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Common Activist Errors and Some Proposals to Rectify Them

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Yousef Abudayyeh, Mohamed Khodr, Mary Rizzo, Haitham Sabbah
Vendredi 22 Janvier 2010

Common Activist Errors and Some Proposals to Rectify Them
A Palestine Think Tank Editorial

WRITTEN BY  Yousef Abudayyeh, Mohamed Khodr, Mary Rizzo, Haitham Sabbah and Saja

Activism and activists for Palestine have been getting some media attention recently. This is absolutely great news. It is an opportunity that we need to take advantage of, especially since Palestinians themselves are denied space in almost all mainstream mass media. Reflecting on this fact, we at PTT have decided to express some of our observations, thoughts and suggestions in order to enhance the work of all activists, ourselves included. This is a summary of some of the things that we believe are some common activist errors and our proposals for avoiding that errors lead to damage. In the coming weeks we will elaborate on each of these points in essays. We hope that our observations and proposals can be of use for ourselves and for those who commit their time and energy to the Palestinian cause.

1. Not Emphasising Unity and Being Divisionist Among Ourselves.
Perhaps the most overriding issue that precedes all others is that of Unity.  On Unity, there are two kinds: one is fundamental, the other is merely beneficial. Fundamental Unity is that between Palestinians as a People. Palestinians have a common enemy: the occupier, the adversary of Zionism/The Jewish State, and a common goal that should be shared by all: the recognition of all of their rights and implementation of the same. Sectarian divisions simply must be overcome as they are indeed overcome in the Zionist camp.
Palestinians are scattered all over the world, with most of them living in Exile. The struggle over the last 62 years has been sustained and the name "Palestine" has survived because of the sacrifices of the Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the Gulf States, Europe and elsewhere. Their national struggle is one, and it is for the liberation of their homeland, their mother country. It is for the return to their homes and villages and to achieve a peaceful, democratic life. We should not allow this national struggle to be reduced to the issue of the fate of a Hamas rule in Gaza and a very limited self governance "State" led by Abbas in what's left of the West Bank. Hamas and Fatah are two political parties, they are not the supreme voice of all Palestinians around the world, nor can they propose themselves as such. Just like in any other country around the world, nationalism and patriotism do not belong to parties, but to a People. It is tragic that the clashes between these parties have derailed the Palestinian aspirations, and that any opponents to either of these parties have been silenced, jailed or even killed. This is not what Palestinians have sacrificed their lives for. Nothing can occur in Palestine as long as Hamas and Fatah, each with outside supporters, are divided. It is a dramatic and damaging situation to have a Palestinian population divided along sectarian lines, and this division is precisely what Israel hopes will remain in their policy of Divide and Rule. To be divided is to serve Zionist interests. Palestinians must place the overcoming of sectarian differences as the priority. If current leaders do not want that, other leaders will emerge and earn widespread support. Already many leaders are aware of the public sentiment and the claims to dedicate their energies to reconciliation must be more than promises, they have to become facts, and Palestinians should hold them to these goals.
A united Palestine that is back to its Arab body is the greatest threat to Israel, and elections must take place, because Palestinians, like all other people, have a right to choose their own leaders. Yet, we must differentiate between elections that happen under occupation, whose main purpose should be to make life a little easier for the Palestinians who live under the brutal Zionist rule, and elections that should include all Palestinians worldwide, which should produce their political leadership that is able, willing and ready to tackle the issues that face ALL Palestinians: the liberation of Palestine and the Return of the Palestinians to their original homes and villages. Politics must be subordinate to national interests, and all parties should come to a pact to work together towards realisation of national interests, while maintaining their identities and proposals. How to achieve Unity should take a great amount of space in discourse. It is the crucial issue.
The Unity of Non-Palestinians is different. It has to be at the service to the goals of Palestinians and to support actions that can bring about justice and freedom for them. At the moment, its primary goal should be working on whatever will facilitate the Unity of the Palestinians and making the Palestinian national agenda the priority.
