Students Fight for Justice in Palestine
by Snehal Shingavi
International Socialist Review, May-June 2002
while the rest of the world watched news reports of Israeli
war crimes in Jenin, Bush announced that he "would not let
Israel be crushed," and that Ariel Sharon was a "man
of peace." But his is not a new position. Since 1967 Israel
has received close to $100 billion dollars in U.S. aid ever since
it occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And according to Stephen
Zunes, aid to Israel is likely to increase to levels we have never
The increases in military aid, grow out of a central pillar
of U.S. policy in the Middle East: strengthening America's 'strategic
cooperation' with Israel. This cooperation currently centers on
two categories of U.S. military-related assistance to Israel,
Economic Support Funds (ESF) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF).
The larger of these two, FMF, is intended to help Israel finance
its acquisition of U.S. military equipment, services, and training.
FMF is scheduled to increase by $60 million each year, for a total
of $2.04 billion in FY2002, as part of an ongoing plan to phase
out ESF support by 2008. Previous discussions about Israel's security
needs following peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinians
and a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the
Gaza Strip foresee an additional $35 billion of U.S. military
assistance, raising the potential total to more than $7 billion
per year for the next seven years."'
There is no moral or ethical or religious tie that binds Israel
and the policy makers in Washington. Rather, the United States
has seen Israel as a necessary component to its military projection
in the Middle East and as a way to divide and conquer Arab states
that might otherwise pose a serious threat to the U.S. presence
in the region and its influence on the price and supply of oil.
As a result, almost every U.S. president and secretary of state
has visited Israel during his or her term in office and has sought
to cement ever closer ties between the two nations.
But the consequences of this relationship have been devastating.
More than 2,000 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning
of the second Intifada in September 2000. U.S. aid has propped
up the largest military and the only nuclear power in the Middle
East and helped to finance the brutal occupation of the Palestinian
people. The Israeli Defense Forces routinely use U.S.-financed,
and occasionally U.S.-manufactured, F-16s Apache helicopter gunships,
tanks, and bulldozers to terrorize the Palestinian people. The
disproportionately high number of Palestinian casualties in this
Intifada is a direct result of this military superiority.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Israel served as a convenient smokescreen
for U.S. complicity in gross human rights violations. As the U.S.
came under increasing international pressure for its support of
repressive regimes in Chile, Argentina, and Iran, it used Israel
to sell arms to these countries while its own hands appeared clean.
Throughout the 1980s, Israel would also be called upon to arm
and train the racist South African apartheid regime during an
international arms embargo on South Africa. As one Israeli newspaper
conceded, "It is a clear and open secret known to everybody
that in [South African] army camps one can find Israeli officers
in not insignificant numbers who are busy teaching white soldiers
to fight Black terrorists with methods imported from Israel."
Today, Israel holds up the mantle of apartheid. With two sets
of laws-one for Jews and one for non-Jews-Israel has turned Palestinians
(also called Israeli Arabs if they live within the 1967 borders)
into second class citizens; non-Jews are not allowed to own public
property, do not receive benefits from military service, are not
allowed the right to return to their homes, and live in segregated
sections of Israel. In the Occupied Territories, the situation
is much worse. Through a series of bypass roads, checkpoints,
and settlements, the Israeli military has turned occupied Palestine
into a network of bantustans-disconnected pockets of Palestinian
land under provisional local authority. Archbishop Desmond Tutu
had to draw a comparison to South Africa during a recent visit:
I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy
Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people
in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians
at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white
police officers prevented us from moving about... I have experienced
Palestinians pointing to what were their homes, now occupied by
Jewish Israelis. I was walking with Canon Naim Ateek (the head
of the Sabeel Ecumenical Centre) in Jerusalem. He pointed and
said: "Our home was over there. We were driven out of our
home; it is now occupied by Israeli Jews."
Students take action
So, it is not surprising that students in the U.S., who are
looking for ways to fight for justice in Palestine and to put
an end to the seemingly endless financial contributions of the
U.S. to Israel, are also looking to tactics that were used in
the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Anti-apartheid
student activists oriented their campaigns around divestment,
the simple idea that colleges and universities should not do business
in or draw profit from the racist policies of South Africa. Corporations
like Coca-Cola, IBM, General Electric, and General Motors did
business in South Africa and employed Black South Africans at
substantially lower wages than whites. Colleges and universities,
in turn, invested in those corporations and derived a profit from
them. And while the demand for divestment had been circulating
around college campuses for several years, it was only when those
demands were linked to civil disobedience that the campaign began
to draw its successes.
