Saturday, February 21, 2009

Activist San Diego Shows “Occupation 101”

Speakers Accompany Film on Israel’s Oppression of Palestinians


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“Most of the rest of the world is concerned about Palestine, and especially the atrocities in Gaza in the recent weeks,” said Martin Eder, founder of Activist San Diego (ASD), at the start of its February 16 program at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest. “Most of us could not imagine having to eke out a living denied services, education and medicine. Those of us in the U.S. who have an awareness of Palestine must do something because there is no country closer to the center of power than the U.S.”

ASD’s February 16 program consisted of the film Occupation 101, a powerful documentary by Abdallah and Sufyan Omeish telling the story of the formation of Israel and its occupation of historic Palestine from a pro-Palestinian point of view; and two resource people fielding audience questions. Edgar Hopida (pictured), public relations director of the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), offered further background on the Israel-Palestine conflict, while Ed Sweed of the San Diego-based Alternate Focus public-access cable TV show described his efforts to use alternative media to present a different point of view on the conflict from the relentlessly pro-Israel one presented by American corporate media.

One point Hopida made is that not all American Jews monolithically line up in support of Israel against the Palestinians — it’s just that the ones who do support Israel 100 percent have far more power and clout in getting their views out. “You have members of the American Jewish elite, including Alan Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel and Natalie Portman, who are very pro-Israel,” he said. “Then you have people like Michael Lerner, Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky who are trying to move to a real solution. But the Jews on the far Right have all the political power on that issue.”

Hopida emphasized the point by telling how he’d lobbied generally progressive U.S. Congressmember Bob Filner on an Israel-related issue. “Congressmember Filner told me, ‘I hate AIPAC [the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the major pro-Israel lobby in the U.S.], but when I voted against two of their resolutions, I lost $200,000 in contributions.’” Hopida added that all the freshman Congressmembers elected in 2008 have so far “voted in lock-step with Israel.” One of the people interviewed in the film Occupation 101 was former U.S. Congressmember Paul Findley, who after losing his seat to an AIPAC-backed candidate wrote a book called They Dared to Speak Out about the fate of fellow elected officials who ran afoul of the so-called “Israel lobby.”

Among the ironies of the situation is that, according to Hopida as well as other people interviewed in Occupation 101, the Israel lobby has such tight control over the U.S. corporate media that the Israeli media actually are more free to criticize the conduct of Israel’s government and its occupation of Palestine than mainstream media outlets in the U.S. Writers in Israel’s respected daily newspaper Ha’aretz, including Gideon Levy and Amira Hass (Hass is interviewed in Occupation 101), have often written sympathetic stories about the plight of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation — while virtually all U.S. media coverage presents the Israelis as a besieged people heroically defending their land and the Palestinians as terrorist scum seeking to exterminate them.

“The U.S. media are a waste of time,” Hopida said. “Ha’aretz is more honest about the issue than anyone else.” Hopida noted the plethora of pro-Israel books on the U.S. market by writers like Dershowitz, Abraham Foxman, Beny Morris (an Israeli historian who moved from a liberal to a far-Right position on the Israel-Palestine conflict) and Dennis Ross (a former U.S. negotiator whose first-person account of the Camp David negotiations during the Clinton administration has been contradicted by other people who were there). There are more objective books out there, Hopida said, including the works of Norman Finkelstein — a Jewish-American professor who has been denied tenure at two universities thanks largely to Dershowitz’ lobbying against him — plus Defending the Holy Land by Zeev Moaz (an Israeli author who concluded that “out of all the wars Israel has fought, only two were defensive”) and Land Grab, a 2002 report by the Israeli Human Rights Commission that concluded that the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and (until 2005) in Gaza were built as part of a deliberate strategy to annex the occupied lands and drive the Palestinians out.

