April 20-21, 2004
Irwin J. Mansdorf, PhD
Raanana, ISRAEL

In what was ostensibly a quasi-academic conference, the Van Leer Institute sponsored a meeting that appeared, by its title, to tackle the difficult question of humanitarianism as it pertains to the occupied territories.

While the topic certainly was covered, both the participants and attendees appeared to represent a decidedly leftist orientation, with little dissent from the general theme of Israeli culpability for a variety of human rights issues. No effort was made to present views that challenged any of the presenters.

Opening remarks were made by Sari Hanafi, the director of the Palestinian Refugee and Diaspora Center (SHAML) of Ramallah and Adi Ophir, of Tel Aviv University and the Van Leer Institute. Hanafi was one of the Palestinian attendees at the Durban 2001 conference, and Ophir is a self-described “post-Zionist” who has published remarks in which he spoke of Israel as a regime that is really “Jewish Apartheid”.

Ophir spoke about “hate mail” he received from “right wing academics” that objected to what they claimed to be an unbalanced approach of the conference. While he did not give any examples of the hate mail he referred to, he noted that the conference was based on all those “concerned with Palestinians”. Hanafi spoke of the “colonial practices” of Israel and stated that in his dealings on planning for the conference, he found no difference between the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs he dealt with.

Judging by the papers presented, Hanafi was correct. The tone of the conference was generally along the lines of the apparent ideological inclinations of these two organizers.

Following each session (not each presentation), questions were taken from the audience. The format of the Q&A was such that all questions were first taken and only after every question was aired was the panel asked to respond. Follow up questions were not part of this format. In some cases, this format allowed panel members to address only some of the comments directed at them and avoid responding to others. Few, if any post-session comments directed at presenters were in the form of any challenge, with many comments often aimed at embellishing some of the views they expounded.

The opening speaker, Peter Hansen, the Commissioner General of UNRWA, was initially somewhat defensive when he noted the sensitivity of the use of the term “occupied territories”, although judging by most of the participants, his concerns were unwarranted. His preference was to use the term “occupied Palestinian territories”, and he somewhat apologetically seemed to explain that as a representative of the UN, he is bound to the use of terminology in line with General Assembly resolutions.

Mr. Hansen presented an overview of UNRWA’s role and function, stressing the apolitical nature of the organization and its involvement in education and humanitarian efforts for individual Palestinians. He vehemently defended UNRWA against charges that UNRWA staff members were involved in terror activities in any way, stating that “not a single case” is documented in this regard. He acknowledged the tension that exists at times between Israel and UNRWA, but emphasized that UNRWA’s mission is humanitarian and that he has needed to say “enough is enough” when Israel has placed limitations or obstacles on the ability of his organization to carry out what it saw as essential activities. He gave the example of difficulties in bringing containers in and out of Ashdod as one area of concern. Mr. Hansen did not address the terror attack in Ashdod that was carried out by Hamas terrorists who were smuggled in one such container.

During the Q&A session, Mr. Hansen stated that there are several audit mechanisms that UNRWA is subject to and that any legitimate source is invited to examine these reports. He spoke to the criticism leveled against UNRWA that by providing aid it is subsidizing the occupation and providing it with legitimacy. He noted that it is at times difficult to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, but continuously stuck to the message that UNRWA is a humanitarian and apolitical organization.

Dr. Nael Salman, a researcher at the Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem, which is curiously not located in Jerusalem, but rather housed in Bethlehem, followed Mr. Hansen. His talk was on “The geopolitical situation in the West Bank and Gaza”. In a presentation that included a Palestinian Arab review of the history of the conflict, he pointed out that the West Bank and Gaza account for only 22% of what he described as mandatory Palestine. He then went on to review the history of the peace process, starting with Madrid and moving into Oslo. He spoke of Palestinian frustration with Israeli violations of Oslo, including what he claimed was the violation of building settlements. He provided the Arab interpretation of resolution 242, implying that it called for total Israeli withdrawal. He spoke to the “illegal occupation” of Jerusalem referred to Israeli settlements as “colonies” and presented slides describing Israeli policy of creating (sic) “cantoons”. In other slides of his PowerPoint presentation, Dr. Salman referred to the Qalqilya “Ghetto”, to “Bantustans”, and the “wall”, although he did note “one type of wall where it is a fence with barbed wire.”

During the Q&A, Dr. Salman was asked to address the fact that he did not include Jordan as part of the British mandate for Palestine, and how the percentages he presented would change if he did. He was also asked why, in his geopolitical review, he failed to note the Palestinian use of violence since the breakdown of Oslo. In his response, he noted that Jordan is an established state and that we cannot focus on any solution that goes back in history and tries to undo this fact (a comment having nothing to do with the question posed). He also spoke to the Palestinian frustration of not having what they saw as any tangible progress for 12 years as explaining the eruption of violence. He did not explain how he arrived at his “12 year” calculation.

