We’re starting to win

March 6, 2014

Ali Abunimah is co-founder and director of the widely acclaimed ElectronicIntifada.net website, and author of the newly released The Battle for Justice in Palestine, published by Haymarket Books. Based in the U.S., he has written hundreds of articles and been an active part of the movement for justice in Palestine for 20 years. As the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement reaches new heights, his work on Palestine has provided this new movement with intellectual and strategic depth.

As he begins a speaking tour to promote The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Abunimah spoke with Eric Ruder about the opportunities and challenges facing Palestine solidarity activists who suddenly find the issue of Palestinian liberation part of mainstream political discussion after decades of marginalization.

AT THE end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, the BDS movement, which has been building for some time, gained an unprecedented profile, through the combination of the American Studies Association boycott resolution and the fallout from the SodaStream and Scarlett Johansen marketing deal. Have you been at all surprised by the pace of recent events?

I DON'T think it's taken me by surprise. In fact, just after Barack Obama was elected president, I wrote an article looking forward to the next four years. I predicted two things. One was that the U.S.-sponsored "peace process" would go absolutely nowhere, and that turned out to be true. And the other was that the BDS movement would increasingly be seen as a significant factor in the relationship and in the conflict between Palestine and the Israelis. That's exactly what happened.

I say it doesn't surprise me because I have had the privilege of traveling to many places where grassroots activists are working on these BDS campaigns with incredible tenacity and dedication. If you see the kind of work people are doing, and the kind of dedication they have, then I don't think you can be surprised by the successes and the high profile that we've seen in recent months.

Palestinians march in Ramallah in solidarity with hunger striking prisoners
Palestinians march in Ramallah in solidarity with hunger striking prisoners (Scott Campbell)

Having said that, it is definitely amazing progress. It is gratifying to see these issues becoming mainstream, the discussion becoming mainstream. And the key thing about BDS is that it has really brought the discussion away from these fantasy "peace" talks, back to what is really happening to Palestinians--to the siege of Gaza, to Israel's ongoing theft of land, to the economic exploitation of Palestinian workers by the Israeli occupation and by occupation profiteers like SodaStream. That is all very positive for what happens next.

HOW BIG a factor do you think BDS is in the calculations of American and Israeli politicians as they attempt to coordinate the future of the region?

I THINK it's a huge factor. In my new book, I have a chapter called "Israel fights back against BDS." I point out that it was during a 2011 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that President Obama gave his pledge to the pro-Israel lobby that he would fight against the BDS movement.

And it was in 2010 that the Israeli government adopted this all-out war strategy against the BDS movement. That was a recommendation made by the Reut Institute, which is an Israeli think tank close to the Israeli government and intelligence services. So four years ago, Israel and pro-Israel groups in the United States and around the world launched an all-out war against the Palestine solidarity movement, in particular against students on campus.

Yet here we are four years later, and BDS is bigger than ever, and you have Israeli government ministers like Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and other leading Israeli politicians, now including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying BDS is among the biggest threats Israel faces. So what does that tell you? They invested millions of dollars, perhaps tens of millions of dollars, to fight a grassroots movement, and they see it as a bigger threat than ever.

It's pretty remarkable. Another sign of the success and growth of BDS is the fact that U.S. officials, like Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and others, are speaking out against BDS. It goes to show that they are bringing out all the big guns.

Of course, this follows the ASA vote to respect the Palestinian call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. So all this goes to show that this is a grassroots movement and that it is not dependent on the blessing or consent of people in power. It is a movement that is growing despite their best efforts to malign it, to defame it, to sabotage it and to stop it.

IN RECENT months, a number of pro-Israel figures--people like Peter Beinart or Roger Cohen who are liberals or who at least consider themselves liberals--have argued forcefully against the BDS movement. Have they been effective?

THEY ARE typical of progressives against Palestine. As I point out in the book, Peter Beinart has been one of the people who is supposedly critical of the Israeli occupation, but he has been very explicit in saying he opposes equal rights for Palestinians because he sees equal rights as a threat to Israel as a so-called Jewish state.