2. Allowing Ourselves to Follow Zionist Discourse.
In doing this, we are forced into being “reactive” and not “active”. This means losing our own framing, not developing our own strategies. There are myriad individual responses, but little in the way of coordination between them, even at an ideological level. This makes it easy for them to turn out to be counter-productive if they enter into conflict with other responses. They are not inter-connected the way the Zionist strategy is. Zionists have a “narrative”, Palestinians have their history. We need to learn about it, keep it in the spotlight and be able to advocate it with ability. 
So much has been written on Anti-Zionism, and the argument has been exhausted to the point of it being merely repetitive. We should now focus on Pro-Palestinian priorities and strategies, an area that is practically untouched upon and opens up “active” horizons. Palestinians are enduring the worst brutality and we should provide them with guidance and hope, and listen to what their ideas are. We should propose this “positive and active” approach to all activists around the world and continue to propagate this point until it reaches the people of Palestine. 
3. We Use Zionist Terminology.
This is a mistake we commit far too often. We have to create our own terminology or reach into our own linguistic catalogue for the “best” lexicon. Zionists have done it, they have Hasbara Manuals and propaganda training. If our language is repeated often enough, people will begin to understand the basic facts. An example: we use the terms Gaza/West Bank as a substitute for Palestine, not realising that Palestine is far more than this. Indeed, even Palestinian Territories is erroneous and created a mental construct that Palestine is only equivalent to the parts outside the Green Line. This is an idea that has been imposed, but it should be rejected. In this case, we must refer to Gaza as “Gaza, Occupied Palestine”, as well as remembering to say, “Ramallah, Occupied Palestine”, “Jerusalem, Occupied Palestine” and even “Tel Al-Rabie, Occupied Palestine”. Yes, calling Tel Aviv with its original name is radical, but perhaps necessary. At the very least, it can open debate where it may be effective. 
4. We Allow Our Energies to be Diverted.
Our energies are far too often diverted to off-topic issues, as important or as co-related as they might be, in certain moments, they tend to serve as distractions and slippery slopes, especially when we are addressing them in a reactive way. A few of these issues are the European Holocaust, Iran’s Nuclear Programme, Jewish Identity Politics, Muslim Identity Politics. On the same token, we are too often oblivious to an interconnection between global events and international politics and how they affect Palestinians. We need to focus on events, reality and not on perceived threats, preventive aggression or imperialist “nation building”. We have to pull blinders off our eyes and not hero worship anyone. All leaders look out for their particular interests, which is the way it has always been and there’s no evidence that it’s about to change. We have to think about which interests coincide with the Palestinian freedom cause and which ones “use” this cause. Having a common enemy or two does not mean sharing common causes, but following convenience. This has always been a stumbling block towards Palestinian liberation.
Global and regional issues are often inter-connected with Palestine, although sometimes in ways that are more that meets the eye. It is important to recognise what is empty rhetoric, what could be propaganda that serves as disinformation, false flag operations and diversion from goals and principles. Propaganda comes from our friends as well as from our enemies, so we need to critically examine what comes to us and filter through only what is useful and beneficial to the cause. There may be disagreements as to what is beneficial, but we all know that the farther issues are away in time and space from Palestine, the more likely they are to be diversions.
5. We Do Not Treat the Hebrew/Israeli Mass Media as the Hasbara It Is.
Our sources are far too often Hasbara Organs. There are certainly some very good journalists dedicated to Palestinian people there, and not everything written in Israeli papers is propaganda, but the papers themselves ARE. The best of them serve as a sort of fig leaf. What is the purpose of most of the Israeli papers? To create a “we are under attack” mentality among Israelis and to justify their manufactured “fears” and the actions against Palestinians to abate these fears. If any proof is needed, a look at the most “progressive” Israeli paper on any given day has advertisements on its homepage for Birthright, Ahava, several clips for Gilad Shalit, Golf resorts in Palestine and other lures for people to come and colonise Palestine from outside. We should know what Israelis are writing, but we must be selective and realise the purposes of the Israeli media. In fact, we should never forget that it is there to establish Israeli hegemony in the area. It seeks to promote Israel as the legitimate voice of the West and Democracy. Sometimes these papers are designed to appeal to Westerners more than to Israelis.
