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Palestine in the struggle against Imperialism: An interview with Lisa Taraki

Lisa Taraki interviewed by Sunaina Maira. 

Lisa Taraki is a sociologist at Birzeit University in Palestine.  In addition to her academic work on aspects of Palestinian society, politics and urban social history, she has been an activist in the struggle for the right to education in Palestine since the late 1970s. She is one of the founders of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), established in Ramallah in 2004. Sunaina Maira, who is from India, teaches at the University of California, Davis and is a founding member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

1st Feb 2010

You were born and grew up in Afghanistan and have lived in Palestine for over thirty years. What was it like for you to move to Palestine and when did you first arrive there? What was the political situation in the West Bank at the time and how were you drawn into activism in Palestine?
I came to Palestine in 1976 to teach at Birzeit University. I had been studying in the US before that. Birzeit was on its way to becoming one of the core institutions in the anti-occupation struggle, and its president, accused of inciting student protests, had already been deported by the Israeli military government.  He was able to return only in 1993, after a 19-year exile in Jordan.
Throughout the 1980s, resistance to the occupation regime was a constant feature of everyday life in Palestine, and university students were at the forefront of the struggle.  As part of the array of punishments meted out to the Palestinians, the Israeli military would shut down universities for varying periods, ranging from a week to several months.  During the first intifada, all Palestinian educational institutions were closed by military order.  Birzeit endured nearly five years of that particular closure.
Over the years, the university community responded to the criminalization of education by organizing alternative teaching venues, and many students and faculty were arrested or harassed en route to these sites, ranging from local private schools, churches and mosques, to rented apartments. At the same time, thousands of students were arrested or put under town or house arrest, an Israeli practice that is not as prevalent today. The faculty would travel to students under confinement, and many students were able to finally graduate, some enduring ten years or more of interrupted study until they finished their academic requirements.
The Birzeit faculty, who were mostly rather young themselves during this founding period, joined the struggle in other ways too; much energy was expended in documenting abuses by the Israeli army and issuing press statements and appeals to international human rights organizations, the media, and even Western governments.  A committee staffed by faculty also played a role in preparing for students’ encounters with the system of military “justice.” We attended trials in military courtrooms where on more than one occasion we encountered prosecutors and judges who were Israeli academics on reserve duty.  This committee later became the Right to Education Project and then the Right to Education Campaign, now a growing network of activists around the world.

You are one of the founding organizers of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). How and why was PACBI launched? Can you tell us a little bit about its successes and also the obstacles or limitations it has had to confront since it was founded?

PACBI’s birth is not unrelated to the activities of the Birzeit faculty in the 1980’s, and some of the founding members of PACBI were Birzeit faculty.  The violent and destructive Israeli incursions into Palestinian towns and cities in 2002, aimed at destroying Palestinian infrastructure and institutions, served as a wake-up call, and in retrospect, burst the Oslo “bubble” that had served to mask the reality of continued colonial control. [The Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were signed in 1993]. Activism in Palestine needed a new approach to build upon and augment the decades of mass organizing and mass protests.  Pressure was needed to isolate Israel internationally, since years of appealing to the hegemonic world powers (what is euphemistically called the “international community”) and Palestinian diplomacy had proven ineffective.  Simply, this logic of pressure, rather than persuasion or diplomacy, is what PACBI began to articulate.  Since 2004, when PACBI was launched after two years of preparatory work, we believe that its accomplishments have been considerable.  Cultural and academic boycott is clearly on the political agenda, both of international solidarity groups and activists in Palestine.  While the economic boycott is a lot easier to understand and apply, the cultural and academic boycott is more nuanced, and requires a certain level of alertness that we are trying to encourage among activists, both at home and abroad.
Since the Israeli massacre in Gaza in 2008-09, there has been a growing global movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) to challenge Israel’s exceptional impunity, in response to the call from Palestinians for such an international campaign. How does PACBI fit into this larger BDS movement?
PACBI is one of the first members of the group of Palestinian organizations and institutions that issued the unified Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) by Palestinian civil society; the call was issued in July 2005, on the first anniversary of the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice that the Wall Israel is building on occupied Palestinian territory is illegal.  Since then, PACBI has been part of this leading Palestinian body for the BDS movement, and is represented in the BDS National Committee, the BNC. I believe the BNC constitutes one of the most important Palestinian political frameworks to have emerged in recent years.  It represents civil society’s appeal to the world to stop Israel’s impunity and to hold it accountable before international law.  It’s very important to have a solid anchor to the Palestinian appeal, and the BNC plays that role.  The refrain, “where is the Palestinian Mandela?” is no longer credible.

