Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2004, pages 78-85
Gaza Withdrawal: Implications for U.S. Middle East Policy
THE DAY before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s White House meeting with President George W. Bush, the Institute for Research Middle Eastern Policy (IRmep) and the Council for the National Interest (CNI) co-sponsored an April 13 panel discussion at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Panelists examined Sharon’s conditional unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and Bush’s likely agreement.
CNI president Eugene Bird called for the 2004 Republican and Democratic presidential platforms to include planks calling for the immediate recognition of Palestine as an independent state, the establishment of a new Middle East Peace Alliance in order to end conflict and ensure regional stability, and for revisiting the “road map for peace.”
A growing number of Americans think that Israel should be held accountable for its weapons of mass destruction and human rights violations, Bird said. A Zogby International poll conducted April 1-4, 2004 found that, of 1,032 likely voters, 56 percent agree that Congress should pass an Israeli accountability act similar to the recently passed one concerning Syria, and another under discussion concerning Saudi Arabia.
We are at a “hinge moment” in the Middle East, Bird warned: “On the one hand, Israel continues her occupation policies unchanged. On the other, we have a president caught in a war that may be unwinnable militarily and unsustainable politically. The blame merchants are out on both issues, and the debate is harsh.”
While fear has become a part of the American way of life since 9/11, Bird noted, the fear no one talks about is the fear that comes from the overwhelming influence of a lobby that is directly connected to a foreign government. That lobby has struck fear into the hearts of congressmen and senators, Bird said, into the policymakers in the Department of State, and into the American public itself.
The lobby has tried to “bend every aspect of American policy in the Middle East to the benefit of one state,” Bird charged. But in order to “sell the Iraq war,” he said, “it may have exceeded the allowable bounds of intimidation.”
While all kinds of evidence is coming out on this, Bird concluded, “there are still no public hearings on why the neoconservatives in the Pentagon launched such a pre-emptive strike using a good deal of evidence that obviously came from Israeli intelligence and was later proved entirely wrong.”
Ambassador Edward Peck began his remarks by saying, ”With profound, sincere hope that I am totally wrong, I fear the invasion, occupation, and escalating bloody suppression of the Iraqi people will cost our nation dearly, in many ways and places, for a long time to come. I do not wish to be right,” he emphasized, “but believe the magnitude of that unjustified, expanding catastrophe poses serious, sustained threats to the well-being of all Americans.”
Peck then proceeded to discuss the endgame in Iraq and review possible exit strategies. Relying on the same discredited individuals who got us into the war to extract us “from a debacle they crafted without shame or remorse,” he warned, is a frightening prospect.
Peck also expressed concern that Americans see Iraq “through a fog generated by the mythical American West of books and films.” The language describing the U.S. response to the massive popular uprisings in key Iraqi cities resembles dialogue from “High Noon,” “The OK Corral,” or “Open Range,” which Peck characterized as, “We gotta: ride the bad guys out of town; straighten things out; clean the place up.
“But Fallujah, Najaf, and Karbala are not Western movie sound stages,” the ambassador warned, “and the story line is not a dramatic but foregone removal of a crooked sheriff or powerful cattleman by our good guys, wearing white hats and enthusiastically supported by all the townsfolk. In Iraq,” he noted, “it is large and rapidly growing numbers of townsfolk that we are going after, and the survivors will not love us.
“They perceive us as the bad guys,” Peck explained, “not as we see ourselves: heroes bringing liberation, freedom and peace.”
Grant Smith, IRmep director of research, discussed insights and recommendations extracted from a March 22-April 2 poll of 100 U.S. academics specializing in the Middle East. The academics, he said, who have advanced degrees in Middle East area studies, answered six questions:
- A whopping 96 percent of the academics answered “no” when asked, “Does the U.S. currently have global credibility and legal authority to legitimize a unilateral settlement giving Israel lands outside the 1967 borders?”
- and 3. At least 81 percent of academics surveyed said that formal U.S. recognition of annexation of territory outside the 1967 borders would likely affect terrorist attacks in the Middle East. According to 75 percent of the academics polled, it was likely to affect terrorist attacks inside the U.S.
