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Huwaida Arraf: ‘They have lies to spin; we have truths to tell’

Yousef M. Aljamal
30 October 2011 | Mondoweiss

Yousef M. Aljamal of Gaza’s Center for Political Development Studies interviews with Huwaida Arraf, cofounder of the International Solidarity Movement:

Aljamal: First, could you please give us a brief introduction about ISM?

Huwaida Arraf with kids in Khan Younis.

Arraf: The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) is a Palestinian-led movement committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles. We founded this international coalition to support and strengthen the Palestinian popular resistance by providing the Palestinian people with a resource — international protection and a voice — with which to resist, nonviolently, an overwhelming military occupation force.

The resources the Israeli government has at its disposal are well-known – over $3 billion in military aid from the U.S., hundreds of millions of dollars in private funds, and the unquestioned diplomatic support of the only superpower in the world exercised through its veto in the UN Security Council of any resolution that would compel Israel to abide by international law. The Palestinians also need strong resources.

We focus on providing support for the Palestinian unarmed resistance, not because we take a hostile view to the armed resistance, but rather because we believe that unarmed resistance is strategically more advantageous to Palestinians. Seeing as Israel is superior to us militarily, it’s better not to fight them in that arena, but rather in an arena where we are stronger, or at least where we have the possibility of building up our strength. This arena is that of the popular struggle, or the strategic unarmed resistance. I also must note, that while I, personally, and the ISM as an organization, recognize the Palestinian right to use armed struggle to resist occupation (even if we don’t engage in or actively support it), we strongly believe that armed resistance MUST adhere to international law. It is true that Israel frequently violates the laws that regulate armed conflict, but we do ourselves no service by doing the same.

The first ISM campaign was in August of 2001. At that time over 50 civilians from various countries came to the Occupied Palestinian Territory to engage in a 2-week, coordinated campaign of nonviolent direct-action against occupation forces and policies. Since that time we’ve had nearly 7500 civilians from all over the world come join us. Many of our volunteers come North America and Europe, but we’ve also had a number of volunteers from Latin America, Africa and various Asian countries. The socio-economic and age range of the volunteers is vast, with the average age being over 30. A number of volunteers have been over the age of 60 and we’ve even had people in their eighties join us.

Internationals joining the Palestinian struggle is important for 4 key reasons, and these form the foundation of the ISM:

1) Protection: an international presence at Palestinian civilian actions/protests can insure a certain level of protection for the Palestinian people engaged in nonviolent resistance. Palestinians acting/resisting alone are often met with harsh and even lethal forms of violence by Israeli occupation forces, including arbitrary, long-term arrest, beating, severe injury and sometimes even death. The Israeli occupation forces have succeeded to label every Palestinian man, woman and child as a potential terrorists and thereby justify their actions. No body holds Israel accountable for Palestinian lives, but foreign civilians do have governments responsible for them and are harder to label as “terrorists.” As such, when internationals are present with Palestinians at popular actions, lethal forms of violence are usually not used by most Israeli soldiers.

2) Message to the mainstream media:
The Palestinian struggle is not being accurately reported by the mainstream corporate international media. Example: When Israeli troops open fire and kill Palestinian civilians, it is often reported as “clashes” and very rarely by what it really is, Israeli forces opening fire on civilians. The mainstream media tends to show the Israeli – Palestinian conflict as one in which two sides are fighting over a piece of land and can’t live together, instead of the Palestinian struggle for freedom, dignity, and human rights that it is. Palestinians are inaccurately depicted as violent people who hate Jews and want to destroy Israel. Internationals of various social, national and religious backgrounds, joining Palestinians in the freedom struggle can help to dispel this notion. The ISM volunteers from all over the world that join us can reach out to their respective media sources and give Palestinians the voice that we don’t have.

3) Personal witness and transmitting of information:
International civilians joining Palestinians on the ground can bear witness and return home to talk to their communities about what is happening. We encourage volunteers to talk to their friends, family, and colleagues when they return home, as well as to organize larger speaking events where they can present what they experienced to community members and to the media. This information and education can then be used to lobby policy makers in an effort to change US foreign policy. Currently we have many ISM volunteers and groups actively engaged in local Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) efforts, which is a powerful form of nonviolent resistance that is having a psychological as well as a financial impact on Israel. The kind of eyewitness reporting that ISM engages in helps to generate more action in support of the Palestinian freedom struggle.

