By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
For longtime activists, recognizing how much discursive ground has been lost in recent years is profoundly demoralizing. "I feel like we've taken so many steps backwards," said Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz after a meeting last Sunday in which she and half a dozen other Jewish feminists, all anti-occupation veterans of 10 to 20 years, planned a midtown vigil in solidarity with a Jerusalem rally organized by Israel's Women in Black for December 28. "True, some things are better. It used to be you couldn't even say 'Palestine,' " Kaye/Kantrowitz explained. "But now we have to correct the almost universally held but completely wrong idea that Israel offered peace and the Palestinians answered with violence."
A little more than a decade ago, as the first intifada brought the occupation into American living rooms with TV coverage of Israel's bone-crushing response to a mostly nonviolent popular uprising, at least some of the public understood who was the occupier and what that meant, and a movement to link aid to human rights compliance began to take shape. The taboo on questioning Israel's foreign-aid entitlement was even broken on the floor of Congress in 1990, when Wisconsin Democrat David Obey suggested future budgets reduce aid to Israel by the amount that country spends to build or expand settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Two months later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, setting off the Persian Gulf War and foreclosing any statementsmuch less actionsthat might have made America's Middle East ally fear abandonment. Soon after, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat signed the Oslo accords at the White House, heartening all who hadn't bothered to actually read the agreement or look at a map with the hallucination that the occupation was ending and peace was at hand. Congressional criticism, as well as grassroots activism, faded away. But the occupation did not. And despite Representative Obey's suggestionand worse, despite the Oslo agreementIsrael rapidly expanded settlements, doubling their population in the years since the accords were signed.
Palestinians' lives got worse: Israel continued to demolish homes; Jewish-only bypass roads connecting settlements to Israel increasingly chopped up the West Bank, dividing Palestinian communities into disconnected Bantustans; Israel retained control of water and other resources and continued to confiscate Palestinian land. And it certainly didn't help that corrupt officials in Arafat's Palestinian Authority pocketed funds meant for economic development. Americans hadn't paid much attention, so when the Al Aqsa Intifada erupted, it was easy enough for them to buy the Israeli version of what had gone wrong: the Palestinians simply didn't want peace.
"We had done a good job during the first intifada of showing the occupation," says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies who specializes in the Middle East. "But our mistake was in not continuing to talk about human rights violations as an ongoing reality of a repressive, spirit-killing, military occupation. It seemed as though if guns weren't being fired, then things must have been fine. But you don't have to fire a gun to control someone, you only have to have it. That's why if you hold up a store by aiming a gun at the cashier, you've committed armed robbery, even if you never pulled the trigger. Israel was still holding the gun, but we had stopped pointing at it."
Now that the guns are blazing again and the wider war rages nearby, threatening to expand ever more explosively, Israel-Palestine activists feel both that their efforts are more urgent and more inadequate. Despite last week's declaration of a ceasefire by Hamas, nobody expects a miracle. Though "not an optimist in the short run," Ali Abunimah remains convinced that "a broad-based movement against the occupation and in favor of a just peace, based on equality and ending domination," can succeed. "People forget that there was a strong business lobby in this country for South Africa during apartheid and that American policy was turned around entirely due to public pressure," he says. "There are precedents."