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Al-Ahram Weekly | December 6-12, 2007

Crimes of silence

For decades now Israel has sought to portray itself and been portrayed in the West as an "enlightened democracy". Part of the way this works is through normalisation -- a strategy that streamlines Israeli cultural, academic and financial ties to the rest of the world. Normalisation enforces presence, and thereby empathy, even when the basis for such empathy is, to say the least, ill-informed. In addition, it automatically alienates Palestine, which continues to be the target of systematic elimination. In other words, the more "normal" Israel's relations with the rest of the world, the more likely it is that the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians will continue, and the illusion of democracy in the world's only remaining racist state. Support for Israel and its policies is declining, as the sustained practices of racial discrimination, state terrorism, annexation of land and war crimes have all been widely exposed -- even despite the frenzied efforts of various interested parties to deny or justify such practices, invoking historical anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to this end. And as campaigners the world over, and especially Arab campaigners, have learned, preventing normalisation requires the combined efforts of civil society the world over, as it did in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The Palestinian role in consolidating such efforts has always been central.

It was on the basis of this notion that the Palestinian Conference for the Boycott of Israel, jointly convened by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), the Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO) and the Occupied Palestine and Syrian Golan Heights Advocacy Initiative (OPGAI), launched the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) on 22 November. Islah Jad of the PACBI, an expert on women's and cultural studies at Birzeit University, was among the coordinators of the campaign; she was also among over 300 activists who gathered in Ramallah for the same purpose last week. The conference's stated goal was to discuss ways "to promote all forms of boycott against Israel among Palestinian community organisations, unions, as well as political, academic and cultural institutions," according to a press statement. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly about the goals of the BDS, Jad elaborated, "through systematic follow-up as well as articulate, powerful arguments, the academic and cultural boycott has primarily targeted [Israel's] false image, revealing the true face of the state of Israel as a colonial oppressor." Inside the occupied territories, the BDS campaign is calling for collective efforts to strengthen dignity and the culture of economic self- reliance, raising awareness of the means to conduct an effective consumer boycott, including an investigation of how Israeli products enter the occupied territories, popular mobilisation to prevent their distribution, particularly where Palestinian alternatives exist, and ways in which Palestinian companies might support national production and endorse employment of Palestinians.

All of which is even more significant in the light of sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union on the West Bank and Gaza following the legislative election of Hamas in January 2006. Not only does this constitute the first time in history that an occupied people have been subjected to economic sanctions; it has also intensified existing economic duress, embodied in worsening poverty and unemployment. Illustratively enough, 80 per cent of Gaza residents today are unemployed, and the rate may increase further due to sanctions and fuel cuts. But it is in culture and academia that the BDS are expected to strike hardest. "Because the 'normalisation strategy' targets very select groups of public opinion makers, such as intellectuals, union leaders, youth, women, artists, media professionals [and so on]," Jad told the Weekly, "it is important for each sector to realise the ways in which they are targeted and pushed -- or seduced -- to adopt normalisation." Through the conception and enforcement of a solid culture of boycott among educators and major social players, Palestinian civil society is engaged as a whole. In Palestine the concept of resistance, she added, has suffered from reductionism, equated in many instances with its armed form. This reduction has marginalised the majority of the Palestinians, both in the occupied territories and abroad, leaving them fragmented and often disaffected. But in Jad's words, "civil resistance can never be defeated: how can tanks and machine guns defeat the determination and the will of a dignified, well-organised people aspiring for freedom?"

No doubt a stronger cultural and academic boycott led by Palestinians will only enhance the existing international boycott campaign. Of those present at the Ramallah conference last week, a great many attendees were activists from across the world, including Britain, Norway and Spain. According to the public statement issued following the conference, a number of victories have already been secured, such as the British University and College Union May 2007 vote to campaign for a boycott of Israel until it abides by United Nations resolutions, and the June 2007 call for boycott, divestment and sanctions by the ANC-led South African Anti-Occupation Coalition. In Switzerland, the organisers of the July 2006 round of the Locarno Film Festival dropped the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a co-sponsor in protest of its bombing of Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. In the Arab world, meanwhile, there is a need to intensify what American University in Cairo (AUC) professor Sherif Elmusa describes as the "hard boycott. In the Arab world, there ought to be no normalisation whatsoever," he told the Weekly. "There used to be formal mechanisms to monitor and enforce the boycott of Israel; ever since, certain states including Egypt and Jordan have broken the boycott. However, at the popular level, there continues to be zero- tolerance among Arabs of Israel's practices against the Palestinians. Leaders in civil society, and that includes academics, ought to step in to fill the gap created by the governments, in response to the needs and feelings at the grassroots level." As is the case with the rest of Egypt's academic and cultural circles, at AUC there is a particularly vibrant culture of opposition to normalisation in the student community. Though the university once joined the international boycott against South Africa, today its position appears to be unclear on Israel's policies -- policies which are at least as criminal as those practised in South Africa up until the fall of the apartheid regime. Discontinuity between students and administration is regretable.

No doubt strengthened in its resolve by its geographical position in the heart of the Arab world, the student body, which has long been active in organising activities in support of the Palestinians including yearly trips to Palestinian refugee camps, was outraged to hear of the participation of seven Israeli scientists in an academic conference at AUC in the summer of 2006. "We were not told of the event at the time: we found out about it by chance later on. As president of the Student Union at the time, I was disappointed by the lack of transparency," said Seif Abu Zeid, former AUC Student Union president and current supporter of a boycott of Israel at AUC. "We have the support of some of the faculty in a push for a resolution condemning Israel's policy of apartheid. We cannot have official academic interaction, at an Egypt-based university, with Israel." Meanwhile, Abu Zeid was quick to emphasise the ethics-based drive behind the campaign. "We are not against Jews: we are against apartheid. This opposition must take precedence now, as Israeli crimes of discrimination and apartheid need to be effectively opposed." The future of the global campaign to boycott Israel remains to be seen. Critics of the boycott strategy, even in the ranks of those who in principle take a sympathetic stance towards the Palestinians' plight, have often remarked that economically the boycott is ineffective so long as Western governments shower Israel with economic and military assistance. However, it stands to reason that if the potential of civil society-led boycotts is to be dismissed in this way, then there will be a loss of confidence in the potential of civil society as a whole, one which therefore needs to be rebuilt. Thus supporters of the global campaign urge all those who ethically find fault with apartheid, forced annexation, state terrorism, aggression, discrimination and systematic military violence to reconsider their position in the global context -- or risk complicity by remaining silent in the face of the active complicity of their governments.

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Posted on 07-12-2007

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