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‘Our role is to amplify Palestinian voices not replace them’

Vigil held by the Seattle branch of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, November 2003; the ‘keys’ represent the keys to their homes still held by Palestinian refugees. Photo by John Reese.

On Palestine, BDS and solidarity in a time of political crisis

By Ben White, MEMO
December 19, 2013

At a recent conference on Palestine in Doha, organised by Azmi Bishara’s Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, there was one thing that everyone agreed on: the Palestinian national movement is in a state of crisis with regards to leadership, representation and strategies. How this predicament came about, and what needs to happen to improve this state of affairs, was a topic of debate and divergent views; the basic fact of, as Dr. Bishara put it, the need for a “reformulation of the Palestinian national project” enjoyed a gloomy consensus, however.

This provoked some interesting questions for the panel session to which I contributed on international solidarity. The chair, Mouin Rabbani, encouraged us to offer our thoughts in the first instance on the challenges we face in solidarity with Palestine and, perhaps surprisingly, what Palestinians and the Arab world can do to help us.

In my remarks, I pointed out that one of the main challenges is actually to do solidarity well; to avoid the hazards in such work and to remember that our role is to amplify and create space for Palestinian voices, not to replace them.

Solidarity poster by Jesus Barraza, 2009, in the Dignidad Rebelde collective, Bay area, USA.

However, I also wanted to address the question of how solidarity activism relates to the crisis in the Palestinian body politic; my point was a straightforward one. Ultimately, divisions or stagnation in the Palestinian national movement, a regrettably common feature of many national liberation struggles or political movements in general, do not change the basis or responsibility of solidarity, because the core issues are the same: the rights of a refugee population to return, liberation, decolonisation and the end to apartheid. Moreover, challenging and ending the complicity of governments, corporations and other institutions in our own context is a task demanding our attention regardless of the status of national unity talks or the health of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Below: Carlos Latuff cartoon on solidarity with Irish and Palestinian political prisoners it was converted into a mural by the Irish artist Danny D at the International Wall, Falls Road, Belfast 18th June 2012. Photo by John Hanvey.

Above, 1988 poster by Marc Rudin displaying Afro-Palestinian solidarity. But is space made for the Palestinian to lead?

This is not to pretend that there are not difficulties in solidarity work as a consequence of Palestinian political problems. A number of Palestinian contributors from the floor in the Q&A session of the conference’s solidarity panel lamented the lack of support from the Palestinian Authority/PLO for solidarity activists and boycott strategies, in comparison, for example, with the history of the ANC’s relationship to the anti-apartheid campaigners.

I recalled these discussions when I heard about Mahmoud Abbas’s recent remarks made in South Africa on boycotts. Predictably seized upon by Zionists, Abbas’s disavowal of a total boycott of Israel, in contrast to a boycott targeting settlement goods, is not, in fact, a “bombshell” or even new. Abbas heads up a body, the Palestinian Authority, which not just routinely works with Israeli authorities on everything from securing travel permits to “security coordination”, but is structurally embedded in a discourse and practice that sees (US-mediated) negotiations and co-operation rather than resistance and diplomatic confrontation as the means of ushering in independence.

In other words, Abbas, and by this I mean much more than just him as an individual, is the antithesis of a strategy like BDS. The latter is Palestinian grassroots-led and democratic; the former is hierarchical and as much, if not more, beholden to the interests and demands of international donors and Israel than to those of Palestinians.

BDS unites Palestinians across borders, from Haifa and Nablus to Beirut and London, while the Abbas clique can at best be said to represent a portion of a third of the Palestinians who reside in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is worth noting that Abbas’s official term as PA president ran out in 2009, and the PLO of which he is the chair faces demands for direct elections to revive its Palestinian National Council.

Carlos Latuff cartoon, 2010

BDS is viewed by Israeli leaders across the spectrum as a significant threat to the state’s ability to maintain a system of ethnocratic privilege and colonial exploitation, while Abbas is hailed by Israeli leaders as someone with whom they can do business; a “worthy partner” who “can deliver the goods”, in the words of Shimon Peres. Finally, BDS is about accountability and challenging Israel’s impunity, an approach Abbas has thus far refused to take precisely because of the restrictions on the PA’s options of tactics inherent within the Oslo/peace process framework, which Abbas himself has helped to shape and maintain.

Complicity is complicity. Regardless of the developments in national unity talks between Fatah and Hamas, Caterpillar bulldozers are still demolishing homes; Elbit Systems is still manufacturing weapons used to kill Palestinians; and Veolia is still serving the settlement-colonies. In addition, of course, to isolate Israel is to respond to a call from Palestinians who seek solidarity and an end to impunity. As Palestinians debate and take action to solve their internal political crisis, let us remember our role as international solidarity activists; its limitations and its possibilities.

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