Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2006, pages 58-59

Waging Peace

Georgetown Hosts Divestment Conference

Noura Erakat and Philip Farah examine successful divestment strategies at the PSM opening plenary (Staff Photo M. Horton).

THE PALESTINE Solidarity Movement (PSM) held its annual conference regarding divestment from Israel at Georgetown University in Washington, DC on Feb. 17-19, 2006. The opening plenary featured Noura Erakat of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation who reviewed the history of the current divestment movement in the context of the successful divestment movement from South Africa, a recurrent theme throughout the conference.

Philip Farah, a former instructor at the Lutheran School in Ramallah, then discussed church divestment efforts. While Presbyterians had voted to divest, he noted, other churches had chosen to “positively invest” in peace. Referring to intense efforts by pro-Zionist groups to pressure the Presbyterian church into dropping divestment, Farah opined that when movements such as divestment reach the mainstream churches, they were well on their way to success.

Sue Blackwell of the (UK) Association of University Teachers (AUT) and the University of Birmingham in England concluded the discussion with an overview of AUT’s passage and subsequent repeal of an academic boycott on Israel as part of a coordinated strategy of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). When there was some disruption by Zionist activists during the question-and-answer session, Georgetown University staff took an active role in removing the agitators from the campus.

About 400 registered attendees then broke off to attend workshops focusing on such subjects as becoming a “media watchdog,” supporting nonviolent resistance, organizing on campus, using the arts and technology in messaging, and outreach to religious groups. While the workshops were for participants only, one important panel was open to the media: “Why Divestment? Why Now?” featured Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada and Mohammed Abed of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Mohammed Abed describes a new global anti-apartheid movement (Staff Photo M. Horton).

Activists had a “moral obligation to use whatever nonviolent means possible to ensure the individual and communal rights of the Palestinian people,” Abed explained, without infringing on the rights of the Jewish people. Moreover, he added, the time for such action was now, as members of the Israeli government had bluntly outlined plans to “disengage” from occupied territory while annexing major settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. This plan has gained legitimacy in the international community, despite the fact that it not only would leave an apartheid state in existence, but would deny the Palestinian people any viable self-determination. Any apartheid system deserved some sort of sanction, Abed argued. He went on to cite Israel’s abuse of Palestinian human rights—including such issues as the wall—as another reason for turning to divestment. Abed identified as a third reason the international community’s failed “peace process” which, instead of achieving a two-state solution, has only led to Palestinians living in Bantustans without any real cultural self-determination. Abed used the example of apartheid South Africa as a model for the successful employment of divestment as a grass-roots tactic, and as a unifying vision of hope for the future.

Abunimah drew titters but made a point when he likened the situation of finding a solution in Palestine and Israel to that of two people divvying up a pizza. While one was talking about a fair division, the other was busy stuffing his mouth with all the pizza he could fit—then, with cheese and tomato dripping from his mouth, pointing at the other and accusing him of spoiling the fair division. The answer to the question “why now?” was clear—later would render the question moot.

The international community could not be relied on to ensure fair talks between Palestinians and Israelis, Abunimah argued. He reminded the audience of Israel’s 2004 attack on Rafah refugee camp, resulting in hundreds of houses demolished, dozens of civilians killed, and thousands wounded and left homeless—some for the third and fourth times. Abunimah also pointed out that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan had said there was no “international will” to stop the demolitions, defined as war crimes by international human rights organizations. Describing the money donated to rebuild the houses as blood money, Abunimah concluded that, given the lack of international will to curb Israeli aggression, the grass-roots methods of BSD are effective nonviolent alternatives.

In his keynote address later that day, Abunimah reiterated the commonalities between South Africa and Israel, noting their cooperation during South Africa’s apartheid era. The hope of South Africa, he said, was that when Israelis and Palestinians finally realized the inseparable nature of their respective aspirations, they could look to present-day South Africa as a model.

A cultural celebration featured Palestinian-American hip hop artist the Iron Sheik, Feras Qumseya, Dana Yousef, Baltimore-based political hip hop artist Son of Nun, and the DC Dabkeh dance troupe.

The conference concluded with a closing plenary on “Carrying the Movement Forward,” featuring Mohammed Abed and Omar Barghouti of Tel Aviv University.

Barghouti, who lives within the Green Line, described the Israeli government’s systemic discrimination against Palestinians, illustrating his points with horror stories of children killed and the annexation wall’s disruption of Palestinian lives. Some Israelis, he said sarcastically, complained that it spoiled their view, and others worried about the genetic pool of animals isolated on either side of the wall.

Reminding the audience that while denying the right of return to Palestinians, Israelis demanded the right of “return” for all Jews to Israel, Barghouti pointed out that the World Sephardic Federation had asked for the right of return for Jews expelled from Andalusia in the l5th century. He also answered one objection to BSD—that divestment would make the situation worse for Palestinians by limiting U.S. and European influence on Israel—by asserting that neither, in fact, had any effective influence.It was naïve to try to wish away the situation with further calls for dialogue, Barghouti concluded.

Abed described a new global anti-apartheid movement growing rapidly in churches, trade unions and universities, citing a recent Green Party (U.S.) resolution supporting boycott and divestment. He urged activists to reach out to other Greens, as well as the other groups in the anti-war movement. Reiterating the reasons why divestment was a good tactic—with the caveat that basic needs should not be a target of divestment or boycott—Abed concluded the conference by urging all in attendance to get involved.

Sara Powell

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