“No System of Oppression Can Last”: Mustafa Barghouti on Activism to Liberate Palestine

10 May, 2007: Mustafa Barghouti speaks to crowd gathered at Trafalgar square in London, England. (Photo: Sally Sami)Mustafa Barghouti speaks to a crowd gathered at Trafalgar Square in London, England, May 10, 2007. (Photo: Sally Sami)

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In mid-September, Reykjavik, Iceland, became the first city to declare a boycott of all Israeli goods, yet within days, the city modified that resolution to include only those goods produced in the occupied Palestinian territories. The astoundingly bold move at the start was enough to send shock waves through Europe, and the retreat to “merely” bringing city policy in line with international law was still regarded as a victory. This episode shows both the tremendous momentum gathering in support of such gestures, and the persistence of Israeli influence. At an event at the University of California, Berkeley, Omar Barghouti, cofounder of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, told me that he felt that the movement had reached a “South Africa moment,” meaning that world consensus was slowly but firmly turning in the direction of Palestinian rights.

There are other signs as well. For example, as the Obama administration declares victory on the Iran deal, we see a moment for activism on Israel-Palestine, as the heretofore unchallenged assumption that Israel is the United States’ ally has been weakened by the suspicion that Israel may instead well be a liability in terms of the United States pursuing its foreign policy goals. These events, and others, made Mustafa Barghouti’s appearance in Berkeley especially auspicious.

Barghouti is a prominent human rights activist, a leader in the nonviolent struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine and an organizer of the international solidarity presence in the occupied Palestinian territories. Born in Jerusalem in 1954, Barghouti trained as a medical doctor in the former Soviet Union, and in 1979, he founded the Palestinian Medical Relief Society and served for 25 years as its president. Today, the Palestinian Medical Relief Society is one of the largest providers of primary health-care services throughout the Palestinian territories, with a staff of 380 health professionals and 38,000 volunteers. It currently works in 495 Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps, providing services to 1.3 million Palestinians each year.

Barghouti is an outspoken advocate for the development of Palestinian civil society and grassroots democracy in Palestine. In 2002, he cofounded Al Mubadara (the Palestinian National Initiative), along with Dr. Haider Abdel-Shafi, Ibrahim Dakak and Edward Said, and currently serves as its secretary general. An alternative to the Palestinian political parties Fatah and Hamas, Al Mubadara aims to build the institutional framework of Palestinian civil society and promote the principles of internal democracy and good governance.

In 2005, Barghouti ran for president of the Palestinian Authority, winning approximately 20 percent of the vote, and in 2006, he was elected to the Palestinian Parliament as an independent candidate. He served as minister of information in the short-lived Palestinian unity government in 2007, and on February 3, 2010, Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and cofounder of the Peace People (in Northern Ireland), nominated Mustafa Barghouti for the Nobel Peace Prize with these words:

For the Nobel Committee to give their 2010 Award to Dr. Barghouti would be a recognition of not only his great spirit of peace and nonviolence, but also the Palestinian Nonviolent Movement, which gives us all hope for the future of Palestine, Israel and the Middle East Community.

On July 9, 2015, Barghouti was in the United States on a speaking tour, and during one of his events sponsored by the Middle East Children’s Alliance, my Stanford colleague Khalil Barhoum and I joined Barghouti on stage for a conversation. We were specifically interested in his perspective on the increasingly urgent situation in the occupied territories, within Israel-Palestine itself, recent international developments and what Americans interested in Palestinian rights could and should do.

Khalil Barhoum: Let me start with a personal question. At our age, people are usually thinking of retirement and picking out places around the world to visit. So in your case, how does it feel to be traveling the world constantly and carrying the burden of a whole nation on your back? As [renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud] Darwish put it, his nation was his “suitcase.”

Mustafa Barghouti: I thought you were going to ask me, “What keeps you optimistic?” Well, first of all I think – this feeling of burden you described it very well – I started to feel that about 48 years ago, when I was a very young boy, when the occupation took place in 1967. You see, before that, we were hoping that some other countries would come in and solve our problem. And suddenly, we looked around us and we saw that Israel had defeated three major Arab countries, occupied more land and the rest of Palestine. At that very moment – I remember it very well – I felt that the whole world was falling on our shoulders. And that feeling has not gone away.

