Iraq, Palestine, and Resisting Erasure

[What follows is a talk Rela Mazali presented at the panel on “Linking Local with International Issues: Future Plans and Strategies for Struggle” at the International Women in Black Conference, East Jerusalem, 11-16 August 2005.]

Women in Black

I’d like to read you something. This is part of a declaration:

There is widespread opposition to the occupation. Political, social, and civil resistance through peaceful means is subjected to repression by the occupying forces. It is the occupation and its brutality that has provoked a strong armed resistance and certain acts of desperation. By the principles embodied in the UN Charter and in international law, the popular national resistance to the occupation is legitimate and justified. It deserves the support of people everywhere who care for justice and freedom.

Another section of the same declaration charges the occupying forces of:

Actively creating conditions under which the status of . . . women has seriously been degraded. . . . Women’s freedom of movement has severely been limited, restricting their access to the public sphere, to education, livelihood, political and social engagement.

This is just one of many crimes the occupying forces are charged with in this declaration. Some of the others are:

  • Targeting the civilian population
  • Using deadly violence against peaceful protesters
  • Imposing punishments without charge or trial, including collective punishment
  • Subjecting . . . civilians to torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment
  • Wilfully devastating the environment
  • Obstructing the right to information

Many of these charges could be brought, almost word for word, against the Israeli government and the Israeli forces occupying the West Bank and Gaza. But this is not a declaration on the situation in Palestine.

It was formulated by the jury of the World Tribunal on Iraq, convened in Istanbul on June 23rd this year. The World Tribunal on Iraq is an extended process, envisioned and carried out by thousands of people of conscience around the world, who — as the declaration states — decided to stand up. The Istanbul session was the culmination of 20 sessions held in different cities of the world and “focusing,” to quote again, “on the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.” The Istanbul session was organized by a small group of women working cooperatively and totally voluntarily over two years.

World Tribunal on Iraq

The US-led invasion, occupation and pillage of Iraq directly affect the matrix of power throughout the Middle East and in fact throughout the world. I believe that each one of us is seriously imperilled by the current impunity of the governments that have invaded and now occupy Iraq; By their lack of accountability to their own peoples whom they knowingly misled into war with lies about weapons of mass destruction; By their overturning of international law and their wholesale violation of human rights; By the growing swell of worldwide militarization that is driven by this war, and the immense war-profiteering it facilitates; By the complicity-in-arms of international institutions, including the U.N., the media, and major corporations; By the toxication and destruction systematically wreaked upon the earth, the air, the water, the people, the human heritage of Iraq. I believe that all of these pose direct personal threats to each and every one of us.

There are many distinctions between the specific situation in Iraq and the specific situation in the West Bank and Gaza. But almost all the points above bear strong analogies to aspects of Israel’s ruthless occupation and its continuing war against the Palestinians. As citizens of a sovereign state with an active elections system and legislature, it is the people of Israel who bear direct responsibility for the occupation and oppression of the people of the West Bank and Gaza, through their government and their army. But it is a single power-based authority — the United States — that grants and protects the international impunity of both the occupiers of Iraq and the occupiers of Palestine.

Resisting one of them requires and involves resisting the other. Resisting the occupation of Palestine means also addressing the U.S.A. and its actions in the region. Resisting the occupation of Iraq means also addressing Israel and its continuing contribution to the militarization of the region.

I believe that the groups resisting each part of this interconnected web could gain from finding out much more about each other and coordinating action at specific, clear-cut points. For instance, right now, New Profile is preparing a speaking tour in the U.S. for Diana Dolev (one of the organizers of this conference), and we’ve been trying — though without clear results yet — to set up joint talks with Iraq Veterans Against the War, with the feminist anti-war group Code Pink, and with other U.S. anti-war groups. We believe that the messages on each of these distinct cases — Iraq and Palestine — would both amplify and clarify each other; Would underline the urgency of each and both. This type of work could connect us to U.S. audiences who haven’t yet invested much interest in Israel-Palestine. It could offer our American counterparts various methods, ideas, language.

For many, and maybe all, of us, this link between occupations and occupiers is completely evident. But I’d like to stress that I believe it terribly important for some of us to invest in learning the specifics — exactly how the channels of connection run; Precisely which economic and political bodies, institutions and individuals are active in both contexts. It’s vital to understand as much as we possibly can about how those exercising power in these different but linked locations interact and interconnect. That is the matrix of power that we’re resisting. We need to see it clearly in order to direct our resistance.

This brings me to some of what was being said yesterday afternoon at the workshop on Sanctions, Boycott, and Divestment. Dalit Baum among others was emphasizing the importance of knowledge-building as a condition for such a campaign. Of compiling a list of institutions and companies to be divested from or boycotted. Personally, I have felt for a long time that Israeli society will finally find its way to end the occupation when the price it’s paying really begins to hurt. That is one of the reasons that New Profile, welcomes and supports all forms of refusal to serve in the military. Because even refusal to serve for so-called egotistical reasons, often in the form of a psychological exemption, implies at the very least that the particular young man or woman taking this course considers the personal price required in order for the state to maintain armed conflict too high for him or her to pay. The steadily rising numbers of young people failing to serve at all or leaving the army early on express a growing unwillingness throughout Israeli society to go on paying this kind of price.

