The Anti-Occupation Movement at the Crossroads

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On a hot humid Sunday afternoon earlier this June (2007), thousands of activists congregated outside the Capitol Hill in the heart of Washington DC to commemorate four decades of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. Organized by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and United for Peace and Justice, the crowd was divided by race, religion, ethnicity, gender and political affiliation and yet, in a capital city otherwise known for being fraught with divisions of every kind, they were united in one unequivocal and resounding message –” end the forty year long occupation, and let the long suffering people of Palestine know some modicum of justice after their tortured history.

The message was inspiring, the cause was just and the enthusiasm of the crowd as they cheered for speakers as diverse as a mental health professional from Gaza, an Asian American pastor from the Methodist church, a former US Ambassador to the Middle East and a Jewish American peace activist, was unmistakable. The crowd was touched by the dignified compassion of Craig and Cindy Corrie, whose only daughter Rachel was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer making short work of an innocent Palestinian family’s home in 2003. It was mesmerized by the impassioned plea for freedom from Nour Erekat, the daughter of one of Palestine’s most distinguished statesmen. And it roared with enthusiastic delight when Arab Summit, a Palestinian American hip hop band took to the stage and rocked the crowd with seditious if catchy tunes of resistance and revolt. The taped messages from mainstream luminaries such as Rosanne Barr, Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich that spoke of solidarity with the Palestinian cause from the realms of entertainment, corporate activism and politics all served to enhance the perception of the gathered thousands that championing the cause of the Palestinians, once the unspeakable taboo in the unwritten code of America’s political correctness was arguably moving from the fringes to the centre of accepted discourse. Such was the sense of power and exhilaration on the June afternoon amongst the anti occupation activists, that spirits seemed impossible to dampen, neither by the sultry summer weather, nor by the small number of boorish counter protesters determined to make their presence felt.

The anti-occupation movement that has long drawn it’s strength from worldwide outrage over Israel’s repressive tactics in the Occupied Territories could, in the aftermath of the June 10’th mobilization, be forgiven for thinking that it’s mission, at least with respect to educating Americans about the many sins of the occupation, and mobilizing public opinion on the issue of Palestine, was succeeding brilliantly, and yet, the protest marking the fortieth anniversary of the Six Day War of 1967 was as much an insight into the failures and pitfalls of the anti occupation movement as it was into it’s achievements and successes. That in the heart of the world’s most powerful capital city thousands of unarmed protestors could gather to challenge the morality and legality (or lack thereof) of a US sponsored military occupation in defiance not just of the powerful pro-Israel lobby but also of successive US administrations is testimony to the ideological success of organizations such as End the Occupation and United for Peace and Justice, despite their limited resources. That the anti-occupation movement was able to mobilize only a paltry 5000 protestors (according to the organizers of the rally itself) despite the decades of extensive media coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict by the mainstream media is, however a manifestation of an underlying failure of the movement to garner grassroots support among the hearts and minds of America’s millions. The extent to which opposition to the Iraq war, for instance has permeated across the once sacrosanct dividing lines of America’s party politics can be gauged by the fact that an antiwar rally in January 2007 attracted a staggering 100,000 protesters. By contrast, the modest attendance at the anti-occupation rally served to prove, that despite some groundswell of public opinion in the US turning in favor of a just settlement of the Palestine conflict, the plight of the Palestinians had yet to capture the collective imagination of the American public to the same extent as the equally tragic, if bloodier conflict in Iraq. To the observer inclined to form opinions on the basis of statistics, it may seem that from the vantage point of the average American, Iraq mattered, Palestine did not.

Many within and without the antiwar/anti-occupation movements may be tempted to argue that the reason is not far to seek. Iraq is seen by most Americans, whatever their opinions on the invasion and it’s aftermath, as an important issue on which the future of a whole generation of US politician’s political futures rest, since it is currently a battleground for American soldiers fighting in harm’s way. It is a symbol, albeit a flawed one, of the Bush administration’s grandiose plan of purportedly bringing the boon of democracy to the Middle East, and ostensibly a central pillar of the government’s endlessly touted "War on Terror." The staggering cost to US and allied lives –” to mention nothing of the untold carnage visited upon the hapless Iraqis themselves, means that much of Middle America can ill afford the luxury of not having at least some opinion on the ceaselessly controversial subject of the Iraq war. Since the pernicious effects of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq affects virtually every state, city, town, village and neighborhood in America to at least some extent or the other, it follows that most Americans have at least some opinion, favorable or otherwise of the Iraq invasion, and thus, those that view the Iraq foray negatively are more likely to take a stand and protest openly, given the high stakes involved.

