"This is how I understand the struggle...To stand steadily like spears, and never give up." Naji Al-Ali

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Understanding the Palestinian Refugee Crisis

Abbas interviewing Palestinian Girls in his refugee camp
Last night I had the pleasure of watching Ziad Abbas of the Middle East Children’s alliance address a full room of students at City College of San Francisco with his presentation, “Cultural Resistance of Marginality: a Personal Perspective on the Untold Stories of Palestinian Refugees.” I had seen Ziad’s slideshow once previously, at a workshop for educators and community organizers on how to teach the history of the conflict, but this time it evoked much stronger emotions in me than before.

Perhaps because most of the students in the room were still raw with emotion from seeing a performance of Seven Jewish Children given in the school library just a few minutes before, or maybe because the presentation was so deeply personal, Ziad clearly struck a nerve. I saw tears well up in the eyes of people I couldn’t have dreamed would still be paying attention after nearly two hours, and hands spring into the air with questions that betrayed a level of critical thinking and understanding that can only manifest when one’s attention is truly gripped.

In his presentation Ziad flows seamlessly between historical lessons and personal narrative, flashing from a map of Palestine in 1878 marking the first Zionist settlement to a picture of the small tent his mother, father, brother, and sister called home in the first weeks after they were forced from their village of Zakariyya. He shows pictures from the Israeli archive opened in the late 1990s –a village being blown to bits after it was cleared, a group of Hagana soldiers leaning against their military vehicle, a trail of men, women, and children saddled with blankets and baskets as they walk into the distance. The last one, he says, reminds him of his mother.

“She locked the door behind her and left our house barefoot, one child on her hip as she took the other by the hand, thinking she’d be back as soon as the fighting ended.”*

He calls her naïve, exhaling warmly.

Next he moves to images of Palestinians, some trying to escape the fighting on their own, some being forcibly transferred.  He lingers on one in particular. In it we see ragged-looking men and women sitting in a tattered bus as tidy, uniformed Jewish soldiers stand guard nearby, guns slung over their shoulders. He turns to us and asks, “What does this remind you of?” A girl I know, unfamiliar with the conflict, shouts, “The Holocaust. The trains.” I’m shocked. How obvious it all is to those with new eyes.

He speaks of the UN making the decision to turn the tents in his Dheisheh refugee camp into brick and mortar rooms, each about 81 square feet and housing at minimum six people. Every few hundred rooms had two bathrooms, one for women and the other for men.

“We felt like we were always waiting,” he said, “waiting in line for food, waiting in line for the bathroom. Waiting, waiting, waiting.”

And he tells us that when the Abbas family finally got their own private bathroom years later, there was a celebration.

He talks about how difficult it was to live under curfew, especially in the beginning when there was no running water, no electricity. Even after these luxuries became commonplace it wasn’t easy. From 1979 to 1995, refugees in his camp spent nearly 4 months out of every year locked down. The longest single stretch happened during the Gulf War; it was 49 days.

Despite these hardships, Ziad has clearly kept his sense of humor. He laughs when he explains how when he got into particularly bad fights with his mother he would run outside and throw stones at his own house in protest, or how every time he had to escort his older sister to the communal bathroom he would ask for change in return.

“It’s how I made my income!” he jokes.

The most moving part of the presentation comes when he begins to delineate the role of the Jewish National Fund in “greenwashing” Palestine’s ethnic cleansing.  He shows a picture of Zakariyya in the 1920’s, and points out the empty hills rolling into the distance. Then he shows a current view of the same village, the hills now covered in non-indigenous trees, the houses gone.

Next he flashes to a sign for a nature reserve. The upper portion is written in Hebrew, but below you can read in English, “Funded in part by a congregation in Kansas City, Missouri.”

“We call it the Israeli-American occupation, sometimes. You see why.”

Here the mood becomes even darker as he tells us in a somber tone that his uncle passed away only two days ago. He was the last person in his family from the “catastrophe generation” as Ziad calls it, referring to those who actually lived through the 1947-48 cleansing. He recalls the time he smuggled his uncle into Israel to see their village a few years ago. By this time his uncle was quite old, and so when he started pointing to forests and nature reserves, giving them Arabic names and describing the villages that used to stand in their stead, Ziad first thought he was simply confused.

