Tag Archives: Israeli apartheid

Parallel Universes: Vietnam and Palestine

26 Nov

 

 

Not surprisingly, my sixth visit to Vietnam stirred many memories, among them, a recognition of the parallels between the Vietnamese and Palestinian experiences, two peoples who have meant so much to me over the course of my adult lifetime. I visited Hanoi in 1968 in the midst of the American war that was devastating the country and its population, causing more than three million deaths and deliberately injuring the environment and its human surrounding by using vast quantities of Agent Orange, containing the highly toxic chemical Dioxin. Agent Orange was being used to defoliate large areas of the countryside in the South as a tactic against revolutionary Vietnamese forces who were taking advantage of the wooded countryside to mount their attacks. The legacy of Agent Orange continues grimly to remind people of the war, giving rise to anguished societal suspicions of current contamination that seems confirmed by the continuing occurrence of birth deformities in certain provinces that far exceed normal statistical expectations. The Vietnamese mention this ongoing tragedy in muted tones as the government worries that it might hurt Vietnamese plans to increase their exports of agricultural products. It is part of the present atmosphere in which the war/peace preoccupations that I encountered when I visited Vietnam during the war have now been replaced by according the highest policy priority to economic growth and poverty reduction.

 

The Vietnam/Palestine parallel should not be understood as a claim of similarity. The two experiences are each highly distinctive, reflecting many particular features of the cultural, historical economic, and political experience of each country, as well as the specificities of relations to their regional neighborhood and global setting. At the same time these two peoples do share defining experiences of prolonged victimization intertwined with bitter resistance struggles because their desired national narrative collided with the geopolitical ambitions and commitments of the United States. In Vietnam the United States assumed responsibility for a colonial war already lost once by France in 1954, and pursued it with almost unrestrained fury for more than a decade before renouncing the quest in 1975, and slinking home in thinly disguised defeat. The supposed stakes of the conflict for the United States in Vietnam were mainly measured and justified in the ideological currency of the Cold War, holding the line in Asia against Communism after ‘the loss of China.’ According to the principal justification for the war, Vietnam was an Asian domino, which if it fell to national liberation forces, would lead to a rapid spread of Communism to Vietnam’s neighbors, which was then interpreted in Washington to mean the expansion of the Chinese sphere of influence.

 

Of course, the ideological and geopolitical motivations were packaged, as usual, with sleazy propaganda about the defense of freedom and the protection of South Vietnam against aggression from the North. This imposed division of Vietnam was itself a figment of the last stage of the Western colonial imaginary that tried to make the world believe that borders of geopolitical convenience took precedence over the the fundamental right of self-determination, which reflected the organic unities of history, tradition, and national identity. Eventually, as in most other anti-colonial struggles the national movement eventually prevailed during the period after 1945, enjoying in Vietnam the benefits of inspired political, military, and ideological leadership in the persons of Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen Giap, and Le Duan, and a historical tradition of many centuries of success in defending national territory against foreign invaders, especially the Chinese. What is more, not only were the Vietnamese strengthened by this historical tale of victory. They were equally proud and sustained by an extraordinary record of post-conflict reconciliation with prior enemies that many other governments and societies could do well to heed. Political leaders in Hanoi enjoyed telling foreign visitors during the war how the Vietnamese prepared a farewell banquet for their Chinese intruders once they opted for peace, and decided to return home with the obvious implication that if the Americans stopped the war, friendship could follow, not recrimination and bitterness.

 

Never did I understand better the Communist slogan that our enemy is the government not the people than when I came to Vietnam in 1968 as an American peace activist. What I felt with a depth that could not be staged was the genuineness of these sentiments, then strongly associated with the teachings and beliefs of Ho Chi Minh. This attitude, so different than what I had experience as a child growing up during World War II, was epitomized by Ho’s appreciation of the American Declaration of Independence that Vietnamese school children were made to read and think about about throughout a war in which American planes were daily dumping tons of explosives on the villages and towns of an almost defenseless people. I remember driving in the beautiful Vietnamese countryside during the visit and being told by a government official that the driver’s entire family had been recently killed by a bombing strike, but that if an American plane were to attack us now he would risk his life, if necessary, to save yours. I felt moved at the time because it seemed so sincere, and consistent with all that I felt during my two weeks in the country at a time of its great national hardship, including shortages of food and medicine. The Vietnamese even in these dire circumstances were ready to give so much more than I was capable of giving!

