Concerned for Palestinian Rights and Voting No Divest

As expected, the two groups are talking past each other.

The materials from the Princeton Divests campaign appear to focus on the immediacy of rights violations in the Palestinian territories, while the No Divest campaign materials address the prospect of a permanent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These constitute two very different philosophical approaches to the situation in the Palestinian territories.

As a liberal, I am inclined to take seriously restrictions on individual liberty and rights, and am frustrated with a peace process that has seen little to realize the protection of these rights. As a student of history, and an avid reader on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am convinced that these rights will not be secured until a Palestinian state is born out of a diplomatic agreement between the parties, with the support of their respective constituents.

Either way, as a zionist Jew and as a citizen of the world (and as someone who has visited and spoken with people in Israel, East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron, and Bethlehem), I care deeply about Palestinians, Israelis, and their intertwined national destinies.

My concern has led me to think that the following is true: divestment is problematic even from an exclusive focus on the human rights of Palestinians and the moral culpability in the military occupation.

The Effect of Divestment’s Goals

The divestment referendum seeks unilateral action from Israel to end the military occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza in order to “facilitate the end of the oppression of the Palestinian people.” Even if you prioritize the improvement of the individual rights situation of the Palestinians over a just, secure resolution to the conflict, divestment works against this goal. For, if divestment were successful in its aims, and Israel were pressured to dismantle the military occupation absent of a negotiated settlement arrived through diplomacy (which would necessarily include compromises from the Palestinians as well, most crucially demilitarization), the Palestinians would bear the brunt of the negative consequences. And if “successful” divestment worsens the current human situation in addition to detracting from future negotiations, then it is immoral to support.

In the aftermath of this past summer’s Gaza war, Palestinian pollsters have found that Hamas — identified as a terrorist organization by the United States, UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, among other nations, a group responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians in terrorist attacks in major population centers during the second Intifada — would receive about double the votes that Fatah, the more moderate Palestinian political party would in a presidential election, winning in a landslide, as reported by Al Jazeera and other media stations. Outside of a major diplomatic win by Fatah, by arriving at a negotiated resolution to the conflict with Israel, this is unlikely to change.

For those interested in promoting both human rights and national political rights, the inevitability of Hamas’s rise to power presents a dilemma. Outside of a negotiated settlement with Israel that includes economic and civil infrastructure coordination to strengthen Palestine’s stability, the viability of Palestinian self-determination looks faint. And while Hamas’s rule would likely come out of an election, and we would like to encourage Palestinian political autonomy, Hamas’s restrictions on political speech and harassment of the opposition (such as house arrests and shootings of Fatah supporters) does little to assure that this right to vote would be exercised more than once. Since Hamas rule does not ensure any great gains in political rights and state stability, we should instead focus on the effects on other Palestinian liberties.

We look no further than Gaza today to see Hamas’s record on civil rights to imagine the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank under Hamas: according to one of the world’s foremost human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch, Hamas security services “routinely…deny detainees access to a lawyer and torture detainees in custody,” given “credible evidence of widespread and gross violations of due process as well as systematic ill-treatment and torture.” One might assume Hamas currently militarily occupies Gaza, as “security officers commonly arrest civilians and present them before Gaza’s military judiciary,” which is illegal under international law, and also perform public executions (sometimes of suspected collaborators with Israel); “No one is known to have been punished … for the arbitrary detentions, torture and killings by Hamas of other Palestinians.”

The Hamas Land Authority demolished (without warning according to the residents) the houses of over 150 Palestinian families in July 2012; some families remained in tents until the government agency returned to destroy those temporary structures, too.

Freedom of religion and expression are heavily restricted by Hamas in the formerly rather secular Gaza strip; arbitrary activities are prohibited as in the initial ban on women’s Hookah smoking, oppressive religious strictures are enforced through dress patrol on the beach, the criminalization of gay sex, the checking of relationship status of couples in public, and restrictive women’s dress code at Gaza’s public university (which invoked harsh criticism from Palestinian officials in the West Bank), among other examples. Political speech and freedom of the press is curbed, with certain newspapers banned, journalists and academics summarily arrested. Gaza city shut down the English language club due to the impropriety of co-education.

