Report on Haifa Conference
To: USGP International Committee
Report on Trip to Israel-Palestine, March-April, 2004
From: Justine McCabe, Ph.D.
IC Representative, Green Party of CT (also member of the Right to Return Coalition)
1. Palestinian Right of Return and Just Peace Conference
Haifa, March 26-28, 2004
This landmark Israeli conference focused entirely on the Palestinian right to return to their homes in Israel. Held in the beautiful north coastal city of Haifa, the conference was organized by the Emil Tuma Institute for Palestinian and Israeli Studies, and several Jewish/Palestinian-Israeli NGO’s including Ittijah (Union of Israeli-Arab Community Based Associations), the Association of the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced Persons in Israel and Zochrot (“Remembering” in Hebrew). The conference attracted more than 300 people of whom about 100 were Jewish according to conference initiator Haifa University Professor, Ilan Pappe.
This event was groundbreaking in the sense that it was the first gathering in Israel in which support for Palestinian refugee rights was publicly acknowledged as the cornerstone for an enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This action has been formalized as the “Haifa Initiative.”
Although such Jewish-Palestinian cooperation for peace occurs elsewhere in Israel, it has existed mostly in terms of opposition to Israeli occupation practices (e.g., the courageous work of Gila Svirsky, Neta Golan and Jeff Halper of ICAHD--Israeli Committee against House Demolition) and attempts to encourage Jewish/Palestinian Israeli integration in housing (Fred Schlomka’s MOSAIC) and schools (Amin Khalaf’s Hand-in-Hand has, since 1998, created 3 integrated schools in the country).
By contrast, the significant effort of the Haifa group is bringing into public view the now extensive scholarship challenging founding myths of Israel, especially the refugee problem. They assert that the source and continuation of the conflict are the failure to acknowledge the expulsion and dispossession by Zionist forces in the 1948 war of over 700,000 native Arab inhabitants of Palestine and their descendants; and that as long as this historical truth is denied or excluded, there can be no peace, no reconciliation.
Press coverage was good. There were two long, excellent articles in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz (Hebrew edition) before and after the event; there were no disruptions/picketing of the event.
Haifa was intentionally chosen for the conference as one of the few “mixed” Israeli cities, and is regarded as a relatively progressive place in terms of Jewish/Palestinian-Israeli relations. Palestinians are about 20% of the city’s population, as they are in the country as a whole. This doesn’t mean that gross discrimination does not continue there for Palestinian citizens of Israel as elsewhere in the country. For example, all schools are segregated by ethnicity; Palestinian-Israelis are an underclass by every SES variable; 250,000 are still internally displaced, etc., significant land confiscation continues by the state, particularly in the predominantly Palestinian Galilee. Historically, there were 70,000 Jewish Palestinians and 70,000 Christian and Muslim Palestinians in Haifa until early 1948 when 64,000 of the latter were expelled.
Nonetheless, there was a palpable inclination of Jews and Palestinians toward one another in Haifa. For examples, some public spaces like cafes are obviously integrated, and there’s less overt evidence of Jewish or Muslim religious identification (e.g., few women wearing the hijab). Reflecting its multicultural context, the conference was simultaneously cast in Arabic, English and Hebrew. All the Palestinian-Israelis spoke Hebrew and some Jews, Arabic; some Jews spoke of having gone to live in Palestinian communities in the area. Thus, particularly among the conference organizing groups, I observed Jews and Palestinians embodying a professed mutual fate and attachment to the same land.
The conference was also important in terms of our participation as Greens. As you can see from the program (pasted below), we were the only political party represented--an exception to the guidelines set by conference organizers who had limited participation to civil society like NGO’s that are supportive of the right of return (i.e., even to the exclusion of Palestinian-Israeli political parties). We were included because we are an American political party that supports the Palestinian right of return. Moreover, many of the organizers--not naïve to the duopolistic nature of the American political system--included us as an expression of basic solidarity with our supportive platform positions, our effort to create a multi-party system, and our connection to Ralph Nader whose political aspirations were seen by many as offering a hopeful alternative in an otherwise desperate situation in terms of the destructive role of the US in this conflict.