In 1985, students and faculty at Dartmouth College constructed
the first shantytown-a representation of the poverty and racism
that Black South Africans experienced-on the campus green. In
January of 1986, when right-wing students used sledgehammers to
tear down the shantytown at Dartmouth, the idea sparked a national
movement. Suddenly, all over the U.S., students and faculty were
building shantytowns and waging sit-ins on their own campuses
in opposition to South African apartheid, and by February, even
the New York Times had to report that it was having some successes.
Between April of 1985 and February of 1986, 30 colleges and universities
had agreed to divest from their holdings in South Africa.
In January of 2001, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)launched
a campaign to demand that the University of California divest
from all of its holdings in Israel. Preliminary research indicated
that the Regents Portfolio-an investment pool of over $55 billion-contained
over 6 billion dollars worth of assets that were connected to
Israel or to the Israeli military. The University of California
invests in corporations like General Electric, which produces
the propulsion systems for the Apache helicopters and F-16s that
Israel uses to attack Palestinian towns and villages, and AOL/Time
Warner, which announced a standard policy of putting 30% of its
investments in Israel last year. It also invested in companies
like Nokia and Hewlett Packard, high-tech companies that have
produced an array of military applications for the Israeli Defense
The analysis that the divestment campaign produced helped
the movement attract activists from the anti-globalization movement.
Alongside a military relationship that had developed between the
U.S. and Israel there was also an economic relationship that would
be used to promote U.S. oil interests in the region and produce
profitable markets for select businesses. Over the last decade,
venture capitalists have invested billions into the Israeli economy
and specifically into the high-tech sector, turning Israel into
the "Silicon Wadi." Ex-Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright was even sent over in 1999 to make sure that Israel's
national airline, El-Al, signed contracts with American manufacturers
instead of their European competitors. The enormous U.S. investment
in Israel continues to guarantee profits for American capitalists.
On February 6, 2001, when Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister
of Israel, Students for Justice in Palestine created a mock checkpoint
on UC Berkeley's campus. The student newspaper, the Daily Californian,
covered the action.
Echoing similar unrest thousands of miles away, a group of
approximately 75 people sat directly under the gate, blocking
the main entrance to campus and clashing with Israeli students
and supporters of Israel. One student said the rally was staged
to let UC Berkeley students experience what it is like to live
as a Palestinian in Israel. "We want to bring the issue of
Palestine's disenfranchisement to the public on the Israeli election
day," said another protester, political science graduate
student Greg Hoadley ... "We hope (the students inconvenienced)
will understand that this blockage is nowhere near the inconvenience
of Israeli checkpoints," Hoadley said. "And those are
done routinely. Everyone of Palestinian descent is detained- pregnant
Students chanted "this is what a checkpoint looks like"
and "take a stand and join us" as they blocked traffic
for a hundred yards in both directions. The action not only captured
the political attention of the campus, but galvanized the group
as well-the membership of the organization doubled in size. It
also was able to get the Berkeley unit of AGSE/UAW local 2865
(the union of student instructors on campus) to pass a resolution
in support of divestment.
In March 2001, students created a mock refugee camp using
chicken-wire and large pictures of Palestinians in refugee camps.
The constant flow of images of the Israeli occupation were beginning
to have an effect on campus. Increasing numbers of students were
drawn into discussion and debate. And on April 24, students sat
in at Wheeler Hall (renamed "Muhammad Al-Durrah Hall"
for the day, after the Palestinian boy who was murdered by Israeli
forces while huddled in a corner with his father) to protest the
University of California's continued investments in Israel. That
day, 79 people were arrested in the sit-in, but hundreds more
participated in the rally, which lasted most of the day. The events
of the spring semester were so successful that by the end of the
school year SJP could count on close to 100 members. The Daily
Californian was forced to report that the student body considered
the politics of the Middle East to be the most important issue
These were the events before September 11, 2001. In the immediate
aftermath, most of the members of SJP were involved in the Berkeley
Stop the War Coalition and protested the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.