Again, political autonomy is a national right. But is it worth achieving on the back of further restrictions of individual liberties and rights of minorities with unclear assurances of future political self-determination, when formal negotiations with Israel could achieve more for Palestinians? Even given that, of the 4.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, between 4.37–4.38 million already live under Palestinian civil control, and have not voted in national elections since 2006 because of the Fatah-Hamas conflict, not because of Israeli restrictions? Perhaps such a bargain would still be worthwhile if combined with freedom of movement and security for Palestinians. But the opposite is almost guaranteed to occur in the absence of a negotiated settlement.

Given the centrality of violent resistance in its political ideology, Hamas is unlikely to shed its program of armed struggle (which, so far, has mostly manifested in the targeting of civilians) against Israel once it gains control of the West Bank. As of this past summer, more than two-thirds of Palestinians want to bring Hamas’s resistance tactics to the West Bank. Political autonomy is unlikely to reduce attacks — in the year following Israel’s removal of every last soldier from Gaza and the year before the blockade, 946 rocket strikes against Israel were recorded, and Hamas-run Gaza has been a hotbed of militant activity ever since, prioritizing attack tunnel-building and rocket manufacturing over state building. There will likely be popular support for the continued struggle after the end of the military occupation, given the following beliefs of Palestinians in the Palestinian territories, as surveyed by a leading Palestinian pollster in June 2014:

But now, a clear majority (60% overall, including 55% in the West Bank and 68% in Gaza) say that the five-year goal “should be to work toward reclaiming all of historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.”
On this key question, just 31% of West Bankers and 22% of Gazans would opt instead “to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to achieve a two-state solution.” And even fewer, contrary to other recent findings, pick a “one-state solution,” in which “Arabs and Jews will have equal rights in one country, from the river to the sea.” That is the preferred option of a mere 11% in the West Bank and 8% in Gaza.”
This pattern is confirmed by other questions in the survey. For example, just one-third said that a two-state solution “should be the end of the conflict.” Nearly two-thirds said “resistance should continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated.” And only a third said that “it might be necessary to give up some of our claims so that our people and our children can have a better life.
Similarly, only a third said that a two-state solution would be their leadership’s final goal. Instead, almost two-thirds said it would be “part of a ‘program of stages,’ to liberate all of historic Palestine later.”

These findings align with the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research’s findings that 71% of Palestinians oppose a demilitarized Palestinian state with a strong security force and multinational security force.

Obviously, divesting to place pressure on the Israeli government without similarly pressuring Palestinian leaders would likely encourage continued struggle, as the divestment efforts would show that the Palestinians can proceed without compromising on their demands. A negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine would renounce violence, forfeit Palestinian aspirations for the entire land and probably also feature a compromise on the Palestinians demand for the “right of return” to live in Israel. But unilateral action to end the occupation by Israel would not, ensuring the armed struggle for these goals continue.

With rocket attacks from the West Bank (inevitable in the absence of a peace deal, for the reasons above), Israel will have less leeway for restraint in its defensive strikes. At its narrowest point, pre-1967 green line Israel is 9 miles wide, and rocket fire in that region could cut off northern Israel from central Israel. Israel’s major airport is less than 6 miles away from the West Bank, and with the hilly terrain of the West Bank at elevations 3,000ft above sea level, all of Israel’s major population centers can be easily targeted with amateur missiles, which could easily overwhelm a missile defense system that has to shoot down every rocket (in the case of rockets from Gaza, Iron Dome relies on most of the rockets falling in open fields). The Israeli military response would be inevitably fierce, worse than in the wars in Gaza, given the West Bank’s proximity to 70% of the Israeli population and the strategic elevation, resulting in little room for Israel to absorb hits before striking back. An Israeli siege of the West Bank is guaranteed, including troops in the Jordan valley to prevent missile materials from being smuggled in, followed by a ground invasion restricting movement within the West Bank, in order to prevent rocket-launchers from being transferred to the hilltops. Despite the ending of the occupation, the Palestinians will likely end up in a situation where movement is far more restricted than it is now.