“You’re turned around, that’s all. We’ll find our way.”

When his uncle insisted that the reserve they were standing on was in fact Ziad’s mother’s village, Ziad thought the old man had lost it.  

“No!” He bellowed, shaking his head, wringing his hands. “No! This. Is. The. Village!”

Here Ziad becomes very quiet. I realize he isn’t looking at us anymore, but somewhere above our heads. I close my eyes and imagine the scene.

“The stones, the trees, they all started speaking. My uncle is an artist you see, and he listened. Within 30 minutes the village stood before us, as clear as if we had lived there our whole lives. He described the house, the window, the view from the front steps. I saw it all. And then we started digging. I found that step buried in the ground, that first step. I stood on it, imagining what my mother saw as a girl every morning.”

He called it life-altering. I bit my lip to stop from weeping at the thought of it.

He focused the rest of his energy that night on resistance, showing us pictures taken in and around Dheisheh. As I saw boy after boy bravely stare down tanks and armored soldiers, their childish hands clasped around rocks, their shoulders strong and defiant, I felt ashamed. How could I be such a coward? How could I ever let something as silly as the fear of offending someone stop me from raising my voice, when here stood these little children, fighting against the oppression of the longest occupation in modern history with their bare hands?



 More moving than that was the video he showed us, made by a young girl named Zainab. She wasn’t interested in rocks at all. No, Zainab wanted to become a lawyer, “to give rights back to the Palestinian people.” She was so precious, she reminded me of my baby sister.

I became enraged. How could anyone deny her anything, let alone her basic human rights? As if reading my mind, Ziad finished his presentation with these words:

“We aren’t interested in peace. We are interested in justice. And we aren’t asking for miracles, or even anything special. We are asking for what was given to us by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and by resolution 194. There are nearly 7 million Palestinian refugees now. We cannot be ignored.”

*Quotes are not 100% exact but taken from notes

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ethical Oil: The Canadian Oil Industry and the Israel Connection

Last month I discovered a piece on Feministing about a recent Canadian ad campaign for Ethical Oil. According to Ethical Oil’s website, the group:

Encourages people, businesses and governments to choose Ethical Oil from Canada, its oil sands and other liberal democracies. Unlike Conflict Oil from some of the world’s most politically oppressive and environmentally reckless regimes, Ethical Oil is the “Fair Trade” choice in oil. Countries that produce Ethical Oil protect the rights of women, workers, indigenous peoples and other minorities including gays and lesbians. Conflict Oil regimes, by contrast, oppress their citizens and operate in secret with no accountability to voters, the press or independent judiciaries.

The group’s now infamous ad, which can be seen here, speaks of the abuse women endure in Saudi Arabia, and paints Canada’s environmentally disastrous tar sands as the only alternative. But intelligent women aren’t falling for it. As one blogger puts it, “I am a feminist and I am an environmentalist. I don’t really appreciate being asked to compromise one to support the other….If Ethical Oil was truly interested in women’s rights, they’d be campaign for fuel efficiency standards. Instead they’re using the condition of Saudi women as a disgusting gateway to destroying the planet and encouraging an environmental disaster.”

The ad currently runs on Oprah’s OWN network. Upon discovering this, the exceptionally thorough environmentalist and writer Emma Pullman did some investigative work and found the following, which she then included in an open letter to Ms. Winfrey (the article also does an amazing job of unraveling the absurd logic Ethical Oil operates by):
According to Deep Climate, Ethical Oil isn't the low budget grassroots organization it purports to be. Its principals are some of the rising stars of the conservative movement in Canada, and one is a lawyer for tar sands firms.
Here's the back story: Ezra Levant turned "ethical oil" into a meme late last year. Almost overnight, pro-industry and government officials, keen to sell the filthy oil to a skeptical public, picked up the term and ran with it.  After the Conservative election victory in May, Conservative government spokesperson (and former American Enterprise Institute intern) Alykhan Velshi took over at the helm of the ethicaloil.org blog. The blog is registered to Levant, who also has strong links to the Conservatives.

