By Steven Friedman
An assault on democracy has begun in the United States of America and Europe. Its source is not the ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ that is regularly branded a threat to democracy, or right-wing demagogues who use fear of immigrants and radical Islam to foment hate. It comes, rather, from the mainstream of these societies.
Legislatures, courts and university governors in the liberal democracies of the global North are being used to close down the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which seeks to use non-violent pressure to alter the behaviour of the Israeli state. The campaign to muzzle BDS is a stark contravention of the self-image of these societies, which routinely claim that love of freedom sets them apart from those who campaign against them. The campaign against BDS has been described as the greatest threat to free speech in the West today. And yet it has been met with silence by mainstream opinion.
The attack on BDS is not an isolated example: for well over a decade, it has been clear that the liberal democracy that these countries are eager to export – sometimes by waging war – does not extend to Palestinians and those who sympathise with them. Academics in these countries who zealously study and support the extension of liberal democracy to all show no interest in whether Palestinians have this right, and some are actively hostile to their exercising it.
Of course, measures to suppress or outlaw BDS are a response to pressure from the Israeli state, which has adopted its own measures to suppress boycott activity. But Israel is not a liberal democracy – it is an ethno-nationalist state. There is no such thing as Israeli nationality in Israeli law: citizens are classified as Jewish or non-Jewish. Western democracies’ embrace of anti-democratic measures to defend the Israeli state is, by contrast, a denial of the values that these states publicly proclaim.
Palestine is thus the scandal of western democracy and the academic theories that sustain it.1 It is an unacknowledged blind spot, which makes all of western democratic deed and thought open to the charge that it is not a doctrine of universal freedom but a means to justify dominance. If ‘universal’ values do not apply to everyone they are simply cultural biases. As long, therefore, as democratic values and rights are off limits to Palestinians, western democracy will be open to the charge that its ‘freedoms’ are a prejudice, a means by which the powerful chain the weak. Palestine is thus the litmus test of western democracy and its advocates, a test that they currently fail. As long as advocates of western democracy exclude one group of people from its rights, its claim to speak for all humanity will lack credibility.
All the actions to suppress BDS use the same fig leaf: anti-Semitism. Because it might not be defensible to justify abridging democracy to protect the Israeli state purely on the grounds that it is a western ally, measures against BDS are usually justified as action against anti-Jewish racism. This endorses a deeply undemocratic and possibly racist notion – that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. This rallying cry of the Zionist right is designed to demonise criticism of the Israeli state by labelling it a disguised form of prejudice against Jews. It advances the untenable idea that opposition to a political ideology is also hostility to an ethnic group. No political ideology enjoys the unanimous support of any ethnic group – to say that an entire group endorses the same ideology is to insult it by implying that its members are incapable of independent thought. It is also anti-democratic because it delegitimises difference – it implies that any Jew who is not Zionist is not a Jew.
A second rationale for suppressing BDS, advanced repeatedly on US campuses, is that this is necessary to ensure that campuses are ‘safe places’ – despite the fact that there are no published instances of BDS activists directly threatening anyone with violence, let alone actually using it. This may reflect and seek to manipulate deep Jewish fears as well as a more general fear of Muslims (who might be assumed to behind BDS even though most activists are not Muslim and many are Jewish). A core rationale of Zionism has been the assumption that Jews are always under threat of violence and need their own state to protect themselves. The notion of BDS as violent expresses the Zionist view that opponents of the Israeli state are inherently violent, even if their only weapons are words, and also seeks to manipulate Jewish students into fearing threats to their safety when none exist.
There are two types of action against BDS. The one shows insensitivity to Palestinian rights but is not necessarily anti-democratic, while the other breaches democracy. In the first category are statements of government opposition to BDS, even when backed by law. The most important example is the 2015 US law, the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, which make preventing boycotts of Israel a ‘principal trade negotiating objective’ of the USA. This commits the US government to a political preference but does not require it to act against those who hold the opposing view. The second category does infringe those rights since it actively seeks to suppress people’s voice or their choices or both.
