Al-Aqsa: Spiritual battleground

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By Khaled Diab

For Muslims and Jews to share peacefully and justly the Holy Sanctuary/Temple Mount requires the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 25 September 2015

The growing familiarity of clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters inside the al-Aqsa Mosque has not weakened their impact on my Palestinian neighbours and friends in Jerusalem.

The picturesque, stone-lined alleyways of an already tense Old City are seething with anger and frustration, punctuated by Israeli surveillance helicopters that hang in the air. Even unreligious Palestinians who have never set foot inside churches or mosques are furious. They partly envisage their wider demise encapsulated by the struggle over the Noble Sanctuary, as they call it, or the Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews.

“We call on the international community, including Arab countries and Muslim states, to intervene immediately before Israel succeeds in launching a global holy war,” urged Hanan Ashrawi, the veteran Palestinian politician, activist and academic.

Though this largely secular conflict is far from being a “holy war”, as I have argued before, if Israel continues down its unilateral path on this issue, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The religious symbolism of the tensions around the holy site have sent tremors and shockwaves across the region and internationally. The clashes in the Noble Sanctuary, as it is known to Muslims, and the Temple Mount, as Jews refer to it, provoked a stern warning from neighbouring Jordan, with which Israel has a peace accord. “Anymore provocations in Jerusalem will affect the relationship between Jordan and Israel,” warned King Abdullah. “Jordan will have no choice but to take action, unfortunately.”

The European Union and the United States also expressed their concerns about the escalating situation. “It is crucial that all parties demonstrate calm and restraint and full respect for the status quo of the holy sites,” European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters.

The “status quo” in question is one that has governed the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount since Israel conquered Jerusalem in 1967, whereby the Islamic Waqf and Jordan manage the site and control access to it, with limited non-Muslim visits permitted but worship banned.

But it is apprehension that the Israeli right intends to tear up this status quo that has fuelled the latest clashes – just as they did last year. Back then, Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel and threatened to review its peace treaty with Israel following a Knesset debate, sponsored by the far-right parliamentarian Moshe Feiglin, on whether or not Israel should seize sovereignty of the holy site and allow Jewish worship there.

“Israelis are trying to establish a precedent by dividing [the Holy Sanctuary] into sections and time segments, so they can give Israeli settlers access to our mosque,” said Abdel-Aziz Abasi, who is a member of Mourabitoun, a group of Palestinian activists, which Israel recently banned, who see their role as guarding the compound against Jewish encroachment. “We will never agree to such a plan.”

Although relatively few Israelis actually visit the Temple Mount and have traditionally been content with the status quo, Religious Zionists and Jewish extremists have managed to make headway in recent years by framing the issue as one of religious freedom at Judaism’s holiest site.

Even the lunatic fringe, such as Yehuda Glick, who fantasises about constructing the Third Temple, is pursuing the civil liberties path. Appropriating language from the South African civil rights movement, Glick said at a demonstration during Ramadan: “We’re here to protest against the apartheid on the Temple Mount.”

But what the religious freedom argument airbrushes out is that this issue is about far more than the right to worship, especially in a situation where Israel regularly restricts Palestinian entry to al-Aqsa.

You could also say that the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount is simply a spiritual microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at large.

This jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s old city, with its gold-plated Dome of the Rock dominating the skyline, contains many of the elements perpetuating the conflict, writ spiritual: control of and sovereignty over the land, asymmetric power, national identity, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, movement restrictions, draconian laws, not to mention the status of Jerusalem.

Personally, I’m in favour of Jews, one day, worshipping on their religion’s most sacred, hallowed ground. And my view, though controversial today, is not unprecedented in the history of Islam. Following the surrender of Jerusalem to the Arab armies, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, allowed Jews, who had been expelled by the Byzantines, back into Jerusalem.

Omar ordered the cleaning of the Temple Mount, which had been used as a rubbish tip by the Byzantines, and, some historians posit, permitted Jews to worship there, a practice which continued for a century, into the Umayyad era.

One Jewish convert to Islam, Rabbi Kaab al-Ahbar, even located the foundation stone for the Muslim conquerors. It is even possible that Omar allowed the Jews to construct a synagogue on the mount and appointed a Jew as the first governor of Jerusalem, according to the 7th century Armenian historian Sebeos.

In the presumably enlightened 21st century, it should be possible for Muslims and Jews to share this holy site, which has no shortage of space, and rediscover the many long centuries of relatively peaceful coexistence they enjoyed. Perhaps, one day, in a possible future, Jews and Muslims will be able to share the Noble Sanctuary’s tranquil and soothing esplanade, which takes up about a sixth of the old city’s surface area, and where families picnic and children play football.

However, for that to happen requires the resolution of the underlying conflict. Without peace, it is impossible to think that Palestinians and Israelis will find the necessary good will and trust to compromise over this holiest of locations.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 September 2015.

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Can the boycott against Israel succeed… and how?

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By Khaled Diab

The furore surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream endorsement raises the question to what extent BDS can help end the occupation… and how.


Tuesday 4 February 2014

Lost in Translation brought Scarlett Johansson global fame. Will the actress’s latest role – lost in the occupation – earn her widespread infamy?

Since the announcement that the Hollywood star was the new face of the controversial Israeli firm SodaStream, a war of words between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis has gripped the (social) media. While pro-Palestine activists condemn Johansson for whitewashing the Israeli occupation, pro-Israel activists see the American’s insistence on sticking with the endorsement deal as a vote of confidence in Israel’s economy and democracy.

Meanwhile, sensing a contradiction in Johansson’s dual roles as an Oxfam and SodaStream “ambassador”, the international NGO castigated the American celebrity, eventually parting ways with her. This came after, according to the BDS movement, a reported “internal revolt” within Oxfam, or in ScarJo’s own words, “a fundamental difference of opinion” with the charity over BDS.

In her own defence, Johansson contends that: “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.”

In this, she echoes the Israeli company’s own publicity. “At SodaStream, we build bridges, not walls. It’s a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope,” the firm’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum said in a promotional video.

It is true that SodaStream employs hundreds of Palestinians under terms they probably wouldn’t get at a similar Palestinian firm and Birnbaum, to his credit, was willing even to embarrass the Israeli president in defence of his Palestinian workers.

However, it is hard to miss the elephant in the room: if Birnbaum is such a prophet of peace, why is he profiting from the occupation by operating a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement which makes the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state impossible? Surely, if SodaStream really wished to act as a “bridge”, it should relocate its main factory to the Israeli side of the Green Line or, better still, set up shop in PA jurisdiction.

The high-profile campaign against Johansson, as well as other recent successes has been interpreted by many pro-Palestinians as another success for the BDS movement. In contrast, a lot of pro-Israelis have seen in the actress’s refusal to back down a clear signal of what they call #BDSfail.

Setting aside the ethical debate surrounding BDS, this raises the question of whether efforts to pressurise Israel by isolating the country can really achieve their stated goals of “Ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall”.

One way of determining this is to examine similar efforts in the past. By putting pressure on a firm’s reputation and profits, corporate boycotts have a relatively decent success rate, as reflected in a number of recent examples, though some companies are more vulnerable than others to this kind of pressure.

Despite the growth of neo-liberalism and the associated privatising of government, countries do not tend to operate like corporations, with the financial bottomline only one factor in many affecting their behaviour.

Hence, the record of boycotts and sanctions against states is far more patchy. In reality, when faced with a determined adversary, punishments of this kind can often fail to deliver the desired results, even in their most extreme manifestations: full sanctions.

More than half a century of American sanctions against Cuba did not lead to the demise of the Castro regime, but impoverished Cuba, leaving it suspended in a decaying time bubble. Other Cold War sanctions hardly fared much better.

A decade of international sanctions against Iraq only succeeded in turning what was once the most-developed Arab country into a graveyard for children and a public health catastrophe. Similarly, the Gaza blockade grinds on, with Egypt too tightening the screws, yet Hamas is still very much in control while the people suffer terrible destitution and isolation.

In fact, in the three examples above, sanctions actually had the unintended effect of strengthening the regimes in question. In each case, sanctions were portrayed as an unfair and unjust form of foreign meddling and the regime as a heroic force of resistance, enabling it to intimidate opponents and shutdown dissent.

There have, of course, been some successes. Many advocates of BDS point to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa as a clear precedent. “Sanctions were the final blow to the apartheid regime in South Africa,” the BDS movement says on its website.

“Such action made an enormous difference in apartheid South Africa. It can make an enormous difference in creating a future of justice and equality for Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land,” believes none other than Nobel prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But what kind of a role did the campaign of disinvestment and sanctions play in toppling apartheid in South Africa?

Although South Africa was under African sanctions since the 1960s, these had only a marginal effect, and it was not until the West joined the movement in earnest in the mid-1980s that it began to have a perceptible impact.

