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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1997, pgs. 55-63

Arab American Activism

ADC Conference Attracts 2,000

"Organizing Is Power," the theme of its 14th national convention, illustrated what the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) has begun to accomplish in its 17 years of existence. Nearly 2,000 Arab Americans indicated their assent by attending the conference, held June 12-15 at the Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel in Arlington, Virginia.

The convention opened with a lobbying day in which conventioneers were enjoined to present their concerns to their congressional representatives. In the pre-briefing, Raafat Dajani, director of the American Committee on Jerusalem, informed participants of Israeli expropriation, settlement, and exclusion policies in the Holy City.

Houeida Saad, ADC director of legal services, suggested advocacy of including ancestry data in the 2000 census and of allowing "Persian Gulf evacuees" to remain in the United States as permanent residents. She also recommended protesting the ban on travel to Lebanon and airline "profiling" that targets Arab Americans. Dr. Quais Mekki, a physician, asked his fellow ADC activists to protest the Iraqi sanctions policy, which is causing thousands of children to die every month.

Two Arab-American congressional aides briefed the participants on how to make their political voices heard. Randa Fahmy, counselor to Arab-American Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-MI), challenged the audience to get involved in the political process from the ground floor. She recommended working on campaigns, contributing, articulating concerns, and voting especially as part of an organized group. Fahmy advocated lobbying in favor of unconditional renewal of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, which allows Washington to maintain contact with the PLO and to aid the PNA. Chris Mansour, chief of staff for Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI), suggested fostering dialogue when members of Congress are newly elected, asking for even-handedness, and beginning with relatively non-controversial requests.

That evening, members of Congress joined ADC members for an Arab dinner on Capitol Hill. Addressing the audience, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) said that he had recently returned from a "deeply moving" fact-finding trip to the Middle East. He pledged "every ounce" of his energy always to be a "bridge for peace."

Arab-American Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) discussed his efforts against the Lebanon travel ban, which he said hurts Lebanese reconstruction and American business interests. He stated that America's interests would be served by getting the peace process back on track, regretted the U.S. vetoes of U.N. resolutions against settlement building, and called for more U.S. pressure on Israel if necessary. Other members who spoke included Arab-American Rep. John Sununu, Jr. (R-NH) and Rep. James T. Walsh (R-NY).

Friday morning featured panels on "Arabs in the Media" and "The State of Arab Americans." Senator Abraham, chair of the Immigration and Refugee Issues subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, gave the keynote address at the luncheon.

He highlighted outrageous cases in which permanent residents are to be deported for their activities with organizations like the General Union of Palestinian Students. The afternoon included the following presentations: "Bad Bills Make Bad Laws," "Building Coalitions," "Growing Up Arab American," and "ALSAC/St. Jude Hospital: A Model Organization."

In the evening, a "Celebrities' Dinner" highlighted the talents of Assad Kelada, director of the hit TV series "Who's the Boss?"; Kathy Najimy, actress awarded for her comic role in "Sister Act"; and Michele Shaheen, award-winning jazz singer. Emcee Jack Shaheen, author of The TV Arab (and father of Michele Shaheen), presented a "Tolerance Award" to Filmmakers Collaborative for highlighting the accomplishments of the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. On behalf of ADC, Shaheen also presented an "Intolerance Award" to HBO for its docudrama "Path to Paradise," which aired June 14.

Saturday presentations covered the international scene. Opening the panel "U.S. Foreign Policy & International Human Rights," ADC Director of Legal Services Houeida Saad noted that a U.S. veto protected Israel from liability for the 1996 massacre of Lebanese refugees at Qana. She decried U.S. support for Israel's Jerusalem policies, which seek to deny Palestinian Jerusalemites even those holding U.S. citizenship their right to residency.