When asked which factors could be most important in driving a U.S. decision on whether to recognize land outside of 1967 borders as part of Israel, the following considerations were ranked in order of importance:
- 2004 presidential elections (89 percent thought it was critical or an important consideration)
- Lobby-driven domestic political concerns (88 percent)
- Concern about winning the U.S.-led war on terror (59 percent)
- Concern for the safety and security of Israeli citizens (54 percent)
Of course, Smith noted, Middle East academics are not asked for their opinions by the current administration. For the academics’ thought-provoking comments after the survey, as well as pie-charts and more information, see IRmep’s useful Web site: <http://www.irmep.org>.
Hassan Abdul Rahman, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chief representative in Washington, DC, warned that the next day’s White House talks could affect the future of the Palestinian people and perhaps of the entire region. This is “a very, very crucial juncture in the history of the Middle East,” Abdul Rahman said.
Details of “Sharon’s so-called ”˜Disengagement Plan’ from Gaza are a very well known secret,” Abdul Rahman said, as are Sharon’s longterm intentions for the Palestinian people. Sharon has substituted the Quartet’s road map for Palestinians and Israelis with his very own road map. While the original road map was based on mutual undertakings between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and included an Israeli settlement freeze, Abdul Rahman said, Sharon’s new road map shows that the Israeli prime minister “is unilaterally annexing territories in the West Bank without negotiations or agreement with the other partner in this enterprise, namely the Palestinian people.”
Secondly, Abdul Rahman said, Sharon’s road map unilaterally brushes the refugee problem out of the framework of a settlement. “We find it not only troubling, but also very counterproductive, that Mr. Sharon wants to do all of this unilaterally,” the Palestinian diplomat said. “In other words, only he defines the parameters of Israel’s withdrawal, the terms of Israel’s withdrawal—thus denying the existence of a partner in this enterprise. This means that Mr. Sharon is not negotiating with the Palestinians. He is negotiating with his right-wing coalition and with the U.S. administration over the rights of the Palestinian people...”
While Palestinians welcome any Israeli departure from Palestinian territories—in Gaza or anywhere—Abdul Rahman said, “we do not want a partial withdrawal from Gaza or anywhere in the West Bank to be traded off with concessions made to Israel in other areas of the West Bank, thus affecting the national rights of the Palestinian people. Because this will not be a prescription for peace. Instead, it will be a prescription for the perpetration of conflict and instability in our region. And that’s what we do not need.”
What is needed, according to Abdul Rahman, is “a plan that will allow permanent and lasting peace to be established between the Palestinian people and Israel along the lines of the 1967 boundaries, including East Jerusalem, and a just and negotiated solution for the Palestinian refugee problem. Any deviation or unilateral attempt to impose on the Palestinians a different formulation is going to be a formula for further violence, further bloodshed, and further instability and pain for our two peoples—the Palestinians and the Israelis. I hope that can be avoided.”
Abdul Rahman said he was concerned that Bush and Sharon may make a secret deal. In 1974, in the aftermath of the October 1973 war, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger promised Israel that the U.S. would not negotiate with the PLO without prior consultation with Israel. “This really delayed the chances for moving forward for over 20 years” Abdul Rahman said, until the Oslo accords.
While he knows the U.S. can never be an evenhanded broker, Abdul Rahman said, “we believe that the role of the United States is a very essential role for the furtherance of peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.” If the United States makes unilateral agreements with Israel outside of the framework of the road map, he emphasized, it will be detrimental to the possibilities of making peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, “Additionally,” he warned, “it will diminish the credibility of the U.S., and will generate more anger and more frustration among the Arab and Muslim world.“
Abdul Rahman went on to describe Israel’s systematic destruction of Palestinian Authority institutions over the past three years, as well as its reoccupation of the West Bank and summary assassination of Palestinian political and community leaders.
“This Israeli government tried to destroy the PA,” he charged, “and, in effect, it has rendered the PA ineffective in the West Bank and Gaza. It has dissected the Palestinian territories. It has destroyed the Palestinian economy; the losses are in the billions of dollars. It created an economic situation in the West Bank and Gaza that’s beyond belief...
