Perspectives on Palestine Solidarity Organizing
With the brutal repression of Palestinian uprisings by the Israeli state now giving way to a more subtle, and less news-making, regime of occupation, Upping the Anti asked several of Canada’s most committed Palestine solidarity activists to discuss some of the obstacles and accomplishments they faced while organizing over the course of the intifada, and about the direction the movement should now take.
Mordecai Briemberg has been active in various forms of Palestine solidarity organizing since 1967. He is based in Vancouver and is active with the anti-war coalition Stopwar.ca, a founding member of Canada Palestine Support Network (canpalnet.ca), and works on the Wall Must Fall Campaign (thewallmustfall.ca).
Paul Burrows is a member of the Canada Palestine Support Network and ISM-Winnipeg, and is also an organizer with the Canada Palestine Film Festival (a-zone.org/canpalfilmfest). He participated in the ISM’s “olive harvest campaign” in the West Bank in the fall of 2002, and has written several articles related to Israel-Palestine for ZNet and Electronic Intifada.
Rafeef Ziadah is a third generation Palestinian refugee to Lebanon. She is active with Sumoud Political Prisoner Solidarity Group (http://sumoud.tao.ca) and Al-Awda right of return coalition in Toronto (www.al-awda.ca).
Adam Hanieh is co-author of Stolen Youth: The Politics of Israel’s Detention of Palestinian Children, and has recently received a Project Censored award (www.projectcensored.org) for his article in Left Turn, “Control & Resistance: Palestinian Child Prisoners.” He is active with Al-Awda – Toronto, and Sumoud Political Prisoner Solidarity Group, and recently returned from working on a documentary in Palestine.
Samer Elatrash is an executive member of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights in Montréal. He has also served as an elected representative of the Concordia Student Union.
New Opportunities in Organizing against Occupation
By Mordecai Briemberg
Comedian Danny Kaye is probably unfamiliar to the generation of young, energetic activists now involved in Palestine solidarity work. Kaye had a skit about a person who came into a movie theatre in the middle of the film, sat through to the end, and saw the beginning last.
Imagine we have come to see the movie “Palestine Solidarity.” We know we are not at the end of the film. The reel is still running. Indeed, we expect it will be a long, maybe very long, movie. But we know the film was already running when we came in. So how much have we missed?
As someone whose personal involvement in Palestine solidarity work goes back to 1967, I would like to compare past solidarity efforts with those that have developed since the second intifada. Whatever difficulties we might have experienced in this current period (and there are many) the opportunities we now have for creating a broad, focused, and effective movement are dramatically greater than they have been in past decades. There is growing openness to the Palestinian narrative and the cry for justice.
While support for Israeli state actions pours from the established media, and while the Canadian government has become more openly supportive of Israeli state actions, there is also a widening chasm between pro-Israeli state propagandists and popular awareness. As the loyal defenders of the Israeli state see this widening chasm, they become even more shrill in their denunciations, more extreme and desperate in their efforts to silence critics.
But trying to re-impose a monologue by resorting to hyperbole and slander only turns people of good will into sceptics. The capacity of the defenders of Israeli practices to intimidate their audience diminishes, and people’s resentment to being threatened grows. When people sense that they are being force-fed with wrong information, they seek out new information.
This chasm, and the opportunities it provides, are not imaginary. The defenders of the Israeli state have themselves documented the chasm and worried over it. On February 1 2005, Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson reported some of the findings of a study of Canadian attitudes toward Israel conducted by Government Policy Consultants, an Ottawa firm, for the recently created Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy. Of “special concern” to the sponsors of the study, writes Simpson, “is the discovery that the more Canadians say they know about that conflict, the greater their support for Palestinians.”
No wonder those who worship Israeli power want to shut down every avenue through which Canadians may learn more. But this is beyond their capacity, particularly if we do our work and avoid becoming the mirror image of our adversaries who appear engulfed in uncontrollable spasms of moral self-righteousness.
Our responsibility is to present information and ideas calmly, reasonably, and assertively; of course with the passionate dignity they deserve, but equally with tolerance and patience.
One concrete instance of how the recent, widening opportunity for solidarity work has been seized successfully can be seen in the unprecedented incorporation of opposition to the Israeli occupation as an integral, important, and morally respectable concern of the broad-based anti-war movement.
Another instance of new openness to the Palestinian narrative is the decision of significant numbers of union members to declare their opposition to Israel’s separation wall – a project that Israel continues to pursue at the very moment they pretend to be engaged in gestures toward “peace.” Consider the almost total unanimity of the delegates denouncing Israel’s wall project at the 2005 B.C. Federation of Labour convention.
