Written by Student Rights on 15 March 2010 at 1pm

Opinion: A Response to “Why Are Palestinian Societies on Campus Not Pro-Palestinian?” by Sam Bennett

A Response to “Why Are Palestinian Societies on Campus Not Pro-Palestinian?” by Sam Bennett Please note that as with all opinion pieces, this post does not reflect the views of Student Rights

Since the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel has at no point complied to its obligations under international law in resolving its conflict with the Palestinians. From the 1970s, initiatives by the PLO and Arab states to achieve a Palestinian state in the occupied territories have been explicitly rejected by Israel and the United States. According to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2004, Israel has no legal title to any of the territories conquered in 1967, including East Jerusalem. The ICJ stated that all Israeli settlements there have been established in breach of international law. Amnesty International and other leading human rights groups have also acknowledged the legal right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and villages they were forced to leave. Israel's rejection of Palestinian legal rights is most clearly seen in its continuous illegal settlement growth. By dividing the West Bank into cantons, the settlements serve as a major obstacle to the two-state solution that some of Israel's supporters purport to defend. Right now, the Israeli government refuses to even freeze settlement construction. It also falsely insists that Palestinians have no claim to East Jerusalem. Instead, Palestinian families are being literally kicked out of their homes in places like Sheikh Jarrah by militant settlers.

Rightly, the Palestinians have said that they cannot begin negotiations when Israel sets preconditions that are contrary to both international law and elementary justice. The brutal Israeli attack on Gaza last year was just one illustration of Israel's far greater capacity to inflict suffering. Thirteen Israelis died, as against one thousand four hundred Palestinians. Palestinian citizens within Israel additionally face widespread discrimination because of Israel's ethno-nationalist character. They have been threatened with expulsion by leading Israeli politicians and told that their “national aspirations lie elsewhere”. Israel's current Foreign Minister has called for their elected representatives to be executed. Now the humane and progressive way forward is not with collective punishment but to end oppression and move toward a settlement based on universal values of equality and human rights.

Unfortunately, Palestinians have seen too much in the way of collective punishment. Israel's war on Gaza last year was intended to “humiliate and terrorize a civilian population”, according to the UN's Goldstone report. According to Jimmy Carter “the citizens of Gaza are being treated more like animals than human beings”, solely because of who controls the government. In light of this scenario of despair, the London School of Economics Students' Union twinned with the Islamic University of Gaza as a show of support to the best and largest university in Gaza and the right to education of Palestinians. Because of Israel's siege Palestinians in Gaza cannot travel abroad or even to the West Bank to pursue their education.

Othman Sakallah is one such student, with an offer to study at LSE but denied exit. For many young people in Gaza the IUG is their best option. It has faculties in medicine, science, engineering and information technology, among others. We do not see why its 20,000 students should be punished or scorned in any way. That the motion passed shows that intelligent and progressive students are refusing to acquiesce in the collective punishment that their governments are complicit in.[1] It is a very positive sign for the burgeoning peace movement on UK campuses.

Unfortunately, ED writes in her recent opinion piece that she would prefer such students focus on problems inside Palestinian society, ones that “cannot be blamed on Israel”. Yet we cannot wait for Palestinian society to become a liberal paradise before we criticise Israel's illegal occupation. Nor can we wait for every Palestinian to cease all resistance, in the vain hope that Israel will then stop crushing them. Ending the world's longest military occupation is a prerequisite to the continued existence of Palestinian society, let alone its healthy development. Otherwise we face the very real risk of watching Israel “finish the job”, unilaterally encircling the Palestinians in ghettos and Bantustans.

This is the path to perpetual misery and it is neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israeli. ED suggests that if we had selected any other Palestinian university for the twinning that it would gather unanimous support. We would like to remind her that our previous twinning with An-Najah University in Nablus was opposed by students applying similarly weak arguments. Fortunately LSE students were able to see beyond this, passing the motion with a clear majority. Support for peace with justice in Palestine has been a consistent stance taken by LSE students for the last two decades and the movement is only growing.

The main theme of ED's article is that pro-Palestinian student activists are too abrasive, thereby showing themselves to be self-indulgent and not truly concerned for the welfare of the Palestinians.  ED suggests that the Palestine Society at LSE should focus on “constructive, productive, and uniting events and actions that we can all support”. Like Rabbi Sarna and Imam Latif, we should hold lots of joint discussions. It is indeed important that all students work together on campus in helping the Palestinian cause. Yet this can only happen in a meaningful way if all parties agree to some basic principles. These include respect for international law and equality, as well as opposition to foreign occupation, aggressive war, colonialism and apartheid. Without this basic provision, doing only things that everyone can support equates to doing very little at all. The benefits of any dialogue will often be very limited too. In implying that there is a legitimate disagreement between those who have decided to deny the inalienable rights of Palestinians and those who acknowledge them, it is also morally questionable.

Faris Giacaman, a Palestinian student activist, has written how “[i]t is a particularly naive view to assume persuasion and 'talking' will convince an oppressive system to give up its power.” What would we have thought of those who insisted that South Africans try and understand the view of white supremacists, or if Gandhi had substituted “dialogue” for his non-violent resistance?[2] Only a struggle for justice is likely to force any recognition of Palestinian rights: “pressure not persuasion” according to Giacaman. The evidence continues to show that he is right. Still a majority of Israelis consider the occupied territories to be liberated territory. Perhaps ED shares this outlook. She notably uses the term “disputed territories” in her article. Yet according to the World Court there is nothing in dispute: they are illegally occupied and belong to the Palestinians.

This is why more and more people are coming to support the idea of an international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). In 2005, the whole spectrum of Palestinian civil society called for the campaign, modelled on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. No one relishes the idea of boycotts and divestment. But it is seen by many as the best way to pressure Israel and its supporters to end the occupation. It is also a non-violent strategy. Yet like our twinning it is often labelled as “divisive”. How can it be that so many initiatives that are “divisive” and so do not meaningfully support the Palestinians have the support of so many Palestinians? And what ED dismisses as empty “symbolic exercises”, are often seen by Palestinians as clear expressions of solidarity. This is how appreciative IUG students saw our twinning, which we intend to build upon with them.

Black and white people, both in Africa and around the world, worked together against the apartheid regime in South Africa. The terms of their collective efforts were based on the desire to end discrimination and to bring equality, and not to discuss how best blacks could adapt to white racism. In the same vein, Israelis and Palestinians as well as pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students, can work together when they share a common platform of ending what the UN's Special Rapporteur has described as a system of “colonialism, apartheid and foreign occupation”.

[1] Oxfam and other UK aid agencies have condemned the EU's involvement in the blockade: [2]