AntiNote: The following is an extended excerpt of a radio interview, edited for readability. We strongly encourage you to listen to the full interview (here); we regretfully removed large sections, containing important information, due to space concerns.
On 3 May 2014 Chuck Mertz of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) talked to author, scholar and activist Ali Abunimah about a way forward in Palestine. This week, Abunimah and Max Blumenthal brought their joint speaking event, The Future of Palestine, to the Chicago Cultural Center. Like many of our readers, no Antidote writers were able to attend due to a large ocean in the way—but we hope this conversation provides a tantalizing taste of the issues and perspectives that were discussed there. If you went, we’d love to hear what you took away from it.
Abunimah brings rare optimism and fresh thinking to the debate around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But at the same time he hints strongly at a much darker future for Palestinians—as well as everyone else. He reveals new, hidden facets of the emerging global, militarized, security-obsessed neoliberal regime that Naomi Klein described more broadly in The Shock Doctrine. This system’s literal conduits are already being established, and it is these international connections Abunimah makes that we find the most chilling, the most sensitizing, and the most potentially solidarity-inspiring. The Palestinians’ plight, in increasingly direct ways, is all of ours. Read on.
“The same companies profiting from mass incarceration of people of color in the United States are profiting from Israeli occupation.”
Chuck Mertz: On the line with us right now is Ali Abunimah. He is cofounder and director of the Electronic Intifada; his new book is The Battle for Justice in Palestine, released last month by Haymarket Press. Good morning, Ali.
Ali Abunimah: Good morning, Chuck.
CM: Before we get to your book, I want to ask you about your New York Times op-ed from April 24th, Only a Single-State Solution Will Bring Peace. What happens to our ability to bring peace between Palestinians and Israelis when we dismiss the idea of a One-State Solution, or even dismiss the idea of a Two-State Solution? When we dismiss a possible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what happens to our ability to end that conflict?
AA: What I argue is that it’s the insistence on failed formulas and failed ideas that has actually pushed peace away for so long. At this moment, it’s clear that the so-called peace process—that the United States has been shepherding along for twenty years—has totally collapsed. You have to be completely unwilling to see reality to continue to believe in it. This is a moment to think fresh, think anew, embrace ideas that have worked in other places and are very realistic and pragmatic for Palestinians and Israelis as well.
CM: In that New York Times op-ed, you write, “let’s get back to basics. The Palestinian people live under occupation and siege in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as second-class citizens in present-day Israel, and as refugees as a consequence of the Zionist colonization of historic Palestine that began more than a century ago and continues today.”
So, let’s do get back to basics. You know this, Ali: in the U.S., the media acts as if Israel is above criticism. The fear of being perceived as antisemitic or worse is so great—because of the industrialized genocide that Jews faced during the European Holocaust—that even words like ‘Zionist,’ have the connotation of being anti-Jewish. Is the term ‘Zionist’ antisemitic?
AA: It’s an accurate description of a movement that calls itself Zionist. I think the problem you are pointing to is this allergic reaction to speaking frankly and openly about this issue. We’ve seen it on display recently with this leaked audio of Secretary of State John Kerry telling a closed meeting of world leaders that Israel “could become an apartheid state.” There have been howls of outrage from major pro-Israel organizations and from leading Democratic and Republican politicians, and Kerry was forced into a really craven apology and retraction.
Here’s what was so interesting about Kerry’s apology: he said that, in fact, Israeli leaders have often used the word ‘apartheid’ to describe the reality today. But he said the word is “best left out of the debate here at home.” In other words, he’s saying that it’s okay for Israelis to speak frankly about apartheid and what Israel is doing to Palestinians, but we Americans should continue to bury our heads in the sand and shy away from these realities.
Sadly, too many people have agreed with John Kerry for too long. That’s why I think this country is unique in the way this issue is talked about. Other people are much more open about this issue, including—ironically—Israel.
CM: If you look at the Israeli press—Ha’aretz, Jerusalem Post—you often see criticism of the Israeli government that you would never see in the U.S. media. What explains the courage of Israeli journalists, and the cowardice of American journalists, when it comes to criticizing the Israeli government?
AA: I don’t want to overstate the courage of Israeli media, because actually Israeli media is not very open. This is not really a measure of how open the Israeli media is, it’s a measure of how closed the U.S. media is on this issue.
