The following is a report by Richard Falk on “The Arab International Forum for Justice for Palestine,” held in Beirut on July 29, 2018. His report is followed by a personal account to Falk’s blogreaders of a more personal character, describing the style and manner of the gathering.
1. There was bright sunshine throughout the entire Forum thanks to the announcement that Ahed Tamimi and her mother were released on that very day, and boldly reaffirmed their abiding commitment to resistance. This teenage Palestinian icon from the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh had completed an eight month jail term for slapping an IDF soldier after her cousin had been shot in the face. Instead of exhibiting empathy for Ahed Tamimi, Israel exhibited its vindictive approach to the Palestinian reality by jailing such a sensitive young woman rather than acting in a civilized manner by exhibiting sympathy for the normalcy of her reactions, indeed their dignity, to being a witness of such brutality by an agent of the Israeli state.
The Tamimi family were prominent resisters before “the slap heard around the world.” It was evident by the frequent reference to Ahed by speakers at the Forum that her show of defiance and youthful exuberance was worth a thousand missiles, expressing not only sumud, but also the conviction that nonviolent resistance can become transformative if adapted to the realities of an oppressive situation. Of course, not a word in the NY Times about Ahed’s release, while papers in Lebanon wrote complementary feature stories with sympathetic pictures of this heroine, and in every Turkish paper I saw her release was a front page story. Ahed seems comfortable with the prominence of her role despite being so young. As far as the eye can see, Ahed seems completely unaffected by the dark shadows cast over her young life by the harshness of Israel’s response to her totally spontaneous gesture of resistance.
While celebrating Ahed release, we should also pause to remember Razan Al-Najjar, the heroic nurse tending the wounded at the Gaza Great March of Return fatally shot on June 1st by an IDF sniper in cold blood while apart from the demonstrators, away from the fence, dressed in easily identifiable white medical clothing, working in the vicinity of Khan Yunis.
We should also salute Dareen Tatour, fine Palestinian poet, author of the poem “Resist My People, Resist Them,” sentenced to prison just now for the sin of writing defiant poetry, having only recently been released from years of house arrest, denied access to the Internet, and even to her own village community.
2. There was one feature of the Forum that I admit made me increasingly uncomfortable as I listened to speaker after speaker pour cold water on Trump’s promise, or was it a threat, to end the conflict with “the deal of the century.” When it came my turn to speak at the very end of the day, I started by saying how astonished I was by the attention given by prior speakers to this catchy phrase used by Trump. According these words of the demagogue so much attention gave the still undisclosed U.S. proposal a political weight it didn’t deserve or possess, and could put the Palestinians in an unnecessarily awkward, defensive, and combative position. I pointed out that Trump’s erratic approach to the world since he became president had weakened greatly the U.S. global leadership role, and that his extreme partisanship with respect to the Palestinian struggle had reduced to zero American credibility as an impartial or constructive arbiter in relation to the future of the two peoples. U.S. credibility as a peacemaker had long ago been convincingly challenged, for instance, by the devastating book of Rashid Khalidi, “Brokers of Deceit,” and even more comprehensively by Jeremy Hammond in his important assessment, “Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” (2016). It seemed to me that the words “the deal of the century” had entranced and bewitched this Palestinian audience, and maybe others, leading to my fear that Trump had put them on a road leading to a political dead end for the Palestinian aspirations, crushing their struggle by being tricked into entering such a spiderweb of bombastic irrelevance.
What the U.S. seems ready to offer, besides bombast, and what Israeli leaders have been talking about more and more openly, is that if the Palestinians abandon their rights along with their dreams, “peace” becomes possible. This includes abandoning political goals associated with the right of self-determination. If the Palestinians are so foolish as to do this, then they can become hapless beneficiaries of “an economic peace” courtesy of Israel’s generosity and charitable nature. The deal of the century reduced to substance is nothing more than “geopolitical bribery,” exchanging the prospect of some dollars for the renunciation of inalienable rights. In such a bargain the devil is NOT in the details, but is the very essence of what is being proposed. Of course, there are almost certain also to be humiliating details involving the concrete implications of permanent submission by the Palestinians: acceptance of uncontested Israeli control of Jerusalem, a complete denial of any right of return for Palestinian refugees or exiles, and a series of master/servant economic arrangements. My plea at the Forum was to put “the deal of the century” in its proper perspective by ignoring it, or if it must be discussed, then reframe all references to the deal by recognizing that it is less a deal that an attempted diktat, in actuality a crude attempt to commit “the crime of the century!”