Among the boycott’s clearest effects was the flight of capital and credit, the rise in economic hardship, and a slow-down in the flow of much-needed foreign technology, which had a knock-on effect on economic growth and the cost of doing business.

On the other hand, even at the height of anti-apartheid sanctions, South Africa managed to find “sanctions-busting” alternatives, and began a process of recalibrating its economy and finding alternative trading partners. There is also evidence that the boycott was losing steam. For instance, even though the United States had passed a Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act only in 1986, US imports from South Africa, by 1988, rose by 14% and exports by 40%.

In addition, sanctions had some unintended consequences. For instance, it forced the country to innovate more, such as developing alternative energy technologies, and had economic consequences for poor blacks and post-Apartheid governments. This explains why opposition to sanctions was not only the preserve of neo-cons, with some South African black and white anti-apartheid activists expressing serious misgivings.

If economic sanctions had only a marginal effect, the academic boycott was even more questionable in its efficacy. “That most of the scholars in our study judged the boycott to be an irritant or inconvenience, rather than a significant barrier to scholarly progress, suggests that it proved more a symbolic gesture than an effective agent of change,” concluded one extensive survey of South African academics conducted at the end of the apartheid era.

In many cases, rather than causing guilt and galvanising opposition to the system, “many scholars felt left out, isolated, unjustly discriminated against”.

If boycotts and sanctions played such a vague and marginal role in toppling apartheid, what actually brought down the system?

It is my conviction that the lion’s share of the credit must go to internal dynamics. Apartheid was not only an unjust system but an unrealistic one. It is impossible to oppress and disenfranchise the majority of a population indefinitely. Mounting, sustained and highly organised black (and, to a lesser extent, white) resistance was the pivotal factor. Of similar import was the enlightened leadership of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, who managed to neutralise stiff conservative opposition to dismantling apartheid.

With hindsight, there is a tendency to afford boycott and sanctions against South Africa a more central role in defeating apartheid than they actually played, thereby depriving the real agents of change, who risked all for their convictions, of some of the glory they deserve.

That is not say that boycotts and solidarity campaigns are useless. If anything else, they at least provide a morality boost through solidarity to the oppressed and enable outsiders to distance themselves from policies and actions of which they do not approve. However, these are tools that need to be handled with caution and care to ensure they do not misfire.

In the Israeli and Palestinian context, the most effective approach is to continue to demand the grassroots boycotting of corporations that profit from the occupation, thereby promoting a more virtuous and constructive cycle of investments. For instance, a campaign could be launched to force SodaStream to relocate its facilities to areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

In addition, like with South Africa, the United States should end its military aid to Israel until it ends the occupation, which might possibly be the single most effective economic action any party can take.

I also believe that the academic and cultural boycott needs a major rethink and revamp, especially its Arab variant (which sees many Arabs unwilling or afraid to engage with even sympathetic Israelis), to penalise Israeli peace-breakers and to embrace and empower peacemakers. Such engagement, especially between Palestinians and Israelis, will also help lay the ground for the post-occupation era.

Ultimately, like in South Africa, the occupation, segregation and injustice of the situation will be defeated by Palestinian resistance and Israeli opposition, which would be a far truer “bridge to peace” than the words of a self-interested beverage company or glamorous actress.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 30 January 2014.

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The Arabs, apartheid South Africa and Israel

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By Khaled Diab

Reactions to apartheid South Africa differed across the Arab world and were coloured both by anti-colonial solidarity and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo:

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo:

Friday 27 December 2013

Like just about everywhere else, the death of Nelson Mandela triggered passionate responses across the Arab world. “Men and women everywhere feel they have lost someone very close to them,” said the respected international diplomat and peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

“Humanity has lost its greatest son,” tweeted former IAEA chief, prominent anti-Mubarak opponent and short-lived transitional vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei, himself also the winner of a Nobel peace prize.

Egypt even took the extraordinary measure of announcing three days of national mourning to mark the great man’s death. Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika went a step further and ordered eight days of national mourning during which all flags were to be flown at half-mast.

Unlike in the West, however, Arab sentiment and sympathy towards Nelson Mandela stretch back decades, back to the days he was a radical rebel and not yet a hallowed peacemaker – some Arabs even prefer that Mandela of yesteryear.

Previous generations of Arabs saw in the long and bitter struggle against apartheid and its precursors in South Africa – spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC) – the reflection of their own plight under the boot of European colonialism and imperialism. This was particularly the case in North Africa, which also felt a sense of African solidarity.

According to Mandela himself, who admired Algeria’s long battle for independence, the situation in French Algeria most closely paralleled that of South Africa.

In this light, it is unsurprising that the ANC received training, funds and support from Algeria. In 1961, during his clandestine Africa tour after which he was arrested, Nelson Mandela spent time with the Algerian Liberation Army and the rebels of the National Liberation Front in Algeria.

Although Mandela was impressed by what he saw, even back then he realised that “there was no point in trying to overthrow the apartheid regime; the ANC had to force them to the negotiating table.”

Algeria also provided the ANC with constant diplomatic support, such as helping spearhead the pan-African charge against apartheid South Africa. For instance, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, when he was president of the UN General Assembly in 1974, ruled that South Africa could not participate in its proceedings.

And Algeria was there right to the end. For example, Lakhdar Ibrahimi was the UN Special Envoy for South Africa and monitored the transition to democracy. Ibrahimi is also a member of The Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Mandela to promote global peace.

Nasser’s Egypt also provided the ANC with strong support, in its multiple roles as a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Non-Aligned Movement. Although Egypt did not shut down the South African embassy in Cairo until May 1961, the Egyptian capital hosted offices for the ANC from the late 1950s.

Mandela’s time in Egypt clearly impressed him, both in cultural and historic terms, but also for the new regime’s efforts to develop the country. “President Nasser had an impressive programme of economic development based on African socialism,” he wrote in his unpublished memoirs written on Robben Island.

Solidarity was not one way either, and the ANC supported Egypt whenever it could. In Egypt’s hour of need during the Suez Crisis, known as the Tripartite Aggression in Arabic, the ANC said: “We pledge our solidarity with the Egyptian people and are confident that the people of Africa will not allow themselves to be used against their fellow Africans in any predatory war.”

Showing early signs of his conciliatory humanism and inclusiveness, Mandela spoke up and lobbied robustly in 1962 against strong sub-Saharan African opposition to the entry of North Africa to the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa (PAFMECA), which became the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) and eventually evolved into today’s African Union.

“An aspect that particularly disturbed me was the attitude of most delegates in the PAFMECSA area to visitors from West Africa and the Arab countries,” Mandela recalled. “The whole issue upset me and I felt I could not keep quiet.”

“The trouble Nelson is that in North Africa you have Africans who are not Africans,” one delegate yelled out, not without justification. Nevertheless, Mandela carried the day and paved the way to Egypt, Algeria and the rest of North Africa to become full members of the African club.

It should be pointed out that the Arab world was not uniform in its stance towards apartheid. North Africa and the secular, revolutionary states were generally more sympathetic to the ANC than the conservative monarchist regimes, which feared that the contagion of radical socialist politics would spread within their own borders.

Moreover, some corners of the Arab world, namely some countries in the Gulf, still lived under the dark shadow of perhaps the worst form of apartheid: slavery. Saudi Arabia, for instance, did not abolish slavery until 1962, and only under immense pressure from Egypt’s then-unrivalled propaganda apparatus.

This may in part explain the Saudi regime’s ambivalent attitude towards apartheid and how Riyadh was quite happy to supply South Africa with oil until the oil embargo which accompanied the 1973 war with Israel forced its hand. This may have not lasted long, however, as there is some evidence to suggest that Saudi became South Africa’s leading supplier during the sanctions-busting secret trade of the 1980s.

That said, Saudi Arabia, despite its contradictions, also deserves credit for being among the first nations to push for international action against the apartheid regime. It was, for instance, a co-signatory of a 1952 letter to the UN Secretary-General asking for South Africa’s apartheid policies to be placed on the General Assembly’s agenda.

In addition to anti-colonial solidarity, many Arabs saw South Africa through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing parallels between the two. This remains the case, as the rest of the region, the general view goes, has gained its independence but the Palestinians continue to live under occupation and subjugation. While this is sadly true, this overlooks the fact that there are others who remain deprived of their right to self-determination, such as the Kurds and Sahrawis.

The ANC and Mandela’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause has won them many Arab hearts and minds, as illustrated by the genuine sense of grief felt across Palestine at Mandela’s passing.

However, what both Palestinians and Israeli critics of Mandela do not seem to realise  is that the great reconciler’s solidarity with the Palestinian struggle did not equate to hostility towards Israelis. “I always thought it unrealistic to ignore the existence of Israel and maintained that the Jewish people are as entitled as any other nation in the world to have their own national home,” Mandela reflected on Robben Island.