Fruit does not fall into the palms of people dozing beneath the trees, and none of the above gains were automatic. Seizing opportunity requires hard work by informed, outspoken, and patient activists. It requires a certain courage to go beyond the “comfort zone” of speaking mainly with those with whom we already agree, and reaching out respectfully to those who have not yet made up their mind, but who are open to considering the Palestinian narrative.
Simply put: the opportunity is there, but we must respond energetically and appropriately to it. Still, this too is not sufficient if we do not also overcome some of our persistent weaknesses. We are fragmented locally and across the country into tiny, sometimes “prickly” groups. We need to combine our energies in shared projects more often, and with greater trust in one another. We frequently direct our emotion and our attention to the U.S. and Israeli states, as though we were resident in one or other or both of them. We too often reduce our solidarity work to erratic responses of outrage to the latest atrocity in Palestine.
Yet we live in Canada. Canada is the only place where we can hope to shift the balance of political forces. And shifting the political forces here is the only practical leverage we have to exert influence over what happens in Palestine. So it is the people in Canada whom we must mobilize to compel change in Canadian state policies and practices.
We often give the impression that it is our demand to change all policies and practices simultaneously, that nothing less will be satisfactory. Yet, while educational work must proceed on all aspects of the historic and present injustices inflicted on the Palestinian people, at any one time we must highlight specific aspects of the Palestinian narrative, and make them the focus of a sustained campaign.
The demands we pose in our campaigns must accord with existing values of a significant number of people in Canada, and also accord with the actual level of popular awareness that we and others have been able to generate at any particular time. The challenge is to reach out to more and more networks of people whose core values incorporate a commitment to social justice, and a preference for upholding international law; people who reject the worship of bully power, be it America’s or Israel’s.
So what is an appropriate focus for a cross-country, coordinated and sustained campaign, directed at mobilizing people across Canada to challenge the policy and practice of the government of Canada? Let me suggest one: the demand that the government of Canada work to enforce the decision on the Israeli wall rendered by the world’s highest court. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled July 9th 2004 that the massive wall Israel is building is not only illegal, but must be demolished. The Palestinians whose lives have been damaged must be compensated. Most important of all, the Court ruled that all nations have an “obligation … to ensure Israel complies with international law.”
The clear and decisive judgment of the International Court of Justice on the Israeli wall opens a new possibility for developing wide support across Canada for the human, democratic and national rights of the Palestinian people. The judgment revitalizes – profiling and making relevant – accumulated international law and UN resolutions on all aspects of the Israeli occupation.
It juxtaposes a stark choice between (a) supporting a world order that is guided by respect for the rule of international law, or (b) openly endorsing the view that certain countries stand above all law, and can exercise their power unrestrained by the rights of others. It thereby puts the Israeli government and its advocates on the defensive in the eyes of anyone concerned with human rights, international law, and the peaceful resolution of conflict.
It also juxtaposes a choice for the government of Canada between respecting, defending and applying international law or allying itself with countries, specifically the US and Israel, who act as if they are above international law and have the privilege of unrestrained war-making.
This choice now extends to the question of Palestine. Accordingly, the ICJ decision facilitates our positioning the situation in Palestine where it belongs in the Canadian political debate, along the increasingly deep and sharp divide in this country between allying with or opposing a war-making agenda: in Iraq, in space (BMD), and at home (information and “security” integration with US agencies).
The challenge is to make the best of this new possibility. To do so requires two things. First, a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect among all organizations and individuals who take to heart the realization of the human and democratic rights of the Palestinian people. Second, a determination to work locally, regionally and across the country in an imaginative, courageous, and sustained campaign to bring wider sectors of the population to demand that the Canadian government work to enforce the ICJ decision.
In sum, we have new opportunities. Let us welcome the challenge to turn these opportunities into concrete support for justice, the only foundation for peace. To do this, Palestine solidarity activists need to work together, with sustained energy and optimism, to carry out shared and focused plans. ?
Palestinian Solidarity Activism in Toronto: An Interview With Rafeef Ziadah
Can you describe the role of Al-Awda as an umbrella organization for Palestine solidarity groups in Toronto?
Rafeef: When I first came to Toronto two years ago solidarity groups were fragmented, each working alone on seperate issues. However, Palestine solidarity groups in Toronto have recently started working together and coordinating their activities very effectively. There is Sumoud, which focuses on political prisoners; Al-Awda, which works primarily on the right of return; the Arab Student Collective at York and UofT which organizes speaking events and popular education, as well as the campus based Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR).
These groups have now come together to coordinate our efforts and to broaden our analysis beyond a narrow focus on political prisoners or the wall, to include al-Naqba and the entire colonization of Palestine as a way of tying these issues together, focusing more on the analysis of Israel as an Apartheid state.
What we have learned this coordination doesn’t come about automatically. It’s only through working together that a coalition develops, and we have struggled for a long time on what the basic organizational framework of such a coalition should look like.