On the issue of sanctions, divestment, and boycott, I want to add my individual voice to the call coming out of Palestinian civil society and to the view of many here that these are a central, vital next step. I very much hope that the final declaration of this conference will include such a call. I am asking the international community: Please, boycott me. Boycott my country. Sanction it till it stops committing these crimes. And sanction as well those outside it who are profiting.

To illustrate another possibility for connected action — one of the jury’s recommendations at the World Tribunal was as follows: That people throughout the world launch nonviolent actions against US and UK corporations that directly profit from this war. Examples of such corporations include Halliburton, Bechtel, The Carlyle Group, . . . (I’m skipping here). The following companies have sued Iraq and received “reparation awards”: Toys R Us, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Shell, Nestlé, Pepsi, Phillip Morris, Sheraton, Mobil. Such actions may take the form of direct actions such as shutting down their offices, consumer boycotts, and pressure on shareholders to divest.

“Strategies,” to me, is an intimidating word, heavy with high expectations for bright new ideas. More important, maybe, are my immediate visions of world maps on the wall and men pointing out different locations. Originally, the term is about planning the effective use of organized violence. It implies a birdseye view, from “above”, with the “strategists” deciding how to move people and things around to their advantage.

The strategizing of those of us working to make the world humane is and has to be different. It can’t be conducted “from above” as it were, if it intends to create conditions in which people — all people — decide how to move themselves around and have the basic resources to do so.

What do we do, then, to make this current world humane as we meanwhile view it and act in it from a “people-perspective”? I have to say, for one thing, that I think we know what we’re doing. We’ve learned it from many, many women and men who did it before us and who, many times, succeeded though many of them also failed. That’s part of our people-perspective. We know what to do. More or less. Always imperfectly. But still. Part of strategy is to go on doing it.

This sounds terribly disappointing. Here in Israel-Palestine we haven’t ended the occupation or achieved a solution for the millions Palestinians continuously dispossessed, over more than half a century, of their homes, lands, livelihood, of their social fabric and cultural heritage. We haven’t stopped Israel’s accelerated militarization. We haven’t ended the racist discrimination against the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. We haven’t ended the systemic sexist, homophobic, xenophobic oppression practised on a broad scale in this country. We haven’t undone the deep-set exploitation, discrimination, and marginalization of Mizrachi Israelis or Arab Jews. Or the rampant dispossession of the poor. I’m not talking about denying any of that. I’m talking about going on doing what we know could change it.

Strategies are usually about the future. One important strategy is and needs to be about the past and present — we need to recognize the almost invisible successes along the often hopeless way.

Last Wednesday at 8am, I was outside Israel’s main induction base, to support Alex Cohn, Shaul Mughrabi Berger, Wissam Qablan, and Orwa Zidan, who are currently imprisoned for declaring their refusal to serve in an occupying army. It was lively and noisy there with over 150 demonstrators on a steaming weekday morning. One of them was a young pacifist I interviewed almost about eight years ago about his refusal and exemption from the army. I walked over to say “hi,” and he commented, “We’ve come a really long way, haven’t we?” “What do you mean?” I asked. Looking around, he said, “When I refused I didn’t know a single person who had done the same thing. I hadn’t even heard of anyone else who had refused.”

This young man was giving me a modest but hopeful look at how reality around him had actually changed. And that look, that kind of look, rather than birdseye views, is I believe central to our strategies. Looking at where we make change on a human scale.

For the powers we’re resisting, making our successes seem invisible and insignificant is an important strategy. Our feminist, women’s eye-level look is not supposed to count. The events and processes created by people of conscience at the World Tribunal on Iraq, at the Women In Black conference in Jerusalem, are supposed to be totally absent from the large scale maps and the mainstream media. They don’t show any of the changes we make. Just as they don’t show the care-taking work done by almost all of us as women, despite the fact that the entire world depends on it. But as feminists we’ve learned to see it between their lines and arrows.

Our work is supposed to evaporate out of view in face of the men who decide how to move around people and money and things. Resisting that erasure is crucial. And first of all resisting it among ourselves. This is a central tool for our survival as political actors. It is part of our political work. It’s not just emotional sustenance, although that’s extremely important. Resisting erasure of the differences we make is itself part of making a difference. We need to practice this form of resistance in every way we can find and at every level on which we operate. We will not be wiped off the map because we’re redrawing it.

I’m asking us all to take a careful look at different pieces of the change we’re making. It’s slow. It’s not even near enough. But we are making change in face of impossible odds. Look for it. Find it. Recognize it. Resist erasure. That’s the strategy I’ll end with today.

Rela Mazali is an Israeli writer and feminist peace activist. A founder of the New Profile movement to de-militarize Israeli civil society, Mazali has worked for many years to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories. As former Director of Projects and Development for the Association of Israeli Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights, she planned and directed the 1993 Tel-Aviv conference on The International Struggle against Torture and the Case of Israel, attended by 450 participants from over a dozen countries, including torture survivors from Occupied Palestine. She is the author of numerous short stories, articles, and essays, including: WhaNever: A Novel (1987); Playbie Sitter, a children’s book co-authored with No’a Mazali, her daughter (1997); and educational curricula on topics including peace education, children’s rights, and gender equality. Her first book in English, Maps of Women’s Goings and Stayings (2001) was recently published by Stanford University Press.