 

My experience with the people of Palestine, whether living under occupation, as a minority in Israel, or in refugee camps, or in a global diaspora has many equivalent moving moments, maybe even more that were accompanied by tears either of grief or laughter. Both peoples exhibit resilience of will, virtue, love, and a lively comedic sense of reality that exceeds what seems imaginable. Beyond this, in the case of the Palestinian people their struggle continues to be maintained against seemingly overwhelming odds if the calculus of ‘political realism’ is to be trusted, which never seems to lose credibility no matter how often it errs. There are crucial differences between the principal adversary facing the Vietnamese and the Palestinians. It is this subjectivity of the oppressive forces that is not widely enough appreciated. Both the French and Americans, although investing heavily in their respective wars, always had a Plan B, a metropole to which they could retreat from Vietnam if the cost of the overseas campaign became too high.

 

For the Israelis, although many Jews as individuals do hold a second passport, there is no Plan B, no homeland other than that established by the Zionist settler colonial undertaking from its inception toward the end of the 19th century. These Zionist high stakes help explain the sense of justification with regard to the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinian people. What the Israelis may, however, be forced to consider in the future, if adverse pressures from the combination of Palestinian national resistance and global solidarity initiatives becomes threatening enough to make attractive to Israelis the choice of Plan C, that is, ‘a just peace’ based on the equality of the two peoples.

 

Such a drastic shift of Israeli objectives would necessitate both rolling back the idea and mechanisms of an exclusionary Jewish state, that is, abandoning the biblical vision of Israeli Jews occupying the whole of ‘the promised land’ of Palestine and then dismantling the apartheid structures to sustain control over the Palestinian people as a whole. At this point a just peace seems such an unlikely scenario as to invite responses of ‘utopian’ or ‘impossible’ to any suggested course along these lines. Yet history has its ways of undermining oppressors, making the impossible happen. Israelis would do well to ponder their future before supposing that they can subjugate the Palestinian people indefinitely. These reflections should include the awareness that the Palestinians, like Israeli Jews as a collectivity also have no Plan B (and few second passports!). The Israeli self-serving contention that since Palestinians are ‘Arabs’ they could and should give up their quest for a sovereign Palestine, and be content with lives in the Arab world. Palestinians, as might be expected, connect their aspirations with their connections to Palestine, and would be no more content or secure if moving to Arab countries than Israeli Jews would be to live in a Western country, in fact, less so.

 

Most Palestinian leaders have long seemed ready to negotiate their versions of a Plan C, which contains the proviso that it must give concrete meaning to the affirmation of an ‘equality of rights.’ True, Hamas might seem reluctant to endorse a full fledged Plan C, at least at the outset, but their leaders too during the past decade have been seeking an escape from the treadmill of perpetual violence, and if Israeli leaders showed comparable good faith, a long term accommodation would seem attainable, beneficial to both peoples, and allowing both sides to feel comfortable with distinct interpretations of what was agreed upon, a zone of ambiguity that lawyers are very good about delineating so that differences are neutralized rather than resolved. More specifically, Hamas would not be made to legitimize Israel in the process of normalizing relations, and accepting the fact of its existence as a country.

 

During the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson once referred to Vietnam as a tenth-rate Asian power, making it seem as if a miracle would be required for the Vietnamese to achieve victory. Many military historians are still at a loss in their attempt to offer an understanding of the outcome of the conflict, given the economic and military disparities between the adversaries. The Vietnam War, especially after the illusions of an American victory were destroyed by the Tet Offensive in 1968, became too politically costly in blood and treasure to sustain, although think tank hawks never let go of their insistence that ‘defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory’ or alternatively, the insidious suggestion that ‘the war was lost in American living rooms’ (that is, by TV coverage, especially of dead Americans returning home in body bags and coffins). Such explanations amount to Orientalist denials of Vietnamese agency, implying the impossibility that such backward military technology could prevail when matched against the unlimited quantities of hyper-modern equipment available to United States armed forces.

