October 8, 2009

Sabeel Conference Calls for Civil Resistance, End to Jewish State

A pro-Palestinian Christian group that is harshly critical of Israel is giving up on diplomacy and instead advocating for civil resistance, according to a recent conference held by the organization in Washington, D.C.

Sponsored by Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), the conference brought together scores of Middle East peace activists October 1-3 in support of the Palestinian ecumenical group Sabeel. Meeting at the historically African American Shiloh Baptist Church in the city’s Shaw neighborhood, the conference sought to draw connections between the American civil rights movement and the Middle East conflict, as well as equate Israel’s actions with those of Apartheid-era South Africa.

“We need to build a civil society resistance movement like against apartheid, that will make the occupation unsustainable,” said Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions.

Sabeel refers to itself as an ecumenical liberation theology center, teaching that Christ came to overthrow the political forces of “empire”. Sabeel Founder Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican Priest, teaches that in Christ’s time, “empire” was manifested by the Romans, and today it is manifested by colonial powers, which is how he characterized modern Israel.

While previous Sabeel conferences have criticized American political involvement in the Middle East conflict, the election of President Barack Obama was seen as a possible breakthrough. The group has ceased to cheer Obama, however.

“Once in power, [Obama’s] policies are not that different in several key areas,” said Dr. Richard Falk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories. Falk argued that Obama Administration engagement in the Middle East peace process was not enough of a departure from previous American administrations, whose policies he considered both unfair and detrimental to peace.

“The problem with Obama’s speech is that he refers to Israel as a Jewish state,” said Nadia Hijab of the Institute on Palestinian Studies. Hijab said that such a perspective keeps Palestinians as second class citizens.

Having been disappointed by the Obama Administration, speakers had differing views on how to proceed.

“Our job is to stop what our government is doing – to fight for equality, human rights, and an end to the occupation,” Falk said, blaming Israel’s military presence in the West Bank on military aid from the United States.

“At this stage, it is a fundamental mistake to look towards intergovernmental diplomacy as a solution,” said Falk. “Where we should look is towards mobilization and activation of civil society around the world.”

Falk used the anti-apartheid movement as example, in which other nations diplomatically and economically isolated the South African government following pressure from a movement to end the country’s policies of racial segregation. While Israel lacks the obvious signs of racial segregation, such as the separate drinking fountains or bus seating that characterized South Africa, Falk and other speakers at the conference believe that the result of a forcefully divided society is still the same.

The United Nations official said that American churches needed to look to the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, which generated a “tipping point” among the elites running the South African media and government.

“It’s a grave error to think that international diplomacy can reach the goals of peace at this point,” Falk said. He was partly echoed by Halper.

“We’ve got to turn a corner and become a much more effective resistance movement,” Halper said. However, unlike Falk, Halper said that the task was not centered on stopping what the American government was doing. “Our job is to end the occupation, not to end American involvement.”

Conference speakers also made a sharp departure from previous calls for a “two-state solution”, by which separate states of Israel and Palestine exist side by side. That view was most recently advocated by Ateek during his North American book signing tour earlier this year.

“If we are to re-imagine peace, we have to stop thinking of the conventional two-state solution,” Falk argued. “This idea of two people living in separate states would be a disaster.”

Halper agreed with Falk, calling for a single bi-national state and saying it was time to “stop talking about the two state solution, it’s not going to happen.”

Falk, Halper and Hijab all spoke critically of a “two-state solution”, instead arguing for the complete right of return for Palestinian refugees, and end to the military presence in the West Bank and full citizenship for all Palestinians. While Israeli Arabs that remained during the 1948 war received citizenship, those who fled were not permitted to return. Israel maintains that the refugees and their descendants cannot return without jeopardizing Israel’s existence.

During a question-and-answer period following Falk’s presentation, one conference attendee spoke in favor of a single state, saying that people should “vote the Jewish state out of existence”. The comment was met with enthusiastic applause.

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