Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ali Abunimah's Battle for Justice in Palestine Comes To Santa Fe

Story by Frances Madeson; Portraits by Robert Esposito

We live in peace and privilege in Santa Fe. So much so that when one hears the term “Chicken Wars” one's mind immediately flies to the neighbor-to-neighbor squawking in Eldorado, the well-to-do enclave where after lengthy and contentious litigation backyard chickens were finally deemed not to be household pets, and were banned.

It was painful for people to have to part with their chickens; the lawsuit had felt intrusive, very much like overkill. There were relationships, routines, very real cross-species attachments, as well as the material boon of fresh cruelty-free eggs. But I invite you to contrast that upset and sense of loss, genuine and heartfelt as it is, with this description of mass slaughter in Ali Abunimah's The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2014):
During Operation Cast Lead, for instance, the Israeli forces invading Gaza destroyed the chicken farms of Sameh Sawafeary and his family in the Zaytoun area. Over several days in early January 2009, the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report records that Sawafeary and other witnesses hid in terror as they watched “Israeli armoured bulldozers systematically destroy land, crops, chickens and farm infrastructure.” In all, thirty-one thousand of Sawafeary's chickens were killed. He estimated that a hundred thousand chickens had been killed at other farms. This widespread destruction was confirmed by UN satellite imagery. In discussing the army's assault on the farms in the Zaytoun area, the Goldstone report states: “The systematic destruction along with the large numbers of killing of civilians suggest premeditation and a high level of planning.” It finds that the Sewafeary chicken farms, the 31,000 chickens and the plant and material necessary for the business were systematically and deliberately destroyed, and that this constituted a deliberate act of wanton destruction not justified by any military necessity.”
 Who's nest gets feathered as a result of the foul carnage?
The Israelis could offer no explanation that contradicted those factual findings. But where there was no “military necessity” there was a commercial opportunity. Sewefeary told the UN investigators that he and his family had supplied 35 percent of the eggs on the market in Gaza. Egg prices soared due to the large number of chickens Israel destroyed; Gaza's stores are now full of frozen chickens supplied by Israeli firms.
Pitched throughout in the measured yet devastating tones of the above passages, Chapter 4, Neoliberal Palestine, breaks down for those of us who've heretofore been securely nesting in our own personal comfort zones the totality of the economic barbarity on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank. (More so in Gaza for reasons Abunimah explains very well.)

Perhaps because of worsening economic conditions here in New Mexico—persistent joblessness, homelessness, food insecurity, state-sanctioned predatory lending, debt and wage slavery, for-profit prisons and their abuses including protracted solitary confinement, the ongoing seemingly ceaseless plunder by the extractive industries of resources from public lands (some of them sacred to Indigenous peoples), and frequent reports of high-profile corruption by the political class who mercilessly rules us—Abunimah's message resonates in a way it might not have previously in more prosperous, less hazardous, times.

Again and again with the greatest consideration for his readers, Abunimah finds the words to penetrate the haze of not-knowing, and recounts the many ways in which Israel (18 Israeli billionaires in 2015, zero prior to the Occupation) profits from the wholesale butchery. His “for instance” in the first quoted passage above (the italics are my own) is made explicit, instance after bloody instance. From Chapter 4:
Israel has also repeatedly destroyed dairy processing plants (Israeli yogurt is a big seller in Gaza) and on January 4, 2009, bombed the El-Bader flour mill—the last one still operating—destroying it completely...

The fates of these and hundreds of other shuttered Gaza businesses illustrate that whatever economic destruction Israel could not achieve with the blockade, it finished off with the air strikes...

Overall the value of Israeli exports to the “Palestinian Authority”—the West Bank and Gaza Strip—grew from just over two billion dollars in 2006 to $3.6 billion in 2011. This puts the captive Palestinians among Israel's top ten export destinations, ahead of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, India, Japan and China.

Palestinians” Abunimah claims, “have become guinea pigs for practices that the global financial crisis laid bare all over the world: neoliberal economic policies pushed by the United States, the European Union, the World Bank and the IMF. All this has been done with the active collusion of countries that claimed to champion Palestinian aspirations, and, of course, of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

At a fund raising event for Electronic Intifada, the
independent online news publication focusing on Palestine founded by Abunimah, held on December 3rd by Santa Feans for Justice in Palestine,  I asked Abunimah about this claim face-to-face.
I will never walk away from this fight, but I'm ready.
I don't want to linger a day more than necessary.--Ali Abunimah
Frances Madeson:Reading that passage I became interested in the possibilities that the calling out of this “active collusion,” as you put it, creates. It generates a moment to potentially redraw the lines of the conflict to more accurately reflect what's at stake. This isn't just some entrenched seemingly insoluble real estate squabble between Israel and Palestine, this is a case study for global capital to extract all kinds of knowledge from their “guinea pigs.”
About limits of tolerance. About submission and resistance. About how much sacrifice of justice peoples will make for even the cheapest kind of peace.

