Insightful interview with Ali Abunimah about Palestine


Journalist Ali Abunimah is one of the most important sources of information and analysis
of the Israeli war on Palestine and the ongoing struggle for justice. He is
cofounder of the invaluableElectronic Intifada
 website and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the
Israeli-Palestinian Impasse
. He talked to
 Eric Ruder about the latest
developments in the region–and what lies ahead for Palestinians.

CAN YOU describe how the Arab Spring that
began with the overthrow of U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and
Egypt has reshaped the terrain faced by those engaged in the struggle for
Palestinian liberation?

I THINK it has
become clear that for a long time, the major obstacle between Palestinians and
freedom–as well as for other Arab peoples–is the role of U.S. hegemony and
empire in the region. That’s not something new or particularly controversial.
The only thing is that people call it by different names.

People who
support it talk about “U.S. influence” or “the U.S. role”
or “U.S. interests,” and people who tend to oppose it call it by the
name of “empire.” But we’re really talking about the same thing.

The Arab
Spring–or the Arab uprisings, which I think is a more descriptive term–are as
much a set of uprisings against local rulers as they are against a regional
order which has kept those dictatorships in place, misusing the resources of
the countries in the region and generally holding back people from fulfilling
their potential.

I think the
uprising exists in that context, and Israel fits into it because Israel is
highly dependent on U.S. support. I don’t particularly buy the argument that Israel
is an enormous asset to the United States. I think Israel is, in many respects,
a burden and an obstacle to smooth U.S. control of the region.

But in any case,
the U.S. and Israel are intertwined, and the challenge to U.S. power is also a
challenge to Israeli power. So the struggle in the long term or medium term is
whether Arab countries, especially Egypt, can really gain independence and
sovereignty. If so, that is a real threat to Israeli and American hegemony in
the region.

I think that
would generally favor the prospects for Palestinians getting their own freedom.
But there is obviously a very strong U.S.-led counterrevolution, in which it
has local and regional allies–Israel and Saudi Arabia, in particular). The
jury is out on whether these uprisings are going to be able to really push back
the frontiers of empire and create a space for people in the region to
determine their own futures.

SEEM to be many different ideas about how the struggle should proceed
strategically and tactically–from the mass marches on the borders of Israel on
the Nakba and Naksa day protests to the push for Palestinian statehood at the
UN in September. What is driving these debates?

WE’RE IN the
midst of an enormous paradigm shift that has been ongoing for a few years, and
which I’ve spoken and written about in the past–the slow death of the paradigm
of a so-called “two-state solution” and of the 1993 Oslo Accords
between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

What gave the
Oslo Accords their legitimacy was the notion that at the end of the road, there
was going to be a free and independent Palestinian state that was going to
fulfill the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people. That was the
carrot that was always held out–if you keep plodding along this road,
eventually you’ll get there.

So the Oslo
Accords heralded the creation of a Palestinian Authority (PA), but the PA was
thoroughly under Israeli control. I think what people see now is that you’ll
never get there, and this whole charade of the peace process has been a cover
for deepening Israeli colonization and ethnic cleansing.

The PA has really
become–as it was meant to be from the very beginning–an enforcement arm for
Israeli occupation, suppressing any form of Palestinian resistance, whether
it’s popular resistance or armed resistance, in order to permit Israel a
headache-free occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.

Meanwhile, within
the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel, we see increasing repression of the 1.4
million Palestinians living there. And there’s a growing resort to outright
fascist and repressive measures by Israel’s ultra-national government to
enforce its ideological outlook on both Arabs and Jews.

For example,
there’s making kindergarten children sing the Israeli national anthem–which
should really be called a Jewish nationalist anthem instead of a national
anthem, because it’s a specifically sectarian anthem that is designed to
instill a chauvinist ideology in children.

There’s the
banning of discussion of the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
There’s the recently passed law criminalizing any individual or group calling
for a boycott of Israel. There’s a series of laws stripping parliamentary
immunity and privileges from Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Knesset,
like Haneen Zoaby.

There’s also a
growing slew of laws and practices that are about residential segregation and
enforcement of apartheid in order to preserve particular areas for Jews only.
There are “morality patrols” that are designed to deter Jewish women
from dating or marrying or seeing Arab men, which are so reminiscent of Jim
Crow-era racism and anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.

So we see Israeli
society retreating into this increasingly racist and chauvinistic register, both
at the level of official laws and policies and at a social level.