The question is why. I think you pointed to the answer: the insistence of Israel and pro-Israel groups that if you’re Jewish you must support Israel, and that any criticism of Israel is antisemitic. And I think that this is a double injustice. First of all it’s an injustice to Palestinians who are systematically silenced using this tactic and not allowed to speak about their reality. What’s really remarkable in the U.S. media is the total absence of Palestinian voices. They have just been completely shut out.
That’s one thing. The other great injustice is to Jewish people, including Jewish people in the United States. There have always been a significant number of Jewish Americans who oppose Zionism and who stand in solidarity with Palestinians, and who say, look, the state of Israel and the Zionist movement do not represent us, and we do not want to be implicated in their actions. So saying you must be loyal to Israel—or that whatever Israel does is in the name of Jewish people—silences and marginalizes Jewish people as well as Palestinians.
CM: Do Palestinians have the same relationship with Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority that Israelis have with their own government?
AA: Of course they do. I think one of the real downsides of the fact that there are so few Palestinian voices in the mainstream media is that many Americans are unaware of the political diversity and the debates among Palestinians, and that Palestinians have been in the forefront of formulating new forms of resistance, particularly the growing Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. To the extent that that’s covered in the U.S., you would barely know that it is a movement initiated and led by Palestinians in Palestine. It’s often portrayed as something that’s coming from outside, and that’s just not true.
Another connection I want to make is how what’s happening to Palestinians in Israel ties back to what’s happening in the United States, in cities like Chicago, with mass incarceration, with racialized and militarized policing. The same neoliberalism that is wrecking Palestinian lives is also wrecking lives in Chicago, for example with the mass closing of schools. Those are the kinds of connections we need to make if we’re going to build solidarity that can really be effective across international lines.
CM: The name of your book is The Battle for Justice in Palestine. Could you have re-titled this book The Battle for Justice in Israel? Is this a battle for justice within Israeli borders as much as it is battle for justice in Palestine?
AA: That could be one way of putting it. I said ‘Palestine’ because it’s a word that is often left out of the discussion, and it was very important to me to affirm the name of Palestine. And of course when you say “within the borders of Israel,” the problem is that nobody knows where the borders of Israel are. So it’s very hard to say.
But the question you asked is to what extent Israelis are part of this battle, and I think that’s absolutely crucial. I’ll start by pointing out that the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement—which is growing and making headlines every day—is modeled on the kind of global solidarity movement that helped end apartheid in South Africa.
Why is that significant? When I was in South Africa I met people from all walks of life. I met white people who had joined the ANC, who had become involved in the struggle against apartheid. I met one person who had joined the anti-conscription movement. You know, the South African army conscripted all white men, and they had to go off into the townships or into Namibia or Angola to fight the colonial and racist wars of the apartheid regime. So the white anti-conscription movement was a really important part of the struggle against apartheid.
Similarly, in Israel now there are a growing number of young Israelis refusing to serve in the Israeli army. They say, “we are not going to join an army of occupation and colonization.” Some Israelis are actually going farther and joining the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, calling for the full implementation of Palestinian rights, and saying that as Israeli Jews they cannot be free, cannot be whole, unless the system of apartheid and discrimination against Palestinians is completely ended.
So solidarity is there, and it’s growing. What’s exciting about it is that this is a solidarity based on universal principles which say Israeli Jews and Palestinians—and all the other people in Palestine—are actually capable of living together on the basis of equality. To me that’s very exciting. That’s the future.
“Palestinians under occupation are the guinea pigs, the lab rats for systems that are now being brought to the U.S.”
CM: But in the United States, we don’t hear about the nonviolent movements in the occupied territories in Palestine, the nonviolent actions taken by Palestinians and those who are affiliated with them, Israeli Jews even. The only thing we hear about is rocket attacks from Gaza. What do you think defines Palestinians more: the rocket attacks or the nonviolent movements?
AA: Hamas and other Palestinian armed factions negotiated a cease-fire with Israel in November 2012, and they’ve been sticking to it. It has been Israel that has been systematically violating it. Not even the New York Times has been able to ignore this—and they’re pretty good at ignoring the realities on the ground. The pattern is, sadly, that every time there has been a cease-fire negotiated between Palestinians and Israel, Israel has broken it. That’s what happened in 2008, when Israel escalated into the horrifying invasion of Gaza. Of course that part of the story is not ever told.