What else would you say? What kinds of data has global capital gained from their lab animals? And equally, what's been learned about them?

Ali Abunimah: The answer is in your question. We've seen the total failure of these experiments on their own terms. The Palestinians were supposed to become depoliticized consumers who would be content with shopping malls, credit cards, and a few material advantages. This prosperity was always illusory for the vast majority.

The Palestinians remain in revolt, and they are determined to secure their liberation. They've learned that resistance is stronger, though neoliberalism is very powerful. The Palestinians have been creative about resisting, which is as true in Palestine as it is in other places.

FM: I was struck throughout the book by your concern for poor Israelis, how you  extended your thoughts in their direction to consider how neoliberal economic policies have also adversely affected them. That seems so generous to me, and so right. And I'm wondering if this compassionate connection could have more juice in terms of coalition building with poor Israelis?

AA: This is really important.

There is no current organized political expression now for that, but it will become critical in the future.

I quote liberally from Michele Alexander's The New Jim Crow on that very point. The comparison in the U.S. would be the failure to form solidarity among working class Blacks and Whites after the Civil Rights Era meant that poor working White people were vulnerable to political exploitation. Politicians could manipulate the racial discourse and enact the Southern Strategy. We have to learn from that and build solidarity among the people.

We're not quite there yet.

FM: In Chapter 4, you quote Columbia University professor Joseph Massad “who predicted in 1994 that the PLO
will come down in history as the only Third World liberation movement who has sought liberation through selling the resources it expects to “liberate” to international capital before it even “liberated” them. Western countries and their global instruments of economic domination, the World bank and the IMF, are already devising different types of plans for investment in the Municipalities of Gaza and Jericho once their projected mayor, Yasser Arafat, takes office.

A few things are impressive about this passage—its meta perspective, its justifiable undercurrent of outrage at the way these cruel shakedowns of vulnerable peoples actually operate, and perhaps especially that Massad was able to see this particularly egregious sell-out in real time as it was unfolding. Where was your own thinking in 1994 in relation to these insights?

AA: I was not yet writing publicly at that time, I was a student. My major influence regarding my thinking about the Oslo Accords was Edward Said. He validated my instincts and helped me crystallize my opposition to Oslo.

And Massad said similar things, absolutely. And how sad, how tragic that that was in 1994.

FM: Would you care to comment about Time or Duration in relation to this liberation movement? What do you see as the horizon for significant change?

AA: It's so hard, I always feel like the possibility for radical transformation is always there. We cannot predict the moment, the hour, the day...I'm not a particularly religious person but I believe it says in the Bible that no one can know the minute of the day when the Messiah is going to come. Our work in the moment creates the conditions that could bring that about in our lifetimes.

I believe it's something we'll see in the near future, it will happen within a few short years. I don't think it has to be decades or generations. Too many lives have already been lost.

And the Nekba generation deserves to see the beginnings of justice in their lifetimes. The urgency is there.
FM: One of the things that so impressed me in The Battle for Justice in Palestine is how you identify Palestinian individuals and corporations (name, rank and serial number, so to speak) who are betraying the interests, the very survivability of their own people. You cite example after example of complicity, cooperation and enrichment of the Palestinian Authority and what you repeatedly call “a small Palestinian elite” comprised of both Diasporan and Indigenous Palestinians.

AA: It's their tough luck. I'm inquiring about matters of public record that are of critical public interest. They can't hide, people have to be held accountable.

People criticize me all the time. I accept the price of being out there in the struggle. In the book I gave the example of the new planned city of Rawabi, highlighting the problems there [problems such as dispossession of locals by Palestinian tycoons for the creation of luxury housing marketed to foreigners, even Israelis, and the almost total lack of transparency and public input in the planning process].

I approached the tycoon many times; he had multiple opportunities to respond.

FM: You write about the Industrial Zones which have been established in Palestine by Turkey, Germany, Japan and the World Bank ostensibly to “improve infrastructure, create jobs and prepare for statehood.” But in actuality you argue that “the Zones make Palestine more subservient, reliant on the occupier for permissions—access, movement, transfers for tax purposes.” You predict that “Palestinians might without even realizing it, exchange Israeli occupation for occupation by multinational companies.” And you also raise the specter of the kind of abuses that are ongoing in the equivalent “Zones” in Jordan.

