Activists meet in Barcelona for Palestine Solidarity Conference

By Nick Everett, in Barcelona — Five hundred participants, representing more than 50 solidarity organisations from across the Spanish state, attended the conference, “Yesterday South Africa, Today Palestine”, held here October 19-21. The conference, the first of its kind in the Spanish state, was organised with the aim of raising awareness about the Israeli occupation of Palestine and strengthening the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

The conference opened on the Friday evening with a presentation by South African BDS activist Mbuyiseni Ndlozi on the theme, “Systemic racial oppression: Apartheid in South Africa and Palestine”. Ndlozi explained that it took four decades to build an effective solidarity movement with the South African anti-apartheid struggle, which ultimately succeeded in dismantling the regime. “We must learn from the past so that history, as often happens, is not repeated”, he told the conference.

On the Saturday evening, conference participants heard from international guests Rafeef Ziadah, a Palestinian activist and poet, and Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian, speaking about the nature of Israeli apartheid and the campaign against it.

“Israel is not a normal country”, explained Ziadah. “It is a country that occupies another in which Palestinians are third-class citizens.” Ziadah noted that, while the European Union speaks out about “human rights concerns”, it provides a €11 billion market for Israeli exports and is seeking to establish free trade relations with Israel. Ziadah argued therefore that both a political and economic campaign was needed to isolate Israeli and described BDS as a strategy that allows people of conscience to play an effective role in the Palestinian struggle for justice.

What is BDS?

BDS, explained Ziadah, “is a tool for peace, justice and equality, which gives ordinary people the power to fight against the Israeli occupation, for social and economic justice. In a world where it seems that the voice of citizens is not heard, it is emerging movements like this that can return power to the people.”

Initiated by more than 170 Palestinian civil society organisations in 2005, the BDS campaign has been coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee since 2007.

“BDS is a call to the world for freedom, justice and equality for all Palestinian people”, Ziadah told conference participants. She explained that the global BDS campaign calls for an end of Israel’s occupation of all Palestinian territories, the right of return of all refugees and equality of rights for all citizens of Israel, in accordance with international law.

Ziadah noted that the BDS campaign has achieved many successes since 2005. The French multinational Veolia, a major investor in Israeli infrastructure, had lost €14 billion worth of contracts, while ethical investment funds in the US had divested from Caterpillar, which produces bulldozers used for clearing olive groves and bulldozing houses in the West Bank.

Ziadah also described the important role of academic and cultural boycotts, as well as the effective trade union boycotts that had been imposed in Israeli goods, such as the boycott action by dockworkers in several countries during Israel’s 2008 invasion of Gaza.

“The Palestinian people have not been broken”, Ziadah told the conference. “They said we would forget. I am a third generation Palestinian refugee, and I have not forgotten.”

Pillars of support for Israeli apartheid

Israeli academic Ilan Pappe, now based in the UK, described BDS as “a hard conversation with Israeli society”. Pappe described his role as that of a chef: peeling away Israel’s immunity like the layers of an onion. He described the pillars supporting Israeli apartheid as: US support for Israel, Christian Zionism, the US military industrial complex, the “Holocaust industry”, the European Union and the Australian government.

Pappe noted that while the support of the US government and institutions was powerful, it was not a permanent situation. “The Zionist lobby in the US is losing its power, because a younger generation of Jews in the US don’t see the Israeli lobby representing them”, he said.

Pappe noted that Christian Zionism had in fact advocated the idea that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without land” well before this had been taken up by Jewish Zionists in the 19th century. While Christian Zionism had become a powerful force in the US in the late 20th century, Pappe argued that an increasing number of Christians in the US are rejecting hard-right Christian Zionism, saying “this is not my kind of Zionism”.

Pappe also described the “Holocaust industry” — the manipulation of the Holocaust by the state of Israel — as a powerful “silencer”. The “centre of this industry is Germany”, he explained, where it is able to exploit German people’s sense of guilt about the war crimes of World War II. “It works better in France and the Netherlands than Britain”, argued Pappe. However, “this reaction is the opposite of what should happen”, he said, describing the policy being pursued by the Israeli state against Palestinians as one of “ethnic cleansing”.

