Posted on April 18, 1994 in Washington Watch
Last week Jesse Jackson and I went to Jerusalem to address an international conference sponsored by Hebron University. Jackson was to be the banquet speaker and I was to deliver the luncheon address at the event commemorating the 30th anniversary of the PLO.
Entitled “Promoting Peace through Understanding,” the conference sought to bring together 200 Palestinian leaders from throughout the West Bank and Gaza to both evaluate the history of their struggle as well as to plan for their future in light of the September 13th signing of the Declaration of Principles.
As a result of actions by the Israeli authorities, however, we were not able to proceed as planned. Instead of focusing on the future, we were forced to deal directly with the brutal present of an apparently unyielding occupation. But even in this there were important lessons to be learned that can provide direction to the continuing movement toward a just and lasting peace.
The goal of the conference was clear: an academic conference sponsored by a university and supported by the PLO to establish a Palestinian dialogue for peace. Of course, we assumed the Israelis would not only allow, but might even encourage and protect such an event. But when the Israeli right wing attacked the event and accused Rabin of surrendering Jerusalem to the PLO (because the conference was to take place in Jerusalem), the Israeli government responded by ordering the conference to be closed only one day prior to its announced opening.
Permits for travel were denied to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who planned to attend the conference, making it impossible for them to come to Jerusalem. The management of the hotel that was to be the site of the conference was forced to sign an agreement forbidding the event to take place on their premises under threat of personal arrest and closure of the establishment.
Citing the authority of the British Emergency Regulation of 1945, the Military Governor ordered the Hotel “to shut down each and every hall or conference room that serves or could serve for the purpose of the meeting as well as any building or courtyard in the area of the Hotel where such a gathering could be held.” And on the morning of the opening of the conference, Israeli military personnel set up roadblocks on the roads around the hotel, closing it off to all traffic.
Although we failed to convince the Israeli courts to overturn the order, we resolved to proceed with the conference despite the threats. We further decided that we would peacefully challenge their attempt to prevent the conference from convening.
At 9:00 a.m. – the time the conference was supposed to begin – we assembled on the steps of the Ambassador Hotel, which was the site where the PLO had been announced 30 years ago. We were forbidden from using any part of the inside of the hotel or its courtyard, so we met in the only possible place: on the front steps. There, on the steps, we convened the conference.
Then, led by Jesse Jackson, we marched arm in arm for 5 blocks, through Israeli military roadblocks, to convene the conference at Orient House, which serves as the unofficial Palestinian Guest House in Jerusalem.
Because we asserted our right to convene, because we peacefully marched, and because we had strong international support (including Jesse Jackson, from the U.S., and Ambassador Eric Rouleau of France, representatives of the United Nations and officials of other foreign consulates in East Jerusalem), we succeeded. We marched non-violently through the streets of Jerusalem, and the Israeli soldiers who were watching us were bewildered, and unable to stop us (even though the Military Governor had declared that any gathering of five or more people was to be broken up).
Later that night in discussions with Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, Jackson succeeded in negotiating an agreement which would allow the conference banquet to take place back at the Ambassador Hotel.
Peres simply wanted assurances that the speakers at the banquet would be in support of the peace process and would not be confrontational. While it was difficult to agree to any restrictions on free speech, it seemed important to grasp the victory that would allow the conference organizers to return to the original venue of the conference, at least for its closing banquet.
The Israelis remained obstinate in refusing any permits to allow Palestinians from outside Jerusalem to attend to the banquet. Undeterred, the conference organizers worked through the day, mobilizing those who could come to actually go to the hotel. By that evening a sizable number of Palestinian leaders from the city were at the Hotel for the function.
Yet one hour before the banquet was to begin, the Israeli military once again set up their roadblocks around the hotel, and several Shin Bet officers came into the hotel with new orders. They told me that the new orders forbade anyone but Jesse Jackson from speaking at the banquet. Further, the officers stated that they were to be present inside the banquet hall to insure that their orders were followed.
I argued that this order violated our agreement with the Foreign Minister. The officers replied that their new order came from Prime Minister Rabin’s office, and that they were only following orders. I reminded them that that argument had been used by others in the past with tragic consequences. Their presence at the banquet, I told them, would not secure peace, it would only produce anger.
I urged them to leave and not return. They did leave, and after we had further communications with the Foreign Ministry, the Shin Bet agents did not return.