Beyond the Holy Land, South Africa’s experience continues to resonate and remains relevant. As Arabs struggle against dictatorship, Mandela stands as a shining example of a liberation leader who not only established a largely functioning democracy but also stepped down graciously, in stark contrast to the Arab model of leader-for-life or until revolution strikes.

Despite post-apartheid South Africa’s many imperfections, this rainbow nation also provides our bitterly divided region with an inspiring model of reconciliation and healing.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 December 2013.

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The trials and tribulations of a Palestinian Mandela

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By Khaled Diab

Although I wish there were a Palestinian  Mandela, I suspect that Israel-Palestine is not ready for someone like him… not yet, at least.

Partners in peace: Mandela and de Klerk shake hands. Photo: World Economic Forum

Partners in peace: Mandela and de Klerk shake hands. Photo: World Economic Forum

Thursday 12 December 2013

Since the passing away of Nelson Mandela, eulogies glorifying the great man have been circulating around the globe – some heartfelt, others opportunistic; some genuine, others hypocritical.

I will not bore the reader by adding my own longwinded homage to the cacophony of tributes already out there. Suffice it to say that, despite his imperfections, Nelson Mandela was one of the few leaders – perhaps the only – in the 20th century who succeeded both as a revolutionary and as a statesman.

My intention here is to examine Mandela’s legacy in the Israeli-Palestinian context and whether the South African model he helped pioneer could help lead Palestinians and Israelis to the Promised Land of peace.

We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians; without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world,” Mandela said on the 20th anniversary of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in 1997.

And from within my prison cell, I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours,” Marwan Barghouthi, the imprisoned Palestinian leader who has often been described as the Palestinian Mandela”, wrote in a tribute, reflecting the deep sense of mourning many Palestinians feel.

The tiny cell and the hours of forced labour, the solitude and the darkness, did not prevent you from seeing the horizon and sharing your vision,” Barghouti wrote from his own cell in Israel’s Hadarim prison. “Your country has become a lighthouse and we, as Palestinians, are setting sails to reach its shores.”

But one reason the Palestinians have not reached this promised shore is because they have not had a leader of Madiba’s stature and vision, many argue. “The Palestinians needed a Mandela but they got Arafat,” reflected an Israeli I know, echoing a common sentiment in Israel.

While it is true that the Palestinian cause could have used someone of Nelson Mandela’s humanity and vision, what this view overlooks is that the Israelis have also been seriously short-changed by their leadership. Yes, the Palestinians have not had their Mandela but, likewise, an Israeli FW de Klerk has yet to emerge, with the nearest Israel has come to this being Yitzhak Rabin.

Although de Klerk is largely overlooked today, it is, in my view, no exaggeration to say that without his “verligte” (“enlightened”) contribution, Mandela, who nevertheless deserves the greater credit, may have failed in his mission to dismantle South African Apartheid.

After all, despite being a dyed-in-the-wool conservative for most of his political career, de Klerk called for a non-racist South Africa, lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), released Mandela from prison and managed a surprisingly smooth transition to democracy. This would have been unthinkable had his predecessor PW Botha, who campaigned for a “No” vote in de Klerk’s 1992 referendum on ending Apartheid, not been forced into retirement following a stroke.

But what if Mandela had been a Palestinian and what if he had found his Israeli de Klerk, could he and would he have succeeded where Arafat and Rabin, not to mention the rest of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, failed?

Although I would like to think so and it is tempting to believe that what Palestinians and Israelis lack is a saviour, there are certain structural problems in the Israeli-Palestinian context which could defeat any would-be Mandela, the foremost being the narrow ethno-religious character of the conflict.

Even though Palestinians generally regard Mandela as a kindred spirit and his largely non-violent tactics resonate deeply, if Mandela were actually a Palestinian leader, I fear that his philosophy would face a groundswell of opposition. Despite undoubted support amongst pragmatists, some would label him as a “traitor” for demanding no more than equal civil rights within the existing Israeli framework, while others would dismiss him as a “normaliser” for his inevitable collaboration with Israelis.

Interestingly, whites, usually leftists and communists, were involved with the ANC from its earliest days. For instance, the Freedom Charter was compiled, based on demands from across the country, by architect-turned-political-activist Lionel Bernstein. At the Rivonia trial, which led to Mandela’s long incarceration, there were five white co-defendants who, like Bernstein, were also Jewish.

On the Israeli side, Mandela’s vision and mission would also likely prove unpalatable. Although Jews make up a far larger percentage of the population of the Israeli-controlled territories (former mandate Palestine and the Golan Heights) than whites did in South Africa, there is a widespread obsession with the so-called demographic time bomb.

This would most probably lead many Israelis to condemn a Palestinian Mandela as plotting to “destroy Israel by other means”, to rob Jews of their right to self-determination and even to lead to civil war and massacres the “day after”. Even though they shared a similar angst, white South Africans managed to overcome this existential fear and survived – even thrived – to tell the tale.

Although secular Palestinian nationalism and secular Zionism have both traditionally striven for democratic societies which involved the other side as equals of sorts, this was always in a shell where the other would be a minority and willing to live under a clear, dominant nationalist framework.

One reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not pursued a South African solution – and is instead stuck in the unworkable doldrums of a two-state solution in a land that is under 27,000 km2 compared to South Africa’s massive 1.2 million km2 – is simply a question of time.

The European colonisation of South Africa started much earlier, and had already reached fever pitch by the early 19th century. In contrast, large-scale Jewish immigration and settlement did not take off until after the British mandate began in Palestine following World War I.

As the situation increasingly grows to resemble the segregation of Apartheid South Africa, many, especially among the Palestinians but also a growing number of Israeli Jews, are convinced that the only way forward is a single, binational state.

However, huge confusion and differences remain over what form this should take and how to get there. I urge people to take inspiration from Nelson Mandela and the ANC and launch a civil rights struggle for equality for all, while also protecting the rights of every ethnic, national and religious group. 

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 December 2013.

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Civil rights and wrongs in the Palestinian struggle

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By Khaled Diab

Young Palestinian activists are drawing inspiration from the civil rights movement, but are reluctant to redefine their struggle along similar line.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

A hip bar in Ramallah named after a famous cocktail where friends and lovers come to hang out and chill is probably not the most obvious place to meet a young Palestinian revolutionary. While around the world people do drink and drive for change, outsiders tend to view Palestinians as straight-laced teetotallers, especially since the rise of Hamas, but judging by the number of watering holes in Ramallah, the truth is another country.

Taybeh, Palestine’s only domestically produced beer, even once had as its motto, “Taste the revolution”. And armed with a large glass of Taybeh, I had come to get a taste of what a new generation of savvy young Palestinian activists were brewing.

Zaid Shuaibi couldn’t be further from the traditional Western image of the wild-eyed Arab fanatic. He is soft-spoken, measured, understated and seems at harmony with the mellow, subdued ambiance of our meeting place. Though only 22, his maturity and depth cannot be measured in simple years.

Shuaibi, who I have met a number of times, spent the first half of his life in Saudi Arabia before his family returned to Ramallah, where he has lived ever since. Despite the hardships they‘ve endured, they have no regrets about having resettled in their native land.

Zaid discovered his passion for political activism at Birzeit university, though he emphasises that, despite his left-leaning, secular views, he is not aligned to any particular political party or current, partly as a demonstration of his independence and partly because he finds none of the established parties is fully satisfactory.

As a sign of his dedication to the Palestinian cause, he gave up the prospect of pursuing a career with an international agency in order to free himself up for his activism. He now works as an outreach coordinator for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and is closely involved with the Palestinian youth activist movement.

Speaking with this young activist is inspiring and encouraging on so many levels. He and his co-resistors belief in peaceful protest, and the creative new techniques they are employing, especially after the disaster of the second intifada, that non-violence is perhaps the most powerful weapon in the Palestinian arsenal. Their recognition of the need for major, internal Palestinian reform is also timely and necessary.

Nevertheless, the odds they are up against can seem depressingly insurmountable. The situation on the ground is changing rapidly and, in many ways, perhaps irreversibly, as Israel’s settlement express train continues largely unhindered. This has caused a sense of inertia among Palestinians, to which even creative young activists can succumb. There is a widespread sense that the two-state option is dead, or at the very least comatosed in intensive care, and any possible Palestinian state will not only be small and lack territorial congruity, but will also not enjoy true sovereignty or independence.

But Shuaibi and many other activists, even though they believe in a single, democratic state for all Israelis and Palestinians, are reluctant or unwilling to act on this conviction now and fight for one now by transforming their struggle into a civil rights movement for full and equal citizenship, which I personally believe is the most effective way forward, at least for the foreseeable future. Of course, Palestinians deserve an independent state, but what they’re likely to get, if anything, is a virtual state, a state on paper, or, worst of all, a continued state of denial of their rights.

