morning about the very important comparison with South Africa. It”s not an identical situation, there are many differences that are worth exploring and discussing, but in our recent history it”s the closest parallel to the situation we have now, of a settler colonial community ruling over an indigenous people by force and facing tremendous resistance and demands by the indigenous people for their rights. And when you go back to the years before the apartheid regime ended– it ended officially in 1994–there was tremendous internal resistance in South Africa, huge uprisings that were very similar to what came a few years later in the first Palestinian intifada, massive strikes, massive protests, and the response of the apartheid state was to use enormous violence to suppress the protests in the townships.

The point I want to make here is that all of this resistance never succeeded in really changing the balance of physical coercive power. The whites always effectively retained a monopoly on military and physical force, and the anti-apartheid movement never really changed that. They didn”t defeat the apartheid regime militarily. The balance of power never changed. What happened and what I think was crucial is that the apartheid regime, which had enjoyed considerable legitimacy among Europeans and Americans up until at least the 1950s, began to lose its legitimacy. Up to that point in Britain and in other parts of Europe, there was tremendous sympathy for what was called “the predicament” of whites in Africa, in the context of decolonization.

The loss of legitimacy in the practices of the apartheid regime is what changed, and when a system loses its legitimacy, all the weapons in the world cannot protect it. And that”s what we saw in South Africa. Once it got to the point that the regime could only remain in power through violence and repression, whites in South Africa lost the will to maintain it. Because they knew that the price was increasing international isolation and being seen as pariahs. And once they reached that point, then they were willing to start talking about democracy and equal rights.

You have to remember that the African National Congress put forward the Freedom Charter in 1955. It never changed. The message from the resistance in South Africa was consistent: Our demand is for freedom, for one person/one vote, for equality, for decolonization, it never changed. But as long as whites felt immune to the effects of apartheid, as long as they could get away with it, they had no incentive to read the Freedom Charter, and they could demonize Africans as much as they wanted and say these people are barbarians, and if we were to let them get their hands on the levers of power they would slaughter us in our beds, whites would be thrown into the sea. It was costless for them to say that. Once internal resistance and international solidarity in the form of boycott, divestment, and sanctions raised the cost of the status quo for the apartheid regime and those who benefited from it, then they said, OK, let”s talk, let”s hear what you have to say, what your vision is for the future of South Africa. So BDS created the conditions for dialogue and ultimately for the end to the conflict that were impossible as long as that balance of power was unchallenged.

I would argue that we are beginning to see, I don”t think it”s yet at full speed, but we”re beginning to see a similar loss of legitimacy for Zionism and for the practices that Israel has engaged in. And many Israelis worry about this very openly. I am convinced that the loss of legitimacy of the Zionist idea, of the idea of a special state for a special people, is irreversible, that that cannot be resurrected in the 21st century, a time when we at least preach if not practice universal rights and equality. Israel”s self image as a liberal Jewish and democratic state is impossible to maintain against the reality of a militarized, ultranationalist, sectarian Jewish settler colony that has to carry out regular massacres of indigenous civilians in order to maintain its control. Zionism simply cannot bomb, kidnap, assassinate, expel, demolish, settle, and lie its way to legitimacy and acceptance, and 62 years of Palestinian steadfastness, sumud, resistance have proven that time and again.

As I”ve mentioned, it”s ever harder to disguise this loss of legitimacy when you have a Jewish minority ruling over a disenfranchised Palestinian majority. Recently you will have noticed the Israeli government”s new demand that Palestinians recognize Israel”s quote unquote right to exist as a Jewish state as a condition for peace. Many people are outraged by that. I”m frankly quite comforted by it. [laughter] Because I”ll tell you why. Because that demand is really an acknowlwedgment of failure. It”s an acknowledgement that without Palestinian consent the Zionist project and the Jewish ethnocracy in Palestine cannot be maintained, and I think it has zero long term prospects.