Could you discuss the work of Sumoud, and the role of political prisoners in Palestine solidarity organizing?
Rafeef: For Palestinians active in the solidarity movement, it has always been strange that the issue of political prisoners has never come up, especially given that this has been a central component of the Palestinian struggle throughout history. Almost every household in Palestine has someone who is imprisoned or has spent time in detention, so the release of political prisoners is of fundamental importance to people and at the forefront of their political organizing. Somehow this has been a blind spot in the broader solidarity movement, and Sumoud has attempted to address this issue in a concrete way.
Can you discuss the response of Zionist and Israeli lobby organizations to Palestine solidarity organizing in Toronto, and how this has impacted your work?
Rafeef: The first attacks at the beginning of the Intifada came once these groups realized what was happening on campuses. I think that the events at Concordia [protests against Benjamin Netanyahu in September 2002, forced the ex-Israeli Prime Minister’s speech to be canceled] was a big shakeup for them. They realized that the movement had grown, and I think it actually caught them by surprise. When they did eventually respond, it was very overt: The smear campaigns and witch-hunts (such as Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch), the shutting down of events, and straight-up intimidation of activists involved in Palestine solidarity work.
The other response, which is more insidious, is the promotion of dialogue groups that depoliticize the struggle, making it one of religion rather than a struggle for national liberation. This is very smart on the part of the Zionists because if you can differentiate between the moderates and the radicals, the movement can be divided, and this is exactly what they try to do. They promote “interfaith dialogue”, but that dialogue is only open to moderates. If you support the right of return, for example, then you are considered far too radical to participate. But if you don’t, then you are legitimate and the university administration will promote you and put you on magazine covers. So they try to split the movement along political lines.
This is something that we haven’t yet begun to deal with as organizers, as we are preoccupied with the first type of response – expulsion or threats of expulsion, and then the long process of getting back into university. This is what the Zionist campaign is built around, and it’s a very effective way of shutting down and derailing our work. However, in many instances we have fought back and won. This culminated in the fact that the lobbying of the Zionists groups couldn’t shut down “Israeli Apartheid Week” at the University of Toronto last year and that this year “Israeli Apartheid Week” is spreading to other campuses.
Can you discuss the role of the Palestinian community in Toronto in the solidarity movement?
Rafeef: When most people speak of the ‘Palestinian community’ they speak as though there is one monolithic entity. I often hear ‘why isn’t the community out for this event?’ Well, the community isn’t just one community that’s going to choose to come out or not. The Palestinian community here is very much split along political lines. There are also generational divisions. The Palestinian community in Toronto, or more accurately Mississauga [which has the most concentrated Arab population], exists in three distinct generations. You have the first generation refugees expelled in 1948 who are still connected to Palestine because they remember living there, but they are also a very defeated generation in the sense that they lost everything, and have a hard time believing that they will ever get it back. They are the most connected with the right of return to their villages of 1948, but at the same time, they are the most established in Canada.
Then there’s the generation of Palestinians who came out of the refugee camps, and for the most part this generation is the most politicized, having lived through the worst of the refugee experience. But they are also the most cautious because they don’t want to go back to that.
Lastly you have the generation of Palestinians who have been radicalized by the Intifada, and this is who you see organizing on university campuses. In some instances this radicalization on campuses leads to identity politics with no end political goal where it is all about ‘I am Palestinian so I wear a kaffeih and dance debke, and we all get together and sing Arabic songs.’ I understand that Palestinian organizing has always had a strong cultural element because we are a people who are being denied our culture. But culture can’t be the full extent of your organizing or you won’t get anywhere.
Ultimately, these different segments are united on one basic element, which is the right of return. A very important aspect of the solidarity movement is that it is being led by young Palestinians who have, through their work, gained the respect of their communities.
Where is the struggle on the ground in Palestine, as well as the solidarity movement, going from here?
Rafeef: I think that the current Abu Mazen/Mohammed Dahlan phase will pass very quickly. The Palestinian people are not going to buy another Oslo peace process. Israel has made its intentions very clear: it is a colonization process that is putting us into ghettos. But the Palestinian people have not given up, and they will not give up. There’s a much stronger role for the Palestinian diaspora to play – as well as the solidarity movement – in putting forth an anti-apartheid analysis now that it is so clearly apparent, particularly with the Wall. This should be our central role. I think that sometimes we get so bogged down in the details that we forget the basics of organizing – tabling, leafleting, educational events, and so on. We need to keep this going, and not make the same mistake we did in the Oslo period where we just stopped and had to start again from scratch years later. It’s also important for us to record this phase of the struggle so that we, and others that come after us, can learn from it. ?
Political Prisoners and Palestinian Liberation: An Interview With Adam Hanieh
Is the Palestinian struggle going into a transition period after the Gaza “disengagement”?