I know that, after so many decades of struggle and their rapidly shrinking prospects of independent statehood, the idea of becoming “Israelis” sits uncomfortably with most Palestinians, but with full enfranchisement they will be able to leave their imprint on the Israeli system, change it from within and gradually transform it into a state for all its citizens.

But given the worsening situation since the Oslo years, when Palestinians and Israelis regularly met and co-operated, and in light of the traditional Arab discourse regarding “non-normalisation”, not only does the idea of becoming Israelis not appeal, but positions are hardening even towards the idea of dealing with Israelis. Although I admit I could be wrong, I feel this refusal is not only a case of meeting wrong with wrong but is also counterproductive.

Working with Israeli activists and challenging and courting Israeli public opinion is, in my view, crucial, because Israel holds most of the cards and, after decades of waiting, the idea that the international community will come galloping in on its white steed to deliver the Palestinians their rights looks, it is safe to say, highly improbable.

That said, Palestinian and Israeli activists are increasingly resisting the occupation together, as demonstrated in so many cases, such as the joint protests against the Israeli separation wall, and a sizeable minority do recognise the importance of co-activism. Moreover, today’s young Palestinian activists are borrowing from the tactics of the American and South African civil rights movements. And the next logical step, once enough admit that the two-state solution is dead in the water, would be to adopt the objectives as well as the tactics of civil rights.

It is largely up to Palestinians and Israelis to come to some sort of accommodation on their own, and this requires direct engagement. And, as the weaker party, the most powerful weapon the Palestinians possess is people power.

And inspired by the popular mass movements that have emerged across the region, Palestinian activists are rediscovering the spirit of the largely peaceful first intifada which succeeded in changing so much (yet so little). But can they heal the internal rifts within Palestinian ranks, agree on a reinvented effective strategy and inspire the masses to take action?

Khaled Diab: How do you feel, as a Palestinian, about all the restrictions on your movement?

Zaid Shuaibi: When I head from Ramallah to another town, I’m struck by a strange sensation. Sometimes I am close to tears when I think that I have to make a two-hour detour because I’m not allowed to take a certain road or to pass through Jerusalem. You feel confined; you’re on your land and you can’t wander freely. This is terrible. You always feel deficient or incapable. To live in this land, you need to be super-human, you can’t just be an ordinary person.

I can sympathise. Here I am, a foreigner, and I can visit you from Jerusalem but you can’t come to visit me in Jerusalem. I have the freedom to travel all over the land, but you have trouble travelling both domestically and abroad.

Indeed, it’s our country and we can’t move around it, but any foreigner has the freedom to travel around.

While we’re on the subject of freedom of movement, there were the Freedom Riders which you were involved in. How successful would you say the initiative was?

The Freedom Riders had several objectives. It was a movement to link between the civil rights movement in America and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or part of it, because our struggle is not a civil rights movement. Our conflict is multifaceted.

At the same time, it was a movement against Egged buses because it acquired a contract in Holland. A movement has emerged in Holland to try to cancel this contract as part of the divestment drive.

We thought that we should highlight how the racial discrimination that was prevalent in America 60 years ago is present here.

I think that we succeeded abroad. We managed to convey the picture to the outside world of how our freedom of movement is restricted and how we are not free to visit Jerusalem. However, domestically, we confronted some difficulties.

Within Palestinian society?

Yes, in Palestinian society.

In what way?

We sometimes face the difficulty of persuading people to adopt new ideas, especially those coming from abroad. There are those who feel we are blindly emulating others. But we do not feel that what we did was blind copying.

When it comes to boycotting, people think, for example, that we’re imitating South Africa. It’s true there are similarities with South Africa but the boycott movement has been around for a very long time in Palestine – from the 1930s or even before. General strikes and public disobedience, and boycotting the occupation and the settlements, have long been a part of the Palestinian struggle.

Can you explain a little about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement? There are those who are not familiar with it, so can you tell us what your objectives are and how it works?

In 2004, a group of intellectuals and academics began calling for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel. Then, in 2005, the call for a wider BDS campaign was launched by a coalition of Palestinian civil society which urged the international community to boycott Israel because it is a racist and apartheid country.

The approach was similar to that pursued in South Africa. Just like the world boycotted South Africa because it infringed on the rights of the Africans there, we, as Palestinians, are calling for the same thing.

This was the starting point of the campaign, and the momentum has grown year after year.

We have witnessed numerous successes, such as the Freedom Rides which, through small movements on the ground, linked the BDS with the youth movement.

What other successes has the BDS campaign achieved?

A major success we scored in the Arab context was when Saudi Arabia excluded the French company Veolia from a tender for the Haramain railway link which was worth $10 billion because of the company’s involvement in the Jerusalem light rail project which passes through East Jerusalem. This is in violation of international law because it was operating in occupied territory.

This is just one of many recent achievements. Others include artists. For instance, a singer called Lara Fabian was going to perform in Lebanon but Lebanese activists called for a boycott against her because she had sung a song in Hebrew on Israel’s 60th anniversary and expressed her love of Israel… and she decided not to come.

We feel that people who do not acknowledge our rights as Palestinians and support Israel should be boycotted and isolated.

You describe the situation here as “apartheid”. But there are those who say that, despite similarities, the system here is different to South Africa.

The way I see it is that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is complex and multifaceted. It is not only an apartheid system in the South African mould nor is it simply an Israeli occupation or military presence. It is a mixture of imperialism, colonialism and apartheid.

Here, there is a system of racial segregation imposed on us in the West Bank. There is segregation on the roads in the shape of the Israeli bypass roads and the roads set aside for Palestinians. That’s one.

Palestinians within Israel, the Arabs of 1948, are discriminated against and treated as third-class or fourth-class citizens.

But legally they have more or less equal rights.

Yes, but there are discriminatory laws.

What do you say to those Israelis who claim that Palestinians in Israel have more rights than Arab citizens in most Arab countries?

That has nothing to do with it. You can’t compare a Palestinian in Israel with an Arab living under the tyranny of a dictator: one has had his land stolen and the other is living under the repression of a dictator. Both are wrong.

Just because their situation is better than that of people in other Arab states that does not mean they should be told to shut up. They have rights.

If they consider themselves to be the only democracy in the Middle East, then they must believe in full equality between citizens regardless of their national background or beliefs, origin or ethnicity. And this does not happen in Israel.

Is the boycott you’re calling for a general one or a targeted one.

They are different boycott campaigns. First of all, we don’t call for the boycotting of individuals. We call for the boycotting of institutions – that’s in respect to the outside world. Internally, we call for the boycotting of Israeli products and the boycotting of normalisation encounters, under the so-called umbrella of the “peace process”. Encounters like this create a sense of equality between the oppressor and the victim.

Most people oppose the blockade of Gaza because it constitutes collective punishment. How do you ensure that your boycott is not collective punishment?

Here, there is a big difference. We cannot draw equivalence between the victim and the tormentor. I always start with this principle. Israel is the tormentor and the occupier, so it has to be punished, as an apartheid nation, a nation that practises racial discrimination and as an occupier, and as a country that does not recognise the rights of Palestinians.

Now if we look at the question in terms of effectiveness. You said that Palestinians have, since the 1920s or 1930s, been engaging in boycotts and, of course, the Arab world as a whole has boycotted Israel for decades, although this has lessened in recent years. In terms of results, what has all this achieved?

You can’t just look at it as a weapon. It is also a question of principle. You don’t want to deal with the state of the occupier. Moreover, a boycott is only one part of the process. You also need international pressure against the country you are boycotting.

Look at the example of South Africa, the boycott campaign and international pressure showed the apartheid regime that the world was opposed to it and it also led to South Africa’s isolation.

But there are those who suggest that the boycott played only a marginal role and that civil disobedience and the mass protest movement spearheaded by the ANC, as well as the inherent faults and unsustainability of the system, were the main factors in the collapse of apartheid.

In my view, the BDS campaign is, in itself, not enough, but it is a crucial component of the struggle. Of course, popular resistance also has to be a part of the struggle. International pressure is part of the struggle. International law is part of the struggle. It’s all connected. Getting our house in order as Palestinians is also part of the struggle.

Every struggle has its own character. There are different factors at play. But what’s certain is that a boycott does have an impact, and Israel sees it as a strategic threat because they know if the boycott movement grows, it will lead to Israel’s international isolation.

In your personal view, do you see a difference between an economic and a cultural boycott?  Personally, before coming here, I didn’t buy any Israeli products, and here I limit my purchases so as not to aid the occupation. But what I don’t really understand is the rationale for a blanket cultural boycott. For example, if there are people in Israeli civil society who are willing to enter into dialogue with Palestinians, why boycott them?