With tight border patrol in response to the militarization of the West Bank in the absence of a peace accord, the 92,000 Palestinians who work in Israel will have to find work in their own country of Palestine, where the job market is more scarce and the wages are almost half of what Palestinian workers receive in Israel. But that job search promises to be difficult, with the current 19% unemployment rate in West Bank, which will likely rise when the 25,000 Israeli jobs in the West Bank held by Palestinians suddenly disappear without a special economic arrangement between Israel and Palestine. The abrupt unemployment of 117,000 Palestinians as a result of an end to Israeli military occupation will severely damage the fledgling Palestinian economy and force many Palestinian families to go dependent on aid. This will be especially a blow to the Palestinian people and a neglect of their collective wishes, given that, from the poll quoted above,

Over 80% said they would “definitely” or “probably” want Israel to allow more Palestinians to work there. Around half said they would personally take “a good, high-paying job” inside Israel.
Moreover, despite narrow majority support for boycotting Israel, a larger majority said they would also like Israeli firms to offer more jobs inside the West Bank and Gaza. Nearly half said they would take such a position if available. This kind of pragmatism was particularly pronounced among the younger generation of adult Palestinians, those in the 18-to-35-year-old cohort.

Some Israelis have suggested moving towards withdrawal from the West Bank, but they generally envision the retaining of large settlement blocs, military presence in the Jordan valley and other strategic areas of the West bank, not to mention East Jerusalem, which would not end the occupation without a peace accord and likely rejected as a “withdrawal” by the Palestinians. That a unilateral withdrawal would perpetuate violence is noted not just by right-wing Israeli officials, Israeli strategists, and outsider journalists, but also by Palestinian officials themselves: As President Mahmoud Abbas’s chief aide remarked,

“Israeli unilateral moves will lead to the formation of a Palestinian state in temporary borders, to which we object…This policy will lead to the conflict’s continuation and not to a solution,”

clearly also worried that such a unilateral move would weaken the Fatah (more moderate) party and empower Hamas, and Palestinians will suffer in turn, as I have argued thus far.

The Effect of Symbolic Divestment

While this is the effect of successful divestment on the rights of Palestinians — and must be considered in the evaluation as to whether divestment is moral, most likely divestment will not apply enough pressure on Israel to perform a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, given the profound danger to Israeli security.

But what can improve the lives of Palestinians right now is measures Israel can take to further respect local autonomy of Palestinian towns: reducing military incursions, ceasing settlement building outside of major settlement blocs (at the very least), reforming the martial law system, improving water/utilities coordination, and removing any existing inter-West Bank checkpoints, which can be an oppressive experience for those Palestinians who have to travel through them daily, as I have personally witnessed and as our fellow Princetonian Lina Saud has written.

But, divestment — even just symbolic divestment resolutions — is likely to strengthen right wing elements in Israeli society and prevent these reforms and other concessions. Israeli conservatives, who generally gain support by pointing to their tough-on-security stances, are apt to classify all divestment efforts as part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement targeting all of Israel, and use them as examples of the existential threats to Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu — the calculating politician who was so fearful of the left’s return in Israeli politics that he issued a racist rant to voters asking them to offset the effect of “the Arabs…coming out in droves to the polls” (and yet over 56,000 Arab Israelis voted for Bibi’s and other right-wing parties) has remarked the following, invoking the Holocaust in his fear-mongering attempts:

“Some supporters of the movement see it as a way to put pressure on Israel to end illegal settlements in the territories occupied in the 1967 war…I think the most eerie thing, the most disgraceful thing is to have people on the soil of Europe talking about the boycott of Jews…In the past, antisemites boycotted Jewish businesses and today they call for the boycott of the Jewish state. And by the way, only the Jewish state…The founders of the BDS movement make their goals perfectly clear. They want to see the end of the Jewish state. They’re quite explicit about it. And I think it’s important that the boycotters must be exposed for what they are. They’re classical antisemites in modern garb. And I think we have to fight them. It’s time to delegitimise the delegitimisers.”

