A left challenge to the politics of fear and separation: 300 activists from both sides of the Green Line discuss the challenges and difficulties at the Hebron Left Conference

audience at the conference

On Saturday May 7, 2011 about 150 Israeli activists and a slightly larger number of Palestinian activists from Hebron participated in a joint conference organized by Hithabrut-Tarabut, the left-wing Palestinian forces in Hebron – The Palestinian People’s Party (PPP), the Popular Front and the Democratic Front – and the Alternative Information Center (AIC). In the land of the checkpoints, in the shadow of military oppression and continuing settlement activity, activists from both sides of the Green Line met in order to speak as partners in the struggle, to discuss political positions and strategies, about difficulties and challenges. The conference marked an historical moment on the way to building partnership in the popular struggle of both peoples against the Israeli elite's politics of fear and suspicion, of “divide and rule” underpinning the colonial process.


The 300 Palestinians and Israelis who participated in the conference were excited, full of hope that would succeed to break down decades-old barriers and open a new path of political discussion between partners. We knew that there were many issues that needed clarification, that there would be arguments and disagreements, but we also knew that we had not come to engage in the kind of ritual dialogues between the elites of normalization - between the Israeli occupation regime and the Palestinian elites that continue to cooperate with oppression. This was a conference many multi-layered dialogues: amongst the Palestinians, amongst the Israelis, between Palestinians and Israelis, as well as dialogue between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians of Hebron, and between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish Israelis of various ethnic groups. In other words, this was a dynamic and open encounter, and we knew we had to make an effort to enable authentic dialogue.

The opening remarks were made by Michel Warshavsky of the AIC, Hebron Governor Kamal Hamid, Bassam al-Salhi, secretary general of the PPP in the name of all the Palestinian left-wing forces, and Johayna Seefe of Acre speaking for Tarabut. Warshavsky placed the conference in the context of previous attempts by Israeli and Palestinian activists to stand together against the settlements and the occupation, and al-Salhi stressed the historic importance of the vision of a joint struggle by the forces of the Left from both sides of the Green Line.

johayna seefe

Johayna Seefe admitted she was almost too moved to speak. I'm speaking here, she said, as a Palestinian from Acre, as a left-wing activist. We, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, she said, have a unique role as a national minority fighting for its rights in a discriminatory state and as partners of the Jewish-Israeli radical political forces. It is clear to us that we are Palestinians. I know of your struggle here in Hebron against the settlements and the racism, and in Acre too we are struggling against attempts “to Judaize” Acre and expel the Arab residents. I want to say to you: We'll never sell Acre, not at any price. We'll remain in Acre and we won't give up!

The poet and writer Almog Behar, one of the initiators of A New Spirit, an open letter from young Mizrahi (oriental, originating in Arab cultures) Jews in Israel to the Arab peoples struggling for independence, read aloud from the letter in Arabic and aroused deep feelings in the audience. "We believe," read Behar, "that, as Mizrahi Jews in Israel, our struggle for economic, social, and cultural rights rests on the understanding that political change cannot depend on the Western powers who have exploited our region and its residents for many generations. True change can only come from an intra-regional and inter-religious dialog that is in connection with the different struggles and movements currently active in the Arab world. Specifically, we must be in dialog and solidarity with struggles of the Palestinians citizens of Israel who are fighting for equal political and economic rights and for the termination of racist laws, and the struggle of the Palestinian people living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and in Gaza in their demand to end the occupation and to gain Palestinian national independence."

On Prisoners and the Dispossessed, Women's Struggles and the NGOization


The first session of the conference dealt with an analysis of the current political situation and opportunities for action. The Palestinian researcher Taha Nassar analyzed the political situation in the occupied territories following the recently signed reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Alongside the positive aspect of the agreement – promoting Palestinian unity, essential for the national struggle, he noted serious problems regarding its implementation, because it was unclear on what principles this should happen. A decisive issue is the continuation of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) security cooperation with Israel. Another crucial issue is the release of Palestinian political prisoners from the entire political spectrum, from Hamas prisons in Gaza, and the release of the Hamas prisoners the PA is holding in the West Bank.

