By Simone Sagovac — The Arab American News: Some 300 of the foremost experts and activists on Palestinian human rights gathered April 20-24 in Olympia, Washington, for a four-day event that aimed to educate and coordinate actions toward justice in Palestine.
The conference was organized by the Rachel Corrie Foundation, which was begun by Rachel’s parents after she was crushed to death in March 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer while protecting the home of a Palestinian doctor. A lawsuit by the Corries which seeks an investigation by the U.S. government is still pending.
The line-up of speakers included Arun Ghandi, South-African grandson to historic non-violence leader Mahatma Ghandi. Prominent Jewish participants included Amira Hass, internationally-recognized journalist for the Jewish daily paper in Israel, Ha’aretz; Dr. Sarah Roy, Senior Research Scholar at Harvard University; Judith Kolokoff a labor organizer and representative of Jewish Voice for Peace; and Dr. Simona Sharoni, internationally-known feminist scholar. Palestinian speakers included Huwaida Arraf, a founder of the International Solidarity Movement which sends eyewitness groups to Palestine and Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, of the Palestinian Parliament.
All of the facts missing from the mainstream media were on the tongues of the numerous eyewitnesses present, and in the careful analyses of experts – the likes of Hass and Barghouthi, the latter who recently ran for Palestinian president and is now a member of Parliament.
“This event was an important step in drawing together many grassroots forces for Palestinian justice here in the United States,” says Hasan Newash, Director of the Palestine Office of Michigan, and a core member of the Michigan Peace Team.
“Truth is powerful for those who are not eyewitnesses to the severity of oppression in the Occupied Territories,” said participant Randy Voss, of the Michigan Peace Team, “and knowing this truth can lead people to powerful action. That seems to be the aim of this event, inspiring action.”
“It is inspiring to be among so many different people who care deeply about the Palestinian struggle,” said Newash. Many conference speakers and participants were Jewish activists; a vast majority of speakers were women; and a significant portion of attendees were youth.
The Wall and Apartheid
Speakers were unanimous in depicting the present situation of Palestinians as a system of Apartheid. From the 30-foot Wall, twice the height of the Berlin Wall, to the existence of Jewish-only roads, to the stark contrast between basic services for illegal Jewish settlements to those for Palestinians. Water available to Palestinians to drink is considered unfit for corn crops in Canada. Sanctions against Palestinians have already been imposed by the Israelis, with their clear devastating effects illustrated here, and they have not led to security, peace or stability.
The Wall was designed in 1994 to plan for annexation of Palestinian territories, and included the uprooting of 1.3 million trees, mostly olive groves, the main source of livelihood for Palestinians. Today the wall is 750 kilometers long and creates a map of a “country” which makes no sense, unless you look at underground water supplies to see that Israel has systematically been taking the most valuable land for itself. In 90% of cases, the Wall separates Palestinians from Israelis in open-air prisons with gates that only Israel has the power to open or close.
Israel was established in 1948 on 78% of Palestinian land. Today only 5% of the original land is Palestine. Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian attorney who lives in Palestine, detailed the years-long process of how Palestinians have been separated from their land through forced removal of people and destruction of their homes and restricting their movement. The Oslo “peace process,” defined by one speaker as the “P-I-E-C-E process” designated “Palestinian areas” for the first time, which allowed Israel to create a system of more than 700 military checkpoints surrounding these areas in order to limit movement of Palestinians. Fewer than 30% of Palestinians can apply for a permit to travel to and from Palestinian areas, and only 10% of Palestinians get permits.
According to Amira Hass, beginning in 1993, Israel no longer categorizes births, deaths, or marriages of Palestinians, making it easier to deny the demographic realities of the majority population and denying the existence of Palestinians trying to get permits to visit spouses and family and to travel to work.
Land is being taken without compensation, and Jewish-only housing is being built, which Palestinians, even if they had the money, are not allowed to buy. Buttu explained that an Israeli demographic majority was maintained first through population moves and land division, and today it is by means of containment policy and the Wall, isolating people in certain areas and denying economic sustenance and resources, like water. A question she says we must ask is “how is it that Israel gets maximum control of land and minimum responsibility” for an entire population?
A recent Johns Hopkins study determined that 20% of all deaths of Palestinian children aged below one year happened due to the Wall, which prevents Palestinian access to doctors and hospitals.
The international community, by not enforcing international laws against Israeli land seizures, has effectively rewarded such actions and bought more time for continuing the benign-sounding “settlement process.”
Resistance, Progress, Divestment
Eyewitness Huwaida Arraf of ISM showed footage of Palestinians peacefully demonstrating in an olive grove, confronted by an armed Israeli military who fired upon them with rubber bullets, threw deafening sound grenades and tear-gas canisters, and wielded batons upon defenseless huddles of women, children, and men – young and old. When the injured were carried into an ambulance, the Israeli soldiers tossed tear gas inside.
Arraf and Barghouthi pleaded with participants to come and be eyewitnesses to the daily horrors of occupation.
The conference concluded with emphasis on the many practical steps that can be taken in the fight for justice. These steps include: eyewitness trips to the Occupied Territories (here, through the Michigan Peace Team), waging the divestment campaign already begun by the Presbyterian Church, as in the South African experience, specifically against Caterpillar, mounting a campaign against the Apartheid Wall in support of the International Court of Justice and establishing Sister City projects.
To learn more about these and other activities, contact the Palestine Office Michigan at 313.945.9660, or the Michigan Peace Team at 517.484.3178
Author Simone Sagovac is an activist and attended the conference as a representative of the Palestine Office