4) Break isolation / provide hope:
The occupation isolates Palestinians and cuts the Palestinian people off from the rest of the world and from each other. At the very least, international civilians have been able to raise the morale of the Palestinian people living under occupation by standing with them and saying, “you are not alone.” We feel that this helps create or return hope that is vital to our struggle – hope that Israel keeps trying to extinguish. Hope, that people acting together can change things, has been a cornerstone of our philosophy.

While the primary purpose of the ISM has been to engage in and support the Palestinian unarmed, civilian-based freedom struggle against occupation, at times when aggression of the Israeli military against Palestinian civilians has increased, the ISM took up a role in providing humanitarian assistance and protection by using their status as internationals to escort doctors, ambulances, schoolchildren and other civilians to work, hospital and school. We have also engaged in internationals only efforts to disrupt military operations. Prime examples of these include breaking through Israel’s military cordons to put internationals in the presidential compound as well as in the Church of the Nativity when they were both under siege in 2002.

Aljamal: Well, What is the role of ISM to encounter Israeli propaganda?

Arraf: As I mentioned above, ISM provides people from all over the world to come and see with their own eyes what is happening on the ground in Palestine and to take part in the popular resistance. This kind of first-hand experience is important to countering the Israeli propaganda machine in three ways: (1) it provides many people from different backgrounds speaking different languages to give eyewitness accounts from places where Israeli attacks and other atrocities take place. This increases the likelihood that journalists will get information that they might not otherwise receive, as well as gets information out about what is happening in Palestine using alternative media sources; (2) when the volunteers return to their homes, their first-hand experience, stories and pictures provide a compelling and hard-to-argue-with narrative for other people that would not otherwise get this kind of information; and (3) the experience ends up being life-changing for so many volunteers and therefore they are driven to work hard when they return to their countries. It is this drive that is behind a lot of the activism for Palestine on college campuses, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions efforts, and others.

I believe that all of the above combined plays a very important and effective role in countering Israeli propaganda. This is not to say that we’re “winning” but we have to remember that Israel spends upward of $1 billion per year on their public relations efforts, compared to almost nothing that we spend. They have professional public relations firms working for them; we have the free voices of the people. They have lies to spin; we have truths to tell. Their money and political power might buy them the mainstream media and the politicians, but not for long as we continue to inform and mobilize the masses…

Aljamal: Do Palestinian communities in the West play a positive role in exposing Israel’s crimes?

Arraf: This is not an easy question to answer. My direct experience is with the United States where, unfortunately for too long, we were disorganized and divided in addition to many members of the Palestinian community choosing to be apolitical. Add to this the fact that what was mobilized around generally had to do with raising money to provide aid to Palestine. While this is important, Palestinian communities in the west focused all of their energies (which have been limited) to responding to the crises that Israel is so good at creating. In other words, we have been, and largely still are, reacting and giving our money to aid and not the political efforts that might lead to a change in the situation that has left Palestinians in need of aid.

That said, I have noticed a shift in recent years and young Palestinian activists have been leading this shift.

Aljamal: You played a major role in breaking Gaza’s siege and brought dozens of activists to Gaza. You were one of the activists on The Freedom Flotilla that was attacked in the International waters in May 2010. Do you think that Israel has lost its reputation as “the only democracy in the Middle East” in the West after its attacks on Gaza in 2008-2009 and its attack on The Freedom Flotilla?

Arraf: No, I don’t think that Israel’s brutal aggression has anything to do with its reputation as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” We must remember that democratic governments commit unspeakable crimes. Just look at what the US and the UK have done and are doing to Iraq and Afghanistan, to name just a couple. Israel’s self-proclaimed status as the “only democracy in the Middle East” should be challenged from a more factual basis. First, Israel is not the only entity in the Middle East with democratic types of government. What about the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon? In terms of the former, we don’t have a country to call a democracy, but we do have democratic traditions. No one will deny that our 2006 elections were democratic, free, and fair (something Israel, with the support of the international community, punished us for when they did not like the outcome!); in terms of Lebanon, she’s more accurately described as a republic, which is actually better form of government than a democracy. A republic (which can be democratic) is governed under a constitution that places certain limits on the voice of the majority in order to protect the rights of the minority, something that a democracy does not do.

But even if one considers Israel a democracy, this doesn’t mean Israel is not guilty of horrific crimes, which must be stopped. Perhaps the best analogy to make here is to that of the United States prior to the late 1960s. Everyone recognizes that the US is a democratic country. Well, the U.S. was a democracy while it practiced slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, and after that, continued outright racism against the black minority in the US, depriving black people of equal rights and opportunity, not to mention subjecting them to degrading and abusive treatment. Just because Israel may be considered a democracy for its citizens this doesn’t mean that it’s not occupying, oppressing, killing, and maiming; it doesn’t mean that Israel doesn’t practice racism against its minority population; and it doesn’t mean that Israel is not a colonial, apartheid regime, which is not only illegal, but a crime against humanity.

