PACBI: UNICEF should quit Jerusalem conference

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is shocked and greatly concerned that UNICEF as well as one Palestinian and several international academics intend to participate in a conference organized by the Minerva Centre for Human Rights at the Hebrew University, jointly with the Van Leer Institute. We regard this participation as a violation of the Palestinian academic boycott Call and Guidelines and a most regrettable whitewash of the entrenched and well-documented complicity of Israeli academic institutions in maintaining Israel’s occupation and apartheid against the Palestinian people, and Palestinian children in particular.

At a time when the international movement to boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions is gaining ground in response to Israel’s flagrant and persistent infringement of Palestinian human and political rights, we urge UNICEF and others scheduled to participate in this conference to reflect upon the implication of their accepting an invitation to take part in a conference sponsored by some of those complicit institutions. As was the case in the academic boycott against South Africa’s complicit universities during apartheid, we believe that participation in academic conferences or similar events in Israel not dedicated to ending Israel’s illegal occupation and systematic racial discrimination, regardless of intentions, can only contribute to the prolongation of this injustice by normalizing and thereby legitimizing it. It will inadvertently contribute to Israel’s efforts to appear as a “normal” participant in the “civilized” world of science and scholarship while at the same time practicing the most pernicious form of colonial control and legalized racial discrimination against Palestinians.

The conference organizers claim that the primary purpose of the meeting is to draw attention to the suffering of children in the region as well as “to bring Israeli and Palestinian researchers, security personnel and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss approaches to prevent harm to children and families on both sides of a conflict.” In essence, this conference establishes a false symmetry between the Palestinians under occupation and the Israeli occupiers and totally ignores the vastly divergent contexts in which children’s lives are embedded. The conference omits, in fact covers up, the fundamental source of the vulnerability and suffering of all children in this “conflict” zone: Israeli colonization of Palestinian land and multi-tiered oppression of the Palestinian people. By inviting Israeli “security personnel” — the very same people who devise and execute policies that indiscriminately target Palestinian civilians, killing and maiming hundreds of children, as was done in the Gaza massacre — this conference not only gives them a credible and “respectable” voice, but goes further than most in attempting to whitewash Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, its accelerating colonization of the West Bank and its gradual ethnic cleansing of entire Palestinian communities in occupied East Jerusalem and the Naqab (Negev).

The context that this conference fails to take into account includes more than six decades of a colonial and apartheid regime imposed on the people of Palestine and a 43-year military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Despite the “peace process” which began 17 years ago, Israel routinely violates the Palestinians’ most fundamental human rights with impunity. Between September 2000 and March 2010, Israel killed more than 1,330 Palestinian children and currently keeps 343 Palestinian children in incarceration (see Defence for Children International-Palestine Section). Israel continues to build illegal Jewish-only colonies on occupied Palestinian land and an apartheid infrastructure of roads, blockades and the Wall, declared illegal by the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 2004. Israel denies millions of Palestinian refugees their internationally-recognized right to return to their lands, as stipulated in UN resolutions. Moreover, Israel maintains a system of racial discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens that largely conforms to the definition of apartheid in the UN Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and that is reminiscent of key elements of apartheid South Africa.

In the latest Israeli war of aggression on the occupied and besieged Gaza Strip, Palestinian civilians were massacred by Israel’s indiscriminate bombing, condemned by UN experts and leading human rights organizations, particularly in the Goldstone report, as war crimes. This assault left over 1,440 Palestinians dead, predominantly civilians, of whom 431 were children, and injured another 5380 (see the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).

We also ask UNICEF and the international participants to consider the symbolism of the venue of this conference. The Hebrew University is itself implicated in serious violations of international law. Specifically, the University’s acquisition of a significant portion of the land on which its Mount Scopus campus and dormitories are built is illegal. More than one year after Israel’s military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank (which includes East Jerusalem, according to UN Security Council resolutions), specifically on 1 September 1968, the Israeli authorities confiscated 3,345 dunums of Palestinian land [1].

The basis for the illegality of the Hebrew University land confiscation deal is that this land is part of East Jerusalem, which is an occupied territory according to international law. Israel’s unilateral annexation of occupied East Jerusalem into the State of Israel and the application of Israeli domestic law to it have been repeatedly denounced as null and void by the international community, including by the UN Security Council in its Resolution 252 (21 May 1968). Israel’s expropriation of Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and efforts at forced eviction of its Palestinian owners are illegal under the terms of International Humanitarian Law, in particular the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Furthermore, by moving Israelis (staff and students) to work and live on occupied Palestinian land, the Hebrew University, like all Israeli colonial settlements illegally established on occupied territory, is gravely violating the Fourth Geneva Convention’s explicit prohibition in this regard.

Israeli academic institutions, including the Hebrew University, have always maintained very close links to the Israeli army, contributed to its development and taken for granted its actions as legitimate, regardless of the amount of death and destruction it wreaks upon the Palestinians. The Alternative Information Centre’s report on academic complicity and boycott notes in this regard:

“Israeli universities have adopted this consensus [the legitimacy of the Israeli army actions] by accepting into their ranks former members of the Israeli security services, without regard for the problematic aspects of their possible actions in past positions. … Carmi Gilon’s past as Director of the General Security Services, an organization especially notorious for torture and human rights abuses of Palestinians, and who is accused by various organizations of committing war crimes, did not cause Hebrew University to reconsider appointing him to the post of Vice-President for External Affairs. These appointments of former high-ranking officers in the Israeli security services would seem very natural in the Israeli mainstream context, where they enjoy a great deal of prestige …” (U. Keller, “The Academic Boycott of Israel and the Complicity of Israeli Academic Institutions in Occupation of Palestinian Territories,” The Economy of the Occupation: A Socioeconomic Bulletin, Alternative Information Centre, 2009).

The Palestinian civil society campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), which is based on a strategy endorsed by an overwhelming majority of Palestinian unions, NGOs, cultural organizations, among others, as a nonviolent and effective form of resistance against Israel’s oppression, is deeply rooted in the history of Palestinian civil struggle and inspired by the South African and global struggle against apartheid. When you participate in such conferences, you undermine our struggle for freedom and ignore the voices of Palestinians.
In conclusion, we sincerely hope that, until Israel fully abides by international law, United Nations agencies and international academics will not participate in endorsing — even if inadvertently — Israel’s violations of international law and basic human rights and shall treat it exactly as most of the world treated racist South Africa, or indeed any other state that legislates and practices apartheid: a pariah state. Only then can Palestinians have hope for a just peace based on international law and, more crucially, on the fundamental principle of equality for all, irrespective of ethnicity, religion or other identity considerations.


[1] The decision was published in the official Israeli Gazette — the Hebrew edition — number 1425. It was therefore “legalized” by Israel. This land, for the most part, was (still is) privately owned by Palestinians living in that area. A large part of the confiscated land was then given to the Hebrew University to expand its campus (mainly its dormitories). The Palestinian landowners refused to leave their lands and homes arguing that the confiscation order of 1968 was illegal.

Consequently, the case was taken to the Jerusalem District Court in 1972 (file no. 1531/72). In 1973, as expected, the Israeli court ruled in favor of the university and the state. The court decided that the Palestinian families must evacuate their homes and be offered alternative housing.

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