A summary of anti-BDS actions published by the Palestine National BDS Committee confirms that the most repressive anti-BDS measures have been implemented in France where a nineteenth-century law is used to criminalise BDS: more than thirty activists have faced criminal charges for participation in nonviolent BDS advocacy. One was arrested for wearing a BDS T-shirt. Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently said he would discuss with the Ministry of Interior further measures to repress BDS activism.
In the USA, anti-BDS bills or resolutions have been introduced in twenty-one states and in the Congress, while universities have also been seeking ways to curb BDS. Most US measures have stopped short of suppressing BDS, but they curtail democratic rights in other ways. The emphasis is on using public funds to deter BDS activity: the New York State Senate cut 485 million US dollars to senior colleges in the City University of New York system despite a speech by a legislator who said that her (Jewish) husband was a CUNY professor, and ‘he has never brought home to me any concerns about anti-Semitism’. Universities also act against BDS activity as part of a wider clamp down on support for Palestinian rights: Palestine Legal, a US-based group, reports that action against campus BDS activity includes administrative sanctions, censorship, intrusive investigations, restriction of advocacy and criminal prosecutions. American companies are barred from cooperating with ‘state-led’ boycotts of Israel; this violates their right to take decisions and therefore abridges their right to engage freely in economic activity.
The British government has also avoided removing the civil liberties of BDS campaigners. However, its proposed measures violate democratic principle in another way – by barring local councils and other public bodies from supporting BDS. This breaches the democratic principle that an elected government should be entitled to take any decision that it believes represents the will of the voters. Canada has not yet taken action to restrict BDS, but there are well-founded fears that it may do this: officials have threatened criminal prosecution against anyone supporting boycotts against Israel.
Liberal democracy in peril
A relentless, well-funded campaign by the Israeli state to suppress BDS activism has, therefore, attracted willing support in major western countries.
In varying degrees, this has prompted them to violate rights: even a core American value – the right of businesses to manage their property in the way they see fit – is considered dispensable in this rush to support the Israeli state. Rights are not absolute in liberal democracies – they can be abridged when exercising them infringes the rights of others or when the security of the state is said to be threatened. But there is nothing in liberal theory that allows for suppressing free speech and association on behalf of a foreign state when those who oppose the actions of that state do not threaten the state imposing the restriction.
The spurious claim that these actions are aimed at anti-Semitism further undermines the good faith of liberal democracy. While it presents itself as a philosophy of freedom, its critics argue that it is meant to preserve the freedoms of some at the expense of others – liberalism, argues one of its critics, has always distinguished between the ‘civilised’ and the ‘barbarian’. Equating BDS with anti-Semitism and violence neatly fits this negative portrayal of liberalism: it stigmatises a fight for universal human rights, and critics will note that western democracies’ supposed enthusiasm for outlawing anti-Semitism does not extend to anti-black racism or hostility towards Muslims, indigenous people and others who suffer racial bigotry.
The attack on BDS seems to confirm that western democracies are only interested in protecting the rights of some against the supposed onslaught of others and that whether or not you are protected is related to your race, creed and culture. The effect is to demolish the credibility of liberal democracy as a guarantor of the rights of all and to portray it as a view of the world and a system of government that recognises the rights only of those who do not offend the sensibilities of the dominant group for which these rights are really meant.
Palestine is a scandal for liberalism and its version of democracy not only because the reaction to it in the West is born of cultural prejudice, not concern for the rights of all. It is this also because of the depth and the width of the consensus that supports it: it is impossible to see the belief in liberal democracy’s blindness to Palestinian rights as a distortion or only a particular interpretation when it is embraced by virtually the entire liberal spectrum and includes academics and activists whose interest is democracy promotion, extending to every human being the rights and systems of government that are said to be enjoyed by the citizens of Western Europe and North America.
