A Palestinian Critique: Durban Review Conference

By Haidar Eid – Gaza

"There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." –Walter Benjamin.

The Durban Review Conference, held in Geneva on April 20-24, was supposed to review the implementation of the Programme of Action of the World Conference against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

Some western countries boycotted the conference altogether, and some walked out in protest against Ahmedinejad’s speech in which he dared to reiterate the obvious; namely, the racism inherent in Zionist ideology. These countries are, historically, either racist, or settler-colonialist. The conference itself was actually hijacked by the West. Palestinian voices were almost nonexistent.

The major problem for those countries was, then, the equation of Zionism with racism. So, what we have here is a complex issue: one seems to be dealing with a colonist who denies his colonialism and argues to the contrary, and with a victim whose victimisation has been denied for decades. This ought to be scrutinized. Dr. Haidar Eid is Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature, Al-Aqsa University, Gaza Strip, Palestine. Dr. Eid is a founding member of the One Democratic State Group (ODSG) and a member of Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

The conflict in Palestine is between a colonial party, Israel, and a weaker, colonized one, the Palestinians. The problem with what has been presented to us by those countries which boycotted the Durban Review Conference (DRC) is that it is done under the claim of ‘striking a balance.’ But, as Ilan Pappe argues correctly, a ‘balance of power’ which dominates this discourse ignores the fact that Israelis have colonized the land and history altogether. In his introduction to The Israel/Palestine Question, Pappe argues that "the stronger party has the power to write the history in a more effective way. Israel, the powerful party, is a state whose apparatus has been employed successfully to propagate its narrative in front of an external public. The weaker party, the Palestinians, is engaged in a national liberation struggle."

In an extreme contempt for the Palestinian people, Golda Meir – the former Israeli prime minister – once said: "There were no such thing as Palestinians… They did not exist." Obviously, the creation of an independent sovereign state ruled by parliamentary elections and majority rule before 1948 could have meant the end of Zionism because it would have meant the rule of the majority. It becomes clear, then, why Zionism has fought against the creation of a representative, legislative assembly in historic Palestine. This assembly would have represented the Arab majority, which was a mortal danger for Zionism.  The political goal of Zionism was to engineer a population shift from being a minority to being a majority. Massive Jewish immigration and the expulsion of the Palestinians was the means by which this goal was achieved. Inevitably, the expropriation of land went hand in hand with the denial of the rights of the Palestinian majority. Zionists have always looked at Palestinians as invisible if not absent, or rather ‘present absentees.’ Basic human and political rights of Palestinians were completely denied since Zionism, in principle, could not allow them to exercise their rights because it would mean the end of the Zionist enterprise.

What needs to be emphasized within this context is that, contrary to what has been central in modern liberal thinking, the idea of the citizen in Israel is totally missing. Israel is the only state in the ‘modern’ world in which citizenship and nationality are two separate, independent concepts. In other words, Israel is not the state of its citizens, but the state of the Jewish People. Moreover, Israel does not have a constitution. So, the question avoided by those countries that have boycotted, or hijacked the Durban Review conference, is since Judaism is a religion and since it is the basis of the existence of a "modern State," why can Islam, Christianity or Hinduism not be so? Thus, if one is to follow the logic of Zionism, one should ignore the achievements of humanity and the ideals of the enlightenment since what is acceptable for some (.i.e. Jews) is not acceptable for others (.i.e. Palestinians). The more provocative questions, in fact, deal with ‘universal’ liberal slogans and ask why they have never applied when it comes to Israel? Can one imagine the USA being the state of Protestant Christians?

Palestinians in Israel are considered foreigners in their own homeland, because Israel is defined by its Basic Laws as "the state of the Jewish people" i.e. not the state of all of its citizens. This is the direct result of Zionism and its ideology of separatism. In other words, there is no place for integration in Israel. In apartheid South Africa, blacks were not expected to share political rights and cultural heritage with whites. Similarly, Palestinians are ‘native aliens’, who became foreigners by birth. But they are also the enemy by their mere presence. Every Palestinian is by definition a threat because of the mere fact that he or she is Palestinian.

