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October 30, 2015

SJP-sponsored panel talks Palestinian history, contemporary politics

In a speech last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian Arab nationalist and Muslim religious leader, advised Adolf Hitler to “burn [Jews],” at a meeting between the two men in 1941. That comment was a subject of campus discussion on Tuesday, when the RSO UChicago Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) held a panel and discussion titled “Jerusalem in Crisis: Insider Perspectives on the Violence in Palestine-Israel.” The event was part of SJP’s “UChicago Israeli Apartheid Week,” a series of three pro-Palestinian lectures and discussions that ran from Tuesday to Thursday.

“Jerusalem in Crisis” was a discussion of regional history from Palestinian perspectives, and was co-hosted by Alex Shams and Eilat Maoz, both SJP members and graduate students studying anthropology.

Netanyahu’s comment, which has been heavily disputed by historians of The Holocaust and described by the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as “regrettable,” has kindled a firestorm of media attention on the future of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. According to Maoz, Netanyahu is drawing attention for his style, but not for his beliefs, which she argued are consistent with a long-run “culture of terror” in Israeli politics that villainizes Palestinians.

“Unlike Israel’s leaders of the past, Netanyahu is not even putting on a show. Israel’s government doesn’t even try to claim it’s going for a two-state solution. [Netanyahu] wants a security state...the prime minister openly rejects any political solution, and repeatedly argues that Israelis would have to learn to ‘live with terror.’ In this constellation, terror is not understood politically...but as a manifestation of unintelligible metaphysical or primordial hatred of Jews. It is not by chance, then, that The Holocaust is constantly being invoked by Israeli officials,” she said.

Shams added his belief that the Israeli West Bank separation barrier is a physical representation of how Israeli policy has made a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict unfeasible. Israel began constructing the barrier, which separates parts of Israel from West Bank, in 2002, and the construction is ongoing. Proponents of the construction, such as the nonprofit Anti-Defamation League, argue that the barrier is necessary to protect Israeli citizens from Palestinian terrorist attacks. Critics, such as Shams and SJP, refer to the structure as the “Apartheid Wall,” and claim that Israel has used the barrier as a way to annex territory outside of its jurisdiction, and has dislocated Palestinians as a result.

“The Apartheid Wall is deep inside the West Bank, nowhere near the Green Line [1949 territorial borders between Israel and neighboring governments], which is why tens of thousands of Palestinians are stuck in walled enclaves on the wrong side of it. That’s also why it’s being built—to annex West Bank land to Israel,” he said.

Both Maoz and Shams said that the contemporary violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is partially attributed to the dispossession of Palestinians in British Mandatory Palestine, which existed from 1920 to 1948. After World War I, The British Empire was assigned to govern what are now Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

But during the War, Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, had also made a written promise to secure a “homeland” in Palestine for the Jewish people. Israeli leaders later cited the Balfour Declaration in their Declaration of Independence, in 1948. Shams, referring to the Covenant of the League of Nations, said that the Balfour Declaration should not have been held as credible, as “according to the Mandate system, you cannot change the border of a given political system.”

He added his belief that Palestinians have been denied adequate political representation since 1948. In 1993, the U.S. mediated the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. The Accords established the Palestinian Authority (PA), a representative Palestinian legislative body, which governs parts of West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, Shams criticized the PA as a “tool” of Israel and the United States.

“The last elections were in 2006, when Palestinians democratically voted Hamas into Parliament; in response, the U.S. and Europe refused to allow Hamas to lead. The PA is a complete sham,” he said. He added that while he thinks a two-state solution is impossible, he hopes for “a single, democratic state with equal rights for all people between the River and the Sea, Palestinians and Jews.”

But until that agreement is reached, he argued, Palestinians ought to be treated as lawful combatants in a war zone.

“Palestinian violent resistance against the violent Israeli military is always justified; it is the equivalent of biting the hand that is trying to choke you to death.”

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