Interview with Jonas Iversen, deputy leader of the Norwegian Palestine Committee /k.6t
Editor In Chief of The Oslo Times Hatef Mokhtar in Interview with Jonas Iversen, deputy leader of the Norwegian Palestine Committee
1) As a representative of the ‘Palestine Committee of Norway’, what do you see as the main causes to the Israel-Palestine conflict?
– It is important to see the current situation as a continuation of a history of settler colonialism. The idea of creating a Jewish state in historical Palestine has its roots in European colonialism and its particular ideology, Zionism. For the Zionists, a Jewish state meant (and still means) a state where the overwhelming majority of the population are Jews, ethnically defined. Such a goal demanded from the outset a large immigration of Jews to Palestine – and preferably a decrease in the number of non-Jews.
– The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe led to a large increase of Jewish immigration. In 1920 there was about 60,000 Jews in Palestine, while in 1946 the number had increased to about 600,000, which was about one-third of the total population. This large influx of foreigners, who at the same time claimed ownership to the land, naturally created a conflict with the Native inhabitants; the Palestinians, a very few of them Jewish. So when the British announced in 1947 that they would end their control over Palestine, the following power vacuum provided the Zionist movement with the opportunity to pursue their plan more drastically. When the conflict escalated, the Zionist movement used that occasion, not only to establish their state, but to get rid of as many Palestinians as possible. This was done by violent means – threats, expulsion and massacres. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine aimed to destroy the Palestinian society as such. About 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes, which was about half of the Palestinian population. The 1948 War is called ‘the Nakba’ by the Palestinians, meaning ‘the Catastrophe’.
– There were dozens of large scale massacres during the Nakba. This brutal part of Israeli and Palestinian history is not acknowledged by the Israelis, at least not publicly. In fact, it is illegal in Israel to mark the Nakba Day (May 15), which is the same day as the Israeli national day.
– Since 1948 the conflict has been about Palestinians fighting for their right to statehood and to return to their homes. Israel has at the same time been expanding on their Zionist project while becoming one of the largest military powers in the world, making the conflict ever more asymmetrical. So if the word “conflict” gives a sense of power parity between the two sides, we should call it something else – occupation, apartheid, colonization. In 1967 Israel occupied what was left of historical Palestine: East-Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
2) You have now described the causes of the conflict, but what about solutions?
– Any solution must entail an end to the Israeli occupation. And any reconciliation process must entail some recognition by Israel about the injustice it has inflicted upon the Palestinians through its history, particularly through its establishment in 1948.
– As to the details – one state or two states and so on – that is up to the Palestinians and Israelis to decide when the occupation is ended. Today the Palestinians are by far the weaker part in such a negotiation. Therefore, the role of third parties (Norway, USA, EU, UN) should be to put pressure on Israel to give up its Zionist colonial project. Since Western governments have been reluctant to provide such needed pressure, the role of NGOs and grassroot initiatives are particularly important in this case. This is the major lesson learned from fighting apartheid in South Africa; international grassroot movement first, then governments tag along when the pressure is too strong to avoid it.
– An important global grassroot movement in the Palestinian case is the BDS-campaign (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions). It was initiated in 2005 by 171 Palestinian NGOs. The BDS initiative called for these nonviolent forms of pressure on Israel “until it meets its obligations under international law”. The Palestine Committee in Norway supports and participates in this BDS-movement. One aspect of the BDS is to boycott Israel’s academic and cultural institutions. This is often criticized with the argument that it is incompatible with dialogue. But it is increasingly being recognized that such institutional boycott is necessary, and that it may even facilitate forms of relevant dialogue, meaning political dialogue. Among academics and artists who have boycotted Israel are Stephan Hawking and Roger Waters, and also the Norwegian artist Moddi.
3) Israel is increasingly being compared to the South African apartheid regime. Do you support making such a comparison?
