Ali Abunimah and his publishers at Haymarket Books knew what they were doing when they scheduled his book launch for Israeli Apartheid Week earlier this month.
Abunimah’s tour has tapped into the growing sense on college campuses that Zionism is something to be opposed. And Abunimah, the co-founder of the Electronic Intifada and author of the new book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, has played a key role in giving voice to that sentiment.
The feeling that Palestine solidarity is on the move on college campuses was palpable at the New School in early March, where I witnessed Abunimah go after Benjamin Netanyahu’s claims that Israel was a global beacon because of its prowess in technology. It was a Friday night. But at least 100 people, if not more, came out and repeatedly applauded Abunimah’s talk.
Since then, as Abunimah has gone to other states, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on campus has continued to make waves, from the University of Michigan to Loyola. I sat down with Abunimah earlier this week to get his take on where the battle over Palestine is in the U.S. and on campus. We also talked about South African apartheid, the Palestinian Authority and the potent coalitions the BDS movement is forging in the U.S.
Alex Kane: Your book is aptly titled The Battle for Justice in Palestine, and it’s a look into the depressing reality for Palestinians and an exploration of what to do about that reality. What’s the status of that battle for justice, in the U.S., the world and in Palestine?
Ali Abunimah: The battle is raging everywhere, particularly here in the United States. And I thought it was important to highlight that in the book, because when you do look at the situation in Palestine on the ground–although there’s plenty of Palestinian protests and resistance, and certainly no sense of Palestinians giving up on their rights–you can easily feel the situation on the ground is stagnant at best, and deteriorating at worse. It’s deteriorating in the West Bank with Israel’s relentless theft and colonization of land. It’s deteriorating in Gaza where the siege is even tighter than ever, where in recent days you see electricity being cut off once again and Israel closing the only food and fuel crossing into Gaza. And it seems to be getting worse in present-day Israel, where it seems every other week a new racist policy is passed–most recently the law to discriminate between Palestinian Christian and Palestinian Muslim citizens of Israel. So it’s not to discount the struggle people there are waging, but I wanted to focus on the fact that in the U.S. and other parts of the world, Palestinians are winning many battles, and Israel and the Zionist movement are really faltering in their efforts to win hearts and minds.
AK: But the Palestinian Authority is certainly not helping this battle, though the Israel lobby may be faltering. In fact, you say the PA is hurting it, both internally with neoliberal economic policies and externally with policies of capitulation during the peace process. Could you expand on those issues?
AA: That’s right. It all makes sense when you understand that the Palestinian Authority is part and parcel of Israeli occupation and Israel’s system of apartheid. It is a native colonial authority, often compared to the Bantustans, the so-called Black homelands in apartheid South Africa. It’s not exactly like them but that’s a pretty good parallel for them. And what I document in The Battle for Justice in Palestine is an issue that hasn’t gotten enough attention, which is that, under the guise of state building and nationalism and national liberation, the Palestinian Authority and a small Palestinian economic elite have been deepening their ties to the Israeli occupation and making a handsome profit as a result. While the vast majority of Palestinians have been getting poorer, there are a few billionaires like Bashar Masri, the builder of the Rawabi luxury housing development project near Ramallah, who are making a killing. That really needed to be exposed because this neoliberal economic development has been marketed by the likes of Thomas Friedman and other commentators in the U.S. as this great thing that is actually helping Palestinians towards independence when in fact it’s deepening the grip that Israel has on the Palestinian economy.
AK: How exactly is it deepening that grip? You talk about the debt Palestinians are in, and the economic cooperation between Palestinian elites and Israeli companies that profit off the occupation. Could you add more details on this process?
AA: In The Battle for Justice in Palestine I talk about a number of examples of this. One I mentioned is Bashar Masri, the Palestinian billionaire who is building this housing project called Rawabi in Ramallah. It’s been marketed all around the world. There have been glowing media profiles of it, talking about Palestinian state building in action, that this is going to produce affordable housing for Palestinians and for a new middle class.
And in fact, Rawabi is built on land that was taken from surrounding Palestinian villages and land owners, in some of the same ways that Israel has taken land from Palestinians, using the abusive and unaccountable power of the Palestinian Authority to develop a private, for-profit project. It’s also untrue that this is affordable housing. This is actually unaffordable housing for the vast majority of Palestinians, who cannot ever dream of living in Rawabi. And I think it represents the unaccountable and opaque role of global financial capital. This Rawabi project is financed by Qatar, to the tune of about a billion dollars. So it also shows how that there is a kind of normalization between Arab countries and Israel and the occupation. Because you have to remember that Rawabi is built with a huge amount of Israeli input. Many of the suppliers are Israeli.
Bashar Masri has claimed that all Palestinians, because they’re under occupation, have to rely on Israel to some extent for cement and other building materials. And he’s absolutely right about that. But in his case, he actually boasts about how much he buys from Israel, something like 80-100 million dollars worth of supplies a year, and his company calls this an “economy of peace,” when it’s actually an economy of exploitation. So that’s one crucial example.