As evidence that the suppression of BDS is of no concern to democracy promoters, we can look at a decade-old example of this double standard in action – the rejection by North America and Western Europe of a 2006 Palestinian election deemed free and fair by observers because the winning party, Hamas, was considered hostile to western (and Israeli) interests: democracy promoters ignored this obvious violation of the Palestinians’ right to choose. It is routine for democracy promotion academics to monitor or analyse democratic progress around the world without allowing at all for the Palestinians’ right to govern themselves or to be free of attacks on their rights – in many of these exercises, Israel is listed as a democratic country, and analysis assumes (by omission) that only Jews are its citizens. Activist academics in the United States who doggedly work to bring Latin American rights abusers to book actively support the Israeli state or never mention it as an abuser. It is an unwritten assumption of democracy promoters that all people are entitled to democratic government and rights as long as they are not Palestinian.
Conclusion: The sense of the scandal
Why is it important that the suppression of BDS – and of Palestinian rights generally – makes liberal democracy appear as a cultural prejudice masquerading as a charter for the rights of all?
Support for the Palestinian cause, and for BDS, is usually associated in the mainstream with Muslims or the political left, the two groups who have been most vocal on this issue. While Muslims and left-wingers have as much right to be heard as anyone else, the effect is to relegate Palestinian rights to the outer margin of society, exempting the Israeli state from the human rights scrutiny that impedes other rights abusers.
If we understand the suppression of Palestinian rights as a scandal of liberal democracy, suppressing BDS or resisting the Palestinians’ right to democracy and freedom is not a refusal to be ordered around by Muslims and leftists – it is a refusal to honour the principles the West itself proclaims and is therefore a threat to the credibility and even perhaps the survival of liberal democracy. The more this point is placed at the forefront of Palestine solidarity campaigns, the more difficult will it be to relegate the Palestinian cause to the margins.
Supporters of the Palestinian fight for recognition are more likely to be heard if they centre their campaigns on the gap between what the western mainstream says and what, in Palestine, it does: this is unlikely to influence governments and the democracy promoters who provide them with an intellectual rationale – but it could make sense to many citizens who, because they are more removed from power may be less inclined to see the values proclaimed by western states as a useful political device rather than a deeply held principle. Portraying the suppression of BDS – and Palestinian rights – as a scandal of liberal democracy frames the Palestinian fight for freedom as a cause to which many in the West can relate rather than one that requires them to leave behind their cultural roots. It turns the language of the campaign into one that citizens of the West understand and so offers a route out of marginalisation.
1 For philosophers, a scandal is a glaring weakness to which thinkers are blind or which they choose to ignore. The term may originate with Immanuel Kant, who found it scandalous that philosophy had not found a rational proof of the existence of the external world. See for example Luigi Caranti Kant and the Scandal of Philosophy: The Kantian critique of Cartesian Scepticism (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2007).
* Professor Steven Friedman is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
*This article was originally published on Al Jazeera Centre for Studies website.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Israel’s government ended its eighteen-month ‘freeze’ on settlement construction in the West Bank with an announcement ofplans to construct 153 housing units across the territory. That the expansion of these units includes large settlement blocs as well as settlement towns deep into the West Bank reveals the far-reaching designs for a resurgent settlement enterprise. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon labelled the settlements ‘an affront to the Palestinian people and the international community’, with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu predictably responding that Ban gave a ‘tailwind to terrorism’.
The announcement came just days after twelve Israeli settlers were evicted from two homes in Hebron, which they had invaded and occupied. Their evictions caused an uproar in Netanyahu’s coalition government, with Immigrant Absorption and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze'ev Elkin, himself a West Bank settler, calling on the defence minister, Moshe Ya'alon, to halt the eviction. Elkin’s comments were echoed by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. Likud’s coalition partner, Habayit Yehudi, which holds three prominent cabinet portfolios, condemned the action.
The settlement announcement is a very public attempt by Netanyahu’s government to placate the vocal settlement supporters (and settlers) in the coalition. It also represents another episode in an ongoing challenge to the international community, following Netanyahu’s numerous foreign ministry appointments of individuals who actively support the settlement programme and oppose international law on this issue. These include Tzipi Hotovely, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, who advocates for Israeli sovereignty over the whole of the OPT (West Bank and Gaza). In August 2015 he appointed Danny Danon as ambassador to the UN. Danon opposes a two-state solution, and positions himself to the right of Netanyahu. The appointment of Dani Dayan, former chair of the settlement group Yesha Council, as ambassador to Brazil was met with strong objections by Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff.