With this consideration, we don’t give the same interest or attention to Palestinian/Arab writers who certainly deserve it. Arab papers are not cited as sources. Westerners and even many involved activists do not know what Palestinian writers or academics are even thinking, because they are not getting the widespread circulation for reasons that can only be considered a sort of discrimination. This is evident simply by looking at most sites, where Europeans and Americans and Israelis command the discourse, no matter from what political position.
A blatant example of the deafness to the Arab voice is when the Organ Harvesting crime was exposed. For many years, Palestinians have been talking about this issue and it was no secret. There was often a sort of “embarrassment” involved, as people often tagged their reports with, “I know, but don’t have any proof to show.” When a Westerner simply repeated not only what he had published before in a book, but what had been already stated by Palestinians, it became “newsworthy”. But the curious part of the matter is that it was not a Palestinian source to bring this issue up, but a Zionist paper, The Jerusalem Post. They did not print the article (it was Tlaxcala, in cooperation with the author, which translated it into English hours later) but the Israeli propaganda organ alluded to it as proof to be used as the worst evidence of smears and defamation, just in time for the Israeli Conference taking place at that moment about the Dangers of European Anti-Semitism. This important issue finally got out into the open, but we have to work harder to be the ones setting the discourse, for our own ends and not in a reactive way. Issues shouldn’t come to light or die according to an Israeli/Zionist timetable, nor should they serve any of their purposes.
Mass media is crucial to dominate. Israel has the lion’s share of space in the mainstream media and Westerners have the lion’s share in alternative media. We should aim for increased Palestinian framing of their own cause, as well as being extremely cautious of the sources we use and the information we disseminate. With the rapidity of communications, there is much haste and little verification of facts. We must at all costs avoid spreading information that could be black operations, psychological warfare or disinformation regarding the Middle East.
6. We Abandon Critical Thinking for Emotive Thinking.
Emotions are part of human experience, but they don’t carry any weight in courts, they are absent from legal documents and legislation. This is a battle for justice, and our references are laws and documents, which also include procedural/diplomatic/legal regulations. If we hammer home the concept of legality and justice, we have to also abide by these principles. International law, while flawed, is on the side of the Palestinian people. It guarantees Palestinians the rights to resist occupation, right of return, right to protection and other rights besides. This is how, as advocates for the cause, we can be of greatest service. We can’t appeal to emotion (since it doesn’t work) nor act only out of emotion (as it excludes strategic planning). What is the mantra of Israel? “Israel has a right to exist”. So, if rights are their choice of battlefield, and it’s actually clear that they don’t have the legitimate right they claim, it is obvious that they are winning the propaganda war using our best instrument. We have to turn this situation around, full stop.
On the other hand, Israel has refined and invested in their Hasbara. The same is true for supporters of Israel who influence people by means of intense emotional blackmail that is enforced by means of juxtaposition of past Jewish suffering and current Israeli identity (a combination of the survivor/victim mentality and the image of a democratic state on the brink of extermination in the midst of a hostile region). Any part of this image can be promoted with extreme professionalism. The appeal to emotions is constant, but we must recognise that these emotional triggers are manufactured, manipulated and designed to appeal to a Western audience that does not scratch beneath the surface to form its own opinions. The image/message bombardment from Hollywood especially elicits a visceral emotional response that allows only guilt or sympathy. There is no paragon in the Palestinian world to this kind of campaigning. Perhaps we need to channel the emotional appeals into effective educational instruments rather than crying amongst ourselves and wondering why the world is turning its back. If we are going to appeal to emotion, we have to calculate how to do it. Just as Zionists have successfully done.