The others I talk about in the book are the turn towards these extraterritorial Export Industrial Zones where the Palestinian Authority has signed secret deals with companies, or government-sponsored companies abroad–I talk about one company, a Turkish one, in particular–that is managing or will be managing an industrial zone in the north of the West Bank. These agreements are totally silent about labor rights, environmental protections, and other rights for Palestinian workers. And at the same time they provide these companies almost total sovereignty, including the sovereignty to set up their own private armies to prevent anyone, including Palestinian Authority officials, from entering the industrial zone. And the World Bank and IMF are explicitly advocating in reports they have published that this should be the model for Palestine, that Palestinians should become cheap labor for Israeli companies so they can export to the Arab world. It’s really a dystopian vision.
AK: So what does this assessment of the Palestinian Authority and the elites that support it say about the future of Palestine? It certainly brings to mind the end of apartheid in South Africa, where the African National Congress signed onto neoliberal policies that kept in place the economic systems that developed with apartheid.
AA: That’s exactly right and that’s a parallel I make in the book. I do think that there’s a lot to learn from the transition in South Africa, 20 years after the official end of apartheid. One of the widely noted problems in South Africa is that the country turned towards neoliberalism, leaving the white elite in control of the economy, while millions of black people are poorer than ever. And what I say in the book is what makes Palestine unique is that this is happening before there’s any political transition. It’s already underway. So Palestinians need to think not only about political resistance to Israeli apartheid and Zionism, but economic resistance and ways to make Palestinian communities resilient to these neoliberal assaults. What I also say, in that sense, is Palestinians are fighting the same fight that people in Greece, Spain, all over the region and all over the world are fighting against unrestrained financial capital and neoliberalism. That struggle in Palestine has to be tied to a broader and deeper global struggle for economic sovereignty and local control over people’s resources.
AK: I want to go to your first chapter, which I found incredibly compelling. You don’t start your book with a laser focus on Palestine. Instead, you focus on mass incarceration in the U.S., what Michelle Alexander dubbed the New Jim Crow, and what all of these things say about the U.S.-Israel relationship. Explain that choice. Why focus on that first?
AA: This was very important to me, and it was a learning experience to better understand the New Jim Crow and mass incarceration in the United States. And again, there’s a parallel to South Africa. We just talked about how South African apartheid ended officially, but economic apartheid has remained and become more entrenched.
Well in the United States, Jim Crow and segregation ended officially with the civil rights legislation that was passed in the 1960s and 70s. But what Michelle Alexander argues, very compellingly, is that a New Jim Crow took its place, with mass incarceration, primarily of people of color and especially with African Americans, which means that by many measures, African Americans, particularly African American men, are as badly off today as they were during Jim Crow, which is absolutely shocking.
There are a couple of parallels with Israel. One is the ideology that allows the United States to talk about itself as this very liberal, democratic, egalitarian country where everyone has individual rights and equality before the law, while in reality imprisoning more of its population than any country in history, and more of its ethnic and racial minorities than any other country on earth. And this is parallel to the Israeli or Zionist ideology. People of color, indigenous people, African Americans, are viewed as a demographic threat that needs to be controlled with ever-more sophisticated and total methods of control. This is where Israel has really tapped into an American sensibility.
I talk about this huge conveyor belt of police chiefs being taken on junkets to Israel, where they are taken to prisons like Megiddo prison, where Palestinian prisoners are tortured, including Palestinian children, and where Palestinian prisoners have died under torture. And they come out and they say, “wow this is so great, I’m going to take what I’ve learned back to LA, back to Chicago and back to New York.” And this is a marketing strategy by Israel, where Israel takes a huge market share of what it describes as a $100 billion global homeland security industry and they see these big U.S. city–and small city police forces–as a primary market. Those police forces and those cities are ground zero for mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow. What I say is that because the affinities are so close, we’re not talking about separate struggles. We’re talking about the same struggle, and companies like G4S, which Palestinians are resisting in Palestine and the BDS movement is targeting, are also profiting from mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow in the U.S. So how much more powerful would we be if we were really building a joint struggle against Israeli occupation and apartheid and against, for example, mass incarceration in the United States?
AK: But it’s not as if mass incarceration and surveillance would not be happening in the U.S. without Israel, of course, and I know that’s not what you’re arguing. So how do these things interact?
AA: I’m definitely not arguing that if it weren’t for Israel, then the United States would be a place with there’s no racism and no police abuse and no mass incarceration–far from it. I actually say in the book the United States needs no lessons from anyone on how to operate racist systems against its own citizens. What I’m arguing is that the post-9/11 anti-terrorism and security mania allows Israel to repackage its technologies of control and repression, which are in fact tested on Palestinians under occupation, to repackage them as foreign expertise and technical expertise. So that’s why you often see American officials talking about how the “Israelis are the experts, they live in a tough neighborhood. They understand these things.”