And, here's another thing that just doesn't add up for me. How is it that a former advisor to Environment Minister John Baird, and communications director for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, would find himself taking an "unpaid" job as a blogger?

Thanks to the folks over at Deep Climate, it makes a lot more sense. EthicalOil.org is connected to the obscure Ethical Oil Institute. Though there is scant reference to them online, according to their notice of incorporation, the institute was registered on March 9, 2011 to an Edmonton address, 12220 Stony Plain Road, Edmonton AB T5N 3Y4.  

That just so happens to be the address of the law firm McLennan Ross. McLennan Ross makes bathtubs full of money doing work for tar sands firms.

The two members of the Ethical Oil Institute's board of directors are Ezra Levant and McLellan Ross partner Thomas Ross. Thomas Ross is one of ten lead partners in McLellan Ross’s OilSandsLaw.com initiative, a “slick new oilsands cross-selling strategy" and marketing campaign.
But it gets better. Pullman mentioned that Alykhan Velshi also contributes to the group. In fact, Ethical Oil openly states this, saying the site “began as a blog created by Alykhan Velshi.” More than simply an “intern for the American Enterprise Institute,” Velshi was also head of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he co-founded the Center for Law and Counterterrorism. He is an open supporter of Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive war, does not believe the Geneva Conventions should apply to those captured in the War on Terror, and advocates the creation of a special National Security Court to try terrorism suspects.

More importantly, Velshi is an open and unabashed Zionist, working for Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney as his Director of Communications and Parliamentary Affairs. You might recall that Kenney made the news in 2009 as he was embroiled in a battle with Canadian Arab Federation president Khaled Mouammar in which Kenney and Velshi were able to successfully defund CAF after comments Mouammar made criticizing Kenney’s support for Operation Cast Lead. According to Velshi, Mouammar was “anti-Semetic.” See here for the full story.

And there's more. Writing for the Huffington Post, Velshi criticized the Saudi government’s attempt to get Ethical Oil’s ad off the air, explaining:
I have also alerted Foreign Minister John Baird and Dean Allison, Chairman of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, about the incident in writing, calling on the Harper government and the parliamentary committee to investigate a foreign dictatorship trying to censor what Canadians can and cannot see on their televisions.

While in a free, open, and democratic society, we can have vigorous disagreements about energy policy and the role Canada's oil sands should play in the energy supply mix, when a foreign dictatorship like Saudi Arabia tries to censor one side of that debate, we all need to stand as one in defending our rights as Canadians. That means that all of us -- including oil sands critics like Greenpeace -- need to condemn this brazen act of domestic political interference by a blood-soaked, conflict oil-fueled foreign dictatorship.
Wait, what? Need I remind you, this is the same man who played an instrumental role in successfully banning British PM and outspoken Israel critic George Galloway from entering Canada. From wiki:
Velshi told the media that the Canadian government would not reverse this decision, stating that Galloway had expressed sympathy for the Taliban cause in Afghanistan and describing him as an "infandous street-corner Cromwell who actually brags about giving 'financial support' to Hamas, a terrorist organisation banned in Canada.[33] The decision to ban Galloway was supported by the Canadian Jewish Congress, B'nai Brith Canada and the far-right Jewish Defence League of Canada, which took credit for initiating the action.[34] It was subsequently noted that Velshi had begun preparing media lines regarding Galloway several days before the ban was announced.[32]
The Canadian border police would not let Galloway into the country based on instructions from Velshi. Now tell me again, what did he say about free speech and debate?

I guess Velshi has no sense of irony. Either that, or he’s just a hypocrite. A neoconservative Zionist taking talking points from the Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Birth Canada, which act as in part as agents of Israel to insulate its “blood-soaked” apartheid regime from Western criticism has the gall to talk about other countries meddling in Canadian affairs. What exactly is his angle here?