In response to PACBI’s call for an academic and cultural boycott and the expanding BDS movement, there have been boycott campaigns not just in Europe and North America, but also in many parts of Asia. For example, Pakistanis for Palestine was formed in 2009 calling for an end to political, economic, and ideological normalization of relations with Israel in Pakistan. In India, many activists and intellectuals have launched an Indian campaign challenging India’s alliance with Israel. The Asia to Gaza caravan traveled, against many odds, from Indonesia to Gaza in 2010. How do you view the (re)emergence of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle among people across the global South?
My recent trip to India (to attend the first BDS conference outside North America and Europe) confirmed something I knew to be true: that the people of the region are in solidarity with Palestine and support the Palestinian struggle wholeheartedly.  The question is, what form does this solidarity take, how is it expressed, and what are the demands that are to be made? What I mean by this is that it is not clear that solidarity movements in the South are fully apprised of the more recent developments in the Palestinian activist agenda.  For example, I have the feeling that the BDS call is not as well known among activists as one would have hoped. The appeal to isolate Israel through various boycott actions in particular needs to be articulated better, to be concretized through examples that are immediately relevant (and actionable) to activists.   I think one of the major reasons for this state of affairs is that the international Palestine solidarity movement received a setback with the signing of the Oslo accords.  It seemed as if the struggle was over, and that the diplomatic track was on its way to producing a real peace with justice.  Many international solidarity frameworks were disbanded or went into hibernation. But with the collapse of the Oslo process more generally and the recent breakdown of the “peace process” more specifically, I think that finally the answer is becoming clear, and I think there is growing willingness on the part of activists in the global south to re-engage with the Palestinian issue on a new basis, one which is fueled by the principle of exerting effective pressure on Israel through various BDS actions rather than appealing to the “international community” to shoulder its responsibilities.
It is a tremendous challenge, however, to present the Palestinian message in a relevant way to the organized political formations in the South, as well as to civil society groups that have the potential to reach wide sectors of society.  The challenge takes place in the context of the fragmentation and splintering not only of the nations and solidarities of the old “third world,” but also the break-up of leftist coalitions and political networks. I think the general analysis that the breakdown, splintering, and shifts in the left movement in the global South can be traced to the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a uni-polar world system are sound.  Therefore, the problem is not only the product of the ineffectiveness of the official Palestinian position, but also of the political transformations in the South itself.