– Absolutely. Israel is designing and managing an apartheid system where the Palestinians are increasingly losing their freedom. Although the Israeli and the South African apartheid systems are not identical, they share a range of similarities. The fact that prominent leaders of the South African anti-apartheid movement, such as Desmond Tutu, call Israel “an apartheid state” makes it even clearer that the Israeli system (which includes the occupied territories) should be labeled ‘apartheid’. Furthermore, rather than ‘a democracy’, Israel should be called ‘an ethnocracy’;a political regime which, in contrast to democracies, is instituted on the basis of qualified rights to citizenship based on ethnicity. Israeli Arabs are downgraded to the status of second-class citizens. Thus, Israel is a democracy for Jews only. An ethnocracy is alsocharacterizedbysystematic discrimination and repression of an ethnic group by the state. This has been the situation for the Palestinians ever since 1948.
4) Chile has recently ceased all its trade relations with Israel as a sign of support to the Palestinian cause and against the oppression carried out by Israel. What is your organization’s view on Chile’s new policies?
– Chile has suspended Free Trade Agreement negotiations with Israel, and is considering withdrawal of its ambassador from Tel Aviv. The Palestine Committee in Norway support Chile’s new policies to break with Israel. We urge other states to do the same. Not only do we have a moral obligation to put sufficient pressure on Israel to dismantle its apartheid system and end its occupation. We also have a legal obligation since Israel has been violating several UN resolutions and numerous rules of international law. One example is the ruling of the International Court of Justice on the so-called ‘Separation Wall’. The wall was concluded to be illegal. That was ten years ago. Since then, Western states have expanded trade and cooperation with Israel instead of pressuring Israel to follow the rules. This includes Norwegian relations with Israel. The Palestine Committee calls for the end of Israel’s crimes and impunity, and also Norwegian and Western complicity in it.
– There are some reasons for hope as far as European pressure on Israel is concerned. 17 European countries have recently decided to warn companies against doing business with Israeli settlements – meaning the illegal Israeli settler colonies in the West Bank. The biggest political party in Norway, the Labour Party, has also taken such a stand. The work of the BDS-movement may have played an important role in this shift in European policies.
5) It has been noted in the current ongoing offensive in Gaza that Israeli soldiers are largely targeting civilians, including children. Israel and the US are blaming Hamas for the large number of civilians killed. What stand does your organization take on Israel’s responsibility in this case?
– Israel is the occupier and the aggressor, and is therefore responsible. The Palestinians have the right to defend themselves. They also have the right to fight against their oppressor since they are under occupation. This is pretty straight forward in international law. Of course there are rules on how to fight for your freedom. So to the extent that rockets from Gaza hit Israeli civilians, such acts should be condemned because it is an illegal form of resistance. However, the only way to avoid hypocrisy while condemning Hamas for illegal activities, is to put the context back in and acknowledge that the grand perpetrator in this situation is Israel. The context for Palestinian resistance is Israel’s occupation, colonization and apartheid system, as well as direct violence and daily humiliation against the Palestinians.
6) But what about Israel’s right to self-defense?
– One of the main principles of international law is that sovereign states have the right of self-defense against an armed attack. Given that Israel is the occupier and the aggressor in this case, the issue of self-defense is somewhat distorted. Israel, even as an occupying power, has the right to take defensive measures to protect its citizens. However, such defensive measures cannot take the form of warfare, nor can it be justified as self-defense in international law.
– In addition to these restrictions as an occupying power, international law is also very clear about the rules of the use of force; that it should be used as a last resort, when other means have unsuccessfully been tried out. If security from Palestinian resistance is the true concern of the state of Israel, then to end the occupation is the obvious and rational way to respond.
– As an occupying power, Israel has also a particular responsibility to protect the population it occupies. It is thus Israel who has the responsibility for the security of the Palestinians until the end of the occupation. Some say Gaza is not occupied anymore, only blocked. But the EU, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International all define the blockade as a form of occupation. So until Gaza is free, Israel has not only limited rights to the use of force, but also a particular obligation to provide security for the Palestinians. Remember, no matter how guilty Hamas might be of committing crimes by shooting rockets into Israel, the children of Gaza are not!
