Monday, 21 July 2008

PALESTINIAN CONFERENCE IN HAIFA

Haifa Conference for the Right of Return and the the
Secular Democratic State in Palestine

18, July 2008 Initial Report
By Yoav Bar (*)
Anti-Imperialist Camp

Sort of Apology

Friday and Saturday, 20-21 of June, 2008 – after a year of
dreaming and working for it to happen – the Haifa
conference was such a great success that we hardly believed
it was real… But on Saturday night, as we made the 5
minutes drive from elMidan back home to Hallisa, a poor,
mostly Arab, neighborhood in east Haifa, the racist and
un-democratic state of Israel was clearly and vigorously
there – the streets were filled with police and special
“anti riot” units, stopping people and beating them at
random. We spent the next week collecting evidence and
organizing a demonstration against police violence…

All of you who tried to follow the preparations to the
conference, or who are concerned to see the results, might
have been frustrated with the chaotic performance of the
initiating committee. Others have criticized us for
diverting effort from the urgent struggle against the
occupation to pipe dreaming a remote future. One thing
special about the Haifa conference was that it was
initiated and organized by grassroots political activists,
in the middle of an intense period of struggles, without
budget. It was our moment to raise our heads from the
exhausting daily struggle and promise ourselves and the
world that the suffering of the Palestinian people may be
brought to an end and there can be a bright future for
everybody in Palestine after we get rid of the racist
Zionist disorder.

Who was there?

Youth Meetings

As a gathering of political activists, working for the
future, we started with the youth. The proliferation of
independent youth Palestinian movements within the 48
territories is one proof that the new generation is not
satisfied with the traditional political offerings. At the
Midan theatre, on June 20, 17:00, the conference started
with youth meetings – not lecturing to the youth but
activists from different youth movements discussing among
themselves their views of the future. There were two
parallel sessions, one for High School students and the
other for the “Shabab”, university students and young
workers, mostly in their twenties.

The Opening Session

At the opening session, the 300-seat hall of the Midan
theatre was almost full. There were several Arab TV crews,
including Al Jazeera, taking interviews with political
leaders, and reporters from local Arab newspapers. Several
Palestinian flags were on the stage, as well as a sign in
Arabic, Hebrew and English declaring the “Haifa Conference
for the Right of Return and the Secular Democratic State in
Palestine”. Sahar Abdo, the presenter, called Hanan Wakeem
to sing “Mawteni” (My Homeland), and the public stood up to
the song and observed a moment of silence for the martyrs.
Rajaa Zo’abi ‘Omari welcomed the public in the name of the
initiating committee, and outlined the vision of the
conference.

The main part of the opening ceremony included political
speeches by the general secretaries of three parties in the
48 territories: Ayman ‘Odeh from the Democratic Front for
Peace and Equality (Hadash - a front that includes the
Communist party), Awad Abed El-Fatah from the National
Democratic Alliance (BALAD) and Muhammad Kana’ane from
Abnaa elBalad, the movement that was the backbone of the
coalition that constituted the Initiating Committee. The
appearance of Muhammad Kana’ane was most significant as (on
28/5) he was newly released from four and a half years in
Israeli prisons, after he was sentenced for political
meetings with Palestinian activists in Jordan.

In the second part of the opening session, there were three
speeches in Hebrew: Yehuda Kupferman from the “Committee
for a secular and democratic state in the whole of
Palestine”, and Dr Uri Davis from “the movement against
Israeli Apartheid in Palestine” – both from the initiating
committee, and Dr Anat Matar, a leading activists in
support of the rights of Palestinian prisoners and for the
rights of Israeli youth to refuse serving in the Israeli
army.

There were also written congratulations to the conference,
mostly from like minded activists in the 67 occupied
territories and the Palestinian diaspora who could not
come. The most significant written participation came from
the Secretary General of the Popular Front for the
Liberation of Palestine, Comrade Ahmad Sa’adat, from the
Nafha prison in the Naqab desert.

Who was not there?

Professor Bhim Singh from Kashmir, who had to represent the
international delegation in the opening session, could not
get a visa from the Israeli embassy in India.

A group of Palestinian academics (with foreign passports)
from Bir Zeit University were on the bus from Jerusalem to
Haifa, coming to take part in the conference, as the bus
was intercepted mid-way in Kfar Saba by Israeli security
forces. They were held for several hours and forced to
return to Jerusalem.