Stephane Ojeda, an attorney with the International Red Cross spoke next. As a staff person for the ICRC in the “autonomous and occupied territories”, he spoke of the history of the ICRC and its relationship to the protecting people that fall under “belligerent occupation” in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention. He described his group as “guardians of international humanitarian law” and independent of political influences. In a comment subsequently repeated by several of the conference participants, he noted, “no one is dying of hunger in the territories”. He reviewed IHRC involvement in aiding victims of detention and house demolitions.

Adi Ophir presented the first part of a paper he co-wrote with Ariella Azoulay of Bar Ilan University. In a style that characterized several other papers presented, the presentation was literally “read” and was both difficult to understand and follow. The topic was “The economy of violence” and appeared to be an intellectual exercise in philosophizing aspects of the conflict, all with an eye to demonstrate Israeli responsibility for creating a situation that is on the verge of a catastrophe. The presentation was divorced from any context and was largely unintelligible psychobabble.

Neve Gordon of Ben Gurion University moderated the session that followed. After it was announced that Izzat Abdel Hadi of the Bisan Center in Ramallah would not be present because of not being able to arrange passage at a checkpoint, Aeyal Gross of Tel Aviv University presented a paper on the International Court of Justice and the issue of the “Separation Wall”. In a largely straightforward and analytical presentation, he reviewed the technical workings of the court and presented an overview as to how decisions are made and the practical problems in having them enforced. He was followed by Anal Biletzki of B’Tzelem, who spoke to the issues involved and the conflict between political and human rights. Her presentation was also informative and to the point, with little if any political rhetoric. Part of her talk focused on the philosophy of language and how rhetoric has become a tool in the conflict. Michael Warchawski of the Alternative Information Center then reviewed the “New forms of activism”. His talk was also devoid of rhetoric and focused on the nature of NGO involvement in the area and the types of people that become activists today. He noted that today’s activists act out of sense of duty to a cause and act out in concert with a philosophy that includes the goal of “changing the world”. The specific issues of the Arab-Israel conflict are not as important to them as is the impression that by being here, they are involved in an activity that supports their personal philosophy. Accordingly, they see themselves as “citizens of the world” and act out of more universal, global interests than the specific issues or claims by any one party (such as the Palestinian Arabs).

In the Q&A that followed, Warchawski was asked how activists who have noble ideals could protect themselves from being exploited by those who use violence to attain their political goals. He responded by urging activists to use common sense and to keep their eyes and ears open to any signs that the people they are working with are oriented to violent action.

A session on “The politics of human rights” followed, moderated by Hadas Ziv of Physicians for Human Rights (Israel). One participant, Manal Hazzan, could not attend for “personal reasons”.

The opening paper was presented by Neve Gordon (co-authored with Nitza Berkovitch). Dr. Gordon presented a study that examined the use of human rights “language” in the Israeli press. The assumption was that there is a lexicon of human rights, and the use of this lexicon would help move issues that appear to be human rights “problems” into something that is viewed as human rights “violations”. Examining the language in Ha’aretz, the conclusion was that Israel has failed to inject the use of human rights lexicon when compared to other societies. In particular, a comparison was made with the New York Times and the Guardian, and found Ha’aretz lacking. The authors stated that this was true not only with reference to issues related to Arabs, but also to human rights issues that solely involved Jews and Israelis.

The presentation also involved a discussion of the feeling that the language of human rights could and has been “co-opted” by others. One example given was the use of the term “humanitarian officers” or “humanitarian hot line” by the IDF. This, according to Dr. Gordon, represents a political takeover (or “co-opt”) of the human rights terminology. He appeared to indicate that politicians use the terminology even when they are actually far removed from real human rights (the examples of George Bush And Ariel Sharon were given).

The next presentation was by Randa Siniora of the Al-Haq center in Ramallah. She spoke to the recurring conference theme of conflict between providing humanitarian assistance and thus aiding Israel in ignoring responsibility as an occupier. As such, she saw a conflict between providing human needs and upholding human rights. She was concerned about how much credit for humanitarian aid is being taken by Israeli authorities. She noted that the problems of the population, including malnutrition, unemployment, homelessness, etc., are caused by “Israeli policies”, including closures and checkpoints. In discussion following the talk, she spoke to the Palestinian Arab acceptance of a two-state solution and rejected the idea that there is any denial of Israel’s right to exist.

