The bigger change still to come

July 1, 2010

Israel's murderous assault on a flotilla of ships carrying solidarity activists and humanitarian aid to break the U.S. and Israeli-imposed siege of Gaza spurred outrage around the world--and catapulted the international movement in support of the Palestinian people to a new stage.

At the Socialism 2010 conference in Chicago, four voices from that movement discussed the future of the struggle for a free Palestine and a free Middle East at a forum attended by nearly 1,000 people.

The final speaker was Ahmed Shawki, a veteran socialist who was born in Egypt and editor of the International Socialist Review.

THE THEME of tonight's discussion, which I think is a perfectly appropriate theme and the right one, is how significant a change there has been on this issue, and yet the more significant change is to come.

I have to also take a little pleasure not only in the fact that Kevin managed to make it into the country, but that we have a panel which in the world of today's dominant media would be very peculiar.

Its composition alone should tell you something about its point of view and its clearly extremist connections. We have, after all, someone who sailed on a ship toward Israel with humanitarian supplies who also is half Iranian. Our second speaker is originally from Pakistan, and our third from Lebanon. And to top it off, an Arab Egyptian. This is clearly a panel that cannot be trusted--which has no facts or knowledge about the region of the Middle East.

The reason that jokes works, however poorly I delivered it, is that we all know the reality in this country--of a media that characterizes the Arab states, Third World people from Muslim countries, all Arabs as a set of people who are to be suspected, stopped at borders, harassed. Don't fly while Arab. Don't speak while Arab. Don't go to Arizona while Arab or Muslim.

Marching for justice in Palestine following Israel's massacre of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla
Marching for justice in Palestine following Israel's massacre of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla (Ahd Child)

I think in introduction that we have to not only honor those who died, but those who participated in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. But above all, to also acknowledge and applaud the struggle of the Palestinian people since the Nahkba of 1948.

I go back to 1948 because while we have talked about a new situation, this is not a new struggle. I think it's important for us to acknowledge those who came before us, even if this struggle has arrived at a new stage.

There are several reasons for this. Not least among them will be clear to anybody who has been to a pro-Palestine demonstration in this country--that there is a new generation of Palestinians who were raised here and have very strong feelings about the question of Palestine. That is a feature that is a reality in the Palestinian diaspora internationally.

But it's a new situation most of all because, as the speakers before me said, what has happened to Palestine and Palestinians is now front-page news, and is known and absorbed by millions of people internationally.

Perhaps least of all in the U.S. because of the media here, but around the world, there has been a transformation of the view of the struggle for Palestine that we should be aware of. For those who remember the words of an Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, "It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine...They did not exist." This was part of the attempt to rub out the history the Palestinians, but it no longer works.

It's also the case that the idea of Israel as the sweet democracy in the Middle East has been demolished. Even supporters of the state of Israel, and I'll quote the paper of record here, the New York Times, from their editorial:

On Tuesday, President Obama expressed his "deep regret" over the flotilla incident. He is doing Israel no favors with such a tepid response. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown time and again that he prefers bullying and confrontation over diplomacy. Washington needs to make clear to him just how dangerous and counterproductive that approach is.

Mr. Obama needs to state clearly that the Israeli attack was unacceptable and back an impartial international investigation.

You have to ask yourself what is going on when the New York Times, which does not generally editorialize against anything Israel does, writes that. What does that indicate? Or the comment by the head of Mossad a few days after the attack: "Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden."

I THINK two things have come together in a way that opens up a new phase. There's the decision by American imperialism to adopt a policy, the "war on terror" and preemptive war on enemy states, in its attempt to dominate the world.

And as its lynchpin in the Middle East, it has a country that requires, as previous speakers have stated, the expulsion of the native population from their land as a condition of its very existence. This is not only enshrined in the constitution of the state, but the means for the continued existence of Israel requires the continued expulsion of the Palestinians.

The "two state" solution that was proposed and floated in the early 1990s, beginning with the Oslo Accords in 1992, was anything but a "two state" solution. It was a "one state" solution--but a one-exclusivist-state solution. The carving up of Palestinian lands and the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza wasn't the beginning of independence, but the attempt to create the conditions in which further violence could be conducted against the Palestinian population.

I remember attending a very important meeting held at the University of Chicago, with Ali Abunimah of, Professor John Merscheimer and Professor Norman Finklestein. One of the speakers Arnon Soffer, a geostrategist at the University of Haifa, who is head of research for the Israel Defense Force's National Defense College.

Soffer got this question from a Jerusalem Post reporter: "In our previous interview, you made many assertions about what could and should be expected to happen following the disengagement from Gaza. You claim now that everything has played out the way you said it would."

Soffer's reply:

Yes. I said, "The pressure at the border will be awful. It's going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill."

That statement caused a huge stir at the time, and it's amazing to see how many dozens of angry, ignorant responses I continue to receive from leftists in Israel and anti-Semites abroad, who took my words out of context. I didn't recommend that we kill Palestinians. I said we'll have to kill them.

There is a policy here, which is that the condition of our survival as an exclusivist Jewish state requires the subjugation and the separation of the Palestinian population--which, unlike apartheid South Africa, is not a population at this moment that Israel is dependent on for labor.

That policy led to the onslaught on Gaza, with obviously the green light from President-elect Obama, who said nothing about it while it took place and was inaugurated into office a day or two after it had ended.

There has been a cosmetic change from George Bush to Barack Obama, but U.S. policy in the region has not fundamentally changed, and it's that policy which produces the kind of situation that the United States finds itself in now.

It's not only what Israel does, but there's a change in the whole relations of the region. Including Turkey, which Kevin just talked about. Remember, this is the ally of yesterday. But for the United States to maintain its supremacy in the region militarily and economically, it has now found itself in a situation of conflict with that ally.

I THINK this situation will continue to produce contradictions and also expose the fault lines around which a movement will continue to emerge and can be built. But we can't stop there. I want to say one word about the one group of states that's largely been absent in the discussion, and that's the Arab states.

During the assault on Gaza, I was visiting family in Cairo, and there was the following headlines in the Egyptian newspapers: "Assault on Gaza," with pictures and details of what was going on, and below that: "Mubarak closes border." At precisely the time of greatest need, the Egyptian state steps in to close off the border.

The state of Israel is a settler state in the region, but you have to ask--why does the United States need a client state in Israel when all the oil is elsewhere. But that's the point. You need a settler state in order to maintain the relations in the regimes around Israel, and to maintain the flow of oil profits and geostrategic interests.

The second biggest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel, as people know, is the state of Egypt. I think that we'll find a situation in which, within the Arab countries, there will be a renewed sympathy and effort around the Palestinian struggle. There's a long history of this through the 1960s and early 1970s. The sentiment is palpable in terms of sympathy for Palestine in the Arab countries--which is not at all reflected, of course, in those governments.

In 1976, under apartheid there was the shooting of unarmed students in the township of Soweto. The term "amandla"--meaning power--became popular the world over and the slogan of a new movement. The slogan of today's movement, I believe, will be BDS--boycott, divest, sanctions. It's not as catchy as Amandla, but something will emerge.

I think if we take anything from the events of the last week, it is to commit ourselves to all the efforts that move the struggle against the apartheid state of Israel forward. We need to redouble our efforts to build a strong and united BDS campaign. And if the attack on the flotilla has helped that process, I think we should take full advantage of it and continue to support future flotillas to Palestine.

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