Little under a week before the announcement of the settlement expansion, the European Union Foreign Affairs Council passed a resolution criticising Israeli settlement activity. The resolution said the EU would closely monitor developments on the ground and assess their broader implications. The resolution is intended as a follow up to the EU’s new guidelines last year for the labelling of products from Israeli settlements. Alongside established trade deals with Israel and engagement with the Israel-Palestine peace process, the EU has funded numerous development projects in the OPT; some in Area C, which is under full Israeli control. Most Palestinian buildings subject to Israeli demolition orders are in Area C, and EU-funded structures are not immune. Between January and May 2015, forty-one EU-funded structures built at a cost of 236 000 Euros were torn down by the Israeli army.
The EU is not the only big power publicly criticising Israel’s settlement project. Earlier this month US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, spoke against what he called two standards of law that Israel applies in the West Bank – one for Jews and one for Palestinians, and Israel’s tolerance of settler vigilantism. He questioned Israel’s commitment to peace and the two-state solution in light of continued settlement expansion. Following strong criticism from the Israeli government, Shapiro’s comments were defended by the US State Department as being correct. Relations between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama have seldom been warm, but such direct criticism from within the US administration suggests that concern over Israel’s attitude towards the ‘peace process’ is broad.
The swing to the right in the Israeli political landscape since the signing of the Oslo Accords has provided the settlement enterprise increasing credibility within Israel’s political institutions. A number of mainstream parties now contest elections on pro-settlement platforms: Habeyit Yehudi runs on an overt pro-settler anti-two-state platform, whilst most in Likud, the largest party in government, either sympathise with the settler movement or openly advocate for the complete annexation of the West Bank.
As this phenomenon has crystallised, discontent within the UN General Assembly has grown. Emerging regional powers in Central and South America and BRICS countries have voiced doubts about Israel’s commitment to the peace process. Popular grassroots pressure from civil society groups across Europe has forced Israel’s long-standing allies within the EU to take action on Israel’s human rights transgressions. Although Israel remains the US’s strongest ally in the Middle East, public disagreements over the Iranian nuclear deal have created unprecedented discord between Washington and Tel Aviv; Shapiro’s comments fall within this context. Yet little over a week after Shapiro’s barbed statement, Obama made the most ‘philosemetic, pro-Jewish’ speech in the Israeli embassy in Washington DC. In the last months of Obama’s presidency, back channel disagreements and distaste with Israeli policy by State Department officials has led to embarrassment for his administration, with the president often deploying a doting speech to reaffirm US commitment to ‘Israel’s security’. These contradictions, although not significant enough to alter US policy towards Israel in the short term, will be difficult to paper over as Israel intensifies its settlement expansion.
There have been numerous analyses of the current conflagration raging in Palestine. We present here another such analysis. This one, however, is from within one of the Palestinian factions - the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This internal discussion document has been circulating within that movement, and was translated by AMEC in order to allow English-speaking readers to understand differing perspectives on the uprising. While the views expressed here are those of the Islamic Jihad Movement and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Afro-Middle East Centre, this paper is being published because it is important in representing a protagonist voice engaging fellow interlocutors. AMEC's objective in making this analysis available is to enrich the discussion on the uprising specifically, and the broader Palestinian question in general.
Prepared by: Studies and Policies Unit, General Secretariat, Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine
In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful
Once again the Palestinian people have shown, as they have done through more than a century of struggle, that the land of Palestine is what makes life worth living, and that it is worth sacrifices of blood and soul and all that is precious and valuable.
It was Al-Aqsa Mosque, the iconic symbol evoked in the Qur'an, which caused our people in all of Palestine to rise in defence and in sacrifice for the sake of each step that our Prophet Muhammad, Peace be upon Him, had taken in his ascension to heaven. It is a sacrifice for every grain of sand on which Umar al-Farouq had prostrated to God, and for the army of the Prophet’s companions, God bless them, on the great day of the conquest of Jerusalem when al-Nasser Salahuddin liberated Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque from the clutches of its invaders, the Crusaders, with the sword of Islam.
