The Liberation of Palestine from Israeli Occupation –
A Universal Cause Not Merely an Academic Exercise
Genevieve Cora Fraser*
Early on, the international conference of academics and intellectuals, students and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) at the University of Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels, Belgium, threatened to come apart at the seams. They were gathered for the “3rd International Conference on An End to Occupation, A Just Peace in Israel-Palestine,” also billed as “An International Network in Action.” But shortly after the first panel discussion began, a letter was read demanding a boycott of some of the assembled on behalf of a group calling itself the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and endorsed by 60 of the most important academic, cultural, professional and trade unions and associations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The letter focused on Palestinians’ Right to an Education and originated from Beir Zeit University outside of the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
Immediately, a noisy protest against the reading of the letter drowned out the speaker until a call for order restored calm and the speaker proceeded. “The Israeli academy has contributed, either directly or indirectly, to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying the military occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza, the entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, which resembles the defunct apartheid system in South Africa, and the denial of the fundamental rights of Palestinian refugees in contravention of international law,” the letter read in part.
The conference was sponsored by FFIPP (Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace)—a U.S.-based network of faculty with affiliates in Israel and Palestine—endeavouring to achieve an end to Israeli occupation of lands seized in the 1967 war, as well as a just peace in Israel/Palestine and the region as a whole. Fearing the worst, Brussels university administrators were prepared. Conference participants were met by anti-terrorist security officials, a walk-through metal detector and hand-held-once-over with a metal and/or explosives-detecting wand such as you might find at an airport, and searches of handbags and briefcases. The searches were maintained throughout the two days of the conference, even during coffee and lunch breaks and trips to toilet facilities. If a terrorist was in the group, none was detected.
Along with Belgium officials and academics, the conference was predominantly attended by Israelis and members of the Jewish community with a smattering of Palestinians and sympathizers from various locations around the world. It seems that Palestinians who might have attended were prevented due to a variety of Israeli and European Union administrative roadblocks or might have chosen to boycott the proceedings. The dearth of Palestinians and hence a Palestinian perspective was duly noted, though the few in attendance, such as Waleed Deeb, the President of the Arab American University in Jenin, and Professor Jad Issac, the Palestinian director of the Bethlehem Applied Research Institute, and Sari Hanafi, the Director of SHAML Palestinian Refugee and Diaspora Center, offered a counter-balance to any Zionist perspective proffered.
The call to boycott was never endorsed, but at the insistence of the keynote speaker Professor Etienne Balibar of the University de Paris-Nanterre, France; and University of California, Irvine, the letter was copied and circulated though he personally opposed the general boycotting of Israeli Academic Institutions and individuals. “It would be counterproductive in terms of rallying intellectuals in Israel to oppose the occupation of Palestine,” Balibar stated in an introduction to the boycott petition and “would prevent us from organizing the kind of conferences in which we are currently taking part.” And so the conference continued.
Eric Rouleau, the former French Ambassador to Tunisia (1985-1986) and Turkey (1988-1992) who currently serves as a Middle East correspondent of La Monde, France, opened the formal session. He countered the claim that Israel represents the whole of the Jewish people and stated that Arabs hate Israeli policies not Israel, while noting that Sharon has lost his aura and is consumed with political and domestic problems. The former ambassador also spoke of the invasion of Iraq and the alliance of interests that led to the war, of how the United Nations is paralyzed by the United States (which is not an honest broker in dealing with Palestine and Israel and other issues), and of how the European Union should not be viewed as a political bloc because they are divided. Rouleau commented that it was his belief that though presidential hopeful John Kerry and the Democrats may be pro-Israel, they are not for the expansion of Israel—the notion of a Greater Israel from the Euphrates to the Nile.
In the panel discussion, Higher Education in Palestine and the Defense of Academic Freedom, President Deeb emphasized that the only means to economic security for Palestinians is through education because the Intifada had made all jobs difficult or impossible, even the most basic [of trades] such as farming. Because of the increased poverty of the region, Palestinians can no longer afford an international education, he stated. As a result, Palestinian universities are experiencing an increased burden to provide a college education inside Palestine. However, these institutions are having a difficult time providing the instructors needed to educate 100,000 students in the 10 universities. As a result, educational standards have declined at a time when the numbers of students have increased.