I’ll tell you my personal view, because I’m only involved in the BDS and not the cultural and academic boycott. So I prefer not to comment on it.

I just want to hear your personal view. For example, in a column you wrote in al-Masry al-Youm, you praised the success of protesters in cancelling a meeting between Palestinian and Israeli activists in Jerusalem.

There are plenty of Israelis who are partners in our struggle and who recognise our rights as Palestinians. They recognise, for example, the right of return. They recognise that we have rights as Palestinians living under occupation. They also believe in equality and the existence of the Palestinian people. People like that who come to struggle alongside us are not the target of the boycott. Debates are also not the subject of boycott, because this does not count as normalisation.

The aim of most of these so-called dialogues is to give the impression that there is an exchange going on, but this happens without the recognition of our rights, without the acknowledgement that there is a people being oppressed. They try to suggest that the conflict can be resolved through dialogue, but the issue is much larger than this. I don’t see that dialogue has resolved anything.

Let’s look at it from another perspective. In the absence of dialogue, what is the alternative? Do you think that you can reach peace without the Israeli side? Do you believe that you can achieve your rights as a Palestinian without Israeli involvement?

If we want to reach peace through negotiations, this will not happen with the current balance of power, with the Palestinians the weak side and the Israelis the powerful one.

I’m not talking about the political systems. I mean a dialogue between the two peoples, not the leadership. Do you think it would be useless?

Personally, I find that our 20-year experiment with negotiations and dialogue did not bring about any results. All the dialogues that took place did not result in anything. On the contrary, our situation has actually deteriorated.

But the dialogue you’re talking about was between the leadership and not between the people.

No, there was lots of normalisation and there were a lot of civil society organisations involved. It happened at many levels, and no single level achieved any of our demands as Palestinians.  These exchanges only succeeded in providing cover for Israel.

So what you’re trying to say is that this BDS movement is based on bitter experience.

Through experience, we’ve learnt that dialogue does not lead anywhere. On the contrary, it gave an impression to the world that Palestinians and Israelis are talking so relations between them must be normal and they can achieve peace. But ultimately what has happened is that the occupation has deepened its grip and the settlements have grown over the 20 years of negotiations, as has the stealing of water and the killing of Palestinians, as well as the creation of realities on the ground. There is no hope in dialogue.   

What does the youth movement see as the solution? What strategy have you got? You criticise the Palestinian leadership for not having a strategic vision. How do you intend to change the situation and what is your strategy?

Personally, this is how I see the situation. In the coming period, Palestinians need to focus on a number of issues. Firstly, the PLO must be restructured on the basis of Palestinian National Council elections, which represents all Palestinians everywhere in the world. This will restore the PLO’s legitimacy, and it will also restore the voice of the refugees, who represent 60-70% of the Palestinian people. At the moment, all the Palestinian leadership is illegitimate and unelected.

Secondly, there is popular resistance. We are going through an important period in our national history similar to the first intifada, which showed that popular resistance has a huge impact. The peaceful Arab revolutions have given momentum to peaceful Palestinian resistance.

Thirdly, there is the boycott campaign. Fourthly, there is the Arab dimension to the Palestinian cause. Our cause is not just Palestinian-Israeli, it is also Arab-Israeli. We must restore the Arab dimension of the struggle. If it remains defined as Palestinian-Israeli, then the balance of power will always be against us because Israel is far more powerful.

You just mentioned the refugees. I have noticed in recent months that Palestinian discourse has begun to focus a lot on the right of return. What does the “right of return” mean to you and how can it be achieved?

We call for the return of the refugees according to UN resolution 194. We do not ask for more.

And how old is this resolution?

It’s from 1948.

And we’re now in 2012. Many of these homes have disappeared. You have a lot of Palestinian villages and towns from 1948 that are no longer on the map. So, I’d like to know what does “return to their homes” mean? 

In my opinion, “return”, according to the resolution and how I see justice, means that those who were forced out of their villages have the right to return to the village from which they were displaced.

And if this village no longer exists?

The features may have changed but the land is still there. The place where the village or town stood is still there. The refugee has the right to choose: he can return to the original spot or not. Or he can choose to return to another spot or even to stay away – that’s each refugee’s individual choice. This is an individual right, not a collective one, and it does not become void with time.

Do you mean just the people who were displaced, or their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren?

Yes, and great-great-grandchildren. The way I see it is, if the Jews say that our right to the land goes back 3,000 years and based on that we can return, that means that our right to return is sacred.

Let’s say the Jews gave up what they call the Law of Return would you be willing to give up the right of return?

I don’t believe in this Law of Return.

I’m not asking you whether you believe in it. I’m asking you if the Israelis said from now on this land is for all the people who live on it, whether Palestinian or Israeli Jew, or others, those who are actually on the ground.

You mean a single state for all?


I am for the one-state solution in which everyone lives without discrimination and in equality. But there are rights for the Palestinians who have been wronged. Before we move towards the one-state solution, these rights must be restored. These are the right of return, the ending of the occupation, the dismantling of the settlements. Afterwards, we can live together in a single state.

You say the right of return is timeless. Let’s assume that this conflict carries on for another 500 years, would the distant descendants of those who were expelled still have a right of return?


So how would this differ from Zionist ideology?

I don’t wish to philosophise about the situation. We didn’t invent our right of return. In addition, there is clear precedence in international law. I’m not demanding anything outside the law.

Ok, let’s look at it from another angle. Arabs accuse Israel of picking and choosing the elements of international law that suit it. There are Israelis too who accuse the Arabs of picking and choosing. They say that the Palestinians and Arabs rejected the UN partition plan of 1947 and declared war. So, they argue, why do Arabs insist of implementing resolution 194 when they rejected resolution 181?

They also didn’t accept the partition plan.

Why? They agreed to it?

But they occupied all of Palestine.

But they agreed to it before the war. They say we accepted it but the Arabs went to war.

The 1947 partition plan was unjust to the Palestinians. It allocated more than half the land to the Jews, even though the Arabs were the majority and the land was originally theirs.

That’s my point. UN resolutions are not sacred or set in stone. They need to be analysed to see how realistic, just and practical they are.

Yes, UN resolutions need to be analysed. There are resolutions which are taken to champion the wronged, like resolution 194. Despite its noble aim of helping the wronged, it was never implemented. But just resolutions like this must be implemented and we should not abandon them just because the balance of power is against us.

And what do you think of compensation?

It is up to the individual refugee to choose whether they want compensation or to return wherever they want to in historic Palestine.

In the context of the two-state solution, if Israel said the refugees can have the right to return to pre-1967 Palestine with a compensation package, would that be acceptable?

I can’t give you an opinion on this because I am not a refugee and so I can’t speak on their behalf.

On a pragmatic level, do you think the right of return is achievable in the foreseeable future?

Everything is possible. There were those who believed that Mubarak would rule indefinitely. Even with all that’s happened to us since 1948, we have not forgotten our rights, and we are ready to defend our rights. Another 10 or 20 years can pass but we will remain steadfast.

You say that you believe in the one-state solution. But you say that you must gain all your rights first before. So, that means you don’t believe in a gradual solution?

What do you mean?

For example, if you believe in a one-state solution, why don’t you transform the Palestinian struggle into a civil rights movement? Why don’t you start demanding Israeli citizenship? Why don’t you demand full and equal rights with Israelis? Won’t that lead to a single state?

I’ll tell you my personal opinion. Currently, we are at a stage of struggle. Personally, I believe in the one-state solution. But for the moment, the issue isn’t whether we should have one or two states. The situation at the moment is not conducive for that solution.

Personally, I think, on the contrary, now is the time to make that choice. You have to decide: do you want a piece of land to call your own or do you want your rights as people.

Personally, I don’t want to live under Israeli rule. Why should I live in an Israeli state?

Well, Israelis also fear that, in the one-state scenario, they will end up as second-class citizens under Palestinian or even Islamic rule. What will guarantee their rights in a single state?

What I believe in is a single state built on equal rights, where the constitution guarantees each people its rights.

So what’s to stop you from demanding citizenship and full and equal rights?

Personally, as Zaid, I don’t believe I’d be able to live under Israeli rule.

Is it because of the name of the state?

It’s not just the name of the state. It all needs to be approached gradually. It’s not just whether the state should be called Israel or Palestine. In my view, it’s important that I live in a country that is Palestine. I don’t want to be a dreamer but I do have a dream of living in my own land where I can go where I like.

But if you demand full and equal rights, you’ll be able to go where you like, and you’ll be able to vote in elections, and you’ll be able to choose your representative, and you’ll be able to help determine the direction of the state.

Under which system should I demand my equal rights? Under the current Israeli system?


You mean the current unjust system.

