“I can’t dictate methods of Palestinian struggle”: Israeli boycott activist interviewed

Ronnie Barkan (right) is a leading organizer of the boycott movement within Israel.

Anne Paq ActiveStills

Ronnie Barkan is a 35-year-old Israeli activist who fully supports the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Having been involved in protests against Israel’s wall in the West Bank since 2004, he took his activism a step further by helping to found the organization Boycott from Within four years later.

Raised in Raanana, a town near Tel Aviv, Barkan has been arrested on many occasions and held in custody five times. Describing himself as a “privileged Jew,” he readily acknowledges that he has been treated far more leniently by the Israeli authorities than are Palestinians. At one demonstration in the village of Bilin, he was arrested alongside the local activist Adeeb Abu Rahmah. Whereas Barkan was jailed for two nights, Abu Rahmah spent 18 months in a military prison before eventually being released in December 2010.

Barkan spoke to freelance journalist Cecilia Dalla Negra.

Cecilia Dalla Negra: These days — following a recent article by Linah Alsaafin published by The Electronic Intifada — there’s a big debate about Palestinian “popular” or “nonviolent” resistance and one of the main points is about strategy. Alsaafin has argued that the use of term “popular resistance” is unfair because the demonstrations in the West Bank are not based around goals and do not include most of its villages. Another Palestinian activist, Maath Musleh, has argued that popular resistance is now “the only interruption of the status quo in Palestine,” and there are no alternatives to it at grassroots level. What is your opinion about the popular resistance taking place in Palestine?

Ronnie Barkan: I think both of them are correct. We should stress that this is a popular struggle rather than a nonviolent one. Firstly, because we stress the importance of this struggle coming from the people rather than political parties, and secondly, even though it is a “nonviolent” struggle, this term is many times abused by those in power, which Linah mentions in her article.

Using the “nonviolent” tag would many times, but not always, fall into the discourse of those in power — be it the US, the EU or the Israelis. They all insist that Palestinians renounce the armed struggle as a precondition for the powerful to end their crimes, where exactly the opposite should be demanded.

And as long as Israel and its backers use means of terror against the Palestinian civil population, then we cannot legally and should not morally condemn those fighting for their liberation from doing so. Having said that, it so happens that the popular struggle is also a nonviolent one, meaning that the international and Israeli supporters are lucky to have the opportunity to join in and fully participate, and I am grateful for that opportunity.

A side note about stone throwing: indeed, there may be stone throwing at times by the shabab [youth] and almost never before the Israeli armed soldiers have used their weapons against the civilian demonstrators. There is simply no comparison between the might of the fourth largest nuclear power in the world versus youth with slingshots. Whether people make the comparison between David and Goliath or not, there is absolutely no room for being apologetic. Armed soldiers who invade the village of Bilin or the city of Basra should, at the very least, expect a symbolic form of slingshot resistance.

Palestinians should also seriously ask themselves: on what ground are they willing to hold a joint struggle? Remembering that during demonstrations we share the load of Israeli repression but after the sun sets it is they who still suffer the consequences of a brutal military regime that’s trying to quash any form of dissent.

CDN: Another important issue is the political agenda of the struggle. In Alsaafin’s opinion, Israeli activists must never take a decision-making role in the Palestinian struggle but should focus on changing their own society. Maath Musleh, on the other hand, argues that the Palestinian struggle includes your own struggle against Zionism. What role should Israelis should play in the Palestinian struggle?

RB: In order to come up with any form of criticism or re-evaluation of the struggle, it is first important to understand that I am among the group of the over-privileged in this struggle for Palestinian rights, acting against a system that has at its very core the Zionist principle of differentiation: handing down privileges to ethnic (not necessarily religious) Jews and doing so by taking away the basic rights and freedoms of those who are ethnically non-Jewish. This system, which falls under the legal definition of the crime of apartheid, existed long before the occupation of 1967 and as long as it exists my interaction with those who are disenfranchised and underprivileged can only be possible if I attempt to tear it [the apartheid system] down.

Therefore, our joint struggle can be interpreted in different ways, according to the type of Israelis [involved] and the goals set by Palestinians. Maath asks that we, anti-Zionists who struggle against the supremacist character of the state, redefine ourselves.