I know the feeling that you describe – that some people work very hard and then they wait to a certain age to take it easy, but I guess many of the people in this hall are similar to what I am going to talk about. Many of you could be relaxing at home, watching a football game, maybe, drinking a beer, but instead you came here to listen to my talk about Palestine. It’s the same feeling that you have that I have. It’s the sense of responsibility. It’s the sense of humanity. And I frequently say, Khalil, if I were not a Palestinian, and I knew about what is going on in Palestine, I would do exactly [what the audience here] is doing for Palestine.

This is important to understand: The issue of Palestine is not a Palestinian-only or Arab-only or Islamic-only or a Christian issue; the Palestinian issue today is the most important human issue, and that is exactly what Nelson Mandela said. After South Africa had been liberated, Mandela declared, “We will not be completely free until Palestinians are free and the Palestinian issue is the most important human issue of our time.”

I think because of that, we cannot rest until we see a change.

David Palumbo-Liu: I have a follow-up question. I agree with what you said about how the Palestinian struggle is a universal issue. But I also feel that we in the United States have a special obligation, since we facilitate the occupation and arm and protect Israel so ardently, that there is a particular moral obligation for us. And yet at the same time, we pay a particular price because the US has such a longstanding antipathy toward anti-Semitism and that is what we who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) are accused of supporting, which of course is totally incorrect. But we always have to explain that BDS is aimed at specific Israeli state policies, and not at the Jewish people. But some Americans still are not ready to join BDS. I wanted to ask you, what would you say to the “average American” about how they could support, or learn to support, the Palestinians?

Well, before talking about alternative things that one might do, I would like to first clarify why I would work hard on convincing them to join BDS by explaining the following point. I do understand and have the privilege to know something about Jewish history. I know how much Jewish people have suffered during the Holocaust, something that cannot and should not be denied; I know how much Jewish people have suffered during the pogroms in Russia, maybe more than many Jewish people know, or during the period of the Inquisition. But because of that, because of the fact that these people have been subjected to terrible kinds of discrimination, they should be more sensitive than many other people to oppression. And the fact that Jewish people suffered all these years does not justify their oppression of Palestinians. Not only because we were never part of [causing] the oppression that Jewish people were subjected to, but also because it’s wrong.

“The best way of defeating the Israeli claim that BDS is anti-Semitic is to have Jewish people active in BDS.”

It’s very important to explain to people – as I have told many Israeli soldiers and officers who have arrested us during our actions – that when we struggle against apartheid with BDS and with our popular resistance, we are struggling to liberate not only the Palestinians from the system of apartheid, but also to liberate the Israelis themselves from that. So supporting BDS is to support them too, to liberate them from this terrible system of discrimination and oppression, because the Israelis themselves will never be free from fear and from apartheid unless Palestinians are free from that.

So I would first do my best to convince people to join BDS, but if that can’t, or if they are at a stage where they still need to do some more thinking, at least they should call for complete divestment from anything that has to do with the settlements. Many companies in the world are already doing that – Deutsche Bank, for example, or the Government Pension Fund Global in Norway. Then I think it is very important, especially here in the United States, to bring the knowledge to the people. Because, unfortunately and overwhelmingly, the mainstream media in the US is really dominated by the Israeli narrative, and many journalists practice self-censorship.

Bringing the truth to people is very important. The reason why BDS is now getting strong, especially after the attack on Gaza this past summer, is mainly because social media has become a serious substitute to mainstream media, and that is something I would call on people to do. The other thing I would do is to invite as many people as possible to come to Palestine. I think if people came and saw these facts with their own eyes it would really help them understand the situation better, especially if people are allowed to see the reality on the ground.

Barhoum: Mustafa, considering that many in the audience may be progressive Jews, what do you say to these people who are wondering what would be the most important and effective actions they could take in support of the Palestinian cause and in solidarity with Palestinians under occupation?