 

For several years, extreme supporters of Israel have been urging the world to move on by accepting the reality that Israel has won, the Palestinians have lost, and regardless of feeling about the merits of the Palestinian struggle it has become one more lost cause. Daniel Pipes, long a Zionist zealot, has formalized this ‘game over’ diplomacy by using an NGO under his influence, the Middle East Forum to promote ‘a victory caucus’ in both the United States and Israel with the participation of members of the U.S. Congress and Israeli Knesset. There is something discordant about such triumphalist posturing. It doesn’t fit comfortably with the furious efforts of Israeli lobbies around the world to discredit the BDS campaign as ‘the new anti-Semitism’ or with the increasing momentum of the Palestinian global solidarity movement that has increasingly troubled Israeli think tanks, and given rise to heavily financed campaigns to punish anti-Israeli activists throughout the world. Given these realities, it seems to me that the relevant comparison seems South Africa’s about face, and not Vietnam’s victory. Apartheid South Africa also appeared to the world securely entrenched until its shocking moment of self-engineered collapse in the early 1990s at a time when even dreamers did not envision a peaceful transition to a post-apartheid reality.

 

Without counting on dreams and dreaming, we who care about a just future for both peoples need to realize it will depend on work, sacrifice, and above all, struggle. Dreams don’t become the new reality without the dedication of a people brave and creative, and helped by the inspirational effects on friends and supporters. This blessing of empowering and charismatic resilience is the core identity of the Vietnamese and the Palestinian people, their point of most profound convergence.

 

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The One and Only Path to Palestine/Israel Sustainable Peace

12 Oct

[Prefatory Note: This post is a slightly modified version of my presentation to the Human Rights Commission of the Italian Parliament on October 11, 2017. The Commission is composed of members of Parliament, and chaired by Hon. Pia Elda Locatelli, representing the city of Bergamo. The presentation was followed by a discussion, and a generally favorable response on the central issue of switching from an emphasis on ‘occupation’ to ‘apartheid.’ To access the Report use this link<https://www.scribd.com/document/342202460/Israeli-Practices-Toward-the-Palestinian-People-and-the-Question-of-Apartheid/>%5D

 

 An Overview of Present Realities

 

We meet at a difficult time from the perspective of the Palestinian people: several developments nationally, regionally, and internationally now deprive Palestinians of that glimmer of hope that comes from seeing light at the end of the tunnel; more fully appraised, the situation is not as bleak for Palestinians as the picture of their struggle being painted from a realistic perspective. A series of factors pointing in both directions can be identified, first to highlight the negative developments from a Palestinian perspective, and then to set forth several developments that are positive with regard to the Palestinian national movement aiming for decades to achieve a just and sustainable peace.

(1) the foreign policy priorities of regional and international political actors have increasingly shifted attention away from the Palestinian ordeal; developments internal to Israel have deliberately accentuated this inattention to Palestinian goals and rights; of special relevance in these regards are the ongoing wars and turmoil in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq, as well as deteriorating relations and rising tensions of the Iran/US relationship; the moves toward normalization of relations with Israel by the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia; and the unsteady diplomatic approach of the Trump presidency that seems accurately interpreted as supportive of whatever the Israeli government chooses to do, including even accelerated settlement expansion and a rejection of the Palestinian right of self-determination;

(2) Israel and Zionist support groups have launched a variety of initiatives designed to convince the Palestinians that they have been defeated, that their struggle is essentially futile at this stage, and they should move on for their own sake, overtly renouncing their struggle and posture of resistance; the pro-Zionist Middle East Forum, founded by Daniel Pipes has even sponsored a so-called ‘victory caucus’ that basically proclaims an Israeli victory as a way of demoralizing Palestinian activism and global solidarity efforts by treating Palestinian goals as a lost cause;

