The Arab world and Palestine

An op-ed in this week’s Vue Weekly by PSN’s Siavash Saffari on the uprising in the Arab world and the implications for Palestine. The topic will be explored in more detail during Edmtonton Israeli Apartheid Week on Wednesday, March 16 at 7:00 pm in Telus Building 236/238 with a panel entitled The Season of Revolt: New Arab Uprisings and Implications for Apartheid.

The Arab world and Palestine:
What do the democratic movements mean for a struggling Palestinian state?
Siavash Saffari

For 18 fateful days, the world watched as events unfolded in Egypt. While people around the globe found inspiration in Egyptian protesters’ steadfastness as they fought against the dictatorship, here in North America the major concern of many political circles and media reports was the hegemonic interests of the US empire, especially where it concerned the Israel-Palestine question.

There is no doubt that any democratic change in Egypt will have an effect on the country’s relationship with Israel. Egypt under Mubarak was an important friend to Israel, providing, among other things, 40 percent of Israel’s natural gas needs and helping to maintain a brutal and illegal siege on Gaza. In the words of Aluf Benn, editor-at-large for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, “Without Mubarak, Israel is left with almost no friends in the Middle East.”

It leaves some commentators wondering if this tsunami of social and political change will be a catalyst for a mass movement demanding Israel’s recognition of Palestinians’ equal rights. So far, that hasn’t happened. Nevertheless, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza held rallies in solidarity with Egyptian protesters and in defiance of the Fatah-and Hamas-imposed bans against such rallies. And, there are reasons to believe that Palestinians, too, might witness a turning point in their struggle against a decades-old occupation, and an expanding structure of apartheid.

With the failure of the secular-nationalist political elite to bring an end to the Israeli occupation, and with the limitations of Islamism in creating a broad social movement, in recent years we have witnessed the growing popularity of the Palestinian anti-apartheid movement. The movement is the convergence of various individuals and groups around a common agenda with an emphasis on universal human rights, commitment to non-violence and grassroots activism, and cooperation with Israeli and international solidarity activists and networks.

In 2001, a number of South African and Palestinian civil society groups launched the International Anti-Apartheid Movement against Israel. But it was the 2005 call for an international campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel by over 170 Palestinian parties, trade unions and non-governmental and grassroots organizations that solidified the anti-apartheid movement within Palestinian civil society. It also made possible the prospect of a popular resistance with an appeal to international law, universal human rights and opposition to colonialism, apartheid and racism.

The BDS campaign was formed around three objectives: an end to colonization and occupation of all Arab lands and dismantling of the Israeli-West Bank barrier wall; recognition of the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respect, protection and promotion of the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands as per UN resolution 194.

While a growing movement around the world is assembling under the BDS banner, here in Canada Harper’s Conservative government has effectively become Israel’s closest friend and ally. From supporting the 2006 invasion of Lebanon and the 2008-09 assault on Gaza, to condemning the calls on Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Canada has also vetoed key UN motions on the rights of Palestinian refugees, to cutting funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and labeled any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. The Conservative government’s position has consistently been unqualified support for Israel. In fact, both Canadian and Israeli officials insist that “Israel now has no better friend in the world than Canada.”

It came as no surprise when the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Cannon declared that Canada’s chief concern with regard to Egypt is a stable transition that would protect the peace treaty with Israel. This time, there was little talk about supporting democracy and human rights.

While the government’s official policy has been one of unconditional support for Israel, in recent years the Canadian civil society has established strong links with the anti-apartheid movement. Many Canadian unions including the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario, Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and la Centrale des syndicats du Quebec (CSQ), have joined the broad coalition that is forming around the anti-apartheid movement.

Most significantly, Israeli Apartheid Week, which is held in cities around the world this month, began as a Canadian initiative. It was launched in 2005 by students at the University of Toronto with the idea of raising awareness about the structures of legal, political, economic, social and cultural domination imposed on Palestinians within Israel and in the occupied territories. In its seventh year, IAW continues to make a significant contribution to the opposition of Israeli apartheid and to bolster support for BDS.

Siavash Saffari is a political science doctoral student at the University of Alberta and an organizer with Palestine Solidarity Network.

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