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Palestine conference draws heated debate

The Palestine Solidarity Movement is used to opposition. Its first controversial conference, in sunny California, was barely a blip on the radar screen. By its third meeting, there was a minor uproar over its location, leadership and intent. As the organization prepares for its fourth convention here at Duke, it’s getting used to the attention.

PSM periodically makes headlines for its annual conference, which began four years ago at the University of California at Berkeley. It is an umbrella organization that joins together various pro-Palestinian groups, most of them university-affiliated. The conference is their primary interaction point.

PSM’s ultimate goal is to end the fighting between Palestinians and Israelis by ending the Israeli occupation of land it considers Palestinian. “We aim to end all these troubles by focusing on the root cause, the disease itself, which will eliminate all other problems,” said Fayyad Sbaihat, a national spokesperson for PSM.

The organization is comprised primarily of university students, and Jewish people comprise almost a third of its members. Palestinian people comprise another third of the several hundred members.

The group is intensely democratic. Sbaihat said every decision, from conference location to the roster of speakers, is put to a vote of the 73-member organizing committee. “We’d like to be fair,” he noted.

Voting helps quell some of the dissent among the range of pro-Palestinian opinions that exist within PSM. The organization has had several heated debates about whether to explicitly condemn suicide bombings and other terrorist-type violence. Since PSM is a coalition of other groups, not every member stands in the same place along the continuum of Palestinian advocates—some are extremely moderate while others border on radical.

 

A wide array of positions

That range of opinions has driven PSM into the news before. The group came under national scrutiny last year when organizers for a planned conference at Rutgers University spoke to the media, advocating Palestinian liberation “by any means necessary.” New Jersey officials denounced the conference. Meanwhile, PSM was growing increasingly frustrated with the Rutgers hosts’ attempts to bypass the conference planning structure and act unilaterally.

PSM decided to move its official conference to Ohio State University. The student organizers at Rutgers decided to host the conference they had planned—an event featuring a relatively incendiary position on what pro-Palestinian groups call the Israeli occupation—but they failed to follow university regulations and were forced to hold their splinter conference in a hotel.

Planners say the group is unified once again, though, and delegates who went to the Rutgers conference last year are back on the organizing committee for the conference at Duke.

Even the group’s statements are completely unified. Only two people—Sbaihat and Duke graduate student Rann Bar-on—can speak on behalf of PSM to the media, and they’ve both been working overtime to explain the group.

Most of the criticism has accused PSM of being a terrorist organization. But law enforcement authorities said they have found no connections between the group and any terrorist activity. Many news outlets as well as partisan groups have reported that PSM is the American branch of International Solidarity Movement, which U.S. authorities have linked to violent outfits in the Middle East. The connection between PSM and ISM, however, is at most an overlap of some goals and perhaps members.

“There is no link. We are two separate organizations,” Sbaihat said as the official spokesperson for PSM.

As an individual, though, he supports ISM’s goals and its ability to recruit volunteers. On its website, ISM declares itself a non-violent movement aimed at increasing awareness of the land struggle in Israel. The movement does not condemn suicide bombings directly, even as it encourages non-violent resistance to what it dubs Israeli occupation.

The ISM’s explanation of violence is what draws accusations of terrorism. “The Israeli government has long worked to crush peaceful resistance, making it very difficult for Palestinians to act nonviolently on a large scale,” the ISM website reads.

 

Action through withdrawal

The Palestine Solidarity Movement, however, stays away from such language. Its official position on actions in the Middle East is to have no position. It condemns violence at every turn, but declines comment on the day to day events in Israel.

“As an organization of solidarity, it is not our position to dictate what methods the Palestinians use,” Sbaihat said. “But as an organization in the United States, we use peaceful and non-violent methods in the hope of ending the violence.”

The primary thrust of PSM’s efforts centers on divestment. The group has taken its cue from the pressure various nations exerted on South Africa to end Apartheid in the 1980s. At the group’s first meeting in 2001, it decided to devote much of its energies to encouraging universities to withdraw all their financial holdings from any company that produces products used in Israeli military operations or to violate human rights.

Caterpillar Corp., which makes a bulldozer used by the Israeli army, is currently the main target. Eventually the divestment efforts will extend to companies with more tangential connections. For example, Starbuck’s Coffee may eventually be a target because the owners are “major contributors” to Israel, Sbaihat said. So far no universities have agreed to divest, but several churches and church groups have endorsed the divestment.

Last year a group of Duke students, many of them affiliated with Hiwar, the student group sponsoring the conference at the University this year, took the issue before then-President Nan Keohane. She refused to divest the University’s holdings, citing the complicated nature of the conflict. Since that time, the University has developed a set of guidelines for ethical investing.

But the conference will not directly take aim at Duke’s investing, Bar-on said. The group’s commitment right now is to foster dialogue and education.

“We think once we get to the people and explain the case,” Sbaihat said, “we think we have a very strong case.”

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