“In those circumstances,” he observed, “no one can expect the Palestinian people to love the Israelis. All those kinds of actions by Israel are not conducive to confidence building between the Palestinians and the Israelis. On the contrary, what it generates is anger, frustration, and hostility, which can be expressed by certain members of the Palestinian community in ways which are unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians. The overwhelming majorities of the Palestinian people reject suicide bombings,” Abdul Rahman stated. “We want to make life as pleasant as possible for our people.”
Israel has destroyed the PA’s capabilities to maintain law and order and has created a political, economic, and social environment in the Palestinian territories that is completely depressing, Abdul Rahman concluded. “I just returned from a month in the region,” he told the audience. “I spent two weeks in the West Bank and Gaza. Actually, I was unable to reach Gaza, though I tried...It is much easier to get a visa to go to China or Japan than to get permission from the Israelis to move from the West Bank to Gaza.
“Palestinians are being imprisoned in their own homes, in their own cities, in their own towns,” he lamented, “and there is almost international silence. When Israel engages in crimes under international law, we do not hear objections, we do not hear criticism, and the finger is pointed always at the Palestinians—that we are not doing enough. No one looks at the situation evenhandedly and tries to make the two parties comply with the terms of the road map as stipulated...
“Yet, when the situation is assessed here in Washington,” he noted, “we always hear criticism of the PA, but we never hear any criticism or accountability on the Israeli side... This Israeli government has embarked on a plan that’s extremely dangerous, that will be a road map toward disaster instead of peace.”
—Delinda C. Hanley
“Bring the Troops Home,” Say Times Square Protesters
Outraged by the deaths of hundreds of Iraqi civilians and 44* U.S. and coalition troops during the first week of April, the New York chapter of International Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) coalition initiated an emergency anti-war protest April 9 in the heart of Times Square.
Amid workers leaving their offices on Good Friday afternoon, demonstrators jammed into a cordoned-off area of Broadway between 41st and 42nd Sts. chanting, “Stop the war!” and “Bring the troops home!” Many protesters carried signs demanding: “U.S. out of the Middle East,” “Money for Jobs not War,” and “End the Occupation—Bring the troops home now.”
“Only the Iraqi people have the right to run their affairs,” Brian Becker of the ANSWER coalition told the crowd. “We should use the money for jobs, schools, housing and healthcare.”
A young plainclothes New York City police officer, speaking to the Washington Report on condition of anonymity, estimated the size of the group at around 300. Organizers claimed more than 700 people participated.
*Data research by Patricia D. Kneisler and Michael S. White of <www.lunaville.org>.
Emergency Anti-War Demonstration
In response to the increased intensity of fighting throughout Iraq, and especially in Fallujah, International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) in the U.S., and other like-minded groups around the world, called for emergency anti-war demonstrations the weekend of April 9 to 11 in dozens of cities worldwide. The protests drew respectable numbers of demonstrators, including 500 to 700 in Washington, DC. Rallying in Lafayette Park, newly reopened to protesters, in front of the White House, demonstators demanded the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and that money slated for the war instead be used for education, jobs, and healthcare.
Marching through the DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan—home to various ethnic communities, including many Latinos, who have suffered disproportionate injuries and deaths in Iraq—protesters were cheered by sympathetic crowds who so actively pursued informational materials from march organizers, that police escorts tried to cut the marchers off from the crowds on the street. Presumably they feared traffic problems as cars rolled down their windows to reach for flyers. Despite having only a couple of days to prepare, organizers called the march a success.
L.A. Protests Yassin Assassination
wait for permission to visit him in prison (AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon).
More than 500 demonstrators gathered March 27 in front of the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles to protest Israel’s assassination three days earlier of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the frail paraplegic who founded Hamas. Frequently holding a wheelchair over their heads to symbolize the crippled sheikh who was murdered as he departed from a mosque, protesters listened for more than three hours to speeches by Jewish Americans and other peace activists.
—Pat McDonnell Twair
Jewish Peace Talk Kicks-off Passover and Palestine Awareness Week
Appropriately, for Malka Fenyvesi, the day she spoke to a group of American University (AU) students in Washington, DC about the state of the Jewish peace movement was April 5, the first day of Passover. As a holiday that retells, explores and celebrates the liberation of the Jews from oppression and bondage in Egypt, Fenyvesi explained, Passover is in many ways about “deliverance from bondage everywhere.”