And I think what is so significant about the moment we”re in is that the Israel lobby, the many pro-Israel groups in this country and around the world recognize this moment, and if you look back to last spring, to May, a speech given by the executive director of AIPAC at its annual policy conference, AIPAC is of course the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, and this was just months after the massacres in Gaza, and Howard Kohr the executive director made really quite a remarkable and revealing speech in which he talks about the increasing discourse about the illegitimacy of what Israel is doing and how it”s constituted. It says, “The epicenter of this campaign” –he talks about what he calls the campaign of the delegitimization of Israel– I would say that Israel has delegitimized itself through its actions, but let”s stay with him for a minute.

The epicenter of this campaign may be in the Middle East, but the campaign doesn”t stop there. It echoes in the halls of the United Nations and the capitals of Europe. But the campaign doesn”t stop there. It is voiced without shame and without sanction in meetings of international organizations that claim peace and partnership as their mandate. But the campaign doesn”t stop It is coming home right here to the United States. We see it already on our college campuses, America”s elite institutions of higher learning, the places we”ve entrusted with the education of our children. But the campaign doesn”t stop there. No longer is this campaign confined to the ravings of the political far left or far right, but increasingly it is entering the American mainstream: an ordinary political discourse on our T.V. and radio talk shows, in the pages of our major newspapers and in countless blogs, in town hall meetings, on campuses and city squares, in Los Angeles, in Fort Lauderdale, in Chicago–

He calls this and this I think is very crucial to understand the fear of the Israel lobby–”this is a conscious campaign to shift policy, to transform the way Israel is treated by its friends to a state that deserves not our support, but our contempt”–I”m skipping–”These voices are laying the predicate for abandonment, they”re making the case for Israel”s unworthiness to be allowed what is for any nation the first and foremost fundamental right, the right to self defense.”

Of course that”s in the context of the massacres in Gaza that he supports. So he goes on in this light. And it”s quite interesting. There”s one thing that I thought was very funny. Not funny but striking. He says, “This is a battle for the hearts and minds of the world. A battle in which the defamation of Israel”– what I would call arguing for equal rights and justice and accountability–”is like the artillery before the main assault, the key element in the softening up of the target.”

This is so striking, three months after Gaza, he”s talking about us using artillery, we who are talking about the nonviolent BDS movement are the ones using artillery, and Israel, which rained white phosphorus and howitzer shells on residential neighborhoods and schools and mosques and ministry buildings and police stations across Gaza is the victim. It”s a very interesting reversal of language.

Finally, what”s the solution from the perspective of AIPAC? He says, “So this evening let me say to everyone in this room, We have a job to do, we have a story to tell, a story that”s often overlooked. And that is a remarkable story of the true Israel.”

I think we actually have exactly the same job! [laughter]

“We must tell the story of Israel, who she is, what she does, and what she stands for in the world–” Again we have the same mission. “And that truth will defeat the deformed vision of hate that seeks to separate Israel from her friends.” Yeah! [laughter]

What is that message, and this is the crucial point: At the end of the period of managed occupation, when the apartheid and colonial reality of the Israeli system is laid bare, what is the message? What is the story they have to tell?

Here”s what it amounts to: “Israel the only country in the middle east to host a gay pride parade. The Israel that draws energy from the sun, water from the air. The Israel that takes seriously the admonition to be a light unto the nations. The country that opened its doors to the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, Ethiopian jews in the 1980s and 90s. To refugees from more than 100 countries.” Except Palestine! “People from different cultures and countries that have built new lives in Israel.

What”s interesting about this is you”ve got a couple of themes here. The gay pride parade, they call that gaywashing. When you use the idea that Israel has a gay pride parade. So that makes it OK to attack schools with white phosphorus. That”s called gay washing. That Israel draws energy from the sun and water from the air. That”s called green washing.

That Israel takes seriously the admonition to be a light unto the nations, that it opens its doors to refugees, etc. Well you may have seen the headline in Haaretz two weeks ago, that Israel is considering setting up what it calls work camps in the Negev desert for refugees mostly from Africa who are awaiting ajudication of their asylum claims, and the deal according to Haaretz was that the refugees would be housed in this camp, they would be bused to places during the day where they would work, and they would then be returned to camps in the evening, and in exchange they would receive food. I think there”s a term for that. It”s called slavery. Because even slaves for the most part received room and board, just as a matter of keeping them alive. So the Israel that is open to refugees is an Israel that in 2009 is considering setting up slave labor camps.