(3) accelerated Israeli settlement expansion without any adverse pushback from Europe or North America, a development that can be regarded as hammering the final nails into the coffin of ‘the two state solution;’

(4) the widespread recognition that more than 20 years of diplomatic effort within the Oslo framework failed miserably, with the Palestinians paying a heavy price in territory and credibility for engaging so avidly in a diplomatic process so heavily weighted against them; Oslo’s failure permitted Israel to encroach on Occupied Palestinian Territory in a variety of unlawful ways including especially extending the settlement archipelago, illegally building the separation wall on Palestinian occupied territory, and manipulating the ethnic balance in Jerusalem to make the city as a whole more Jewish;

(5) confronting a crisis of viability in Gaza, of both a material and psychopolitical character; not only continuing a decade long blockade that itself amounts to a crime against humanity, but stifling the dreams of young talented Gazans who against all odds have earned foreign fellowships and then are either denied exit permits or entry visas to carry on their studies abroad; this kind of acute frustration, long experienced by Gazans in many forms, is contributing to a new turn among Palestinian youth, who increasingly want to leave Gaza and pursue a more normal life for themselves and their families rather than remain under conditions of virtual captivity to resist and carry on the struggle for empowerment and liberation.

 

Despite all these considerations, there are aspects of the situation, often overlooked in mainstream media, which seem favorable to the Palestinian struggle:

(1) the morale boost that resulted from prevailing in the recent Al Aqsa confrontation concerning control of security arrangements at this site sacred for all Muslims, not just for Palestinians who are Muslim;

(2) a more serious renewal of efforts to bring unity to the relationship between Palestinian political tendencies, especially Fatah and Hamas;

(3) the growing global support for the BDS Campaign, achieving some high visibility successes prompting corporate disengagements from commercial projects related to unlawful Israeli settlements—G4S, Viola; and persuading some high visibility cultural figures not to perform in Israel—Pink Floyd

(4) Palestine is definitely winning the Legitimacy War waged to build stronger and more activist support from international public opinion; such support has been understood as far back as Gandhi as capable of neutralizing the superior military capabilities of a foreign political actor; throughout the decolonization era, the political outcome of struggles for control of state power were eventually won by the party on the right side of history, not as in the 19th Century by the party enjoying military superiority, which in the second half of the 20th century continued to make colonized people suffer greatly, but no longer able to impose their political will; Zionist/Israeli reaction to this set of developments relating to legitimacy has been to shift the conversation about Israel/Palestine relations from the defense of Israeli practices and policies and away from the substance of Palestinian grievances and rights to mount an attack on the motives of those criticizing Israel’s policies and practices, alleging that Israel’s critics are motivated by anti-Semitism, a smear tactic that also is encroaching on academic freedom, but exposing the weakness of Israel’s position on the merits. Internally, the Israeli public discourse is much more focused on the opportunity of fulfilling the maximalist Zionist goal of incorporating the whole of ‘the promised land’ of biblical Israel into the modern state of Israel;

(5) It is my judgment that the biggest development favorable to the Palestinians has been a shift in the public discourse and the articulation of Palestinian demands of peace and solidarity activists from the slogan ‘End the Occupation’ to a clarion call to ‘End Apartheid.’ This shift has been recently legally validated by a UN-sponsored academic study of whether the claim that Israel is an apartheid state stands up to scholarly scrutiny.

 

 

 

The ESCWA Report

 

The UN Report of the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) entitled “Israeli Practices and the Question of Apartheid” issued a few months ago, and co-authored by myself and Virginia Tilley, a renowned world expert on apartheid and a political scientist on the faculty of the University of Southern Illinois. ESCWA is a regional commission of the UN composed of 18 Arab states, with headquarters in Beirut. The Report was requested by the member states, and we were invited to prepare the report in accordance with academic standards by the Secretariat of ESCWA. The Report was never intended to become an official UN document, but rather the presentation of the views of two scholars with a background presumed relevant for the preparation of such a study:

–the issuance of the report had two immediate effects: first, it immediately became the most widely read and requested report in the history of ESCWA, and secondly, it produced a firestorm at the UN due to harsh criticisms by the U.S. and Israeli representatives who demanded that the Report be formally repudiated, attacking its authors, and insisting that the UN take prompt action or face the defunding consequences;

–the new UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutterez, dutifully responded by instructing ESCWA to remove the Report from its website; the director of ESCWA, Rima Khalaf, refused to follow such an order, believing in the contents and propriety of the Report; in the end she chose to resign rather than submit to UN censorship, explaining her position in an Open Letter to the SG;

–at this point it is not clear what the status of the Report is within the UN System; it has not been officially repudiated, and in fact the 18 foreign ministers representing the members of ESCWA endorsed the conclusions and recommendations of the Report, and urged their acceptance within the UN; I have no idea as to whether such a response will have any impact;

–as indicated the Report was an academic study, although of an admittedly controversial character; prior to its release, the Report was anonymously vetted by three world class scholars each of whom strongly recommended publication; as well, the report contained a disclaimer that stated that the recommendations and conclusions of the Report were those of the authors alone and did not represent the opinions of the UN or ESCWA; and in fact, the Report has to date received no substantive criticism from those who mounted the UN attack or otherwise; it was a pure show of geopolitical leverage that exposed the weakness of international law and the fragility of open discussion of sensitive issues at the UN;

–it is my judgment that the Report is significant for three distinct reasons:

         <(1) The Report considers whether the allegation of Israeli apartheid is backed by sufficient evidence and persuasive legal reasoning in relation not just to the West Bank, as has been frequently alleged in the past, but in relation to the Palestinian people as a whole; such an inquiry means that if apartheid is declared to exist it applies to Palestinians living in Jerusalem, as a minority in Israel, and in refugee camps in neighboring countries as well as to Palestinians living in occupied Palestine or as involuntary exiles throughout the world; the central legal finding is that Israel has established an integrated matrix of control over the Palestinian people as a people so as to maintain the Israeli state as ‘a Jewish state’ in the face of continuous Palestinian resistance for the entire period of Israel’s existence;

         <(2) The Report reaches its conclusions by relying on scholarly methods of analysis, and by examining and interpreting the evidence of Israeli policies and practices in relation to the relevant norms of international law as contained in the 1973 International Apartheid Convention. The essential finding we reached was that Israel intentionally and continuously was responsible for ‘inhuman acts’ as the means by which to subjugate the Palestinian people as a subordinated ‘race.’ This enabled Israel to govern in a discriminatory fashion as ‘a Jewish state;’ in our judgment the Palestinian people were deliberately fragmented so as to facilitate the maintenance of control over a resisting, initially majority non-Jewish population; this ambition to control Palestine was complicated by the additional Zionist objective of seeking to be and be seen as ‘a democratic state;’ such an objective, given the demographic imbalance, virtually necessitated at the inception of Israel as a state, the expulsion of several hundred thousand Palestinians and the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages to discourage any prospect of Palestinians returning after the war to reclaim their places of residence and way of life; such exclusion was seen as vital if Israel was to achieve and maintain a Jewish majority population within its borders; the Zionist puzzle, tragic for both peoples, was that only apartheid structures could provide a solution to this three-sided challenge—that is, establishing Israel as simultaneously Jewish, democratic, and hegemonic;

         <(3) this Report has been widely used since its publication, and especially to provide political support and intellectual guidance mandating a civil society shift in tactics and commentary from a focus on ‘ending occupation’ to ‘ending apartheid;’ in my view, this is a crucial and timely shift as international law and the UN had been long ignored by Israel, diplomacy and armed struggle had been tried futile and utterly failed, and Palestinian leadership, such as it is, has faced both a series of stone walls and the humiliation of the notorious separation wall declared contrary to international law by 14 of 15 judges of the International Court of Justice. In effect, there is no serious alternative for Palestinians (and even Israelis) committed to a peaceful future than to rid the Israeli/Palestinian relationship of its present apartheid character.