The Islamic Movement was invited to take part in the
conference, as partners in the struggle against Israeli
oppression, in accordance to the organizers belief that the
secular democratic state is a framework to defend
everybody’s rights and to ensure full respect to all
religions. They didn’t officially reject the invitation and
the task of building cooperation with them is left for the
follow up committee that was formed in the conference.

Saturday full of Workshops

The real attraction in the conference was the workshops
program, 3 workshops in parallel at each of 3 sessions. In
the 9 workshops there were 41 registered contributors, in
addition to the facilitators, all of them leading activists
and intellectuals. The list of participants’ names, more
than 50 of them, on the invitation was a parade of support
for the conference, and it was probably the main reason
why, while we initially expected the second day of long
discussions to have restricted participation, we came
Saturday morning and found the premises of elMidan full
with festive atmosphere, with many Palestinian activists
from different political movements and parties and from
many civil society organizations. There was a very
significant presence of Jewish activists as well, probably
the widest participation in a Palestinian political event
ever (except, of course, mass demonstration, where
everybody comes but there’s not much interaction). There
was also a significant presence from international
solidarity movements – most of them young activists that
volunteer in different programs to support the Palestinian
people and came on the weekend to Haifa to support the
conference. All in all between 300 and 400 people took part
in different workshops on Saturday, with lively discussion
about many aspects of the problem, the struggle and the
solution.

The enthusiastic atmosphere created the conditions for the
most serious discussion that characterized the workshops.
The participants made their best to clarify their
positions, and the public took active part in the
discussion. Many different approaches were proposed, but it
only contributed the confidence that we can do important
things together.

What happened at the conference?

Details of the Proceedings

I will not dare try to give here any short description of
the contents of some 20 hours of discussion in the
workshops and full sessions. About half of it was filmed
and should go online anytime soon. We also requested all
the participants to write down their contributions, and
some of it is already on the conference’s site:
www.ror1state.org. There are also written contributions
from many writers that could not make it to the conference.

The full list of participants is on the invitation, and may
be seen on the website. To introduce each of them and write
a little about their experience in struggle or their
writing or other achievements requires a big book - only
the internet can give practical answers to this task.

Palestinian Popular Festival

Some of the more sophisticated writers that attended the
conference promised to write special articles about the
atmosphere that filled elMidan, before going after the
conference political and social contents. It was all
organized on the principle of a Palestinian popular
festival – covering for the lack of budget with the effort
of tens of activists, like the family in a wedding party,
running around all the time to take care for the guests.
Tens of the participants from outside the area were invited
to be guests in the homes of local activists; Lunch was
traditional wedding’s home made food, and after 220 meals
were served the rest was contributed to a local welfare
institution; Simultaneous translation to Hebrew and English
was done by political activists, and in most cases more to
the point than the mechanical translation of many
professionals.

All Palestinian Gathering

The most important thing about the Haifa conference is its
place as part of an all Palestinian awakening for a new
vision that will pose alternatives to the dead end of the
Imperialist-led fake “peace process”. The problem, the
struggle and the solution are all common to all parts of
the Palestinian people, as was seen throughout the
conference. It was stressed in the workshop on ethnic
cleansing exposing how it is practiced by Zionism from
before 1948 until these days, in the 1948 occupied
territories as well as in Gaza and the West Bank and the
Syrian Golan. It was clear from the concentration on the
right of return of all Palestinian refugees to all the
areas from which they were expelled.

Even though only few Palestinians from the 67 occupied
territories, mostly from Jerusalem, could come to Haifa,
the conference was part of a wider movement: Ajras elAwda,
one of the components of the initiating committee is an
all-Palestinian network. Ajras published a special magazine
on the occasion and distributed it in Palestinian refugee
camps in Syria. Special meetings are now taking place in
Ramallah to promote the same ideas, and in Haifa we
listened to the written participation of Ahmad Katamesh
from Ramallah presenting his view toward the future
democratic state in Palestine. Salame Kelly, a leading
Palestinian activist and Arab Marxist from Syria, sent a
speech on video that had to be part of the opening ceremony
(but we failed to show it due to technical problems).