In truth, Ethical Oil is guilty of myriad hasbara-esque techniques, among them greenwashing, pinkwashing, and the old familiar but-look-at-those-evil-Arabs-over-THERE excuse by comparison, except this time they're in the service of Canada rather than Israel. But these obfuscations don't work for Israel, and they shouldn't work for Canada either.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Educating Our Children About Palestine

According to a recent Gallup Poll, only 17% of Americans sympathize with Palestinians over Israelis, whereas 63% favor Israelis. What’s more, the percentage of neutral individuals is shrinking in favor of Israel. Taking into account the events of the past three years, Operation Cast Lead and subsequent findings of war crimes/crimes against humanity, the attack on the Freedom Flotilla, and the refusal to halt illegal settlement activity even when bribed, how could it be that the number of Americans sympathizing with Israel is at its highest since the beginning of the fruitless peace process 20 years ago? Clearly something is amiss.

Knowing what I know about Palestine, it is hard to understand how anyone could ignore the damage of occupation, siege and dispossession, choosing instead to sympathize with the perpetrators of violence. Even more disturbing are the consequences of these sympathies on Palestinians’ everyday lives. Every year the United States gives Israel nearly three billion dollars in aid, which Israel then uses to continue the systematic abridgment of Palestinian rights. Without losing my faith in humanity, the only conclusion I can draw from Gallup’s findings is that most Americans are simply mis/uninformed. Otherwise, how can it be so difficult to comprehend Palestinian plight? Why can't we understand that apartheid is just as wrong in South Africa as it is in the occupied West Bank? Why do we implicitly recognize the injustice of racism against African Americans but excuse Israel when it characterizes its Arab minority as a demographic threat? Why do we champion our 2nd amendment right to defend ourselves but castigate Palestinian children for throwing stones at the soldiers who come to take their land? I can only hope that the answer to these questions is simply that no one ever thought of things this way. Something must be done to change mainstream attitudes, not so that we care for Palestinians and not Israelis, but rather so that sympathizing with Israel does not come at the expense of Palestinian life.

Within this context, I attended a workshop last weekend aimed at educators and organizers interested in learning effective methods for raising the issue of Palestine with their students and community. Spearheaded by the Middle East Children’s Alliance, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and Rethinking Schools, the half-day workshop focused on techniques to incorporate Palestine into curriculums in a constructive and educational way that also facilitates the development of critical thinking skills.

Due to the highly controversial nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict among other factors, many school districts avoid the subject entirely. This leaves American students without a lens to interpret key historical developments within the Middle East, including our own military involvement. At the same time they are also exceptionally susceptible to Israeli propaganda and mainstream media bias, all of which contribute to the perpetuation of Palestinian suffering. However, the workshop does not aim to equip teachers with the tools to simply indoctrinate students for Palestine or against Israel. Instead, they are instructed on how to create an environment that values justice, equality and factual accuracy where resistance struggles of all types can be understood and identified with.

Naturally, part of the discussion centered on fears of possible backlash from students’ parents.  Two techniques were offered to mitigate these fears. The first was making sure that any lesson that mentions Palestine is perfectly relevant to the unit at hand, so that it can be defended on the grounds that it is an integral component of reaching an educational standard. The second was to implement the paradigm of “dual perspectives.” Various perspectives on a given event are presented, after which they are examined for legitimacy and their conformity to fact. In this way conflicting viewpoints are offered so students do not see a one-sided picture of things, thereby undercutting accusations of bias. At the same time, an emphasis on factual accuracy dictates that the side which best conforms to reality prevails. When developed within a framework that values social justice and equality, this method of appraisal results in a deeper understanding of Palestinian plight. Most importantly, this understanding manifests organically.

For example, Israel offers the perspective that the Separation Wall is necessary for the security of the State whereas Palestinians find it to be an unjust imposition. These positions seem irreconcilable. However, upon further scrutiny one sees that the route of the wall attests more to a land-grab than to improve Israeli security, thus delegitimizing the former point of view.

Instructors were encouraged to draw parallels between the concepts familiar to students and Palestinian history. These included:

  • Manifest Destiny and Eretz Israel
  • The ethnic cleansing of native Americans and the Nakba
  • South African Apartheid and the different legal systems for Israeli settlers vs. Palestinians in the West Bank
  • The Civil Rights struggle and the situation for Israeli Arabs
  • Water conservation and Israel’s unfair allocation of resources
  • Racial profiling and Israel’s system of checkpoints

Teachers also discussed including Palestinian artists, writers and poets in their humanities units to familiarize students with Palestinian culture. Some even suggested putting their students in contact with Palestinian youth by partnering classrooms together and facilitating pen pal programs.

