British Writers In Support of Palestine

FAQ: But what about ‘dialogue’?

1. Not all Palestinians support BDS, so why should I?

Many people sign up to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign because it is a Palestinian initiative, and taking the lead from the oppressed is a foundation stone of solidarity work. However, one might counter-claim that Palestinian society is diverse, and not all Palestinians believe in boycott. This statement is undeniably true. Leaving aside the question of militant resistance, some Palestinians believe in working within the Palestinian Authority and the UN, or with charitable NGOs. Others are simply trying to survive, and may place their faith in Allah, God, or the Shekel. So how does one, as a solidarity activist, decide which Palestinians to support?

The question is a political one, and must be answered politically. Only politically organised activity with strong and principled Palestinian leadership can bring positive, lasting change in the region. So, which such groups are reaching out to solidarity workers, and requesting our support?

We can immediately rule out the PA. Unless one is a UN representative, the PA is not reaching out to foreign individuals. In addition, the UN route to change is blocked by the veto power of America, and – as Wikileaks demonstrated – the PA is seriously compromised by corruption within the organisation. There is no way for solidarity workers to effectively help change this situation, apart from campaigning for UN reform.  While I do not disparage such a goal, to devote all one’s energies to it would be an incredibly indirect way of expressing support for Palestine.

One can of course join direct action groups, helping with the olive harvest, accompanying children in Hebron on the way to school, working with faith groups, or joining non-violent protests against the apartheid wall. But doing so will still leave you with the fundamental choice for peace campaigners in the region: do you support ‘dialogue’ groups or the boycott divestment and sanctions movement?  For many Westerners, dialogue seems instinctively attractive, but in my own view, careful thought and research must inevitably lead to the conclusion that it is not the option for the true solidarity activist.

The concept of ‘peace through dialogue’ appeals to many Westerners and left-wing Israelis because in our own personal experience we often need to engage in conflict resolution with antagonists in our families or workplaces, and this process is predicated on the understanding that both parties must listen to each other and take responsibility for their own failings.  However, it is a huge mistake to project this personal process between equals – or those in a mutually agreed power structure, such as a workplace – onto the Israel-Palestine conflict. While political and personal dialogue is indeed fundamental to the peace process, it is essential that this dialogue takes place within a framework that acknowledges the true scale and roots of the conflict: the occupation of Palestine; the apartheid nature of the Israeli state; and the Israeli denial of the refugees’ right of return.

In other words, in the case of Israel-Palestine, any dialogue that takes place is never between equal partners.  Analogies all break down at some point, but rather than a ‘bad marriage’ between incompatible people who have to co-parent their children, the Israel-Palestine conflict is akin to a highly abusive relationship where the abuser has huge wealth and social prestige, and the abused person has been disbelieved by the police for years – and in fact has been punished for resisting the attacks, or occasionally responding to them in a violent manner. Only if the authorities and the abuser finally recognise the nature of this abuse, is it safe or indeed worthwhile for the two parties to attempt any kind of dialogue. Think of the difference between divorce counselling and a bullying tribunal at work. In the former, a neutral mediator helps two people make compromises; in the latter, the victim and the bully have clearly differentiated roles to play in proceedings, and if found guilty the bully will be punished. Again, this is only an analogy, and I apologise to Palestinians who may find it ill-fitting or simplistic. But I think it is worth making because I believe that many Westerners think of dialogue mainly in personal terms.

The ‘dialogue peace camp’ does not offer solidarity to the Palestinians – not just because it does not start from the understanding that the conflict is hugely imbalanced, but because it explicitly forbids such an analysis.  A list of 66 Palestinian-Israeli ‘co-existence’ organisations can be found here, on the website of the British charity Children of Peace. I wish to stress that I am in no way judging the motives of the Palestinians involved in these grassroots organisations. I have not lived their lives, and I have not faced their choices. What I want to highlight here is the fact that Children of Peace only funds groups that sign up to its ‘non-partisan’ values.  These values are expressed in the charity’s claim that, in relation to adults, Israeli and Palestinian children have suffered ‘disproportionately’ from the conflict: to get funding from Children of Peace, organisations are not allowed to politically challenge the fact that, thanks to the occupation, Israeli apartheid and the refugee camps, it is overwhelmingly Palestinian children who have died or been maimed, and who suffer from poverty and lack of educational opportunities.

Children of Peace is a throwback to Empire. The charity is operating like a group of secular Victorian missionaries, providing vital aid only to those who are willing to subscribe to its world-view.  Given the fact that Israel chronically underfunds education, health and basic social services for Arab-Israelis, and systematically attacks the basic infrastructure of Gaza and the West Bank, there is huge financial incentive for Palestinians to sign up to such deals. But without the ability to name the conflict for what it is, such organisations will never be able to effect substantive and lasting change.   As Faris Giacaman argues here, Palestinians have long known that what they call ‘the peace industry’ has not built up significant Palestinian power or leadership:

Based on an unpublished 2002 report by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last October that “between 1993 and 2000 [alone], Western governments and foundations spent between $20 million and $25 million on the dialogue groups.” A subsequent wide-scale survey of Palestinians who participated in the dialogue groups revealed that this great expenditure failed to produce “a single peace activist on either side.” This affirms the belief among Palestinians that the entire enterprise is a waste of time and money.
The survey also revealed that the Palestinian participants were not fully representative of their society. Many participants tended to be “children or friends of high-ranking Palestinian officials or economic elites. Only seven percent of participants were refugee camp residents, even though they make up 16 percent of the Palestinian population.” The survey also found that 91 percent of Palestinian participants no longer maintained ties with Israelis they met. In addition, 93 percent were not approached with follow-up camp activity, and only five percent agreed the whole ordeal helped “promote peace culture and dialogue between participants.”

By insisting on a narrative of two equal parties to conflict, and by making financial aid dependent on Palestinian acquiescence to this narrative, the ‘peace industry’ only reinforces the imbalance of power in the region. This is the process of ‘normalisation’ that the boycott movement decries.

In contrast, the assets of the BDS movement are limited to moral capital only.  And yet it has attracted the broad support of 173 Palestinian grassroots organisations, including many unions, and a growing group of Israeli activists, Boycott from Within. PACBI has the express support of over 60 Palestinian cultural and academic organisations. The BDS movement has not bought this support: on the contrary, boycott advocates within Israel now face severe penalties from Israel – heavy fines or imprisonment – for expressing their views. A solidarity activist can therefore support BDS knowing that the movement represents not only an accurate analysis of the conflict, but also the free and principled self-expression of a huge range of community and professional organisations. No external authority or funding body is dictating the operating terms of these groups. Unlike the ‘dialogue peace camp’, BDS is a purely Palestinian-led political movement with a huge base of mobilised popular support, and is therefore the only option for international activists who wish to work in solidarity with Palestinians.

 

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