Omar Turbi, a founding member of the Libyan Human Rights Commission, discussed the sanctions on Libya and their impact on the Libyan people. One such example, the flight ban, punishes Libya for Muammar Qaddafi's refusal to extradite two suspects accused of planting a bomb in Pan Am Flight 103 that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. Turbi criticized the sanctions, stating that "the Libyan government has put forth a valid legal argument with respect to international law and legal due process." He complained that the Security Council determined Libya to be a threat to international peace and security, even though the identity of the bombers still is in doubt. According to Turbi, U.S. foreign policy toward Libya is motivated by domestic pressure against all enemies of Israel. Turbi observed that sanctions and embargoes against Libya have been in place since 1981 long before the bombing "to prevent Libyans from assisting the Palestinian resistance movement."

Turbi said that because of sanctions thousands of people requiring emergency medical treatment unavailable in Libya have died because they cannot be flown abroad. Others do not survive road trips of over 1000 miles each way to states without flight bans. Turbi, whose brother has been imprisoned in Libya for 15 years without charge or trial, readily acknowledged that "the Libyan regime is very brutal to its own citizens in terms of human rights." However, he observed, the sanctions have not weakened Qaddafi but only added to the misery of the civilian population.

Illustrating the U.S. double standard, Turbi said, "The United States accepts without criticism" and even spins "a protective cocoon" around persistent Israeli violations of binding U.N. resolutions and international law. Meanwhile, "embargoes initiated by the United States on a variety of pretexts against Sudan, Iraq, Iran, and Libya all serve to reduce or eliminate altogether legitimate resistance to quell Israeli violations."

Next, Stephen Zunes, assistant professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, gave a damning overview of "U.S. Foreign Policy and Israeli Hegemony in the Middle East." He began by recalling the U.S. response to the 1956 Suez Crisis as an ideal moment in which the principles of international law and human rights trumped the support of allies who were committing aggression. "Forty years later," he observed, "U.S. foreign policy is the antithesis of these values."

Professor Zunes noted that Israel continues to occupy Lebanon in spite of U.N. Resolution 425, which calls for its "immediate and unconditional" withdrawal. Zunes recalled that the United States would not stand six months of such defiance from Iraq and that "we maintain sanctions on Iraq to this day despite horrific human consequences for what are largely technical violations of a cease-fire agreement that involved unprecedented interference against a country's sovereignty." Zunes also called the sanctions against Libya and Syria over extradition disputes an "unprecedented use of U.N. sanctions."

Yet not only does the United States make no military, economic or diplomatic response to Israeli defiance of international law, Zunes pointed out, but it actually bankrolls the occupation. The United States even supported Israel's 1982, 1993, and 1996 invasions of Lebanon and blocked the Security Council from stopping the slaughter. In Zunes' view, both U.S. support for Israel's merciless Lebanon policy and the travel ban intend "to force Lebanon to sign a separate peace with Israel on American-Israeli terms."

U.S. policy toward Syria, Zunes implied, is equally contemptible. While Syria was once criticized for rejecting Resolutions 242 (land for peace) and 338 (negotiated solution), it is now criticized for insisting upon their full implementation. Syrian-Israeli skirmishes along Israel's Golan border prior to 1967 responded to Israeli provocations, Zunes said, and it has now been revealed by Israeli sources that the land was seized for farmland, not defense.

According to Professor Zunes, the U.S. role regarding the Palestinians has been the "greatest outrage" of all. Over time, the "occupied territories" have been downgraded to "disputed territories," a term that places their sovereignty in question. Washington has "effectively recognized Israel's appropriation of Jerusalem," and the Clinton administration provides Israel additional outright grants when it withholds loan guarantees because of settlement activity.

At this juncture, he pointed out, the Palestinians have no leverage except the Arab economic boycott, and their freedom of maneuver is compromised by U.S. threats to end its meager aid to the Palestinian Authority.

