I’ve been receiving feedback on this blog, most of it positive but some critical. The disappointing thing is that most of the critical feedback is so by-the-book. People don’t respond with arguments but with worn-out talking points, most of them carefully calibrated not to advance the debate but to obfuscate it. For example, if I say the route of the Wall is illegal, they say, “Doesn’t Israel have a right to defend itself?”

Of course. Anyone who is threatened has a right to defend himself. I never said Israel didn’t have a right to defend itself. I only said the route of the Wall through occupied territory that isolates private property from its owners was illegal. If Israel wants to build a Wall on its own land, it is more than welcome.

But there I spent two entire paragraphs on the defensive, explaining an obvious point. This is why these talking points are so effective. Whether wittingly or not, they support the status quo because they keep us away from debate about the real issues.

One of my favorite pro-occupation talking points is the line, “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” There are several subtexts to this line. One is that the Palestinians apparently deserve whatever Israel dishes out to them until they produce a super-human peace activist like Gandhi or Martin Luther King. As if the British had every right to stay in India forever if Gandhi hadn’t appeared. As if segregation was OK right up until MLK found his platform.

Another subtext is that Palestinian culture isn’t capable of producing peace activists — that Palestinians are inherently more unreasonable and therefore culturally inferior to Israelis. Israel has plenty of peace activists, soldiers who refuse to serve in the Israeli army, and human rights organizations. All of them are vilified by the right-wing in Israel and ignored by the mainstream, but at least they exist and call for Palestinian human rights. Where’s the Palestinian brave enough to champion Israeli rights?

To understand why this line is nonsensical, first you have to understand that in the minds of Palestinians, this is not a conflict between equals, with equal moral claims, any more than the Apartheid struggle or the anti-segregation struggle were conflicts between equals with equal moral claims. Imagine an outraged Senator from Mississippi in 1962 saying, “We have plenty of white people working against segregation. Where’s the black man brave enough to speak up for Southern white rights?” It’s an absurdity.

The vast majority of Palestinians aren’t trying to take anyone else’s rights away (unless you consider it an Israeli ‘right’ to build illegal homes on Palestinian private property or collectively punish Palestinians in violation of international law). They’re struggling to have their most basic human rights respected.

[To quickly stave off another line of attack — But haven’t some Palestinians used violence? — Of course some Palestinians have used violence. Anyone who reads the news can see that. There’s no space here to go fully into all the details, but suffice to say for now, the violence isn’t exactly a one-way street. Israel had already killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including about a hundred Palestinian children, by the time the first suicide bomber of the Second Intifada struck. I don’t support suicide bombings on either moral or strategic grounds — I think they’re both horrifically immoral and strategically stupid — but I also don’t think they would happen if Palestinians weren’t regularly treated worse than animals. If you read my book, Chapter 12, the section called “Dinner with a Suicide Bomber’s Family,” you’ll understand what I mean. The section in Chapter 9 called “Suicide Bomber’s Family Shunned” also demonstrates how support for Palestinian violence decreases dramatically when there’s genuine hope of a halt to theft and violence by Israeli settlers and soldiers, even a temporary and limited one.]

Second, you have to look at reality. Palestinians engage in non-violent struggle against the occupation on a daily basis. From the weekly demonstrations against the Wall that steals land from villages like Bil’in, Na’lin, and Jayyous to the tireless work of Palestinians traveling all over the world to educate communities about the realities in Palestine, I’ve never seen a more politically-active population in my life. They have human rights organizations and NGOs covering every issue from prisoners to health care to water rights. They invite Israelis to march along side them in olive harvests, community works, and demonstrations. They write. They blog. They simply try to keep living under this insane situation while retaining their dignity, hospitality, and sense of humor.

Nearly everyone I bring to the West Bank and show them the situation, before they leave they end up saying in hushed tones, “You know, the only thing I’m really surprised about, given the unbelievable things they have to put up with, is that there’s not more Palestinian violence.” You truly have to see this situation to fully understand how bad it is.

And how are non-violent Palestinian activists treated by Israel? Are they held up as examples for Israelis and Palestinians both to follow? Covered extensively in the Israeli media as great hopes for peace and interviewed about their points of view? Invited to speak at Israeli universities?

Not so much. This Israeli press, like the American one, almost without fail, ignores them completely. The non-violent demonstrations at the Wall are met with tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers at least, lethal force at most. Half a dozen unarmed people have been killed and dozens injured (some paralyzed or left with brain damage) by Israeli soldiers at these protests. Dozens more have been arrested — pulled out of their homes in dead-of-night arrest raids by Israeli soldiers — and held without charge, or under absurd charges.

In one case, the Israeli army produced a photograph that ‘proved’ a certain leader of non-violent activities had been throwing stones at soldiers on such-and-such a date. His lawyers produced his passport. He had been out of the country on that date. Yet if it hadn’t been for this crucial (and lucky) piece of evidence, he might still be in jail today.