And more recently, with the controversy over SodaStream and Scarlett Johansen, we've had other so called liberals, like Jane Eisner, the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, making these arguments that these factories in the settlements are actually good for Palestinians because they are providing jobs.

But as my colleague Rania Khalek has pointed out at ElectronicIntifada.net, these are exactly the same arguments that American and British conservatives and right wingers used to make in order to oppose the boycott of apartheid South Africa. They would say that divestment from and sanctions on South Africa would hurt Black workers, that it would hurt the people we are trying to help. People look back on those things now with embarrassment and shame.

IT SEEMS like the narrative about Palestine and Palestinians has discernibly transformed in recent months. Israeli officials may try to stick to the script that they oppose Palestinian statehood because of their concerns about Israeli security. But now there is the reemergence of the reality that Palestinians are an oppressed and occupied people. Could you talk about how the issue of Palestinian self-determination is being reintegrated into this discussion after a long absence from it?

WE ARE really at a crossroads moment. The paradigm of the so-called "two-state solution" is dead. Sure, Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama are still going through the motions with the so-called peace process, but no serious person--and certainly not the Israeli leadership or the Palestinian Authority (PA)--believes that this is going to end in two states living side by side in peace.

These are two leaderships that have to go along with this sham in order to avoid angering the United States too much because they have various pokers in the fire with the U.S. Admitting failure and admitting that the paradigm that you've been pushing for decades is a hollow shell is extremely costly, especially for the PA. It's costly politically, it's costly ideologically, and it's costly materially for people who are profiting from the status quo.

But I think Palestinians are going through a process collectively of examining what it is that is fundamental to them. And it turns out that for Palestinians, the right of return, the right to be equal, and the right to live and move freely in their country are far more fundamental than having a so-called state, especially one shorn of sovereignty and any shred of independence that exists on only a fraction of their home land.

So I think Palestinians are going through a process of redefining or rediscovering what self-determination means. Some of the major developments are happening not just in the West Bank and Gaza, but in present-day Israel, in the 1948 areas, where Palestinian youth and Palestinian citizens of Israel are leading a movement to return to their parents' and grandparents' villages, to establish permanent presences in those places, and not to wait for the United Nations or President Obama or someone else to bless their right of return, but actually to exercise it. That really is self-determination.

We are saying that we are human beings, that we deserve to be accorded the full rights that human beings have, and we do not accept the secondary status that Zionism imposes on us, where Zionism says that if you're Jewish, you are privileged in this land, and if you are Palestinian you are nothing.

In fact, they are saying to us that you are literally garbage. Think about the Jahalin Bedouins who were pushed of their land in the 1990s to build the settlement where SodaStream has its factory today. The Jahalin Bedouins were pushed off their land and into a garbage dump. Israel literally views Palestinians as garbage, and self-determination means asserting our humanity, our full humanity, and not accepting the second-class status that Zionism and President Obama would like to impose on Palestinians.

CAN WE turn to a discussion to the two-state solution and the one-state solution?

WHAT'S LEFT to discuss about the two-state solution? It's finished.

IT IS indeed remarkable how a decade ago there was widespread support for the two-state solution, even among Palestinians, but today the landscape is transformed. Nevertheless, there are still some defenders of the two-state paradigm, but it's true their arguments are largely negative. Liberal Zionist, for example, argue, "People can't just live as equals in one state. That would never happen."

LOOK AT who is today vigorously defending the so-called two-state solution. It is mostly, not entirely, but mostly, liberal Zionists. And there are some Palestinians too, but I don't meet many of them. It's mostly liberal Zionists, and they are desperate to have a so-called Palestinian state, because their concern is to preserve a gerrymandered Jewish majority, so that Jews can control the politics and economy and culture of Israel.

For them, it's about racial, ethnic, religious gerrymandering. I think more and more people have come to understand that the two-state solution is not about liberating Palestinians, it's not about Palestinian self-determination. It's about preserving and legitimizing Israeli apartheid and the Jewish supremacy that Zionism demands. I think in the 21st century, more and more people are saying that we have to move towards a world where people are treated equally, and where your ethnicity and your religion don't determine the rights you have. And that's where I think the change is happening.