Gerardo Leibner, Tarabut activist, dealt with possible dangers and opportunities in the current situation: In the wake of the declaration of a Palestinian state in September, the right-wing Israeli coalition government might act against Palestinian citizens of Israel, or, on the other hand, could attempt to annex the settlement blocs to Israel by force. However, any attempt by the Israeli governing elite to implement a new colonial reality would be fraught with contradictions and problems: it would face widespread Palestinian resistance to any "solution" that would not guarantee genuine independence and sovereignty. Likewise it would face a serious contradiction between its attempt to enlist Israeli citizens in a colonial project that would prolong the conflict, one the one hand – and its neo-liberal policies which intensify the suffering of the poor and discriminated groups in Israel and weaken their loyalty to the regime. This fissure in the regime's politics, Leibner stressed, presents the most difficult and important challenge to the Israeli Left.

The second session was devoted to the popular struggle in the occupied territories. Abd al-Halim Da'ana discussed the significant role of the prisoners in the Palestinian national struggle: Since their hunger strikes in 1969, they became a focus of national solidarity and important political initiatives. It is impossible to understand the first intifada and the popular resistance without the leading role played by the prisoners. More recently, Palestinian prisoners played a pioneering role in forging the basis for the national reconciliation agreement.


Afaf Ghatasha, president of the Union of the Working Women's Committees, spoke about the place of women in the Palestinian struggle against the occupation. She explained that the more popular the struggle, the more it emphasizes the social components – as was the case in the first intifada and the beginning of the second intifada – the more active women were in the struggle. Militarization of the resistance to the Israeli occupation marginalized women and their status declined. Afaf criticized the the NGOization of women's struggle. This process accelerated during the Oslo period and continues today, fuelled by the proliferation of European-financed women's non-profit organizations which provide narrow services and intensify de-politicization. She called for the renewal of women's political organizations. Women should enter actively Palestinian political parties and occupy positions of influence, she said.


The third session focused on the accumulated experience of popular resistance against the occupation. Hisham Sharabati reviewed the history of resistance to Jewish settlement in the heart of Hebron since 1968. The situation in Hebron is unique in many ways since the settlers have created an ever-growing enclave in the heart of the city, expanding through daily violence and terror. Sharabati noted that the settlers entered Hebron in the guise of tourists: "Despite the fact that the area under their control is expanding and the oppression continues, they were and have remained tourists and as such they should leave our city." Gadi Algazi, member of Tarabut's national coordinating committee, focused on the colonial process of dispossession and on attempts to undermine it though direct popular action. He reviewed the struggle for the return of the Palestinian inhabitants of Susya who were expelled from their lands in the South Hebron Hills in September 2001, and related it to the current struggle of the residents of the Negev/Naqab village of El-Arakib, who had been expelled from their lands in the early 1950s, to return to their lands and prevent their takeover by Jewish National Fund.


The final session of the conference sought to deepen the discussion of the problems involved in bringing together the struggle against the occupation and racism. Nasser Ibrahim of the AIC, a member of the conference's organizing committee, explained Palestinian opposition to the normalization of relations between occupier and occupied. "Normalization" without ending the occupation, he said, was born during the years of the "peace process", and it included a unmistakable element of the reverence for the powerful: The Israeli regime was viewed as the norm, and there were those who sought to fashion Palestinian society in its image. Our conference here in Hebron, said Nasser, is entirely different: it is not a normalization of relations between the occupying and the occupied society, and we are not after crumbs from the table of powerful in exchange for giving up our resistance to the occupation. This is a conference of true partners, partners in ideas and partners in struggle, committed to emancipation and equality.

Yael Ben-Yefet led discussion to the place of Mizrahi (oriental) Jews whose culture is Jewish-Arab, within an Israeli society whose ruling elite has always tried to mold it into a European bastion vis-à-vis the the Arab world. The discrimination against Mizrahi Jews in Israel is not incidental: the suppression of Arabmess within Jewish society, she said, leaves Mizrahi Jews on the margins. The anti-colonial struggle is therefore also a struggle for the de-colonization of Israeli society – a struggle against cultural colonialism, dispossession and ethnic discrimination; herein lies the fundamental importance of the link between Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians.

The conference ended with the reading of a joint declaration by the political forces that had organized the event. At its center stand the principles of joint struggle and resistance to occupation and racism.