Unfortunately, as you have seen, the Israeli public has chosen the most extreme and racist government in their history, and that is not a coincidence; it happened because the Israeli public is benefiting from occupation; they benefit from confiscating our land; they benefit from investing in construction on our land; they benefit from stealing between 80 and 85 percent of our water etc. But the Jewish community outside is not in the same position. And that’s why I think that the Jewish community in the United States and probably in other places is more sensitive to one very important issue, which is the fact that Israel is losing the moral ground constantly, and they are sensitive to the moral issue. And that’s why I think that the best way of defeating the Israeli claim that BDS is anti-Semitic is to have Jewish people active in BDS. For example, the great musician Daniel Barenboim is supporting BDS. Avi Shlaim, a great historian, is supporting sanctions. I think also Ilan Pappé and others.

That’s why these voices not only have to be supported, but they have to come out and speak out. Why do we speak about BDS with such an amount of enthusiasm? Because it is an instrument that is effective. Because it can make a difference. By the way, I believe it cost Israel between $9 and $15 billion last year. And it has cost Israel about 50 percent of its foreign investment also, because of the Gaza attack. That’s why I think it’s important for progressive Jews to join BDS.

Also, I think they can play a very important role in bringing forth the right narrative in terms of this situation.

Palumbo-Liu: Can you talk more about the outcome of the elections? Specifically could you characterize the new government, and also speak about the Joint List?

The Joint List was a very important and very good thing. It was the only good thing about the last election in Israel. It showed two very important things: First of all, it showed that Palestinians can be unified. Because that list contains a wide range of groups, from communist parties to Islamic parties, but they were able to unify, and that by itself is a very good message. The second thing is that they defeated the Netanyahu plan, which was to reduce the Palestinian representation in the Knesset by increasing the threshold to 3.25 percent, which would have prevented most parties from entering the Knesset, and would have brought down the Palestinian representation to less than maybe four members. So instead of accepting that, they unified and they defeated that plan and practically increased their membership in the Knesset to 13 members, and it could have been 15 if there had been more voting from the Arab side. So this was a very important act. It will also help Palestinians inside Israel to be part of an effective struggle.

Now with regard to this new Israeli government, it is really unfortunate that the Israeli people would elect such a government. The reason I call it the “most extreme” and the “most racist” government Israel has had is that the main goal of this government is to consolidate racism and apartheid. This government includes people like the minister of justice [Ayelet Shaked], who is speaking about preventing Palestinian women from giving birth – she calls our women “snakes.” It’s a government where you have Naftali Bennett, who, in principle, refuses our right to have any state, or any kind of representation; it is a government whose goal is to completely separate Gaza from the West Bank, and by the way that is why Israel is trying to prevent any kind of unity between Palestinians, any form of reconciliation. They think by getting rid of Gaza, which is only 1.3 percent of the land of historic Palestine, they can get rid of 34 percent of the so-called “demographic formula.” In this way, they would dilute the Palestinian demographic factor. So their first goal is to separate Gaza from the West Bank. Their second goal is to practice social and economic annexation of the West Bank, and their third goal is to repress any form of resistance in every possible way, even if it’s the most peaceful resistance. That’s what we encounter every day, very serious violence against our popular resistance. And finally, they are trying to kill any unifying, centralized representation of the Palestinian people. The first thing they have done in that regard is to divide the country into small pieces and islands, and now they are moving to create administrative links to local governors and to marginalize completely the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and whatever Palestinian leadership there is.

So practically we are witnessing here a government whose plan is to kill the possibility of peace. And that’s why it is so dangerous and that’s why it should be confronted.

Barhoum: In closing, let me ask a twofold question: How effective do you think it is for the Palestinians to seek recourse with the International [Criminal] Court and other international forums? And where do you think the Israeli extreme right wing and other racist policies are leading Israel in the long run? Also, what’s the impact of all of that on the Palestinians?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is a very important instrument. It took a long time and a lot of pressure from our side before the leadership of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority agreed to sign the Rome Statute. And I don’t understand why Israel is so mad about the ICC, and many countries, including the United States official government are angry about that. They are very happy about using the ICC against Sudan and against many African countries, claiming that this is international law. Well, we are sticking to international law. And if Israel did not commit any war crimes, why are they so worried? But they know deep down that they have committed not only war crimes, but also crimes against humanity, and they continue to commit these crimes.

