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BDS Leader Omar Barghouti Dedicates His Gandhi Peace Award to Palestinian Prisoners on Hunger Strike

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As more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners have entered their ninth day on a massive hunger strike inside Israeli jails, we are joined by the Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, who has come to the United States to receive the 2017 Gandhi Peace Award for his work as co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement. At the award ceremony, Barghouti dedicated the prize to Palestinians on hunger strike. He was almost prevented from attending after Israeli police arrested him, seizing his passport and forbidding him from leaving the country. An Israeli court eventually temporarily lifted the travel ban.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in Boston. Juan González is in New York.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners have entered their ninth day on a massive hunger strike inside Israeli jails. In an op-ed published in The New York Times, strike leader Marwan Barghouti wrote, quote, “Israel has established a dual [legal] regime, a form of judicial apartheid, that provides virtual impunity for Israelis who commit crimes against Palestinians, while criminalizing Palestinian presence and resistance. Israel’s courts are a charade of justice, clearly instruments of colonial, military occupation.” Marwan Barghouti has since been moved to solitary confinement.

To talk more about the hunger strike and the other issues, we’ll be joined in a moment by the Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, who has come to the United States, where he just received the 2017 Gandhi Peace Award for his work as co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement. At the Gandhi Peace Award ceremony, Barghouti dedicated the prize to Palestinians on hunger strike.

OMAR BARGHOUTI: As I humbly accept the Gandhi Peace Award for 2017, I dedicate it to the heroic Palestinian political prisoners on hunger strike in Israel’s apartheid dungeons and to every Palestinian refugee yearning to return home to Palestine to reunite with the land and the homeland.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Omar Barghouti, speaking at Yale University on Sunday. Barghouti almost did not make it to the award ceremony. Last month, Israeli police arrested him over alleged tax evasion, seizing his passport and forbidding him from leaving the country. An Israeli court eventually temporarily lifted the travel ban because of tremendous outcry, or at least people thought it was because of that. Well, Omar Barghouti joins us now in what could be his last trip to the United States.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you explain, Omar, what has happened to you, why you had so much trouble coming back into the United States? You’re both an Israeli citizen and an American citizen, a U.S. citizen?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: Good morning, Amy. No, I’m not, actually. I’m neither a U.S. citizen nor an Israeli citizen. As a Palestinian, as a refugee, a son of refugees, I have permanent residence in Israel, and I’m a citizen of Jordan.

I cannot talk about the latest phase of Israel’s repression against me, because I’m under a gag order, so I’ll have to skip the details on that. But we have to put it in context. About a year ago, Israel established a so-called tarnishing unit, established by the minister of strategic affairs, which openly aimed at tarnishing the reputation of Palestinian, international, Israeli human rights defenders who are involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights through the BDS, of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, movement. So this latest phase of repression comes in that context and in the context of a McCarthyite war launched by Israel, for more than three years now, against the BDS movement worldwide.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you were one of the founders of the movement and also a member of the National Committee, the BNC, which is probably the largest—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —coalition in the Palestinian territories. Could you talk about the importance of the BNC and its role right now?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: Sure, yes. The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions National Committee, or the BNC, is the largest coalition in Palestinian society, and it’s leading the global BDS movement. So it sets the overall strategies, the objectives of the movement. But this is a decentralized movement, obviously. So the BNC represents Palestinian political parties, trade unions, women’s unions, refugee networks and so on and so forth.