I spoke briefly on the opening evening of the conference and was well received. Drawing out the parallel between US and Israeli history as regards our disastrous relations to the native peoples of both countries, I offered the view that the US continues to carry the enervating consequences of that formative genocide with us to this day—and to the detriment of Americans and the world. I spoke about USGP as part of an international movement based on the same core values, especially including non-violence and respect for international law as the main resource for non-violent conflict resolution in the 21st century. Finally, I apologized, as an American, for the misery our government has caused all the people of Israel-Palestine by its continuing financial and political support of the occupation especially.
Overall, conference participants wanted to publicize the fact that there are Israelis—Jews and Palestinians--who are committed to the rule of law, to exposing Israeli state propaganda, and to sharing life in their country. These sentiments are part of Ilan Pappe’s summary at the conference close:
“In the weekend, 26-28 March, 2004 the first Right of Return conference in Israel attracted more than 300 people for two days of extensive discussions, lively debates and a series of recommendations for future activity. The participants learned about the history of the Nakbah*, the international and moral legal basis of the Right of Return and of possible way of implementing it. . . . The initiating NGOs vowed to continue the struggle for protecting the memory against its denial in Israel and abroad, for relocating the right of return at the center of peacemaking in Israel and Palestine and for finding the appropriate political structure in the future that would enable the return of the refugees who had been ethnically cleansed from Palestine. The initiators and the supporting NGOs are convinced that the return is the key for a better future, not only for Palestinians and Israelis, but for the region as a whole. The rectification of the evils inflicted in the 1948 ethnic cleansing, and ever since, would allow, for the first time, citizens or returnees, to enjoy normal and peaceful life on a democratic and civic basis.
For this purpose, the conference suggested various projects such as educational workshops on the Nakbah, a Nakbah Museum and the institutionalization of a Nakbah day. It also called for a better coordination with the Right of Return organizations in the world, the advancement of practical programs for facilitating the return and an urgent research of detailed schema for a joined political structure that could contain the right of return. These and other proposals would form what can be called ‘The Haifa Initiative’. Preparations have begun for the Convention of the second Right of Return Conference in March 2005.
This was by all accounts a historical moment, the significance of which will be absorbed and recognized with time. But this conference has already refuted the claim that the unconditional support for the Palestinian refugees’ Right of Return is a taboo in Israel and a non-starter for peace negotiations for the two people. What the hundreds of people attending the conference showed was that a growing number of Jews and Palestinians in Israel regard the implementation of the Palestinian Right of Return as the only road to a lasting peace and reconciliation in the torn land of Palestine.”
Ilan Pappe, Chair
Emil Touma Institute for Palestinian Israeli Studies
Initiating NGOs: Ittijah, Zochrot, The Emil Touma Institute, and The Committee for the Internally Displaced in Israel
*Nakbah, Arabic for “the catastrophe,” i.e., dispossession of Palestine in 1948
2. Contact with Heinrich Boell Foundation in Haifa and Ramallah
As I understand, the Heinrich Boell Foundation is the non-political arm of the German Green Party, funded by the German government to promote its values (as it does with all German parties). It maintains two offices in Israel-Palestine—one in Tel-Aviv and one in Ramallah for the Arab Middle East. Some of the Haifa organizers (including Pappe) expressed disappointment with the Foundation’s efforts. For example, they spoke of Boell’s politically symbolic office locations (one in Tel-Aviv; one in Ramallah) and its not funding the Haifa conference as representative of German Green political positions, i.e., two states; no right of return. (They contrasted this with the Fredrich Neumann Foundation, which has its office between East/West Jerusalem and has been financially supportive of the conference and the Emil Touma Institute for Palestinian and Israeli Studies).