In terms of its 2008-2009 assault on Gaza – Operation Cast Lead, and its lethal attack on the Freedom Flotilla, Israel lost something more important than its reputation as a democracy. Israel lost its image of victimhood, and perhaps for the first time, was exposed clearly as a violent aggressor.

Aljamal: Does the Palestinian rift hinder ISM efforts to get the Palestinian voice heard in the West? How?

Arraf: Undoubtedly this rift hinders efforts. First of all, it allows questions about the divisions to be raised and detracts from the core issues. Second, it provides fuel for Zionists who love to point to the chaos in Palestinian society and our violence against each other in order to justify their repression and boost their colonialist claims. Third, it divides our community outside (albeit to a lesser extent) as it does inside.

That said, I’m going to point to a larger issue than the split between Fatah and Hamas. We have not been able to capitalize properly on the international solidarity movement with Palestine due to our lack of a unified representative leadership for our national liberation struggle. In theory, this leadership is supposed to be the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), but the PLO has been deliberately marginalized and for the past 18+ years existing in name only as an unelected and unrepresentative institution. This absence of a unified national resistance movement means that we also do not have a national strategy for effective resistance and are unable to communicate effectively with the solidarity movement what we want and what we want them to do to support us. To give an example of how this not only prevents us from taking full advantage of the solidarity movement but how it can actually be harmful to our efforts, I will refer to a UN Conference of Civil Society Organizations in Solidarity with the Palestinian People that I spoke at in 2002. I clearly remember an organizer of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee in South Africa telling us how they were working on promoting a boycott of Israel and even pressuring the South African government to cut relations with Israel. The South African government asked the Palestinian Representative Office in South Africa whether or not boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel was a demand of the Palestinian leadership? The Palestinian Ambassador said no. In this case, and in many others, the “official” Palestinian leadership hindered the ability of a solidarity organization to advocate for Palestine.

To make up for this absence of a unified national leadership with an effective strategy for fighting the occupation, Palestinians civil society has tried to step up and make their voices heard. The most successful example of this is the 2005 Palestinian Civil Society Call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). By releasing a statement and a call to action endorsed by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, we gave the solidarity movement some direction. So, Palestinian civil society has been trying to make up for what I consider a massive failure of our leadership. This is not enough however. I strongly believe that Palestinians, not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but also in 48 and all over the world need to focus on building or rebuilding a unified representative leadership to lead our national struggle forward. One of the ways to do this is by reviving the PLO and its institutions, starting with direct elections to the Palestine National Council (PNC).

Aljamal: You likely heard about “The Israel Project”, if Palestinians need to encounter such a project, what are the main points they need to shed light on?

Arraf: I don’t think that we need to focus on countering this project per se. We should focus on setting the agenda and shaping the debate. It is the Israel Project that should continue scrambling to devise ways to counter what we are doing. Everything the Israel Project produces is really empty and devoid of any truth, designed to manipulate people who don’t have accurate information and to give people that are already under the influence of the Israeli lobby hollow words and arguments to use to defend their support of Israel. This is all easily countered by facts and information that we put out.

If I would recommend that we take anything from the Israel Project, it is their focus on using language that resonates with the audience that it is trying to reach. This is one thing for us to keep in mind in our communications. Sometimes, we can really turn people away by using language that people might think is extreme, or that doesn’t mean much to them. Highly emotional language and images are understandable, but not very effective. This is not to say that we should not appeal to people’s emotions, we should, but through personal stories told in calm language. For example, an image of an elderly man standing in a cage that is one of Israel’s checkpoints can expose the racism and deliberate degradation that is part of Israel’s policies. People can relate to this, imagining their own fathers subjected to such humiliating treatment. Whereas if we show a picture of a bloody body, this will likely only inflame the emotions of those who already support our cause. Others will not relate this to a deliberate policy that is unjust, but rather to the unfortunate results of war. Israelis can show similar pictures.

Aljamal: If you have a message to the Palestinian young bloggers and writers who write in English, what would you say?