In conclusion, Zunes asserted, the main reason for the impasse in the so-called peace process "is not in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv but in Washington. Israel knows it can do whatever it wants....This is not about being anti-Israel or anti-Zionist, which I am not sure that I am. This is about human rights...self-determination...the integrity of the United law. The Clinton administration is on the wrong side. It is our job to set them right."

Taking his turn at the podium, Palestinian human rights lawyer Jonathan Kuttab expanded on the human rights theme. He stated, "the only way the concept of human rights can have any moral force is if we are willing to apply the same standards rigorously to friend and foe alike, rather than as points of pressure and leverage." Kuttab used this theme to challenge the audience to confront Arab human rights violations.

A Christian, Kuttab called for a "greater jihad" or struggle "against our own shortcomings." He asserted that human rights is really the only substitute for violence.

He called on his fellow Palestinians and other Arabs not to leave internal issues of equality, democracy, and respect for human rights until later. "We must undertake the greater (harder) jihad [internal reform], and the smaller jihad [liberation of occupied territories] will take care of itself." Kuttab received a standing ovation.

Finally, Gamal Abouali, a human rights lawyer, addressed U.S. policy toward Iraq. He noted that the 1990-91 Gulf war followed a decade in which the United States indulged Iraq and largely ignored its massive human rights violations. According to a 1991 U.N. mission, the allied war on Iraq had "near-apocalyptic results" and relegated Iraq to a pre-industrial age. In spite of international norms that prohibit the targeting of civilians, between 1990 and 1995 more than 500,000 children died as a result of the sanctions, Abouali said.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said that the United Nations will not end the sanctions until Saddam Hussain goes. Yet, Abouali said, this is a "highly ineffective policy because the Iraqi people can't change their government." Like other speakers at the conference, Abouali asserted that U.N. Security Council Resolution 986 ("oil for food") is highly inadequate to meet the basic needs of the Iraqi people. He concluded, "Americans should insist that U.S. foreign policy always put human rights first."

In the next panel, "Thirty Years of Occupation," newly appointed Lebanese Ambassador to the United States Mohamad Chatah said that while Israel has shown itself unready to compromise with the Arabs, "the rebuilding goes on and the resistance to the occupation goes on." Chatah praised the all-Lebanese response of solidarity against the 1996 attack by Israel as an illustration of public support for the unity and wholeness of Lebanon.

Nasser Kidwa, permanent observer of Palestine to the United Nations, asserted that "the Israeli policies and actions represented from the very beginning a planned scheme to colonize the land, exploit the Palestinian people and market, push the people outside the land, and to prevent the realization of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people." According to Kidwa, settlements and "apartheid-like arrangements" have been the vehicle for achieving these goals.

Kidwa suggested that the Arabs increase their demands in response to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's intransigence. For example, they should assert that the legal basis for a just solution is Resolution 181, the 1947 Partition Plan, while accepting Resolution 242 as a minimally-acceptable political solution. In any case, Kidwa said that the Palestinians will not resume negotiations until settlement activity, especially in Jabal Abu Ghneim, ceases.

Kidwa noted that "the United States has effectively relieved the Israeli side from the principle of the contractual obligations [of the Oslo and Cairo accords]." Since Madrid, there has been a "clear deterioration in the political position of the United States." Examples include departures from assurances given, refusal to call East Jerusalem "occupied territory," and failure to insist that the Fourth Geneva Convention which outlaws settlements applies to all occupied territories.

The final speaker, Syrian Ambassador to the United States Walid al-Moualem, said that under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin the Israelis committed themselves to full withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the line of June 4, 1967, and to allow security arrangements on both sides of the border. He called for a unified Arab position toward Netanyahu's retreat from these agreements.

At the subsequent luncheon, Acting Deputy Attorney General Seth P. Waxman discussed the importance of ADC's efforts to report hate crimes against Arab Americans and to work against the stereotypes and prejudices that fuel such attacks. He asserted that the Department of Justice (DoJ) is working to prevent airline profiling from using discriminatory criteria such as race/ethnicity, national origin, and religion. He also praised immigrants' contribution to American society and said that DoJ is trying to keep the door open to legal immigration.