Specifically, you recount that "by 2006, fifty-four thousand people worked in the zones, 2/3rds migrant workers from Sri Lanka, China, India and Bangladesh who often must endure a 96-hour work week with wages less than forty cents per hour, lack of medical care, and who are subject to confiscation of their passports, persistent sexual harassment and rape by managers, and housing in jail-like conditions, for which workers' wages were illegally docked.”

Do you foresee this kind of unconscionable abuse of laborers as imminent in the Industrial Zones already created in Palestine?

AA: Conditions are already bad enough for Palestinians.
Since I've written the book, I don't know if the Zones are up and running. But, Capitalists want to make money and these Zones are not a very good investment. The thing I put out in this discussion is: “How are you going to compete in the race to the bottom?”

We are not powerless. We are going to hold Israel to account through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Republican Party Presidential candidate Jeb Bush recently said to the Republican Jewish Coalition that if elected he would use the power of the Attorney General's office and the U.S. Department of Justice to do whatever it takes to stop BDS.

Americans need to stop and think about the ways in which our own basic freedoms are in danger.
Samia Assed inquired about Israeli attempts to interfere
with free discourse on Facebook and Google.
After a superb Middle-Eastern dinner generously provided by Albuquerque resident Samia Assad, in the general Q &A Abunimah expanded on the theme of the encroachment on American liberties. He told the 40 or so attendees gathered in the home of environmental and civil rights attorneys Mariel Nanasi and Jeffrey Haas about Jeb Bush's remarks, and also that Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had recently declared in a letter to an Israeli billionaire that: “If I am president I will dedicate myself to fighting BDS.”

Abunimah pulled no punches: “These are folks that are willing to put Israel above the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

There were audible groans when Abunimah described the attempts by Palestinian financiers to push 30-year home mortgages down the throats of a culture unaccustomed to home loans, interest and easy enslaving credit. The numbers, and their consequences, are laid out in compelling detail in Chapter 4, Neoliberal Palestine.

Consumer credit increased sixfold, from $70 million in 2008 to $415 million in 2011; car loans almost tripled, from $40 million to $122 million. The Bank of Palestine advertised consumer loans for Palestinian Authority employees of up to twenty-five times their monthly salaries, a package that included something called an “Easy Life Card.” Most of this easy money went to pay for goods imported through Israel, benefiting Israeli companies and Palestinian middlemen. ...

Credit for real estate and construction tripled from $188 million in 2008 to more than half a billion dollars in 2012. ...
As the Palestinian elites in Ramallah were on their credit-induced spending binge, by 2011, half of Palestinian households in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were struggling to obtain sufficient nutrition, with one-third classified as food insecure...

The record shows that, as Palestinians communities struggled to maintain their presence on land and in the homes threatened by Israeli settlements, the US and international agencies were working with Palestinian developers and officials to concoct new ways for economically stressed Palestinians to be thrown out of their homes.

"Having Ali Abunimah visit New Mexico has been phenomenal," Samia Assed told me. "Especially for my kids, who will never forget this evening. They got the chance to hear this proud Palestinian speaker, an unfiltered source of information you really can't get anywhere else, with all of us gathered here together witnessing his genius, the way he processes things, his courage. It's been a gift. And especially to be here in Jeff and Mariel's house. This feels like home, like family."

Building on the strength of its past eventsprotests against U.S. support for Operation Protective Edge, its successful fund raising efforts to install a water filtration system at the UN School in Khuza'a (in Gaza) and to rebuild their kindergarten destroyed in the bombingSanta Feans for Justice in Palestine is currently raising $7,500 to help the unhoused Palestinians of Khuza'a somehow survive the rains and cold of winter.
From the group's Facebook page:
The United Nations has called the humanitarian situation in Gaza dire. The ongoing blockade by the Israeli government means that the citizens of Gaza are unable to rebuild and repair the devastation wrought by the last round of bombings in the summer of 2014.
As the winter draws in, the people of Gaza are in desperate need of fresh water, warm winter clothing, heating stoves, blankets, and insulation kits to prevent frostbite, hypothermia, and even death. Children, who make up 50% of the population, are particularly at risk.
Please donate: https://mecaforpeace.ngpvanhost.com/form/3203449786646726656 or mecaforpeace.org/khuzaa
When my time with Ali Abunimah was concluded, naturally I thanked him. Not only as a matter of courtesy for his exertions in coming to New Mexico (four programs in three days in three cities
Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Albuquerque), not only for the incisive interview he granted Written Word, Spoken Word, or for publishing his brave and enlightening book, or for his editorial leadership at Electronic Intifada. But for the almost superhuman patience, grace and dignity of the Palestinian people.

Free Palestine.