Pappe also noted the integration of Israel with the EU economy and the use of Islamophobia by European governments. “The EU is a capitalist system”, explained Pappe. “Israel was able to buy Greek [government] submission” when the second peace flotilla was prevented, by Athens, from reaching Gaza to deliver humanitarian supplies.

Pappe also singled out the Australian government for its close ties with Israel. Canberra contributes $100 million per year to both the Israeli and Palestinian Authority governments.

A ‘Swiss cheese’ solution

Pappe also made clear his view that a “two state solution” cannot provide a lasting and meaningful solution to the conflict. “Do you think anyone would believe me if I were to say, ‘I only want 20% of my homeland, in bantustans divided into areas A, B and C, in which my people will not be able to exercise any real independence and refugees will not be welcome’?”, asked Pappe.

“[The two state solution] is a ‘Swiss cheese’ solution, a Zionist solution”, Pappe told the conference.

Ziadah and Pappe's addresses were followed by a discussion covering many topics, including discrimination against Palestinians living in Israel and the effectiveness of various tactics of the BDS campaign. Pappe noted that Palestinians who are citizens of the state of Israel are denied access to university education and public services such as welfare because they cannot serve in the Israeli army (a precondition for access to such services). In addition, discriminatory Israeli laws allow Jewish communities to exclude Palestinians and restrict where Palestinians can live or work.

Both Ziadah and Pappe expressed the view that US academic Noam Chomsky was wrong to reject the academic boycott of Israel. Pappe argued that the boycott has been far more effective than any other action by the Palestinian solidarity movement in persuading Israeli academics to speak out in support of Palestinians.

“When you come up against your own government, it is like driving on the wrong side of the road”, said Pappe. However, “the BDS [movement] demonstrates that there are others with you. It’s a message of sanity.”

“What we need is regime change”, explained Pappe, “but not the way Americans did it in Iraq. [BDS] is a non-violent tactic to achieve regime change for the benefit of everyone. It’s a noble, decent aim.”

Following the panel discussion, the conference was entertained by Ziadah performing her poetry, including her now famous poem “We teach our children life, Sir”.

Presentations were also given to the conference on Spain-Israel military ties by Alejandro del Pozo, and on “International Law and the Russell Tribunal” by David and Sabrina Bondia Senouci.

Del Pozo reported that Israel’s arms exports to Europe continue to grow and that Gaza is “a huge laboratory” for Israeli weapons testing.

David and Sabrina Bondia Senouci’s presentation explained that the Russell Tribunal has no legal authority, but acts as a people's court, examining injustice and violations of international law that are not judged by existing international jurisdictions and, though recognised, continue to be perpetuated with impunity because of a lack of political will of international state institutions. The Russell Tribunal on Palestine has examined and condemned numerous international law violations by Israel that victimise Palestinians and prevent the Palestinian people from exercising their right to a sovereign state.

On the final day of the conference, participants heard back from four workshop sessions that had taken place the day before, addressing the themes of economic boycotts, academic boycotts, cultural and sporting boycotts and trade union solidarity. The reports demonstrated a diverse and growing BDS movement across the Spanish state.

Conference statement

Conference participants adopted a statement that “affirmed the advance of the BDS campaign as central to all the actions and activities of solidarity with the Palestinian people”.

“We affirm the necessity to support this non-violent campaign to put an end to the systematic violation of the human rights and International Law on the part of Israel”, the statement declared. “These violations have again been brought to light by the recent hijacking of the last Gaza Flotilla in international waters. We therefore demand that our government guarantees freedom of passage in Mediterranean waters, puts an end to the blockade of Gaza and brings about the immediate release of those that are, as of today, being held captive by Israel.”

On the Sunday afternoon, the conference concluded with a screening of the documentary Roadmap to Apartheid by Anan Nogueira and Eron Davidson.