KARKAR: Palestinian activism – getting the message out 9Nov12 November 9, 2012

by Sonja Karkar    -   This Week in Palestine    -    November 2012

It is very strange how Palestine comes up when one least expects it, even when one is immersed in it day after day.

Activists talk a lot about raising awareness and finding ways to spread the message of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice.  Ever new and innovative actions are dreamt up and implemented, always in the hope of garnering attention and maybe even grabbing headlines.

There is no doubt at all that in the last ten years there has been an incremental increase in people’s awareness of Palestine, particularly with the global BDS boycott, divestment and sanctions movement’s many campaigns and successes against Apartheid Israel.  Companies being boycotted have become almost household names – Caterpillar, Veolia, Motorola, Ahava, Elbit, Max Brenner, Aroma, Danone, Lev Leviev diamonds – thanks to the tireless efforts of activists around the world.

Cultural boycotts have the support of some big-name celebrities such as Roger Waters who wrote in The Guardian last year that he endorsed the Palestinian-led global BDS movement. (1)  He is not alone: joining him are well-known authors, film-makers, musicians, singers, dancers and artists many of whom are actively speaking out in support of Palestinian human rights and not simply avoiding Israel.  From all over Europe, more than 250 academics protested to the European Commission over Israel’s participation in the EU- funded research consortia (2), and in January, leading scientists made headlines when they criticised the participation of a London university and the Natural History Museum for taking part in a joint project with Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories. (3)

But there are other ways too that Palestine makes a mark on people.  Perhaps too subtle for most activists, but nonetheless also powerful even if they take their time to surface.

In 2005, Women for Palestine organised a large Palestinian embroidery exhibition, first in Melbourne and then in Adelaide, Australia.  The exhibition itself was a sell-out with all but the displayed museum pieces snapped up by people who knew very little about the political issues, but who were interested in finding out something about a people and society long demonised. Naturally, every embroidery piece was accompanied by information on its significance in Palestinian society and the region from which it hailed.  Lectures and guided tours gave context to Palestinians and their place in history before the creation of Israel and since.

It was a lesson in the ability of culture to awaken people’s interest in the lives and narratives of others.  Yet, we were also aware of how important it was not to separate culture from politics, especially when it comes to Palestine, even if it meant annoying people who believe that art and politics do not mix.

How surprising then to receive some seven years later an email from a person who had been given an embroidered gift from our exhibition and who was still in thrall with its beauty.  She not only wanted to learn more about the women in the camps who create such delicate works of art, but she also wanted to purchase more pieces to send to friends as gifts, certain that interest in Palestinian heritage would be aroused.

This is not an isolated instance of people connecting because of something they have seen, read or heard about Palestine.  They happen more than we think.  Certainly, they are only tiny ripples in a vast sea of conflicting information, but they have an effect nevertheless.

Massive shifts in people’s thinking and actions are more likely though to come from actions like the substantial win in the recent US Quaker divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Veolia Environment. (4)

In that case, the Ann Arbour Friends Meeting requested a review of the companies and their involvement with Israel after activists had protested against the “weapons components” in Caterpillar bulldozers that not only demolish Palestinian homes, but have also maimed and killed Palestinians and international activists alike.

Activists protesting against Caterpillar had already set the ripple effect in motion years earlier and when the giant US pension fund TIAA-CREF dropped Caterpillar from its Social Choice Funds portfolio with shares worth almost $72 million. It showed how consistently applied pressure can influence organisations to take a stand. (5) The Quaker divestment three months later was simply part of that expanding circle of ripples increasingly being felt across the world.

Such awareness raising comes from carefully developed strategies and much research into just who profits from Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies against the Palestinians.  Getting any organisation to divest its assets from companies that return good profits requires more than street picketing.  It requires dedicated activism, often with little success in making the company actually stop its unethical practices.  However, the exercise can get shareholders thinking ethically and wondering whether associating with Israel is worth the grief.

On another level, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (6), a citizens’ court, which was set up to hear evidence of Israel’s violations of international law with regard to its treatment of the Palestinians under its occupation and which found Israel guilty has been another way of bearing witness to the question of Palestine.