Non-educators found that the most effective way to garner strength for Palestine solidarity was by illustrating common needs and concerns within their communities and those in Palestine. By drawing connections between all social struggles, whether for immigrant rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, indigenous rights, etc, we can see that the injustice suffered by Palestinians is not something too complex, foreign or removed to understand. Once that barrier is broken, a desire to end the occupation naturally springs forth.

With every day that passes, the occupation of Palestine and the perpetuation of the diaspora cause untold suffering. The United States is complicit in this crime. It is imperative that we do all we can to change the situation. By educating our children and our communities on the values of critical examination, justice, equality, and compassion we move one step forward. We owe it to them to raise this issue, confident in the knowledge that we are on the right side of history.

If you are interested in learning more about how you can incorporate Palestine into your curriculum, the following resources are extremely helpful:


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Highlights From San Francisco Protest In Solidarity with Libya

On Saturday, February 26th, hundreds of East Bay and San Francisco residents rallied in solidarity with Middle East and North African protesters. Organizers scheduled the event at UN Plaza, the same location as previous marches for Egypt and Tunisia. Sponsored by more than 20 different organizations, the protest focused primarily on Libya, though attention was given to uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Iran, as well as all nations currently fighting for freedom. Many attendees wore keffiyehs. Activists were also joined by marchers from a nearby rally held at City Hall in support of Wisconsin workers fighting to retain their right to unionize.

Turn-out was low in comparison to the rally for Egypt, due in part to the absence of the ANSWER coalition (usually a permanent fixture at such events) which pulled out due to a disagreement "with some of the wording in the protest organizers' press release" and the demonstration lacked the momentum of previous gatherings. One could perhaps attribute the change in tone to the gravity of the events currently unfolding as Gadhafi continues to massacre his own people. Indeed, the protest's largest banner read, "STOP GENOCIDE IN LIBYA" and one speaker began his address with a protracted moment of silence to honor the ever-growing number of martyrs. While most speeches were both hopeful and defiant, a sense of tension pervaded the day, as if we were all holding our collective breath in the hope that the violence will end soon.

Interestingly, there was a lack of consensus among the organizers and the crowd about what should be done to induce Gadhafi's ouster. One Tunisian speaker called on the United Nations to act, warning, "Don't let this be another Rwanda," while another suggested American military intervention. Others felt that that the brave Libyan people should be allowed to claim their own revolution, asking for help only to facilitating the passage of refugees fleeing for their safety.

The crowd was extremely diverse, with many families attending. At one point I stood with a hijabi woman and her three children to my left, a latino socialist passing out copies of The Militant to my right, and a queer Jewish activist (with whom I had just come from a workshop on Palestine education) directly behind me.

The most popular refrain of the entire event was the message that the fear barrier has been broken. Person after person took the microphone to shout that the Arab world will no longer be intimidated by dictators, the military, fears of instability, Islamists, Americans or anyone else as the protesters roared in agreement.

I noticed many faces from previous demonstrations, including one woman in particular. She was carrying a sign that contained a large crescent along with a star of David, a cross and a capital "A" (meant to represent atheism). "I wanted to be inclusive, to show that this is about all people coming together against tyranny," she told me. As the crowd chanted "the people united will never be divided" I looked over to her once more to see her waving her arms emphatically. I couldn't help but smile.

video

What I find most beautiful about these events is the sense of unity and togetherness they induce. Most people agree that the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa are powerful. But why so? They are powerful precisely because they have broken down borders and shown the intersection of struggles between peoples. At same time they have "humanized the other" for many Westerners whose only conception of "Arab" is backward and violent.

