Envisioning the End of Israeli Apartheid
Envisioning the End of Israeli Apartheid: An Interview With Ali Abunimah
by BAR Managing Editor Bruce Dixon
Why is Israel an apartheid state? What are the similarities between it and the old South African regime? Is the separate Palestinian state talked about by Bush and the foreign policy elite of both Democrats and Republicans a real solution? Is the separate Palestinian state any different from Indian reservations, or the bantustans South Africa tried to impose on its black citizens? Can the Israeli state as it exists today ever be legitimate? Is there a practical, peaceful way out of the Israel-Palestine dilemma, and if so, what is it?
Chicago-based Palestinian educator Ali Abunimah, co-founder of Electronic Intifada, took the time to explore these questions with us.
Envisioning the End of Israeli Apartheid: An Interview With Ali Abunimah
by BAR Managing Editor Bruce Dixon
B DIXON:: Tell us how long you have been doing Electronic Intifada, and why you started it.
A. ABUNIMAH: Along with several other collaborators I started Electronic Intifada about four and a half years ago. We did it for much the same reason that you started Black Agenda Report, because there were vibrant and important concerns and conversations going on among the Palestinian people and their allies, conversations of which we could find no trace in the mainstream media. In the beginning we did a lot of political analysis, which we still do, along with some coverage of Palestinian arts and culture. Lately we have been emphasizing on first-hand, on-the-ground coverage of life as it is lived by Palestinians under the occupation and blockade.
The conversation about Israel-Palestine in this country might as well be about some other universe, it contains so many misconceptions and outright lies. There has been very little very little attention given to the context, to the history and daily lives of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation, living under apartheid-like laws and practices in Israel. There's been very little attention given to Palestinian art, music and culture, to the Palestinian Diaspora, which is world wide by now, including here in the United States,. These are all things you very rarely find reflected in the mainstream media, and when you do it's often from a very distorted perspective. The so-called experts on Palestine and Palestinians are very often those who do not wish the best for the people of Palestine. That's why Electronic Intifada exists.
B. DIXON:: You made a reference to apartheid-like laws in Israel-Palestine. What should Americans know about that situation, and if there was one thing that black people in particular needed to know about these apartheid-like laws and situations in Israel-Palestine, what would that be?
A. ABUNIMAH: I've been focuses a lot on this in recent
years. I devoted a chapter in my book One Country to the lessons of South
Africa for how we can move forward in Israel-Palestine.
Looking at some of the comparisons between Israel and South
Africa, there's so much to know. One of the things to know
is we are not having this discussion in the United States.
But in the rest of the world they are having it. Some of the
key anti-apartheid leaders that are known by Americans, and
known by many black Americans, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu
have been very, very forthright in stating that what is
happening to Palestinians is apartheid. Ronnie Kasrils, a minister in the south
African government who happens to be Jewish. He has been one
of the most outspoken allies of the
Palestinians, declaring that Israel is an apartheid state. And of course many Israeli leaders say it. For example just today (April 25, 2008) in Ha'aretz, the newspaper of record in Israel, a former member of Knesset, Israeli politician Yossi Sarid has an article entitled “Yes, It's Apartheid”. In which he compares Israel to the apartheid state of south Africa.
The other thing I think is important to know is the history, that throughout the 1970s and 80s, when black Americans were leading the struggle against apartheid in this country, when they were the conscience of this country in terms of putting apartheid South Africa on the American political agenda, Israel was one of the key supporters of apartheid South Africa. Israel is the country that systematically violated the international arms embargo on South Africa. The weapons used to beat and kill black demonstrators and freedom fighters in South African townships were made in Israel, right down to the water cannon used in the townships... the fighter jets, the gunboats, all the heavy armament of the South African military used were in large part supplied by Israel.
It's less well known, there is less hard evidence about it, although some information is in the public domain regarding Israeili-South African cooperation in their nuclear weapons programs.
B. DIXON::: We've in the midst of a presidential election here. What difference will it make who gets elected US president to someone living right now, say, in Gaza and to the Palestinian Diaspora?
A. ABUNIMAH: I am very pessimistic that it makes any difference at all, because the tone and content of the politics on this issue in the United States is really a competition to see who can be the most pro-Israel candidate. That has been the case across the board with the three candidates who are out there now. All three are competing to be the most pro-Israeli to the point where Hillary Clinton has threatened to “totally obliterate Iran” on behalf of Israel.
