By Jeff Halper, ICAHD Director
The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) has been one of the leading critical Israeli peace and human rights organizations struggling for Palestinian rights during its more than 14 years of existence. ICAHD activists resist the demolition of Palestinian homes, both inside Israel and in the Occupied Territory, and together with our Palestinian and International partners, we have rebuilt 175 homes as political acts of resistance to Occupation. Besides our resistance efforts “on the ground,” we engage in a vigorous campaign of international advocacy on behalf of a just peace. In this we are aided by our branches abroad – ICAHD UK, ICAHD US and ICAHD Finland – as well as by hundreds of civil society groups around the world with which we work.
Where, then, do we stand on the question of the PLO/PA’s September initiative? As non-Palestinians, ICAHD activists do not advocate for a particular solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Overall, we subscribe to the three basic principles embodied in the Palestinian Civil Society Call: (1) ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; (2) recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194. Believing that it is the Palestinian people’s right to determine what they consider a just peace and it is our role as their Israeli partners to support them – with one caveat: that any solution be inclusive of all the people residing in Palestine/Israel – we will follow the lead of our Palestinian partners regarding particular initiatives or resolutions to the conflict.
As non-Palestinians, we find ourselves in a bind regarding “September.” During the months leading up to the approach to the UN in late September, and especially in the last couple weeks, we have received mixed messages from our Palestinian civil society partners. Most Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Israel seem to be sitting out the September initiative at the UN – although Marwan Barghouti did issue an impassioned plea for international support and involvement from his prison cell. One influential Palestinian commentator has called September a “non-event;” others, especially in the Palestinian Diaspora, are actively opposing it.
Even Abbas himself seems reluctant to go the UN. He recently told a group of visiting Israeli intellectuals that his post-September priorities are to “negotiate, negotiate, negotiate [with Israel].” But he is trapped by the high expectations the idea has generated around the world. The half-hearted juggernaut moves on towards the fateful date of September 21st.
Now, just two or three weeks before the approach to the UN, a fierce debate has erupted within the Palestinian community around a number of key questions:
Will the September initiative be based on the recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders? If so, then what does Abbas want to negotiate with Israel? Minor territorial adjustments or a return to the fruitless trap of negotiations of the past 20 years which render the 1967 borders irrelevant?
Who, in the absence of elections to the PNC or a referendum, has authorized Abbas to pursue a two-state solution? Even if he does approach the UN in his capacity as the head of the PLO and with the backing of its Executive Committee, will the Palestinian Authority, on becoming the recognized Government of the State of Palestine, replace the PLO and thus disenfranchise half the Palestinian people? In particular, would the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders compromise the refugees’ right of return and the national rights of Palestinians within Israel?
Does recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders foreclose forever the emergence of a single state in historic Palestine, be it democratic or bi-national, or will it permit further political efforts and evolution in that direction?
Until these questions are answered, it would be difficult for ICAHD to support the September initiative. This, however, raises two key issues. First, how do we deal with the fall-out of September? Regardless of internal Palestinian politics and the genuine problematics of Abbas’s approach to the UN, “September” is going to happen. With only a week to go, the PLO/PA’s game-plan is still not clear, but a General Assembly vote would undoubtedly see the vast majority of the international community recognizing Palestinian statehood within the 1967 borders.
What is our game-plan? How will we channel the energy, if not euphoria, of the “day after” – or the anger and despair if, in fact, nothing happens on the ground? While many Palestinian intellectuals and organizations of the left are critical of the initiative, the Palestinian “street” is nevertheless organizing for the non-violent assertion of their national rights, including marches on settlements. What can be done so as not to abandon them? And what about the expectations that have been raised amongst the thousands of activists around the world who have devoted so much time and effort to the Palestinian cause over the years? If “September” simply fizzles, will they stay the course? Most important, what if the General Assembly vote does turn out to be a genuine game-changer, if it releases a political dynamic that neither the PA nor Israel nor any other actor can control – the resignation or collapse of the PA if, in fact, nothing does change in the occupied territory, perhaps triggering an Israel re-occupation of the cities of the West Bank and Gaza? How should we respond?
The second issue arises from the first: no struggle for Palestinian rights can be pursued without the leadership of the Palestinian people – which for ICAHD and many activists around the world, means our partner organizations on the Palestinian left, be they inside Palestine or abroad. The popular committees and other activists “on the ground” play a key role in keep the struggle alive and focused, but they have no political program. On the level of international advocacy, boycotts, divestment sanctions (BDS) has become a powerful campaign vehicle for raising public awareness of the Palestinian issue; in fact, ICAHD was one of the first Israeli organizations to endorse it. But, in the end, it is merely a tool. It cannot replace a multi-faceted political strategy.
Two requirements for an effective post-September program seem evident: our Palestinian civil society partners should articulate a clear vision of where they see the struggle headed, if not a detailed program; and all of us working for Palestinian self-determination – Palestinian, Israeli and international activists alike – should hold urgent and critical discussions regarding our next steps. Our activism and our campaigns need to be accompanied by Palestinian-led strategizing, together with far more coordination and communication. We in ICAHD believe that the vote at the UN – or even a non-vote in the UN – is going be a game-changer. At least it is likely to clear the table of all the obstacles to pursuing a truly just peace: fruitless negotiations, the two-state “solution” and, very possibly, the PA itself, which has too long enabled Israel to prolong its occupation. We must be prepared for that shifting of the political ground. We must be pro-active, united and effective.
ICAHD, then, will respect the internal disagreement among its Palestinian partners. ICAHD has long argued that the two-state solution, which has anyway been buried under the Israeli settlements, cannot serve as a just and workable solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. We would have supported the initiative as a stage in achieving full national rights for the Palestinian people, but since our partners have raised concerns that the recognition of Palestinian state in the 1967 borders will foreclose those rights, and given the level of opposition, ICAHD will basically “sit it out.” We find this a painful decision, because we believe that civil society engagement in the political process is crucial. Our dilemma certainly highlights the need for all of us to be more strategic and pro-active, so we don’t get caught in such political paralysis.
Remaining concerned over how to deal with the fall-out of the September initiative, we urge the convening of a regular forum of consultation among all civil society activists, which can be networked if the issue of leadership is a problem. We remain committed to the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. We stand in solidarity with the people suffering on the ground, in the refugee camps as well as in the occupied Palestinian territory, and we look forward to close cooperation as we develop effective political strategies for achieving a just peace and equality for all the people of Palestine/Israel.
– Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.