This week Trinity students will be asked to vote on whether the SU should be mandated to boycott, divest from and sanction Israeli goods and services, in effect cutting formal ties with the state.
Confusion around the legitimacy of, let alone need for, such a referendum is a popular reaction from students unfamiliar with Israel/Palestine, its history and its associated conflicts. Aren’t the SU busy enough without adding yet another cause to its list? What right does Ireland have to involve itself with the affairs of a region over 2,000 miles away? Indeed, what effect can students have by taking a stand on an international issue?
These questions are valid, and are ones that I asked myself when a vote was held on the matter at SU council last year. In all honesty, while I was sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, ignorant of the nuances of the conflict, I was at that time unsure of where exactly I stood on the issue. However, now in final year, and studying the conflict in immense detail from a sociological perspective, I have no doubt that I will be voting yes to BDS, and encourage other students to do so.
Over the past 10 weeks, myself and many of my classmates have become increasingly horrified by the inhumanity expressed by the state of Israel towards Palestinians both within and outside national borders, and, in some cases, the utter disregard shown for their existence.
To contextualise the argument supporting the SU’s commitment to BDS, a brief background to the conflict and the BDS movement will be outlined, before discussing Trinity’s positioning in the BDS movement, its relevance to the SU, and the potential impact of student involvement in working towards justice for Palestinians.
Background to the conflict
In the face of growing European anti-Semitism, the Zionist movement, founded on the principal of the need for a state controlled and populated by the Jewish people, began in the late 20th century. This triggered a process of colonization of Palestinian land, displacement of local people, and control over resources, all of which were justified as necessary steps in safeguarding the future of Judaism.
Threats cited in defence of these actions were indeed real and profound, with anti-Semitic European sentiment painfully apparent throughout the literature, culture, and political discourse of the time. As predicted by the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, Europe soon became not only inhospitable, but a direct threat to the existence of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust.
A key principle of Zionism is the founding of a Jewish state by and for the Jewish people. However, on the occasion of the UN’s 1947 vote in favour of the partition of Palestine, allowing for the formal establishment of the state of Israel (on Palestinian land), Arabs controlled 93% of the Israel/Palestine landmass. Thus, to ensure that Israel would exist as a Jewish-majority state, Zionist leaders authorized the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the region.
What followed is known as the ‘Nakba’, directly translated as ‘catastrophe’, under which over 700,000 Palestinians were either forcibly removed from their homes, or fled under the direct threat of violence. For decades, the expulsion was retold as the voluntary relocation of Palestinians, which served to legitimise both the existence of the state of Israel on stolen land, and its abdication of responsibility for those it had killed and displaced.
Despite the opening of Israeli archives in the 1980s, revealing Palestinian displacement to have been an active state policy of ethnic cleansing as opposed to voluntary migration, the Israeli national condition continues to follow what academic Salim Tamari terms “the quest for normalcy” which is “not a longing for peace, but simply a desire for solace in the midst of a prolonged conflict”.
This quest for normalcy begs for Palestinians to simply disappear, and erases Israel’s position as the colonizer and oppressor. It falsely constructs relations between Israel and Palestine, and the arising conflicts, as a struggle between opposing yet equal groups. The attempted erasure of Palestinians by the Israeli state affects the three main ‘categorizations’ of Palestinians in distinct ways.
For Palestinian refugees, accounting for approximately half of the Palestinian population, there is no right of return to the land from which they and their ancestors were driven. As we have seen over the past several years, states are often reluctant to accept and accommodate asylum seekers. Palestinian refugees are caught in a double-bind both in their status as displaced people, and their political limbo, unrecognised by Israel. As Israel’s colonization of Palestinian land is an ongoing process, so, too, is the expulsion of its people, and the greatening of its refugee crisis.
While Palestinians within Israel have more rights than those outside state borders, they are subject to an apartheid regime structured in the interest of maintaining the superiority and best interest of Jewish citizens. In March of last year, the UN condemned Israel as an apartheid state.
As of last month, South Africa, a country well versed on the characteristics and effects of an apartheid state, have committed to cutting diplomatic ties with Israel “given the absence of genuine initiatives by Israel to provide solutions for lasting peace… that involves full freedom and democracy for the Palestinian people”.