7) There are many Israeli Jews that are also carrying peaceful demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza and the Palestinian people. What is your view on this growing support?
– 50 former Israeli soldiers refused to serve in Israel’s reserve force just a couple of weeks ago. That is one example of protests against the Israeli policies coming from within Israel. Resistance from Israeli Jews is very important. They are the ones that will show Israel the way forward towards peace, reconciliation and co-existence. Outside-pressure on Israel without such internal forces leads nowhere.
– The Palestine Committee in Norway supports and cooperates with Israelis who advocate boycott of Israel. Just advocating such boycott in Israel – even of products produced in the occupied West Bank – has been made illegal by the Israeli state. This indicates that the Israeli apartheid regime fears such grassroot initiatives like consumer boycotts.
– Support from Jews is also important because it could help to make some people outside Israel see that being critical to Israel or being anti-Zionist, is not the same as being anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. Some people, both critics and supporters, seem to have difficulty with this distinction. Israel arguably makes this distinction even more unclear for some by portraying itself as a Jewish state, by treating all Jews in the world as citizens of Israel, and by calling critics of Israel for anti-Semites. This creates a problem for innocent Jews who are held responsible for Israel’s crimes. It is also hurtful to the Palestinian cause which is more easily seen as anti-Semitic and therefore illegitimate.
8) Do you consider Israel a racist state and Zionism a racist ideology?
– There is plenty of racism within the Israeli society against Arabs in general, and Palestinian Arabs in particular. This has been recently shown through comments in the social media during the ongoing Israeli invasion of Gaza. Particularly alarming are certain labels used about Palestinians, such as beasts, cockroaches, bacteria and snakes. Such dehumanization is far too familiar within genocide studies to be taken lightly. Even more frightening is it when such racism is articulated by Israeli parliamentarians.
– Since Israel organizes itself and the occupied territories as an ethnocracy with an apartheid system, it should be considered a racist state – a form of institutional racism.
– In 1975 the UN General Assembly voted in favor of defining Zionism as a form of racism. This resolution was revoked in 1991 due to Israeli conditions for participating in the Madrid Peace Conference. Zionism basically says that non-Jews are not welcome to be fully part of the Israeli society. Zionism as an ideology is not up-front racist like Nazism, which points to a particular group of people (Jews) as the enemy and worthy of destruction. However, given the Zionist goal, its implications are pointing to Palestinians as being an obstacle. This facilitates racism, oppression, and violence against the Palestinians. Zionism can therefore be seen as instrumentally racist or indirectly racist.
– The Palestine Committee in Norway of course rejects all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and Zionism.
9)You have mentioned the Nakba and the 1948 War. This occurred just a few years after the Second World War and the Holocaust. What is the connection between the Holocaust, the Nakba and the current Israel/Palestine conflict?
– That is a big and difficult question. I did touch upon it when I outlined the causes of the conflict. I mentioned how anti-Semitism in Europe made such a high rate of Jewish immigration into Palestine possible. Both before and after the Second World War, Norway and other European states were unwilling to receive Jewish refugees. Israel became the only alternative for many of them. In short, the high level of migration to Palestine together with Zionist ideas created the 1948 Nakba. The Nakba created a new reality in Palestine with the Zionists in Israel as the oppressor, which is still the current situation.
– The trauma of anti-Semitism in Europe created a sense of collective vulnerability in the Jewish community in Palestine. According to my own master thesis, such emotions arguably facilitated atrocities during the ethnic cleansing operations in 1948.
– The Holocaust has also been used by Israel to justify a lot of their crimes and to gain support for the state, although the majority of European Jews did not support the Zionist project. The Holocaust was a European crime. The Palestinians had nothing to do with it, and yet they suffer the consequences.
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