It is Palestine, rising up en masse from the river to the sea, from Rafah to Ras al-Naqura (Rosh Hanikra), and from Khalil al-Rahman (Hebron) to Sakhnin, to trouble the faces of the new invaders, the Zionist usurpers. It is the blessed intifada brought back to life by the youth of Palestine, and the people of Palestine, transmitting their message to the whole world, to those who turned their backs on Palestine or forgot it. The message says: ‘Palestine cannot be forgotten, and she will remain alive until God ordains that right be done and falsehood be nullified, until the land and the homes are restored to her people, and they return to them victorious and dignified, God willing.’
Winner of the 2014 Palestine Book Award
Efforts to achieve a “two-state solution” have finally collapsed; the struggle for justice in Palestine is at a crossroads. As Israel and its advocates lurch toward greater extremism, many ask where the struggle is headed. This book offers a clear analysis of this crossroads moment and looks forward with urgency down the path to a more hopeful future.In this essential work, journalist Ali Abunimah takes a comprehensive look at the shifting tides of the politics of Palestine and the Israelis in a neoliberal world and makes a compelling and surprising case for why the Palestine solidarity movement just might win.
Ali Abunimah is the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli Palestinian Impasse, and co-founder and director of the widely acclaimed publication The Electronic Intifada. Based in the United States, he has written hundreds of articles and been an active part of the movement for justice in Palestine for 20 years. He is the recipient of a 2013 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship.
‘Every community that stands fast, loving its people and its land, its customs and its ways, will be seen, eventually, as worthy of saving. This is because it is our own humanity we are learning from, our own value. There will also arise a special voice to champion us, one that is brave, trustworthy and true. In The Battle for Justice in Palestine it is the voice of Ali Abunimah, fierce, wise - a warrior for justice and peace - someone whose large heart, one senses, beyond his calm, is constantly on fire. A pragmatist but also a poet. This is the book to read to understand the present bizarre and ongoing complexity of the Palestine/Israel tragedy. And though it is filled with the grim reality of this long and deadly, ugly and dehumanizing, conflict, it also offers hope: that as more people awaken to the shocking reality of what has for decades been going on, we can bring understanding and restitution to the Palestinian people. Their struggle to exist in dignity and peace in their own homeland - and this may be the biggest surprise of Abunimah's book - is mirrored in the struggles for survival and autonomy of more than a few of us.’
‘This is the best book on Palestine in the last decade. No existing book presents the staggering details and sophistication of analysis that Abunimah’s book offers. Abunimah’s scope includes an analysis of the politics, economics, environmental policies, identity politics, international relations, academic scholarship and activism, global solidarity, and official and unofficial lobbies that have come to bear on Palestine and the Palestinians. The Battle for Justice in Palestine is the most comprehensive treatment of Palestinian suffering under Israeli control and offers the only possible way to end it. It is a must read for anyone seeking to understand the current situation of the Palestinians and Israel.’
—Joseph Massad, Columbia University
‘With incisive style and scrupulous attention to documentation and detail, Ali Abunimah's new book offers a complex portrait, from every angle, of the Palestinian struggle for justice today.’
—Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director, Jewish Voice for Peace
'A crucially needed dose of educated hope. This is what hits me from this fascinating amalgam of incisive journalism, analytic prose and intellectually compelling vision that emanates from many years of brilliant activism. Sailing effortlessly from the domestic to the global, from Johannesburg to Belfast and from Chicago to Tel Aviv, Ali Abunimah paints a lucid, accessible picture out of a complex web of racism, racialized oppression, and creative resistance. Abunimah does not give us hope; he helps us dig for it within us by meticulously laying out before us the facts, the trends, the challenges and the inspiring resistance to them.’
—Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement, author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights
‘In The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Ali Abunimah—the most astute commentator writing on Palestine today—bursts the leaky myths of Israeli exceptionalism while carefully examining where the battle for Palestine is currently being waged. Forget the endless “peace process,” which has ushered in little more than massive economic exploitation, tragic environmental degradation, and servile and destructive politics. Focus instead, Abunimah tells us, on the many civil society and campus initiatives around the world that are bravely ushering in a new era of global grass-roots organizing for justice. Rich in information and deep in analysis, The Battle for Justice in Palestine will inspire readers that Palestinian self-determination is not only possible but absolutely necessary.’