Then there's the reality on the ground. The fact is that the most ardent foe of the so-called two-state solution has been Israel, which continues to colonize and settle Palestinian land, to the point where there is a reality of a single state, but it is an apartheid state. I think that's why the shift has happened, and I think it is a really important shift. At the time that my book One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse was published in 2007, people who talked about a single democratic state were definitely in a minority and definitely viewed as marginal--or viewed with amusement or contempt or just some kind of curiosity.

Now I think really the argument is over. In The Battle for Justice in Palestine, I quote John Kerry desperately arguing against a one-state solution.

The fact that a U.S. Secretary of State has to take time to address this issue just goes to show that it's really become mainstream. Of course, I've heard the negative arguments about a single state a lot since the publication of One Country, and that was part of my motivation for writing The Battle for Justice in Palestine. In the new book, I actually respond to these counterarguments very directly.

I address very directly the claims that Israelis would never accept this and that Palestinians and Israelis couldn't live together in a chapter called "Israeli Jews and the one-state solution," and I'm really looking forward to people reading and engaging with these arguments.

For example, the claim that we should not talk about equality or ending apartheid because Israeli Jews would never accept it or because the vast majority of Israeli Jews currently support it is a bogus argument to begin with. If we take the example of South Africa, the vast majority of whites in South Africa fervently opposed ending apartheid, and they made all the same arguments that Israeli Jews now make: "It's not that we're racist, but this is a matter of survival for us." Or: "If we are subsumed in a 'flood' of Africans," in the way Israelis talk about a flood of Palestinian refugees, "it will be the end of us. We'll be thrown into the sea."

As I show in the book, white attitudes were pretty solidly against a one-person, one-vote system in South Africa until very close to the time that it happened--into the early 1990s. Now of course, nobody in South Africa admits that they supported apartheid. The fact is that whites overwhelmingly supported it until close to the end.

What made them change was not that they woke up one morning and said, "We're wrong." It's that the balance of power shifted. And the balance of power shifted because of people's struggles, primarily on the ground in South Africa, but also because of international solidarity. And I think that in the Palestinian case, the struggle and the international solidarity in the form of BDS is already forcing Israelis to reexamine the idea that they can enjoy supremacy and impunity forever. They are starting to recognize that there is an expiration date to Israeli apartheid.

LASTLY, WHAT do you think the future in the short- to medium-term holds for the Palestinian struggle? What tasks are there for those who advocate for Palestinian liberation? Is it basically more of the same, such as organizing solidarity with the struggles of Palestinian political prisoners and various BDS campaigns? Or are there new directions that we must contemplate?

OF COURSE, I don't have a crystal ball, but I can say this: I think that it is within our reach to see this situation transform radically in the next few years. I was very touched that BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti said that my book offered what he called "educated hope" and that my colleague Rania Khalek said it offered "realistic hope." In other words, I really do think that this situation is ripe for transformation.

I think that the major tasks ahead of us now are to continue the solidarity work, to continue to grow and strengthen the BDS movement, and to remember that this work is first and foremost about making the case for decolonization, making the case for equality, making the case for justice. The amazing thing is that it's a case that people are ready to hear, and it's a case that many people who previously supported Israel, right or wrong, are starting to hear.

So I feel very optimistic that the work we're doing in the next few years is really going to make a difference. And this is work that is of course in support and solidarity with Palestinians who are struggling in Palestine, in every part of Palestine. And we mustn't forget also that Palestinians in other places, particularly Palestinians in Syria, are still facing new disasters. Over the past three years, as a result of the Syrian civil war, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been displaced--yet again--from their refugee camps in Syria. Many of them have fled to other countries in absolutely desperate situations. Of course in Yarmouk camp in Syria, in Damascus, people have been starving to death.

This is a reminder that as long as Palestine is colonized, as long as Palestine is a place of apartheid, a place of walls, a place of fences, Palestinians can never be safe. It is Palestinians who need safety, who need a refuge, who need to be able to go back to their country. That is an urgent task, and I really do feel that it is within our grasp and within our reach to achieve it in the next few years.

Transcribed by Karen Domínguez Burke

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