Divestment easily plays into the jingoist speeches of right-wing Israeli politicians, reminding Israeli voters that Israel is imperiled by anti-semitic forces worldwide, and that Israel can only stay safe by ceasing to “apologize” to the world and rejecting concessions to the Palestinians.

As of this past Christmas, half of Israelis and 38% of Palestinians support a two-state solution (compared to 39% of Americans), and a sizable Left opposes the occupation vocally. But what is preventing more Israelis from opposing the occupation and favoring easing of restrictions on Palestinians is not economic sanctions, but the guarantee that such Israeli actions would not undermine security and are not stemming from capitulation to external (and possibly Israel-obsessed, they believe) pressure. Divestment from Israel’s military occupation infrastructure, if anything, magnifies both of those fears, and hampers Israeli public support for changes in the status quo for the lives of Palestinians. And in Israel, a robust parliamentary democracy with frequent elections that have higher voter turnout than U.S. presidential elections (71.8% in last Israeli election) public opinion matters; even a small segment of the population, through parliamentary coalition-breaking and building, can topple the ruling party and influence policy. This likely effect of divestment alone should dissuade its supporters.

Princeton and the Occupation

Israeli’s emphasis on security in discussions of restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank is not unfounded. Israelis are still scarred from the bloodbath of the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, when Palestinian suicide bombers killed over 600 Israeli civilians (Jews and Arabs alike) in Israeli cities; Israeli forces killed over 1500 Palestinian civilians (4,000 Palestinians in total) in violent clashes; Palestinian forces killed over 100 Palestinian civilians as well. It was in the context of the terrorist threat to Israeli civilians — that any café or mall could be the next site of rubble and seared flesh, due to terrorists largely from the West Bank — that Israel built the separation fence and limited Palestinian freedom of movement in the West Bank with inter-city checkpoints.

Obviously, the context of security does not immediately justify restrictions on Palestinian liberty; if you take an absolutist approach, security concerns may never justify them; if you take a consequentialist approach, it must be proven that the measure is an effective security measure in the long-term; if you take the “lesser evil” approach, there is a balancing act to be performed at every individual case between the utility of the security measure and the essentiality of the freedom at risk. Israel has often assigned (mistakenly, from where I see it) higher value to the security measure, especially since the measure’s beneficiaries are Israel’s citizens while the restricted liberty belongs to a people to whom the Israeli government has fewer responsibilities (the militarily occupied people).

But Princeton’s divestment would be a problematic way to send the message to Israel about our concern over its security vs. liberty balance. Israel is far from the only country undergoing this balancing act, though it is indeed a country that has been reminded of the terrorist threat more often than most other countries (see this accounting of terrorist attacks in Israel 1993–2014). The United States, despite the fact that the main sources of organized terrorist threats against it are across a vast ocean, has had difficulty securing liberties in its “War on Terror.” Princeton University is fundamentally integrated into and dependent upon the country that has violated numerous civil liberties in the name of counterterrorism: it has enacted (and about to reauthorize) the PATRIOT act; conducts warrantless searches of citizens; has tortured and waterboarded captives, who have never seen a trial; has held over a hundred prisoners in Guantanamo without being charged with a crime; carries out extrajudicial killings by drone, including the killing of two U.S. citizens; spies on millions of Americans’ phone activity; invaded and occupied a sovereign country. Injustice anywhere may be injustice everywhere, but in order for the university to make a moral criticism, it must have moral authority in that area. Unless the university has already divested from and severed connections to the United States government, its moral authority on rights violations for the sake of security is shaky. If Princeton is complicit in Israel’s rights violations in the Palestinian territories, then it is a thousand times over complicit in the U.S.’s rights violations, which certainly blunts the message of divestment, if not rendering it morally hypocritical.

The complicity itself and its “moral” demand for divestment are debatable points. Yes, the United States supplies extraordinary military aid to Israel, but the University does not do so (if anything, again, we are complicit through the U.S. government). The default for a university is to have its endowment portfolio managed strictly for profit gains — companies in which to invest are not chosen based on other merits. Investment is not “neutral” for an individual choosing one particular company out of preference. Investment is indeed “neutral” when managed by a company selecting investments based solely on profit. No political statement can be made, since the investments are not even known to the public.