In response to Waxman, former Arab League Ambassador Clovis Maksoud asserted, "We need the Department of Justice to be a department of justice and not only of law." He called for resolution of the case of Alex Odeh, an ADC official apparently murdered by Jewish Defense League terrorists.

The afternoon agenda included panels on "Arab-American Business Challenges," "Iraq: A Human Tragedy," and "The Power of Organizing." Introducing the Iraq event, ADC President Hala Maksoud said that since "a child is dying every 10 minutes as a result of the sanctions, we must make our voices heard with the administration to try to change this policy." Moderator Asad Bakir said that "if these were children anywhere else in the world, we would have seen them on our TV screens day and night." A physician, Bakir noted that allied raids destroyed vital civilian infrastructure such as sewage pipes, water treatment facilities, pharmaceutical factories, and hospitals. The allies' use of shells tipped with depleted uranium caused a drastic increase in leukemia and other cancers, Dr. Bakir said, and constituted a "low-level nuclear war." The severe problems facing the people of Iraq, he stated, cannot be solved by Resolution 986 ("oil for food").

The video "The Children Are Dying," with former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, illustrated the reasons more than a million Iraqis have died as a result of the sanctions. Adil al-Humadi, a panelist and physician, listed them as follows: (1) economic hardship, (2) environmental contamination, (3) increase in diseases, (4) deficiency of medications, and (5) deficiency of medical supplies and instruments. The population is totally vulnerable under these circumstances, since most families cannot afford the $300 tax to leave the country for medical care.

Sara Flounders, co-coordinator of the International Action Center, emphasized that the war with Iraq is not over, since sanctions are an act of war under international law. She stated that the sanctions are causing a "silent slaughter" and creating an "artificial famine." Flounders asserted, "The sanctions policy could not continue if its consequences were known and confronted....This is a policy that is criminal on every level, and it has no human basis." She shared her belief that the policy was "based on a racial dehumanization of all Arab people." She called for popular protests against the continuation of the war by sanctions.

The level of emotion on the panel rose one step higher when Kathy Kelly, coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness, stepped to the podium. A dedicated activist, Kelly called sanctions a "weapon of mass destruction" and said Iraq's children have "faced onslaughts of biological warfare." She decried Albright's comment that the sanctions-related deaths of 500,000 children was "an acceptable price to pay," noting that fewer children died in Hiroshima.

Kelly criticized the media attempt to convince people that "only one person lives in Iraq, and his name is Saddam Hussain." Following the panel, ADC members dried their eyes, focused their outrage, and formed an ADC Task Force on Iraq to organize for change.

Finally, the evening Awards Banquet, attended by 1,000 people, featured Msgr. Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. He is the first Palestinian to hold this position. The Patriarch called for peace in the Holy City, shared political sovereignty between Palestinians and Israelis, and freedom of religious access for Christians, Muslims, and Jews. His Beatitude shared a statement signed by all the churches in Jerusalem that emphasized the importance and holiness of Jerusalem to Christians and affirmed the right of Palestinians to live there. He said that the Holy See viewed East Jerusalem as occupied and all peremptory actions by Israel as null and void. Church authorities, he noted, believe that the city should be governed by an international instrument but not internationalized.

Following the Patriarch's remarks, conventioneers donated $57,000 to support ADC's ongoing work. Mahmoud Darwish, the unofficial Palestinian national poet, recited his own works until late at night to thunderous approval. The convention closed on Sunday with an ADC General Assembly and Town Meeting and a panel on "Owning Our Future."

The passion, compassion, insight, and artistic talent displayed at the convention by Arab Americans and their supporters hinted at the rich depth of Arab culture. If this convention is any indication, ADC will no doubt continue to play a vital role in raising issues of identity and community at home and of justice and injustice abroad.

—Katherine M. Metres