Dr. Ruchama Marton of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel spoke on various aspects of what she termed the “struggle against occupation”. She described the work conducted on an ongoing basis with Palestinian Arab medical contacts, and expressed her conflict with, one the one hand, providing needed medical care, and, on the other hand, having this appear as if the “good Israel’” is at work, thus providing Israel a “good face” despite the occupation. She used terms like “hegemony” to describe Israeli control and stressed that Israel, as occupier, is ultimately responsible for providing medical services. She spoke of one incident in which a Palestinian Arab ambulance was shot at, hitting the driver. Her organization then transported the damaged ambulance to a main square in Tel Aviv, demonstrating the ease at which this took place. The main dilemma of balancing providing services with the question of how this would be looked at politically was the major theme of her talk.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights described his activities. When introduced, the panel moderator, Hadas Ziv, specifically asked if he would mention his experiences at the village of Biddu a few days earlier during a demonstration against the separation barrier. Rabbi Ascherman obliged, going into detail about how a young child was tied to a jeep and used as a “human shield” for Israeli security forces. He also noted his attempts at intervention in this and other demonstrations, and noted how, while he thought his presence would prevent Palestinian Arab violence, the “Shabiba” persisted in throwing stones. The rest of his presentation was a philosophical review of his approach and orientation.

The evening session was entitled “Human rights and conflict resolution”. Edy Kaufman of Hebrew University spoke on the difficulty in bridging the gap between human rights and conflict resolution. He discussed at length the fact that human rights issues are often ignored when dealing with conflict resolution issues. In a departure from almost every other paper presented at the conference, he noted that Palestinians have not done enough to criticize and control incitement in their media, but also noted that human rights is ignored on both sides. The issue of perspective was noted, as Israelis look for peace and “security” and Palestinians of a “just and lasting” peace. Thus, while Israelis seek security, the Palestinians seek justice for what they perceive as being wronged, without which peace cannot be established.

Following Edy Kaufman, Mohammad al-Bakri substituted for the scheduled speaker, who could not attend. He spoke on how human rights violations on the part of Israel were ignored by man. He expounded on the difference between “laws of war” and “humanitarian law” and discussed how “War crimes” were being committed by Israel.

Daniel Seidmann, an Israeli lawyer, continued on the theme of human rights by stressing how many political actions ignore the human rights dimension. The abandonment of humanitarian principles may make agreement easier to attain, but leaves open many issues that come back later and make resolution more difficult.

A final speaker, Agneta Johansson of the International Legal Assistance Consortium spoke of the Bosnian experience in human rights.

The next day’s talks were far more strident in criticism of Israeli policies.

The morning session, entitled “The spatial production of disaster” was an at times esoteric presentation of issues related to the security wall, checkpoints, and land issues. Difficult to follow at times, most of the speakers repeated themes of Israeli aggression, settler misdeeds and at times romanticizing the “resistance”. Maya Rosenfeld spoke passionately of the Arabic concept of “summud” which is a sort of steadfastness in the face of adversity. She described her work in “Machsom watch”, and presented a description of Israeli behavior that suggested active pleasure in forcing Palestinian Arabs to suffer. On the other hand, her description of the Palestinian Arab population was one of a people subjected to irrational and illegal measures that violated humanitarian rights.

The other presentations appeared somewhat less political, but were presented in such a boring, obscure and burdensome manner as to make them difficult to follow, understand or make sense of.

The final afternoon sessions were far livelier.

The session entitled “(De) Politicization of humanitarianism” included Meron Benvenisti, Sari Hanafai, Jeff Halper, Ariella Azoulay and Amira Hass. Huwaida Arraf of the International Solidarity Movement moderated it.

Except for Azoulay, the theme of the talks was the conflict between providing humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian Arab population and the need for political change that is aimed at ending Israeli occupation. Benvenisti spoke clearly of ending all humanitarian aid, claiming that providing this assistance allows Israel to continue its occupation.

Sari Hanafi presented a paper on “Bio-Humanitarianism and Bio-Colonialism” in which he introduced the concept of “spatiocide”, claiming that Israel is not physically destroying the Palestinian Arab people, but rather effecting a policy that destroys their living space and denies them any rights. He spoke of the Zionist “myth” of a “land without people for a people without land” and compared the Holocausts relationship with the establishment of Israel to the “expulsion of more than half the Palestinian people from their land in 1948” as the seminal event in creating Palestinian nationalism. He went on to speak of “state terrorism”, the violation of the 4th Geneva Convention by Israel, the “imperialism” and “hegemony” of the United States in the area and the Israeli policy in Jerusalem where, he claimed, 250,000 Arabs land was “assimilated” by Israel whereas the people on that land were not. He spoke of taking land from Arabs without providing any rights. His analysis included the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel as well. During parts of his talk, he hinted at a “one-state” solution as a possible alternative.