To some, standing arm in arm with a crowd full of strangers, shouting at the top of your lungs for the freedom of a group of people whom you have never met in a place you may never go is absolutely foolish. But these events have confirmed, for me and for others I am sure, the belief in a common humanity. Some ask why we protest. They ask why we show up time after time, considering it "changes nothing". I think they're wrong. We're sending messages when we assemble -messages to our representatives and our president, messages to our fellow citizens, but most importantly messages to our Arab brothers and sisters. For me that message is best expressed by a line from the film V for Vendetta. If I could, I would say this to every person struggling for freedom the world over:

"I hope that whoever you are, you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better. But what I hope most of all is that you understand what I mean when I tell you that even though I do not know you, and even though I may never meet you, laugh with you, cry with you, or kiss you. I love you. With all my heart, I love you."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Palestinian Queer Activists Talk Politics

On February 16th, 2011 I attended a public forum entitled “Palestinian Queer Activists Talk Politics” in San Francisco’s Mission District. More than 20 groups including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace and the Middle East Children’s Alliance sponsored the forum, moderated by lesbian Chicana activist and writer Cherríe Moraga. The discussion featured three speakers:

  • Abeer Mansour works for Aswat, a feminist queer Palestinian women’s group dedicating to “generat[ing] social change in order to meet the needs of one of the most silenced and oppressed communities in Israel."
  • Sami Shamali, who resides in the West Bank, represents Al Qaws, which aims to develop a “Palestinian civil society that respects and adheres to human and civil rights and allows individuals to live openly and equally, regardless of their sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity.” 
  • Haneen Maikey, based in Jerusalem, is Al Qaws’ director.

I found the panel particularly compelling in light of its location, just outside of Dolores Park –a popular go-to spot for queer women in the Bay Area, in one of the most gay-friendly cities in the entire world. Because of San Francisco’s internationally known gay community, it has been a primary target of Israel’s re-branding campaign aimed at improving the country’s image through the use of “Pinkwashing.” Pinkwashing is the attempt to justify Israel’s occupation of Palestine by portraying it as a progressive and democratic haven for LGBT individuals in direct contrast with the rest of the Middle East. It plays into a larger effort that aims to disparage Israel’s neighbors in order to justify the country’s existence as necessary by any means, relying on the image of a lone democracy barely surviving surrounded by violent, intolerant, women-hating, and generally backward societies.

Active within the Bay Area LGBT community, I have personally witnessed attempted pinkwashes. In one particular instance, a protest erupted after the California Supreme Court issued its ruling that Proposition 8 (the initiative defining marriage as between one man and one woman) was constitutional despite its prior decision legalizing same-sex unions. Within hours thousands of people took to the streets in protest. After a procession of speakers demanding equal rights for gay and lesbian couples, the rally closed with a rabbi who took the microphone in order to emphasize Israel’s commitment to gay rights and opposition to Prop 8, and to ask us to support the Jewish State because of it. A few activists including myself were disgusted and immediately left. However the majority stayed, and later that year I found myself hearing these same sentiments repeated.

Queer Palestinians, like Afghan and Iraqi women, have consistently found their discourse co-opted by neo-conservative hawks and progressives alike in order to justify war and occupation under the assumption that such actions will ‘liberate’ the oppressed. It is this cynical manipulation that the forum’s speakers work to disparage. Claiming their own voices and movement, queer Palestinian activists are clamoring to be heard and wish for their American brothers and sisters to spread their message. So what is it they have to say?

The clearest message resounding from all three speakers was that if one actually cares about LGBT rights within Palestine, one should be working to end the occupation. That Israel has cultivated a vibrant and open gay enclave is laudable, yet such accomplishments do not give the ‘Jewish State’ a free pass to violate human rights, including the rights of the gay Palestinians they allegedly care for. As Haneen dryly explained, “It doesn’t matter what the sexual orientation of the Soldier at a checkpoint is, whether he can serve openly or not. What matters is that he’s there at all.” Sami echoed the same sentiment, jibing that “the apartheid wall was not created to keep Palestinian homophobes out of Gay Israel, and there is no magic door for gay Palestinians to pass through.”