Those Palestinians living outside of state borders and under Israeli occupation are starved of resources, and are being choked from their own land. Entire regions, termed ‘unrecognized villages’ by the state of Israel, are deemed illegal settlements, despite Human Rights Watch noting that it is “virtually impossible” for Palestinians to obtain planning permission in this area.
The resulting erasure of Palestinians is twofold. As ‘illegal’ settlements, these villages are not supplied with water, electricity, or basic sanitation services by the state. Effectually understood as empty land in terms of policy, demolition of homes is a regular occurrence, with vast areas of land then given to Jewish families.
“No legal validity”
These actions go beyond those of an apartheid state, and are a direct attempt by the state of Israel to not just suppress, but to eradicate Palestinians from their own land. In establishing ‘settlements’ on Palestinian land, thus allowing the state of Israel to encroach further and further into Palestine, a process of colonialism continues.
Israel actively encourages its citizens to migrate to these new settlement towns by providing extensive grants and social welfare benefits, along with cheaper and more accessible housing. The UN had condemned these settlements as having “no legal validity”, and as “constitut[ing] flagrant violation of international law”, yet, within 6 months of this statement being made, a further 8,000 settlement units were planned for the West Bank.
Israel’s process of colonisation not only flies in the face of several international laws, but is also central to the dehumanisation and eradication of Palestinians in occupied territories. Settlements are strategically located so as to cut off water access to the West Bank, and to control roads through military checkpoints.
Checkpoints are becoming increasingly impassable, and exist as yet another hurdle to accessing medical care. Between 2000 and 2005, 67 women were forced to give birth at military checkpoints. 36 of those babies did not survive. Jeff Halper describes such Israeli bureaucracy as a “matrix of control”, within which Palestinian life is made barely liveable.
The international community has condemned Israel’s actions as illegal, and as a violation of human rights, yet the occupation, process of colonisation, and apartheid regime continue. As the normal course of action, diplomacy has failed. A peaceful, non-violent movement such as BDS has the potential to delegitimise Israel’s actions, placing social and economic pressure on the state to bring to an end its horrific treatment of Palestinians.
On principle alone, Trinity should commit to cutting ties with Israel. Yet, considering College has been involved in the manufacturing of Israeli drones, and maintains academic and research ties with Israel, we are not just complicit in facilitating the continuation of Israeli oppression, we legitimise and strengthen it.
The SU has thus far backed several ‘extraneous’ campaigns, including Aramark Off Our Campus and Fossil Free TCD; there is no reason to treat this campaign any differently. Like other grassroots groups in College, Students for Justice in Palestine are a collection of committed and well-organized student activists.
SU support on this issue will not come at a significant cost to the wider student body in terms of time or services, but will give the support, exposure and legitimacy necessary for the group to move forward and affect change on a national level, as was the case with Fossil Free TCD.
Claims that a student stance on such issues is little more than lip service can be directly contradicted by the achievements of Fossil Free TCD. Trinity has formally attributed its November 2016 decision to divest from fossil fuels as the result of an ‘impressive’ campaign run by students, making it the first Irish university to do so.
In the months following this decision, several other Irish universities, including Queen’s and NUIG, have committed to divestment in response to student campaigns. On a national scale, a bill proposing government divestment from fossil fuels reached the next stage in February of this year.
The potential for students to have a similar impact in the case of Israel/Palestine has already revealed itself. Last year, then-SU President Kieran McNulty received a letter from the Israeli Ambassador prior to the BDS vote, pressuring the Union to reject the motion.
If voting yes to BDS was little more than an attempt by students to ‘play politics’, a state figurehead would not have felt the need to suppress student involvement in the issue.
In day-to-day terms, whether or not this motion is passed will make little difference to the average Trinity student. But for the average Palestinian, it is quite literally the difference between freedom and oppression, between equal treatment and dehumanisation, between life and death.
This is not our chance to passively be on the right side of history, to have picked the winning team and pat ourselves on the back for our good fortune. It is our chance to write history, to end our endorsement of Palestinian suffering, and to cut ties with an apartheid, colonialist state.