Justice and the Struggle for Palestine


Journalist Ali Abunimah is one of the most important sources of information and analysis of the Israeli war on Palestine and the ongoing struggle for justice. He is cofounder of the invaluableElectronic Intifada website and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. He talked to Eric Ruder about the latest developments in the region–and what lies ahead for Palestinians.

CAN YOU describe how the Arab Spring that began with the overthrow of U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt has reshaped the terrain faced by those engaged in the struggle for Palestinian liberation?

I THINK it has become clear that for a long time, the major obstacle between Palestinians and freedom–as well as for other Arab peoples–is the role of U.S. hegemony and empire in the region. That's not something new or particularly controversial. The only thing is that people call it by different names.

People who support it talk about "U.S. influence" or "the U.S. role" or "U.S. interests," and people who tend to oppose it call it by the name of "empire." But we're really talking about the same thing.

The Arab Spring–or the Arab uprisings, which I think is a more descriptive term–are as much a set of uprisings against local rulers as they are against a regional order which has kept those dictatorships in place, misusing the resources of the countries in the region and generally holding back people from fulfilling their potential.

I think the uprising exists in that context, and Israel fits into it because Israel is highly dependent on U.S. support. I don't particularly buy the argument that Israel is an enormous asset to the United States. I think Israel is, in many respects, a burden and an obstacle to smooth U.S. control of the region.

But in any case, the U.S. and Israel are intertwined, and the challenge to U.S. power is also a challenge to Israeli power. So the struggle in the long term or medium term is whether Arab countries, especially Egypt, can really gain independence and sovereignty. If so, that is a real threat to Israeli and American hegemony in the region.

I think that would generally favor the prospects for Palestinians getting their own freedom. But there is obviously a very strong U.S.-led counterrevolution, in which it has local and regional allies–Israel and Saudi Arabia, in particular). The jury is out on whether these uprisings are going to be able to really push back the frontiers of empire and create a space for people in the region to determine their own futures.

THERE SEEM to be many different ideas about how the struggle should proceed strategically and tactically–from the mass marches on the borders of Israel on the Nakba and Naksa day protests to the push for Palestinian statehood at the UN in September. What is driving these debates?

WE'RE IN the midst of an enormous paradigm shift that has been ongoing for a few years, and which I've spoken and written about in the past–the slow death of the paradigm of a so-called "two-state solution" and of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

What gave the Oslo Accords their legitimacy was the notion that at the end of the road, there was going to be a free and independent Palestinian state that was going to fulfill the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people. That was the carrot that was always held out–if you keep plodding along this road, eventually you'll get there.

So the Oslo Accords heralded the creation of a Palestinian Authority (PA), but the PA was thoroughly under Israeli control. I think what people see now is that you'll never get there, and this whole charade of the peace process has been a cover for deepening Israeli colonization and ethnic cleansing.

The PA has really become–as it was meant to be from the very beginning–an enforcement arm for Israeli occupation, suppressing any form of Palestinian resistance, whether it's popular resistance or armed resistance, in order to permit Israel a headache-free occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.

Meanwhile, within the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel, we see increasing repression of the 1.4 million Palestinians living there. And there's a growing resort to outright fascist and repressive measures by Israel's ultra-national government to enforce its ideological outlook on both Arabs and Jews.

For example, there's making kindergarten children sing the Israeli national anthem–which should really be called a Jewish nationalist anthem instead of a national anthem, because it's a specifically sectarian anthem that is designed to instill a chauvinist ideology in children.

There's the banning of discussion of the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. There's the recently passed law criminalizing any individual or group calling for a boycott of Israel. There's a series of laws stripping parliamentary immunity and privileges from Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Knesset, like Haneen Zoaby.

There's also a growing slew of laws and practices that are about residential segregation and enforcement of apartheid in order to preserve particular areas for Jews only. There are "morality patrols" that are designed to deter Jewish women from dating or marrying or seeing Arab men, which are so reminiscent of Jim Crow-era racism and anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.

So we see Israeli society retreating into this increasingly racist and chauvinistic register, both at the level of official laws and policies and at a social level.

In this context, the notion of negotiations–the constant refrain that "if the Israelis and Palestinian Authority just sat down at the negotiating table"–isn't convincing anymore. Nobody believes that the PA, which is totally under the thumb of Israel and the U.S., sitting down with an extremist government like Israel's can come up with a reasonable and just peace.

