Strategic Organizing for the Middle East

Thinking outside the box with Jerusalem-based activist Jeff Halper

By Maxine Kaufman Lacusta | 2009-07-01 12:00:00

In January, Canadians from Halifax to Victoria heard presentations by Jerusalem-based activist Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD; Some of these talks can be accessed online [see resources box at end of article], but Jeff also made a point of meeting with local activists.

This article is based primarily on my recording of a gathering of some two dozen activists who met with Jeff in Vancouver to hear his views on applying strategic thinking to organizing around Middle East issues. I will also quote and paraphrase his remarks from a subsequent e-mail, in which he expanded on some of these ideas.

Jeff stressed the need to link our efforts to those of a broader range of activists, not just Middle East "wonks." In Vancouver, "there must be thousands of activists and people who are political, but where are they?" he asked. "Why aren't they at our strategizing meeting? Where are all the people who oppose the war in Iraq, those working on militarism, on women's issues, on issues of development, on global warming?"

Jeff acknowledged that a division of labor is necessary, but called the left too fragmented. He suggested we have to find "cross-cutting issues that pull us together more."

One such issue is Israel's involvement in "the global pacification system"- the arms trade, security, and policing. This "package," he pointed out, affects Canadians and civil societies worldwide. Israel trains national and major city police forces in the forms of warfare -- including state-of-the-art weaponry and urban warfare tactics that it is pioneering in the Occupied Palestinian Territories -- which they, in turn, direct against immigrants, dissidents, the poor, and criminals. Thus, "what [Israel is] learning on the Palestinian guinea pigs in Gaza it transfers to the police force in Vancouver." And because Israel trains militaries, security firms, and police forces all over the world, these tactics also find their way into "counterinsurgency" operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Central Africa, India, and Burma. This links the Occupation with Canadian concerns for civil liberties at home and abroad.

Jeff spoke, as well, about the fact that in our political work, there are no quick and easy solutions. "We are in this for the long haul," he said, "struggling with historical, political, economic and cultural forces far larger than we are. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an example of a terrible conflict with global implications which does not at present seem to have a ready solution." The two-state solution no longer seems viable, due to both the massive scale of the Israeli West Bank settlement project and the lack of international will to force Israel back to the pre-June 1967 borders, while a one-state solution -- either a bi-national or democratic unitary state, both of which Jeff supports -- is not yet even on the negotiating table, and would generate tremendous resistance.

"Does that mean we give up?" Jeff asked. "Of course not. We did not give up during the darkest days of [South African] apartheid, even when that system seemed invulnerable. It does mean, however, that we must be strategic and sustain ourselves during the times, often long, when a just solution seems elusive. We must always keep vision of a just peace before the public. We must ensure that the voices of the oppressed are heard, and we must formulate our own plan for a resolution of the conflict which contains at least the required elements, if not a particular solution."

He went on to lay out what he regards as the necessary conditions for a genuine resolution of the conflict in Israel-Palestine:

"National expression for both peoples, economic viability [that is, the Palestinians must not be relegated to a 'bantustan' in an Israeli version of apartheid] ... conformity with human rights, international law, and UN resolutions, a just resolution of the refugee issue, a regional approach, and the addressing of each party's security concerns. Without all of these elements being present, there is no just and sustainable solution."

Regional Confederation

Referring to "a regional approach," Jeff spoke during the Q and A period of the importance of thinking outside the "one-state/ two-state box." One model that he elaborated (and treats at some length in a 2007 article [see resources box] and in his 2008 book An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel) is that of a regional confederation.

"A Middle East economic union something like the EU was 20 or 30 years ago. Not a 'union union,' but more of an economic confederation of Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon.

"If you have a larger unit with Syria and Lebanon involved -- which really recreates the historical unit in that area -- that gives you much more magnitude. Because the issues facing the people in Israel-Palestine are regional. Israel-Palestine is just too small a unit to cram everything into. Refugees [are] a regional issue ... Water: the water comes from Lebanon and Syria. Security, economic development. These are all regional issues.

"So, the idea basically is that you have this unit, a regional unit in which everyone can live and work throughout the region."

This sort of arrangement would furnish the Palestinians with two things that are crucial to them -- sovereignty and viability -- without arousing Israeli fears of becoming a political minority in "their" part of the region. "And," he concluded, "it offers possibilities of resolving conflicts and having more viability and more sustainability than just looking at one-state, two-state."

Jeff proposed further strategic approaches, such as reframing the conflict, targeting power, and launching a meta-campaign.

Reframing the conflict

A key to ICAHD's strategy, Jeff explained, is reframing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by debunking the image that Israel has succesfully conveyed "of a small Western [white] country merely defending itself against [Arab] terrorists" and to replace it "with a more constructive and inclusive one based on universal human rights."

