Nelson Mandela once said: “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”. One of the features of the mythologising of Mandela that surrounded his funeral was the manner in which any vaguely controversial ideas he held got airbrushed. His views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were not spared this treatment, most likely because the conflict is one of those odd issues whose discussion usually leaves people clearly split into two groups: those who feel they know about the issue, and therefore have strong opinions one way or another; and those who feel they don’t know about it but understand that it’s a divisive discussion and so avoid talking about it.
I fall into the first group, and would bet that within a month the number of Trinity students in that camp will grow considerably. That’s because I’m attempting to collect the 250 signatures necessary to have the Students Union hold a referendum on the issue of Israel and our involvement with that state. But wait! While I can almost hear the sound of hundreds of students angrily turning the page at the thought of yet another referendum on some random issue the Students Union shouldn’t have a stance on, there are some compelling reasons why this issue is different.
First, a statistic: between 2008 and October 2013, 911 Palestinians have been killed by drone strikes, many of them during Israel’s invasion of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead). So what, right? People get killed all the time in different countries, and while unfortunate, it’s none of our business. Except this time, it is our business. Catherine Healy of Trinity News recently reported that Trinity academics have participated in “aerospace” and “security” projects with Israeli companies, including Israeli drone manufacturers Elbit Security Systems. We, Trinity College Dublin, have assisted Israel in building the drones they use to kill Palestinian civilians and children. I don’t think there are enough degrees of separation there for me not to feel like there is blood on my hands, as someone who funds Trinity and the research it’s involved in with my student contribution each year. In broader terms, Irish universities worked with Israeli institutions on 257 academic projects, seven of them listed as “security” and 13 as “aerospace”. We cannot pretend that this conflict doesn’t have anything to do with us. And once we accept that, we need to ask ourselves some difficult questions about our connections with Israel.
Imagine living every day of your life knowing that at any minute, someone you’d never met, far away from you, could fire a missile that would kill you and your family. This is the reality of living in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. It’s also true for those living in the Gaza Strip, a tiny enclave of Palestine, under siege by Israel. The siege is medieval in nature. The Israeli’s having built a “separation wall” that runs the entire length of the border, while the Egyptians have their own smaller wall. The situation in Gaza itself is awful. Power cuts are ever-present, with the sewage system broken as a result. Raw sewage floods the streets, and the Israeli blockade causes shortages of essentials such as fuel, food and medicine. Then there are the drones, a constant presence overhead. The Palestinians have nicknamed the constant buzzing they cause “zenana”, an Arabic term for a wife’s nagging. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, writing about the use of drones in Yemen and Pakistan, have suggested that their very presence could constitute a war crime due to the extreme psychological damage caused by the fear they create.
But sadly for those living in the Gaza Strip, they don’t just fly overhead. They also fire missiles that kill, often indiscriminately. During another attack on Gaza in 2012, Operation Pillar of Defense, dozens of civilians were killed. Two-thirds of Palestinians killed by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) drones in November, 2012 were civilians. The justification for such killing is consistent: Israel is under threat from Palestinian terrorists that want to wipe it off the face of the earth. However, such arguments are not borne out by the facts. More Palestinians were killed by drones alone in eight days during the 2012 attack than Israelis were killed by rockets in eight years. The quantity and effectiveness of Palestinian attacks are so slight that Israel relies upon creating a perception of threat fostered by a pliant media in order to justify its repression.
The response of the Israeli military to real or perceived threats is ridiculously disproportionate. According to B’Tselem (an Israeli human rights organisation regularly cited), in the past five years, Israeli security forces have killed 549 Palestinians. 81 were ‘minors’ (children), and a disputed but certainly high proportion were civilians. This dispute arises due to the objectively nebulous nature of Israeli definitions of ‘combatant’, often boiling down to being a male Palestine youth near suspected ‘militants’. But the crimes of the Israeli security forces are not limited to who they kill. Again according to B’Tselem, there are 6,499 Palestinians being held by Israeli security forces, 183 of them are minors, with 20 under the age of 16. Another 175 are being held in administrative detention, which allows for indefinite imprisonment without trial or reason given. Palestinians are tried by unaccountable military tribunals and are often convicted based upon evidence supplied by local military commanders. When in detention, even some of the youngest Palestinians (held for stone throwing) face torture and abuse. One, who was 14 when detained, describes what happened to him: “he grabbed my head and started banging it against the wall. Then he punched me, slapped me and kicked my legs. The pain was immense, and I felt like I couldn’t stand any longer […] He threatened to rape me, or perform sexual acts on me, if I didn’t confess to throwing stones.”