Regarding the potentials of BDS as an approach, people have to break out of the old modes of activism, and accept the idea that a consistent and long-term campaign of BDS can achieve results.  In this regard, the fact that the Palestinian BDS movement is inspired by the South African struggle against apartheid is very relevant. It means that there is a historic precedent—despite the differences between South African apartheid and the colonial and apartheid reality in Palestine—for the success of a sustained campaign of isolation, boycott, and pressure.  This might have been one of the factors that influenced the decision of activists in Pakistan and India to set up their own Israel boycott campaigns.  These are important first steps.
Yes, this is a good point. It also seems to me that the Palestine issue, which is at the core of US imperial interventions and policies in the Middle East, has also been at the center of challenges to those policies by the left. And so when anti-imperialist movements are galvanized, people have made those linkages and challenged their own governments’ complicity. But the left, as you point, has had its own challenges in each of these national contexts. Given that many in these solidarity movements are engaged in struggles for the emancipation of their own people from the clutches of Western policies that inflict deprivation or violence, do you see the possibilities for solidarity by Palestinians with these progressive movements in other parts the global South? Or do you think that the Third World solidarity that flourished in an earlier era has declined to the extent that this identification with global struggles is increasingly tenuous?
As I noted before, the “old” bases of international solidarity have been unraveling, in our new postmodern, imperial age of the break-up of nations and the shattering of more inclusive solidarities.  It is also a challenge for Palestinians to be able to link their struggle with those of people in Pakistan, India, and elsewhere on the continent and beyond.  The problem, in my opinion, is not lack of solidarity in principle, but lack of clear vehicles and modes of expressing the solidarity.  Interestingly, one of the effects of the global BDS movement might be to re-acquaint Palestinians—especially the younger generation–with the world of international solidarity movements and to draw Palestinians into other struggles, other causes.
For Palestinians to become re-engaged with peoples’ causes in the global South, we have to have new political formations that can mobilize people around an internationalist agenda, as well as combating a new political and cultural consciousness that has been gaining ground in recent years. It’s important to realize that by the beginning of the 1990s, there were social forces in place in Palestine ready to embrace the promise of a political settlement.  And these social forces did not consist only of Fatah and PLO politician-bureaucrats in the diaspora and the Occupied Territory, or of expatriate investors and the local bourgeoisie eager to reap the profits of peace.  They also consisted of the more influential members of a growing social category that, for want of a precise label, I shall call the new middle class.  This class consisted of the not inconsiderable numbers of leading and middle-ranking political cadres in PLO-affiliated fronts and organizations who were witnessing the steady erosion of their organizations’ popular base with the dissipation of the first intifada.
What is crucial here is that a new generation of educated Palestinians came of age in the early nineties; they had matured in the national movement through their experience in mass organizations, political parties, Israeli prisons, and the student movement in local universities and colleges.  But at this juncture in their lives, they found themselves facing the responsibilities of family, career, and the future of their children.  With de-mobilization and de-radicalization launched by the Oslo process underway, the members of the new urban middle class—many of whom were from very recent peasant pasts–were amenable to the growing impulse towards what we may call societal “normalization;” in fact, their intellectuals and other influential spokespersons were its principal agents and among its more enthusiastic promoters.  In addition to structural and institutional features, societal normalization entailed the cultivation of new sensibilities, dispositions, values, and practices in many areas of life, from politics to work to education to everyday discourse.

Briefly, the new ethos includes the naturalization and legitimization of social disparities and expressions of rank and hierarchy; the emergence of a de-radicalized and de-nationalized form of politics  practiced by NGOs and elements within the private sector and the proto-state bureaucracy; the collapse of the national consensus; the pursuit of global commodities linked with social distinction, the most important of which is education; and new forms of cultural expression devaluing the hegemonic discourse of the liberation movement of the 1970s and 1980s.
In the face of these social and political transformations, the building of a Palestinian movement in solidarity with the global South is not an easy matter.  I suspect that much the same has been happening elsewhere in the South, so the challenge is a shared one, and not only the responsibility of the Palestinians.
The locus of global struggles for many concerned about resisting US imperialism in the current moment is centered in West and Southwest Asia, in opposing the US/NATO war in Afghanistan and the US-backed Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestine. Do you see any links between these struggles? As someone who is originally from Afghanistan, does this inflect your work in Palestine in any way?

One of the strengths of the left has always been its international, universal, and inclusive approach.  So of course the struggles are linked, again in principle.  However, I must say that the struggles of Afghans, Pakistanis, and Indians against US imperialism and against their own regimes are not well understood in Palestine.  This has to be a reflection, in part at least, of the inability of the new global action movements to mobilize people in the region.  In principle again, something like the World Social Forum has great potential to do just that, to link the struggles and make them everyone’s struggles.
Given that we are doing this interview just days after the revolution in Egypt inspired by the revolt in Tunisia, it is also powerfully apparent that people in the region have also risen up to make their own demands heard and created their own grassroots movements to topple governments, challenge dictators, and oppose U.S. hegemony. What kind of ripple effects might this have for Palestinians?
I think Palestinians are acutely aware of the strong link between the demands of the unprecedented popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and their own demands for freedom.  There is widespread support for the revolution here, and a positive outcome to this still-unfolding historical movement is keenly anticipated.  The next few days and weeks will be crucial!

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