The ICC is a very important instrument for one specific reason – for the first time in 67 years, Israel is losing its impunity in front of international law. It’s not about seeing [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu sitting in front of the court in one or two years – I know it will take a long time. It’s about the fact that they are going to be held accountable, and they do not accept the fact of being held accountable.

We have now made a submission to the ICC that contains three major war crimes: first are the war crimes, the crimes against humanity that were committed during the aggression on Gaza; second are settlement activities as a continuous war crime; and third are crimes committed against Palestinian prisoners. The ICC is conducting what they call a “preliminary examination,” which has four stages. They have completed the first stage and now they are in the second stage, after which they will decide whether or not to initiate an investigation about war crimes.

If they decide not to investigate, we will go with referrals, demanding that they perform an investigation. I don’t know how long it will take. But once they start the investigation, imagine the situation: Many Israeli generals, politicians, leaders will be subjected to the possibility of being interrogated by the court, and that means that 122 countries in the world who are signatories of the Rome Statute will be obliged to hand them over if they pass through these countries. This is why the Israeli government is so angry, because it’s an effective method of holding Israel accountable.

Now for the second question – the impact of the Israeli government’s policies on Israel is very dangerous because Israel already has an apartheid system, but they are consolidating it. The other impact is that they are creating damage that could make the impossibility now of having a two-state solution irreversible. And the impact on Palestinians is more suffering and more oppression.

“No colonial power can ever last, no system of oppression can last, especially if the people are resilient, as the Palestinian people are.”

One sign of that is that Israel is changing the rules regarding the shooting of Palestinians. So far this year, 24 Palestinians have been shot, either in peaceful demonstrations or because the Israeli army claimed they were doing something wrong. Last year, apart from the attack on Gaza, the Israeli army killed 70 Palestinians by using gunshots against peaceful demonstrators. So of course, one of the impacts of these policies of the Israeli government will be more harassment of the Palestinian people, and that’s an important challenge in front of us.

But the other aspect of this is that these racist policies have become so profound, to the level that they are starting to be practiced not only against Palestinians, but also against part of the Israeli Jewish community itself. Definitely right now we have a very serious crisis with people of Ethiopian origin. There are also signs that people from other places in the world have also been subjected to a certain level of discrimination.

Racism – and you know this very well here in the United States – will not be limited to only one group of people. Eventually it spreads like cancer, because it’s about a mentality, a behavior, a certain set of thoughts and practices that eventually will destroy Israel from within.

I just want to remind you that our struggle has become very similar to the struggle of the people of South Africa. With one difference – the enemy of our freedom is much stronger than the one in South Africa. But in South Africa, things did not start at the level of foreign ministers; everything started at the grassroots level. And after the buildup of a strong grassroots movement, which became a boycott and divestment and sanctions movement, politicians started to change. And only when big American corporations started to lose business did the American position start to change.

About seven years ago, before [President] Obama was elected and Condoleezza Rice was still secretary of state, I was interviewed by CNN, and they spoke about Palestinians being terrorists or acting as terrorists, and I responded by saying to them, “You know, the most respected leader now is Nelson Mandela. Every American president tried to have a photo opportunity with him. At the same time, Nelson Mandela was still on the terrorist list of the US Congress. Six months after he was removed from that list.”

I believe you can change the American policy through strong grassroots work and through good organization. Things are changing positively, in our favor. Sometimes people ask me, “Why are you so optimistic?” Well, there are many reasons to be optimistic, especially when you meet young people and work with young people, which I do a lot these days, but one main reason why I feel optimistic is the certain knowledge of history that I have that no colonial power can ever last, no system of oppression can last, especially if the people are resilient, as the Palestinian people are.