Published 23 August 2007
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Those calling for a boycott of Israel were once distant voices. Now the discussion has gone global. It is growing inexorably and will not be silenced.
From a limestone hill rising above Qalandia refugee camp you can see Jerusalem. I watched a lone figure standing there in the rain, his son holding the tail of his long tattered coat. He extended his hand and did not let go. â€œI am Ahmed Hamzeh, street entertainer,â€ he said in measured English. â€œOver there, I played many musical instruments; I sang in Arabic, English and Hebrew, and because I was rather poor, my very small son would chew gum while the monkey did its tricks. When we lost our country, we lost respect. One day a rich Kuwaiti stopped his car in front of us. He shouted at my son, â€œShow me how a Palestinian picks up his food rations!â€ So I made the monkey appear to scavenge on the ground, in the gutter. And my son scavenged with him. The Kuwaiti threw coins and my son crawled on his knees to pick them up. This was not right; I was an artist, not a beggar . . . I am not even a peasant now.â€
â€œHow do you feel about all that?â€ I asked him.
â€œDo you expect me to feel hatred? What is that to a Palestinian? I never hated the Jews and their Israel . . . yes, I suppose I hate them now, or maybe I pity them for their stupidity. They canâ€™t win. Because we Palestinians are the Jews now and, like the Jews, we will never allow them or the Arabs or you to forget. The youth will guarantee us that, and the youth after them . . .â€.
That was 40 years ago. On my last trip back to the West Bank, I recognised little of Qalandia, now announced by a vast Israeli checkpoint, a zigzag of sandbags, oil drums and breeze blocks, with conga lines of people, waiting, swatting flies with precious papers. Inside the camp, the tents had been replaced by sturdy hovels, although the queues at single taps were as long, I was assured, and the dust still ran to caramel in the rain. At the United Nations office I asked about Ahmed Hamzeh, the street entertainer. Records were consulted, heads shaken. Someone thought he had been â€œtaken away . . . very illâ€. No one knew about his son, whose trachoma was surely blindness now. Outside, another generation kicked a punctured football in the dust.
And yet, what Nelson Mandela has called â€œthe greatest moral issue of the ageâ€ refuses to be buried in the dust. For every BBC voice that strains to equate occupier with occupied, thief with victim, for every swarm of emails from the fanatics of Zion to those who invert the lies and describe the Israeli stateâ€™s commitment to the destruction of Palestine, the truth is more powerful now than ever. Documentation of the violent expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 is voluminous. Re-examination of the historical record has put paid to the fable of heroic David in the Six Day War, when Ahmed Hamzeh and his family were driven from their home. The alleged threat of Arab leaders to â€œthrow the Jews into the seaâ€, used to justify the 1967 Israeli onslaught and since repeated relentlessly, is highly questionable. In 2005, the spectacle of wailing Old Testament zealots leaving Gaza was a fraud. The building of their â€œsettlementsâ€ has accelerated on the West Bank, along with the illegal Berlin-style wall dividing farmers from their crops, children from their schools, families from each other. We now know that Israelâ€™s destruction of much of Lebanon last year was pre-planned. As the former CIA analyst Kathleen Christison has written, the recent â€œcivil warâ€ in Gaza was actually a coup against the elected Hamas-led government, engineered by Elliott Abrams, the Zionist who runs US policy on Israel and a convicted felon from the Iran-Contra era.
The ethnic cleansing of Palestine is as much Americaâ€™s crusade as Israelâ€™s. On 16 August, the Bush administration announced an unprecedented $30bn military â€œaid packageâ€ for Israel, the worldâ€™s fourth biggest military power, an air power greater than Britain, a nuclear power greater than France. No other country on earth enjoys such immunity, allowing it to act without sanction, as Israel. No other country has such a record of lawlessness: not one of the worldâ€™s tyrannies comes close. International treaties, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, ratified by Iran, are ignored by Israel. There is nothing like it in UN history.