Adam: The common phrase that you hear in Palestine is that Gaza has been turned into a giant open-air prison. While the Israelis have pulled out the settlers, they still remain in total control over the area. It is another example of this system of “remote control” that Israel has pioneered. The Israelis don’t need a direct physical presence because they control the borders, they control the economy, they control the airspace and they control the coastline as well. Under these circumstances Gaza remains under Israeli occupation, and the same basic model of control is being followed in the Bantustans of the West Bank.
It is very clear now that there is no difference between the Labour or the Likud position on this; Israel has pursued a consistent strategy since 1967 to annex large areas of the West Bank where the settlement blocs have been placed, and to give some form of fig leaf autonomy to the Palestinian population areas.
Sharon made it very clear that as part of this pullout he was going to be annexing the major settlements on the West Bank, in particular areas around Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. These are the major settlement blocs that have always been seen strategically as a way of carving up the West Bank. And that’s what’s happening on the ground.
The Apartheid Wall is the final step in this “bantustanization” process. The Wall is intended to create isolated Palestinian Bantustans by encircling the major Palestinian population regions and stopping movement between them. It prevents any kind of effective Palestinian control over these areas because the Israelis control all movement between them, and by controlling the borders of these Bantustans they control their economies. This Israeli strategy is aimed at fragmenting the Palestinian identity into isolated groups centered on small population centers. That’s a striking fact that hits you in the West Bank.
In a way Gaza can be considered as another Bantustan; it already has a massive electric fence surrounding it and checkpoints controlling all entry and exit points. It is also one of the most densely populated places on the planet. The types of checkpoints that you see at the entrance to Gaza are now being replicated in the West Bank. So for example, the entrance to Ramallah is evolving into a checkpoint very similar to the major checkpoint in Gaza.
All of this raises broader questions, such as, what is the next stage of the Palestinian struggle? Is it time to demand a one state solution, given that it is very clear that the Bantustans are not going to be an effective Palestinian state? The issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948 to their homelands can not be solved within the framework of these Bantustans. Furthermore, you have the Palestinians who remained on their land after 1948 in what is now called Israel. So the only just solution is a democratic, secular state for all of Israel/Palestine that allows anyone, including the Palestinian refugees, the right to live on the land.
I think we will hear more voices calling for this type of one state solution as we move into the next stages of the Palestinian struggle. Together with this, I think that we will see a resurgence of the solidarity movement organized around an anti-Apartheid analysis – as people start making a comparison between Israel as an apartheid state and South African apartheid. Over the last few years there have been steps in several countries to implement a campaign of sanctions and boycotts against Israel; this also has a lot of resonance inside Palestine.
Finally, there must also be a rebuilding of the Palestinian national structures, both inside and outside of Palestine. We have to develop ways of effectively including Palestinians in the diaspora within the movement, and as part of the leadership of the movement. One of the main problems with the Oslo process was that it sought to narrow the Palestinian struggle down to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and to make the Palestinian Authority the voice of the Palestinian movement. Historically, that role has always belonged to the Palestinian Liberation Organization which represented every Palestinian anywhere in the world. These structures need to be rebuilt.
Can you discuss the work of Sumoud as a political prisoner solidarity group and the role of prisoner solidarity activism in the Palestinian liberation struggle?
Adam: The use of imprisonment is crucial to the functioning of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, and it has historically been that way since 1967. There are currently over 8000 political prisoners in Israeli jails, most of whom are from the West Bank, but there are some from the Gaza Strip and even from other Arab nations. Around 1000 of these prisoners are being held as administrative detainees, which means that they are arrested without charge or trial, and held indefinitely by renewing their status as administrative detainees every six months.
The Israeli army imprisons people who are politically active, and uses imprisonment as a way of disrupting political organizations on the ground. It is also a means of intimidation, which has been particularly clear in the second Intifada where the Israeli army has carried out mass arrests by driving through neighbourhoods with loudspeakers and rounding up hundreds of people – mostly men between the ages of 16 and 65 – at random. Finally, imprisonment functions as a means of recruiting informers and collaborators, which is one of the primary functions of the prison system from the Israeli perspective.
Because of the large number of Palestinians who have been imprisoned, virtually everyone has been personally affected by political imprisonment – whether in this Intifada, the last one, or at other times in between. For this reason, the prison movement is quite central to political organizing in Palestine.
Prisoners also have a very important leadership role in terms of the direction of the intifada and the demands being made in negotiations. Historically, organizing within the prisons, as well as the experience of imprisonment itself, has played a central role in the resistance. During the first intifada in the late 1980s, prison was very much seen as a political experience. People would speak of prisons as their universities. There were political classes taught by each of the different factions, and people would learn about Palestinian history, political theory, economics, everything. There was a very regimented daily routine that was aimed at strengthening political discipline.
