Tuesday, January 12, 2010

We still have hope

It is 7 am and I am surrounded by a large, warm, welcoming Hebron family that can't stop feeding me. Foolishly I thought if I got up early enough, I could blog discretely by myself, but this is not the way of the surround-sound/love/talk/prayer/eat that is the norm here.
So, a bit of information about the issue of refugees. (Quick confession: I am learning how to write with the din of human activity all around me and I am beginning to reach toxic levels of hummus which may affect my ability to think clearly.)
On January 11, we visit with Mohammed Jaradet of the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. He speaks in a deep, resonant voice and has sparkling olive green eyes that twinkle as he presents. He explains to the delegation that today 2/3 of Palestinians are refugees, mostly from 1948, and some from 1967. The more than seven million displaced Palestinians constitute the world's largest and longest standing case of forced displacement; thus any political solution must include a solution to the refugee crisis as well as other well known issues.
Mohammed has been involved in a variety of technical teams, campaigns, and conferences, beginning with Oslo and moving forward. He notes that in the 5000 pages of the Oslo Accord, only one sentence focused on the question of the refugees. "If you want to kill a tree, you dig up the roots." Thus he sees that one of the primary problems, Palestinian refugees, has repeatedly during the "peace process" been left to be dealt with later or is entirely out of the conversation.
In 1994 a popular campaign was begun and in 1995, the first popular conference was held in the former detention center, Al Faran, where many of the attending Palestinians had previously been imprisoned. 1500 people attended from Israel, the West Bank, and the diaspora, and this conference established the principle that the Palestinian struggles are not really about statehood, but rather about human rights.
In 1998, BADIL, (which means alternative), opened its first office in Bethlehem to focus on:
1. campaigns (education, youth, boycott, divestment, sanctions)
2. development of intellectual resources
3. legal and advisory work.
Mohammed easily admits that he does not care about sovereignty, but rather about human rights and international law, including UN Resolutions. He explains that the right of return, enshrined in UN Resolution 194, states that refugees who wish, have the right to return and/or to compensation. Clearly he has explored the realities of such an option. He explains that return or restitution is a human right. On the other hand, the options to integrate into the host country or to integrate into a new host country are a privilege that is granted by the host country. He understands that most Israelis find this argument crazy and say something to the effect that we have one small country and the Arabs have 22 countries, let the Palestinians go there. He replies that Palestinians have one hope and no state and they have clearly not been welcomed in Lebanon, Egypt, many of the Gulf States, and so forth.

He also notes that Israel is largely vacant. 84% of Jewish Israelis live on 16% of the land defined by 1948. So there are options for return. Palestinians could build new towns at the sites of destroyed villages that are not inhabited; they could live near the sites of their previous homes; they have no desire to destroy what has been built since they left or to create new injustices for the generation born in Israel. And he is ready to be creative. He suggests that the descendants of the town on which Tel Aviv University was built be given free tuition as compensation. His focus is on people rather than institutions, and he notes ironically that states have been built and destroyed over the centuries but the people remain; he has dedicated his life to people, prosperity, and living together equally.

This sentiment leads him directly to the boycott, divestment, sanction (BDS) struggle which is occuring in the context of this conflict. He explains that boycott involves individual consciousness around issues of state aggression and apartheid and the avoidance of products that are produced by the Israeli state. Divestment involves ethical behavior by companies that refuse to profit at the expense of destroying another people. Sanctions occur on a governmental level and he notes that George Mitchell just recently stated something to the effect that the US will freeze grants to Israel if there is not movement on negotiations and the freezing of settlement growth. As the Israeli government is very sensitive to public opinion and very dependent on international support, this kind of talk is extremely threatening and indeed these comments created an uproar. He also refers to the Goldstone Report and remarks that if not for US protection, much of the Israeli leadership could end up accused in International Criminal Courts. I remember hearing that some Israeli leaders are cautious about traveling outside of the country for fear of arrest or international accusations of misdeeds.

The Palestinians themselves are also in crisis with two devastated, fragmented leaderships, neither of which represents the consciousness of their communities, which Mohammed reminds us includes the diaspora. This is a "schizophrenic situation." People say the Palestinians "elected Hamas," but neither the Palestinians in exile nor the 1.5 million in Israel voted. The consensus of election analysts is also that this vote was primarily a revenge against Fatah, rather than a vote for Hamas. Mohammed states that he was on the election committee and when he saw Christians and secular people voting for Hamas, "Part of my hair turned white." Palestinians are proud of their secular democratic society. If there had not been international interference and blockade of Gaza, Mohammed predicts that Hamas would have failed at governance in two to three years as they are primarily a charitable organization for their members rather than a service organization for the whole people. He found himself forced to defend Hamas because they were the peoples' choice (not his) and also notes that Abbas is not the worst of leaders. "Even a genius in this conflict would look stupid because he is weak and has huge pressures from Israel, the US, Europeans, and the quarter of a million employees of the Palestinians Authority who went without salary for two years due to the international boycott.

