Sunday, June 17, 2007

40 Years of Occupation...and Counting

Steve Fake, co-author of this blog, traveled to Washington D.C. in a group of 22 activists from Boston to take part in the June 10 protest against 40 years of Israeli Occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. What follows is his personal account of the protest.


In June 1967, amongst escalating tensions in the region, Israel launched attacks against Egypt and Jordan. Syria would also be drawn into the conflict. In the resulting "Six-Day War," Israel would capture, in direct contravention of international law, land that had been under the control of all three countries - the West Bank and East Jerusalem (Jordan), the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula (Egypt), and the Golan Heights (Syria). While Egypt has since reclaimed the Sinai Peninsula, and the issue of the Golan Heights has fallen to the back burner, the areas comprising the parts of historic Palestine which do not form part of the state of Israel - the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip - all remain under Israeli occupation. The Palestinians find themselves on ever shrinking parcels of land, subjected to torture, unlawful detention, and killings, and suffering in ways that conjure images of apartheid South Africa.

As this occupation completed its fourth decade, organizers convened a march in Washington D.C. to highlight the criminality and inhumanity of both Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and especially the U.S.' defining role in allowing the Israeli state to perpetrate its crimes. It was an historic day - the first instance, as a protest emcee noted repeatedly, of a national demonstration in the U.S. specifically dedicated to supporting the Palestinian cause.

Opposition to the occupation - normally absent from public discourse - recently received an unusual amount of exposure in our nation's capital. Reportedly, last month one of the leading organizations behind the demonstration placed ads in the D.C. metro "depicting a Palestinian child on his way to school with an Israeli tank looming in the background, gun barrel lowered. 'Imagine if this was your child's daily path to school,' the captions declare."

To make the comparison more tangible and realistic, perhaps in the future actors dressed up as Israeli soldiers can charge through Washington's streets with loaded weapons, actually firing at children.

As for the rally itself, I was greeted upon my arrival at the Capitol building by the airing of a statement that had been sent by none other than the former sitcom star Roseanne Barr; in her statement, Barr condemned "the vicious cycle of revenge and recriminations that benefit only those who profit from a distance." Inspired, the emcee commented (paraphrased): “today Roseanne, tomorrow the hottest couples in Hollywood. Support is growing. Next time we'll have Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie here.” At the very least we can launch a campaign to convince Angelina to adopt a Palestinian baby.

Other speakers at the rally included:
  • Mazin Qumsiyeh, the respected Palestinian geneticist, spoke of the Israel lobby in the U.S. While Qumsiyeh is right to broach this topic, it is important not to fall into a nationalist line of thinking by succumbing to the line that this lobby is "the dominant factor" in the formation of U.S. policies. Such a viewpoint not only serves as an abdication of moral responsibility ("hey, we're good people, and we would have a just policy towards the region if not for these meddlesome outsiders"), it also goes against the factual record. As Norman Finkelstein adeptly notes, "the historical connection between the US and Israel has been based on the useful services that Israel has performed for the United States in the region as a whole" - from taking out Nasser in Egypt, to recently attempting (and failing) to destroy Hezbollah. Indicative of this erroneous line of thinking, there were several signs at the rally expressing sentiments such as “End Israeli Occupation of Capital Hill.”
  • A speaker from the Green Party emphasized Washington's role in perpetuating the Occupation, calling the violence bipartisan and noting, impressively, that the right of return is advocated in the Party's platform.
  • Husam El-Nounou of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme described Gaza as the world's largest prison, but noted that Palestinians are there to stay. As the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy comments, Israel "is a country in which the streets are plastered with posters calling for a population transfer."
  • Jennifer Loewenstein of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions announced the organization's ambitious plan (the Constructing Peace Campaign) to rebuild every single Palestinian house destroyed this year by Israeli forces. She said about 300 homes are demolished each year on average.
  • Another speaker humorously suggested naming each of the Israeli checkpoints in the Occupied Territories for a U.S. Congressperson, since there are approximately the same numbers of each, to remind our representatives (and the public) of what they are funding.
Mazin Qumsiyeh estimated there were about 4,000 demonstrators and 50 counter-demonstrators. The Jerusalem Post put it at “upwards of 2,000” and the counter-protesters at “a couple hundred.” The organizers' website estimated over 5,000.

It was predictable that fewer people would show up than for a demonstration against the occupation of Iraq; however, while the organizers did not make public any expectations for crowd size, the turnout was nonetheless a bit disappointing in comparison to rallies held elsewhere.

The protest in London appears to have drawn many more people (estimates range widely, from 2,000 to 20,000); however, England has only a sixth of the U.S. population, and while Britain generally supports Israeli policies, it is not the decisive enabler of Israeli crimes that Washington is - a role of which the U.S. is evidently quite proud.

There was very little coverage of the protest by the media; the New York Times and Washington Post had none that I could find. If only we were focusing our efforts on Darfur instead of Palestine, we would have been rewarded with top media billing.

I took a few dozen photos from the protest, though a photographer named Diane Greene Lent has a superior set. Three videos of the rally and march are also available.

In addition to London, other protests were held in Colorado, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Tel Aviv.

Just two days before the protest, the prominent scholar on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Norman Finkelstein, was denied tenure by DePaul University in Chicago. Finkelstein must now vacate his current post by the end of the upcoming academic year.

Despite praise from Raul Hilberg, widely considered "the dean of Holocaust scholars," Finkelstein fell victim to a vicious smear campaign, spearheaded by the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Mehrene Larudee, a fellow DePaul professor who was set to become head of the school's international studies program, was also denied tenure, for what she cites as her support for Finkelstein.

Students have protested the decision. According to one student, "This is going to be a long battle...DePaul will be embarrassed by this activity.'' One can only hope that this turns out to be the case.

In the words of Hllberg, "I have a sinking feeling about the damage this will do to academic freedom." Little has changed in these 40 years.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Apparently, there's now some sort of "Islamofascism Awareness Week" happening at colleges across the country.