Lastly, solidarity with prisoners is an important point of community organizing. For example, you have family committees with loved ones in prison who pressure the Palestinian Authority and the various political parties to keep the issue of imprisonment on the table.
Unfortunately, international solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners in this Intifada has been lacking. What Sumoud has tried to do is bring the issue of political prisoners to the agenda of solidarity activists, as one of the building blocks of a broader solidarity movement.
We have also tried to make connections with the prison abolition movement here in North America, because clearly the role of imprisonment as a system of repression and control under the Israelis is not that different from the way it works in North America, whether it’s anti-imperialist activists in prison who go unrecognized by the Red Cross as political prisoners, indigenous activists across North America who are in prison, or the mass incarceration of poor people.
The role of prisons as an instrument of repression in North America is not well understood in Palestine because of the weakness of the solidarity movement, which is not aware of the situation of Palestinian prisoners either. So we’re trying to bring those two sides together as one component of a broader struggle. ?
Palestinian Solidarity Activism in Winnipeg: An Interview With Paul Burrows
In your opinion, what does effective international solidarity mean at this point in the Israel/Palestine conflict? What direction should we be taking as a movement in terms of long term strategy?
Paul: Effective international solidarity could mean many things, from maintaining international legal support for Palestinian self-determination in bodies such as the UN and World Court to adopting a sanctions/divestment campaign similar to that of the anti-Apartheid movement during the 1980s. It could mean raising awareness of the historical and moral claims of Palestinians to their land, expanding international campaigns on the ground such as those adopted by the ISM to mitigate Israeli human rights violations that are occurring as we speak, or creating markets for Palestinian goods, such as olive oil, to help offset Israeli imposed closure and unemployment.
The key word above, however, is “could.” The groundwork for some of these types of activities have yet to be created, or exists only in preliminary and ad hoc forms.
Unfortunately, more countries are beginning to alter their foreign policy in ways that benefit Israel, such as Canada’s recent reversals in the UN and fence-sitting on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling against the Apartheid Wall. It is incumbent on Canadian Palestine solidarity activists to challenge this shift, and articulate an alternative, ethical, and just foreign policy – rather than conceding, in advance, the entire field of policy formulation and critique to the mainstream Jewish and Zionist organizations.
One of the best things Canadians could do for Palestinians would be to force our own government to live up to the international legal and human rights covenants it has signed in respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and to make “good relations” (meaning, all diplomatic, military, economic, or trade relations) with Israel contingent on its human rights record and adherence to international laws, Geneva Conventions, and so on.
Another critical point that activists could raise in this respect is to argue that private sector fundraising or corporate profiteering that promotes or enhances Israeli occupation and settlements ought to be as illegal as private funding for organizations participating in terrorism against Israeli civilians. The Palestine solidarity movement has by and large conceded this point in practice.
Of course, in all cases, international solidarity means taking the lead from those most affected and staying informed about their actual desires and stated interests. International organizations around the world need to foster and maintain ties with Palestinians living in Israel and Palestine, as well as throughout the diaspora, and work with them in ways they find helpful, supportive and respectful.
If there was a unified, progressive, popular Palestinian resistance movement – like the ANC, or even like the Zapatistas – that operated across Palestinian society, international solidarity would also require support for such a movement. Unfortunately, no such unified resistance – whether armed or non-violent – exists at the moment.
In the absence of such a unified resistance movement within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it is extremely important to work with and support a variety of Palestinian-led grassroots organizations within Israel-Palestine (such as ISM, the Center for Rapprochement Between Peoples, the Alternative Information Center, the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, various human rights groups, and many other community, educational, independent media, and medical organizations), as well as with important Palestinian organizations operating in the diaspora, such as Al-Awda.
To what extent is Palestine solidarity organizing in Winnipeg integrated with other struggles such as anti-war organizing, or resistance to occupation and expropriation of indigenous lands in Canada? How might this be improved?
Paul: Members of CanPalNet have worked closely with other organizations, such as Friends of Grassy Narrows and No One is Illegal (Winnipeg). For example, a number of our members have visited Grassy Narrows reserve to support the logging blockade, and we have been in discussion with the Grassy Narrows folks about the possibility of joint actions against Caterpillar corporation, which is busy destroying indigenous lands and homes in North America, as well as in Palestine. We are committed to international solidarity both at home and abroad, and feel that it would be hypocritical to advocate self-determination for Palestinians without acknowledging that we ourselves live on stolen land, and that colonialism and genocide within Canada continue to this day.
We have also worked in Winnipeg with No One is Illegal on refugee support, which is an area that we hope to learn more about and get more involved in.
We have also been involved in organizing, as well as speaking at numerous anti-war rallies and marches over the last few years, and have attempted to draw parallels between the struggles against empire and occupation throughout the world, and at home, with that of the Palestinians. There has been an increasing receptivity within the left to such perspectives since the new Intifada.
