Palestine: Imagination nation

November 10th, 2008 | Posted in Boycott, Palestine

    Montreal Mirror, by Christopher Hazou.

Photo: Israeli soldier holds Palestinian IDs at checkpoint in the occupied West Bank.

During this year’s U.S. presidential election campaign, there was almost no mention made of Israel and the Palestinians by either of the major candidates. That is, until the waning days of the race, when John McCain made a last-ditch attempt to cast aspersions upon Barack Obama by highlighting a connection to respected Palestinian-American academic and Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi. “It was shameful for them to try and paint Professor Khalidi as anything but an esteemed scholar and academic,” says lawyer and Palestinian-American activist Noura Erakat. “It was reprehensible.”

Erakat, a former national grassroots organizer and legal advocate for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, is all too familiar with the right-wing spin machine. In 2006, she appeared on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor, in spite of warnings from colleagues. Luckily, infamous loudmouth Bill O’Reilly was on his best behaviour. “Everyone was telling me that he would be horrible, but it was much more pleasant than I expected,” she says, describing the opportunity to reach millions of American viewers as “really gratifying.”

“But,” she adds, “they’ve invited me back several times, and every time it was to discuss some fringe element of the Muslim community, so I’ve refused.”

Erakat will be in town this week to take part in a conference, “Human Rights Law and Palestine/Israel: Exploring the Apartheid Paradigm,” along with McGill law student and activist Dina Awad.

Over the past few years, comparisons between Apartheid-era South Africa and Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians have become increasingly common, both inside Israel and out. Figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, hero of the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter have drawn the analogy. Even outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has warned that a continuation of the status quo will lead to a South-African-style civil rights drive by Palestinians.

“One of the most important parallels is the distinction of one group over another,” says Erakat, looking beyond the obvious racial, ethnic and religious divides. “In South Africa, you had the pass system; in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, you have checkpoints and identity cards that distinguish who can move about and who can’t.”

Despite her strong criticism of Israel, Erakat says that the greatest threat to the Palestinian cause comes from internal divisions, made manifest in the political split between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. “We’re very much in disarray, it’s horrible. It means that our movement is paralyzed, and we won’t move forward without it coming back together.”

With the U.S. presidential election wrapped, many Americans are hoping for dramatic change, especially in the case of an Obama victory. Erakat, however, doesn’t believe an Obama administration would be much of an improvement for Palestinians. “I don’t think it will make a difference in terms of the application of foreign policy,” she says. “But it will make a difference in our American imagination of what the Middle East is. After eight years of the Bush administration, Americans have this perception that the Middle East is uncivilized and filled with terrorists who have nothing else to do but plot to bomb American monuments.

“I think Obama will at least bring a more nuanced conception, but Palestinians aren’t going to get any better treatment. It’s still going to be pretty bad.”

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