Unfortunately, I was unable to meet with the Director of the Boell Arab Middle East office, Christian Sterzing (who’d written ahead to say he’d be in Germany studying Arabic during my stay). However, I had a very positive meeting with the Foundation’s Program Coordinator in Ramallah, Dr. Hadeel Rizg-Qazzaz. She had just returned from representing the Foundation at a European water resources/development conference. A multi-lingual Muslim Palestinian native of Gaza who was educated in England, Dr, Rizg-Qazzas appears to be is highly qualified for her job of promoting community development and peace there. Married to the dean of Bir Zeit University, she’s also well connected to the local intellectual community and to European peace workers (two of whom were staying in her home where we me.) She was supportive of our draft platform position, especially our endorsement of the right of return and its basis in international law. She expressed hope that in contrast to the previous director, Christian Sterzing will be more open to these views and encourage contact with the Palestinian Greens.
Also, I made brief contact at the conference with a German intern, Maria Stang from the Boell Tel Aviv office. She viewed the conference quite positively (though she thought the theme was too repetitive) and acknowledged that Boell had declined to fund the conference because of German Green positions, which, in turn, she viewed as a function of Germany’s history (Nazi Holocaust) and the complexity of working in a German coalition government.
3. Contact/Status of Israeli Green Parties
Unfortunately, I had no contact with the Israeli Greens this trip. Time didn’t permit me to see my prior contact Hadas Shachnai, an Israeli Green who sits on the Tel-Aviv City Council. Also, Hadas had referred me to Shamuel Gelbhart of the Haifa City Council, who didn’t return emails or phone calls while I was in Haifa.
During the right to return conference, an Israeli university student from Haifa, David Merhav, and a few of his friends approached me about starting what they termed a “non-Zionist” alternative to the current Israeli Green Party. They envisioned a “real” Green Party in which Jews and Palestinians could work together and had a full political agenda, beyond the strictly environmental issues that characterize the current Israeli Green Party. David is unable to join us for the convention, but we agreed to keep in touch.
A point of clarification: There are currently two Green-ish Parties in Israel, one the “Israeli Green Party” and the other the “Green Leaf Party.” Both are registered parties though neither has any representation in the Knesset (requires 1.5% of vote).
“Green Leaf” was founded by Boaz Wachtel around legalizing marijuana, though their platform has apparently expanded. According to Hadas Shachnai of the Israeli Green Party, there is much animosity between the two parties, especially after the confusion caused by their similar names in the 2003 elections. While “Green Leaf” received considerable publicity during the election, they received only 1% of the vote. By contrast, according to Hadas, the Israeli Green party, whose particular focus is environmental, drew only .4% of the vote in 2003, but is growing at the local level, having now secured 15 seats in municipalities around the country.
4. Contact with Palestine Greens
During my trip, I met with Mohammad Shaheen and five young Palestinian Greens (including one woman) in Ramallah--they had been prevented by occupation forces from leaving the West Bank to come to the Haifa conference.
Shaheen, a US-educated professor of public health serves as a kind of advisor to 5000 people who’ve signed on as members of the Party, which has been recognized by the Palestinian National Council. According to Shaheen, a Palestinian named Jamir Al-Kidwa (aka, Abu Nasr Al-Kidwa)—the father of the current and long-standing Palestinian Observer at the UN, Nasr Al-Kidwa--had been instrumental in urging the formation of the party. He approached Shaheen in 2002 to form a Green Party chapter in the West Bank. Shaheen told me that one of their biggest challenges is remaining independent of Arafat’s influence/control, which they have succeeded in doing so far (though one current question was whether to take any money from him/the Palestinian Authority).
Similarly, another central concern they expressed was how to keep their organizing efforts from recreating the top-heavy, elitist political structures typical of the Palestinian Authority and even those Palestinian parties with the most progressive political agendas. Our discussion focused on how they might organize small, local neighborhood chapters as both a practical response to a lack of movement in the West Bank and as a way to enhance local control/participation. They were also very concerned with how to facilitate meetings to ensure full participation (especially of women), how to limit time on any topic, how to use modified consensus, voting on issues, etc. They asked that I return to help them conduct a meeting in a “green” way, which I may try to do in August.
5. Responses to our Draft Platform Position on the Middle East
Haifa conference participants were quite supportive of the draft platform, including the reconsideration of the “one state” solution. Many—including Pappe—noted that they had previously supported the 2 state-solution as pragmatic. However, the “facts on the ground” (settlements, etc.) plus their own personal experiences of co-existence have emboldened their vision for forming a bi-national structure. Still mindful that this would be a very difficult path, they sited the South African experience as a hopeful model.