What has the response been among Zionist/pro-Zionist media, organizations and individuals to your work? What strategies have been most effective in dealing with Zionist groups?
Paul: The response to CanPalNet’s solidarity work has varied dramatically. Winnipeg has a large Jewish community, and a small Palestinian and Arab community. It is also the home of the Asper family and their CanWest media empire. Groups such as B’nai Brith and the Winnipeg Zionist Initiative are fairly active in Winnipeg, as are individual Zionists within a range of organizations. Prior to the new Intifada, the Zionist community was accustomed to almost complete hegemony in terms of framing the discourse of the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as being consulted by the mainstream media.
When this hegemony was first challenged following the outbreak of the Intifada in 2000, the Zionist community was quite dismayed, and some individuals became almost hysterical in their responses. The usual charges of “anti-Semitism” and “justifying terrorism” were levelled against CanPalNet and its membership. Members of CanPalNet, as well as other outspoken critics of Israeli state terror, received anonymous threats on their answering machines, including at least one death threat. Such threats have served to silence some individuals and increase the resolve of others.
In at least one case, the behaviour of the local Zionists has backfired on them. Local Zionist David Matas (legal counsel for B’nai Brith Canada) led an attack against CanPalNet for organizing the Canada Palestine Film Festival, and against the venue itself – Winnipeg’s respected Cinematheque. B’nai Brith sent out press releases, held a press conference and conducted media interviews in an effort to denounce the very existence of a Palestinian film festival. Hysterical statements about “terrorism” and “racism” were made by individuals from B’Nai Brith who had publicly admitted they had never seen the films in question. At least one prominent Zionist financial donor withdrew funding from the Cinematheque and its related Winnipeg Film Group. The corporate media responded with a number of articles and television clips favouring the B’Nai Brith complaint and framework, though CanPalNet was granted a few sound bytes to “reply” to allegations.
Fortunately, the response to this smear campaign within the arts community, the general public, and particularly among people who actually bothered to see the films in question, was quite negative. Another by-product of the attention afforded the film festival was a greater willingness on the part of the mainstream media to call our CanPalNet office when they are looking for what they call a “pro-Palestinian” perspective on current events. In this sense, the B’nai Brith’s attack actually helped raise the profile of our organizing work in Winnipeg, and increased overall attendance at our film festival.
How have you addressed concerns among Arabs and Muslims of state repression, deportation, etc. as a result of political involvement? How can we work to create political space for those whose stakes are high?
Paul: There is not a large Arab and Muslim community in Winnipeg, and people are definitely concerned about drawing undue attention to themselves. This fear or anxiety has multiple causes. A Palestinian student group at the University of Manitoba was essentially driven underground by death threats during the first Gulf War. A local mosque, as well as a Muslim students’ prayer room at the U of M, were both vandalized this past year. Outspoken solidarity activists have been threatened. So people are naturally afraid to speak out, especially if they do not have full Canadian citizenship. The government and university administrations have shown themselves to be more than happy to target and deport individuals, or suspend students who, they consider “trouble-makers”. The potential personal costs of speaking out are serious and real, and accrue in proportion to the vulnerability of individuals and their community.
One of the things we can do to help open political space for those whose stakes are highest is to allow different levels of participation without judgment, and allow people to work up to their personal level of comfort.
Another critical task is to create systems of national support for those who do become targeted, scapegoated, smeared, arrested, or deported. This system of support must include a response network that will write support letters, issue press releases, pressure government departments or ministers and offending institutions, university boards, media outlets, or corporations which attempt to silence or scapegoat activists, help raise funds for associated legal expenses, offer sanctuary to those seeking asylum, and so on. If such a support base does not exist, or is not effective, then Palestine solidarity activists will be more easily isolated, slandered, fired, deported – in effect, neutralized, in one form or another – and fewer and fewer people will be willing to take up their place in the struggle.
Reflections on Concordia and Montreal: An Interview with Samer Elatrash
UTA: What is the framework of Palestinian Solidarity activism right now in Montréal?
Samer: There are several groups, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a coalition called the Coalition for a Just Peace in Palestine (CFPJ) which is basically made up of several unions, NGOs and community groups, and a number of other groups. The ISM and CFJP are organizing demonstrations against the Israeli separation barrier. SPHR hasn’t really done any demonstrations for a while and is mostly doing campus based work of bringing in speakers and doing information tables as well as sometimes going to lobby MPs with other groups.
UTA: What’s been the trajectory of these various groups since the second Intifada?
Samer: The trajectory hasn’t been that strong, because if you look at the demonstrations that were probably considered the biggest output of the Palestinian Solidarity movement, most of these demonstrations only drew people from the Muslim and Palestinian communities and didn’t have a long-lasting effect. These people are already aware of what’s going on and are already on side, but they’re not exactly the people whom we’re looking to target.