“Today, 30% of Palestinian students cannot afford to pay any tuition, and 60% can only pay a portion of the tuition,” Deeb commented. “But Palestinian institutions cannot and will not dismiss students because they cannot pay. Meanwhile, there are fewer and fewer instructors available to hire.” Palestinian faculty is currently being circulated among institutions and 50% of the remaining faculty is foreign. But the availability of foreign instructors is diminishing because of security issues and restrictions with Israel now prohibiting the issuance of work permit visas.
According to AAU President Deeb, attending international conferences and training is also increasingly difficult for Palestinian faculty because of Israeli restrictions, which has resulted in a decline of research projects. As for the students, many have lost hope, Deeb stated. They work for 4 or 5 years to receive degrees only to find a lack of employment opportunities at home, and abroad they are labeled terrorists. And the situation in the three universities in Gaza is even worse than in the West Bank. There, visitors are frequently prohibited from entry.
Dr. Joseph Shevel, the Israeli president of Galilee College countered AAU President Deeb’s pessimism with great optimism citing how his institution had experimented with allowing Palestinian students in for special environmental studies classes. He explained that most of these students were already professionals in their fields but find themselves most welcomed. “Arrangements are made for every Palestinian group to meet with an Israeli family for coffee and cake,” Shevel asserted. “But lately it has been difficult to find accommodating Israeli families,” he said.
Stephen Bonner, Professor of Political Science at Rutgers attempted to link the Jewish experiences of the past with the present Palestinian situation. He recommended a more cosmopolitan approach to education in Israel to bring in some light to change minds as well as their self-image. He stressed that the Jewish community, though at one time was a victim, is no longer the victim and noted Israel’s lack of occupation research. “Thirty-seven years of occupation is temporary in their minds. There is a [kind of] blindness to the occupation that has resulted in a lack of data,” he commented.
In a panel discussion on “The Wall, the Settlements and the Occupation: Which Way Forward?” Palestinian Jad Issac provided an impressive slide show, which is also available at www.arij.org – the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem. ARIJ is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable development in the occupied Palestinian territories and the self-reliance of the Palestinian people through greater control over their natural resources.
Issac spoke of the current or third Al-Nakba (Catastrophe to befall Palestine) and the Strategies of Israelization of Palestine through the illegal settlements or “neighbourhoods” as Israel prefers to describe them. Currently the imposition of 435,000 Israeli citizens on Palestinian territory and the rash of Israeli outposts are used to control Palestinian land and take it for future expansion activity. The Israeli settlements and outposts along with Israeli-only roads and apartheid wall have divided Palestine into 64 small gated units. In many locations the gates are opened three times per day for 30 minutes and only four cars are allowed in or out.
In an attempt to provide an Israeli point of view, Issac displayed maps of Israel that show Israel without any indication of the existence of Palestine. He claimed that Israeli schoolchildren are taught that Ramallah and other Palestinian cities exist within certain Israeli districts. “Zionists are using propaganda in Israel and with Jews throughout the world with maps that instill spatial socialization along with claims to rightful ownership of Palestine where Palestinians and Palestine are presented as illegitimate,” he said. “These maps are props that pretend to present the objective reality but are actually a form of brainwashing.” He cited Israeli policy where in 1967 cartographers were asked not to show the ‘green line’; by 1978 it was illegal for Israeli mapmakers to display the ‘green line’.
Oren Yiftachel, Israeli Professor of Political-Geography, Planning and Public Policy at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has built a reputation on exposing the dark side of Israeli urban and regional planning and the politics of Judaizing Israel/Palestine. Examples include attempts by the State and its founding elites to simultaneously incorporate and control minority immigrant groups (Mizrahi, Sepharadi Jews) within Israel's nation-building and State-building projects.