My friend Mohammad Othman from Jayyous, a tireless non-violent activist for the past ten years, is in Israeli jail right now, held in solitary confinement in miserable conditions with no charges whatsoever brought against him. He was seized about a month ago at the border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank (Israel controls this crossing) when he was returning home from an educational tour in Norway.

His sentence has already been extended three times, each time with no charge. He has been subjected to interrogations that have lasted entire days. I can tell you from first-hand experience, Israeli interrogations can be intensely psychologically traumatic, and I’m an American with the magic blue passport. Palestinians don’t have a fraction of the protections I have. A Palestinian prisoners’ rights organization reported, “During one of these sessions, an Israeli interrogator threatened to hurt Mohammad’s sister.”

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Mohammad Othman

The same organization described his prison conditions as follows:

“Mohammad is currently held in solitary confinement in a small cell which measures only 2 square meters. The cell includes a mattress and a Turkish bathroom (hole in the floor). The cell does not contain a window, which means that there is no natural sunlight or fresh air. Upon his transfer to Kishon (Jalameh) detention centre, he was searched and taken to a doctor for a medical examination, as he got sick in Huwwara provisional detention centre due to poor conditions there. He was given clothes and slippers but was allowed to take clean underwear and socks from his own luggage. During the first days following his arrest, however, Mohammad suffered from especially hard detention conditions in Huwwara provisional centre, where bathrooms are located outside of the cell. Detainees are only allowed to use them freely during short recreation breaks (35 minutes), only three times a day. When the detainee wishes to use the toilet outside of these hours, he or she must call out for a guard and wait until one agrees to take the prisoner out.”

In response to this gross violation of Mohammad’s rights, his friends and supporters have created a worldwide campaign to secure Mohammad’s release. They’ve put together a blog, Free Mohammad Othman, with updates and suggestions for actions you can take. Also, an open letter to President Obama was written and signed by Noam Chomsky of MIT, Rashid Khalidi of Columbia, Sara Roy of Harvard, and many others:

Open Letter to President Obama

October 16, 2009

Dear President Obama:

Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.” President Obama, you promised us change and we believed in that promise. Now is your opportunity to show us you meant it.

We have frequently heard the question over the years, “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi? Where are those working for justice through non-violence?” We must look no further than the jails and cemeteries to find Palestinian peace activists leading the fight against injustice. This is where we will find Mohammad Othman: locked in solitary confinement in a military prison, and held for nearly a month after his arrest without charge or trial. His initial detention has been extended three times thus far, and there remains the possibility of it being renewed indefinitely.

On September 22nd, 33-year-old Mohammad was arrested by Israeli soldiers while trying to reenter the West Bank after spending several days at a conference in Norway. For more than 10 years Mohammad has been an activist for Palestinian human rights. During that time, he has been a leader in the Palestinian grassroots movement against the Wall that has swallowed up his community’s lands and livelihoods.

Mohammad, in the spirit of great human rights defenders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., has worked tirelessly over the years to bring his people’s voice to the world. He has embraced and advocated non violent means to effect change – a tactic that was instrumental in bringing about the end of apartheid in South Africa. Freedom from occupation, oppression and discrimination are human rights to which all people are entitled. Mohammad, and many others like him, have done nothing more than work to secure these most basic guarantees – to give his people a chance to live.

Unfortunately, what is happening to Mohammad is all too common. Palestinians working for justice are constantly threatened with arbitrary detention, bodily injury and torture, and even death. Imagine having to fear speaking the truth, knowing that by doing so you put your very freedom at stake, simply because you stand up for what is right and what is just. History has shown us that peaceful activists are often the target of such policies, if only because they pose the most severe threat to the status quo. It happened in South Africa, it happened in India, and it happened in the United States as well.

Mohammad is another casualty of this tactic. It is up to us, the international community, to defend him and all those who struggle for peace and justice. President Obama, if you are serious about forging peace, then we call on you to defend the right of Mohammad and all Palestinians to resist their oppression through non-violent activism. We implore you to pressure Israel for the immediate release of human rights advocate Mohammad Othman and all prisoners of conscience who are being held solely for their work towards justice and freedom.

Signed,

Noam Chomsky, Professor, MIT
Rashid Khalidi, Professor, Columbia University
George Bisharat, Professor of Law, University of California Hastings College of the Law
Huwaida Arraf, Lawyer and Founder of the International Solidarity Movement
Noura Erakat, Human Rights Attorney
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
Rabbi Haim Beliak
Audun Lysbakken, Leader of Socialist Left Party’s group in Parliament, Deputy Leader of Socialist Left Party
Sara Roy, Senior Research Scholar, Harvard University
Eitan Bronstein, Israeli Activist
Ramzy Baroud, Writer and Editor
Keith Hammond, Scottish Committee for the Universities of Palestine
Remi Kanazi, Poet and Writer
Petter Eide, President of Norwegian People’s Aid
David Lloyd, University of Southern California
Jewish Voice for Peace
Birthright Unplugged
Jews Against the Occupation, New York City
Students Boycott Apartheid
American Jews for a Just Peace

You can sign on to the letter here.

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