The Palestine Greens were also supportive of the draft platform. They reminded me that the one-state position had been the historical choice among Palestinians, that while many had come to accept the two-state solution, they were now despairing of that possibility and were returning to the earlier position.
A contrasting perspective came from Dr. Hanan Ashrawi whom I met at her office in Ramallah. She’s was the very articulate Palestinian spokesperson during the Oslo period who demonstrated almost masochistic forbearance for Arafat’s tyranny as a member of his initial cabinet, which she eventually left; she continues as an elected member of the Palestine National Council. Ashrawi directs the NGO, MIFTAH--Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Dialogue and Democracy--which is “dedicated to fostering democracy and good governance within the Palestinian Society in a manner that promotes Public Accountability and Transparency while maintaining the free flow of information and ideas.”
Known for her amazing calm, I found Hanan to be on edge, frustrated--a change from my experience of her a couple of years earlier at the home of a CT colleague. Her patience was also challenged when she stopped to give an unexpected phone interview to the press, after which she told me she was asked to defend the accusation that Palestinians send their children to be killed as suicide bombers.
As we discussed the platform, she was supportive of each point except the reconsideration of the one-state solution (she even erroneously thought Edward Said had changed his mind on this before his death.). She said that she was fed-up with the Israelis: “I want them out of here (the occupied territories). Palestinians need a divorce from the Israelis and need self-determination. They are enslaved now and would only be enslaved further without their own state.” She said that she could agree intellectually with idealists like me, Pappe, and others on the one-state solution but believed we were unrealistic; Palestinians needed their own place, free of interference to develop their own ways so that they would not be dependent on the Israelis.
Most salient was the level of desperation she expressed; how clearly overwhelmed by the circumstances of occupation, whose state violence had intensified in the last three years of uprising. She spoke of how people can’t move anywhere, how they’re being starved and killed, and rhetorically asked how the world could allow this to happen. Talk of what might come after the occupation seemed irrelevant—a luxury. Ending the occupation was the most pressing issue.
A Concluding Note:
Toward the end of my trip, a Palestinian-Israeli colleague and I spent a day in East Jerusalem doing a workshop with Palestinian mental health workers (“Emotional attachment under conditions of political violence”). Besides the fact that their collective experience challenges Western categories of universalizing constructs like “attachment,” this group offered a stark contrast to that pervasive stereotype of Palestinians as “terrorists.”
As in my last working experience with Palestinian mental health professionals, these 35 men and women were bright, highly engaged about the subject at hand. Women participants had no problem challenging men (including my highly esteemed colleague) on the issues, psychological or political. All the participants raised case after case of human difficulty that are the staple of any US psychotherapeutic setting —abandonment, abuse, post-partum depression, bedwetting, conduct problems, anxiety. Yet, the political context was never far away (including a nearby section of the 24-foot concrete “separation wall”). This context created a poignant and frustrating challenge to discerning the degree of individual versus environmental cause for these clinical problems. As we talked about how people coped, participants spoke proudly of their collective (Palestinian) capacity to sustain resistance to injustice and to bear suffering. Many said that this was only possible because of the continuing strength of Palestinian families. Like the Ramallah Greens, these East Jerusalemites appeared eager for secular democracy and a participatory government that went beyond the imperial policies of Israel/US on the one hand, and the top-heavy and anachronistic rule of tribal elites (e.g., Palestinian Authority) on the other.
In sum, I was left with these conclusions:
_There exists a fervent desire for a truthful dialogue about the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, most especially including the expulsion of Palestinians, as the basis for reconciliation at least among pockets of Jewish/Palestinian-Israelis.
_The Israeli occupation is not only killing people, it is killing hope and creating desperation even among the strongest, most progressive Palestinian voices. The need for some kind of civilian protection force has never been greater.
_In Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, there are many Palestinians and Israelis who hunger for alternative political structures to the status quo in both societies. These new political forms would encourage grassroots, secular democracy consonant with the best ideals of their cultures. There was support for assistance from the international community in bringing these changes about.