Yiftachel spoke of Israeli attempts to legitimize the truth on the ground and of Jewish blindness to their situation. He outlined 10 different types of Israeli citizenship that challenge the notion of Israel being a true democracy where the Ashkenazi Jews are on top. Orthodox Jews are second-class citizens, pseudo-Jews third, the Druze fourth, the Palestine Arab Israeli fifth-class citizens, the Bedouins sixth, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights residents seventh, Palestinians in the West Bank eighth, Gaza residents ninth, and labor migrants tenth on the so-called Israeli scale of citizenship, according to Yiftachel.
Palestinian Sari Hanafi, Director of SHAML explored what he referred to as Spacial-cide vs. Genocide, which involves a policy of continuously dividing the land, surveillance and control, and the Israeli government’s use of the Exception to the Rule where military orders can be suspended at any time to allow Israel to do anything it wants while claiming they have rules against such an activity. Hanafi used East Jerusalem as an example where the city exists under the rule of “exception” where any activity can be declared illegal at any time.
Hanafi stated that Israeli incursions attempt to keep the killing or body count relatively low per incident so that claims of genocide can be refuted, but subtle substitutes are used, such as sniper attacks, that maim and cripple Palestinians. Basically, the Israeli policy is to try not to show too much blood, whereas the Intifada attempts to bring the brutality of their policies to the foreground by showing blood. Hanafi counselled that the land issue must be coupled with the refugee issue to fully demonstrate the cruelty of the Israeli colonial project and its full impact on Palestinians. He also pointed out that despite the extreme imbalance in power, Jews are forever claiming to be the victims; whereas, Palestinians insist they are not victims, but rather actors in a process that will eventually result in their liberation. As a result, most Palestinians use non-violent resistance, such as building despite Israeli refusal to allow building on their own property. Palestinians risk all their capital to construct a home knowing full well that Israeli forces may arrive with a bulldozer to demolish what they worked so hard to build.
Dr. Yossi Alpher, the Israeli co-editor of Bitter Lemons and former director of the Jaffa Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, advisor to Ehud Barak and senior Mossad official, emphasized that Israel was the Jews “historic” homeland, which drew a number of disgruntled responses from the audience. He asserted that the settlers are dynamically involved and most are politically active and that the clock is ticking on a two-State solution. He declared that dismantling the settlements was unthinkable for many and hinted at getting rid of the Palestinian Authority and the 100,000 salaries he claimed they helped support. He defended Israel’s position regarding the “fence” because there was no coalition of Arabs available to help manage the “conflict.”
Professor Noami Chazan, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and former member of the Israeli Knesset declared that now was the time for strategic thinking. In a counter-argument to Yossi Alpher’s opinion, she claimed that the object should not be to manage the conflict but to bring about peace and justice and added that even if the wall were to be torn down, the obscenity of the occupation would still exist. In defining objectives, she listed an end to occupation, a negotiated settlement, and a reconciliation process that would bring in the international community and focus on removing barriers to peace.
Pierre Galland, University of Libre de Bruxelles and member of the Belgium Senate declared that Israel’s wall was part of a colonization project to take land and water, not to protect Israeli citizens. He questioned what the response of citizens of the world would be after the International Court of Justice decision is made to tear down the wall. How might we support the United Nations short of taking over Palestine and restoring human rights ourselves? He cited Irish, Dutch, French, Belgium, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and South African support for the rights of Palestinians to self-determination and called for a coalition of the dispossessed in Israel to join with Palestinians to bring about further pressure to end Israeli colonial domination. “If Israeli checkpoints were torn down, poverty in Palestine would be reduced by 30%,” Galland declared and went on to contrast the myth of the current Jewish Diaspora with the reality of the Palestinian Diaspora.
In the panel discussion, “Report Back from Peace Groups in Israel/Palestine,” TA University professor Anat Biletzki, chair of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem stated that most human rights violations are carried out by Israeli policies and declared the Apartheid Wall to be the icon of the occupation. Ben-Gurion professor Yanni Nevo, also with the Co-existence Forum in the Negev spoke of the horrors of the crop sprayings in the unrecognized villages in the Negev and said that being Jewish and democratic was incompatible.
