From December 1 through 3, Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) hosted a conference called Challenging Oppression: Working for Justice from Palestine to the USA. Sabeel is an international peace movement initiated by Palestinian Christians. The first two days were held at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Friday night began with Tarek Abuata, executive director of FOSNA, and Reverend Ronny Lister, who gave keynote addresses called “Resisting and Reimagining the World.” Abuata was born in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem. He spoke of being forced to stay indoors whenever there was a Jewish holiday. He reminded us that walls only create enemies. Abuata unveiled a five-point plan: commit to taking action, answer tough questions, build steps towards justice, reimagine the world, and resist attempts to stop you. Reverend Lister also spoke of envisioning a future that we want to live in. He encouraged us to see beyond our five senses. Thus ended Friday night.
On Saturday, Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, told us that a major source of hope for Palestinians are international volunteers. She helped found the Free Gaza Movement and has sailed on five Freedom Flotillas whose goal is to break Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza. These flotillas were staffed by internationals. Israel’s brutal invasion of Gaza in 2002 created the second Intifada in 2004. Israel responded by attacking peaceful protesters with live ammunition, resulting in many head and chest wounds. According to Arraf, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “There are no civilians in a time of war.” In 2005 civil society of Palestine began the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Movement as a nonviolent tool of resistance. Again, internationals joined in. It is the presence of Internationals that reduces the number of people murdered by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Internationals go home and tell their stories, spreading word of the injustices in Palestine and thus building international support against this war of settler colonization.
A dynamic multicultural panel followed. Reverend Michael Yoshii, pastor of Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, Calif., spoke about his childhood in the concentration camps used to imprison Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. His was the face of the enemy then, so when 9/11 occurred he recognized the phenomena as Semitic people became the face of the enemy. His church supports the city of Alameda entering into a sister-city relationship with the village of Wadi Foquin, a West Bank Palestinian village under siege from Israeli settlement construction. Alicia Sanchez, union organizer and president of radio station KBBF, spoke of growing up in Texas, where she was taught to be ashamed of being Mexican. This changed at college, where she learned that injustice to anyone is our business. Madonna Thunder Hawk, from the Lakota People’s Law Project, spoke of the importance of keeping a land base so that there is struggle and not defeat. Lara Kiswani, director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) and a founder of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), spoke of the SJP’s strategy to support the liberation struggles of others while keeping a focus on Palestine. Stop Urban Shield is one example of this solidarity tactic.
Breakout sessions followed. There were sessions on Palestine and the Roles of Churches, Jewish Resistance to Occupation, The Movement for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, Everything You Wanted to Know about BDS but Did Not Know Who to Ask, and the two I attended, Zionist Harassment and Legal Warfare and Take Action for Palestine. In the first session, Saleem Shehadeh and Zoha Khalili spoke about the work and struggles of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). This organization is frequently under observation by campus authorities, often in collaboration with Hillel, a pro-Israel student club. Every rule possible is applied to SJP, including rules never before used. An SJP member has even been accused of adjusting her head scarf in a threatening manner! The Zionist goal is for Zionism to be accepted, unchallenged, at universities. In 2015 Palestine Legal published the Palestine Exception to Free Speech. The following year they hosted a Know Your Rights Fair. In the second session I attended, Rochelle Watson and Tarek Abuata spoke of FOSNA campaigns including H-P Free Church campaign; the Right to Boycott campaign, aimed at confronting anti-BDS legislation; No Way To Treat a Child, addressing the imprisonment of children in Israeli jails; the World Without Walls campaign; and the boycotts of G4S, Soda Stream, H-P, Ahava, and Sabra.
The final speaker was Dr. Mona El-Farra, director of the Gaza Project for the Middle East Children’s Alliance. The United Nations has declared Gaza unlivable: 2 million people live in 130 square miles; 90% of Palestinians are never allowed to leave Gaza; children living within 20 miles of the coast have never seen the sea; unemployment sits at 65%; fishermen are attacked regularly as they fish within a 3-mile limit in polluted waters; 70% of residents experience food insecurity; 20,000 houses were destroyed this year alone; hospitals are undersupplied, with limited electricity and no clean water; and everyone waits for the next invasion. The actions of the state of Israel are paid for primarily by U.S. taxes to the tune of nearly $4 billion a year. Our job as Americans is clear: Stop funding the occupation. Freedom anywhere is a threat to occupation everywhere.