UTA: What issues are these demonstrations drawing attention to?
Samer: There are focussed against the Israeli occupation in general. There’s been quite a few very large demonstrations, but it’s really hard to gauge how successful they have been. If we look at these demonstrations, they are supposed to be about influencing the government to change its policies. We really can’t tell if the general population has been affected. There hasn’t been any attempt to have massive mobilizations in support of the Palestinians at the level of civil society with the unions and the NGO’s. The unions here are pretty much all pro-Palestinian, they will endorse demonstrations, but it is not something that they bring up at their own meetings or with the government, and it is not something that is high on their priority lists. During the invasion of Iraq, they organized massive demonstrations that were attended by hundreds of thousands of people but, since then, there hasn’t been anything that’s been done on Iraq by the unions. Just recently the Gazette pointed out that many of the helicopters that are being used in Iraq are being manufactured in Québec. The irony is that Québec is key to the war in Iraq but its population is supposedly opposed to it. It’s the same with pro-Palestinian work.
There’s been some successes, although I don’t think the tactic is all that great, by the Presbyterian Church who took it as a priority not so much to put their names on petitions supporting the Palestinians but to actually divest from Israel. The World Council of Churches was similar. So that’s what we would have wanted to see in Québec, not necessarily a divestment campaign, but something along the lines of South African anti-Apartheid solidarity work where the struggle was considered a priority by a much broader movement.
UTA: To what extent is the Palestine Solidarity work that’s happening among activists integrated with other struggles such as those around anti-war work or solidarity with indigenous people in Canada?
Samer: Well there’s a lot of crossover if you look at it generally, since pro-Palestinian groups have been working together with groups doing immigration work and supporting indigenous groups, but as for working around the war on Iraq, there is not all that much happening right now. There are interconnections between different groups but there is not a united front, a coalition, or anything.
UTA: What do you think is missing? Is it a question of objective circumstances that things aren’t going to change until the larger circumstances do, or is there something that activists could be doing differently and better?
Samer: It’s a question of priorities. If there’s a demonstration for refugees; SPHR will endorse it. If there’s a demonstration against the occupation, other groups will endorse it. But in terms of long-term campaigns together, I don’t see there being much crossover between groups; it’s been pretty hard for coalition groups like these to continue to work together. For example, we were doing an educational campaign around the apartheid wall in which we had speakers and a caravan. Other groups couldn’t really do much for this because they weren’t working within our group. People often say that there should be complete solidarity between all the different groups, but that’s unrealistic.
Someone suggested that Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) should host Ward Churchill to come and talk at Concordia. Some people supported this, but I personally was very much against the idea. Although I really like Ward Churchill and have a lot of respect for him, I didn’t think that, given the current political climate, a visit from him would help SPHR. If the aim is to gain widespread sympathy for Palestinians, to talk about what is going on in Palestine and how the Canadian government is not conducting a foreign policy supportive of human rights and respectful of international law, we should avoid distractions. If we were to invite Ward Churchill (who has been vilified by the corporate press for his scathing criticisms of the US’s handling of 9/11), it would be like handing the pro-Israeli lobby a golden opportunity to mobilize against us. Our first consideration must be our strategy around Palestine.
We’ve seen it happen quite a bit; for example, after the Concordia tensions, some people wanted to really focus SPHR’s work on student rights, to focus on the repression of the administration and to even draw parallels between what was happening in Concordia and what was happening in the occupied territories in terms of repression. That’s a complete mistreatment of what’s happening in the occupied territories, and our opponents, who want us to be distracted, love that. They simply can’t defend what’s happening in Palestine, so they’d rather talk about other things. The tactic is to distract us from addressing Palestine so that we talk about broken glass, or whether students should be tried publicly. With coalitions, the question often shifts from which priorities we can support to which is the most radical position possible. There’s often no thought as to whether or not our tactics and strategies are good or the mobilizing tasks at hand.
UTA: Didn’t you and other SPHR members years ago criticize the existing Palestinian Solidarity movement for being too liberal and focused on reformist strategies?
Samer: Of course, but let’s be specific. It’s not an issue of lobbying, its about how you do it. So for example there are Palestinian lobby groups that go to Members of Parliament and say “look, what’s happening is really bad and you have to take a different position on it.” And the MPs look at them, and ask who these people are representing. Instead of presenting themselves as the sole representatives of the community, SPHR is trying to break out in order to build a coalition of groups, and to sway popular opinion. It’s not an issue of being a member of the community or being a Palestinian, it’s an issue of universal human rights. And that’s pretty much why the work is necessary to create a broad coalition like the anti-Apartheid coalition.