The tribunal is supported by luminaries such as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire and author and poet Alice Walker, whose involvement has made it harder for the mainstream media to ignore. Its hearings in Europe and South Africa charged Israel with apartheid, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Its recent New York session established that the United States is complicit with Israel’s violations and that the United Nations is responsible for failing to prevent them.  While the tribunal is not actually a legal entity, it serves to document the truth, and its findings have, as law professor Richard Falk says, “moral and political credibility.” (7) This complicity of silence, then, makes Palestinian activism all the more necessary in order to expose at every level the pressure brought to bear to shield Israel from any consequences.

Not only has the Russell Tribunal on Palestine raised public awareness, it has also lent some weight to global campaigns such as the BDS movement and the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza.  In fact, the more Palestine is raised in public discourse, the more Israel’s violations become exposed to public scrutiny.  That this has increased and not diminished with time has seen some of Israel’s high-profile politicians and generals afraid to travel outside their country in case they are arrested for war crimes.   Some activists have been courageous enough to attempt citizens’ arrests or have even interrupted Israeli visitors on their speaking tours, actions which have brought some measure of publicity.

Another campaign that has grabbed public attention are billboards that show disappearing Palestine in a series of maps that end up with Bantustan-like enclaves reminiscent of Apartheid South Africa.  The financier who first put up the ads on New York’s commuter train platforms (8) said that the response had been “astounding” and that he had been inundated with news coverage.  Since then, twelve similar billboards have been erected across South Africa to brilliant effect, since the comparisons with Apartheid-era Bantustans are inescapable. (9)

Just as the billboard campaign highlights the ongoing theft of Palestinian land over six decades, yet another international campaign has been underway to stop the human rights and environmental violations of the Jewish National Fund (JNF).

The JNF has been instrumental in the colonisation of Palestine and the dispossession of its indigenous people – the Palestinians – since Israel’s inception.  In fact Israel’s very existence has depended greatly on the very powerful financial and political support it receives from the JNF and its affiliate organisations, which enjoy charitable status in over 50 countries around the world.

The Stop the JNF Campaign (10) aims to have that charitable status revoked and to alert people to its nefarious deeds that aim to bring about an exclusively Jewish state in all of Palestine.  With an organisation that has carefully nurtured ties with governments and reputable institutions, activists face what seem like insurmountable obstacles to gain public sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

For over a century, the JNF’s famous “blue box” has been a familiar symbol of the Zionist colonial project in Palestine, inspiring Jewish children to save their coins “to redeem the land.” The money itself was not as important as the act of giving that aimed to create a lifelong bond with Israel. Without Jews worldwide subscribing to the Zionist project, Israel would never have got off the ground.

The latest project of Australians for Palestine (11)  works on a similar principle.  Its Palestine Fund (12) provides money boxes that feature the endearing Palestinian refugee child Handala as a way of helping Palestinian children connect with their homeland and support their people’s struggle for freedom, justice and human rights.

The Palestine Box, though, is not just for Palestinian children. Its purpose is to raise public awareness of Israel’s violations of Palestinian land rights, water rights, civil liberties, and their most fundamental right to remain on their land, and in the case of the Palestinian refugees, their inalienable right to return.

When children know their money will help plant a tree in Palestine they are motivated to make it happen, especially when they read the book that accompanies the project The Living Tree, a potted history of the Palestinian narrative told by an ancient olive tree to the ten-year-old Handala who has been frozen in time until Palestine is free.

This campaign has been further augmented by what will become an annual event of Australians for Palestine – the Run for Palestine (13) around The Tan in Melbourne.  Handala is taking part in that too and he will appear on every participant’s T-shirt as walkers and runners alike carry the message of Palestinian human rights to the general public  who frequent this lovely spot in Melbourne’s heartland.

The aim is to humanise Palestinians and bring attention to the impossible conditions under which they live in their own homeland.  Of course there will be those who believe sport and politics don’t mix, but try telling that to Palestinian children who have lost their limbs, lost their sight or are too terrified to leave their homes in case another missile explodes and kills them.  Running and walking to give some hope to these children through the Palestine Red Crescent Society seems less like politics than connecting on a human level.

Australians for Palestine is very committed to raising awareness about the principles of BDS and how these can be implemented beyond protest actions.