It defies logic. It requires you to believe in all kinds of fairy tales and magic to think that those ingredients can produce any kind of a just or viable or legitimate peace settlement. So I think the struggle is shifting back toward the people from whom it was wrested by the so-called "peace process." That's why we see an increase in popular resistance on the ground in Palestine–for example, the mass marches to the boundaries of Palestine on Nakba day and Naksa day.

And of course, we see the growth of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which Israel perceives as an enormous threat, because it is independent of governments and independent of institutions. It's being taken to heart by people around the world, based on their support for the principles contained in the Palestinian civil society call for BDS.

So that's where I see the struggle shifting–and why I see the debate shifting away from partition, segregation and the creation of ethno-national states to keep people apart, and toward universal rights, justice and equality. I think historically, those ideas are impossible to resist and that's the direction we're heading.

WHAT ABOUT the push for Palestinian statehood, for which the PA is hoping to gain enough support to get a vote at the UN in September. I've talked to some activists who have expressed enthusiasm for this, saying that even if it's only a small step forward, it should be celebrated. And I've talked to others who oppose it. What do you think?

I DON'T think it's something to be celebrated, and I think we need to be very clear about that.

First of all, Palestinian civil society has not asked activists and international solidarity movements to support the UN statehood bid. On the other hand, Palestinian civil society has expressed, on many occasions, a consensus in support of BDS.

There was a statement issued a few weeks ago by the BDS National Committee about the question of statehood. It was carefully worded–it didn't say, "We're against this." But it did say that regardless of the specifics of what happens, a declaration at the UN is going to make no difference at all. The struggle has to be a struggle for the rights of Palestinians everywhere, and that's not going to change at all.

Even PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who's supposedly behind this, said on July 21 that this won't affect the peace process, and we'll still have to go back to the same old negotiations–which, of course, have gone nowhere for decades–regardless of whether the UN votes to admit the state of Palestine.

So what's really going on here? At the most, what would happen in September, if it happens at all, is that the UN would vote to admit Palestine as a state. The UN will not vote to create a state of Palestine. It will not recognize Palestine, and it will not take any enforcement action against Israel to make Palestine happen.

This will amount–at most–to symbolically changing the nameplate of the existing Palestinian Authority delegation at the UN from "Observer Mission of Palestine" to "State of Palestine." That's it. As I said before, you'd have to believe in magic to think that this would miraculously translate into some kind of concrete action.

The argument I've heard time and again is, "Well look, if Palestine is recognized as a state, this will encourage all sorts of international action and sanctions. Israel will be in violation of the rights of a sovereign state, and this will somehow increase pressure on Israel."

But all you have to do is look at the precedents of what has happened up to this point. Israel has occupied the territory of many sovereign states–whether it's Lebanon or Syria or Egypt–for decades, and the UN never took action to enforce international law and force Israel to withdraw.

Secondly, none of the violations on the ground–whether we're speaking of settlements, colonization, wall construction, mass incarceration, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their land in the West Bank or the siege of Gaza–will change with a UN declaration. Unless of course there were to be some concrete action taken to force Israel to comply. But we've seen dozens of resolutions over decades saying all of these activities by Israel are illegal and must stop, and no action has ever been taken.

So why would that change all of a sudden in September? How would the PA, which can't even pay the salaries of its armies of civil servants and patronage payroll workers, suddenly be able to take on Israel just because it has another piece of paper from the UN?

People need to focus not on the fetish of statehood, but on actual Palestinian rights, which are expressed in the BDS call. We need to focus on a real end to the occupation of all Arab lands occupied in 1967; an end to all forms of discrimination, inequality and apartheid for Palestinians within Israel; and full respect for the rights of refugees, including the right of return.

That is the essence of equality, the essence of universal rights, and that's actually what the Palestinian cause has been about since the beginning.

ARE THERE ways in which statehood is not only not a step forward but actually a step backward? For example, if "statehood" is achieved, could it freeze in place existing arrangements that are, as you pointed out, inherently unequal and don't fulfill the basic rights of Palestinians?

