For years, Israel condemned Palestinians for terrorism, but now Israel seems equally upset over non-violent resistance from a boycott movement aimed at ending more than six decades of repression against Palestinians, a reaction that shows progress, author Ali Abunimah tells Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Amid the impending collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Israel-Palestine negotiations for a two-state solution, Israel appears determined to expand settlements in the West Bank while Palestinians are ratcheting up international pressure in pursuit of their human rights.
In a new book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Ali Abunimah sees surprising hope in the possibility of a democratic one-state solution achieved through growing global support for a boycott-divestment movement targeting what he calls Israeli “apartheid” in Palestine.
Co-founder and director of the Electronic Intifada, Abunimah is also the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli Palestinian Impasse. He is the recipient of a 2013 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship and spoke with Dennis J Bernstein.
DB: Please let me begin, Ali, by asking you, are people better off now than 20 years ago in Occupied Palestine? How would you evaluate the situation?
AA: I started The Battle for Justice in Palestine with a very short sentence: “The Palestinians are winning.” And that might sound really out-of-touch given the fact that in so many ways Palestinians are actually worse off today than they were 20 years ago, after 20 years of the so-called Oslo Peace Process. And I chronicle that in the book, from the siege of Gaza, which you know, has absolutely devastated the economy there, devastated the foundations of civilized life, to the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Bedouins in the Negev, to the catastrophe facing Palestinian refugees in Syria. You might think that I’m out-of-touch.
But the story I tell in this book is, I think in terms of the public debate and public understanding of the real roots of the violence and conflict in Palestine, things have never been better in many ways. There is an incredibly vibrant and growing movement for justice in Palestine that’s like nothing I have seen in 20 years. And so in this book I wanted to lay out some of the realities that really offer hope, that there is a path forward. And we are very much on it. And that’s what I hope The Battle for Justice in Palestine offers.
DB: Talk a little bit about where one finds the hope. Clearly, in the everyday, daily situation, we’ve got the Israelis continually being supported by the U.S. government, although the U.S. government says, “No, you shouldn’t expand those settlements” or ”No, that’s wrong. Don’t knock down those houses. It’s not going to help.” So we have that continuing, but what are the counter-balances to the extraordinary oppression that continues to exist in the isolated Gaza Strip? What are the counter balances? What are the emerging forces that give you hope?
AA: Well, a few years ago when Barack Obama was elected I wrote a piece, looking forward, predicting what I thought would happen in the next few years, and I said two things: One is that there was going to be no two-state solution. And, the peace process would go absolutely no where, and I was right about that. I guess that’s not too hard to be right about.
The other thing I said is that this was not going to remain static, and those who support justice in Palestine would have options. And a main option in North America and in many parts of the world for people who are fed up with this, is to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. And, so a major change is that this movement is a real force now. It’s a much more significant force than John Kerry’s peace negotiations.
And you can see that in the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu devoted one-third of his recent speech at the AIPAC, Israel lobby conference, to attacking the BDS Movement. This is a real factor on campuses all over the country. I was at the University of Michigan a few weeks ago, when there was the largest-ever attendance at any student government meeting. Thousands of people were there, either in person or watching on video feed, when divestment was being debated.
And when that vote was lost because the students chickened out, in a sense, there was this spontaneous rally of hundreds of people. And I thought to myself, I have seen this kind of energy and mobilization before but it has always been around a military attack, Operation Cast Lead, or some other atrocity, the war in Lebanon. And then it has gradually died down and dissipated. What is different now is that this is a sustained movement.
People in power, institutions in power are being forced to react. They are being forced, they feel, to condemn the ethical movement that students are leading. And they are being forced to try and stamp this out through censorship, rather than to address it.
But you know what? That’s always how it’s been. As powerful institutions, they don’t take the right side, they don’t take the ethical side. They have to be pushed and pressured and fought into doing the right thing eventually. And I think the critical mass that I’m seeing on campuses is just like something I’ve never seen. But it’s much bigger than that. And yet that’s just one of the places that I think we see things changing.
DB: This movement that’s happening, in terms of the boycott and divestment movement, it is interesting that it’s taking hold in spite of what is quite a bit of repression happening on the campuses against the students and the teachers, right? This is not an easy row.
AA: It’s a lot of repression. And, I write about this in the book that since 2010 the Israel lobby and pro-Israel organizations have spent millions, if not tens of millions of dollars, in trying to repress Palestine solidarity activism on campuses and particularly the BDS movement. And they are not just targeting activists, they are also targeting educators and teachers and professors in the institutions themselves. And one of the major groups in this campaign is something called The David Project, which is founded by a really extreme, pro-Israel Islamophobe.
They actually recommend accusing professors who teach about Palestine, accusing them of academic malpractice. And trying to bring in all of the disciplinary proceedings against students, against teachers. And we’ve seen that in a big way. We saw it in the Irvine 11 trial where the University of California, Irvine, colluded with Orange County prosecutors to bring their own students to trial. For what? For protesting against the Israeli ambassador. We’ve seen the abusive use of U.S. civil rights law to try and stifle activism on campus.