The Palestinians in the 1948 territories

For a long time Palestinian in the territories who came
under Israeli control in 1948 were a smashed society,
licking the wounds of the 1948 Nakba which included many
massacres and the ethnic cleansing of the majority of the
population. Some tried to pursue a course of struggle for
equal rights within the Israeli context outside of a
Palestinian national perspective, but were always
frustrated by Zionist systematic racism, that defines the
goal of the state as serving the “international Jewish
nation”. In the nineties of the last century, some tried to
pose a perspective of redefining Israel as a state of all
its citizens. The Haifa conference was an opportunity to
examine in historic perspective all these failed attempts
at reforming the racist system, and propose a solution to
the suffering from Israeli Apartheid in the context of a
comprehensive solution to the Palestinian problem.

It was clear from the list of participants that the
discussion of a secular democratic state in Palestine is
not confined to Abnaa elBalad, which always promoted this
solution, or to radical circles around it. Salman Natur and
Hisham Naffa from Hadash, as well as Dr. Mahmoud Muhareb
and Yael Lerer from Balad are just some of the more famous
promoters of the one state solution. But also the speeches
of the secretary generals of Hadash and Balad in the
opening ceremony revealed a lot of soul searching and
internal conflicts in relation to this perspective. It
would not be far-fetched to conclude that there is a
majority of Palestinians within the 1948 territories that
prefer the secular democratic state, while the main
reservation is about the practicality of posing this slogan
at the current stage, but there is also no much illusions
left about any practical solution to the Palestinian
problem as long as the United State and Israel are calling
the shots.

The massive presence in the conference of activists from
the Palestinian civil society is another show of maturity
of the society’s confrontation with the harsh conditions of
Israeli Apartheid. While there is a whole class of people
that dedicate their lives to caring for the daily needs of
the people, from education to health, to workers’ rights,
women’s rights, economic and social development, culture
and much else, almost nobody expects solutions to those
problems outside of a framework of political change. We
didn’t expect the local NGOs to take a clear political
position, and all participants were presenting their
personal views on their own responsibility. Ameer Makhoul
from Ittijah, Union of Palestinian community-based
organizations - an umbrella organization for Palestinian
NGOs - was on the initiating committee from its onset, and
we had the participation of many leading personalities from
NGOs covering most areas of public lives.

Jewish Participation

The numbers are not the only measure, and we still didn’t
process the registration papers, but the participation of
Jewish activists in the conference was very obvious. They
covered a whole rainbow from released political prisoners,
through different trends of the traditional left,
feminists, Oriental Jews (Arab Jews) activists, anarchists,
anti war activists, academics, religious activists for
peace, democrats, cosmopolitans and many more… But the most
significant part was not their presence but the way that
they were integral part of the whole conference, not as a
separate entity trying to negotiate or to come to terms
with a separate Palestinian entity, but as part of a common
gathering trying to figure out a common future and how to
bring it about.

The Concluding Declaration

When we finally arrived to the concluding plenary, we were
not only tired and much beyond the schedule, but it was
also clear that the inputs of the conference are too many
and too important to try to conclude them in one hour’s
discussion. The initiating committee decided to present to
the participants the draft position paper on which we
agreed after long internal discussion, a paper named “The
Jaffa Declaration” in tribute to the city where the
initiating committee was holding its meetings while it was
discussing the document through the first months of the
year.

The Jaffa Declaration

The establishment of the Democratic Secular state in the
whole of Palestine is the positive solution that will
accomplish justice and will bring an end to the struggle on
the Palestinian land as it:

1. Preserve the unity of the Palestinian people and their
historic connection to the Palestinian land. 2. Achieve the
goals of the liberation struggle of all the Palestinian
people: The return of the refugees, freedom, equality and
the right of self determination. 3. Strip the Jewish
presence in Palestine of its colonialist nature, which is
connected to the racist Zionist project, as a tool of
imperialism and global capitalism. 4. Be based on the
principle of separation between religion and the state,
while assuring the freedom of believers in all religions to
practice their religion. 5. Assure full equality in the
rights of all citizens without discrimination on the basis
of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, class or
any other reason.

What Next?

The declaration was read to the public and received general
approval as the base for the concluding statement of the
conference. Several important comments were made by the
public, mostly for additional positions, to be added to the
declaration.

Many of the participants asked to join the initiating
committee, to form together the follow up committee that
will continue the work for these goals after the
conference. Hundreds of the participants signed up and
requested to be informed of the next steps.

July 18, 2008

(*) The writer is a member of the political bureau of Abnaa
elBalad and was active in the initiating committee of the
Haifa conference

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