Barack Obama too has been, from his past and I know some of this because I knew him hack in his Chicago days, he was much more sympathetic and much more attuned to the plight of the Palestinians. He used to be a lot more open minded, and now he is busy denying all that and trying to portray himself as a stalwart and unconditional supporter of Israel. So I don't see much change coming from mainstream politics. I think we have to keep pushing from the grassroots for the kind of change we want to see, that's where it will have to come from.
That's where it came from with the anti-apartheid struggle. The Reagan administration didn't want to impose sanctions. Congress didn't want to impost sanctions. There was a grassroots movement from the civil rights leaders from the black churches and from others that finally put pressure on the establishment to begin to do the right thing.
B. DIXON:: Back to Obama, we've got a lot of people who say that he's just shammin', he's just doing what he has to do to get elected, doing what he has to do to get in, but once he gets in, he's going to bring change.
A. ABUNIMAH: None of us can know what's deep down in his heart, we have to take him ast his word. He says he is going to stand by Israel, tha he's going to veto any UN resolutions which criticize Israel, the he thinks Palestinians are largely to blame for their own problems.. We have to take his word for that, and hold him accountable for the positions which he has stated. As for whether he is going to turn around and do something different, well, I understand that a lot of people hope that will be the case. But the reality of politics in this country is that the things you have to do to get elected are the same things you have to do to stay in office. I don't see what wold really push him to change.
B. DIXON:: Tell us what is the Nakbah
A. ABUNIMAH: The Nakbah is an Arabic word, el nakbah. It means the catastrophe. Palestinians use to to describe the events which took place in late 1947 and continued into late 1948, when three quarters of the Palestinan population were ethnically cleansed from their land.so that the state of Israel could be established upon the ruins of their society. In that process, 750,000 Palestinian were forced out of their homes by an organized campaign carried out by the Zionist movment. It wasn't yet the Israeli state. More than 500 Palestinian towns, villages and cities were depopulated and destroyed, and the Palestinians were driven into exile.
We're now in the third or fourth generation of that, though acutally for many it's still a first generation experience. My parents for example, lived though that, so this is very much a live and ongoing catastrophe, not something that is only in the past because thisof ethnic cleansing is continuing in Palestine against Palestinians who are still there.
B. DIXON: How is it continuing?
A. ABUNIMAH: It's continuing in many ways. The irony of it is that although the Zionist leaders very clearly intended, and this is something that the Israili historian Ilan Pape talks about in his latest book, The Ethnic Cleansiing of Palestine. They had a very claer intentiuon to get rid of the Palestinians because you cn't set up a Jewish state in a place where the majority of the population is not Jewish.
They had to get rid of that majority population. Despite that, the Palestinian population today is actually larger, with more Palestinians living in Palestine than any time before. They have a very high birth rate, and they have a very strong commitment to their land, regardless of the obstacles put in their way.
What Israel has been trying to do is exclude or expel the Palestinians politically and literally. They do it by taking their land to build fortified Jewish-only settlements which the American media calls “neighborhoods”. They do it by building walls around entire Palestinian cities and communities, a wall the rest of the world outside the United States calls “the apartheid wall”. We can see that not only in Gaza, where almost a million and a half Palestinians are confined to a vast open air prison. We can see it by the other Palestinian cities and towns that are surrounded by these walls and barbed wire fences. It's a process of physical expulsion as well, as every day more and more land is taken, more and more Palestinians are pushed off it.
Israel has moved this population in exactly the same ways that the former South African government did when it tried to pen up its black population in bantustans.
It's exactly the same thing that South Africa did when they said OK, blacks are physically present on this land but we are going to make your politically invisible gy creating these fake independent states. If you want citizenship, if you want the right to vote, go home to one of your bantustans and exercise your political rights there, but you don't get to vote for the real government of the country.
B DIXON Exactly what is goiing on in Gaza right now, and what is collective punishment
A. ABUNIMAH: Imagine that here on my block in Chicago, a kid is accused of a crime, let's say robbing a store. Instead of the police looking for the individual, arresting and charging that person with a crime, they simply surround the block with armored vehicles and tanks, order everyone out of their houses, arrest all the men, or simply destroy the entire block. That is an example of the kind of collective punishments which have been implemented against Palestinians for decades. Israelis claim that they are defending themselves against the Palestinians, but that's just like saying the United States was defending itself against the Native Americans.