But as Israel's repression in the Occupied Territories escalated,
students began to organize around Palestine yet again. In February
of 2002, SJP held a national conference at UC Berkeley called
"The National Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity
Movement" that had over 400 attendees representing over 50
schools. At that conference, students unanimously voted to make
the divestment campaign a national one and voted to make April
9 a national day of action.
On April 9, 10,000 students protested on several colleges
and universities to demand an end to the Israeli occupation and
to call for divestment. At UC Berkeley, 1,200 people participated
in a rally and sit-in to commemorate the massacre at Deir Yassin.
At Ohio State University, students put on street theater to highlight
the human rights abuses of the Israeli government. At the University
of Minnesota, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Carnegie
Mellon University, similar rallies and educational events were
held to organize opposition to Israeli occupation and also to
call on university administrations to divest from Israel. There
are now dose to 25 chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine
across the United States.
The interesting thing about the pro-Palestinian events in
April (the rallies on campuses on the 9th and the national demonstrations
on the 20th, 100,000 in Washington D.C. and 25,000 in San Francisco)
is that they were drawing upon the left-wing of the anti-globalization
and the anti-war movements. While not everyone in those movements
was convinced of the need to organize around Palestine and even
more were hung up on questions of condemning the "suicide
bombers," the anti-imperialists within those movements took
up the call for Palestine solidarity and joined pro-Palestinian
groups across the country. The April protests were also remarkable
in the large showing of Arabs and Muslims who have begun to demonstrate
openly with increasing confidence since September 11th. More and
more though, SJP is attracting new activists who have been convinced
by the April incursions into the West Bank that the Israeli occupation
is neither about security nor about peace but about the completion
of territorial expansion.
This movement, like the movements that inspired it, is engaged
with political debates that have been the legacy of political
organizing. Should the movement make decisions through consensus
or democracy? Can the movement be allowed to criticize what people
in Palestine do? Can we get legislators to reform the system or
are they part of the problem? Should we dialogue with the Zionists?
And how can we in the U.S. play a role to support the struggle
for self-determination in Palestine? These kinds of questions
and a brand new spirit of activism have been the driving force
behind a growing movement on the campuses of American colleges
and universities. The hope of Students for Justice in Palestine
and the students who attended the conference in February was clearly
to give an organizational form to a growing opposition to Israeli
military policies and to create a spirit of resistance that would
challenge the financial establishment of the U.S. and its connections
After the rally on April 9, the administration at UC Berkeley
announced that the 41 students that were arrested in the sit-in
would face student conduct hearings and possibly face suspension
from school for up to one year. The administration suspended SJP
as an official student group on campus and restricted its rights
to organize. The letter from the administration to SJP reads as
follows: "Please be advised that pending the investigation
of this complaint, your organization's student group privileges
are hereby suspended. These privileges include (but are not limited
to) reserving facilities, holding or advertising activities on
campus, or tabling on Sproul Plaza." The letter represents
a dear attack on SJP's right to free speech and assembly.
In the history of student activism at Berkeley, such moves
are unprecedented. No other student group has been banned nor
has any other student activist faced suspension for a nonviolent
sit-in on campus. Chancellor Robert Berdahl's actions can only
be seen as a targeted attack on one of the strongest pro-Palestinian
student groups in the nation. It is not surprising that the chancellor's
so-called "zero tolerance" policy-the unwritten rule
that now governs how sanctions will be handed out to student protesters-was
announced only two days before the protest. The fight to force
the University of California to divest its holdings in Israel
necessarily confronts broader questions about democracy, students'
rights, and free speech on campus.
Students decided that the only way to respond to the administration
was to challenge its ruling by testing it. On May 2, as part of
a national day of action, Students for Justice in Palestine held
a rally called "Free Speech, Free Palestine" in protest
of the chancellor's decision to continue to prosecute non-violent
protesters for sitting in. Under some pressure, the administration
finally lifted the suspension, though it hasn't withdrawn its
planned disciplinary proceedings against sit-in participants,
and it continues to harass individual activists.
Snehal Shingavi is an activist in the Students for Justice
in Palestine's UC Berkeley chapter.
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