[News] Can we talk? The Middle East "peace industry"
news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Aug 21 11:04:14 EDT 2009
Can we talk? The Middle East "peace industry"
Faris Giacaman, The Electronic Intifada, 20 August 2009
Upon finding out that I am Palestinian, many people I meet at college
in the United States are eager to inform me of various activities
that they have participated in that promote "coexistence" and
"dialogue" between both sides of the "conflict," no doubt expecting
me to give a nod of approval. However, these efforts are harmful and
undermine the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment
and sanctions of Israel -- the only way of pressuring Israel to cease
its violations of Palestinians' rights.
When I was a high school student in Ramallah, one of the better known
"people-to-people" initiatives, Seeds of Peace, often visited my
school, asking students to join their program. Almost every year,
they would send a few of my classmates to a summer camp in the US
with a similar group of Israeli students. According to the Seeds of
Peace website, at the camp they are taught "to develop empathy,
respect, and confidence as well as leadership, communication and
negotiation skills -- all critical components that will facilitate
peaceful coexistence for the next generation." They paint quite a
rosy picture, and most people in college are very surprised to hear
that I think such activities are misguided at best, and immoral, at
worst. Why on earth would I be against "coexistence," they invariably ask?
During the last few years, there have been growing calls to bring to
an end Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people through an
international movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
One of the commonly-held objections to the boycott is that it is
counter-productive, and that "dialogue" and "fostering coexistence"
is much more constructive than boycotts.
With the beginning of the Oslo accords in 1993, there has been an
entire industry that works toward bringing Israelis and Palestinians
together in these "dialogue" groups. The stated purpose of such
groups is the creating of understanding between "both sides of the
conflict," in order to "build bridges" and "overcome barriers."
However, the assumption that such activities will help facilitate
peace is not only incorrect, but is actually morally lacking.
The presumption that dialogue is needed in order to achieve peace
completely ignores the historical context of the situation in
Palestine. It assumes that both sides have committed, more or less,
an equal amount of atrocities against one another, and are equally
culpable for the wrongs that have been done. It is assumed that not
one side is either completely right or completely wrong, but that
both sides have legitimate claims that should be addressed, and
certain blind spots that must be overcome. Therefore, both sides must
listen to the "other" point of view, in order to foster understanding
and communication, which would presumably lead to "coexistence" or
Such an approach is deemed "balanced" or "moderate," as if that is a
good thing. However, the reality on the ground is vastly different
than the "moderate" view of this so-called "conflict." Even the word
"conflict" is misleading, because it implies a dispute between two
symmetric parties. The reality is not so; it is not a case of simple
misunderstanding or mutual hatred which stands in the way of peace.
The context of the situation in Israel/Palestine is that of
colonialism, apartheid and racism, a situation in which there is an
oppressor and an oppressed, a colonizer and a colonized.
In cases of colonialism and apartheid, history shows that colonial
regimes do not relinquish power without popular struggle and
resistance, or direct international pressure. It is a particularly
naive view to assume that persuasion and "talking" will convince an
oppressive system to give up its power.
The apartheid regime in South Africa, for instance, was ended after
years of struggle with the vital aid of an international campaign of
sanctions, divestments and boycotts. If one had suggested to the
oppressed South Africans living in bantustans to try and understand
the other point of view (i.e. the point of view of South African
white supremacists), people would have laughed at such a ridiculous
notion. Similarly, during the Indian struggle for emancipation from
British colonial rule, Mahatma Gandhi would not have been venerated
as a fighter for justice had he renounced satyagraha -- "holding
firmly to the truth," his term for his nonviolent resistance movement
-- and instead advocated for dialogue with the occupying British
colonialists in order to understand their side of the story.