We strongly believe that as activists we must challenge the racist and colonial nature of Zionism and frame the issues within the context of human rights and international law; we cannot separate the occupation from the 7 million Palestinian refugees who have been denied their right to return home and the 1.5 million Palestinians who are the subject of discrimination in Israel itself.

It is a challenge, but we must be vigilant towards those who attempt to suggest alternative, narrower aims, which would perpetuate the status quo of entrenched colonial privilege.  Time is obviously a critical factor so getting information out to the widest audience possible is, we believe, a way that we can make a contribution.

Strategy is key in combating the Zionist agenda, but no matter how great the idea or the plans, the success of any campaign is dependent on people – those who implement these efforts and the audience toward whom the message is directed.  Without any media-friendly reporting, activists must rely on their own commitment and their ability to sustain any action.

Adelaide’s Australian Friends of Palestine Association (AFOPA) has run an impressive sustained weekly campaign against Israeli cosmetics from the Dead Sea for over 105 weeks (14) and they are still going strong.  Their camaraderie and resilience have inspired activists around the country to undertake similar actions, but it is difficult.  Before the days of BDS, Women for Palestine held bi-weekly vigils for about 4 years from 2002 as a way of bringing Palestine to public attention and informing people of the issues. Attendance fluctuated according to events.  Sometimes the numbers got to 30 people and on bad days, they were as low as two.  However, a core group of six did manage to keep a presence for Palestine in Melbourne City at least once a week and, as AFOPA in Adelaide has discovered, this is still one of the most effective ways of keeping Palestine in the public consciousness.  Another group Justice for Palestine (15) now runs monthly vigils.

That such public activities have been and are being done on a regular basis should inspire others to come together in the same spirit of speaking truth to people.  Social media has played an important role in getting the message out and galvanising people to support an event or petition.  But there is a tendency to spend too much time on Facebook rather than braving the elements. Just what the benefit is to Palestine in critiquing this article and that video and what someone said here or meant there and if this person’s credentials are really up to scratch within a circle of like-minded people, remains to be seen for activists wanting to reach a wider audience.

Getting out on the streets obviates much of this navel-gazing and focuses attention on the issues that matter, or at least what we claim to stand for.  Human rights have a universal appeal because they affect everyone, Palestinians no less.  That is a case worth making whenever we think of ways to capture the public imagination on Palestine no matter how small the effort.  Whether it is BDS, the Freedom Flotillas, vigils, art or sport, the ripple effect has a way of increasing awareness about Palestine beyond all our expectations.

Sonja Karkar is the founder of Women for Palestine (WFP), a Melbourne-based human rights group and co-founder of Australians for Palestine (AFP), an advocacy group that provides a voice for Palestine at all levels of Australian society.  Her articles have been published in Counterpunch, Electronic Intifada, The Palestine Chronicle,  Friends of Al Aqsa (UK) and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.  She is also a contributing writer to two books. In June 2009, she was asked to present a paper at the UN Public Forum in Support of the Palestinian People in Jakarta, Indonesia.  She is the editor of the website www.australiansforpalestine.com which she updates daily. Her email address is sonjakarkar@womenforpalestine.org


(1)   http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/11/cultural-boycott-west-bank-wall
(2)   http://www.bricup.org.uk/
(3)   http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/natural-history-museum-attacked-over-links-to-illegal-israeli-company-6290705.html
(4)   http://www.endtheoccupation.org/article.php?id=3279
(5)   http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/maureen-clare-murphy/milestone-victory-pension-fund-giant-tiaa-cref-divests-72-million
(6)   http://www.russelltribunalonpalestine.com/en/
(7)   http://blogs.crikey.com.au/this-blog-harms/2011/12/26/israel-and-apartheid-reflections-on-the-russell-tribunal-on-palestine/ 
(8)   http://mondoweiss.net/2012/07/backer-of-ny-ads-exposing-palestinian-land-loss-says-response-has-been-astounding-and-news-coverage-is-pouring-in.html
(9)   http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/photos-inspired-us-palestine-solidarity-billboards-go-across-south-africa
(10) http://www.stopthejnf.org
(11) http://www.australiansforpalestine.com 
(12) http://www.palestinefund.org.au
(13) http://www.runforpalestine.com.au
(14) http://www.afopa.com.au/bds/
(15) http://www.justiceforpalestine.org/

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