Occupation 101 is certainly unabashedly pro-Palestinian in its view of the conflict. It starts with a montage, presented in music-video style to a driving hard-rock soundtrack, of various oppressive occupations in 20th century history, including the British in India and the apartheid regime of South Africa, before finally ending up in historic Palestine detailing the rise of Zionism and the dramatic increase in Jewish emigration to the Holy Land in the first half of the 20th century. The rise of Adolf Hitler to power in Germany and the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews turned the trickle of Jewish refugees in Palestine to a flood, boosting them from 3 percent of the region’s population in 1900 to 31 percent in 1945.

The film also claims that Israelis were mounting sporadic massacres of Palestinians at least since 1949, one year after Israel was officially founded, and goes on to review the history of the occupation: how Israel drove Palestinians out of 78 percent of historic Palestine in 1948 and conquered the rest in 1967 from the surrounding Arab states — Egypt, Syria and Jordan — that had annexed it. Through animated maps the film showed the extent of Israeli control over the West Bank, which today consists of a few isolated Palestinian villages separated from each other by wide “access roads” on which Palestinians are forbidden, and further isolated by moving checkpoints.

According to the film, most Palestinians today live either in refugee camps — many of which were founded in 1948 and still exist even though they were supposed to be “temporary” — or in these isolated villages, surrounded by Israeli military forces that stop their movements and sometimes shoot them or raid their homes without explanation. One of Israel’s favorite weapons in the war, the film claims, is the bulldozer; Israel invented the armored bulldozer in the 1960’s and first used it as a military weapon in the 1967 war. Now its main function is to tear down the homes and farms of Palestinians in order to clear a neighborhood for Israeli settlers.

One rarely examined part of the issue the film treats in detail is the suffering of Palestinian Christians. The film claims that Israeli authorities make no distinction between Christian and Muslim Palestinians, treating both of them as part of a mass “enemy.” Though the filmmakers don’t make the connection explicitly, this depiction of Palestinian Christians ironically contrasts to the 100 percent pro-Israel stand of the evangelical Christian movement in the U.S., mainly driven by so-called “End Times” ministers who preach that the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation is at hand and one of the preconditions for the Second Coming of Christ is that historic Palestine become completely Jewish. The fact that these prophecies also provide that at the actual “End of Days” Jews shall be offered the instant choice to convert to Christianity or go to hell for all eternity doesn’t dissuade Israel’s Right from enthusiastically accepting the support of evangelical Christians for their plans to settle in the occupied territories and either drive the Palestinians out altogether or force them to accept permanent second-class status.

Responding to an audience member who faulted the film for starting out as an attack on Zionism but ending as merely a critique of the occupation, Hopida said, “We deal with the concrete issues. We deal with the occupation.” He pointed to 23-year-old American activist Rachel Corrie, who was run down and killed by an Israeli military bulldozer in 2003 while protesting a house demolition — she’s profiled in the film as well as being the focus of a previous documentary, Rachel: An American Conscience — and noted that she had never used the term “Zionist.” Hopida admitted that his own preference would be for a “one-state solution” — the replacement of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority with a secular, democratic state encompassing all of historic Palestine — but added, “It won’t happen in my lifetime or in my children’s lifetime. It would require the total dismantlement of the Israeli government.”

“We haven’t addressed the whole problem of media propaganda,” said Activist San Diego member Tanja Winter. “AIPAC’s propaganda is no different from the neoconservative propaganda that is keeping us in the dark about all issues. When you’ve been oppressed, as the Jews have been, you can either become oppressors yourselves or you can become more sympathetic.”

Asked about the feasibility of boycotting Israel-made products — along the lines of the anti-South Africa boycott and divestment campaigns that helped end apartheid — Hopida said, “We’re working on trying to do a divestment movement and mobilize locally. We’re targeting Arab and Muslim stores that sell Israeli products. As far as mobilization is concerned, we’re sanitized by the media. I’ve sent five or six op-eds to the San Diego Union-Tribune and one was accepted — and I had an argument with the editor over it.”