In this context,
the notion of negotiations–the constant refrain that “if the Israelis and
Palestinian Authority just sat down at the negotiating table”–isn’t
convincing anymore. Nobody believes that the PA, which is totally under the
thumb of Israel and the U.S., sitting down with an extremist government like
Israel’s can come up with a reasonable and just peace.

It defies logic.
It requires you to believe in all kinds of fairy tales and magic to think that
those ingredients can produce any kind of a just or viable or legitimate peace
settlement. So I think the struggle is shifting back toward the people from
whom it was wrested by the so-called “peace process.” That’s why we
see an increase in popular resistance on the ground in Palestine–for example,
the mass marches to the boundaries of Palestine on Nakba day and Naksa day.

And of course, we
see the growth of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which
Israel perceives as an enormous threat, because it is independent of
governments and independent of institutions. It’s being taken to heart by
people around the world, based on their support for the principles contained in
the Palestinian civil society call for BDS.

So that’s where I
see the struggle shifting–and why I see the debate shifting away from
partition, segregation and the creation of ethno-national states to keep people
apart, and toward universal rights, justice and equality. I think historically,
those ideas are impossible to resist and that’s the direction we’re heading.

ABOUT the push for Palestinian statehood, for which the PA is hoping to gain
enough support to get a vote at the UN in September. I’ve talked to some
activists who have expressed enthusiasm for this, saying that even if it’s only
a small step forward, it should be celebrated. And I’ve talked to others who
oppose it. What do you think?

I DON’T think
it’s something to be celebrated, and I think we need to be very clear about

First of all,
Palestinian civil society has not asked activists and international solidarity
movements to support the UN statehood bid. On the other hand, Palestinian civil
society has expressed, on
many occasions, a consensus in support of BDS.

There was a
statement issued a few weeks ago by the BDS National Committee about the
question of statehood. It was carefully worded–it didn’t say, “We’re
against this.” But it did say that regardless of the specifics of what
happens, a declaration at the UN is going to make no difference at all. The
struggle has to be a struggle for the rights of Palestinians everywhere, and
that’s not going to change at all.

Even PA President
Mahmoud Abbas, who’s supposedly behind this, said on July 21 that this won’t affect
the peace process, and we’ll still have to go back to the same old
negotiations–which, of course, have gone nowhere for decades–regardless of
whether the UN votes to admit the state of Palestine.

So what’s really
going on here? At the most, what would happen in September, if it happens at
all, is that the UN would vote to admit Palestine as a state. The UN will not
vote to create a state of Palestine. It will not
recognize Palestine, and it will not take any enforcement action against Israel
to make Palestine happen.

This will
amount–at most–to symbolically changing the nameplate of the existing
Palestinian Authority delegation at the UN from “Observer Mission of
Palestine” to “State of Palestine.” That’s it. As I said before,
you’d have to believe in magic to think that this would miraculously translate
into some kind of concrete action.

The argument I’ve
heard time and again is, “Well look, if Palestine is recognized as a
state, this will encourage all sorts of international action and sanctions.
Israel will be in violation of the rights of a sovereign state, and this will
somehow increase pressure on Israel.”

But all you have
to do is look at the precedents of what has happened up to this point. Israel
has occupied the territory of many sovereign states–whether it’s Lebanon or
Syria or Egypt–for decades, and the UN never took action to enforce
international law and force Israel to withdraw.

Secondly, none of
the violations on the ground–whether we’re speaking of settlements, colonization,
wall construction, mass incarceration, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from
their land in the West Bank or the siege of Gaza–will change with a UN
declaration. Unless of course there were to be some concrete action taken to
force Israel to comply. But we’ve seen dozens of resolutions over decades
saying all of these activities by Israel are illegal and must stop, and no
action has ever been taken.

So why would that
change all of a sudden in September? How would the PA, which can’t even pay the
salaries of its armies of civil servants and patronage payroll workers,
suddenly be able to take on Israel just because it has another piece of paper
from the UN?

People need to
focus not on the fetish of statehood, but on actual Palestinian rights, which
are expressed in the BDS call. We need to focus on a real end to the occupation
of all Arab lands occupied in 1967; an end to all forms of discrimination,
inequality and apartheid for Palestinians within Israel; and full respect for
the rights of refugees, including the right of return.

That is the
essence of equality, the essence of universal rights, and that’s actually what
the Palestinian cause has been about since the beginning.

THERE ways in which statehood is not only not a step forward but actually a
step backward? For example, if “statehood” is achieved, could it
freeze in place existing arrangements that are, as you pointed out, inherently
unequal and don’t fulfill the basic rights of Palestinians?