The point that I want to make from this is that I don”t think there is a message. You cannot gay wash and greenwash and white wash your way out of this. You cannot say well, Israel makes wonderful pharmaceuticals so don”t worry about what”s happening in Gaza. It”s not going to work. It”s too late for that. And I think that the failure, I think this message cannot be retooled. And I think we”re at a point where Israel is still incredibly powerful. But I think in a sense it is running on inertia, accumulated power, accumulated prestige. It”s like someone whose bank account is very full, but they”re spending it, and they have to spend it very quickly.

Now we in our movement have a very small bank account. Im not talking literally about money, I”m taking about political power and moral legitimacy and support and a just vision that includes everyone. We have a small bank account, but we have an income. We”re growing it. Israel has a big bank account but there”s no income. I don”t see Israel being able to recruit a new generation to carry this message. I think that the success of American Jews is that they”re fully integrated into this society, that young American Jews have imbibed the universal message of the civil rights movement, and they want nothing to do with this thing… Israel is like a lemon and these Israel lobby groups have to try to sell it as if it”s a Lexus, and nobody is buying this lemon anymore.

Now that may sound a little bit rosy and I don”t want to make you think this is is all very easy and inevitable. Because it isn”t. The other side of this, which is very very important, is that there is a tremendous, tremendous struggle to be waged, which is why the work that you”re doing in this movement is so important. And a just outcome is not inevitable. Israel has tremendous power, it has the capacity to do tremendous violence. There are many people who think Gaza 2009 was just a foretaste of what”s to come, and the Israelis will go for broke, and they will try to do once again what they have failed to do for so long, which is to try cow and terrorize the Palestinians and other Arab peoples into submission.

So there are enormous dangers, it”s not inevitable. But what makes another attack on Gaza or on other parts of Palestine less likely every day is what we do. The more ruckus we raise, the more difficult we make it for Israeli war criminals to speak on our campuses, the more we raise awareness about the impact of Israeli occupation on Palestinians throughout the country, on the racism and second-class status of Palestinian citizens in Israel, the more people are aware through BDS activism, the harder it is for Israel to act freely. We have to provide the accountability with this movement that our governments have failed to provide, that the United Nations has failed to provide.

You will face many enemies, one of them is called J Street. [Applause] They took notice of you. I”m sure many of you have seen the press release which came out on Thursday, which says, “The upcoming conference at Hampshire College promotes the misguided BDS movement against Israel.” Here”s the good news. “This movement is spreading like wildfire–” [cheers] “–On campuses across the country, and we”re all going to get burned unless we speak out now.”

So they come up with this pathetic idea of, Invest two bucks, two dollars for two states. Is there any one in this room who will give me two dollars for two states? [Cry: Never!] I”m going to auction off the two-state solution. Two dollars? A dollar fifty? I see a dollar up there. But they say–this is serious, they say, join our Invest, don”t divest campaign to raise money for two organizations. Lend for peace.org, a Palestinian micro finance organization set up by students like us. And the Center for Jewish Arab Economic Development, which promotes Jewish-Arab economic cooperation in Israel.

It”s important to know that these sorts of joint projects, most likely, I haven”t looked at these specific ones, are projects that were designed to give the impression of equality and reciprocity and that don”t challenge the reality of injustice– they violate the Palestinian call for Boycott, divestment and sanctions. It”s really important to understand that they will push these things on your campuses in order to divert your attention and make people push their energy in a direction where it will have no impact whatsoever, because these sorts of feel-good joint projects, which are designed to legitimize Israel by saying, Oh let”s just get along, have been tried for years and years and they”ve made no difference.

There is a great sense that after trying to ignore the BDS movement for many years, it is starting to really get the notice of Israel. There was an article in the Financial Times yesterday. The headline, “Israel shrugs off economic boycott activism.” There”s a lot of bravado. They”re saying, You know it really hasn”t made much impact, and we can weather it. But the fact is, it is in the Financial Times, they”re starting to take notice. Today there is an article on ynet… the most widely read website in israel…The headline, my translation, “Boycotts against Israel, are they succeeding and hurting?” This is today… It is affecting them, they are noticing, and they”re starting to get worried about it. So if you ever think, if you”re ever told, oh, this will never work, just read the Israeli press.