7. We Do Not Understand What Interests the Public.
In contemporary times, we aren’t speaking so much to “populations” as we are to a “public” that is in some way receptive to a message. If the Gaza massacres last year, and the Lebanese massacres only 3 and a half years ago have not only tightened the control over Gaza and reinforced UNIFIL control (on behalf of Israel) of Lebanon, it’s 100% clear that NOTHING at all will phase the public. We are trying to convince them of things that they either do not care about or are unable to comprehend. It is possible that there is so much brainwashing that the slaughter in broad daylight of innocents brings no compassion or mercy, it elicits no outrage. How much does the public opinion count? They are there to provide the necessary consensus to leaders so that the leaders can maintain power. Consensus to leaders supporting Israel, then, perhaps should be undermined by other means, especially when the national interests do not coincide with this support. In the USA, for example, work could be on stressing that USA involvement in more foreign wars is expensive and that interventionist politics are damaging for Americans. If intervention is supported less and less, the policies will have to change so that power may be maintained domestically. This will result, as a consequence, in reduction of resources diverted to Israel and the “GWOT”.
We have a responsibility to educate and inform those we are in contact with. Associations of all kinds, in Palestine and beyond, student groups, religious and cultural organisations can influence their communities and provide opportunities to engage in actions that can have an impact upon public opinion and eventually upon politics. Arab organisations are particularly obligated to assume their responsibilities and to do outreach and participate in the public discourse through op-eds, letters, protests and education so that the world will see that this issue counts for Arabs and that the time of expecting the world to solve things in the UN or the White House has come to an end.
8. We Wait for Leaders to Sort Things Out (or for the Demographic Bomb).
It is futile to wait for leaders to resolve this problem even if they think they are princes of peace and can save the planet. They are there for the conservation of their own power. Besides, delegating this task to them does not empower resistance, which, if strategically organised over the entire Palestinian world, CAN BE EFFECTIVE. Included as resisters are not just factions or a single ideological base. Every Palestinian party, faction or movement, every single Palestinian, wherever he or she resides in the world, is a resister. Claiming the opposite is Zionist bunk. There is a mass, a huge number of persons involved, it’s by no means limited to one type of resistance or resister. Joining them in their struggle will be others sympathetic to their cause, including Arab populations, the non-Arab international public, liberation and human rights movements around the world. Acts of coordinated solidarity, commemoration, protest, choices such as boycotts, sabotage of illegal Israeli infrastructure, media events and campaigns already exist and many do outstanding work, but they can be given greater leverage, greater focus if they share at least the same common bases. Those focusing on urging negotiations, looking for compromise solutions, or with collaboration and co-existence with Zionism have a base that is not the core goal. Long term solutions will have to come about, but the Palestinians have been waiting long enough as it is. Waiting for a “demographic bomb” to explode is not a solution either. People have the power.
9. We Do Not Abandon What Does Not Work and Change.
We are creatures of habit and we often seek a “comfort level” and remain there. If voting and elections “don’t work”, a different strategy is called for. If our economic support is diverted into maintaining costly structures and doesn’t go directly to the people, we have to find ways to engage in thousands of micro-projects or to independently finance communities. Sponsorisation and twinning efforts, for instance the one Bristol has done, are brilliant alternatives to some larger orgs. that perhaps have such high overhead or such flawed bookkeeping, that whatever trickles down is not enough to effect concrete change or bring relief. The actions by the volunteers at Nahr El-Bared are another wonderful example to follow. Not only do they build community, but they are tangible aide to those outside the PA food-chain. Creativity in our actions, seeking alternatives are things that need to be enhanced. There are so many orgs that already exist, let’s keep them focused and effective, and if they fail to deliver, we take stock bravely. The time has come to concentrate on positive, workable strategies. In the end, this will be what makes the difference and not Anti-Zionist rhetoric.
10. Different Situations Require Different Solutions.
We need to understand the milieu we are operating in. Different environments might mean an entirely different strategy. For instance, if we are in Turkey, we can overcome the task of drawing public attention to an anti-Zionist stance. It’s not an issue there. If we are in Germany, the legacy of Nazism still assumes a role in the national identity and German relations with Israel. In the USA, the budget is heavy on military spending and institutional support of Israel. In most of the West, “terrorism” is associated with “Islam”, and these are only a few examples of the dozens of particular issues that affect the international relations regarding Palestine.
