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 one of the world’s
largest and longest standing cases 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 a tightening 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 its
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 wonder) 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,
dreams, mistakes, and aspirations of their own.  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 definition 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.