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 before seen:

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 Forces.

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 women, children-everyone."

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 on campus.

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 to Israel.

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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