And just in the past few weeks we’ve seen absolutely astonishing acts of censorship and repression. For the first time, Northeastern University in Boston, it became the first U.S. university to have the distinction of banning outright a Students for Justice in Palestine group. And just last week, the spoken word poet and activist, Rami Nashashibi – an event that he was having at Washington University in St. Louis was canceled and they tried to tell him what he could and could not speak about.
All of this is happening, it’s nationwide, it’s unprecedented. There’s a free speech emergency. But on the positive side of it, something that is just really encouraging is the taboo is being broken with the American Studies Association’s vote on boycotting Israel. More and more professors – Judith Butler, the philosopher who’s at Berkeley and is now at Columbia wrote, and I quote her in the preface to the book, that just in the past two years she’s seen a change. People are coming out of the silence. They are starting to speak.
And Israel does not have an answer to this except repression. They cannot win the argument, all they can do is try and stop it. And you know what? It’s too late, it’s happened.
DB: Do you see any change in the way the press has dealt with the issue? Because we know that one of the most censored stories of our time, and I think it’s worse on the liberal channels, you know, the sort of Rachel Maddow channels who have sort of taken up the role of being the protector of the President. Do you think there is a change within the corporate press in terms of covering the story?
AA: Oh, no. It’s worse than ever. And it’s sometimes even worse on the Left, sadly enough. But I’ll tell you a story that we’ve been covering on the Electronic Intifada just in the past few days, we exclusively published the secret court transcripts that everyone else refused to publish, the New York Times, the Associated Press. This was a secret court transcript of a hearing where a judge allowed the incommunicado detention, effectively the fourth disappearance of Majd Kayyal, a Palestinian journalist who’s a citizen of Israel.
And it was because we published it, and a few other independent media outlets published it, that the judge was really forced to lift the gag order. And today, only, after the gag order was lifted the New York Times published the story and they even linked to the Electronic Intifada’s coverage. Which I think shows that’s one example of what we’ve seen time and again, that media like ours, we are setting the agenda. We are reaching people directly. Over the past week when Israelis could not get this news in their own censored media, they were coming by the thousands to the Electronic Intifada to read about what was happening in their own country – where the secret police had disappeared a journalist.
So, on the one hand corporate media is worse than ever, it’s more cowardly than ever, it’s more censored than ever, but our ability to reach passed it and talk to people directly is greater than ever before. And I really think that we are able to set the terms of discussion. You know it’s worse, but there are so many things on the other side of that that are allowing us to really fight it.
DB: Is there support around the globe? Has it been growing in other countries, in other parts of the world for this divestment movement? How does it look at the global level?
AA: Well, again, it’s never looked better. And I think one of the frustrations I’ve always had over the years is that there’s always been very strong latent support for justice in Palestine in many countries around the world, but you know it wasn’t mobilized. I mean people would go out and do opinion polls and find that people object to Israel’s occupation as apartheid, its violence. But other than occasional street demonstrations — those can be important — it wasn’t translating into effective pressure.
And I think the change now is that BDS, these campaigns, all over the world and they take so many forms. In Europe, it’s just incredible what’s been achieved in the past couple of years. They are giving people a way to actually have an impact on the situation, to get involved. And the thing about BDS is it was initiated by Palestinians almost a decade ago. It’s still led by Palestinians but as more and more Palestinians see the response around the world, there’s kind of a virtuous circle where Palestinians who were skeptical about BDS, or skeptical about its potential are saying “Well, actually this is something that we can get behind and we can encourage.”
So I think that momentum has been really positive. And Israel doesn’t know what to do about it. In The Battle for Justice in Palestine, I write about the Reut Institute. It’s this think tank which set the strategy that Israel adopted in 2010 of how to sabotage the Palestine Solidarity Movement. And they were going to focus on what they called these hubs of delegitimization, which included specifically the Bay Area and U.C. Berkeley, which were perceived to be these places that were particularly hostile to Israel. And one of the things they say in their strategy is that basically the most valuable support for Israel, or the most valuable criticism of BDS is going to come from the Left.
Israel’s strategy has been to target the Left through a kind of carrot-and-stick approach. On the one hand, the carrot is presenting Israel as this haven of green technologies, of LGBT rights, which is all bogus. In the book, I actually show how Israel’s acclaims on these things are absolutely false. And its environmental record is horrific. It’s disastrous. And on the other hand, the stick which is these repressive measures, the lawsuits which the Israeli consulate in San Francisco has been very involved in. They were involved in the lawsuit against the Olympian Food Co-op, for example, repression.
And the amazing thing is that all these resources that they are putting in, it’s not working. This [BDS] movement is growing and growing. And I think that’s really the story that needs to be told. And people should understand that actually we’re powerful. We don’t have to sit here and wait for John Kerry or Barack Obama or anyone else to pull something out of their hats. We can set the agenda and that’s what’s happening on this issue.
Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.