Monday, February 13, 2006

Palestine conference

Testing this out for the first time I'm writing on the Palestine Solidarity Campaign conference on Saturday but using that as a vehicle to discuss the political situation as well. I know its a bit long for a blog but I ended up cutting back on my summary of the debates as you'll realsie if you can make it to the end....

Leaving aside the 'internalised' organisational debates the conference featured three fascinating, and very articulate contributions by invited speakers who all recognised the need to reassess the politics of the movement in the light of recent events, both inside Israel and with the electoral victory of Hamas. There was also an attempt to shift the campaign's political stance on the two-state solution to a more 'open' position which failed but which had a resonance which I gather would not have been there in the past (it was my first PSC conference).

The first invited speaker was the new official delegate from the PA to Britain Dr Manuel Hassassian. I know nothing of the man's background but he has clearly been some sort of academic and I was very surprised by the analytical tone and 'objectivity' of his contribution which spoke about the reasons for Hamas's victory which he attributed to Israeli intransigence, the role of Hamas in Gaza and the coruption of the authority (maybe he doesn't expect to keep his position for very long anyway - but as somebody commented this was a little unusual for a 'diplomat'!). Then in response to a question he noted that Israel and the US had helped to create Hamas 20 years ago (as an alternative to Fateh - see also Michel Warchawski's piece in the latest International Viewpoint http://internationalviewpoint.org/print - and this is an opportunity for me to plug Warchawski's superb memoir of an anti-Zionist Jew On the Border).

Jeff Halper's contribtions are easily available on the ICAHD ( Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions ) websiteb and there was little new here for those who have followed his recent work but it was superbly delivered as usual (but this time without the maps he normally prefers to have on display for good reason). He did confirm that Olmert will continue Sharon's cleverly designed strategy for a unilateral 'solution' in the West Bank as well as Gaza based on the Apartheid Wall constituting the new border (by the way one thing which infuriates me is to hear or read supposedly intelligent liberal commentators such as Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian talking about Sharon's transformation into a 'man of peace' - no doubt we'll get more of that nonsense when Sharon finally expires).
The strategy has been evident for some time ( so lets have no more nonsense either about Sharon not thinking ahead!) and is designed to surround the West Bank with the Wall absorbing the major settlement blocs and Greater Jerusalem as its known into Israel, but abandoning the smaller outlying settlements and the religious fanatics in places such as Hebron which are simply indefensible like the settlements in Gaza. They will then be able to declare that the Palestinians have 90% of the West bank ( a figure which will anyway exclude the Jerusalem area), get US backing for a 'generous offer' and abandon the Palestinians to a 'caged existence', life in a number of economically unviable bantustans with borders still under Israeli military control...
Its a very persuasive and deeply depressing analysis for anyone who, like myself, has visited the West bank in the last year and seen what the wall and the expansion of settlements such as Maale Adumim (actually a new town already as big as Hemel Hempstead by the way) actually mean for thePalestinian communities in the area:los of land, water supplies, employment, access to hospitals etc etc etc.... Halper repeatedly used the analogy with a prison where the inmates might well inhabit 90% of the area - and he's absolutely right to do so. The recent and very welcome Guardian articles by Chris McGreal on Israel and Apartheid (http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/story ) if anything understate how bad life will be 'on the reservation' (and referring to Reuben's post earlier - he's right to note the difference with South Africa as Palestinian labour is now excluded from the Israeli economy - Moshe Machover's analogy with native American reservations is more accurate in that respect. However the comparison with Apartheid remains vital for campaigning purposes, and the boycott issue has been and remains at the heart of campaigning across Europe now.

Despite having no illusions Geoff Halper somehow manages to retain a note of optimism ( he's been nominated for the Nobel peace prize along with a Palestinian I gather by the American Quakers but give some of the recipients of that would he want it?) . As he correctly insists, the Palestinians have been resisting for 40 years and their struggle has made a continuation of the military occupation in the manner of those decades impossible - they remain 'the gatekeepers', without whom no final settlement and therefore no stability in the MIddle East is possible, and they will not go away. But what the Israeli stance also means - and Dr Hassassian had noted this as well if not quite so bluntly - is that the two-state strategy is now utterly bankrupt , and what remains is a strategy of the Israeli rightwing and the US government to maintain an entity, the PA, which will exist solely to contain and discipline the Palestinian masses but with no meaningful autonomy, or 'viability' (the term repeatedly emphasised by Halper) in any other respect.

The threat the Hamas victory poses to that strategy was highlighted by Dr Mushtaq Khan from SOAS. His talk was too dense to summarise adequately here but he emphasised one point in particular which I've not heard elsewhere put so cogently. If all aid is cut off by the US and EU to a Hamas led government ( he called this a game of chicken by the way but does not expect Hamas to blink first) the first move by Hamas will be to stop paying the armed militias who are almost all Fateh supporters. This is likely to provoke civil war - and indeed there is already evidence of that in Gaza. That is quite apart from the fact that teachers, doctors etc already struggling to survive in the state sector will not get paid ( Dr Khan did not say this but it seems likely that the explicitly Islamic schools which are already better funded with money from outside, as I saw when I was there, will continue to operate whilst the 'secular' schools would shut down). The possible scenario is horrifying but precisely because of that he expects the EU at least to find some reason for maintaining 'aid' whilst continuing to pressurise Hamas to toe the line.

The debate on a motion 'That this campaign makes a m,arked shift of image to better accomodate the Single State solution' which followed later was very interesting. It revolved around two lengthy amendments ( I could reproduce in full but I think they can be found on the PSC website if you are interested) - one from Mike Davies from Leeds which I supported which acknowledged that the choice over 'one-state or two-state solution' was up to the Palestinian people but said that PSC campaigning should 'accomodate' both possibilities ( ie not in practice back the two-state solution' as it has done since Oslo). This lost but there was a card count for the only time on the day (I think the vote was 26 for 42 against).
The other amendment, proposed by Bernard Reagan for the executive, which then carried overwhelmingly, basically said its not up to the PSC to decide, and Bernard used his rhetorical skills to emphasise the principle of 'self-determination'. Who could disagree but as one speaker from the floor commented, by referring to a 'Palestinian state' the executive's amendment already prejudged the issue.

This is a debate which will not go away either inside or outside Palestine....and I would welcome other comments here.

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