3. I highlighted the second portion of my presentation by quoting the opening line of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I felt this kind of interface well depicted the current situation of the Palestinians. It was the worst of times because the alignments in the Arab world together with the geopolitical forces seemed to favor the success of the Zionist Project to an unprecedented degree. The major Arab governments were moving toward postures of “normalization” with Israel without any longer insisting on the precondition of reaching a sustainable peace with the Palestinians. This regional setback has weakened Palestine diplomatically, and materially. At the same time the Trump presidency has made no secret of its endorsement of maximal Zionist goals, agreeing to support whatever Israel (and Saudi Arabia) want. Above all this commitment involves ramping up a dangerous confrontation with Iran. Most of Europe seems unhappy with these developments, but has so far lacked the energy, incentive, and leadership to play an offsetting role to balance Trump’s one sidedness and thus act to keep alive what has become a Zombie solution, the barely flickering flame of “a two-state solution.” In other words, from the international community of states, the best that can be hoped for at this stage, is a rather lame show of support for the two-state mantra, which has been effectively moribund for several years.
In sum, if Palestinian prospects are interpreted through the prism of standard international relations, the outlook is dismal, and not by chance this is the line being pursued by the Middle East Forum, an ultra-Zionist NGO. Its chosen mechanism to drive the point home is its rather diabolical scheme labeled “the victory caucus,” which is actively recruiting, with a disturbing degree of success, members of the U.S. Congress and the Knesset. It wants the world to understand that since international diplomacy is dead and with Trump in the White House the occasion offers Israel the opportunity of adopting more muscular tactics to force the Palestinians to understand that their game of resistance is over, that to avoid collective suicide there is no alternative left to the Palestine other than political surrender. And by such reasoning, if the Palestinians are wise enough to accept this line of thinking, then they will become beneficiaries of some variant of economic peace as a sign of Israeli gratitude.
Fortunately, these dismal scenarios of defeat do not tell the true or real, much less the whole, story. Several recent developments have created new and promising opportunities for the Palestinian national movement to move its own agenda forward. These developments involve a welcome shift of the center of gravity of the Palestinian movement from reliance on inter-governmental initiatives, including those pursued at the UN, to a phase of struggle that combines new modes of Palestinian resistance with a rapidly expanding global solidarity movement. This solidarity movement is receiving a great boost in credibility as a result of the militant support that BDS campaign is receiving in South Africa. In effect, on the basis of their experience of racism, South Africa is delivering this urgent message to the world: we alone know from experience the full horror of an apartheid regime, and what Palestinians daily face is a form of apartheid that is even worse than what we endured, and finally overcame by a struggle that combined the brave resistance of our people buoyed by the solidarity of the world; although the circumstances are far different, apartheid in Israel can be overcome by a similar shift in the balance of forces due to an intensifying popular struggle neutralizing the repressive capabilities of military and police domination.
I mentioned two developments of particular importance in the emergence of this altered scenario of struggle more encouraging for the realization of Palestinian aspirations. First, the Israeli nation-state law of the Jewish people that by its bluntness in asserting the exclusivity of Jewish rights in Israel, including that of self-determination, amounts to a formal adoption of an apartheid ideology by Israel in all but name. In effect, this development vindicated the conclusions of the ESCWA report on Israeli apartheid prepared by Virginia Tilley and myself that was condemned so fiercely by the Israeli ambassador, and even more so by Nikki Haley, the American ambassador at the UN, when it was released in March 2017.