I tend to think that no definitions are needed but rather a clear understanding of who is struggling and what is the set goal. Different types of Israelis tend to support the end of the occupation of ‘67 [the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip], but differ greatly — they go from Zionists who cherish ethnic-supremacist ideals and dread the concept of a single state full of Arabs, to anti-Zionists who dread the concept of apartheid and everything that the Zionists stand for.

Every person on the so-called Zionist left, without exception, would like to see the end of the occupation of ‘67 as long as the Jewish-supremacist entity within the territory of ‘48 [present-day Israel] maintains its legitimacy and continues to flourish. For the sake of fighting the occupation of the West Bank, Palestinians may invite such people to join their struggle, which may in turn raise quite a few dilemmas as their common ground is indeed quite shaky. Do these “well-meaning Zionists” support or oppose the Israeli army? Do they support or oppose the rights of Palestinian refugees — the majority of the Palestinian people? And what about their views about life in a future common state?

In a country founded on the basis of ethnic cleansing and ethnic segregation, whose main concern up to this day is the maintaining of an artificially-created Jewish majority, the only response to this type of thinking is to negate it in its totality. Also for Palestinians, who suffer the outcome of this type of thinking, it would not make a whole lot of sense to challenge the military occupation while forsaking the rest. So both for the sake of Palestinians who struggle for their rights and for Israeli Jews who share these goals, it would make perfect sense to clearly define these shared values in their joint struggle against occupation and apartheid — a struggle towards democracy in this region.

This type of a unified struggle is so radical in the Zionist perspective that even those Israeli organizations who speak the language of human rights, like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, refuse to say a single word about Israeli apartheid. At the same time, they have perfected the false and misleading discourse about the democratic basis of the state and its slew of “anti-democratic” legislation, claiming that Israel has a strong democratic foundation within the territory of ‘48 [present-day Israel] and only the recent wave of racist legislation is something that needs to be tackled — not the discriminatory apartheid system as a whole.

There is indeed much room for criticism of the Palestinian struggle, but no matter how strongly I may feel about it, it is not up to me to dictate for the oppressed their means of struggle. My choice is whether to stand by those who struggle and speak up for their rights, or not do so and possibly find alternative venues.

CDN: Alsaafin argues that efforts are made to bring international delegations to join the weekly demonstrations but that equal effort is not made toward mobilizing Palestinians. What role — if any — should international activists play in the Palestinian struggle?

RB: In the long run, there would need to be a long educational process taking place here, in order to overcome the animosity between one society to another and especially in order to overcome issues relating to the brainwashed Israeli Jewish society. But at the same time that we work within our respective communities, there is an immediate short-term struggle taking place — the struggle for rights and the end of oppression — and it is this struggle that we are primarily fighting and this struggle that we are united in, the privileged and underprivileged demanding the same rights for all.

This struggle is carried out from within, by different forms of resistance and mainly the popular struggle, which is few in numbers but is mostly focused on the symbolic aspect of the struggle. Every act of resistance, no matter how small, shows to the world how the oppressed people demand their inalienable rights and how these rights are being taken away from them by Israeli brutes. This struggle is about the hearts and minds of the common people abroad — and today Palestine has become the symbol for a resistance struggle.

Yet the struggle is also carried out from outside Palestine/Israel and with full force. The BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] campaign, which is a Palestinian-led global movement demanding Palestinian rights, is the way in which every person from around the world can join the struggle.

Since the EU and the US are lending full impunity to Israel in carrying out its crimes, it is left to us, the people, to demand that Israel abide by its obligations under international law and respect universally recognized human rights. Similarly to what happened in the struggle against the former case of apartheid, that in South Africa, more and more people from all over the world are taking part and taking action, echoing the same demand for the respect of Palestinian rights.

The strategic questions we should be discussing are therefore not so much about what we do but more about how do we do it as effectively as possible. How can a global movement of the people of the world, who demand the respect of people’s rights, work on a mass scale against the powers that be and come out successful?

We know it is possible and we can all sense by now that a change is finally taking place. However long the road may be, we are no longer in a form of stagnation, every step brings us closer to our goal of freedom, equality and justice for all.

An Italian version of this interview was originally published on Osservatorioiraq.it.

Cecilia Dalla Negra is a freelance journalist, writing about Palestine and the Middle East. She can be followed on Twitter: @cecilia_dn.