But something is changing. Perhaps last summerâ€™s panoramic horror beamed from Lebanon on to the worldâ€™s TV screens provided the catalyst. Or perhaps cynicism of Bush and Blair and the incessant use of the inanity, â€œterrorâ€, together with the day-by-day dissemination of a fabricated insecurity in all our lives, has finally brought the attention of the international community outside the rogue states, Britain and the US, back to one of its principal sources, Israel.
I got a sense of this recently in the United States. A full-page advertisement in the New York Times had the distinct odour of panic. There have been many â€œfriends of Israelâ€ advertisements in the Times, demanding the usual favours, rationalising the usual outrages. This one was different. â€œBoycott a cure for cancer?â€ was its main headline, followed by â€œStop drip irrigation in Africa? Prevent scientific co-operation between nations?â€ Who would want to do such things? â€œSome British academics want to boycott Israelis,â€ was the self-serving answer. It referred to the University and College Unionâ€™s (UCU) inaugural conference motion in May, calling for discussion within its branches for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. As John Chalcraft of the London School of Economics pointed out, â€œthe Israeli academy has long provided intellectual, linguistic, logistical, technical, scientific and human support for an occupation in direct violation of international law [against which] no Israeli academic institution has ever taken a public standâ€.
The swell of a boycott is growing inexorably, as if an important marker has been passed, reminiscent of the boycotts that led to sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Both Mandela and Desmond Tutu have drawn this parallel; so has South African cabinet minister Ronnie Kasrils and other illustrious Jewish members of the liberation struggle. In Britain, an often Jewish-led academic campaign against Israelâ€™s â€œmethodical destruction of [the Palestinian] education systemâ€ can be translated by those of us who have reported from the occupied territories into the arbitrary closure of Palestinian universities, the harassment and humiliation of students at checkpoints and the shooting and killing of Palestinian children on their way to school.
These initiatives have been backed by a British group, Independent Jewish Voices, whose 528 signatories include Stephen Fry, Harold Pinter, Mike Leigh and Eric Hobsbawm. The countryâ€™s biggest union, Unison, has called for an â€œeconomic, cultural, academic and sporting boycottâ€ and the right of return for Palestinian families expelled in 1948. Remarkably, the Commonsâ€™ international development committee has made a similar stand. In April, the membership of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) voted for a boycott only to see it hastily overturned by the national executive council. In the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has called for divestment from Israeli companies: a campaign aimed at the European Union, which accounts for two-thirds of Israelâ€™s exports under an EU-Israel Association Agreement. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, has said that human rights conditions in the agreement should be invoked and Israelâ€™s trading preferences suspended.
This is unusual, for these were once distant voices. And that such grave discussion of a boycott has â€œgone globalâ€ was unforeseen in official Israel, long comforted by its seemingly untouchable myths and great power sponsorship, and confident that the mere threat of anti-Semitism would ensure silence. When the British lecturersâ€™ decision was announced, the US Congress passed an absurd resolution describing the UCU as â€œanti-Semiticâ€. (Eighty congressmen have gone on junkets to Israel this summer.)
This intimidation has worked in the past. The smearing of American academics has denied them promotion, even tenure. The late Edward Said kept an emergency button in his New York apartment connected to the local police station; his offices at Columbia University were once burned down. Following my 2002 film, Palestine is Still the Issue, I received death threats and slanderous abuse, most of it coming from the US where the film was never shown. When the BBCâ€™s Independent Panel recently examined the corporationâ€™s coverage of the Middle East, it was inundated with emails, â€œmany from abroad, mostly from North Americaâ€, said its report. Some individuals â€œsent multiple missives, some were duplicates and there was clear evidence of pressure group mobilisationâ€. The panelâ€™s conclusion was that BBC reporting of the Palestinian struggle was not â€œfull and fairâ€ and â€œin important respects, presents an incomplete and in that sense misleading pictureâ€. This was neutralised in BBC press releases.