The speeches delivered during the sessions were only a part of the intensive dialogue that took place at the conference. At the end of each session there were lively questions and comments from the audience and new and important issues were raised that hadn't been discussed at all. Clearly the discussion was just beginning - the day had been too short and too packed: What do Israelis think about the Palestinian Right of Return and about the means of resisting the occupation? What should one expect as September 2011 approaches? What role do women play in the Palestinian struggle? How is it possible to overcome the politics of fear among Jews in Israel? To what extent are the colonial facts on the ground irreversible? What was the contribution of the "Black Panthers" and what is the status of the struggle of Mizrahi Jews in Israel? What ramifications do the democratic uprisings in the Arab world have for the struggle against the occupation, and what is the role of international boycott and sanctions? Questions and critical comments accompanied all the discussions.

Difficult Questions in Dialogue amongst Partners

Much apprehension preceded the conference. This is a first attempt in over two decades. In the “Oslo years” empty verbiage covered up the ongoing settlement process, and this eroded Palestinian trust in the existence of an Israeli left determined to struggle against the Occupation. “Normalization” gave partnership a very bad name and proved an empty promise in Fall 2000. It was clearly the accumulated experience of joint struggle since October 2000 then in various scenes of action throughout the Occupied Territories which enabled all of us to gather and discuss not only what should be done, but also the difficulties facing left activists and the kind of life we want to live.


The conference was made possible by Palestinian willingness to engage in open discussion with Israelis both about the struggle against Israeli occupation and colonialism and about social issues on both sides of the Green Line. This is by no means self-evident. On the Palestinian side this meant opening – not only in a strictly internal Palestinian forum but with activists who came from Israel – discussion about modes of struggle, the place of women, the role of the Palestinian Authority, the building of national unity; and on the Israeli side, this implied discussing the oppression of discriminated and dispossessed groups inside Israeli society, both Jewish and Palestinian, the oppression of Mizrahi Jews, neo-liberal policies, and the double role of the Israeli radical left in the struggle against colonialism and social oppression hand-in-hand with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and inside Israeli society.

This was essential for the success of the conference: instead of clearly delineated “us” and “them”, multiple dialogues enabled opening difficult questions of social and cultural oppression, of difficulties we all face – on both sides of the Green Line – when working for social and political change. Real dialogue among activists needs a sense of openness and trust, the feeling that everything can be talked about on the basis of our joint opposition to Israeli colonialism, to imperialism and social oppression. The two societies are up against these issues, and Palestinian and Israeli left forces both have a role – and a challenge – to provide answers through activity on the ground, through popular struggle.


One last aspect of this conference merits attention: the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue of the left at the Hebron conference was not a dialogue of elites, but rather of social activists coming from a social, popular approach. Among the Jewish participants, perhaps for the first time in encounters with Palestinians, most of the speakers were Mizrahis.

It is obvious to all of us that there are great and significance differences between our societies, and they determine the focus of action and the modes of social-political struggle. The Palestinian left forces are forced to deal with a cruel occupation that has been ongoing for over forty years, and with a Palestinian Authority that follows dictates from Israel, Europe and the US, and brings forth an elite benefiting from the crumbs of such cooperation. Inside Israel, left forces are working within a racist, colonialist, neo-liberal context in which social dependency, discrimination and national and ethnic oppression are entangled; they create splits among the dispossessed and discriminated, intensify inner hierarchies of oppression and discrimination, encouraging people to keep apart, not to show solidarity and making it all the more difficult to join in action.

But this difference between the contexts and modes of struggle does not obliterate partnership. Both societies, both life realities, are interwoven and influence one another. Partnership in struggle is a crucial component in developing political counter-strategies.

We, members of Hithabrut-Tarabut, have not invented the need for partnership. Dedicated activists have been building such partnership in different scenes of struggle for decades now. Some of us have accumulated significant experience in such struggles, some are doing it right now – in Bil’in, Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, the South Hebron Hills, in Hebron city itself, and in dozens of solidarity actions. However, beyond local partnership that builds up trust and opposes dispossession here and now, there has been a constant need for an alternative political vision, formulated through joint struggles and accumulated experience while coping with the questions at hand. The Hebron conference is a first step in the long journey that awaits us. This is a huge task. We are thrilled and proud to contribute to it. See you in our coming actions and conferences!