When pressed by an audience member as to which situation they would prefer, a perfectly egalitarian, queer-friendly society still under occupation or a free Palestine that still suffers from sexism, patriarchy and homophobia, the three became visibly angry. Abeer looked to the audience and asked, “Please raise your hand if you’d like to live one day under occupation,” before saying that occupied people cannot adequately address civil rights issues as they struggle for their very means of survival. Sami went on to contend that freedom transforms the mind, giving people the best opportunity to examine their previously held attitudes. Drawing on recent events in Egypt, he related that while sexual harassment is rampant within the country, in Tahrir square women remarked an utter absence of abuse during the mass protests. At the same time, if one does not wish to see the correlation between the unacceptably slow pace of social change and the increasing weight of the occupation, one cannot honestly contend that Israel's actions do anything to help the plight of Palestinian women/LGBT individials.

Each had their own story to tell about the intersection of queer identity and Palestinian identity, agreeing that Palestinian homosexuality had its own unique experiences. Yet for all three, the liberation of their country reigned supreme in their minds. The meeting ended with a standing ovation as the moderator boomed, “Clap if you understand that queers will never be free until Palestine is free.”

While their discussion did not focus solely on Israel’s abuse of LGBT liberation struggles in perpetuating conflict, I took away from it a deepened understanding of just how much more the West unfairly expects of Palestinians than anyone else. We expect Palestinians to not throw stones at the IDF jeeps who come to teargas their protestations against the illegal confiscation of their entire villages while we wouldn’t bat an eyelash at a man who shot a robber attempting to take his television set; We expect them to not elect representatives that reflect their religious sentiments though no one is surprised when the Christian Right attempts to influence our political system and we ally ourselves with the likes of Saudi Arabia; and we expect Palestinian society to wholly unshackle itself from the bonds of misogyny, racism and bigotry before we acknowledge their entitlement to basic human rights, despite our own shortcomings, including the reality that the realization of LGBT equality within the United States itself is relatively new and still imperfect. In all of the struggles for liberation many Americans support, including civil rights for African Americans, we have never required such a high standard of “goodness” before acknowledging a group’s basic humanity.

Abeer, Haneen and Sami represent a growing coalition of brave Palestinian youth focused on transforming entrenched attitudes from within while simultaneously undermining the imposed constraints of colonialism. Their work is an invaluable contribution to ending the occupation and transforming our understanding of Palestinian society. The message of these activists and their organizations deserves to be heard widely. Please do your part in spreading it to those who claim to care about gay rights. If you would like to attend one of their panels, you can find information for the remaining tour dates here.

Friday, January 14, 2011

What the Poll on East Jerusalem Palestinians Really Means

As a November study by Petcher Polls (slideshow here) elucidating the opinions of Palestinian East Jerusalemites makes its rounds on the internet, many hasbarists have used its conclusions to justify Israel’s illegal annexation of the city.

Indeed, the fact that 35% of Palestinians would prefer Israeli citizenship, and that 40% would relocate to Israel should their residence come to be located within a Palestinian state seems quite damning. Yet upon further inspection, the poll does less to justify Israel’s illegitimate actions than superficial conclusions claim, instead working to elucidate the impact of Israel’s occupation on “facts on the ground.”

According to the poll’s executive summary, “Those who chose Israeli citizenship most often mentioned freedom of movement in Israel, higher income and better job opportunities, and Israeli health insurance.” Palestinians were also particularly concerned with losing access to Al-Aqsa mosque, which Israeli authorities have routinely restricted.

Clearly there is a perceived disparity between Israeli and Palestinian public services, so much so that 35% of Palestinians would prefer Israeli citizenship. However, simple statistics provide an incomplete picture of reality as they do not speak to the cause of this inequality. In reality Israel’s policies of occupation have induced economic crisis within the territories, while the Palestinian governments do all they can to keep their citizens provided for.

A New York Times article focusing on the International Monetary Fund’s study of the Palestinian economy explains, “Following the violent uprising of late 2000 and fierce Israeli countermeasures, an economic crisis began that lasted until 2007 when mild growth began.” Oussama Kanaan, head of the IMF’s mission to the Palestinian territories, attributes growth in the West Bank to “improved security, institution building and transparency from the government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, an Israeli easing of restrictions on movement and access and substantial donations from foreign governments.” The article goes on to explain that “all three needed to continue in a predictable way in 2010, Mr. Kanaan said, but so far the Palestinian Authority was the only player clearly living up to its promises.” In this way, as Fayyad continues to build institutions as laid out in his roadmap entitled Palestine: Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State (full text here), the most severe obstacle standing in the way is Israel’s continued and unrelenting stranglehold on the Palestinian economy.