I THINK there are
dangers of that, to be honest. Part of the problem is that this is completely
uncharted territory. But the danger, I think, is that by recognizing a state
within boundaries that Israel doesn’t even recognize, Israel’s acquisition of
land by force up to this point will be given UN recognition.

And why should
Palestinians recognize Israel’s conquest of 78 percent of Palestine in 1948
when Israel doesn’t recognize any Palestinian right to any part of the land?
The danger is that some governments will say, “Look, we voted for
statehood, what more do you want from us? It’s time for you to give up on the
laundry list of other demands”–which, of course, are basic Palestinian

So there is a
danger that this would legitimize the status quo–that countries would say,
“We’ve fulfilled our obligation toward you, and this is now just a border
dispute between two states of the kind that exists in the dozens around the

The PA has a
history of relying on the good will of the so-called “international
community”–but the international community doesn’t have good will when it
comes to enforcing Palestinian rights. So PA officials have essentially
disempowered themselves as well as the popular movements, and now they again
want to throw themselves on the mercy of a UN that has never acted to enforce
its decisions when it comes to Palestine.

So yes–there are
risks, and we don’t even know the full extent of them. This could be a very
dangerous step.

YOU describe what the U.S.–as a leading part of the “international
community”–is doing to stand in the way of these legitimate Palestinian

U.S. doing to frustrate Palestinian rights and crush any movement toward
Palestinian liberation? That would be a shorter list than what it is doing.

Of course, Israel
is dependent on the U.S.–militarily, politically and diplomatically. And as I
mentioned, the U.S. is a declining power, particularly in the Arab world and in
southwest Asia in general. That doesn’t mean the U.S. isn’t still very
powerful. But it is also under challenge. And it certainly cannot guarantee its
hegemony the way it did for many years.

So that’s on one
side. Then on the other side, there is the voice of people–the kind of mass
movements that we’re seeing now, which present a real challenge to the existing

But of course,
the U.S. is helping Israel in every possible way, including using its veto at
the UN to prevent even symbolic action toward accountability for Israel’s war
crimes–toward actually making Israel comply with international law in any way.

Another element
of this is bringing Israel’s war to the United States through the increasing
criminalization of Palestine solidarity work in the U.S.–through the
harassment, the subpoenas and the raids we’ve seen against Palestine solidarity
activists and antiwar and labor activists under the Obama administration. This
is a really ominous sign of the ongoing attempt to criminalize solidarity with

DO you think the U.S. is taking these steps?

THAT’S OF course
a question that people debate. I think that the United States supports Israel,
and Israel supports U.S. hegemony in the region. They’re kind of symbiotic in
that sense.

I think there has
been some sense among U.S. elites in the past couple years that Israel is
actually starting to become a burden–a strategic burden which stands in the
way of smooth American hegemony in the region. This has created a fear among
some of the most pro-Israel elements in the U.S. that the U.S. may be getting
ready to abandon Israel in some way.

I certainly think
that the notion, agreed upon by the Israeli lobby and by some on the left, that
Israel is the cat’s paw of U.S. imperialism in the region–or to put it the way
the Israel lobby does that Israel is America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier–is
not an obvious narrative to me. Because I think Israel makes life quite
difficult for the U.S.

But as we can
see, within domestic politics in the U.S., pro-Israel constituencies still have
great influence, and those pro-Israel constituencies include not just the ones that
are easily identified, such as American Jewish groups that support Israel, but
also the large radical Christian movement that supports Zionism. Then there’s
the defense, military and intelligence communities–they all have strong
relationships with Israel that favor the status quo.

ARE some of the next steps for who are part of the effort to address the
long-standing injustices suffered by the Palestinians?

I THINK we have
to keep on with what we’re doing. We’re facing increasing resistance from pro-Israel
elements in the U.S., and I think that’s because our work is effective, and
it’s reaching people. It’s particularly reaching young people on university

It’s also
starting to reach people in labor unions and churches and just about everywhere.
The debate at the ground level is really starting to shift. At the elite level,
it’s still very much a pro-Israel discussion, with an exclusion and
marginalization of any other voices. But I think that the Internet and our
access to creating our own media means that we’ve been able to bypass the
gatekeepers of public discourse in this country and really start to reach far
and wide.

We have to keep
doing that–keep educating people about the BDS movement, why it’s moral, why
it’s just, pro-peace and pro-human rights. We have to step up the effort, and I
believe strongly that things are moving in the right direction.


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