Antony Loewenstein: Time to boycott Israel

September 19, 2009

"The war could have finished the day before I arrived", independent journalist and author Antony Loewenstein told Green Left Weekly of his recent trip to the besieged Palestinian territory of Gaza.

His trip in July was months after the December-January war, in which more than 1400 Palestinian deaths were recorded. Gaza remains under a near-total land, sea and air blockade by Israel and Egypt.

"The devastation still exists and people are undoubtedly angry, they are frustrated, they're disillusioned with Israel certainly, with Egypt undoubtedly and with the international community", he said.

Loewenstein recently released a fully updated third edition of his best-selling book, My Israel Question. The book explores the Jewish identity and its attachment to Zionism and the state of Israel.

It was first released in 2006 and has since been the subject of heated debate in Australia and around the world.

Loewenstein told GLW the war still loomed large over life in Gaza: "Being there, you get the sense that people are being forgotten. The war has only led to further desperation. You see massive areas of destruction, neighbourhoods destroyed, houses flattened, and because Israel and Egypt don't allow any cement into the [Gaza] strip nothing is being repaired."

But despite this, Loewenstein said he found a people trying to move on with their lives.

"I found that people were determined to continue the struggle for more self-determination whatever that might mean. Whether they believe in a one state solution, two state solution, whatever. Those arguments, in some ways, seem rather academic when you're talking to people who have just experienced war.

"People are essentially living on life support. What astounds me is that there is an ability to ignore these facts by much of the international community and focus on the supposed
terrorism committed by Hamas."

Despite Hamas being democratically elected as the Palestinian government in 2006 and subject to a US-backed coup by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party in 2007, the international community has fiercely condemned Hamas. Hamas is labeled a terrorist organisation in the United States and much of the western world.

However, Loewenstein said the decision by Israel and the US to not engage with Hamas was a mistake.

"There is no doubt that Hamas is trying very hard at the moment to be engaged by the
international community, particularly the US under Barack Obama and I'm a bit sceptical about that actually happening. But they are hoping that by showing pragmatism that they can be accepted by the international community."

Much of the recent international media reporting has reflected on the growing Islamisation within Gaza.

Last month, Hamas helped suppress an extremist Islamist group who called for an Islamic emirate in Gaza. But Loewenstein said Israel's subjugation and oppression of the Palestinian people was responsible for a rising fundamentalist militancy in Palestinian popular opinion.

"Every human rights group in the world […] notes that the cause of extremism in Gaza and throughout much of the Palestinian territories is the occupation", he said.

"Inevitably, extremism breeds when you lock the people down and tell them that they have to reject the leaders they have voted for, such as Hamas.

"People feel like they have to prove themselves and they have to stand up for very strong beliefs."

Instead of negotiating with Hamas, Israel and the US have consulted with only Fatah, which they label as the "moderate" Palestinian opposition. But Loewenstein said Fatah had become a tool of Israel and the US.

"The US is very keen and does negotiate with Fatah because they have essentially bought them off", Loewenstein told GLW. "They prop them up, they financially support them, they militarily support them, and they train their troops.

"The Palestinians [in the West Bank, which Fatah seized in the 2007 coup] themselves are now managing the Israeli occupation for them [Israel]. In that way, Fatah is a very handy friend and Hamas on the other hand is not. Hamas will simply not accept those rules and it shouldn't.

"The fear is that there will be some very unjust solutions pushed through in the next year agreed upon by the Palestinian Authority under Fatah, which leaves the Palestinians and Palestine in very bad shape.

"The real question is whether the international community actually wants the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians as a whole, to be independent. All that they have said and done suggests that they don't. [The] occupation is just far too beneficial for too many people."

In June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed a call for a demilitarised Palestinian state to be developed. In response, the US issued a press release saying the announcement was "an important step forward".

On August 25, Fatah-aligned Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad released a report that sets forward a plan to create a de facto Palestinian state within two years regardless of the "peace plan".

But falling in line with Israel's apartheid regime has not gained Fatah more support with the international community or the Palestinian population. Calls from the US and the European Union to halt illegal settlement construction on Palestinian land in the West Bank have been ignored by Israel.

Fatah's congress last month was held amid vicious infighting, with claims of corruption and of the congress being "hijacked" by the party's old guard.

Loewenstein said: "Even if they have a state of their own, and that's a big if, it will be incredibly weak and lacking in any kind of viability."

When more than 175 Palestinian civic organisations signed on to a callout for an international boycott, divestments and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel in 2005 it was hailed as a new direction for the Palestinian rights campaign that was international and non-violent.

Loewenstein described the boycott campaign as a "blunt instrument" in the first edition of My Israel Question. Now, he is a strong supporter of the campaign and believes it to be a key measure in the fight for Palestinian justice.

"I think the situation now has got so dire in Palestine that to simply wait and hope that the international community will somehow wakeup and move toward peace is delusional. It's too late to hope for that anymore.

"So for that reason, the BDS movement, which is a non-violent movement, is an attempt to try and make Israeli Jews realise, along with the international community, that we simply won't stand by and watch apartheid deepen and deepen.

"Israel is an occupying nation and as long as Israel occupies the Palestinian people, the Israeli state and Jewish Israelis have to feel like white South Africans felt 20 years ago."

The international movement against the South African apartheid regime promoted a similar strategy of boycotts, divestment and sanctions. The campaign played a part in apartheid's downfall in 1994.

Loewenstein said: "The only reason, in the end, that white South Africans realised that the status quo of apartheid couldn't continue was enough of the world said we will not treat you as a normal country until you end this apartheid [and] that is what happened. Not because a lot of white South Africans went: 'Gee suddenly we like blacks.'

"No. Of course there were some that did. But the majority did not because their lives were good."

He recounted accusations raised by pro-Israeli activists at a September 15 meeting he addressed at the University of Sydney. They asked him why Israel should be "singled out" for criticism.

Loewenstein said: "The reason we are picking on it [Israel] is because it calls itself a democracy and democracies behave in certain ways and Israel is not behaving in any kind of way which is even vaguely democratic.

"If you're a Jew in Israel life is pretty good, but if you're a Palestinian it sure isn't. And in the West Bank and Gaza even less so.

"I think it is important there is an attempt to try to open Israeli Jewish eyes that if they continue behaving in this way they will be treated as a pariah, which is how they should be.

"I think what the boycott movement does is to say that so-called normal life, having a situation where the Israeli Jews are able to enjoy cultural events and political events in a normal way is not going to be sustainable any more."

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