After the final report was issued in September of 2010, Kanaan again reiterated the study’s finding that “growth isn't sustainable without progress in the peace process and the lifting of further Israeli restrictions.” This of course includes Israel’s illegal siege on Gaza, which despite claims to the contrary remains in place as it continues to wreak havoc on the Palestinian population.

Israeli economist Shir Hever comes to the same conclusion in The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation: Repression Beyond Exploitation. One reviewer summarizes Hever’s conclusions, saying, “The Palestinian economy as a whole is prevented from developing, as part of a broader process of exploitation and subjugation.” He goes on to say:
‘As local sources of income were suppressed by Israeli authorities, the main source of income to the Palestinians became remittances from Palestinian workers living in Israel, in the Jewish settlements in OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories], and in the Gulf states.’

The 1980s saw a change for the worse. Falling oil prices led to falling demand for Palestinian migrant workers in the Gulf States. A collapse in the Israeli stock market led to problems for Palestinian workers in Israel: a fall in income combined with the tightening of work opportunities for Palestinians, accompanied by discrimination and abuse. The growth of Jewish settlements inside the Occupied Territories involved the theft of Palestinian land, damaging the local economy. And Israeli policy became more belligerent, shifting away from seeking consent and accommodation. All these factors influenced the emergence of the first intifada, the militant rebellion by Palestinians against oppression, which started in 1987.

Fast forward to the Oslo process, which began in 1993. This did nothing for the Palestinian economy; indeed there was a fall in living standards, which was (again) one factor behind the eruption of resistance in the start of the second intifada in 2000. A major problem in these years was the increasing curtailment of employment opportunities for Palestinians seeking work inside Israel. Growing poverty and discrimination fed bitterness and disillusionment.

A gulf opened up during the Oslo years (1993-2000): while the Israeli economy boomed, the Palestinian economy contracted. For Palestinians, poverty and unemployment grew. Living standards fell still further after 2000, when Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank became increasingly reliant on overseas aid to avoid humanitarian disaster.
East Jerusalemites also fear restrictions on movement in both Israel and Palestine should they gain Palestinian citizenship, and rightfully so. As B’Tselem explains:
The restrictions on movement that Israel has imposed on the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories over the past five years are unprecedented in the history of the Israeli occupation in their scope, duration, and in the severity of damage that they cause to the three and a half million Palestinians who reside there. In the past, Israel has imposed either a comprehensive closure on the Occupied Territories or a curfew on a specific town or village to restrict Palestinian freedom of movement, but never has Israel imposed restrictions as sweeping and as prolonged as those currently in place.
The continued construction of Israel’s annexation barrier in contravention of international law only adds to the issue. Placing Palestine population centers on the “Israeli side” of the green line, sometimes encapsulating entire villages ,cutting off farmers’ from their private lands, bisecting various areas of the West Bank, the annexation wall is a serious impediment to the freedom of movement, an essential component for a thriving economy which includes job opportunities and quality public services.

In these ways, Israel’s behavior directly causes the disparity in living conditions that East Jerusalem Palestinians would like to avoid by becoming full Israeli citizens. Should Israeli policy reverse, the number of residents wishing to obtain Israeli citizenship would likely drop precipitously.

At  the same time, regardless of the poll’s conclusions, the acquisition of territory by war is still inadmissible, Israel’s application of domestic law to occupied territory is still illegitimate, the forcible transfer of East Jerusalem Palestinians is still illegal, and evictions and demolitions of Palestinian property (almost always through the pretext of the repugnant Absentee Property Law) are still unlawful, as is the city’s forced Judiazation.  The fact of the matter is simple: Israel-apologists have attempted to co-opt Petcher’s work to whitewash Israel’s illegal annexation in the name of self-determination, a principle the Israeli government cares nothing for when applied to any group other than Jews. The Israeli government has no regard for Palestinian desires, and will not defer to any kind of referendum on the matter should one ever take place (which it won’t).

Friday, December 31, 2010

Why We Resist Occupation

To the States - Walt Whitman

To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty.