Monday, December 1, 2008

7th International Sabeel Conference: A Time To Act

The last full day of the International Conference was entitled, “A Time to Act” because the lectures this day highlighted the way in which the Nakba continues to impact Palestinian society in negative ways on a daily basis and the urgent need to respond to this problem as internationals.

The first lecturer, Dr. Jeff Halper, Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD), speaking from a Jewish Israeli perspective, pointed out that the core of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict stems from an exclusive Israeli identity by which Jewish Israelis believe that they have exclusive right to the land. Therefore, “It’s a matter of 1948, not 1967” because the affects of this sense of entitlement have continued in various manifestations since 1948, the occupation of the West Bank being only one of these.

The first panel discussed a central issue to the peace process that continues to be on the negotiating table, the status of Jerusalem. Mahdi Abdul Hadi, founder of Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), speaking on this topic, described the Wall as a “sharp knife cutting us [Palestinians] to pieces”. The construction of the Wall, or the “Separation Barrier” consists of rows of 25-foot concrete slabs in urban areas while other sections of it consist of an electronic fence equipped with surveillance devices, a trench, and barbed wire. The construction of the Wall has resulted in Israel’s further annexation of Palestinian land, the impediment of a West Bank economy, and the fragmentation of Palestinian society. Btselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories doubts the Israeli government’s intention for building the Wall as a security measure:

“The route of the Barrier, however, defies all security logic and appears politically motivated. In Jerusalem, the Barrier roughly follows the municipal boundary, set when Israel annexed East Jerusalem. This boundary ignores urban planning considerations; it cuts through Palestinian neighborhoods, at times literally running down the middle of busy, urban streets. Leaving 220,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites on the Israeli side of the Barrier, it is hardly consistent with the State’s own security logic: does the State of Israel consider Palestinians living on one side of the street dangerous, but not those on the other side?”

-Btselem “A Wall in Jerusalem: Obstacles to Human Rights in the Holy City” Summer 2006

(This particular portion of the Wall is located in the Bethlehem area and separates the Ayda Refugee Camp residents from one of their only sources of income, their olive grove)

Mahdi Abdul Hadi underscored the urgent need to take immediate action when he warned that another Nakba, “catastrophe” is immanent.

The second speaker on the panel, Elias Khoury is a lawyer based in East Jerusalem specializing in real property law. His vocation is inspired by his father’s lose of land during the Nakba in 1948. Khoury challenges Israeli policy regarding settlements, house demolitions, the decisions of the Planning and Building Commissions, etc. through the legal system.

The next panel’s topic concerned civil rights. Sarah Kreimer, a Jewish Israeli activist and Chair of the Board of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, called for the cessation of harmful unilateral actions on the part of the Israeli government and fair allocation of funds. Currently, the “facts on the ground” contradict governmental declarations. Kreimer urged the internationals to act immediately stating, “The future of Jerusalem is being determined every day by facts on the ground and we can be a part of that today”.

The second speaker on this panel, Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American based in Ramallah and specializing in business development, provided his analysis of the situation. Describing the various statuses of Palestinians vis-à-vis the state of Israel, he states that the status of Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship is of a 3rd or even 4th class citizen. He went on to speak on the problematic status of Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza “residents”. He states that this status connotes impermanence, “something the Israeli government bestows upon you and can take away”. The arbitrary revocation of this status in East Jerusalem is a tool by which the government rids the area of Palestinians and creates Jewish neighborhoods in their place (creating new facts on the ground). Further tools of repression include: inflated taxation without the provision of equal municipal services, the legal maze for the required periodic renewal of residency, and the difficulty in obtaining building permits. Sam Bahour concluded his talk by stating that though the Palestinian people are fragmented as a result of Israeli policies, they are held together by an undeniably just cause. Bahour ended with a quote, “There is nothing whole like a broken heart”.

The evening closed with dinner at the Ambassador’s Hotel and the keynote address given by Manuel Hassassian, the current Ambassador of Palestine to the U.K. He told his audience that “The Nakba is going on today”.

The last day of the International Conference provided the inspiration for the participants to act. Former prime minister of the Netherlands, Andreas Van Agt described his conversion to supporting the Palestinian cause and called on the internationals to put pressure on the Israeli government to observe international law through their respective governments.

Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Jr., American Civil Rights Movement activist, minister, and educator, offered inspiration by recounting stories from the Civil Rights Movement. Lafayette entitled his talk, “The Struggle, the Suffering, the Success” and stated that “pain can be a sign of healing”. In order to bring about change, one must suffer. However, this suffering is to be distinguished from the suffering that occurs on a daily basis due to dehumanizing Israeli policies. The suffering Lafayette describes is deliberate and empowering. Lafayette called the audience to move past nonviolent resistance and change the power dynamic by putting your opponent on the defensive resisting the change that you are creating through nonviolent action.

Mairead Maguire, an Irish peace activist committed to nonviolence and Nobel Peace Prize winner, further urged the audience that nonviolence does work and has worked to improve the situation in Northern Ireland. Lily Habash, advisor to the Bureau Chief/ Cabinet Secretary General at the Office of the Prime Minister Dr. Salam Fayaad in the Palestinian National Authority closed the panel by appealing to the internationals to help Palestinians better communicate their cause to their respecting countries. Habash views the Palestinian position not as one of victimization or despair but of hope.

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