In this spirit, she stressed the need to be sensitive to all types of oppression. Fenyvesi is a member of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel (JPPI), a group that works to be “a Jewish voice in the peace community and a peaceful voice in the Jewish community,” and which supports such movements as Gush Shalom and the Refuseniks.
Her brief talk evolved into a panel discussion including AU Professor Cathy Schneider and Palestinian Awareness Week (PAW) coordinator Yasmeen Peer. The three women, representing a range of backgrounds—Fenyvesi is the daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors; Schneider is a non-religious Jew with family in Israel; and Peer is a Palestinian American who has spent time working in Jerusalem—then fielded questions from the audience, responding gracefully and thoughtfully to the students as well as to each other.
When asked whether or not she identified herself as a Zionist and whether or not such an identification was in conflict with Palestinian solidarity, Fenyvesi responded that she is still working on her own notion of Zionism and that a workable understanding of Zionism is extremely important in the Jewish peace camp. Peer suggested that Zionism has become such a loaded word, particularly among American activists, due to the range of connotations it suggests depending on one’s personal background. The word Zionism, the Palestinian-American activist explained, can conjure up images of singing songs at a Jewish summer camp as easily as images of a bloody occupation. It’s a word, she concluded, that can symbolize both safety from oppression and oppression itself.
In response to a question about a Palestinian state, Schneider emphasized her frustration with the perception of the conflict as a predominantly ethnic one. That, she argued, is neither a realistic nor a productive way of looking at what currently is happening in the region, adding that it stunts the peace process.
The discussion continued, with students’ questions concerning political solutions as well as a discussion of Israeli demographics and the use of violence on both sides. Schneider explained how violence legitimizes the opposition—meaning that when social movements use violence it tends to give the state legitimacy, and when the state uses violence it tends to give the social movement legitimacy—a lesson that seems obvious, but under-utilized, in the conflict. The event, which kicked off AU’s Palestine Awareness Week, was an opportunity for productive, thoughtful, and educational dialogue.
Jewish Comic Takes on West Bank
Drawing on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for comic material seems a sure-fire way to wind up with a flop. At least that was my suspicion before I went to hear Ivor Dembina perform April 15 at the Warehouse Theatre in Washington, DC. In fact, everyone I asked to go with me—including a Palestinian, a Jew, and my mother—turned me down. They all seemed to agree that the title of Dembina’s show, “This is Not a Subject for Comedy,” was accurate. So I ended up going alone.
Dembina’s humanity and comic wit, however, was a delightful combination of poignancy and hilarity. From tales of British school days, to stories of his Jewish education, to anti-Semitic experiences in America’s Deep South, Dembina told jokes with sarcasm and directness. The recurring touchstone of his monologue, Dembina’s experience as a peace observer in the West Bank, reminds the audience of his humor’s human premise.
We learn that Dembina’s brother is a settler in the West Bank and that, as a young man, the comic’s father gave him a one-way voucher to Tel Aviv, to serve as a haven should fascism come to power in England. We also learn of Dembina’s great love for Jewish comedy and Jewish humor and that, in many ways, his monologue is a celebration of that love. In fact, Dembina suggests, it is this love that encourages him to make clear the aspects of his Jewish inheritance that he doesn’t embrace, namely that of placing Israel on a pedestal above reproach.
“This is Not a Subject for Comedy,” which is a work-in-progress, was sponsored by Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel (JPPI). If we’re lucky, Dembina will return to the United States with its next incarnation.
Senator Lugar Presents Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust Proposal
Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-IN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke March 29 at The Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. His speech, “A New Partnership for the Greater Middle East: Combating Terrorism, Building Peace,” presented three new policy initiatives: one developmental, one military and one diplomatic.
As a bolder and more unified counterpart to President George W. Bush’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), Lugar suggested the G-8, at its upcoming conference, agree to sponsor a grant-making trust which could fund a variety of projects throughout the Middle East, including Israel.
As outlined in the senator’s proposal, recipient countries would have a greater say as to how grant money would be used and for which projects. Lugar distinguished his Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust from a development bank, stressing that the Trust could conform to Islamic financial principles as well as give agency to Middle Eastern states. “We must be prepared to use our considerable leverage with allies inside and outside the region,” he argued, “to promote truly democratic reforms and political freedom, not simply maintain the status quo, or our initiatives will lack credibility.”