Now, it is true that some white South Africans stood in solidarity
with the oppressed black South Africans, and participated in the
struggle against apartheid. And there were, to be sure, some British
dissenters to their government's colonial policies. But those
supporters explicitly stood alongside the oppressed with the clear
objective of ending oppression, of fighting the injustices
perpetrated by their governments and representatives. Any joint
gathering of both parties, therefore, can only be morally sound when
the citizens of the oppressive state stand in solidarity with the
members of the oppressed group, not under the banner of "dialogue"
for the purpose of "understanding the other side of the story."
Dialogue is only acceptable when done for the purpose of further
understanding the plight of the oppressed, not under the framework of
having "both sides heard."
It has been argued, however, by the Palestinian proponents of these
dialogue groups, that such activities may be used as a tool -- not to
promote so-called "understanding," -- but to actually win over
Israelis to the Palestinian struggle for justice, by persuading them
or "having them recognize our humanity."
However, this assumption is also naive. Unfortunately, most Israelis
have fallen victim to the propaganda that the Zionist establishment
and its many outlets feed them from a young age. Moreover, it will
require a huge, concerted effort to counter this propaganda through
persuasion. For example, most Israelis will not be convinced that
their government has reached a level of criminality that warrants a
call for boycott. Even if they are logically convinced of the
brutalities of Israeli oppression, it will most likely not be enough
to rouse them into any form of action against it. This has been
proven to be true time and again, evident in the abject failure of
such dialogue groups to form any comprehensive anti-occupation
movement ever since their inception with the Oslo process. In
reality, nothing short of sustained pressure -- not persuasion --
will make Israelis realize that Palestinian rights have to be
rectified. That is the logic of the BDS movement, which is entirely
opposed to the false logic of dialogue.
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."
Despite the resounding failure of these dialogue projects, money
continues to be invested in them. As Omar Barghouti, one of the
founding members of the BDS movement in Palestine, explained in The
<http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10562.shtml>"there have been
so many attempts at dialogue since 1993 ... it became an industry --
we call it the peace industry."
This may be partly attributed to two factors. The dominant factor is
the useful role such projects play in public relations. For example,
the Seeds of Peace website boosts its legitimacy by featuring an
impressive array of endorsements by popular politicians and
authorities, such as Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, George Mitchell,
Shimon Peres, George Bush, Colin Powell and Tony Blair, amongst
others. The second factor is the need of certain Israeli "leftists"
and "liberals" to feel as if they are doing something admirable to
"question themselves," while in reality they take no substantive
stand against the crimes that their government commits in their name.
The politicians and Western governments continue to fund such
projects, thereby bolstering their images as supporters of
"coexistence," and the "liberal" Israeli participants can exonerate
themselves of any guilt by participating in the noble act of
"fostering peace." A symbiotic relationship, of sorts.
The lack of results from such initiatives is not surprising, as the
stated objectives of dialogue and "coexistence" groups do not include
convincing Israelis to help Palestinians gain the respect of their
inalienable rights. The minimum requirement of recognizing Israel's
inherently oppressive nature is absent in these dialogue groups.
Rather, these organizations operate under the dubious assumption that
the "conflict" is very complex and multifaceted, where there are "two
sides to every story," and each narrative has certain valid claims as
well as biases.
As the authoritative call by the Palestinian Campaign for the
Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel makes plain, any joint
Palestinian-Israeli activities -- whether they be film screenings or
summer camps -- can only be acceptable when their stated objective is
to end, protest, and/or raise awareness of the oppression of the Palestinians.
Any Israeli seeking to interact with Palestinians, with the clear
objective of solidarity and helping them to end oppression, will be
welcomed with open arms. Caution must be raised, however, when
invitations are made to participate in a dialogue between "both
sides" of the so-called "conflict." Any call for a "balanced"
discourse on this issue -- where the motto "there are two sides to
every story" is revered almost religiously -- is intellectually and
morally dishonest, and ignores the fact that, when it comes to cases
of colonialism, apartheid, and oppression, there is no such thing as
"balance." The oppressor society, by and large, will not give up its
privileges without pressure. This is why the BDS campaign is such an
important instrument of change.
Faris Giacaman is a Palestinian student from the West Bank, attending
his second year of college in the United States.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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