—Moustafa Bayoumi, author, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America
‘Those familiar with Ali Abunimah’s writing know to expect sophistication without theoretical jargon... His latest book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, both reflects and synthesizes the dramatic shifts in the discourse around the Israel-Palestine conflict in the United States as well as in Israel and the Arab world, in particular the emergence of one-state demands and the coalescence of an anti-Zionist position on the left.’
—Steven Salaita, The New Inquiry
‘Though he never loses sight of the grim reality on the ground, Abunimah's writing is infused with a sense of optimism about the possibility of realising decolonization and a just future for all who live in historic Palestine.’
—Ben White, Middle East Monitor
‘The Battle for Justice in Palestine is a crucial book appearing in a crucial time... Abunimah strips away Israel’s justifications for its occupation and makes a vital contribution to real justice in Palestine.’
—Ron Jacobs, CounterPunch
‘The inspiring vision Abunimah lays out reflects the hope stirred by a growing and increasingly successful movement on the ground, which is helping to turn the tide in the struggle for Palestine. For those active in this movement, this book is a must-read, but its lessons are for anyone interested in the fight for a better world.’
—Wael Elasady, Socialist Worker
By Nick Rodrigo
Bolivia’s 35-plus indigenous nations make up over 60 per cent of the country’s population and have a long history of struggle with the state. This has linked material grievances to the ethnic segregationist system, which emerged after the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Palestinians, who are witnessing the plundering of their natural resources, particularly water, by a military occupation with overt commercial interests, could learn much from the Bolivian indigenous movement, which defeated a move to privatise water in 2000.
The emerging feudal economy in postcolonial Bolivia centred on the mining industry and the seizure of indigenous lands by a rapacious hacienda creole class. In order to facilitate the incorporation of indigenous peasants into the emerging mining economy, rigid racial categories arose in which indigenous peoples were deemed eligible only as labourers, with no access to membership of the full citizenry. This contributed to the emergence of an indigenous class movement in Bolivia, which centred on a crystalizing infrastructure for dissent. This informal infrastructure was based upon the multi-faceted institutions of the tin-miners’ movement/indigenous agrarian class, and was informed cognitively by an Andean culture of insurrection, drawing on the memory of King Tupaj Aamuru’s gallant stand in the face of Spanish colonial forces. Radical ideologies began to blossom from this infrastructure, which drew on facets of Marxism and indigenous anarchism, fastening a renascent indigenous identity politics onto material realities. This indigenous dissent manifested itself at varying moments across the 20th century.
By 1999, the neoliberal counter-revolution of the 1980s had consigned vast swathes of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples to abject penury, with 80 per cent of Quechua living in poverty. Financial accountability to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) through structural adjustment loans meant the infiltration of a market logic into Bolivia’s domestic politics. In 1999 the multi-billion dollar international corporation Bechtel drew up the Aguas del Tunari, with local Cochabamba officials. Bechtel and its co-investors were granted control of Cochabamba City’s water company for forty years and guaranteed an average profit of 16 per cent for each of those years. The resultant 43 per cent increase in water rates for the poorest families pushed the unions and indigenous peasant class over the edge. In 2000 a series of pitched battles, strikes and walkouts by trade unions and other organisations was staged which came to be known as the Cochabamba water war. The central organising actor was the Coordinadora, a coalition of irrigators, coca growers and coca cutters. One of the central tactics used by the Coordinadora was roadblocks, one which had been part of the resistance repertoire of the miners’ unions during the 1970s. After months of coordination, demonstration and state retaliation, representatives from Bechtel fled the city and then the country, and President Banzer was forced to cancel the contract. Cochabamba reacted with jubilation, with Coordinadora leaders flying back from remote prisons in Bolivia’s interior to a heroes’ welcome.