Nevo described Israel’s “Un-Recognition Policy” whereby the ancestral homeland and ancient villages of the Bedouin population of the Negev are not recognized and neither is their Israeli citizenship. This allows for mass expulsions and rejection of housing permits by the Israeli government so that the activity of demolition squads is justified. As a result basic shelter is denied to a desert population as well as State services such as electricity, water, roads, medical care, telephones and transportation.
“Today, when Bedouins plant crops they are sprayed with Monsanto’s Roundup,” Nevo continued. “And against Monsanto recommendations this involves aerial spraying of crops, livestock, dwellings and people.” Nevo described a policy of ‘Chemical Treatment’ whereby the Bedouins have been dehumanized and treated with chemical aggression so that their land can be Judiazed. Health effects of the utilization of a weed exterminator on the population include birth defects and a variety of cancers such as Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. “This is not only non-democratic,” Nevo asserted, “but immoral experimentation on non-consenting individuals. They are weeding crops to get rid of the population,” Professor Nevo stated.
Kathy Kamphoefner, the Jerusalem representative for Quaker Services in Palestine stated that she had also witnessed Israeli aerial “crop” spraying in the West Bank. She also claimed that the Palestinian Civil Society is alive and well and that there are 564 groups that could easily supply Israel with a partner in the peace process. In September these groups will be coming together for non-violence peace training and to build a National Strategy for Peace, she announced. Dr. Lina Yassin of the Palestinian T’ayush explained that Palestinians resist Israeli imprisonment behind walls of racism, segregation, closure and seizure but are reaching out for Arab and Jewish partnerships where co-existence is possible as normal people attempt to adjust to a mad existence. Today, 200,000 Palestinians are left outside the wall in Jerusalem where 12 different permits are needed and entering your property is to risk being labelled an intruder and being sent to prison, she explained.
Yuval Adam, a student activist from Tel-Aviv University and founder of the Student Coalition claimed that in the past apathy reigned on Israeli college campuses but that is starting to change because some members of the student body now understand that remaining silent is to agree with Israeli policies. There is an emerging student movement for peace, he said, but the official response has been police brutality where protesting students are beaten up. Adam’s hope is that students will not be deterred and the movement will grow.
Additional panels included “Reconciliation Today, Peace Tomorrow” and “The Role of the European Union.” These were followed by group discussions on the proposed boycott, reconciliation, anti-Semitism, and the role of the media. I joined the group focused on reconciliation where about a dozen people began by talking about how Islamic nationalism arose in response to Zionism. There was only one Palestinian who joined the group, an Arab Israeli man married to a Jewish Israeli who had also joined the discussion; however, feeling outnumbered he left the group mid-way through the meeting.
The group seemed to agree that steps towards reconciliation are not possible at this time because Israelis refuse to accept any blame for the conflict. Israelis are victims of their own State-building, someone noted. Ironically, there seems to be a subconscious identification with Nazi images and processes and a perverse pride in having things “all in order,” Nazi-style, which is part and parcel of the militarization of Israel. And though the mantra of victimization is still employed, after 1968, Israel became even more powerful so that Jews throughout the world were proud to say, “I am a Jew.” The group seemed to agree on this point.
“Yes, finally it’s OK to be a Jew, because we can now claim to hold great power,” someone countered, “but it’s still nasty because of Palestine. It’s as if the guiltier you are, the more you need to rely on the old persona of being the victim.” The Palestinian issue is an eyesore for the entire world to see, someone else added. As long as Israel says Arabs are responsible, not the Jews, reconciliation will never occur. An elderly Belgium woman joined the discussion. She had once lived in Israel but after living there for several decades concluded that the creation of Israel was an historic mistake and so she left. The group then focused on how few Israelis have any real relation to their past (including the Holocaust) and reject empathy for the suffering of Palestinians, but instead foster the belief Palestinians want to chase them out, eliminate them and starve them, which, ironically, is exactly what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. All seemed to agree that Palestinians have been deprived of self-determination and to continue to ignore this right will insure that there will be no reconciliation. The process they agreed on was that a political solution must come first, then peace and finally reconciliation.