And so you have airports all over the United States buying expertise from the former head of security at Ben Gurion Airport, a program called behavioral recognition detection, which is supposedly some really sophisticated way of telling if somebody is a potential terrorists. So you have Transportation Security Administration officers in Boston blowing the whistle, and saying actually, behavior recognition is just racial profiling, and what we’re being told to do is to treat African Americans, Latinos and other people of color with extra scrutiny and suspicion. And so that’s the behavior, of course, that is all over the country, this kind of racial profiling, but now it gets to be packaged as some kind of sophisticated Israeli technology.
AK: All these connections are quite depressing, but they also have implications for the Palestine solidarity movement in the U.S. You have a chapter on the “war on campus” over Palestine, and you write about the connections made between Latino and Chicano activists and Students for Justice in Palestine. What’s so important about those connections?
AA: Well that’s another really good example. Just in the past few weeks, the Obama administration, which has been one of the main promoters of this native Israeli expertise both in security and other technologies, awarded a $145 million contract with Elbit Systems, an Israeli arms company that is involved with the construction of the illegal wall in the occupied West Bank. And now, these technologies, tested and experimented on Palestinians, are going to be used on the U.S.-Mexico border. So the parallel that students are seeing–Latino and Chicano students and Palestinian students–is the settler-colonial assault on people who have been on the land for a long time. The Chicano people have been in what is now the Southwest United States since before it was the United States, as have indigenous people of course. But you have someone like Governor Jan Brewer in Arizona who are claiming that these people are invading the United States with the aim of destroying its culture. And she talks about them as a kind of demographic and cultural threat–exactly the same way Israel and Zionists talk about Palestinians.
I think there are other parallels between Senate Bill 1070 in Arizona, which allows the profiling of any person of color for them to be challenged as an unlawful or undocumented immigrant, and laws that Palestinians face every day and African asylum seekers face every day under Israeli rule. So these are connections students are making and building a joint struggle around, and that’s a really important and positive development.
AK: You have a clear vision to end the battle over Palestine: a one-state solution, which your first book was about. Specifically, you devote much ink to the question of how a one-state solution would impact Israeli Jews, and the question of both Palestinian self-determination and Israeli Jewish self-determination. How do you envision a one-state solution overcoming the objections of Israeli Jews, and how does Palestinian and Israeli Jewish self-determination play into this vision?
AA: Since I wrote One Country, my first book, there have been a lot of developments in this discussion, and a lot more people are open to this idea of a single democratic state than they were at that time. And that’s really great. I wanted, in this book, to answer some of the skepticism and objections that still persist. The main one is, “a single state sounds very nice but Israeli Jews will never accept it.” And so I wanted to look at other examples where you have a settler-colonial regime, where the people benefitting from it were absolutely opposed to ending their own privilege and control. Of course, South Africa is one example of that, and Northern Ireland is another. And I wanted to trace that solid opposition–in South Africa, the vast majority of whites were opposed to ending apartheid and ending white minority control until very close to the end of the apartheid regime. And I think a lot of people don’t know that. They think that somehow, whites in South Africa were all for ending apartheid. They fought against ending apartheid tooth and nail, just as Israeli Jews are doing right now. I wanted to trace how that change takes place, how when that change is underway, people really begin to shift their narratives. I thought that it was really important to show that what appears to be a stagnant situation today of solid opposition can actually begin to change very rapidly once people begin to understand that the balance of power is shifting and there’s really no future for a system based on oppression and racialism.
AK: My last question is about the tools we use to go towards that vision. Obviously, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement could be one tool, although it’s important to note the BDS movement doesn’t take a position on states. Where do you see the BDS movement playing into the larger battle over Palestine?
AA: The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is really coming of age now, and there’s a dynamism that I think is just palpable, and what’s really frustrating to Israel and to pro-Israel organizations is that this movement is so organic and so diffuse. It doesn’t have a central leadership, it’s not an organization, it’s not, “the BDS,” as some pro-Israel groups like to call it. It really is a set of principles and tactics that people can self-organize around, and that’s what is happening across North America, Europe and increasingly in Arab countries, where people understand this is a powerful tactic.
What it does is it brings the focus right back to Palestinian rights and Palestinian agency. Some of the people who most oppose Palestinian rights- like Peter Beinart and J Street and others–what they like to do often is to portray this as coming from outside the country. There’s often a deliberate concealment that this is a Palestinian-led and Palestinian-driven movement, and there is an attempt to derail it and coopt it, with what Peter Beinart calls “Zionist BDS.” But ultimately, it’s a movement that puts before people a question: do you support Palestinian rights? Do you support rights for all Palestinians? And liberal Zionists cannot answer both those questions in the affirmative. That’s why this has been such a powerful movement, because drawing fully on principles of human rights, international law and anti-racism, it places people before that question. And we’ve come to a decisive moment where people have to decide, are they with Israel and its self-definition as a so-called Jewish and democratic state–which I argue is totally incompatible with rights for everyone–or are they with these universal principles? And it’s a very exciting moment. One of the things that emerged in the initial stages of this book tour is, how many different backgrounds this movement can bring together. That’s why I have a great deal of hope that in the next coming years, we’re going to win this battle. That’s what keeps me going.