Ali Abunimah, a writer and commentator on Middle East affairs who has appeared as a guest on news broadcasts of the BBC, CNN, CSPAN and MSNBC, spoke to about 100 people at Pitt Thursday. Earlier in the day, Abunimah had spoken at Carnegie Mellon University, where about 40 students protested his appearance.
Abunimah, a controversial journalist and champion of the Palestinian cause, founded the Web site Electronic Intifada, which is devoted to Palestinian activism. He is a contributing author of “The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid,” a book of essays that “takes an unabashedly pro-Palestinian (and largely anti-Israel and anti-U.S.) perspective,” according to Publishers Weekly.
Aaron Weil, executive director of the Edward and Rose Berman Jewish University Center, expressed disappointment that Abunimah was brought to speak.
“Our students were shocked that the University would bring in a speaker [like Abunimah], especially when the world is getting behind a peace plan that will end the violence,” Weil said, noting that Carnegie Mellon helped to fund Abunimah’s appearance.
The protestors at CMU, some of whom have formed a non-partisan group called “Tartans for Israel,” represented a group of CMU students opposed to violence, Weil said.
There were no disputes at the lecture he gave at Benedum Hall in the evening.
Abunimah questioned what he described as the “dominant narratives” about the region that he believes the U.S government and mainstream media promote.
“We are hearing about a ‘window of opportunity’ for peace,” he said, referring to the proposed summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Scheduled for tomorrow, the summit is set to take place in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
In his State of the Union address last week, President George W. Bush said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s weekend trip to the region aimed to “help the Palestinian people end terror.”
“I will tell you about terror,” Abunimah said in response to this statement. He went on to cite statistics about how many Palestinians had been killed since Jan. 1, 2005 — a period of time that the media referred to as one of “relative calm,” according to Abunimah. He also criticized the recent election of Mahmoud Abbas, dismissing it as a false expression of democracy.
“The official narrative is that Abbas won a crushing victory and that it was a great day for democracy,” he said. “Two-thirds of the Palestinian people live in exile around the world, and only those living in the West Bank and Gaza were allowed to vote. Even then, only 46 percent bothered to turn out.”
The election result is hailed as democracy, Abunimah said, though “only 10 percent of the 9 million Palestinians around the world voted.”
“Isn’t democracy supposed to be a contest of ideas?” he asked.
Abunimah said Abbas was backed by international powers — the United States and the European Union — and he argued that the result of the election was “predetermined.”
Throughout his speech, Abunimah, who has been chosen frequently to debate Israeli diplomatic representatives, used the example of South Africa to describe Palestinians’ predicaments.
He quoted Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of South Africa and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who made similar comparisons after visiting Palestine. Reflecting on what he described as “apartheid in the Holy Land,” Tutu wrote, “Israel will never get true security and safety through oppressing another people.” Abunimah argued that Palestine would soon be viewed in the same terms as South Africa.
“Global awareness of the advantages of commercial boycotts and divestment of Israel will increase in the next few years,” he said. Admitting that “no historical example is perfect”, Abunimah nevertheless said, “Israel cannot sustain such an apartheid system.”
“In the United States,” he said, “African-Americans make up about 12 percent, 13 percent, and it was impossible to maintain apartheid and Jim Crow laws here. In Palestine, 50 percent of the population are subject to such situations. All demographic projections show that in a few years, Palestinians will again be a majority in the region.”
Abunimah said there are many models of multiracial democracies Israel could follow, including Canada and Belgium
Students for Justice in Palestine and the Pittsburgh Palestine Solidarity Committee co-sponsored Abunimah’s appearance. Rania Jubran, president of Students for Justice in Palestine, said the group’s goal is to “promote public awareness of what’s happening on the ground [in Palestine].”
Abunimah’s talk, she said, “really informed people.” Although Jubran said “any change is good in the region,” referring to the summit peace talks, and she “saw a positive light.” Abunimah did not seem to share her optimism. He ended his speech with a number of predictions for the next few years.
“I predict the colonization of Palestine will continue over the next few years, with more settlers joining the 400,000 that already live in the West Bank. Violence will increase as Israel gets more desperate. It is really like a soap opera, when you can just predict the next tragedy.”