The issue of Palestine, more specifically, the occupation of the Palestinian territories in defiance of international law and UN resolutions, to mention nothing of the collective aspirations of millions of Palestinians, however, may be viewed, unlike the Iraq war as one far removed both from the conscience and psyche of the average American. Mainstream media coverage in the US has traditionally focused on the political dimension of the conflict, with meetings of political leaders across the region and, more recently, infighting within the Palestinian establishment itself, attracting the bulk of media attention in recent years. The true magnitude of the seemingly endless horrors of the occupation itself –” the utter humiliation of hundreds of checkpoints strewn across the Palestinian territories like dragon’s teeth, the bombardment of refugee camps with Apache helicopters and F16s, the wholesale collective punishment of entire Palestinian communities, the relentless house demolitions on the most flimsy of pretexts, the denial of access to health and educational facilities to even the most needy sections of Palestinian society, the punitive imprisonment of thousands of Palestinian men and adolescents in Israeli jails, the deliberate uprooting of ancient olive groves –” potent symbols not just of Palestine’s way of life but of it’s identity itself, the roads reserved for Israeli settlers and vehicles alone, the diversion of water supplies that effectively render entire Palestinian communities parched and thirsty, perhaps most symbolic of all –” Israel’s self-proclaimed "West Bank Barrier” –” read separation fence – that effectively isolates and strangulates entire Palestinian villages and towns on the West Bank –” indeed any human face of the forty year old occupation, no matter how heart rending, horrifying or bestial, is conspicuous by it’s absence in the US mainstream media. Any candid discussion of the shredding of an entire society and the wholesale denial of any semblance of dignity to the occupied has traditionally been met with howls and accusations of bigotry and bias, such that even the most high profile of defenders of Palestinian rights (the gratuitous attacks against former US President Jimmy Carter over his aptly named book "Palestine Peace not Apartheid” are a case in point) have not been spared from paying the price for questioning the senselessness of the occupation.

But even when one sets aside momentarily the highly charged political culture in the US surrounding the plight of the Palestinians, the fact nevertheless remains that part of the general apathy surrounding the issue of the Holy Land can be explained by the fact that unlike Iraq, the issue of the occupation of the Palestinian territories is far removed from the average American. And since the troubles of a land under the boot of an occupation are a world away, and do not affect markedly the lives of Americans, it is not surprising that much of the collective attitudes towards the far away occupation have long been shrouded with a veil of ignorance and diffidence. But from the vantage point of many opposed to the occupation, the US’s support for Israel’s policies –” whether political, in the form of alliances with hard-line Zionists on the part of American politicians, financial, with the roughly US $ 3 billion in largesse handed out yearly to Jerusalem courtesy of the American taxpayer, corporate, as in the obsequious sales of bulldozing equipment to the Israeli military by business giants like Caterpillar, or diplomatic, as in the vetoing of umpteen UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli excesses in the Occupied Territories – has long symbolized in a nutshell everything that is wrong with American overseas policies. That the US could wholeheartedly and unconditionally support the dispossession and oppression of an entire people in a cynical attempt to curry favor amongst a politically powerful domestic lobby for many epitomizes the frequently problematically unethical and unjust nature of many of Washington’s foreign policies.

So, here is the balance sheet – forty excruciatingly painful years of military occupation later, the US anti-occupation movement may have succeeded in mobilizing a few thousand anti-occupation activists on the lawns and thoroughfares of Washington, convinced a handful of US dignitaries and luminaries of the central nature of the need to end Israel’s occupation of conquered Arab territories, challenged the taboo surrounding any criticism of Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians, and bestowed some much needed compassion on the otherwise nameless, faceless victims of the occupation. And yet, the mass mobilization of public opinion in the US against the occupation, in a manner that reflected the meteoric rise of the broader antiwar movement, has thus far remained elusive to the anti occupation movement –” the most plausible explanation of this may be the fact that Palestine, unlike Iraq has yet to fully penetrate the collective conscience of the average American. And yet, when one considers the seven million dollars the US provides to Israel every single day, to mention nothing of the staggering 108 billion dollars in economic and military aid provided since the establishment of the Israeli state, it becomes clear that the tragedy of Palestine is, in it’s own quiet, insidious manner, relevant to Americans irrespective of whether they realize it or not. Therein may well lie the next goal of the anti occupation movement –” convincing Americans across the political spectrum that yes, even if US citizens may not bear the brunt of the daily victimization of an inherently violent military occupation, the fact that their tax dollars are being used to perpetuate a travesty of justice as glaring as that of Israel’s occupation means that, sadly, they cannot escape responsibility for it’s excesses.

On the fortieth anniversary of the Six Day War that was the harbinger of the nightmare of the occupation, a relatively modest number of anti occupation activists, their movement still at the crossroads, braved searing temperatures and racial taunts by enraged counter protesters in order to stand up for the rights and dignity of an oppressed people half a world away. The very event was a manifestation of how far the anti occupation movement has come and how far it still has to go to bring the incessant horrors of the occupation to the forefront of Washington’s political debate and the US public’s worldview. To quote Mahatma Gandhi – first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. That the anti-occupation movement seems to have reached half way down this oft trodden path is both inspiring –” and a sobering reminder of how far those that advocate justice for the Palestinians have left to go.

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