That aside, your question was about nonviolent resistance. One of the ironies of it all is that liberal commentators in the United States lecture Palestinians and say, oh, why aren’t you like Gandhi? Why don’t you have a nonviolent movement? Then people would support you. And then Palestinians develop what is possibly the most exciting global nonviolent movement that there is, the most sustained campaign to bring pressure for justice—which is the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement—and the same liberals condemn it and say no, this is unacceptable. So what is it they want? You can only come to the conclusion that what they actually want is for Palestinians to do nothing. Well, Palestinians are not going to do nothing.
But what’s really exciting are the connections being made. On campuses all over this country, student governments are passing resolutions calling on their universities to divest from American companies that are profiting directly from Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestine. But in many places you’re seeing these students hook up with other crucial movements, including divestment from fossil fuels, and divestment from prisons.
And these connections are very real, because the movement against mass incarceration in the United States is up against the very same companies. The same companies profiting from mass incarceration of people of color in the United States are profiting from Israeli occupation. The same companies incarcerating Palestinians on behalf of the Israeli occupation are incarcerating people of color in this country.
This momentum is really important. The possibility to join in solidarity and actually win some victories in the next two years has never been greater.
On May Day, just a couple of days ago, there were rallies in Chicago and New York and cities around the country against Obama’s unprecedented campaign of mass deportation. Two million people have been deported in the past five years—hundreds of thousands of families broken up. This is more people deported from the United States in the past five years than in the previous century, which is absolutely stunning.
But you have to see this in the context of the relentless militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. When I was working on this book, I spent a couple of months in far west Texas, in the border areas. It was a routine experience to be stopped by the border patrol. In many of these communities, border patrol jobs are the only jobs people have. These are government programs just to employ people to police other people.
My point is, again, that the connections are very real. Members of congress are saying that our model for the U.S.-Mexico border should be the Israeli separation wall. Just a few weeks ago, the Obama Administration gave a contract to LB Systems—an Israeli arms company that has the blood of thousands of people on its hands—to set up surveillance systems on the U.S.-Mexico border. So Palestinians under occupation, under apartheid, are the guinea pigs, the lab rats for systems that are now being brought to the U.S.
“If there were a peace agreement or even an agreement to create a unitary state with equal rights, the economic injustices would remain so entrenched that they would undermine any victory unless we address these issues up front.”
CM: Here in the U.S., many critics have pointed out that the successful use of fear in politics since 9/11 has been detrimental to the people of the United States especially when it comes to our freedoms. You are an observer not just of Israeli politics, but of U.S. politics as well. How would you compare the use of fear in politics in the U.S. to the use of fear in politics in Israel, as both nations are very, very concerned with their security?
AA: I compare them directly, and I think it is exactly this kind of fear-mongering that is producing more racism against immigrants, more militarization of the border, more surveillance in our cities and homes. In turn, it is producing a very lucrative so-called “homeland security” industry—worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year—that both U.S. and Israeli companies are profiting from.
There’s a real cynicism behind this rhetoric about security. A lot of people buy it, thinking, yeah, it’s a dangerous world and we need to keep safe. But a lot of people are making a huge amount of money on this. They are stirring up popular passions and fear, making sure they get votes, and these dynamics are very similar in the U.S. and Israel. It is no coincidence that the right wing in this country supports mass incarceration, supports the so-called war on drugs, supports militarizing the border, opposes any meaningful immigration reform—and is the most staunchly pro-Israel community in this country. That is no coincidence.
CM: As we’ve been talking about all morning, you never see an honest discussion in the U.S. media about what’s happening between Palestinians and Israelis. You can take that down another level: not only do we not discuss what’s happening in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, we also do not use the word neoliberalism. If you don’t hear the word on the air, if you don’t present the concept for people to understand what it is, then you cannot have a debate about it.
You point out in your book, “the Palestinian Authority is essentially a neoliberal proxy for the U.S.” What do you mean by that, and how should understanding that the Palestinian Authority embraces neoliberalism affect our understanding of the situation, not only between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, but also between Israelis and Palestinians?
AA: Well, it’s been fascinating that the chapter in my book called Neoliberal Palestine has been the one that people have been most responsive to when I go out and speak. It’s really amazing. Because in this chapter I show that, over the past twenty years of the so-called peace process, things haven’t been static. There has been a really aggressive attempt to neoliberalize the economy of the Palestinians under occupation.