"Reframing is a prerequisite for successful political debate, since the party which succeeds in framing the issue and determining the terms of the discussion (such as security or "terrorism") wins, having captured the logic of the debate. That party's ... proposed solution to the conflict flows from that logic; it simply makes sense.

"The other side ... is thrust into the weak position of refuter, left only to respond without a coherent ... alternative framing of its own. That side, which too often is us, comes across as defensive, inarticulate and unconvincing."

Jeff outlined the basic elements of ICAHD's re-framing as follows:

So, said Jeff, "Reframing is a necessary element of political advocacy, and one that is easily adapted to other conflicts and issues. It shows connections among them that the public might otherwise miss, and offers a ... clear message to the public."

In the context of a human-rights reframing of the conflict, Jeff proposed legal challenges to the occupation, applying the concept of "universal jurisdiction" in international law. "Which means," he said, "that because these are human rights, and these violations -- like what happened in Gaza and so on -- are crimes against humanity, every court in the world is enjoined to prosecute violators of human rights as war criminals.

"What's interesting is that Israel is the country that has pushed this the most of any country, because of Nazi war criminals. So Israel says to Argentina, 'You have to prosecute Nazi war criminals, who are criminals against humanity, under universal jurisdiction.'

"It doesn't matter if there were no Argentinians in the camp, or no Argentinian guards. Even if Argentinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust, if you get your hands on a Nazi war criminal, you have to prosecute. And Israel has been pushing this since the first day it was established.

"Now, that's the principle. So now that you have war crimes that Israelis have committed, there's no reason why Canadian courts shouldn't be ... pushed to use this principle of universal jurisdiction. This is what Israel is most afraid of." [A case is before the Quebec courts; see resources box.]

Jeff added, "Mounting legal challenges in Canadian courts is very powerful stuff. Even if you get turned down, if you have a campaign around that and people know what's going on, even getting refused raises the issues: 'Wait a minute. Why aren't Canadian courts dealing with this?'"

Jeff also emphasized the importance of targetting power. ICAHD has always considered itself a player in the (non-party) political arena. Its role, he said, is not only to protest and resist, but to actually influence policy by mobilizing the grassroots.

"One project, for example, might be identifying the 25 most influential members of Parliament by party, committee, seniority and general clout -- and then targeting their constituents through local churches and personalities. That's how you get to them. You don't go set a meeting and sit down and talk to them, because really they don't care. All they want to know is: 'Am I going to get re-elected?' So you go to their constituents and have them let their representative know that they care about this issue - and that if he or she speaks out, there will be support back home."

Find Canadian Companies

As to generating this kind of interest amongst the electorate, Jeff suggested, for example, aiming to "bring home the campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel's occupation policies by publicly identifying the Canadian companies that cooperate with Israel in the development and production of weaponry of various kinds: The involvement of Israel with local security firms and the Vancouver police; the investments of Canadian churches, unions, and universities in Israel or in weapons-based firms; research and development projects on security issues by local universities; and broader Canadian-Israel security and military cooperation, as embodied in the recently signed 'public safety' agreement."

Jeff also recommended considering launching a "meta-campaign" to encompass the many existing campaigns and place them in the larger context of Israeli apartheid.

"I think we should use the word hafrada, which is the Hebrew term for Apartheid ('separation' in both languages), which is what Israel calls its policy. The BDS campaign ... and all the other many campaigns are good, but people lack the big picture. In the struggle against South Africa, the BDS campaign existed within the context of a broader anti-Apartheid campaign. The present BDS campaign exists in a ... vacuum. People don't know why they shouldn't buy a Caterpillar bulldozer or shouldn't have a Motorola cellphone. A campaign allows you to present the big picture. It's ongoing, you can build on it over time, you can bring people in."

Finally, Jeff pointed out the importance of bringing key members of Parliament and other influential Canadians to actually see what's going on with their own eyes -- a strategy used effectively by the Israel lobby.

"There's nothing more effective than bringing people, either through organizing tours or making sure that visiting parliamentarians visit the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian and Israeli peace groups. It takes about half an hour and they 'get it.' Israel, working through the organized Jewish community here, has brought a whole bunch of First Nations leaders to Israel, of course claiming that we, the Jews, are the 'first nation' there. They're very clever at that and we have to be just as clever and pro-active."

"Peace is not going to come from inside Israel and Palestine," Jeff reminded listeners at his presentation in Winnipeg. "The governments who should have ended this occupation 20, 30 years ago or more refuse to accept the responsibility, and therefore as a part of the people, I have to get up with others and do what governments should be doing. So that's what we have to do. Unfortunately, the ball is in our court, and if we can let our representatives [in Parliament] know that we're concerned about this, maybe we can still salvage a just peace."

Maxine Kaufman Lacusta is principal author of Refusing to be Enemies: Palestinian and Israeli Nonviolent Resistance to the Occupation (Ithaca/ Garnet 2010), to which Jeff Halper is a contributing author and editorial adviser.

Resources cited in this article

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2009

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2009, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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