In order to be eligible to apply, according to Lugar, countries in the targeted region would be expected to demonstrate that they are “ruling justly, investing in their peoples, and establishing economic freedom.” He did not indicate which countries currently might meet those standards.
The Republican senator stressed that terrorism results, in part, from Arab isolation from the industrialized world, as well as from high levels of poverty and illiteracy—concerns, he emphasized, the trust could address. A member of the audience, however, suggested that terrorists also come from affluent, well-educated backgrounds. In response, Lugar reiterated the connection between poverty and terrorism, without mentioning other potential causes.
In addition to his Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust proposal, Lugar pointed out the need for an end to violence in the Middle East. He suggested that NATO step up its presence in the region to help with peacekeeping, counter-terrorism, border security, defense reform and the implementation of a civilian control of the military. Specifically, he suggested NATO assume a formal role in Iraq and increase its presence in Afghanistan.
Finally, in order to combat terrorism and build peace, Lugar suggested adding Saudi Arabia and Egypt to the “Quartet” which, he said, is “currently directing the peace process” in Israel/Palestine. Such an expansion, he claimed, would “give the Palestinians more confidence in any proposal that comes forth” as well as “the option to make compromises that they might not otherwise make on their own.”
Ambassador Parker Discusses Uncle Sam in Barbary
The Friends of the Woodrow Wilson House hosted a March 24 reception to mark the opening of an exhibition on Joel Barlow, the “Sage of Kalorama,” patriot, author and diplomat, on his 250th birthday, at Washington, DC’s Woodrow Wilson House.
Speaking at the reception, former Ambassador and Middle East expert Richard B. Parker—who, during his 31 years in the foreign service, served as U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon and Morocco in the Ford and Carter administrations—discussed the involvement of American diplomats in world history and Barlow’s eventful life. The liberator of the Barbary Captives, Barlow was the first U.S. diplomat to die at his post in service to his nation.
In his book Uncle Sam in Barbary, Parker tells the story of the young American republic’s first hostage crisis and earliest encounter with Islam in 1785, when the Barbary pirates captured two U.S. vessels off the coast of Portugal. The situation dragged on until 1796, when Washington paid close to $1 million for the return of 103 hostages from 13 ships, held in Algiers.
Parker’s book provides the intriguing details of international diplomacy mobilized to meet the crisis. The author, who based his diplomatic history on dispatches, personal papers and official communications, including unpublished British, French, Italian and Tunisian documents, brings to life the fate and identity of the unfortunate American captives and the leaders in Algiers. He also clarifies the unhelpful roles played by the British and the French.
The crisis led to the creation of the U.S. Navy and America’s presence in the Mediterranean.
Kabul Law Students Compete in “Lawyers’ Olympics”
For the first time, law students from the University of Kabul in Afghanistan came to the United States to participate in the Philip C. Jessup Moot Court competition in Washington, DC, from March 28 through April 3. For the past 45 years top law schools have sent four-member teams to participate in mock trials before the International Court of Justice. The first Afghan students ever to take part in the contest were Hekmatullah, Nezamuddin, and Mohammad Haroon. At the last moment, fellow team member Mohammed Nader was not granted a U.S. visa, and, as a result, the team was heavily penalized because it only had three members. The Afghan team did, however, receive the most vociferous round of applause when its members were announced at the start of the competition, which attracted more than 520 law students from around the world. The Afghan competitors came in 74th out of 99 teams and earned the “Spirit of the Jessup Award.”
This trip represents how far Afghanistan has come in its effort to reconstruct a judicial system that was in desperate need of repair. The physical infrastructure—the courthouses and legal office buildingss, legal training and education centers, the law enforcement building, and even the legal texts themselves—were mostly destroyed after decades of war and life under Taliban rule. Even more important, after the fall of the Taliban, justice personnel lacked the skills needed to implement a new justice system that met the standards of international law. Afghanistan’s participation in the Jessup Moot Court Competition demonstrates the country’s determination to re-establish the foundation for government based on rule of law.
As part of a project called Rebuilding the Justice Sector of Afghanistan, a $4.8 million project funded by the governments of Italy, Canada and the United Kingdom, and implemented by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the UNDP provided these four students with training and coaching, helped them get their visas and travel documents, covered the cost of their travel and accommodations, and worked with the University of Kabul to prepare the students for this event.