At the banquet Jesse Jackson delivered a powerful speech. His experiences during the days leading up to the conference led him to conclude that, despite the fact that “We are here at an historic moment with peace accords opening new possibilities…the occupation continues and the daily indignities, the fear and the pain continue.”
There were, he noted, “several dimensions of this occupation that are rare in the world today. The police surrounding the hotel, arresting guests, the press having to clear stories through the military censor.” All of these Jackson decried as “provocative acts of humiliation.”
Reverend Jackson went further, noting that he was keenly aware that more than 10,000 Palestinians were still in jail, land was still being expropriated, more Palestinians were killed after the massacre than during the massacre, and the closure of Jerusalem was causing severe unemployment and a health care crisis.
He understood Palestinian pain because, as he put it “I grew up on the West Bank of America,” where he, too lived with oppression and the denial of basic rights and human dignity.
But despite the fact that some behaved as if no changes had occurred, and others remained cynical about whether any real changes could occur, Jackson countered with his strong belief that real change was in fact occurring. He said,
“Thirty years ago, it was said that you were not a people, that you deserved no land, no power to share, no security, no self-determination, no homeland. After thirty years, fundamental shifts have occurred, codified in the Declaration of Principles. A shift from a no-talk policy to a let-us-talk policy. From disregard to mutual recognition. ...The peace and freedom tree has been planted. It must be allowed to sprout and grow. A new vision must emerge…as you shift from the defense of survival of war to the offense of development of hope. For most who have been immersed in the struggle for all of our lives, this is a sea change in preparation—from war preparation to peace preparation. We must learn a new, different, and necessary lesson—to build and expand on the space that exists, to learn to move from mutual recognition to self-determination in actuality, on the ground.
“Peace is not a gift. It is a struggle. In many ways it is a more difficult struggle than war. It must be built day by day and brick by brick. If it is not nurtured, its possibilities can only be a vision which will wither and die.
”...Surely for all of the possibility, it is the reality that Israeli troops are leaving Gaza and Jericho as we speak, the reality that Palestinian leaders are returning, that prisoners—some but far too few—are being released, that authority is being transferred on the ground. Those are the first fragile buds, the first taste of the fruits of peace. But the taste must become a meal soon, or peace can be starved from lack of sustenance.
“The groundwork has been laid, the agreement has been signed. Let us now lay the cornerstone and begin to build the new building.
”...With the new possibility, it is vital to undertake new responsibilities – building real institutions on the ground, grasping the opportunity offered by formal recognition to gain new allies abroad and new assistance for development….
“In this process, a new strategy must be considered for the new possibility. Mass, aggressive, disciplined non-violent action, to complete the unfinished task. ...this discipline of creative non-violence has power. ...It touches the conscience of the people and the soul of the nation. It changes the rules of warfare…. The cynics and saboteurs of peace must not be allowed to alter the momentum nor divert the course.”
Following Jackson’s stirring address, the conference organizers from Hebron University and others spoke. I reminded the audience that we had succeeded in convening the conference despite the military and the Shin Bet. We had marched through military roadblocks and defied the authority that sough to silence us. In reality, our recent behavior had shown that non-violence could effectively challenge violence and oppression. And despite, or maybe because of, Israeli efforts to block our conference, it succeeded in getting world-wide press attention —probably more coverage than it would have received had the Israeli military left the event alone.
In many ways, we have all learned that September 13th was not an end point but a beginning. So, too, when an agreement is finally signed to implement the Declaration of Principles it will be merely another beginning in the continuing struggle for full Palestinian rights.
At every stage in the process there will be critics and saboteurs who will object and criticize—and who will lack the vision to build, to challenge and to make changes. What is required is a new strategy, one that energizes the Palestinian population and world-wide support to expand the peace process and to expand Palestinian rights.
In confronting a military force, the most effective weapon is the moral force of disciplined, non-violent political organizing. It can be used to effectively challenge the occupation and closure of East Jerusalem, the settlements, and to secure Palestinian rights in all their forms.
In a real sense, then, our conference was a success. We accomplished most of what we set out to accomplish. The world saw clearly that the occupation and closure of East Jerusalem continues, and we collectively learned what we set out to learn: how to adapt to the new period, and to build peace, real peace, through organizing and understanding.
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