It’s a bit similar to what the United States and the neoconservatives wanted to do in Iraq after the invasion; they wanted to turn it into a laboratory for all of their pet economic theories, stripping away any regulation, making it a free-for-all. We’ve seen something similar in Palestine. It’s really frightening; people like Thomas Friedman are going over there and claiming that there’s an economic miracle going on, talking about new five-star hotels and luxury cars all over Ramallah, and spinning this fantasy tale of a Palestinian economic miracle.
What is actually going on is that there is a tiny elite, the Palestinian one percent, if you like, that have been getting very rich while working very closely with the Israeli occupation. In the meantime the vast majority of Palestinians have been getting poorer and poorer, more dependent on aid, seeing their economy destroyed; mass unemployment has continued to grow. Of course, in Gaza it’s an even bigger economic disaster—a deliberately engineered economic disaster. And yet this is being marketed as a model; Palestine is being held up as a model for other countries.
Plans for the future are even more frightening: there are examples of the so-called international community setting up industrial zones in Palestine. They claim that this is all about Palestinian development and helping lay the foundation for a Palestinian state, but these are actually extra-territorial zones where the Palestinian Authority and a future Palestinian state—if it ever came into existence—would have no jurisdiction. They would be entirely under the control of foreign corporations whose rights are guaranteed, including the right to their own private armies.
These agreements are silent about the rights of workers, about the environment. They can pollute—Israel is already using the West Bank as a dumping ground for toxic industries, and that would only get worse. But they’re marketing it and packaging it as peace. And that is really dangerous.
Of course, this is happening in many parts of the world. If we say that Palestinians need to put the struggle for economic justice and democracy back at the center of their struggle, at the same time we need to recognize that what Palestinians are struggling against is the same in Chicago. Look at the privatization of everything from parking meters to public schools. It’s the same model of first-class infrastructure for the rich, selling off public goods, selling off public assets, claiming that this is good for the people, but with no accountability whatsoever.
It’s happening all over the world, and Palestine is part of it. So ultimately, if there were a peace agreement or even an agreement to create a unitary state with equal rights, the economic injustices would remain so entrenched that they would undermine any victory that people had won unless we address these issues up front.
“We have to talk about Palestinian refugees—and talk with Palestinian refugees—as human beings with rights, with interests, who have a full right to participate in creating justice and creating the future, instead of being excluded and talked about only as a problem.”
CM: What I’m looking forward to, Ali, is the wall that we will be putting around the South Side of Chicago, and all those checkpoints, just like in the occupied territories.
AA: Already when you drive around the South Side you see those blue-light cameras flashing on every lamppost. And you don’t see that on the North Side—it’s not everywhere in the city.
The Chicago Police Department’s top brass have gone over to Israel a couple of times. All the top brass of every sector of the Chicago Police Department has gone over to do these so-called “counterterrorism trainings,” where once again Israel’s occupation and oppression of Palestinians is specifically held up as a model. And then they come back and say, oh, we’ve learned so much in Israel, we’re going to apply it in Chicago.
It’s not just Chicago; it’s L.A., it’s Oakland, it’s New York, it’s all over the country. In fact, the Israeli consulate in Chicago has held seminars where they bring top Israeli police officials over, and they bring in police chiefs from all over the Midwest, and they invite them to go to Israel to buy Israeli homeland security technologies and systems—that in many cases are just racial profiling re-branded as foreign expertise. So it’s no joke, it really is coming to Chicago.
CM: You write, “the Palestinians are winning. That might seem like hubris or even insensitivity. After all, in so many ways things have never looked worse. 1.7 million people in the Gaza Strip face their darkest days. After years of siege and war, electricity is out for most people for up to eighteen hours a day. With no pumps to take it away, sewage floods the streets. The water supply is undrinkable, and there’s no escape as Israel and its ally, the Egyptian military regime, keep Gaza’s borders under near-permanent closure. A short distance away, in the occupied West Bank, things are hardly better, as Israel—ruled by a triumphant and seemingly unassailable far-right—relentlessly presses ahead with its violent colonization aimed at Judaizing what remains of Palestinian land.”
So how can the Palestinians be winning? Because if this is winning, maybe losing ain’t so bad.