The Jessup Moot Court competition attracts teams from the best law schools in the world—for international law students, it is the equivalent of the Olympics. Afghanistan’s ability to field a team able to compete at this level with schools like Harvard is remarkable.
Alterman Explains Washington’s Dysfunction to Lebanese Audience
Dr. Jon Alterman discussed “What Does Washington Want?” on March 18, in the American University of Beirut’s Bathism Auditorium.
Alterman, who is currently director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, worked at the State Department in 2000-2001 through a fellowship with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Moderator Prof. Yahya Sadowski told the audience that Alterman would explain “the dysfunction that is Washington, DC.”
“Washington wants everything,” according to Alterman—from trade relations and energy security to intelligence cooperation and internal reform in the region. “It wants more and it wants it all now,” he said.
The process of presenting policy to foreign governments is neither coherent nor clear, he added, but rather consists of “whatever comes out of the bureaucratic bargaining process” among the various U.S. federal agencies. Since this process is rarely understood outside Washington—and often not understood even inside the Beltway—Alterman proceeded to explain the process.
The current National Security Council “is a bit unusual,” he said, since it presides over “some remarkable powerful cabinet secretaries,” with the vice president having his own “shadow security council”—an unprecedented development—and with some particularly dynamic (Colin Powell) and powerful (Donald Rumsfeld) secretaries. Noting the seemingly poor intra-governmental communication, Alterman said there is a “vacuum at the center of the system.”
“The overwhelming fact...about the U.S. government is that it deals with way too much information,” he stated, explaining that information produced by the government and various interests groups has “increased over time.” Since “there is just too much stuff” to take into account, he noted, “a lot of powerful people in Washington deal with problems in two- to three-minute intervals,” with “no time to linger” and “no time for nuance.” The result, Alterman said, is the creation of non-governmental institutions to formulate and frame policy.
Moreover, he continued, the community of people who are creating and consuming information has increased incredibly since the 1950s, with the trend continuing to rise. Various types of organizations have sprouted up to fill the demand for formulated and framed policy, including: 1) political party groups; 2) partisan think-tanks (such as the American Enterprise Institute, AEI); (3) lobbying organizations (ethnic, one-issue, and professional associations, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC); and 4) non-partisan think-tanks such as CSIS. Alterman argued that the latter, including his organization, and the Brookings Institution, “try to inform decision-making” and “improve what government does.”
Describing the relationship between these non-governmental institutions and the U.S. federal government, Alterman noted the “ intricate process whereby government officials start partnerships with people outside of government to influence what people inside government do.” He described the executive branch as “torn apart by internal differences,” even though “everyone denies there is infighting,” and said that attempting to win the president to one’s viewpoint is a “high risk” endeavor.
According to Alterman, “The war in Iraq was the answer in search of a question.” By conflating the “war on terrorism” with the Iraq quandary, he said, the administration channeled American public opinion behind an initially unpopular war. This was made possible by an “unprecedented alliance between allies inside and outside of government.” People who supported the government’s case, he pointed out, received “high level access” and publicity.
Alterman noted that there is no substitute for a creative person with a new idea and a group of allies. In the case of Iraq, perhaps the idea was poor—but the system has both advantages and disadvantages. It allows for dynamism, he concluded, fights stagnation and provides a self-correcting mechanism for mistakes.
—Brock L. Bevan
Al-Awda Meets Again
Al-Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, held its second annual international convention at Hunter College in New York City over the weekend of April 16 to 18, 2004. Activist Tiokasin Ghosthorse opened the convention by dedicating it to all Palestinian prisoners, and all those who have died in the struggle.
Following solidarity statements from sympathetic communities and the viewing of Palestinian art being auctioned for the benefit of refugees under immigration attack in Montreal, Al-Awda organizer Musa al-Hindi set the tone of the conference by saying that the Palestinian diaspora would not allow others to sign away their right to return.
It is noteworthy that the conference on the right to return was held just days after the White House meeting in which President George W. Bush approved Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for retaining Israeli settlements in the West Bank and rejecting the Palestinian right to return in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and in contravention of international law and U.N. resolutions.