 

 

Clearing the One and Only Path to a Just and Sustainable Peace

–peace between these two peoples can only be achieved by a credible acknowledgement of their equality of rights with respect to national self-determination; the apartheid structures that currently subjugates Palestinians epitomizes a relationship of inequality; the core obstacle to peace is apartheid, and once this obstacle is removed a productive diplomacy will become possible so long as it proceeds at all stages on the basis equality, keeping in mind that Oslo diplomacy collapsed because it encoded inequality into every aspect of its framework (U.S. as intermediary, excluding international law) and by adopting a bargaining process that favored Israel due to disparities in power and influence;

<the overriding political challenge is how to clear this path to peace, given Israeli firm control and resistance to even the acknowledgement of apartheid as descriptive of the current relationship between the two peoples; Israeli apartheid cannot be ended without a reformulation of Zionist goals; Israel must be persuaded to become content with an existence within a secular state hosting a Jewish homeland; such an altered stance would require abandoning the insistence on being a Jewish state; such a downsizing of Zionist objectives would actually be consistent with the scope of the original British pledge as set forth in the ultra-colonialist Balfour Declaration (recent archival research evidently establishes that a Jewish homeland was actually the longer term intention of Lord Alfred Balfour, as if this matters a century later); Israeli apartheid will not be dismantled until there is significant further growth of the Palestinian global solidarity movement, including the backing of some governments, especially several key governments in the global South; there would need to be sufficient, sustained global pressure to induce Israeli leaders and citizens to recalculate their interests, leading enough to decide to base their future on cooperation and coexistence with the Palestinians rather than their domination and exploitation; at this point, such an outcome seems unlikely and even utopian, but history has a strange way of staging dramatic surprises, and in such cases where an abrupt reversal of policy takes places, it will be only be admitted as a possibility after it has already been decided upon;

<The South African ending of apartheid was precisely such a surprise; it was totally unexpected in the 1990s that the combination of African resistance and the global anti-apartheid campaign would produce a peaceful transition to a multi-racial constitutional democracy presided over by Nelson Mandela, who until his release was serving a long-term prison sentence as an alleged terrorist; what changed so abruptly in South Africa was not the moral stance of the white elite that had invented and cruelly imposed the apartheid structure as a supposedly permanent solution to race relations in the country, but rather a cold recalculation of interests, and especially a comparison of the balance of advantages and disadvantages of continuing to exist as a pariah state in the world and abandoning apartheid, thereby risking African governance and possible retaliation, yet by so risking, taking a course that would alone restore the international legitimacy of the South African state;

<Of course, there are many differences in the Israeli situation, including Israel’s disavowal of apartheid as relevant to its management of the relationship between the two peoples, as well as Israel’s considerable success in avoiding pariah status within the international community through the practice of sophisticated diplomacy and public relations, backed by an aggressive arms sales program, and above all, by being the beneficiary of the geopolitical muscle of the U.S., as well as enjoying the quieter support of Europe;

<By adopting the apartheid paradigm as descriptive of the Palestinian situation it becomes possible to align civil society activism with international law, and even more important, encouraging the Palestinian national movement to concentrate its efforts on the one and only path that could produce an acceptable peace agreement. Any other approach seems doomed to some kind of appalling continuation of the present oppressive daily circumstances that has been fate of the Palestinian people for far too long. We should all reflect on the excruciating reality that this is the 50th anniversary of the Occupation and the 70th year in which Palestinians and their descendants have lived as refugees. No people should be compelled to endure such a fate.

 

 

Conclusion

 

It requires no great wisdom to observe that the future is a black box. We know that achieving peace and justice for these two peoples will require a lengthy struggle that needs to place its trust in ‘a politics of impossibility,’ or as the poet W.H. Auden once put it: “We who are about to die demand a miracle.” And while awaiting such a political miracle, we should accept our human responsibility to aid and abet the Palestinian struggle for rights, self-determination, and a just peace. The attainment of such goals would also inevitably reshape the destiny of Israeli Jews toward a more humanistic and benevolent future.