I THINK there are dangers of that, to be honest. Part of the problem is that this is completely uncharted territory. But the danger, I think, is that by recognizing a state within boundaries that Israel doesn't even recognize, Israel's acquisition of land by force up to this point will be given UN recognition.

And why should Palestinians recognize Israel's conquest of 78 percent of Palestine in 1948 when Israel doesn't recognize any Palestinian right to any part of the land? The danger is that some governments will say, "Look, we voted for statehood, what more do you want from us? It's time for you to give up on the laundry list of other demands"–which, of course, are basic Palestinian rights.

So there is a danger that this would legitimize the status quo–that countries would say, "We've fulfilled our obligation toward you, and this is now just a border dispute between two states of the kind that exists in the dozens around the world."

The PA has a history of relying on the good will of the so-called "international community"–but the international community doesn't have good will when it comes to enforcing Palestinian rights. So PA officials have essentially disempowered themselves as well as the popular movements, and now they again want to throw themselves on the mercy of a UN that has never acted to enforce its decisions when it comes to Palestine.

So yes–there are risks, and we don't even know the full extent of them. This could be a very dangerous step.

COULD YOU describe what the U.S.–as a leading part of the "international community"–is doing to stand in the way of these legitimate Palestinian demands?

WHAT ISN'T the U.S. doing to frustrate Palestinian rights and crush any movement toward Palestinian liberation? That would be a shorter list than what it is doing.

Of course, Israel is dependent on the U.S.–militarily, politically and diplomatically. And as I mentioned, the U.S. is a declining power, particularly in the Arab world and in southwest Asia in general. That doesn't mean the U.S. isn't still very powerful. But it is also under challenge. And it certainly cannot guarantee its hegemony the way it did for many years.

So that's on one side. Then on the other side, there is the voice of people–the kind of mass movements that we're seeing now, which present a real challenge to the existing order.

But of course, the U.S. is helping Israel in every possible way, including using its veto at the UN to prevent even symbolic action toward accountability for Israel's war crimes–toward actually making Israel comply with international law in any way.

Another element of this is bringing Israel's war to the United States through the increasing criminalization of Palestine solidarity work in the U.S.–through the harassment, the subpoenas and the raids we've seen against Palestine solidarity activists and antiwar and labor activists under the Obama administration. This is a really ominous sign of the ongoing attempt to criminalize solidarity with Palestine.

WHY DO you think the U.S. is taking these steps?

THAT'S OF course a question that people debate. I think that the United States supports Israel, and Israel supports U.S. hegemony in the region. They're kind of symbiotic in that sense.

I think there has been some sense among U.S. elites in the past couple years that Israel is actually starting to become a burden–a strategic burden which stands in the way of smooth American hegemony in the region. This has created a fear among some of the most pro-Israel elements in the U.S. that the U.S. may be getting ready to abandon Israel in some way.

I certainly think that the notion, agreed upon by the Israeli lobby and by some on the left, that Israel is the cat's paw of U.S. imperialism in the region–or to put it the way the Israel lobby does that Israel is America's unsinkable aircraft carrier–is not an obvious narrative to me. Because I think Israel makes life quite difficult for the U.S.

But as we can see, within domestic politics in the U.S., pro-Israel constituencies still have great influence, and those pro-Israel constituencies include not just the ones that are easily identified, such as American Jewish groups that support Israel, but also the large radical Christian movement that supports Zionism. Then there's the defense, military and intelligence communities–they all have strong relationships with Israel that favor the status quo.

WHAT ARE some of the next steps for who are part of the effort to address the long-standing injustices suffered by the Palestinians?

I THINK we have to keep on with what we're doing. We're facing increasing resistance from pro-Israel elements in the U.S., and I think that's because our work is effective, and it's reaching people. It's particularly reaching young people on university campuses.

It's also starting to reach people in labor unions and churches and just about everywhere. The debate at the ground level is really starting to shift. At the elite level, it's still very much a pro-Israel discussion, with an exclusion and marginalization of any other voices. But I think that the Internet and our access to creating our own media means that we've been able to bypass the gatekeepers of public discourse in this country and really start to reach far and wide.

We have to keep doing that–keep educating people about the BDS movement, why it's moral, why it's just, pro-peace and pro-human rights. We have to step up the effort, and I believe strongly that things are moving in the right direction.

Transcribed by Karen Domínguez Burke.

  

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