Jeff Halper agreed with Benvenisti’s observations, stating that humanitarian aid “enables the occupation”. He described his work at preventing Israeli demolitions of Palestinian Arab homes and promoted the notion that Israel be forced to take responsibility for “4 million Palestinians”. He emphatically described his work as a political act of resistance and not as humanitarian in nature, although he did note that a humanitarian crisis existed with the political conflict. He also used terms such as “Bantustans” to describe the purpose of Israeli policy.

In a continuation of Adi Ophir’s earlier paper, Ariella Azoulay of Bar-Ilan University presented a paper entitled “On the verge of catastrophe”, which was “read” and difficult to follow. Using terms such as “apartheid”, “ethnic cleansing” and “colonialization”. Using admittedly provocative language, she described the Palestinian “space” as a “camp” that is subject to “violent governance”. She described the camp as lying somewhere between a “humanitarian camp for survivors and the concentration camp that produces a catastrophe”.

Amira Hass ended the presentation by returning the discussion to the perceived dilemma of providing humanitarian aid and possibly perpetuating the conflict as a result. She noted that humanitarian aid has become part of the routine of the situation. While others noted that she once had advocated a “strike” by human rights organizations, she explained the difficulty this would cause individuals and discussed the problems in adopting such an approach.

The final session on “New forms of activism”, moderated by Sari Hanafi, opened with the screening of two films. One was on the shooting of ISM activist Tom Hurndall in Gaza while the other was a documentary-style film on a demonstration by “Anarchists against the wall”. The film, “The killing zone”, a British (Channel4) production cast Israel in quite an unfavorable light, showing Israeli armored vehicles on patrol in Gaza facing unarmed civilians and ISM activists. During one demonstration, Tom Hurndall is shot, and the film goes on to show in graphic detail his treatment and attempts by colleagues to have transferred to Israel for treatment. The self-described “Anarchists” film showed a demonstration against the security barrier in one Arab village. While it showed strong sentiments on the part of the Arab and Israeli demonstrators, there was little actual violence and physical force portrayed in the film. However, the impression that innocent civilians were forcibly being placed behind a barrier under threat of military force was clearly shown.

Following the film, Gadi Algazi of Tel Aviv University spoke of his experiences as a member of the Arab-Jewish group “Ta’ayush”. He spoke of a “colonial war” and described, often emotionally, his involvement in working against the “fences and enclosures” being constructed.

Jessica Montell of B’Tzelem spoke of the challenges facing those involved in human rights documentation. She described the “battle for rhetorical superiority” and the importance and significance of manipulating information for political advantage. While violations exist on the Palestinian side (for example the documented use of ambulances for terror) she was emphatic in stating that this would not justify a collective punishment of all ambulances and medical personnel. Similarly, she noted cases of Israeli use of lethal force even when soldiers were not in danger.

Kobi Snitz described the “Anarchists against the wall”. While he said they the group is self-defined as “anarchists”, they refrain from using this terminology with the media, instead calling themselves “Israeli activists”. His presentation was focused on his group’s efforts to demonstrate and work against the erection of the security barrier.

Huwaida Arraf ended the conference with a passionate and sympathetic description of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). She described herself as a Palestinian growing up in America who holds Israeli citizenship (her parents are from Israeli Arab villages). She appealed to the audience to join her group and described the activities as non-violent and not being against Israel’s existence. She spoke of the Israeli violations of Oslo, including the building of settlements, and United Nations resolutions that allow “armed resistance” to an occupation. After the conference, she was asked to cite those resolutions, but she appeared not to recall them. Similarly, her interpretation of Oslo as being against settlement building is based on Oslo’s call for not engaging in any activities that would change the status quo, and not on any direct reference in the Oslo accords prohibiting settlement activity.

In audience questions, some raised the issue of why there is a lack of sympathy or awareness in many countries regarding the human rights issues raised. It appeared that many participants had difficulty in understanding why the particular orientation or worldview they represent was not universally understood. One participant asked whether or not the time has come to begin to engage in more destructive or violent activities (she stressed she meant property and not against people) against settlements. This question was put in a natural and matter-of-fact way and did not raise any audience outcry. Another participant spoke about the need to “politicize” humanitarian activities and to use them “in a subversive way”.

The sense that one got from attending the conference was that for many, the issue of human rights is secondary to the political agenda, and that humanitarian issues are simply used to express that political agenda. For these participants, if the political problem or issues were to be addressed, the humanitarian aspect of the conflict would be left alone, without much interest in human rights in and of itself.

Some of the participants acknowledged that they were being deliberately provocative, with some of them expressing views clearly outside of the mainstream of most Israeli thinking.

As far as the attendees present, they appeared to be for the most part either non-Israelis or Israelis representing far left viewpoints. Few objections during the conference were raised to any of the ideas presented, with a “preaching to the choir” attitude seemingly present.

You can view the conference at: http://www.vanleer.org.il/conf/0404_humanitarian/e_Main.htm