Well, you did your own Freedom Rides. In the days when the original Freedom Riders were campaigning in America, the system there was unjust, but when they entered the system, they were able to make it fairer.

But there’s a difference. As I said before, we shouldn’t confuse the civil rights movement in America with our struggle. There, it was a question of civil rights. Here, it is not just civil rights. Here, there is more. There is a military occupation. Here, there is land theft.

But what’s the most powerful way to confront this occupation? If you’re an enfranchised member of society, won’t you be better positioned to end the occupation?

No, not in this way.

I’m not saying this will happen in a year or two. It will take many long years. But nothing can be built in a day or two.

When I look at the situation, the first thing I see is that Israelis don’t even accept your presence on the land. I mean, you’re not welcome here, so how do you expect them to give you full citizenship? They keep on evicting you and pushing you off the land, and you tell me that if I demand citizenship, I’ll be able to end the occupation? Their project, the Zionist project, wants us off the land, how do you then expect them to accept our presence here as equals? They believe that they are better than us. They believe that this is their land.

But changing any discriminatory system needs time and effort. For example, in South Africa…

I’ll tell you what.

Let me just finish what I have to say. You often compare the situation here to South Africa during the Apartheid era. Well, let’s complete the analogy. In South Africa, you also had a group of outsiders, white Europeans, who came and occupied and colonised the land, segregated the people, and placed themselves as the rulers. The black Africans, the original inhabitants of the land, during their struggle for their rights did not demand a separate country, they demanded equality. So, if you say there is apartheid here like there was in South Africa, and you’re following the South African boycott model, why not go all the way and also demand your civil rights.

I’ll reiterate my point. We were pushed off our land. Yes, there are elements in common between Apartheid South Africa and here, but that does not mean that the two situations are identical. Every struggle has its own characteristics. We have 1.5 million Arabs in Israel. Let them give that 1.5 million equal rights first, so that I, as a Palestinian, can be convinced that there is room for us to ask for equality.

But you can look at it from another angle. If you, as West Bank Palestinians, demanded citizenship like the Palestinians within Israel, and you added your voices to theirs, you’ll have enough clout in the system to be able to make it fair and equal.

And do you think Israel will allow you to become a majority and change the entire system?

I’m not saying change the entire system. I’m saying make it a fair system.

You need to realise that here we have two peoples with enormous differences between them and a longstanding conflict. It’s not easy to just come and say we’ll demand citizenship, become the majority and then change the system.

You don’t need to be the majority. Even as a sizeable minority, you’ll have a far better position than this disenfranchisement. You’ll also have constitutional rights that cannot be violated by others.

Well, I have a suggestion: why can’t a new system that is fair to all be built from scratch.

But this fair, new system won’t just fall out of the sky and say “Here I am, take me.”  You can only reach this new system gradually.

The way I see it is that activism and the boycott are part of the process of building this fair system. That way, you isolate Israel and force it to take action.

So, you don’t think that, if you were an Israeli citizen, you would be able to play a more effective role as an activist than if you stay outside the system?

You’re talking to me as if Israel is ready to give us citizenship.

I’m not saying Israel is ready. I’m saying you should demand these civil rights.

Let me say that, at this juncture, the situation is not conducive to demanding civil rights. Before civil rights, there are other rights that must be acquired, the rights of the people who were wronged. I don’t see that becoming part of Israel’s racist system is the solution for overturning the racist system. In fact, you would be giving it legitimacy by enabling them to say that it is a democratic system. It could enable them to remain in control because they are the stronger side which dominates the economy and the other centres of power in the country. If you enter the system, you will enter it as the weaker party.

Ok, you say that you believe in the one-state solution. So how do we reach it?

There is no clear vision for how this should be done. I can tell you that as an individual I believe in equal rights, but the details of how to achieve it is not at all easy. It is a very complicated matter. And we haven’t reached the point yet where the one-state solution is feasible. Most people still support the two-state option.

I can say, speaking as Zaid, that I would rather live in a Palestinian state built on 22% of the land than in a hegemonic Israeli state where we are excluded from all the centres of power.

On the subject of equal rights, there are a lot of Israelis who are terrified of the one-state “monster”. They are afraid, like has occurred with Jews before in history, that they would become an oppressed group or minority within this state.  Do you think these fears are exaggerated?

If there is a decent legal system that respects all, everyone will be equal. The PLO, when it was first established, called for a single state of equal citizens. This is something that the Palestinians have called for historically.

As for Israeli fears, naturally everyone wants to protect their own, but Israel tends to inflate matters. Take, for example, the fear of Iran, or Islamism.

I think we need to make a distinction between the state and the people. The Israeli state may exploit fears to advance its goals but the Israeli people are afraid. I’ve spoken to Israelis and their fear is genuine.

When they overcome this fear, we can then move towards the one-state solution.

And are there Palestinian fears regarding the one-state solution?

A lot of Palestinians fear that they will become second or third-class citizens. But the way I see it, we have either the two-state or the one-state option, that is if the leadership adopts it. In the two-state scenario, the Palestinians will remain weak. In a single state, if Palestinians are not granted equal rights, it will become an apartheid state. But you can then fight for your rights. I believe that achieving our rights requires activism. And activism in a single state might be preferable to having a separate state which is hobbled by agreements that strip it off the right to have a military and permit an Israeli military presence on our land – which is what is being proposed at present.

I don’t see this solution as being better than a single state. Palestinians have to overcome their fears and be courageous in the pursuit of the one-state solution.

Palestinians abroad are in favour of the one-state solution. They often try to push us in that direction and tell us “It’s the time”. But they are living far away. For me, here on the ground, I don’t see that it’s the time.

Well, that’s another important point. Your movement speaks of the importance of the Palestinian diaspora but, at the same time, it is you who are living the reality on the ground. They have their circumstances and you have yours. Like what happened after the first intifada, though it was led by Palestinians here, the exiled leadership came and took everything over. Why, then, shouldn’t part of your strategy be that every Palestinian community fight for its rights where it is and let the future bring what it brings?

When I believe in the rights of Palestinian citizens, then I also believe they have to be treated humanely wherever they are. Just because they were expelled from their land that does not mean they should be discriminated against. At the same time, there is the fear that assimilation within the societies where they live will lose them their identity.

But there is another fear: if this conflict goes on for another hundred years, then it would be unfair for them to stay like this.

I’m with you. I believe that they have to live a decent life of equality. Refugees must enjoy equal rights but they must not become, say, Lebanese citizens and lose their Palestinian identity. That is what I’m against.

Also, it is not just up to the Palestinians here to decide the fate of the struggle. After all, the majority of Palestinians live in exile. I can’t make the decision for them whether they should return or not. I don’t have the right to say that I don’t want the refugee in, say, Lebanon to come back.

So, in your view, in the absence of full recognition of the right of return, the conflict will not be resolved?

It won’t be resolved in a fair and just manner.

But Israel is likely to continue rejecting this. Does that mean the conflict will go on forever?

No. I believe that continued activism, including the BDS campaign, will force Israel to give us our rights. When Israel feels that it is losing, when it pays the price for its occupation and racism, and the price for expelling the Palestinians, then things will be different.

But couldn’t it be that if Israel feels cornered, it will become more violent and oppressive and more persistent in the course it is following? If we look at other regimes that were isolated as pariahs, like North Korea or Iraq, the system there became more oppressive under siege.

Israel gains its legitimacy and strength from the countries it deals with and the United Nations. International isolation would hit Israel where it hurts. It may become more oppressive for a while, but this can’t last. Israelis are always afraid of delegitimisation. Israel was a country established by an international resolution, so it needs international political support, otherwise its existence will be perceived as illegitimate.

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By Osama Diab

Britain’s former foreign minister David Miliband has high hopes for the Arab revolutions.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

David Miliband is not just the former British foreign minister, but is also a man who is genuinely interested and highly opinionated on issues relating to terrorism, political Islam, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Arab revolts. As Britain’s foreign secretary at just 41, Miliband has been a strong critic of the so-called War on Terror and also called for a “coalition of consent” with the “Muslim World” in which Britain’s foreign policy should focus on building relations with Muslim societies, rather than with regimes that are unpopular among their people.

He has also been a strong advocate of a Palestinian state and listed “Israeli government to freeze settlements and accept a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders” as one of the prerequisites to peace in the Middle East in 2009, during his time as the man in charge of Britain’s international relations.

From his office overlooking the nearly thousand-year-old Palace of Westminster, I tried to gauge as much as I could David Miliband’s opinions on the major issues facing the world today.