As the discourse at the Forum and the mainstream media now illustrate, it is no longer controversial to attribute apartheid to the particular Israeli mode of dominance imposed on Palestinians. What makes the nation-state law so politically and psychologically helpful in this respect is that the relation of the Israeli state to its Palestinian minority was, although discriminatory enough to form one domain of the apartheid system, far less onerous than Israeli policies and practices toward refugees in neighboring countries or Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza. Thus for Israel to acknowledge apartheid as the modus operandi in Israel itself amounts to a signed and voluntary confession as to the racist character of overall domination.
Such an interpretation of the nation-state law is important for mobilizing popular support for more militant forms of solidarity with respect to the Palestinian people. Apartheid is an international crime, one type of crime against humanity that is set forth in Article 7 of the Statute governing the operations of the International Criminal Court, and deprives Israel of the propaganda value of claiming to be the only democracy in the Middle East, a major pillar of its claimed politic al legitimacy. That pillar crumbled the moment the Nation-State bill became Israeli law.
The second development that creates opportunities for advancing the Palestinian struggle is the exposure of the violent nature of Israel’s control mechanisms, especially its reliance on grossly excessive force in calculated response to the Great March of Return. These demonstrations at and around the Gaza fence are demands to implement the most fundamental of Palestinian rights as set forth by international law. Killing unarmed demonstrators with live ammunition exposes to the world the violent nature of Israel’s structures of domination. This use of lethal force at the Gaza border recalls vividly the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, which many commentators identified as the point of no return for South African apartheid, revealing the true racist nature of its governing process to the world. The Gaza massacre is actually far worse than Sharpeville (although there were other massacres to follow including crushing the Soweto Uprising), as the willful killing at the Gaza border has now been repeated on a series of successive Fridays.
It is the extreme character of these two developments that provides this golden opportunity to civil society activists and their organizations to mobilize wider and deeper support for the Palestinian struggle. The BDS Campaign, already commencing its 14th year, becomes more central in this effort to isolate Israel internationally and emphasize the criminal illegitimacy of Israeli apartheid. It is appropriate to mention that South Africa sought to demonize opposition to its racist policies by dubbing anti-apartheid activists as “terrorists” or “Communists.” Israel uses a similar rhetorical tactic by branding its critics and activists as “anti-Semites.” Although Israeli apartheid is different in many aspects from South African apartheid with regard to both internal and international contexts, both instances of apartheid involve structures of subjugation based on race with the overriding purpose of maintaining domination of one race, and the victimization of the other. South African apartheid proved vulnerable to resistance and solidarity initiatives. It is my belief that the opportunity now exists, more so than ever before, to establish a comparable vulnerability with respect to Israeli apartheid.
It should be appreciated that the great unlearned lesson of the last half century is that military superiority has lost much of its historical agency. The colonial wars were won by the weaker side militarily. The Vietnam War was lost by the United States despite its overwhelming military superiority. The side that control the heights of legal, moral, and political opinion eventually usually controls the political outcome in contemporary struggles for control of sovereign states, especially if the struggle takes place in a distinct political entity, and not as a secessionist move by a captive nation with an existing large sovereign state (for example, Catalonia, Chechnya, Puerto Rico). The Palestinians have been winning the legitimacy war to achieve such nationalist aspirations, and now is the time for soft power militancy to get on with the job.
4. Despite the implicit acknowledgement of apartheid by the adoption of the nation-state law as Basic Law of Israel, that is, as not subject to change except by enactment of another law with Basic Law status, it seems helpful to reassert the relevance of the ESCWA Report. That study, arousing great controversy at the time of release, is no longer as relevant or as needed for purpose of debating whether or not Israel is an apartheid state. Even before the Basic Law was adopted, the evidence of Israeli practices shows, as the Report argues, that Israel is an apartheid state. The Report remains relevant, however, to obtain a better understanding of the distinctive, specific, and comprehensive nature of Israeli apartheid.
For one thing, the Report examines the allegation of apartheid from the perspective of international law as it is set forth in various authoritative places, especially the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the International Crime of Apartheid. Secondly, it argues on the basis of evidence that Israeli apartheid extends to the Palestinian people as a whole, not just to those living under the dual legal systems of the West Bank or as the discriminated minority in Israel. The apartheid regime developed by Israel applies also to the refugees confined to camps in neighboring countries and to those Palestinians living in Jerusalem, which is governed as if it is already wholly incorporated into the state of Israel.