Charging that Palestinian poverty was being used as a tool to convince refugees to accept money instead of return, Al-Hindi sent “a message to the [Palestinian National Authority (PNA)] leadership in Ramallah” that they had “promised to stay the course” till justice was done, and that if there is any “break from that covenant, we will hold you responsible.”
Keynote speaker Dr. Karma Nabulsi of Nuffield College and Oxford University, and a former PLO representative, declared that Bush had not negated the right of return. During the last few decades of Middle East peace processes, she said, the negotiating “elites” had seen the right of return as “not pragmatic.” Nabulsi described that position as “riddled with utopianism...wild...giddy,” because, she explained, the right of return was the most fundamental issue regarding Palestine.
Nabulsi said that the isolation of Gaza, land appropriation, and refugee conditions were being used to undermine legal standards and lower refugee expectations. Instead, however, she noted, refugees had mobilized. According to Nabulsi, Israelis were stunned by this return to the issue of return, having been led to believe the issue was closed as a result of the PNA agreement to the Oslo accords and subsequent negotiations—although, she acknowledged, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had never signed away the right of return.
Geneva was the next logical step, Nabulsi continued. However, she stated, the Geneva initiative would not work because it was non-representative of the Palestinian body politic, which would “protest, resist, rise, and demand...respect.”
Describing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as “dehistoricized” by the marginalization of refugees, Nabulsi concluded by saying that the “tasks before us are to fix cleavages, serve our people—not lead them—and facilitate structures where the refugees themselves shape their own futures.”
The final speaker of the opening plenary session was activist Ali El-Kassed, who outlined the history of Palestine and politics locally, regionally and globally from the Cold War era to the present. Blaming the Palestinian leadership, other Arab leaders, and U.S. support for Israel for the separation of West Bank and Gazan Palestinians from the diaspora, El-Kassed suggested Al-Awda’s vision should be to “nationally liberate ourselves,” bring back the Palestinian Liberation Movement, including all factions, do grass roots work for real objectives, agree to Palestinian resistance as a legitimate right, and especially agree on the right to return.
Topics of workshops held on the conference’s second day included refugees’ coalition building and grass roots organizing, sustainable struggle, Zionist apartheid, confronting hegemony, the media, and cultural activism. Unfortunately, the day was interupted with the news of Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, thereby changing the third day’s closing agenda to include a demonstration in front of the Israeli Consulate. The weekend’s events could only further Al-Awda’s determination.
A Few Remember Deir Yassin
On the 66th anniversary of the massacre at the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, only a few turned out in Washington, DC’s Dupont Circle to commemorate the occasion. At the event called by DC Palestine Solidarity, a lone Palestinian flag fluttered, while those who did remember distributed literature to passers-by.
Tunisia Invites Journalists to Visit
Oussama Romdhani, director general of Tunisia’s External Communication Agency, was a well-received speaker at a March 19 banquet hosted by the National Newspaper Association at the Washington Press Club. Although “Tunisia is not yet a usual destination for American reporters, it should be,” Romdhani told newspaper editors from across the country.
When the Arab League was based in Tunis there was a steady stream of reporters, Romdhani said, and nearly 1,000 reporters were expected to attend the Arab Summit the following week (but which was canceled at the last moment). Today, with the exception of reporters specializing in travel, American journalists do not often visit the North African country. Of the five million tourists enjoying holidays in Tunisia, Romdhani said, only 10,000 are Americans. Filmmakers, photographers, and history buffs are attracted to Tunisia’s rich archaeology and startling landscapes, he pointed out.
“It is true that Tunisia does not make headline news,” Romdhani said. “The country has been fortunate enough not to be a place where dramatic events unfold. No violence, no wars, no hungry children. It has always been a country open to the world, committed to moderation and to peace. Tunisia is a place whose main riches are its human resources and the reserves of ambition and ingenuity in the minds of people.”
Inviting his listeners to come and see his country for themselves, Romdhani explained that Tunisia continues to sponsor week-long study missions to Tunisia for American journalists in hopes of fostering harmony between the two nations.
—Delinda C. Hanley
Sharon Visit Draws Protests
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s April 14 visit to President George Bush at the White House sparked a press conference called by the Muslim America Society Freedom Foundation (MAS), and civil disobedience by MAS leader Mahdi Bray and International ANSWER outreach coordinator Sarah Friedman, who were arrested outside the White House.