Knowing that my time in his office was limited, I was prepared for the interview to be short, possibly cold and to the point, without taking offence. However, Miliband unexpectedly started by jokingly requesting to be asked a question about Ahmed al-Muhammadi, an Egyptian footballer recently signed by Sunderland Football Club, which Miliband vice chairs. Even though his joke took a few minutes of the time I was allocated, it gave a much-needed charm ahead of the yet-to-be-discussed critical issues related to the emergence of Arab democracy, Arab revolts and how it might impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the decade following the 9/11 attacks.

The world 10 years after 9/11

You famously said before that there are circumstance in which terrorism is justifiable, what, in your opinion, are these circumstances?

DM: That isn’t quite right. I was asked whether the actions of the African National Congress in the 1970s and 1980s should be denounced as terrible acts and I said no because of the political system under which they were living. The question I was asked was specifically about apartheid South Africa.

So if people are denied political avenues, is it justifiable for them to act violently?

DM: I think the classic case for Europeans is always “if you were in France in 1942, would you have joined the French resistance?” and of course the answer is “yes”. But fortunately these circumstances don’t exist very often. I think the non-violence that has marked the Arab revolts has been very powerful.
It’s no secret that the 9/11 attacks did a lot of harm to the Muslim-West relations, and that also includes the relation between Muslim communities in the West and their societies. Ten years after the vicious attacks, does the tension caused by 9/11 still persist?

DM: The attacks on 9/11 were vicious. They killed Muslims, as well as Christians, Jews and people of no denomination. They were an abomination for people of all religions. I think that the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 which is now approaching is an important moment to take stock. I think one of the remarkable things about this country (the United Kingdom), which I know better than others, is that the last 10 years have not seen the tension and the hatred that maybe you are referring to. One of the remarkable things here after the 7 July 2005 bombing in London was to hear Muslim friends of mine say “look, we felt more British after this, not less British.” Now, one mustn’t avert one’s eye from the fact that there are tensions, there can be tensions, but often they exist over housing or economic issues more than international political issues. So I think one needs to be careful in saying that 9/11 was the cause of tension between the West and Muslims and the Arab world.

But the consequences of 9/11 were two wide-scale wars.

DM: A lot of people disagree with Afghanistan and Iraq, and disagreement doesn’t have to mean inter-religious tension as opposed to political debate. I think the prism from which the West is seen in many parts of the Arab world is obviously Israel and Palestine. That was not the justification that was used by al-Qaeda in 9/11, and it was obviously not the motivating factor on the streets of Egypt or the streets of Tunisia or anywhere else.

I think the remarkable thing about the Arab revolts is that they have been driven by domestic concerns. They were driven by the search for dignity and the search for national pride.

I think it’s been a very challenging decade. I call it “a decade of disorder”. But not only because of 9/11. It’s been a decade of financial crisis, it was a decade of shifting economic power between the West and emerging economies. A lot has been going on and I don’t think it’s right to just call it a decade of Muslim-Western tension.

You wrote before that “The call for a ‘war on terror’ was a call to arms, an attempt to build solidarity for a fight against a single shared enemy. But the foundation for solidarity between peoples and nations should be based not on who we are against, but on the idea of who we are and the values we share.” Was Osama bin Laden that single shared enemy, and what do you make of his killing?

DM: I think the War on Terror was announced after 9/11. It was a concept that went much further than the so-called “Axis of Evil”. I think it was a great mistake because it united a series of grievances under the al-Qaeda banner, which in a way played their game, so I think that the notion of a War on Terror was not well-founded because it aggrandised al-Qaeda in a way that is almost the opposite of what was needed. They were attempting to unite the Muslim world under a single revolutionary banner. The best strategy to take that on would’ve been to fragment and then deal with the concerns individually. I don’t support the notion of a War on Terror. I think that was not sensible. What I support is a notion of a drive against injustice.

In that light, do you consider the killing of Osama bin Laden a victory?

DM: I think the weakening of al-Qaeda, which has been done in a range of ways, some of them militarily but most of them were by Muslims rejecting al-Qaeda, is a very good thing for the whole world.

So do you think the killing of Bin Laden did weaken al-Qaeda?

DM: Yes, I do. I think that he was a symbol as well as a guiding mind, so in balance, of course, it weakens them. I am persuaded by scholars who write in the Arab and Muslim world that certainly after the bombing of a wedding in Jordan in 2005, there’s been a growing rejection of revolutionary jihad in the Muslim world, and an embrace of various forms of political Islam. I think that the notion of a “call to arms” has been rejected in favour of political engagement.

Some of the Arab uprisings were against leaders who were part of the War on Terror, such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Abdallah Saleh of Yemen, but some were seen, especially by the West, as helping terrorism, such as Qaddafi and al-Assad. Do you think the “Arab Spring” and challenging Arab dictatorships would help contain extremism or maybe spread it?

DM: I think the first thing to say is that the authors of these revolts are Arabs not Westerners. These are Arab revolts, not Western-inspired or directed revolts. It was a call for personal dignity, a call for personal and national improvement, and in Egypt it was a call to restore national pride in a 6,000-year-old civilisation that seemed to be in decline in the Mubarak years.

So I think the best way to contain extremism is to include people in the political process. What you need is inclusive politics. President Mubarak lost legitimacy in the eyes of his own people. He lost legitimacy because of corruption, kleptocracy, broken promises and a lack of mandate. He lost legitimacy because he wasn’t listening and there seemed to be no national path for Egypt.

There’s no question that his lack of legitimacy corroded the reputation of the West. We were in alliance with someone who in the eyes of his own people had growing disrespect. Violent extremism needs to be taken on politically and in security terms. Societies have to defend themselves against violence, but the best way to do that is in alliance with an open political system.

There is always a fear of instability. But Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, now has a democratic government. Turkey, which is a rising power of 80 million people, has a version of political Islam which I don’t see as a danger to Turkey’s democracy; I actually see it as part of Turkey’s democracy.

People like me mustn’t be naïve and pretend that decades of repression and autocracy are overcome overnight, and that the path to stable orderly democratic rule within international norms is going to be smooth, but I think it is better than the alternative.

Now each country in the Middle East needs to find its own path to legitimate, accountable government and respect for the dignity of people. That does not mean that every country is going to be a liberal democracy overnight, but that is something the countries would have to chart in their own way, and the monarchies in the Arab world are in a different position from the republics. I think a country like Egypt seems to be set on a very clear democratic path even in the medium term. I am confident about that. What I would say to you is that stable democracies are about much more than just votes; they are about independent institutions and civil society: media, judiciary, academia, and business that are able to hold accountable the abuse of power.

What’s your assessment of how disastrous the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were for the UK’s foreign relations with Arab and Muslim countries and what were the challenges the wars raised for you as foreign minister?

DM: There were very profound challenges raised. I think that Britain’s relations with the Arab world was strong and respectful in my period as foreign minister. I think that there’s some shared challenges that we are working on. I think the Afghan war can only be ended by political settlement, and the Arab and the Muslim world need to be part of that.

The uneasy birth of Arab democracy
How is Libya different from Syria in the eyes of the NATO. In other words, why did they choose to interfere in Libya but not Syria, even though civilians are under an equal threat in both countries, if not more so in Syria?

DM: There is a pressing humanitarian need in both countries. But in Libya there was a military option with limited geostrategic dangers, whereas in Syria there isn’t a military option and the geostrategic dangers are high.

You called for the West to adopt a “Coalition of consent” approach with Middle Eastern countries, how would that play out if the people of Egypt, for example, choose to be governed by a form of government that is unpopular in the West, like what happened in Gaza when Hamas was elected in fair elections?

DM: I believe that you live and let live, until the assertion of someone else’s rights interfere with your rights, and that’s true in our personal relations. I respect your rights to live your life in the way you see fit until you try to interfere with my life as I see fit.

What applies to people also applies to nations. Nations should be able to decide how to govern themselves, but there need to be international norms to make sure that the way they [govern themselves] doesn’t interfere with someone else’s rights. In a crowded neighbourhood like the Middle East, that is especially important.

What would you have you done differently to the current foreign secretary in relation to the Arab revolutions if they happened during your time as the man in charge of Britain’s foreign policy?

DM: I’m not seeking to make partisan points. But what I think is very important about foreign policy around the world is that it’s multilateral not just bilateral and I think it’s got to be about more than commercial diplomacy; it’s got to be about the full range of political engagement. So I think that’s the sort of foreign policy I would like to run, and that’s the sort of foreign policy I will advocate.

Do you think the war in Libya will be as disastrous and lengthy as Iraq and Afghanistan?

DM: No. I don’t. I think Libya is a very different case. I think stalemate is better than slaughter, but It’s very important that the military arm and the political arm know what the other is doing. The decision of the Arab League to call for intervention in Libya was very significant in the West, but Arab countries need to take responsibility because Gaddafi was a problem for you as well.

Do you think democracy is more sustainable if driven by the people or imposed by foreign powers?

DM: It must be driven by the people. Sustainable solutions are always driven by a sense of ownership that people have of their own lives.