Arraf:I would say that I need to take advice from them! It’s wonderful that we have so many talented young writers. I don’t write much at all, which is a great weakness. I feel that our young Palestinian writers know better than me, but for the sake of stressing a few important points:

(1) Strive for accuracy: It’s often hard to get accurate information fast, but the more one focuses on her/his information accuracy, the more s/he will become a credible source of information, not only for the general public, but also for journalists. This is one thing we’ve tried to do with ISM volunteers. Because we have ISM volunteers in sensitive places where journalists do not often go, we have stressed the importance of getting accurate information that we can pass along to journalists in the hopes that they will report on actions and incidents. If you give a journalist wrong information, s/he will not be likely to use you as a source again. However, if you consistently provide accurate, reliable information, you will become a source for journalists and others, which can only be helpful in disseminating news about what is happening in Palestine.

(2) No need to exaggerate: This is another piece of advice we give to ISM volunteers. The things that happen in Palestine on a daily basis are bad enough, so there is no need to exaggerate anything. Tell it like it is.

(3) Personal stories: You want to try to relate to your readers and have them relate to you. I think this is best done through personal stories and experiences.

Aljamal: New Media motivated Arab youths express themselves, do you believe that Palestinians can make use of it to get rid of the occupation? How?

Arraf: New media, alternative media, social media – all of these can be used as tools in fighting the occupation. We will need more than media to get rid of the occupation, but effective use of various new media tools to communicate information and organize collective action can greatly strengthen us.

To get rid of the occupation, we have to change people’s behavior; we have to create situations where people’s actions that support the Israeli occupation are altered in order to weaken the occupation. For example – soldiers who refuse to serve in the Israeli army can help weaken Israel’s military capabilities; Israeli society that wakes up from it’s indifference or government-supporting trance can increase pressure on the Israeli government to alter its policies; governments that impose sanctions on Israel can weaken Israel’s political and economic power; people, organizations, and institutions that boycott Israel can create pressure on Israeli society to pressure its government, and create an image crisis for the Israeli state, etc. To motivate these and other sectors of society to act, we need to communicate effectively, and here, we use new media as a tool to disseminate information and to organize.

For example, as I talked about above, ISM volunteers go back to their home countries and spread the word about what’s happening in Palestine. We then want to transform this knowledge into action – to lobby government officials to change their policies and stop supporting Israeli occupation and apartheid, to boycott Israel, etc. So we use new media and other communication tools to inform, so that we can then turn that information and knowledge into action.

Also in terms of organization, we’ve seen how social media has helped to mobilize people. We can use social media tools to organize coordinated actions around the world designed to put pressure on Israel. But while social media can be a great organizing tool, I think that we should be careful about relying only on social media, especially for organizing local actions. We should not forget that many people don’t use the Internet, don’t use Facebook and Twitter as a source of information and we need to reach these people too. So, these media tools should be used in addition to other traditional means of communication

Aljamal: Why do you believe that one-state solution is the best one to the conflict?

Arraf: I actually do not advocate the one-state solution. This doesn’t mean that I support the two-state solution either. Rather, I take a “rights-based approach.” This means that I focus on the rights that we’re struggling to achieve and don’t spend time arguing about one state or two. In reality, I don’t care if it’s 10 states or no states, as long as the rights of Palestinians and all people are respected and implemented. This includes the right of our refugees to return and to compensation for their losses, the right to complete equality under the law, and other rights currently denied to Palestinians. As a political solution, one state would likely achieve this best. However, if two states were proposed that included the right of all refugees to return to their homes (even if not the exact homes they lived in) inside 48 Palestine, and guaranteed equality for all people, meaning that Israel would NOT be defined as a Jewish state, but a state that represented all her people equally, then that could also work. Since the two-state solution that has been and is currently talked about does not guarantee the above, in principle, I am opposed to it. But, instead of spending time arguing that one state is better, I choose to focus on the rights that we’re fighting for. This is my personal approach. I don’t argue that it’s the best approach, but I do feel that it focuses us on principles and rights, which are hard to argue with. For example, a Zionist argument against the one-state solution is that it seeks to wipe out Israel. Whereas it’s hard for a Zionist to say that they can’t agree to total equality of citizens within the state. I would say to a Zionist “no, I don’t want to wipe out Israel, but I want to be treated equally inside Israel.” This means that Israel cannot define itself as a Jewish state, because then it would need to maintain a Jewish majority. This means that it would need to take steps to ensure that Jews remain a majority, including preventing Palestinian families from reuniting, continuing to recruit Jews to bring to Israel while keeping Palestinians out, perhaps some day restricting the number of children Palestinians inside Israel can have!”

CPDS is a Gaza based non-profit organization facilitating Palestinians representing themselves “in the tongues of its own people”, to convey their own message to the world and enhance Palestine’s presence in world forums and international organizations.