Concurrent with the anti-Sharon event, Military Families Speak Out followed a visit to Congress with a protest trip to the White House. Fernando Suarez, father of Jesus Suarez, who was killed in Iraq in March 2003, embraced Bray as the two groups met up. Nonetheless, local news—both print and broadcast—managed to cover the Iraq demonstration without mentioning the Palestine protests: either the MAS press conference or the later rush hour protest called by DC Palestine Solidarity. The later demonstration, also held in Lafayette Park in front of the White House, drew about 100 people, including a sizable contingent from Neturei Karta, which drove from New York to attend both anti-Sharon events. Despite the lack of press coverage, there was a good response to the protest by rush hour drivers who honked their support and pedestrians who accepted informational leaflets.
Norman Finkelstein Examines Dissent in the Mideast Conflict
Professor Norman Finkelstein discussed “Dissent on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” April 7 at The American University in Washington, DC. Students for Justice in Palestine sponsored the lecture, which was part of AU’s second annual Palestine Awareness Week.
Finkelstein, author of Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and The Holocaust Industry, said there are two types of dissent when it comes to conflict: “legitimate dissent” and “fabricated areas of disagreement.”
Twenty years ago this month, he noted, From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters was published. Hailed as a work that would “revolutionize understanding of the conflict,” the book went into seven printings and became a best-seller in this country. Peters’ thesis, Finkelstein explained, was that Palestine was empty on the eve of Israel’s creation, and that Arabs from neighboring lands went in and claimed the land as theirs. Although the book was a “hoax from beginning to end,” Finkelstein said, it was a reflection of the dominant rendering of the conflict, which was mostly told from an Israeli perspective.
The tide began to turn in the 1980s, he continued, when a body of scholarship called “new history” demonstrated that the “Zionist leadership through the ”˜30s was committed to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.”
Distinguishing between “legitimate” and “concocted” forms of dissent, Finkelstein gave examples of each. With legitimate dissent, he explained, there is agreement on the basic facts, but not necessarily moral judgments. Israeli historian Benny Morris, for example, acknowledges that ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians took place, but has admitted, especially recently, that he thinks it sometimes “can be a good thing,” Finkelstein said.
On the other hand, Finkelstein continued, “fabricated disagreement” involves a “mystifying of the conflict,” including introducing terminology that “serves to obfuscate, confuse and divert attention from the real issues in the conflict.” Specifically, he elaborated, purveyors of this type of dissent tend to attribute the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to “biblical enmities” and “ancient hatred,” therefore making it impossible to compare to other modern-day conflicts.
Another tactic is “playing the Holocaust card,” said Finkelstein, himself the son of Holocaust survivors. Many supporters of Israel who use this tactic, he said, contend that “because Jews suffered uniquely during the Nazi Holocaust, they shouldn’t be held to the same moral standards as anyone else.” The real purpose of this argument is political, he maintained, aimed strictly at serving “the ends of Israel’s policies.”
However, according to Finkelstein, the most disconcerting and troubling tactic is “sheer fabrication in the guise of scholarship on the [conflict].” While there’s normally a “quality control of what’s produced in academia,” he said, in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict these standards do not seem to apply. “A book can be published by a reputable publisher, receive great reviews and be sheer rubbish,” he pointed out.
A clear example of this is Harvard Law Prof. Alan Dershowitz’s latest book, The Case for Israel, which takes whole passages from Peters’ From Time Immemorial without attribution. Although Finkelstein’s discovery that Dershowitz had plagiarized Peters’ book was disseminated to national media outlets and publications, he said, the book still received rave reviews. The Dershowitz book also contains fabrications, Finkelstein revealed, such as the claim that “[Palestinian] terrorist operatives sent suicide bombers to spread Hepatitis B and AIDS.”
Dershowitz also wrote that “Palestinian women committed suicide bombings because they were raped and seduced,” Finkelstein added. The former member of O.J. Simpson’s defense team did not cite any mainstream human rights organization such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch in his book, Finkelstein concluded, “not because he’s lazy, but because he can’t find anything to support what he says, so he resorts to fraud.”