In his keynote address, “Palestine – The Universal Cause,” Professor Etienne Balibar began by discussing international law and how resolutions against Israel have not been enforced because of America’s support for Israel. He spoke of reciprocity where to defend Palestine is to defend the interest and honour of the Jews who themselves have been historically repressed. “Resistance from within Israel is important,” Balibar emphasized. “A promotion of the Palestinian cause is a difficult struggle against current and self-defeating victories. If Israel succeeds in destroying Palestine, they will destroy their only chance for reconciliation. The universal character of the cause of right requires a reassertion of the fundamental democratic principle of equality,” he said.
Palestinians speak of Resistance while Israel as the colonizing power wants a Peace that destroys, such as the peace Rome offered its conquests. But a third term must be brought into the equation – Justice. Peace in Israel/Palestine must start with an end to the occupation and a livable situation for the two peoples on the same land, because their fate is to be irrevocably bound together. “Equal Rights must be the guiding light,” Balibar asserted while pointing out the increased militarization of Israel, which has resulted in a totalitarian process involving the destruction of the land, society, institutions, etc. “Israeli violence creates the violence of terrorism, and a population of Stateless people on their own land. But who better to create a State than a Stateless people?” he asked. “A purely colonial State threatens democracy. Israel is a nation of occupying soldiers and camp wardens,” he said.
“Terrorism is the unrecognized result of a repressive order,” Balibar continued. “Criminalizing resistance negates the need to negotiate. However, resistance in the form of terrorism is counter-productive and plays into Israeli violence, even though Israel provokes it. Under these circumstances, reconciliation becomes impossible.” Balibar recommended external pressures such as sanctions and boycotts to curb the Will to Power of Israeli colonialism, which has increased the need for foreign intervention. Because Israel sees itself as above the law of nations, international pressure may help Israel toward self-recognition. But the professor questioned the role of America as the honest broker when the current administration not only supports Israeli aggression but also views itself as above the law.
“There is a need to protect Palestinians and Israelis from increasing violence and to broker a Justice Process that is in need of mediators and witnesses to the process,” Balibar stated. What he suggested is a process whereby the European Union, the Arab States and the United States work together recognizing Israel/Palestine as a geo-political area that attracts a permanent flow of peoples and cultures of the three monotheistic religions. The main role of the United Nations would be to place increased pressure to enforce international law, which to date has been countermanded by U.S. refusal to accept and abide by the law.
Today, the United Nations rescues Palestinians from starvation and allows Israel to continue, but UN Peace Builders are needed to intervene. The role of academics is to establish a critical dialogue with Israel without exclusion (boycott) or reverence. “Freedom of thought, investigation and analysis, in short, the labours of the mind should lead from discourse to activism,” Balibar stated. “The ethics and politics of publicly ‘Telling the Truth’ is a self-critical task that will build a discourse of what is at stake.”
Unfortunately, the imbalance of power in the partnership between Israel and the United States and their “Imperial Interventions” in the Middle East may result in a catastrophe for Israel and the world, Balibar noted. Because of their combined firepower, which includes a vast proliferation of nuclear weapons, a successful and just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is of utmost importance because the fate of the world may hang in the balance.
Co-sponsors of the Third International Conference on An End to Occupation, A Just Peace in Israel-Palestine, which was held on 3 and 4 July 2004, included MIFTAH, a Palestinian Jerusalem-based non-profit organization; the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP); Hacampus Lo Shotek (The Campus will not Stay Silent), an organization of students and faculty in Israeli universities and colleges, dedicated to campus activities against the occupation and for a just peace in Israel Palestine; and MERIP (The Middle East Research and Information Project), a non-profit, non-governmental, independent organization based in Washington, DC.
*Genevieve Cora Fraser is an environmental and human rights activist, as well as a poet, journalist and playwright.