Don't let them shut down discussion
What was so threatening about a conference at which Israelis and Palestinians were going to discuss the potential impact of the Arab Spring?
A new specter is haunting our little corner of the Middle East: opposition from both Israeli and Palestinian elements to joint Israeli-Palestinian activities.
Last week the Palestine-Israel Journal, the quarterly I co-edit, was obliged to postpone a public conference we were organizing at an East Jerusalem hotel about the impact of the so-called Arab Spring on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, due to pressure on Palestinian speakers and threats against the hotel owner. This followed demonstrations at another East Jerusalem hotel a week earlier where protesters actually took over a hall, forcing the cancellation of a meeting advocating an Israeli-Palestinian confederation.
A news item reported widely earlier in the week stated that the Fatah leadership had decided to halt all unofficial Palestinian-Israeli meetings due to the lack of negotiations between the sides, and to Prime Minister's Netanyahu's insistence on continuing settlement expansion. Unnamed Palestinian officials were quoted claiming that Israel exploits such meetings in order to tell the world that a dialogue is taking place between the two peoples, and that it is only the Palestinian Authority that refuses to sit down at the negotiating table.
This seems like a parallel to the familiar criticism of such meetings by right-wing Israelis, who accuse Israeli participants of being concerned only about Palestinian rights, as opposed to Israeli security needs. Suffice it to recall recent campaigns by NGO Monitor, Im Tirzu and others against Israeli peace, human rights and civil liberties NGOs, the legislative initiatives in the Knesset to deprive these NGOs of receiving funding from international sources, and the threats leveled against Peace Now executive director Yariv Oppenheimer and Settlement Watch coordinator Hagit Ofran, not to mention the 2010 pipe bomb used against Zeev Sternhell.
What was so threatening about a conference at which Israelis and Palestinians were going to discuss the potential impact of the Arab world's uprising, whose speakers were to include Ron Pundak, co-chair of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum, and Khalil Shikaki, the renowned Palestinian public-opinion specialist?
Some Palestinians claim that such meetings constitute "normalization," which has the effect of legitimizing a continuation of the occupation. On the contrary, one of the primary goals of such meetings is education, to shed light on the nature of the occupation that most Israelis and members of the international community are unaware of, and to produce initiatives that can help bring about an end to the occupation and a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
As for the idea that the Israeli government might exploit such meetings to shift blame for the breakdown of the peace talks onto the Palestinians - if that were so, why all the anti-democratic legislative initiatives geared at undermining the ability of Israeli civil society to function freely?
The real source of Palestinian opposition to these joint meetings appears to have three separate components: The Fatah leadership, or parts of it, is on the defensive, given that it has not been able to bring about an end to the occupation, and is in competition with Hamas regarding who is more patriotic in representing Palestinian interests. Additionally, there are younger activists who are both frustrated and justifiably angry about the ever-worsening situation of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, don't have experience of working with Israelis, and want to carry out an "Arab Spring of our own." Finally, there are also radical elements within Palestinian society, supported by diaspora activists, who support BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions ), which works against contact with any part of Israeli society.
The situation of the Fatah leadership is understandable, given the Israeli government's lack of readiness to move forward toward the only realistic solution to the conflict possible - a two-state solution, based upon the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed-upon land swaps. However, it should be noted that senior Fatah spokespeople like former Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath have stated that there was no Fatah decision against the meeting, and they continue to support joint Israeli-Palestinian activity that's meaningful. The worsening situation in East Jerusalem was vividly described by my colleague and Palestine-Israel Journal co-editor Ziad AbuZayyad in a column in Al-Quds last Sunday. He wrote that young Palestinians in East Jerusalem feel "a sense of asphyxiation in the city due to the settlement surge in Silwan, Ras al Amud and Sheikh Jarrah." One young man told him that he is "forced every day at sunset to bring his children inside the house, out of fear that they would be beaten, attacked and spit on by settlers." They also "fear that their homes will be demolished." AbuZayyad asked rhetorically whether it's wise to boycott or protest against Israelis like Ofran, and others, who are dedicating their lives to fighting the very same situation, at great personal risk.
A total boycott of all Israelis will not produce an end to the occupation, and it will only make the average Israeli more defensive and less ready to compromise, since it seems to be questioning Israel's very right to exist as an independent state.
Today it appears that Israeli and Palestinian civil society activists and leaders need to sit together to discuss the most appropriate and effective formulas for the continuation of joint activity. It should be made clear that the goal cannot be just talk for talk's sake, encounters that totally ignore the context of ongoing occupation. With the total breakdown in talks at the governmental level, the continued settlement activities and the apparent inability of the international community to jump-start meaningful negotiations, the window of opportunity for a viable two-state solution is rapidly closing.
Hillel Schenker is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal (www.pij.org ).