Palestinian Activism As a Human Rights Struggle
Debra George

Mazin Qumsiyeh is a leading human rights activist in the West Bank. Photo: brennacussen on

Usually the only image that Americans see when Palestinians resist occupation and annexation of their lands by Israel is when there is violent reaction. However, for a surprisingly long time there has been a healthy supply of Palestinians who have demonstrated peaceful resistance. Mazin Qumsiyeh, a professor at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities in Occupied Palestine, leads nonviolent struggle which, despite the facts on the ground and the headlines, has yielded results.

"It started in the 1880s immediately after European Zionist Jews started building colonial settlements (in Palestine)," Qumsiyeh pointed out. "Christian, Muslim and Jewish natives raised objections to the idea of transforming a multi-ethnic multi-religious society into a 'Jewish state.' There were regular nonviolent demonstrations from 1918-1921."

In the years that followed, he said, there were uprisings that averaged every 9-15 years.

"The uprising of 1987-1991 was the most notable in expanding the repertoire of methods of civil resistance. In my own hometown of Beit Sahour, there was a refusal to pay taxes and the Israeli army sought to set an example to break the will of the natives. For 42 days in 1989, the town was besieged and subjected to curfews that were brutal. The officials would pillage the homes, businesses, and farms taking personal and business property. The town people defied curfews and many were arrested and beaten, some were killed. At one point, the town people invited internationals-including Israelis-to come sneak into town and join the people to hold a demonstration breaking the curfew. Actions in Beit Sahour were the start of the International Solidarity Movement."

Presently, the peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis are stalled due to expanding Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. With this setback, it is difficult to recognize where there could be any success claimed. But Qumsiyeh had no problem pointing out accomplishments.

"The biggest success of civil resistance is that today, 130 years after the first Zionist colony, there are 5 million Palestinians in Palestine (between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean). The Zionist plans from the 19th century until today were clear about the notion of creating a 'Jewish' state. Massive resources were devoted to this from the World Zionist Organization with support from great powers (Britain and France from 1917 until today, USSR in 1947-1948, and the US after 1947). Billions of dollars were diverted from such needs as Holocaust victims to the Zionist political and military infrastructure that created the fourth strongest army in the world. Yet, military might was not able to accomplish the complete ethnic cleansing desired."

Qumsiyeh is organizing the human rights struggle for Palestinians as he partners with Israeli Jewish groups like Zochrot and the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions. "Joint Israeli Palestinian groups also exist like the Alternative Information Center. We are now building One Democratic State Group to include Israelis and Palestinians."

How do human rights differ from peace activism? Qumsiyeh replied "A durable and genuine peace cannot exist without human rights. Without human rights you may have what is called pacification, Israelis feeling secure and comfortable in all the lands they confiscated and the refugees continuing to live as refugees. But history shows that any calm without justice is merely a lull between episodes of instability. Amnesty International argued the same thing when they stated on numerous occasions that no durable peace can be achieved when ignoring human rights. They explained that the absence of putting human rights in the equation is perhaps the pivotal reason why previous 'peace processes' failed."

There are voices in the international peace community that are now calling for a one-state solution, and Qumsiyeh's is one of them.

"There can never be peace without recognizing and allowing Palestinian refugees to exercise their internationally recognized right of return to their homes and lands. The most logical scenario to do this and guarantee rights of other people-including Israeli Jews who immigrated here and had children and grandchildren-is in a democratic state that protects individuals' rights. The nature of such a state (bi-national, federation, confederation, one democratic secular state, etc.) should be explored but in all cases, basic rights should be recognized. There can never be racist or discriminatory laws such as Israeli laws that currently allow any Jew from anywhere in the world settle here and get automatic citizenship while a Palestinian born here is denied their right to live here simply because he/she is Muslim or Christian."

Many working for peace had much hope with the election of Barack Obama as the US president, but Qumsiyeh was never convinced.

"President Obama's politically significant act before the election was to speak in front of the powerful Israeli lobby in Washington (AIPAC) promising them support. His first appointment after he won the election was Rahm Emanuel for Chief of Staff. Emanuel, while living in the US decided during the Gulf War to go volunteer, not with the US Army in the Gulf, but with the Israeli Army that was then occupying South Lebanon. Then Obama said he wanted a settlement freeze consistent with Israel's obligations under the US sponsored "Road Map" but had to back down and support the status quo. If Obama wanted peace, he could simply threaten to cut off billions of dollars in annual US military aid or to simply withhold the US veto power at the UN Security Council that shields Israel from International law."

With this disappointment, American peace activists have their work cut out for them. Qumsiyeh believes that their role is crucial in educating on the conflict and participating in programs supporting political resolution.

"I lived in the US many years and remain a US citizen who still pays taxes even though I relocated to Palestine over a year ago. These taxes help fund an apartheid racist regime, Israel has already cost the US over $3 trillion and this is not counting the trillions spent on the war on Iraq (a war Israel supported). This US foreign policy supports colonization, violence, and oppression. The misguided policy is antagonizing hundreds of millions of people in the Arab and Islamic world. In short I think US citizens need to know that this is not good for them. Of course many of them are also concerned about the attacks on Palestinian civilians, like in Gaza a year ago when 1400 were killed. We also need to expand the growing movement of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions. This is analogous to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa."

When asked to predict the future for Israel, Palestine and the rest of the region, Qumsiyeh said, "We can look at the past as guidelines for what happens when certain forces move in certain directions. We do notice that increasing Israeli repression and militarization did not bring security to Israel. Military forces have actually become obsolete in achieving political goals. The latest examples of this are the Israeli attacks on Lebanon in Summer 2006 and on Gaza in Winter 2008/2009. I think we will perhaps see one last Israeli attempt to 'crush' the armed resistance in Lebanon or in Palestine before the world community gets tired of cajoling Israeli hegemony. Israel is also trying to crush nonviolent resistance here and is failing. The US economy will continue to deteriorate as will the value of the US dollar; we have $12 trillion in debt and nearly $1 trillion in government budget deficit adding yearly to the debt. When and if the American public wakes up and revolts, a new US foreign policy will materialize to apply pressure on Israel. This will be good for Israelis, for Palestinians, for Americans, and for all of humanity."

Debra is a second generation Palestinian-American who has worked on MidEast peace issues for twenty years