When Push Comes to Shove: Civil Society and the Promise of Peace

In 1967, Israel’s pre-emptive war against Jordan, Egypt, and Syria dramatically altered the political geography of the Middle East. Within three, short weeks Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and military-ruled Gaza Strip, Jordan’s (then) West Bank, and Syria’s Golan Heights were all conquered and occupied by the Israeli military. Three wars and forty diplomatic years later and little has changed. Individually, Egypt and Jordan have exchanged land for peace and normalized political relations. But regionally, peace and security are absent. While the Syrian Golan Heights remains under Israeli occupation, the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank are trapped within a political and territorial process of occupation wherein the status and rights of Palestinians are consistently ignored. Needless to say that, despite 10 years of accords, road maps, and the so-called peace process, the Middle East is still divided, intermittently at war, and in desperate need of a real solution.

Hoping to learn the lessons of history, the international press this week has drawn our historical attention backwards. From The Economist to Israel’s Haaretz, the ’67 war and its implications for Palestinians and Israelis have been critically remembered and remarked. The consensus: all political solutions have successfully failed. Indeed, not a single peace plan or effort has produced lasting, tangible results for the Palestinians or Israelis. On the contrary, the last 40 years suggests that American and Israeli policies were never meant to create peace but rather a favorable status quo in which the colonization of Palestinian lands could continue with little resistance. But while the world’s heads turn back, events on June, 2007 provide us with some important and promising reasons to look positively into the future.

On May 31st, the new University and College Union (UCU) in Bournemouth, England voted’ by 158 to 99 for “a comprehensive and consistent boycott” of all Israeli academic institutions. Shortly thereafter, Amnesty International released perhaps its most scathing report2 of Israeli practices in Palestine. Titled Enduring Occupation, the report concluded that, 40 years after the ’67 war, the devastating impact of Israel’s policy of closures and blockades, the building of the fence/ wall, and Israel’s flagrant disregard for international human rights and law have little to do with increasing security and everything to do with entrenching the occupation and furthering colonization. Strangely enough, although both the boycott and Amnesty’s report reflect the worsening conditions in Palestine and the complete breakdown of the so-called peace process, these two developments ironically point to new possibilities. Not only do they suggest the rise of a new framework for understanding and confronting the facts of the conflict but they also represent an emerging international movement by civil society to engage the conflict directly and end dependence on their weak and hypocritical governments.

Solving old problems often requires new solutions. But redefining one’s approach demands a dramatic shift in our understanding of the problem. Enduring Occupation does exactly that. Amnesty International has long been a credible voice in the international arena of human rights work. Although it has always taken a stiff stance vis-à-vis the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, its approach has generally retained sensitivity towards Israeli security needs and human rights. What we find in Enduring Occupation, however, is undeniable evidence that Israel’s occupation is at the heart of the conflict. The report dramatically reveals how, tucked under the cover of security, Israel has led a persistent policy of occupation and discrimination that has driven the Palestinians into a downward spiral of poverty, suffering, and despair. For years Israeli security either obscured or trumped claims about Palestinian rights. But in Amnesty’s report we find overwhelming evidence suggesting that Israeli security needs can no longer be used to disguise the deliberate policy of occupation destroying Palestinian life. In this sense, Amnesty’s report presents a strong critique capable of recasting the problem in terms of the occupation and thus exposing Israel’s central role in the conflict.

Whereas Amnesty’s report provides the framework, the Palestinian boycott provides the method. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel began in 2005. Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid, Palestinian civil society called for an international effort to pressure Israel into ending the occupation through divestment, sanctions, and a boycott. As expected, the boycott caused immediate controversy. In a nutshell, many academics see the boycott as counter productive as it arguably isolates some of the most needed voices against the occupation: intellectuals. Moreover, a blanket boycott also raises the question of academic freedom by targeting academics for exercising their right to express their own views. Needless to say, the boycott isn’t without its own argumentative force. If Israeli academics are such an important aspect of solving the conflict, then why have they been so unwilling to defend Palestinian academics’ lack of freedom and rights under Israel’s occupation? Moreover, many Israeli universities are directly involved in the creation of and support for policies in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza. Given this fact, shouldn’t Israeli universities be challenged on the grounds that their institutions are supporting or ignoring egregious violations of academic freedom and human rights for Palestinians?

Until now, Palestinian calls for an Israeli boycott have received great attention but shaky support. In 2005, a vote in favor of the boycott by the British Association of University Teachers was later rejected at a special meeting. Furthermore, calls for the boycott were vociferously attacked by Israelis and Jewish organizations linking it to anti-Semitism. Suffice it to say that, for the last 2 years, the boycott has remained a persistent albeit thorny issue amongst the world’s academic community. But the UCU’s recent vote signifies a favorable shift both for the boycott and for the conflict in general. At the most basic level, it indicates that the debate is still open. Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the boycott, the choice is becoming increasingly important and perhaps inescapable. Put another way, fences aren’t the best places to sit and, like Apartheid South Africa, it appears that the time to pick a side is near.

At a more general level, the UCU’s decision also suggests that civil society is no longer willing to sit idly by and wait for politicians to take the lead. For the last 7 years, neither Bush nor Blair has shown a hair’s worth of interest in pushing through a meaningful change in the status quo. On the contrary, the US and Britain have ensured Israel’s impunity both with regards to Palestine and Lebanon. Furthermore, the so-called international quartet remains impotent in the face of US pressure to move the conflict towards a more equitable or durable situation. With these facts on the ground, there seems to be little promise of any political solution. Indeed, the peace process is dead.

It wasn’t long ago that Palestinians took the world by surprise and launched the 1st Intifada. As a popular revolt, it used stones and collective resistance to spur the world into recognizing that the occupation was no longer tolerable. Neither the PLO nor Israel was ready for the challenge. Now, with the passing of the Intifada, the buck has been passed to the international community. Thus the UCU and other international organizations working for boycotts, sanctions, and divestment are embracing the idea that civil society, not governments, can play an integral role in causing change. Taken apart, the UCU’s decision and Amnesty’s reports represent little more than two independent efforts to make one basic statement: the occupation must end. But seen together, these two events mark a critical moment for the true international community: the people. Boycotts, human rights reports, the recent march in Washington DC, or Roseanne Barr’s call to end the occupation all point to the growing importance of civil society in ending the conflict. 40 years after Israel’s war, the UCU and Amnesty International are the agents of a new era in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict that has the promise of hope and solidarity in their call for justice. Let’s not loose this historic opportunity.

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    Michael Vicente Perez

    Michael Perez is a Senior Editor at The Islamic Monthly and a regular columnist.

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