He notes that civil society organizations are increasing in power and BADIL has "a very argumentative relationship with the Palestinian leadership." They helped change Abbas' mind regarding his dismissal of the Goldstone Report "in 24 hours." He also notes that Hamas is not an authentic Palestinian movement, but
rather a part of the Moslem Brotherhood and accountable to outside pressures.

Mohammed continues to review the conditions on the ground. He states that the Oslo Agreement in 1993 forced Palestinians to cooperate with the Israeli authorities on security, but there was no attention to social affairs, development, etc. The Occupied Territories were divided into Area A (18% of the West Bank, under Palestinian Authority control), Area B (22% of the West Bank, under Palestinian Authority civil control, Israeli military control) and Area C (60% of the West Bank, Israeli control), but functionally the entire area is under Israeli military control and the Israelis reserve the right to invade at any time and the "Palestinians stand like good boys turning their face around. This is a humiliation." In another instance he notes that if their is a business dispute between a Jewish Israeli and a Palestinian, the Israeli court can ask the Palestinian Authority to arrest the Palestinian, but the Jewish businessman can never be arrested by the Palestinian Authority. He also sees that the US only pushes "democratization of the Moslem world" when it suits their political and security interests, but they readily support a repressive leader like the Egyptian President who works closely with Israel, the CIA, and the US military when it comes to the Egyptian/Gaza border at Rafa. He adds that Hamas leadership in Gaza are living well, but the people are paying the price and ultimately, they will not submit to this kind of leadership.

After our discussion, I remember that an old friend, Shawqi Issa, a human rights lawyer who spent time at Harvard several years ago, has an office upstairs. Luckily for me, he welcomes me into his office, and I remember his big picture window with a view of the large Jewish settlement of Gilo covering the horizon. We are soon sipping thick Arabic coffee and talking about his growing children and his latest legal cases. Two things he says are particularly disturbing. First he explains that in 2000 the Palestinian Authority contracted with Israel to provide for all the expenses of Palestinians housed in Israeli prisons. An Israeli company provides goods for the prisoners at exorbitant prices and the PA pays, thus the Israeli authorities are making a profit from the Palestinian prisoners. In addition, if a prisoner makes any mistake (like shouting at a guard) then the prisoner is fined and the PA pays the fine to the tune of millions of shekels per year. The profit made from this arrangement then funds the expenses of the military courts, judges salaries, etc. So the very people who put Palestinians in jail financially benefit from their imprisonment. Shawqi is working to end this corrupted relationship with a number of civil society groups and he feels that if this can be changed, the population of prisoners will drop dramatically. The difficulty is that the PA also provides the prisoner's family with a subsidy, so this is a difficult topic for Palestinian politicians to touch. Shawqi argues that the Israeli authorities should be responsible for the upkeep of their prisoners.

As we move on to other topics, Shawqi mentions that he is working on the Goldstone Report, "great!" and the upcoming presentation for the UN. He then notes something very disturbing. The news in the US has lately been about Netanyahu's willingness to halt settlement growth (except for East Jerusalem and a list of other exceptions), but Shawqi notes a dramatic increase in settlement activity and Palestinian house demolitions in the past two months. His phone rings continuously as we talk, many of them reports of new demolitions or settlement trouble.

He smiles warmly, his hair prematurely greying (surely one of the effects of the occupation I think) and states, "But we still have hope." He notes that BDS is now the most important activity that needs to be developed in order to encourage Israel to change its behavior. He shrugs his shoulders and gestures, "War is stupid, shouting is useless, law is useless, BDS works."

As I head down the seven flights of stairs, my head is spinning and I am trying to imagine, why is this so difficult to discuss in the US? And I realize this all comes down to the Zionist dream which by definition privileges Jews over Palestinians, and thus, by definition does not treat Palestinians as equal human beings with rights and dreams and mistakes and aspirations. It feels to me that it is this first step that is the hardest to take, and the obvious consequence of taking that first step, is the questioning of the concept of a Jewish state which by design can never be truly democratic, is committed to maintaining a Jewish majority at any cost despite demographics to the contrary, and by design will always be in conflict with the indigenous people that paid the price for its existence. Spending hours with Palestinians active in civil society, committed to democracy and human rights, continuing to work against all odds for justice and the implementation of international law is an uplifting and mind-altering experience. I wish I could explain this to my cousins in New York who think Amnesty International is an anti-Semitic organization or to my anxious friends in Israel who think I should be traveling with an armed guard as "these people are dangerous." They are really missing out on some incredible partners for peace.

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