Do you think then the situation in Egypt or Tunisia is more promising than in Iraq?

DM: That’s obviously the case because it’s driven from below and driven by a sense of ownership. I think one has to be respectful of the difficulties that lie ahead. This is a long process not a short process. It involves building durable institutions, such as free media, independent judiciary, etc. I do personally think that next year the economic situation will be very important. Egypt needs productive investment. It needs wealth creation because it’s still got massive inequality – one of the legacies of the Mubarak years. But over the medium term, I am confident that Egypt is a country whose people can make their own way and make a positive contribution both for themselves and the wider Middle East.

Hopes for peace and a Palestinian state
The US threatened that it might stop its funding to the UN if the general assembly voted in favour of a Palestinian state in September. Do you think the US threat is legitimate?

DM: I think the current administration have made good faith attempts to further some shared goals in the Middle East, including a Palestinian state that live alongside Israel. I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution. I think Israel has the right to exist but I think Palestinians also have a right to a state. I think it’s very important for the whole international community to support something like that. So I don’t think that’s a time for talking about retribution, but that’s a time for talking about positive constructive engagement.

How do you think the political changes in the Middle East might affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or peace negotiations?

DM: I think Arab states with democratic mandates will be better able to advocate for the Palestinians. Egypt, as an Arab democracy, will be a far better ally of the Palestinians.

This article first appeared in al-Ahram Online on 22 July 2011. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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How African is the Arab revolution?

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By Khaled Diab

Though the ‘Arab’ revolution started in North Africa, most debate has focused on the Arab world, but what about the rest of Africa?

Wednesday 6 April 2011

It was vaguely reminiscent of when Egypt won the African Cup of Nations for the second time in a row and for a record seventh time in 2010, and it seemed that pretty much every African I came across would warmly congratulate me on my native country’s “stunning “achievement.

But this time the tournament in question was played out not on a football pitch but on the streets, the winning team did not represent Egypt but it was Egypt, and the prize was not to hold aloft a cup but to sip from the cup of freedom. And unlike with football, I did not have to feign interest


The Nairobi skyline. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

When I visited Kenya in March, it seemed that pretty much everyone I came across wanted to talk about the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and the tragedy in Libya.

As soon as I touched down, the first person I came across – David, a Namibian public official who shared a taxi with me from the airport into town – confessed how compulsively he had been watching events unfold in Egypt, and how the north African revolutions evoked in his mind and those of other Namibians an excitement they had not felt since the fall of apartheid.

I was surprised that, on the other side of the continent, in a country with almost no political, economic, cultural or historical ties with Egypt, the Egyptian revolution could resonate so intensely. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been, as there is something universally appealing about people braving oppression to defeat tyranny.

Besides, as one Kenyan NGO worker put it, millions of Africans are cursed with dictators and tyrants, and so the fact that some of the longest-serving leaders on the continent have been ousted or are on their way out – and all this through the unleashed power of ordinary people – is inspirational to marginalised and disenfranchised citizens across the continent.

So, could the spirit of the Arab revolution spread south into sub-Saharan Africa? Some people I met are hopeful that it will, citing the fact that many African countries share similar social, economic and demographic realities with Egypt and Tunisia, and that young Africans are waking up to their potential.

This “youthquake” certainly appears to be a factor in Nigeria. “As Nigerians prepare for presidential elections next month, what is happening, much less dramatically than in north Africa but with perhaps as much long-term significance, is that the youth is finally awake,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote recently.

Others are of the opinion that events up north will have little impact further south. “Many Africans see these revolutions as an ‘Arab’ thing and do not really see themselves as part of these events,” said Marion, a Kenyan social activist. And the failure of Zimbabwean activists to mount a Cairo-style “million citizen march” in Harare’s very own Tahrir Square lends some credence to this view.

Some also cited the more fractured and fragile nature of many African societies, and how tribalism and other divisions, as well as poor communication infrastructure, would make it difficult to mobilise the population as a whole to rally round a single agenda.

When I mentioned that this feared tribalism had not stopped Libyans of diverse backgrounds from uniting against Muammar Gaddafi, Sarah, who cut a fearsome matriarchal figure, predicted in no uncertain terms that she expected the Libyan dictator to emerge victorious – an outcome she favoured immensely. “In Africa, we need strong men to hold our societies together, otherwise we will have civil war, as Libya is proving,” she asserted defiantly, unleashing a storm of protest from her colleagues – who, like me, pointed out that the civil strife in Libya is entirely of the Gaddafi family’s making. I was shocked that she could speak of the Libyan leader, who had ordered air strikes and declared war on his own people, with such abandon and apparent infatuation.

“And where will the rest of Africa be without Gaddafi? Forgotten and neglected,” she said, expressing her expectation that the new crop of north African regimes would not be nearly as generous or involved in the African scene as Africa’s self-crowned “king of kings” was.

These assertions drove home to me how many Africans share – along with Arabs, at least, until the revolution changed attitudes – a belief in the apparent futility of freedom. The legacy of colonial oppression and exploitation, followed by postcolonial despotism and corporatism, has left many Africans disillusioned and sceptical that they can become masters of their own destiny.

But despite this negative self-image and the outside world’s view of Africa as a hopeless, benighted continent, an under-remarked revolution, or perhaps evolution, has been unfolding in many parts of the continent.

Kenya is a good example. Despite large income inequalities and a relatively high crime rate, clean and green Nairobi exudes prosperity and self-confidence. Though the city does not have much of a past, it exhibits a hope in the future and the power of freedom and knowledge. In fact, education seems to be a national obsession in Kenya, with some newspapers even leading with their education section.

Politically, Kenya has already had its own “revolution”, when its former dictator, Daniel arap Moi, was forced to step down in 2002, and his anointed successor, who also happened to be the son of Kenya’s founding father, was hammered at the ballot box.

Things have soured somewhat. Kenya’s current president, Mwai Kibaki, has exhibited psuedo-dictatorial tendencies and managed to hold on to power in 2007 amid accusations of vote-rigging, which sparked a wave of protests and violence that rocked the country.

“In Kenya, we take 10 steps forward and 12 steps back,” one Kenyan joked. My personal impression is that, despite numerous setbacks, the country is advancing. For example, Kenya’s new constitution, despite delays in its implementation, will limit the power of the presidency, boost the transparency and authority of the judiciary, and empower women.

From Kenya’s maturing democracy to Namibia’s successful post-apartheid multiparty democracy to South Sudan’s peaceful divorce from the north, Africans are slowly and gradually charting a course towards a brighter and freer future that is far removed from the images of conflict and destruction with which the outside world is most familiar.


This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 28 March 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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Ending apartheid in sport

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By Khaled Diab

The case of Caster Semenya is not about racism. Rather, it has highlighted the need to end gender apartheid in sport.

 26 August 2009

The jubilant reception and heroine’s welcome Caster Seminya received upon her return to South Africa might provide the unfortunate athlete with some consolation following her humiliating submission to a “gender verification” test following her 800 metres gold medal win at the World Championships in Berlin. 

Personally, I don’t think Semenya’s gender is in question, as she was clearly raised as a woman. If anything is in doubt, it is her sex. I can imagine how difficult it must’ve been for her growing up looking so manly, and the amount of teasing and mockery she may have been exposed. In their bid to rally around her, South Africans made a point of emphasising her gender, calling her our “golden girl” and “Caster, you beaut”. 

Based on tests that revealed that Semenya had three times the amount of testosterone in her body as would normally be expected in a female sample, there are unsubstantiated rumours that she has been taking high dosages of steroids, which could explain her appearance. 

Dubbed “our first lady of sport” by the South African media, her case soon became embroiled with the country’s post-Apartheid politics. Drawing on the legacy of the struggle against Apartheid, Winnie Madikizela, Nelson Mandela’s former wife, said: “We’ve had difficult situations in the history of this country. Don’t touch us… because if you dare, we will do it again if those who want to challenge us continue to insult us using our own people.” 

But, in this instance, accusations of racism are unfair, as plenty of white athletes have been made to take sex tests in the past, and track events are dominated by black people. Internationally, the segregation we need to be fighting in sport is gender apartheid. 

Big, powerful women like Semenya have, like men, an unfair physical advantage in women’s events, but what is often overlooked is that petit, slender men have an unfair disadvantage in men’s sport. The solution could be to mix the sexes and introduce some new criteria, such as weight or height, to even out the playing field. Moreover, in some team sports, where physical size is less of an issue, why not introduce mixed teams? 

The main justification for separating the sexes in sport is that men’s larger and stronger bodies give them an unfair advantage. However, it is also a hangover from a bygone age when sports were for men, and the only way for women to get in was to demand their own events. It’s time to rethink our antiquated attitudes to sport. 


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