Debunking lies, while at the same time keeping the eye on the law, justice and even the convenience that each public will perceive, is a necessary task, and it’s going to vary in every single environment. Equally important is awareness of the laws/customs in the places in which we operate. If we know we will be filmed/photographed/monitored, we have to remember that our placards, the presence of flags, including the desecration of them, masks and facial covering, etc. will serve Israeli propaganda interests as long as they violate the laws/customs or are deemed as Anti-Semitic. In many countries, there are rigid rules for public assembly, participants are identified and even minor violations can be fatal for the action. In Italy, for instance, there is an absurd law that children are not “allowed” to participate in demonstrations! Even some authorised assemblies can provoke damage rather than good. A prayer assembly in Milan by Muslims that was held outside the Cathedral was a fiasco as far as PR goes. The space was indeed the most important plaza in northern Italy, but being in front of the Cathedral was sure to be attacked in the press and by the local politicians with a strong Islamophobic bent as an offence to Christians. In the heated environment of Milan, this was indeed the outcome and anyone could have predicted it. Choices have to be thought out strategically, factoring in even failure.
In North America and many European countries, legitimate political parties are blacklisted. That means it is illegal to donate money to them or to engage in economic exchange. Anyone collecting funds to be distributed to any of these parties instead of utilising alternative NGOs or ad hoc orgs is going to wield a death blow to the donors. This is but one example of the need to know the ambient of the action, from the beginning to the end.
11. We Fall For Too Many Hasbara Traps.
We do “dialogue” on their terms. We accept their gatekeeping by the constant framing of their arguments that excludes our own. We utilise their language and media. We are not following our own timetable. Dialogue is important, but if it is not based on equitable rules or it loses sight that the purpose is not to simply communicate, but to elicit change, it’s a waste of our time. That alone is a major Hasbara goal; to get us to waste our time.
12. This Is Not a Religious Issue.
We forget far too often that this is not a religious issue. It is an issue of an Arab population being expelled from their own land to make room for the European colonisation of Arab land. It is an issue of human rights and justice. Often, religion colours the conflict, with the Zionists using the Bible to justify theft of Palestinian Land and Hamas using the Quran to resist. Yet, it is not and never was a religious issue. We oppose Israel because it has stolen Arab land and dispossessed Arab people, not because it is Jewish.
However, since religion does dominate the discourse, rightly or wrongly, we have to seek ways to render this connection beneficial. We should work with interfaith groups if they share our goals, especially those Jewish groups who are committing much of their efforts to educating those who share their faith. The majority of Jews are not part of the Israel lobby and outreach to them builds friendship, solidarity, common strategies and debunks the myths they often hear in their local Jewish media and in their Synagogues, most of which have an Israeli flag on the Bimah.
Likewise, Christians around the world should know that many Palestinians share their same faith and that many Arabs, including Palestinians, have kept Christianity alive in the Holy Land. The plight of these Christians, who suffer due to racist, exclusionist Israeli laws and practices, should be made known to Christians who all too often are exposed to myths and falsehoods regarding Arabs as being enemies of Christianity.
13. We Do Not Tailor Our Discourse.
Sometimes we fail to address the “audience” properly. We must learn to tailor our discourse for the listener, and that means we have to be aware who we are addressing and for what purposes. While refusing to use the word “Israel” is fine in private among Palestinian advocates and Palestinians, we have to realise that this entity does exist in the reality of the rest of the world. It may create confusion to refer to it differently in something like a letter we are hoping will be published in the Washington Post. We have to explain what Israel does, what kind of history it has, but we also have to realise that it is present for the listener. We should be media savvy enough to realise how our discourse will be discarded or considered by editors and how to tailor it accordingly to express the points we need to make. On the other hand, we must not shy away from the words “Jew” or “Jewish”. This is the “national character” of Israel. It is not a democratic State, but rather an exclusionist, supremacist, racist State that extends full rights and many privileges to Jews alone. This fact can’t be beautified by any means, it is reality. In addition, the IDF is a Jewish army. It’s not a “democratic” one that represents its population, since many religious Jews are excluded but even more revealing, one fifth of the registered population is comprised of Palestinians and there are many other immigrants who are not represented. They may “join” only after conversion or through specific units aimed at service as a fast-track to conversion/full rights as an Israeli. The Druze are a limited exception, again, serving so as to obtain rights excluded to them as ordinary citizens in the Jewish State. Palestinians and others have the right to use the proper terminology without being vilified for it. If heinous acts are being committed by the IDF, it is not improper to refer to them as Jews operating as the military/control branch of the Jewish State. 
