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Civility in the Service of Brutality

Unmasking the deceptive logic of the Israel conference

By Alex R. Shams

There are times when we must be suspect of calls for civility. Particularly at an institution like Harvard, where we are sometimes told that even war criminals must be given a place at the table, we must learn to see through the pleas for humanity when they are used quite shamelessly to cover up inhumanity, and to discern with clarity when the word civility becomes a ploy to distract us from the incivility we are not meant to notice.

In a recent Crimson article, organizers of the upcoming Harvard Israel Conference pleaded with the campus community to engage in “civil discourse,” offering their conference—a celebration of Israel’s economic achievements—as an example of the kind of discourse that would bring “new meaning” to campus dialogue. They mentioned that their posters had been defaced—an incident which I, of course, condemn—with the words “apartheid” and “white phosphorus.” However, they neglected to mention the third sticker that had been placed atop their posters: the portrait of political prisoner Hana Shalabi. Putting aside other allegations, it is worthwhile for us to remember who Hana Shalabi is and why the authors refused to print her name.

Hana Shalabi is a 29-year-old woman from Jenin, a town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In 2009, Israeli soldiers raided her house and threw her in jail, holding her in “administrative detention” for 25 months without charge on the claim that she may be a supporter of the terrorist organization Islamic Jihad. After more than two years in prison with no charges ever levied, Israel released her as part of a prisoner swap. Four months later, the IDF raided her house in the dead of night and arrested her yet again.

When no charges were levied against her for the second time, she launched a 43-day hunger strike, and it was only two weeks ago that Israel struck a deal to essentially deport her instead of letting her die, meaning that Shalabi will likely never see her family again.

Why did the conference organizers not mention Shalabi? Israel and its proponents have a great deal of power, a fact which allows them to speak at length about the country’s flourishing economy while ignoring military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the experiences of human beings like Shalabi. It is quite astounding that some conference organizers—including a proud former soldier of the army occupying the West Bank—feel a moral right to lecture the Harvard community about civility when they are essentially putting together a propaganda show celebrating the innovation of one of the world’s most egregious violators of human rights (if United Nations Security Council resolutions are anything to go by).

The Israel Conference, however, fits the mold of Israel’s recent public relations schemes. After the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2008-2009 that left nearly 1,400 Palestinians dead, Israel realized it could no longer defend its actions in front of the world and subsequently focused on promoting a sanitized, liberal version of “Brand Israel” instead.

A major tactic it has since pursued is “greenwashing,” which refers to a strategy by which an image of environmental consciousness is promoted by the Israeli government in order to make the country more likable to liberals and progressives who would otherwise condemn the country’s systematic human rights abuses.

This strategy is not only repulsive because it co-opts environmentalism in order to maintain support for a brutal military occupation, but also because Israel specifically undermines environmentally friendly measures when pursued by Palestinians. Israel diverts 80 percent of the occupied West Bank’s water aquifers to cities in Israel proper, starving Palestinian farms in order to nourish the trees they boast about. Israel also limits the ability of Palestinians to access their own water, systematically stalling or denying permits for water projects.

Meanwhile, where Jewish settlements in the West Bank are readily linked to Israeli water and electricity grids, Palestinian towns are not and are often refused permits to develop their own infrastructure. Israel has also been accused of systematically targeting and demolishing water and electricity infrastructure, including a series of German-funded solar panels currently slated for demolition for lacking the same permits that Israel systematically refuses to give out. The result? Palestinians often have to turn to the Israeli national water company for service, compelling them to pay the same government that occupies them in order to access the water underneath their own feet.

The Israel Conference, of course, will not mention how Israel undermines the right of Palestinians to development and innovation. It will not mention Hana Shalabi or the Palestinian villagers compelled to pay taxes to fund the occupation (and innovation!) of the state that has dispossessed them. Contrary to the conference organizers’ claims, the Harvard Israel Conference will not provide a “new paradigm,” nor does it present “new ways to engage.” Indeed, it offers us merely more of the same—civility in the service of a brutal, unending occupation.

Alex R. Shams is an A.M. candidate in Middle Eastern Studies. His column appears on alternate Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at @seyyedreza.

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