Divestment is not always the wrong choice, but it must first be shown that the target is both closely related to subject of censure and that the action is relevant to the university as a moral actor. The causal chain for environmental-related divestment is strong, since such campaigns target companies whose very practices and products worsen our environment and threaten the sustainability of the entire planet. For “recreational” assault weapons manufacturers and sellers, the products themselves are what many of us think should be banned; the products could be used, and have been used, to take lives at halls of learning in this country. In the case of divestment from the Israeli military infrastructure in the Palestinian territories, even if it were moral as an individual to divest at the moment (which I have argued against above), and even though there are Palestinians, Israelis, and other activists on campus who have ties to Israel and Palestine, it is difficult to demonstrate why, for Princeton University in particular, the rights of Palestinians come before other suffering peoples’ rights around the globe. Selective moral outrage, with no proper justification for the particular selection on behalf of the university, leads to moral confusion. Perhaps we can vote next time on a referendum about global criteria to determine the human rights implications everywhere of all of Princeton’s investments, and then we would have something to discuss.

How We Can Help

So, what can we do about Palestinian rights immediately, when working for “trust-building” between Israelis and Palestinians is too slow?

Israel has equal rights enshrined in its Declaration of Independence and has a Basic Law (proto-constitutional law) on Human Dignity and Liberty protecting human rights. Israel also has a rather activist Supreme Court, which has chosen to apply broad judicial review based on this law. Unlike the United States Supreme Court, Israel’s Supreme Court is also a court of first instance — cases against government legislation can be brought directly to the Supreme Court. Unlike the United States Supreme Court, standing does not need to be established to challenge an Israeli law, and Palestinians in the Palestinian Territories have equal access to the court. Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups routinely bring cases to Israeli courts, sometimes with great success. While the past few weeks have yielded mixed rulings, recently the courts did rule against the government regarding discrimination against Palestinians in planning and zoning in Israeli civil-controlled areas of the West Bank and struck down the Israeli military’s plan to build a separation barrier near Bethlehem. We can encourage similar victories by volunteering for or donating to the organizations that bring such cases on behalf of Palestinians and Palestinian Israelis to court, such as B’Tselem, Peace Now, the New Israel Fund, Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights, Rabbis for Human Rights, Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, Public Committee on Torture in Israel, Machsom Watch, among others.

Outside of court rulings, Israel has also dropped certain restrictions on Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza when the Israeli security apparatus determines they no longer have a significant security benefit. Since 2005, Israel has by and large done away with the demolition homes of terrorists as a punitive measure, after a military commission questioned its deterrent effect. Israel has also removed dozens of roadblocks and checkpoints within the West Bank in recent years, with only 59 internal checkpoints as of March 2014, as the number of suicide bombings attempts has receded in recent years. More may be dismantled as new studies may show the checkpoints are ineffective as long-term security measures. Together as a university community, we can encourage more reductions of the Israeli occupation’s footprint by supporting and conducting research on effective deterrents of terror that avoid subjecting Palestinians to daily checkpoints and allow for more freedom of movement.

While I’ve toured a few military checkpoints in the West Bank, I don’t know what it feels like to have to pass through one daily, to be scrutinized by military officers who don’t look like me, and for whose government I do not vote, a government of a people that, I’ve been taught, is taking away my homeland. I know it’s not the same as going through a TSA check or having my bags searched at every entrance to every Israeli mall.

Christmastime last year, I had the privilege — which Israelis and most Palestinians in Gaza don’t — to visit the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of David and Jesus, now under civil and military control of the Palestinian Authority. I could feel the intimidation of the Israeli-built cement portion of the separation fence closing in on the city. But I also walked into the Bethlehem mall, and there was not a security guard in sight.

With hope for a just, secure, lasting peace for the State of Israel and the future State of Palestine, and the realization of the basic rights of all humans,

Joshua Z. Stadlan

Princeton College Democrats, Campus Issues Coordinator*

Princeton Alliance of Jewish Progressives, member*

*I do not speak for either group — they represent a spectrum of stances on this topic, and I encourage you to reach out to them to discuss.