Similarities between the two states can be found in their policies on citizenship, their use of detention without trial, and laws which limit freedom of movement and the right to live in one’s own home with one’s family. Just as apartheid South Africa gave citizenship to white South Africans and relegated blacks to "independent homelands", Zionism gives all Jews the right to citizenship in the State of Israel, while denying citizenship to Palestinians – its indigenous inhabitants. While Apartheid used race to determine citizenship, the state of Israel uses religious identification to determine citizenship. Just as the apartheid state made laws criminalising free movement of blacks on their ancestral land, Israel uses a military occupation infrastructure composed of checkpoints, Jewish-only settlements and roads, and the Wall, combined with a myriad of legal regulations that govern Palestinian daily life and are designed specifically to restrict how they work and live.

Israel has over the years been accused of being even worse than the apartheid state by South Africans such as Bishop Tutu and John Dugard – amongst others.  One of the major differences between crimes committed by the South African apartheid regime and those of Israel is the way, as evidenced by the DRC sham, that the latter gets away with its crimes with unprecedented impunity.  Israel could not have carried out its massacre on the people of Gaza without a green light from the international community. One Israeli soldier commented to Haaretz: "That’s what is so nice, supposedly, about Gaza: You see a person on a road, walking along a path. He doesn’t have to be with a weapon, you don’t have to identify him with anything and you can just shoot him."

The contradiction between professed ideals and actual behaviours, which has been the engine of political change in many places, does not exist for many Israelis because the democratic creed, or civic democracy, is absent. There is no promise of equality for all citizens in Israeli political culture and praxis. In short, there is no tradition of civil liberties in Israel because such a tradition would mean the end of Zionism. If Israel belongs to all its citizens, it would mean the end of the Zionist state. Hence, one can understand the antagonism of the establishment to calls for the creation of a secular democratic institution. When South Africa was declared the state of all its citizens, political apartheid came to an end.  Thus there is a clear contradiction between the Zionist ethos and democratic ideals. The Zionist system is quite clearly incompatible with democracy, which stems from the colonialist problem and the presence of the Palestinians. 

The conflict has been misrepresented, by CNNized mainstream media owned by those who decided to boycott the DRC, as a ‘war’ between ‘two sides’. In fact, as I have argued, and as the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said put it, there are not two sides involved in the "violence" in the Middle East. There is a colonial state turning all its great power against a stateless people, repeatedly made refugees – a dispossessed people, bereft of arms with the aim of destroying this people. What is left for the Palestinian people after the fourth, some say third, strongest army in the world, with its navy and air force has been bombarding the West Bank and the Gaza Strip? Ten years of "negotiations" created only bantustans, and when Palestinians asked for the implementation of international law (in Camp David) they were accused of blowing Ehud Barak’s "generous offer." Palestinians have been at the receiving end of merciless assaults by Israeli troops, and reservists, hidden in their helicopter gun ships, F16’s and tanks (Gaza 2009).   By and large, Western governments have considered the killing of Palestinians by tank and plane missiles "legitimate," whereas acts of Palestinian resistance are "terrorist attacks." Israel, therefore, is given the green light to conduct its genocidal attacks against Palestinians whose death is considered collateral damage.  Barak Obama’s administration does not have a balanced plan to resolve the crisis in the Middle East. What all American envoys to the region have been trying to do is reaching a cease-fire in accordance with Israeli conditions and without linking it to any clear political programme that is based on Security Council resolutions and international legitimacy. Of course, the logical outcome of this biased, even antagonistic American position, and the lack of will to find a just solution/peace, is catastrophic.

We, Palestinians, are absolutely fed up with the so-called ‘International Community’. Has Durban II been a failure? Well, if we still believe in the role of western governments, especially those with a long colonial legacy, in playing a positive role vis-a-vis the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, we are, then, fooling ourselves. It is the power of people that we must bank on, just as it was in the case of apartheid South Africa, where a sustained global  ‘Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions’ (BDS) campaign forced the same governments to boycott the Pretoria racist regime. Durban II was a reminder that whether it is Bush, or Obama, the Empire is the same. Patrice Lumumba once said: "I know that history will have its say some day, but it will not be history as written in Brussels, Paris or Washington, it will be our own."

What urgently needs to be addressed at this moment in time, is an alternative programme that is necessarily dialectical and secular in its treatment of the Palestinian and Jewish questions – an alternative that never denies the rights of a people, one that guarantees equality, and that abolishes apartheid, bantustans and separation in Palestine altogether.

– Dr. Haidar Eid is Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature, Al-Aqsa University, Gaza Strip, Palestine. Dr. Eid is a founding member of the One Democratic State Group (ODSG) and a member of Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. (Published in OpenDemocracy.net)

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