UTA: A lot of people are aware of Concordia University as being a bastion of pro-Palestinian Solidarity activism and a lot of attention has been drawn to it as a result of repression and activism on campus. What is the situation now?
Samer: The situation is pretty much where we want it to be. At Concordia, pro-Palestinian groups wanted to do events around Palestine to raise attention, and they met immediate resistance. From the very beginning of the Intifada, the B’nai B’rith was calling for our first two speakers not to be allowed to come to Concordia because it would “stoke the tensions.” They sent out an e-mail warning the Jewish community that “people were going around school wearing Kefeiahs” and that the ugly head of anti-Semitism had risen again. This happened long before the September 9th 2002 arrival of Netanyahu. The Concordia administration was pressured by Zionist groups and tried to clamp down on SPHR, to the extent that SPHR tried to put on an exhibition and the administration tried to bar the press from covering it. That’s when SPHR joined up with other groups on campus as part of a coalition to make sure that we had the right to do what we needed to do and to show why we got involved with student politics and the student union.
When the “pro-Palestinian” student union executive was elected the B’nai B’rith issued a statement talking about how “Arabs had infiltrated the Concordia Student Union.” Imagine the outrage if you said that the Jews had infiltrated the Canadian government. Zionists feared a widespread growth of pro-Palestinian activism on other campuses, and they wanted to intimidate the administration, and set an example for the rest of Canada. If any other campus or student union thought of supporting Palestinian issues they would immediately think of Concordia and say we don’t want to face this pressure.
It was also an issue of collective punishment. Concordia students got the impression that if they allowed this to happen, their degrees would suffer. But it was the Zionists who created a controversy. Group at Concordia often bring in speakers and do student general assemblies on foreign policy issues, but when B’nai B’rith and the Canadian Jewish Congress bring in the media and make misleading statements, suddenly there’s controversy.
Now they have a pro-Israeli or neutral CSU, although Concordia is a very leftist school and the right wing slates that we get are pretty much the equivalent of the left slates that you get at other universities. However, SPHR can now go about its work unencumbered and there’s less pressure coming from outside now. So we can get back to doing what we want which is to educate the student body about what is happening in Palestine. At least it’s not like the old days when the Palestinians were seen as bloodthirsty terrorists and people asked us why they were attacking Israel. It’s now seen to be a much more complicated thing and students give the Palestinian perspective some consideration because our ideas are getting through.
UTA: Does SPHR face any problems in terms of being a mostly student based group? What is happening to SPHR organizers when they leave campus?
Samer: There is a national SPHR, but it is mostly made up of students. SPHR is a student based organization which is not very good because people come and go and there’s not much attention given to organizing off campuses. On campuses there’s only so much you can do. It’s also an issue of funding, as we simply don’t have the money to have full time people doing reports, keeping the offices going and providing the continuity that is needed. The office that we have in Montréal is personally paid for by SPHR members and as long as it is student based it’s not something that can really go as far as we would like it to.
UTA: How does the current political situation in Palestine affect your organizing today in Montréal? Are you hopeful in terms of what’s happening with the Gaza withdrawal or do you think that things are going to get worse?
Samer: Things are going to be getting much worse. Basically it’s the equivalent of having a growing anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and having the ANC suddenly say “we accept Apartheid.” That’s exactly what’s happening in Palestine. It’s very hard to do solidarity work when the person widely seen as the primary representative of Palestinians is saying that he is very happy with a few Bantustans and never uses the word occupation to criticize the Israelis. Abu Mazen came to Canada recently and he said he was very proud to say that he was ending the “culture of violence” in the Palestinian territories. As if a culture of violence was the problem and not the occupation. Right now Israel wants to take it to the UN and get approval for the withdrawal which may very well happen. They’re giving the impression that what’s happening right now is the end of the Gaza occupation, and that it’s going to lead to further withdrawals when what’s really happening is redeployment. They have simply redeployed from Gaza with the express purpose of holding onto the West Bank settlements.
Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and the groups that were conducting the Intifada, have an interest in showing that they’ve had some sort of success. They will go so far as to portray disaster as success. When Israel left Gaza, its PR wasn’t as effective as what the Palestinians have done for them. Because they have an interest in Gaza and the West Bank they tell people, “look we been able to achieve something, we’ve made the Israelis withdraw from Gaza” but it’s pretty much the same thing that happened with the Oslo agreement. Oslo was a disaster, one of the worst disasters to hit Palestinians. The number of settlements doubled over the Oslo period, and the Israelis consolidated their control over the occupied territories. All along, however, the Palestinian Authority declared it a victory that would eventually lead to the end of the occupation. Palestinians were at a loss when the Camp David accords were rejected since, for ten years, their representatives had said how great the process was.
We need to imagine and build a real national liberation movement rather than having a few middlemen. We demand an end to the occupation, not symbolic and strategic “withdrawals.”