AA: Of course you’re using my own words, so I set myself up for a difficult task in making the case that they’re winning. The key point is that they are winning the argument, particularly here in the United States, particularly at the grassroots level. You wouldn’t know that if you looked only at the mainstream media, but in campuses across the country this battle is being fought—and people standing in solidarity with Palestinians rights are winning on campus after campus.
The pro-Israel lobby groups and the Israeli government have identified U.S. college campuses as the key battleground where they believe the future of the U.S.-Israeli relationship is going to be won or lost. They’re pouring tens of millions of dollars into efforts to suppress Palestine solidarity activism on campus, and silence professors who they view as teaching things that cause people to ask too many questions about Israel.
This is real. There is a free-speech emergency on our campuses. At the University of Chicago back in 2009, I was part of a protest where we disrupted a speech by the Israeli ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert. We were not protesting against his opinions. We were protesting against his actions, and the fact that he was responsible for the deaths of more than 3,000 Palestinians and Lebanese during his term of office. But what was so interesting was the way the university tried to shut down media coverage of the event. They tried to censor the questions students could ask. They tried to have total control over what could be said and thought.
This is really reaching crisis proportions. A few weeks ago, Northeastern University in Boston became the first university in the U.S. to ban a Students for Justice in Palestine group outright. That decision was supposed to last until 2015, but I’m happy to say that because of the national uproar and organizing by students against this, they reversed it after a few weeks.
But this kind of thing is happening all over the country, and for a reason. Because supporters of Israel are finding that when you get any group of college students together in this country and talk to them about the facts, lay it out for them, they overwhelmingly back equal and full rights for Palestinians. So that’s the crisis that Israel and its advocates are facing in this country, and that’s part of why I argue that in the next few years, the possibility of radical transformation for the better is there. And that’s why I say that Palestinians are winning.
CM: There is never any talk of Palestinian refugees within our media. Is this the most underreported, least publicized aspect of the Palestinian plight? And if it were well-covered in the United States, do you think feelings towards Palestinians would change?
AA: Palestinian refugees are always dehumanized; they’re always talked about as a problem or a demographic threat to Israel, instead of being talked about as human beings and communities with rights of their own. Part of what the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement is doing is trying to put Palestinian rights back on the agenda, rather than talking about everything only from the perspective of Israel and how this is an “unwanted population” for Israel.
It’s important to put Palestinian refugees in the context of how refugees are treated in other cases around the world. In other cases, the right of return is not controversial, it’s essential. It was essential to the peace agreement in Bosnia, which was fully backed by the United States. In Bosnia, a country of only three million people, hundreds of thousands of refugees have been able to return home and reintegrate into their communities—and that was done with the full support of countries including the United States.
So the question is, why should Palestinians uniquely be told that they should just get lost? That’s the kind of rhetoric we have to change. We have to talk about Palestinian refugees—and talk with Palestinian refugees—as human beings with rights, with interests, who have a full right to participate in creating justice and creating the future, instead of being excluded and talked about only as a problem.
CM: Ali, one last question for you, and it’s the Question from Hell: the question we hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience is going to hate the response. You call this the “Zionist colonization of Palestine.” Those who support Israel would not say this is colonization, as there was “nobody in the area when the exodus happened, and even if there were, there was nothing there but dirt until the Israelis turned it into a beautifully prosperous land.”
If this is “historically” Israeli land, and the Israelis have done so much to turn the area around, doesn’t that mean they somehow have more invested—culturally, historically and economically—in the area?
AA: First of all, there were 1.2 million Palestinians there; 750,000 were expelled in 1948. But you also said that supporters of Israel don’t like the word “colonization.” That’s actually not true. The first Zionist settlers thought of themselves as colonists. In fact, today Israeli settlers say that they are colonizing the land, ‘redeeming’ the land. They use those words.
So this process of settlement is very familiar to Native Americans, to aborigines in Canada, Australia, New Zealand—who are also very familiar with the denial of their own culture, their own history, their own presence, or with the appropriation of parts of it. Palestinians face all the same things.
You have to recognize history before you can move beyond it and build a future, and so recognizing the reality of Palestinians in the past, present and future is the first step. Ending denial. In my book I actually try to lay out a future path where Israeli Jews and Palestinians can live together in the land, and live together with their history. I think it’s possible.
CM: Ali, it is fantastic to have you back on the show. Thanks so much for being on this morning.
AA: Thanks, Chuck.
Transcribed and printed with permission
Featured image source: Occupied Palestine blog