We reaffirm the central conclusion of the Report that the only valid path to a sustainable peace for both peoples requires the prior rejection of the ideology and the dismantling of the structures of apartheid. Any other purported peace process will produce, at most, a new ceasefire, most likely, with a very short life expectancy. A secondary conclusion is that as a matter of law, all governments and international institutions, as well as corporations and banks, have a responsibility to do their utmost to suppress the crime of apartheid as being perpetrated by the leadership of the state of Israel. It also would follow that lending assistance to Israel either materially or diplomatically is now unlawful, aiding and abetting a criminal enterprise.
Conclusion: The time is ripe for civil society to represent the Palestinian people in their struggle against the Israeli apartheid regime. This struggle is just and the means being pursued are legitimate. Resistance and solidarity are the vital instruments by which to challenge apartheid, and its geopolitical support structure. This was the path that led to the collapse of South African apartheid, and a similar path is now available for the Palestinian struggle.
Afterword: Falk’s note on the conference of a personal character.
My initial impression after experiencing a 90-minute airport line for those carrying foreign passports to gain entry to Lebanon was that the conference was incredibly disorganized. There was no program available to the participants even after the Opening Ceremony began in a packed hotel auditorium with a crowded and passionate gathering of persons dedicated to justice for Palestine, hailing from many countries, from as far away as Mumbai and San Francisco, including diplomats, religious personalities dressed in traditional garb, and those who in a diversity of ways had kept faith over the years with the Palestinian struggle. Not surprisingly, the Irish participants stirred the crowd the most with their fiery eloquence, drawing on their shared experience of a somewhat similar prolonged, and often anguished, struggle. The Forum was a microcosm of Palestinian inclusiveness. I was not really surprised that Ramsey Clark was the beloved Honorary Chair of the Forum, and learned that only a recently broken hip kept him away.
There were many moments of personal satisfaction during my long one day visit (that seemed like three), including a warm coffee chat with Rabi’ Bashour, recalling our ESCWA experiences, and discovering that his venerable father, Maan, was the heart and soul of the Forum, both as moderator of the event and its guiding spirit throughout the entire process from its origins until the present. The formative idea of the Forum is to establish a platform that is wide enough to accommodate all tendencies in the Palestinian national movement provided only that there exists ample evidence of dedication to justice for the Palestinian people. This meant Fatah and Hamas in the same room, religious figures and firmly secular persons, representatives of trade unions, student organizations, prisoner and detainee family members, women’s groups, members of parties from the far left and the center (I never became aware of any right wing participation). It was the central task of the Forum to keep this symbolic expression of Palestinian unity in robust good spirits, and only secondarily, to address matters of substance. The unspoken dream of the occasion was that the success of the Forum would nudge the political leaders of the now deeply divided Palestinian movement to put aside their differences and achieve sustainable unity so as to pursue together the far greater convergence of goals at the common core of their struggle.
There was a call from the podium at the outset for “practical proposals” rather than just “speeches,” but rhetorical style is almost impossible to discipline, and especially so in the Arab world. And so, inevitably, there were an assortment of speeches mainly validated by frequent emotional flourishes throughout their delivery, yet in fairness there were also several promising concrete suggestions for action initiatives.
I came to appreciate greatly the anarchistic style of hospitality, above all by Nabil Hallak, the guiding conference presence, with no observable capacity for conventional organization beyond a restless vitality that made us all feel welcome, appreciated, and well cared for. Once I overcame my own anxieties about the chaotic logistics enough to go with the flow I enjoyed being in such a setting, and everything important worked out somehow. It turns out Nabil has a beautiful wife, has fought in Palestinian resistance, and as a result possesses a body that was pierced by nine Israeli bullets; despite this, Nabil is modest about his past, projects a joy-for-life esprit and manifests day and night an intense dedication to the Forum as an ongoing political project. He is close to Tima Issa, a TV producer in Beirut with whom I had done a program a year ago, who extended the initial invitation and made the social dimension of my brief visit both enjoyable and memorable.