B’Tselem states: “The high number of reports B’Tselem has received regarding violent interrogations, and the fact that they span several years, gives rise to heavy suspicion that this is not a case of a single interrogator who chose to use illegal interrogation methods, but rather an entire apparatus…” Israel is repeatedly condemned by human rights organizations across the world. A major and growing source of concern is the system of effective apartheid in existence both in the occupied West Bank and Israel itself. The website of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions tells us: “The backbone of Israel’s apartheid is formed by a set of discriminatory laws, including the 1950 Law of Return (1950), Absentee Property Law (1950), Citizenship Law (1952), World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency “Status” Law (1952), the Jewish National Fund Law (1953), and Basic Law: Israel Lands (1960), which reserve the full rights of “nationals” in Israel to the state’s Jewish citizens and confers public status on Zionist “national” institutions which work for the exclusive Jewish benefit.
The same laws exclude the 1948 Palestinian refugees from citizenship, confer second-class citizenship on Palestinians who have remained in Israel, facilitate confiscation of Palestinian land and its transfer to Jewish ownership, and bar Palestinian restitution claims. In the OPT since 1967, Israel has used its authority as the Occupying Power for establishing a similar apartheid regime by means of military orders. The apartheid-character of Israel’s rule in the OPT is amplified by the fact that Israeli civil law is applied to the (de facto) annexed Jewish settlers and colonies, whereas martial law is applied to the occupied Palestinian population.”
The manifestations of this effective apartheid are too numerous to cover in one article, but one of example is the continuous bulldozing of Palestinian and Bedouin homes and villages. This is made all the worse by the fact that in 60% of the West Bank territory building requires an Israeli permit for which 94% of applications are rejected. Then there is the institutionalized discrimination against mixed marriages that make it very difficult to live for an Israeli citizen to live with a spouse from the West Bank or Gaza. When defending an Israeli High Court decision on this, Justice Asher Grunis says “human rights are not a prescription for national suicide”, indicating the fear that allowing equal marriages could lead to a dangerous demographic shift.
Palestinians make up 80% of the population of the West Bank, but are restricted to 20% of the water. Israeli companies operate in the West Bank, exploiting Palestinians for cheap labour and using the area’s natural resources. Perhaps the most visible part of this system is the segregation walls that cut through and divide dozens of Palestinian towns, forcing them to spend hours each day queuing to get through military checkpoints. This brings me to the most important question in this article: what can we do? The usual answer given when that’s asked about the humanitarian disaster of Syria, or the oppression of Tibet, is usually: nothing. But Israel is different. It relies upon economic, cultural and academic links with the West in a manner that makes it vulnerable to a very particular kind of peaceful pressure – the boycott.
Above I quoted from the website of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, an international movement to put pressure on Israel to respect international law and Palestinian rights. They target Israeli companies and institutions, especially those that profit from exploiting Palestinians or are part of Israel’s military industrial complex. You’d be surprised to know that you’ve been indirectly funding the Israeli military every time you buy products from Intel, Motorola, L’Oreal and the Body Shop. Every time you ride the Luas, you fund Veolia who operate transport links to illegal settlements in the West Bank.
I want the Students Union to adopt BDS as part of its long-term policy. That means making sure we don’t stock any Israeli products, but perhaps more importantly lobbying college to adopt an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. Remember those Israeli drones we helped build? I think it’s time we stopped doing that.
We’d join a growing number of universities and academics, with NUIG adopting BDS last Thursday. Internationally, the American Studies Association adopting it last year. Trinity took part in a similar effort back in the 1970’s, boycotting South Africa in order to protest against apartheid. That’s why House 6 is called Mandela House, and the international boycott against South Africa undisputedly helped to end apartheid. Considering this past success, the facts themselves as outlined, and our own involvement with Israel, I want to ask anyone reading this to vote yes in the (hopefully) upcoming referendum.
There was an article in the University Times that asked why Irish people were obsessed with Israel. In response, I’d say that I struggle to understand how to justify not caring about what happens to people in other countries. This is especially true when we are directly contributing to that injustice, through our money and our acceptance of cooperation. If we do care, then surely we have a duty to try and stop it.