Grassroots mobilisation had faced down the government of a dictator, and overcome the power of one of the world’s largest corporations. It also brought the insurrectionary nature of indigenous politics into sharper focus, and more coordination. By 2002, Evo Morales, leader of the coca growers’ unions, ran for the national presidency as head of MAS (Movement towards Socialism). Linking neoliberalism to the regulation of access to resources for Bolivia’s poorest made him a standout candidate, and he was duly elected in 2005
Four years later, the long battle for equal access to natural resources secured a legislative victory with the passage of Bolivia’s “plurinational” constitution. This guaranteed the right to water on the “principles of solidarity, complementariness, reciprocity, equity, diversity and sustainability”, whilst also passing provisions relating to the equitable and sustainable use of Bolivia’s resources and the reacquisition of land for indigenous use.
In the occupied and colonised West Bank, one manifestation of the apartheid reality for the 1.7 million Palestinians and 628,000 Israeli settler-colonists who live there is the unequal access to water. On average, a settler lives on 350 litres of water per day, whereas Palestinians live on an average of 73 litres; for the 113,000 Palestinians not hooked up to the water grid, it can be as low as 20 litres. Access to water is monitored tightly by the occupation regime, which has intertwined with the economics of occupation to limit Palestinian access.
Under Article 40 of the Oslo Accords, Israel recognised Palestinian water rights in the West Bank, but it did not take into account the excessive allocation of water to the 179 West Bank settlements, with no cap on their water supply. Oslo allocated 80 per cent of the water pumped from one of three underground water reserves to Israelis, and only 20 per cent to the Palestinians. The deal also created the Joint Water Committee (JWC), an Israeli-Palestinian body in charge of every water project (Palestinian and Israeli) in the West Bank; it is subject to the power imbalances which characterise the PA’s relationship with Israel since the former’s inception. Israel has effective veto over any water project, a veto not accorded to the Palestinians. This has resulted in a high number of Palestinian water projects being delayed and rejected between 1995 and 2010; only one Israeli project was rejected during this time.
Delays and rejections are carried out at the behest of an array of complex military orders, which have governed the West Bank since 1967. Military Order 92 transferred full authority over all water concerning issues in the West Bank from various local utilities to an Israeli official appointed by the military commander for “Judea and Samaria”. Military Order 158 introduced a permit system for all water projects; permits must be obtained when approaching the JWC. Finally, Military Order 291 declares all water resources to be the property of the State of Israel.
In 1982, Israel’s Mekorot water company took over responsibility for the water resources in the West Bank; by 2007, the company was state-owned. For Palestinians not linked to the water grid, mostly in Area C, water must be obtained from Mekorot filling stations. The most common form of dependency is through Mekorot-supplied Palestinian water institutions. The 80:20 water supply means that Palestinian water institutions have to purchase water from Mekorot in order to supply their customers; the water is often from aquafers in the West Bank. In short, Palestinians are buying their own water. “The lack of availability of Palestinian water resources has led to chronic shortages among Palestinian communities in Area C and a dependence on Mekorot” commented a UNHCR report. “Mekorot supplies almost half the water consumed by Palestinian communities.” Not surprisingly, Mekerot’s equity stands at $1.58 billion.
Infrastructure of dissent and the possibility of a “water intifada”
Since Oslo, the infrastructure for dissent which has characterised Palestinians’ relationship with Israel has become disaggregated, with the leadership class falling in line with the occupation through micromanagement of its most egregious consequences. The impending environmental security crisis which faces Palestinians over their access to water, is unprecedented; in the Gaza Strip, the situation is even worse.
Power must be reclaimed at a grassroots level, through the resurrection of the ideals of “Sumud” (steadfastness), which drove the first intifada. Fastening these ideals onto the seizure of water by the Israeli occupation could galvanise a new movement, which brings other material realities into the forefront of contemporary Palestinian resistance. The indigenous movement in Bolivia ground the state to a halt by reacting to a new phase in their centuries-long oppression — the privatisation of their water. By resurrecting the ideals of insurrection, which has characterised contemporary Palestinian nationalism, a new phase in Palestinian resistance could emerge; one which links the occupation to the fundamentals of life in Palestine.
* Nick Rodrigo is a research associate at the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg; his writing has appeared in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed
* This article was first published in the Middle East Monitor