It is starting to have the effect that we want, of forcing the Israelis to do what they don”t want to do, which is some introspection, some real rethinking of the situation and how to get out of it.

I want to close with some observations about what comes next. I think– I”ve argued, and I don”t think it”s a tough case to make in this room, that BDS is essential, BDS is a tool to level the playing field, to provide solidarity and strength to Palestinians who are resisting, and standing steadfast, wherever they are, whether in Palestine, in Israel, or in the refugee camps, here in the United States, everywhere where Palestinians are. It”s a way to say– you know, many people say the Palestinians are among the most lectured people on earth. They”re always told, if you”re the U.S. secretary of state, Palestians must do more, and then there”s a whole list. And even friends of the Palestinans, say, you know, if only the Palestinians could be more like Gandhi. I hear that all the time. They never say to the Israelis, if only the Israelis could be more like Gandhi. Can you imagine the Israeli settlers behaving like Gandhi. There wouldn”t be any settlements, that”s for sure.

I think those words are very cheap. To tell people who are fighting for their very existence, not to resist, not to use violence, from the safety of Canada or the US, is a bit rich. [applause] But that doesn”t mean that we should abandon a belief in nonviolence, or that we should advocate violence. I”m certainly not saying we should advocate violence. [applause] I”m simply saying if you”re against violence, then provide an alternative, and the alternative is BDS. As Fayyad [Sbaihat] said this morning [on a panel]… Do you have any better ideas?

This is a proven strategy. This is a tactic that will work. As we saw in this morning”s session, It”s a noble and honorable strategy that worked in the civil rights movement. It worked in the case of South Africa… it worked in Northern Ireland, with the MacBride principles… to divest in companies that discriminated against native Irish Catholics in the north of Ireland…There are many examples of BDS and BDS-like strategies working. So the alternative is up to us to provide.

There is now this hot debate about a one-state solution or two-state solution. And many people have honest questions about it. You know where I stand. But that doesn”t mean you have to agree with me. But the BDS call, the call for academic and cultural boycott of Israel from Palestinian civil society does not call for a one state solution or a two state solution. It names three kinds of Israeli injustice and oppression that have to be ended.

One, denial of Israel”s responsibility for the Nakba, and particularly the waves of ethnic cleansing and dispossession that created the Palestinian refugee problem, and therefore refusal to accept the inalienable rights of the refugees displaced, and stipulated and protected by international law. Secondly, military occupation and colonization of the West Bank including East Jerusalem and Gaza. And thirdly, the entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian citizens of Israel that resembles the defunct apartheid system in South Africa.

It”s important that whether you think about one state or two state, that all these forms of oppression have to be ended. If tomorrow we woke up and saw that Israel had withdrawn from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, admittedly not very likely, that leaves 2/3 of the problem intact. The oppression of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the racist oppression of Palestinian refugees who are denied the right to return to their homeland for the sole reason that they”re from the wrong ethnic group, that”s simply unconscionable in the 21st century.

It”s important to keep our eye on all three aspects of the systematic injustice against Palestinians. And to recognize– we can discuss and debate and we can advocate what an outcome would look like. I think we need to have that discussiona, and with the corercion of the BDS movement, to begin to have a vision, that can start to draw Israelis, once they recognize that the present system is untenable. And BDS creates the conditions for us to begin to have that discussion.

I want to end by saying something that really I believe very, very deeply when I look around this room. When I think of my parents and the parents of many other people in this room, many Palestinians in this room and beyond this room– my parents were from the generation that lived through the Nakba, that lost their homes and lost their country, and they were among the lucky ones. But those in Gaza, 80 percent of people in Gaza are refugees. In Lebanon, in Syria, in Jordan. All over the world, I believe that that generation, the first generation of the Nakba, who is now getting on in years, but hamdililah many of them are still young and in good health and may they live long lives, but that generation deserves to see justice in its lifetime. [applause]

And when I look around this room, I am convinced with all my heart and all my mind, that this is the generation that is going to help them see that justice. Be patient and stay in it for the long haul, history is on our side, and we can win. Thank you.

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