So now Gaza is totally cut off from the outside world. There are a million and a half Palestinians living there, I have friends living there. We try to stay in touch by email when they have electricity, but the electricity is frequently cut off by the Israelis who deny Gaza the fuel to keep the power plants running. The universities have shut down because there is no power, cancer patients are dying because they can't get chemotherapy, the lives of dialysis patients are threatened because they cannot get the treatment they need. People cannot get to school to work, can't keep their businesses open. Eighty percent of the population, and these are proud, independent-minded people, are subsisting on charity, on rations handed out by the UN, malnutrition is rampant....
B DIXON: And why would the Israeli government do that?
A. ABUNIMAH: We've reprinted the statements of Israeli officials at Electronic Intifada which appeared in the Israeli press. They say their objective is to put pressure on the Palestinian populaiton so they will put pressure on their leaders to submit to what we want. Palestinians had a democratic election, back in 2006 and they elected the “wrong leaders”., leaders which Israel and the United States don't want, so they have to be starved into submission for that crime.
B. DIXON: We hear all the time from the mouths of the US Secretary of State, from Bush, from the presidential candidates about what they call an independent Palestinian state, but which you call a bantustan. What's wrong with an independent Palestinian state?
A. ABUNIMAH: What's wrong with an independent Palestinian state is that it' is a bantustan, just like the little back country South African reservations to which the apartheid government proposed to relocate most of its black population. A so-called independent Palestinian state is a complete farce, with no possibility of an independent economy, since Palestinian territory is divided into dozens of pieces separated by Israeli-only roads and fortified settlements, by walls, barbed wire and checkpoints.
In the case of South Africa, nobody bought it. The South African people didn't buy it, and no country in the world acknowledged these little puppets as real independent states. Most importantly, the South African leadership, Nelson Mandela and the ANC refused to play this game. They said we want our whole country, we want our full rights.
The difference, I would say, between the proposed Palestinian state and the bantustans is that the bantustans actually had more territory, and more resources than the fake Palestinian state. The Palestinian state is simply a ruse to hide and to perpetuate the fact of Israeli apartheid.
B. DIXON: If a separate Palestinian state is no solution, then what needs to happen in Israel-Palestine?
A. ABUNIMAH: We have to recognize that in Israel-Palestine today there are 10.8 million people. 48% of them are NOT Israeli Jews. The majority population right now are Palestinians and others, with the numbers of Jews and Palestinians being about equal, at just under half. Another five percent who are neither Palestinians nor Jews make up the rest. But the trends are very clear. Within five to ten years at most, Palestinians will be an absolute majority of the population of the state of Israel-Palestine, just as they were sixty years ago.
What we need to be saying is that this Jewish minority has a right to live in peace. It has a right to be secure. It has a right to be part of the country. It cannot have better rights and special rights over the rest of the population. It must not have the exclusive right to determine the destiny of the country. What we need to do, and this is what I have been arguing with other Palestinians, is we need to be talking not about a separate Palestinian state because that is a pipe dream. The geography doesn't work, the economy doesn't work.
We should be calling for full civil and economic rights for everyone who lives within the boundaries of the country, whether they are Jewish or Palestinian or anything else. And of course we need to be calling for full decolonization, for reparations and restitution for the victims of the current regime.
Those are the two things that have to happen; equality and restitution. Legal equality without restitution is not enough, as we know from the history of this country. There also has to be active restitution for the victims. I don't see why Palestinians and Israeli Jews cannot live together peacefully under such a situation.
B. DIXON: The picture you have painted for us is not a bright and happy one. What if anything, makes you hopeful?
A. ABUNIMAH: What makes me hopeful is that 60 years of catastrophe have not dimmed the will of Palestinians to see justice done. 60 years of brutality, of oppression, by Israel have not succeeded in establishing the legitimacy of that regime. Each day, the Israelis have to wake up and prove to the world that their state has a right to exist as what they call a Jewish state, and what I call an apartheid state. They have not been able to succeed. There is growing, nonviolent global political movement to bring justice to Palestinians, and only that can bring peace to Israelis.
Apartheid and colonialism lasted for 300 years before they were brought down. The Soviet Union lasted for eighty years, and nobody anticipated its collapse either. You look at the history of this country where there is so much further to go, and yet there was change here as a result of social movements, not from the top down, but from the bottom up, coming from the efforts of people who decided they were not going to take this any more, that they would stand up for their rights. Every single one of these social movements has prevailed against overwhelming odds, and against enemies determined to hold onto power at any cost.
Mr. Abunimah is the author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, and co-counder of Electronic Intifada. EI publishes news, commentary, analysis, and reference materials about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict from a Palestinian perspective. EI is the leading Palestinian portal for information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its depiction in the media.