14. We Need To Be Welcoming.
We will always need more/new people in this cause and we will always meet new people. We have to create and build networks, share our knowledge and experiences, disagree in a civil manner, listen, learn, do outreach, be involved in other struggles out of sincere love of freedom. Therefore, the practice of excluding people based on their religion, political ideas, sexual preferences or lifestyles has got to be reduced. We can’t agree with all people on all things, but we too might be seen as “wrong” for the beliefs we hold, which we have a right to hold as human beings. We have no right to judge others on who they are, we should be working all together to serve the common cause. Those who use their connections for anything else are abusing and using the Palestinian people. It may not be immoral to receive money for activism, but honoraria should cover costs or be devolved to Palestinian refugees. Solidarity should not become an industry.
15. We Put Conditions on Our Solidarity.
Palestinians do not seek to salvage crumbs of pity from anyone and they do not require to be told what kind of resistance they should engage in or who of them is entitled to express their needs. That their struggle is not only a struggle for equal rights, it is a struggle for liberation, is a fact that is well known to them, and it requires a vast range of actions for Palestinians to survive and maintain hope of liberating themselves. The fact of the matter that most of their resistance has been non-violent should be clear to activists who frequently call on them to “find a Palestinian Gandhi” or to abandon one form of resistance or another or even declare that there is only one right form. All of these conditions, judgments and demands are unfair to Palestinians and unrealistic.
A combination of all types of resistance as well as supportive acts coming from outside such as boycotts should be supported, unconditionally. While it is with the best intentions that activists compare South African Apartheid to the Palestinian cause, the reality is different. Palestinians are living under a brutal military occupation and face the genocide of their people. They have not obtained the support of any international organisation, and are encouraged to dig their way out of it all by negotiations for rights when they know what their rights are and all of them know what the map of Palestine looks like. They are asked to concede, to give up more, when what they are trying to do is to regain their lost land, rights and freedom.
It goes beyond the issue of obtaining equal rights, but is quite simply put, a struggle to throw off the chains of occupation and create Palestinian society and governance in a people that has been dispersed throughout the entire world. Palestinians have no State, they have no army, and they are fighting for their very survival. They deserve our complete solidarity to defend themselves and to create the nation. Asking ourselves how we can serve them, not how they can deserve our solidarity, is the one crucial question to ask again and again, and each time, we may obtain different responses. With the goals of their liberation in mind, let us serve.
For the movement to become a genuine ally and a true supporter of Palestine, the Palestinians and their struggle for freedom, it needs to listen to Palestinians stating their own history, claiming their narrative and defining their struggle in their own words. It has been very hard for the pro-Palestinians to explain that the question of Palestine does not begin in 1967 to the leaders of many solidarity movements in the USA and Europe, and thus the question of Return became a difficult issue with many of those leaders, causing a split within the movement into almost two equal halves. We were able to make sure that our true allies understand that all struggles are connected. We fight for human dignity and basic rights and these are some of the links between Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. Also we cannot turn our backs on other struggles such as the struggles of the US citizens of New Orleans, the people of Haiti and others. It is important to make the connections and understand how our struggle relates to the struggles of all oppressed people, and also, the ways in which it differs.

Mary Rizzo is an art restorer, translator and writer living in Italy. Editor and co-founder of Palestine Think Tank, co-founder of Tlaxcala translations collective. Her personal blog is Peacepalestine.
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Vendredi 22 Janvier 2010

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