Palestine at the Crossroads

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A piece of the boarder between Israel and Palestine.

Credit: CreativeCommons / gnuckx.

At its national conference at the end of July, the Australian Labor Party will be voting on a motion to recognize the State of Palestine. The outcome may be symbolic, yet it could mark a shift in a country where politicians of any persuasion have been so intimidated by the Israel lobby that they find it difficult to challenge the stereotype that Israel is a democracy and Palestinians are simply Arabs who can’t be trusted. This cowardly attitude has been maintained because successive Australian governments have tried to curry favor with Washington and do whatever the White House wants.
Polls show that a clear majority of Australian citizens support the human rights of all Palestinians and regard it as imperative that Palestinians should have a homeland of their own.
Given that the Labor Party could form a government at the next election, its representatives need to catch up with public opinion. They need to become far more aware of the living conditions faced by Palestinians such as those living on the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, in Gaza and in Lebanese based refugee camps.
With a view to influencing Labor politicians’ awareness of the forces marshalled against Palestinians’ rights to self-determination, I was invited to speak in the New South Wales Parliament. The event was advertised as “Palestine at the Crossroads.” It took place on the 25th of June.
The Palestinians’ struggle for a homeland is affected by the language used to describe their rights and to mount opposition against them. I simplify this language into two kinds: that which demonizes and is violent, and that which creates hope and is nonviolent. That’s the format for my observations in the parliament.
Exclusiveness and Violence
Words of demonization include language used to falsify and deny. For example, British Colonel Richard Kemp, who is employed as an apologist for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), travels the world saying that the IDF is the most moral army in the world and never intentionally kills civilians. As soon as the UN report on war crimes committed in the last invasion of Gaza was published, Prime Minister Netanyahu cried his Orwellian crocodile tears, as in his insistence that the IDF met the highest humanitarian standards.
In March 2015, when students at Sydney University staged a protest against the appearance of Kemp on their campus, the News Corporation/Rupert Murdoch-owned newspapers and radio stations launched their familiar torrent of abuse against anyone who dared to criticize the policies of Israeli governments, let alone support the worldwide Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Headlines in those newspapers said that mobs ruled the Sydney University campus (this after a fifteen-minute demonstration by about thirty students), that totalitarians were in charge, and that the BDS movement was “a magnet for the malicious and a podium for prejudice.”
In support of Palestinians’ rights, the BDS movement needs to be demystified so that it cannot be stereotyped as a plot to abolish the State of Israel and commit genocide against Israeli Jews. The billions of dollars being used to dramatize Israel’s virtues and to vilify anyone who supports the BDS movement need to be known by the public in general and by politicians in particular. The BDS movement is nonviolent, repudiates any kind of racism including anti-Semitism, and is based on and justified in international humanitarian law. Nevertheless the very acronym sends some of Israel’s staunchest defenders into outbreaks of hysteria. For example two academics from Monash University argue that supporters of the BDS movement, and I am one of them, are “malevolent, bigoted and are taking a McCarthyist plunge into zealotry.”
The violence of the language used to dehumanize the Palestinian people and to dismiss their right to self-determination is all too apparent to the residents of East Jerusalem. A recent settler placard in that Palestinian part of East Jerusalem read, “A Jew is a blessed soul, an Arab is the son of a whore.”
In response to such racist abuse, and with tears in her eyes, the distinguished Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu said that this was a violent and fearful time for her people, that she constantly heard that Palestinians did not value life and were only interested a culture of martyrdom.
Buttu spoke in the context of more evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, and more house demolitions. Such violence, says Jeff Halper, is “atavistic revenge” that runs completely contrary to Article 33 of the Geneva Convention, which refers to responsibilities for the protection of citizens in times of war.
In some parts of influential Israeli society there is recognition of the dehumanizing language used to vilify Palestinians coupled with an understanding of the consequences that follow such language. Quoted in a recent issue of the New Yorker, the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, said, “It is time to honestly admit that Israel is sick… I am not asking if we’ve forgotten how to be Jewish but if we’ve forgotten how to be human.”
Inclusiveness and Nonviolence
Nonviolent language provides the hopeful alternative to racist vilification, that demeaning of an entire group of people in a desire to depict them as not fully human. In terms of the Palestinians’ struggle, that nonviolent philosophy and language is accessible in the Charter of the United Nations, a document which refers to nation states’ responsibility to “develop friendly international relations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self determination of peoples.” There lies the visionary, inclusive basis for the Palestinians’ cause.
In April 2014, and to his considerable credit, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed fifteen international treaties, including the Convention on the Political Rights of Women, the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court, and the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Consistent with the aspirations in these treaties, those who support the Palestinian struggle will need to identify the values of a future Palestinian state and the last thing they should do is to repeat the exclusionary policies used against them. Instead they can speak and practice inclusiveness and nonviolence. They can take a cue from Mahatma Gandhi, who taught that nonviolence is not only a way of living but a law for life.
To facilitate the Palestinians’ struggle, reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and between diverse Palestinian groups is clearly a priority. Within the steps to promote reconciliation, attention to the dignity and equal rights of women should become a proud hallmark of a new democratic state. Reconciliation with Israel may prove more difficult than the crafting of trust between Palestinians. In this respect there will have to be a massive sea change in the attitude of Israeli leaders. If they might realize that the language and practice of violence is destructive for everyone, courage could be found to work toward reconciliation. Ilan Pappe says that such a goal will require Israel to recognize the Nakba, accept their role as victimizer, and accept the Palestinian in their national discourse.
In finishing my dialogue with this audience in the parliamentary theater, I acknowledged that if an academic spoke for too long, that could be regarded as a form of violence. For that reason I would turn to poets to dip into the language of humanity, the language of love, inclusiveness, and nonviolence.
In a world riddled with awful conflicts, it could require a touch of courage and inspiration to adopt such language. For that reason I’ll turn first to the eccentric American poet Marianne Moore and her poem “Blessed Is The Man.” I think she’s speaking of the qualities that could characterize Palestinian leadership. I’ll choose just a few lines:

Blessed is the man who does not sit in the seat of the scoffer –

who does not ‘excuse, retreat, equivocate; and will be heard.’

Blessed is the man who takes ‘the risk of a decision,’ – asks
himself the question: ‘Would it solve the problem?
Is it right as I see it? Is it in the best interests of all?’

Affronted by ‘private lies and public shame,’ blessed is the author
who favors what the supercilious do not favor –
who will not comply. Blessed is the unaccommodating man.

No account of Palestine at the Crossroads could be complete without reference to the hopes of the inimitable Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish. I’ll let him finish. In lines from his poem “Beirut” he wrote:

I carry language docile as a cloud
Above the pavement
Of reading and writing
The sea has left its eyes with us
And gone back towards the sea.

In the memorable “We Travel Like Other People,” he wrote,

We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere. As if traveling
is the way of the clouds….

We have a country of words. Speak speak so we may know the end of
this travel.

Within the next few weeks we should learn whether Australia’s Labor politicians will heed Marianne Moore and Mahmoud Darwish: whether they’ll vote in favor of a future Australian government helping to craft a future Palestinian State.

Stuart Rees is professor emeritus of the University of Sydney and founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation.