Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, Director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History and the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability - Bethlehem University and author of several books including ‘Popular Resistance in Palestine’.
Transcript of talk given at the Merton Arts Space, Wimbledon Library at the invitation of the Merton Palestine Solidarity Campaign on 31 October 2017, attended by circa 60 people.
‘Biodiversity, Sustainability and Human Rights in Palestine’
Professor Qumsiyeh started by drawing a parallel between nature and human society and argued that as in nature, diversity makes societies strong and uniform societies rarely succeed. In 2014 he set up the Palestine Museum of Natural History and the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability at Bethlehem University. He invited the audience to support them (quite a bit more money needs to be raised) and to visit.
Prof Qumsiyeh said that as a scientist and being medically trained, whenever a patient comes to him, the key to treatment is to arrive at a diagnosis. Until the correct diagnosis is identified, the symptoms won’t make sense. Similarly with the conflict in Palestine, it’s vital first and foremost to establish a diagnosis. Everything we’re observing – the brutality, house demolitions, restrictions on movement, settlements, blockade, counter-attacks, even the terrorism – all these are symptoms which only make sense when the correct diagnosis is established. And in this case, the diagnosis is obvious - it’s colonization.
The following is a transcript of most of the talk (with 4-5 minutes missing from both the start and the end, apologies):
“The British Government approached a guy named George Gawler in 1841, and they told him “You’re an expert on colonization because you were in charge of the colonization of Australia, setting up the penal colonies in Australia” (there’s a town in Australia called Gawler City) and they said to him “Look into the feasibility of doing Jewish colonies like you did in Australia”. And he did. He published his report in 1845 and he followed it up with an expansion pamphlet the title of which was “Emancipation of the Jews … for the maintenance of the Protestant profession of Empire” and was entitled to the support of the British nation. He submitted this report to the British government which loved it. He had only a couple of minor obstacles, he said you guys can overcome them – “one is finding enough money to do this and the second one is finding enough Jews and non-Jews to support it”. And indeed the main objection in 1847 to this project came from the only two members of Parliament who were Jewish at the time – they objected vehemently because they said “you’re going to ship us to this backwater of the Empire like you shipped the criminals to Australia?”
The British government adopted it and they proceeded and they funded it in 1852. The funding was mostly for exploration (“The Palestine Exploration Fund”) but then they managed to find some Jewish Zionists who have a lot of money, people like Rothchild and so the first Zionist colony was established in Palestine in 1880. And in 1881 we had our first uprising or intifada. So for people who say the first intifada was in 1987, I want to correct that – the first was in 1881 and since then we’ve had 14 uprisings.
In 1881, Herzl wasn’t very important, he was a teenage boy – his father was a leading Zionist. In 1897 the younger Herzl (Theodor) was a political leader and managed to gather enough Jews to form a World Zionist Organisation and he wrote “This would be a good thing as a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism”. In 1897, when Herzl held that conference, 97% of the population of Palestine was not Jewish. How are you going to take a country that’s 97% not Jewish and make it the Jewish State of Israel? It’s a conundrum. Herzl sent two rabbis to Palestine to study the viability of a Jewish state. The rabbis went and travelled from North to South and East to West and all the way to the Negev and before they sent their full report to Mr Herzl they sent him a telegram which simply said “The bride is beautiful but she’s married to another” It’s a wonderful country for a Jewish state but what would you do with these people? The answer was obvious – these people had to go. Send them away? Kill them? We have to do something. And everybody knew this – the British government knew it, the French knew it, the Europeans knew it, the Americans knew it, the Palestinians knew and the Zionists knew it. Nobody can claim they were ignorant of what this entailed. Because it’s obvious, you cannot do colonization by inclusiveness of the native people – it’s never happened in history and never will happen. Ben Gurion said there’s only room for one people here. Maybe we’ll leave a few in Bethlehem and Nazareth – you know why? Because there were Christians there and he wanted my ancestors to hang around there for the tourist industry. But then the Zionists changed their minds and said the Christians had to go as well, and indeed they did. Now to do this required getting Empire support. There was at the beginning but because of the resistance, they tried to stop the Zionist project and as a result, the Zionist movement decided to move its headquarters in 1904 from Vienna to London because London was closer to the British and French empires. You know about the Balfour Declaration of 1917 but I don’t know if you know that at the time, there was a parallel declaration from the French government in almost the exact same language. Now why do we know more about the Balfour Declaration than we know about the Paul Cambon document? For the simple reason that by the luck of the draw, when they divided the ME as spoils of WW1, Area A ended up under French control and Area B under British control so it was the British who were left with having to draw up the Balfour Declaration. If it had been the other way round then today I would not be coming here to talk about the Balfour Declaration and speak in English – I would be like the Syrians and my second language would be French and I would be in Paris speaking about the Paul Cambon declaration.
Now Balfour by the way, and Cambon, understood why they did this – it was for geo-political interests, it was little to do with sympathy for Jews, in fact Balfour was anti-semitic. He wrote to his successor in the FO saying “Zionism being good or bad, right or wrong, is of far more import to us and the needs of the Empire than the desires and wishes of the native inhabitants of the country and we don’t even go through the ‘form’ of consultation with the Arab inhabitants.” In other words, “we don’t even bother with looking as though we’re asking for their opinion – the ‘form’ of consulting, not even consulting itself.
So everyone knew what this entailed and so we too knew as Palestinians. If you want to know more about this you can read a book like Ilan Pappe’s book .. 530 villages and towns were de-populated. By the way 2 villages were de-populated long before 1948 – they were de-populated in 1921 and 1922 – you know why? The British appointed as the first High Commissioner of Palestine a guy by the name of Herbert Samuel. He was a Zionist. He represented the Zionists in 1919 at the Paris conference (which was supposed to be for peace but it was about what to do with all the territories gained after WW1). When they gathered at the Paris Peace conference they discovered that the Palestinians were not allowed to be represented and not even to stand at the entrance to the building. They tried to send a delegation and the British government in 1919 which controlled Palestine prevented them from boarding the boats and they stood on the pier in Yaffa harbour objecting to not being allowed to board the boats.
Anyway, Herbert Samuel, who’s a name you should investigate because he is in my opinion more important that either Balfour or Herzl or even Ben Gurion because he was the first Jewish Zionist ruler of Palestine – 1921. He’s the one who took over Palestine and established the Jewish State of Israel, as a British citizen who happened to be Jewish and Zionist. When he was appointed, the major Zionist newspaper in Palestine had the headline: “The First Jewish King in Palestine in 2000 years!” Indeed, he was like a king because the British government gave him all the authority of a king. And not a king by even British standards but a king with absolute rule like in the Middle Ages – he could do whatever he wanted. For example, he issued a statement that said: “Segregate public schools”. And it was carried out. The Palestinians could only object and protest but he could execute this. Imagine segregating public schools meaning that he had Jewish schools and non-Jewish schools. And the Jewish schools were under the control of the Zionist forces not under the control of religious Jewish institutions – they were not allowed to have anything to do with them. So that’s how he did it. And then he said “Give the natural resources of the Dead Sea and all the wetlands to the Zionist forces, 119 species of migrating birds, and it was all done with the stroke of a pen. He was a gentleman who was always dressed in white, meticulously pressed – the Palestinians called him ‘The White Devil’ and basically everything he touched turned to dust. And this is when the problem started in Palestine – the formation of the Jewish state, Zionist militias, terrorist organisations like the Haganah – all this happened under the power of this guy in the 1920s.
The bottom line for us is that 7 million of us are refugees or displaced people, literally pushed into the sea and then there’s the distribution of the Palestinians in the ME and then Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza and that’s a part of the story many of you are more familiar with and proceeded to build colonies in the WB and the map on the right shows major colonies in the WB. There are 230 Israeli colonies and they house 750,000 Israeli Jews, there are actually more Israeli Jews per square mile in the WB than inside the Green Line, what some people call Israel, I don’t call it Israel I call it Palestine 1948 areas. For example in the Bethlehem area, these are the names of the major settlements and they control most of our territory in the Bethlehem district when they took land from own ancestors and my own family etc. Historically then what happened to Palestine, the shrinkage of the lands allocated to the Palestinians for the benefit of immigrants from Europe so today we’re left in these bantustans. This shrinking map of Palestine, do you know where it came from, who’s the first person who drew it? It was actually my 13-year old son because he saw the map (of America) at the bottom in 1998 and he said Dad isn’t this what happened to Palestine? And I said Yes, and he said “shouldn’t you draw one like this?” I said “no, shouldn’t you draw one like this?” So he drew it and I put it in my book and since then it’s been used ever since – I have no copyright, don’t worry.
This is colonization. Colonization is a common human phenomenon. It’s not a bad diagnosis for this patient. It’s like the flu, it’s common, just about everybody gets the flu. And just about every country on earth got this illness at one time or another. And if you go through the roster of the UN alphabetically for the first 20-25 countries, every one of them was either a colonizer or a colonized country or both. It’s a common malady if you like. It doesn’t mean you’re going to die. It’s OK, it’s human history. And we have to accept human history. Scientists have a notion of acceptance of things as they are. I don’t like the fact that there are parasites in Africa that attack children’s eyes and make them blind. It’s part of evolution and nature unfortunately. It’s terrible for those children, but that’s the way things are. As scientists, we just have to describe them. OK but if we consider them an illness, what is the cure and how do we proceed? First, you have to look at other patients and what happened. Amongst other colonial struggles, there are three possible scenarios. Scenario 1: the Algerian model. It’s very rare that the natives win and the colonizers pack their bags and go. It doesn’t happen very often because the natives don’t have the wherewithal or weapons or anything else and in the case of Algeria I wouldn’t want anybody to think that we can follow this model because it cost the Algerians 1 million lives and 1 mil French packed their bags and went to Europe, I don’t say went back to Europe because they were there for generations, 5 or 6 generations. If you go to Algiers it’s French architecture. It was only in 1962 that this happened. Scenario 2 is a little more common but still fairly rare, and that’s genocide. You kill the natives and you can stabilize the situation. Think Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, the US. There are so few natives left that you can think of these countries as long-term stable countries though I’m a US citizen and on Columbus Day I went out and demonstrated with the native Americans in Boston and other places. For Thanksgiving Day which is this mythology that the natives and the colonizers sat down and shared food around the table – it was a thanksgiving holiday for the successful genocide / massacre of the native Americans. That was the original thanksgiving. But in the end, thank God, very few countries are like that.
The third and most likely outcome, which is found in most countries in the world, is what? Think South America, Central America, Caribbean islands, Canada, SE Asia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, all these islands in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans – the colonizers and the natives get together and you can call it a lose-lose situation or a win-win situation depending on whether you see your glass as half full or half empty.
But these are the 3 scenarios. Which do you prefer? Which scenario do we Palestinians prefer? We Palestinians have always called for the third scenario and I can send you document after document from the 19th century, from the first Palestinian organizations called Jewish-Christian Associations that issued declarations about Herzl and about everything that we Palestinians love diversity, we have no problem with Jews, they can live with us, we have no problem with immigrants either by the way. We welcomed for example the Armenians when they came, including after the Armenian holocaust (the word ‘holocaust’ was used for the Armenians before it was used for Jews and gypsies and others in WW2). So we welcomed them, we even gave the Armenians a quarter in our old city – it’s called the ‘Armenian Quarter’ in Jerusalem. They became natives in every sense of the word. We’re all at some level immigrants, we all came from East Africa. So that is what I believe is the outcome and what we as Palestinians have been calling for. It’s also important to have the right diagnosis so that you can understand the symptoms. If you do not make the right diagnosis, the symptoms will seem puzzling. If someone has cancer and you see anaemia you might say well they’re not eating well, they should eat more spinach. But you need to understand the symptoms, and the symptoms are many. Think of anything - the wall, the settlements, the discrimination against Palestinians, the home demolitions, the violence, call it the terrorism I don’t care – but the bottom line is, it’s all understandable in that context. Because after all violence is totally understandable in the context of colonialism. Colonialism cannot be done nicely, you have to kick people out violently and people resist. It’s understandable. What do the colonizers think about this resistance? Understandable also – not excusable, but understandable. When the Europeans went to North America or South Africa they were just circling the wagons protecting themselves from these savages and barbarians, attacking us for no obvious reason, killing our women and children, maybe it’s a religious question, maybe it’s a language problem, maybe they don’t understand what we’re trying to do bringing them technology and knowledge and building shining cities, manifest destiny, maybe they don’t understand our language and that’s why they are trying to kill us. It always becomes logical but if you remove the diagnosis it doesn’t make sense, it would not fit. Why did the Israelis start an operation called “Operation Hunt Cow” in your town to catch the 18 fugitive cows in your town? We had that in Beit Sahour - there was a military order that said we cannot own milking cows so why was that? What do they expect us to want to do? Of course they don’t want us to have milking cows, for the same reason that the Europeans and Americans killed millions of buffalo, to deprive the native Americans from a way of life so they don’t retain their livelihood and they go away. It makes sense, logically. Again, you don’t have to vilify this, you don’t have to .. whatever but it’s naturally to be expected.
So I want to switch themes now because you’re not here to hear me describe the symptoms and I’m not going to carry on talking about symptoms – there are many. But I want to start thinking in winning attitudes, not in describing inherent problems which we’re facing. If you look at the situation, what comes into your mind, with Israel doing this and doing that? When I saw a picture like this (pointing to slide showing two women holding placards – one saying “I am a Palestinian Arab. I was born in Jerusalem. Palestine is my homeland but I cannot return there” and the other reads “I am an American Jew. I was born in the USA. Israel is my homeland but I can “return” there”), the first time I met these two ladies actually I said this is good, it’s great – it’s two ladies, one Palestinian, one American Jew working together for peace and justice. This is what we have to look at, we have to look at every good thing. The nakba, everybody said the nakba was such a horrible thing, well it was – my grandmother was from Nazareth and we suffered, my mother lost her best friend in Deir Yassin, she was a school teacher, she was killed with all her students, horrible things, but the nakba also had a positive side, I discussed this in my book. I mean if you think about it, there’s a lot of things that are positive about us as humans and when challenges face us we rise up and improve. I am sure if we didn’t have the nakba, I wouldn’t have a PhD, I’d probably be a farm worker now in Beit Sahour. But I got education and went into medicine because of the nakba – necessity is the mother of invention and all that. So we have to start thinking about positive things. I’ll skip because of time. These ladies for example (pointing at another slide), were the first leaders of the Palestinian Women’s movement in the 1920s. They were going to meet the British High Commissioner and realized it was a waste of time so they started demonstrating and not only that, theirs was the first demonstration in human history that used automobiles – in October 1929, 120 cars were gathered from throughout Palestine (you can imagine there weren’t many cars in Palestine at that time) so they came from all over - Haifa and Jaffa etc to Jerusalem. That story made the London Times. These ladies organized lobbying in Parliament, the first lobbying for the Palestinian question one-on-one came from these ladies and the first support for Palestinian rights came in 1931 as a result of the action of these ladies who used their own money to travel to London to lobby Parliament here. We need to start thinking about the successes and not the failures. When these gentlemen (another slide showing Palestinian dignitaries of different religions) met and objected to the Balfour Declaration on 2 Nov 1932 in Jerusalem – these are people of various religions, they’re usually at each other’s throats, sometimes the priests are hitting each other over the head with brooms because one is Catholic and one is Greek Orthodox etc - but they managed to get together and they agreed to object to the Balfour Declaration and to the British so-called mandate over Palestine but not only that but to engage in civil disobedience and action against the British government in Palestine and some of these people ended up in British jails – this is in 1936 in a Jerusalem jail where there’s 4 Muslim leaders and one Christian leader together.
We Palestinians engaged in many forms of resistance and I discuss this in my book. When soldiers prevented teachers and students going to school and they have their classes in the street, that’s a form of resistance, as when we climb walls etc. All these are forms of resistance. And even innovative forms of resistance like involving people like you internationally and ISN people. ISN International started in my village of Beit Sahour and brought tens of thousands of people to Palestine to help us and we welcome you anytime by the way, you can come and visit and see what you can see if you want. If you decide to take positive action you can also join ISN, for example these ISN people protected the Church of the Nativity when it was being shelled by the Israeli army. Israel is more careful when there are internationals in demonstrations of civil disobedience. Not always however, Richard Cauley and many others were killed by the Israelis and hundreds of internationals were injured. For example my friend Emily .. who happens to be an American Jew. Emily was a Zionist actually and she came as a visual artist to draw. I told her to stay away from demonstrations and she stayed distant and yet they shot her in the eye and she lost her eye. But her family are all anti-zionists as a result. Since I came back to Palestine by the way in 2008 for the past 9 years I’ve lost 19 of my own friends. Imagine losing 19 friends of yours in 9 years, how would you feel? People like Bassem Abu Rahman, the most gentle person you can imagine. None of these people by the way were engaged in any armed resistance. Bassem Abu Rahman was the most gentle human being you can imagine. I study nature and I went to his village and was catching some insects and he said “why are you killing them?” I said I needed to capture them to study them and understand biodiversity, it’s taxonomy, and he said “but they’re living creatures”. But anyway he was shot with tear gas. I went to his funeral and also went a month later and his sister Jawaher showed me his room and it was kept the same way as it was and unfortunately she herself was killed by inhaling tear gas at the same demonstration 11 months later. And the last friend I lost was this guy on the right (pointing at another slide) wearing the T-shirt I gave him and here we’re standing in front of a bus stop to try and ride the bus – this is what we call ‘Palestine Freedom Riders’ and the idea was to show the racism in the state of Israel and have civil disobedience by trying to ride the buses. Because any Jewish person can come to Palestine, get automatic citizenship at Lod airport which Israel renamed Ben Gurion Airport and now we’re not allowed to use it. But anyway any Jew in the world and even any convert to Judaism can come to Palestine, get automatic citizenship, live on stolen Palestinian land and freely travel around including Jersusalem whereas I as a Palestinian, I happen to be a Christian but I cannot go to Jersusalem where I used to be a high school teacher, which is only 3 miles away. I cannot even enter Jerusalem according to Israeli military orders, I cannot enter Jerusalem with my American passport – this is how racist the state is. So we’re trying to highlight the racism. I was arrested many times during these acts of civil disobedience, more times than I can count. We call you to join us and boycott the sanctions as the sensible way of working with us as human rights protesters. You saw the film about the Museum – the Museum is also a form of resistance – the Museum’s motto is ‘Respect’. First as Palestinians we have to start by respecting ourselves. Mental occupation is more dangerous than physical occupation. Steve Biko I think in South Africa said this: “The best weapon in the hands of the occupier is the mind of the occupied” and that’s because they make us believe that we are sub-human beings, that we have to obey orders. I think I told you that I am not allowed in Jerusalem by Israeli military orders, that doesn’t mean I don’t enter Jerusalem, last month I was there. I smuggle myself in, as we say in Arabic “Tuz”, I don’t care, laws here, laws there, it’s not their country to give us laws. This is what we do and we have to do this, by freeing our minds. In the Civil Rights Movement, in a similar saying to what Steven Biko said, in the US among black people, it went something like this “Free your mind and your ass will follow”. We have to free our minds and how do we free our minds? We have to encourage children and children have free minds by the way. What we do as adults is we try to suppress, suppress their curiosity, suppress everything, we say “don’t touch”, no let them eat that, it’s good for their immune system. Give them a little freedom, let them think, let them challenge. “Why is the sky blue?” “Oh shut up son, I don’t know why, God created it this way”. No let them think, say “let’s go and look it up together”. This is what we have to do, encourage children, start with children. And once they respect themselves then they can respect others, other religions or cultures or backgrounds, whatever, and they can also respect nature, the environment, animals and plants.
So that’s what we do in the Museum but we also do more in terms of research, the effect of Israeli what I call environmental injustice, for example stealing the water of the River Jordan basin by diverting it to the Western areas and drying up the Jordan Valley and now to help the Dead Sea which has shrunk a lot they want to use sludge from the desalination plants of the canal which they have already half-built between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. The Canal has been dug on the Jordanian side not on the so-called Israeli side, you know why? It’s so that Jordan will be saddled with the debts of this canal – about US$ 15 bn! It’s the most stupid project I can imagine as an environmentalist. I did some study and won’t bother you with the details, it’s devastating to the environment and the future prospects and it’ll saddle Jordan with all this huge debt which Jordanian citizens of future generations will look back on and curse – why Jordan signed this agreement under American pressure. We have many problems including climate change, we have problems with water not because we have a shortage of water, there’s actually more rainfall in Ramallah than there is in London.”
This is as far as the recording got. Three or so minutes are missing from the end of Prof Qumsiyeh’s talk but he ended on the hopeful note that those working against the occupation of Palestine are not only on the side of history but of nature too. When I spoke to him privately the next day and confessed a degree of despondency and hopelessness as I saw increasingly the success of the Zionist strategy of equating in people’s minds, the media, governments etc any criticism of Israel as a veiled form of anti-semitism, he said “all I know is, every morning when I get up I look at myself in the mirror and say, if I can do one little thing today to help the cause, then I must, and that’s all I can do”.
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