It agrees on the three basic demands in the BDS call that came out in 2005: ending Israel’s occupation; ending the system of racial discrimination, which meets the United Nations’ definition of “apartheid”; and the right of Palestinian refugees to return. As such, it does not take any position on the political outcome—one state, two states. We stick to the human rights agenda, rather than the political outcome that the Palestinians might determine as part of exercising self-determination.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you share for us, for our listeners and viewers, some of your own experiences that have sort of sealed for you your commitment to this cause?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: Well, I think we saw that, especially after the 2004 decision by the International Court of Justice against Israel’s wall built in the Occupied Territories as illegal, that the world failed to move to bring Israel to account on just this one crime, let alone its denial of refugee rights, its apartheid system, its occupation. So, my colleagues and I thought that we cannot live forever just waiting for the “international community,” under U.S. hegemony, to act to bring Israel to account for its obligations under international law. We had to take the South African path, so to speak, to bring Israel to account by citizens around the world, institutions around the world, civil society, getting together and taking measures that would isolate Israel academically, culturally, economically, and eventually impose sanctions on it, as was done against South Africa. So I was moved with a lot of personal experiences of repression under Israel’s regime of occupation and apartheid.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Barghouti, can you talk about the major hunger strike that’s involving hundreds of Palestinian prisoners right now? Where is it taking place? And its significance?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: Yes. The hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners, most of whom are political prisoners, suffering from very inhumane conditions in what I call Israel’s apartheid dungeons, or prisons and detention centers, are asking for their basic rights under international law as prisoners. And they’re being denied those rights. They’re being punished twice, not just with very long prison terms, with the lack of due process, the lack of any semblance of justice in Israel’s apartheid prison system and court system. They’re also denied some basic rights, like visitation rights. Their parents, when they come to visit them, are being humiliated. Many prisoners are tortured and suffer from very inhumane conditions. So, torture is very prevalent in Israeli prisons, in the detention system, in particular including against hundreds of Palestinian children. So, prisoners are striking, going on this very difficult, very extreme form of resistance, in order to show the world that they are lacking those basic rights, and they demand those basic rights. They refuse to live in such conditions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering your views, now that President Trump is here in the White House and Benjamin Netanyahu still is the prime minister of Israel, what your expectations are of the new American administration. And I understand President Trump will be meeting on May 3rd with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. What you expect from that meeting?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: I think if we consider the Israeli government, that came into power in 2015 as the most racist in Israel’s history, dropping the mask that once covered Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid, the Trump administration has also dropped the mask of the U.S. administration, which was always in bed with Israel’s system of occupation and apartheid, and now it’s in your face. So, the repression that we’re seeing increasingly in the United States and the repression and denial of rights we’re seeing by the Israeli government are coming together and showing ways to connect our struggles. So we’re facing very difficult times, facing an Israeli impunity on steroids, because of the Trump administration. And at the same time, Israel’s right-wing government is being used by the Trump administration as a model for ethnic profiling, for walls, like the wall with Mexico, and for various sorts of racial policies. Israel is now a model for the U.S. administration. And that’s dangerous for everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Barghouti, you were honored at Yale University along with Ralph Nader with the Gandhi prize. You also spoke last night at Columbia University.


AMY GOODMAN: Was there any trouble there?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: Well, we had sort of Israel’s McCarthyism reaching the Columbia University and Barnard College. At the very last minute, less than 24 hours before the event last night, the Columbia and Barnard administrations denied the students the right to open the event to the public. So it was restricted to the Columbia University community in a very strange move. And the reasons were even stranger. They cited an article in some far-right-wing rag saying that this is a controversial speaker, and it might cause a lot of controversy on campus, as if there’s any speaker who has anything to say is not controversial. So, clearly, the establishment, including the academic establishment in this country, are falling under pressure by the Israel lobby, that are really trying to sell their McCarthyism and their repression in various institutions to prevent Palestinian voices from speaking out and to prevent many Americans from joining the struggle for justice in Palestine, as well as connecting it to domestic struggles for racial rights, economic rights and other forms of justice.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the—again, about the BDS movement, Israel’s response to the BDS movement. What are they doing in terms of fighting back against it? And also, they’re building a database of Israeli citizens who are supportive of the movement?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: Sure. Since 2014, Israel decided that its former policy, former strategy for fighting BDS, the propaganda or “Brand Israel” strategy, was failing, so they adopted a new strategy that is based on using their intelligence services to spy on BDS activists and try to tarnish our reputations; based on legal warfare, trying to pass anti-BDS legislation, as is happening in many state legislatures in this country, as well as in the U.S. Congress and in countries like France, Britain and so on. So they’ve gone from a propaganda war to a full-fledged legal and intelligence war on the movement.

What you mentioned is absolutely important. Recently, Israel passed an anti-BDS ban. It wouldn’t allow any supporter of BDS or even supporters of partial boycotts against Israel’s illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories from entering the country. They are establishing, indeed, a blacklist of Israelis who support any form of boycott against Israeli institutions to bring about justice and to bring about Palestinian rights. So this McCarthyism is no longer just a metaphor. It’s really, truly happening, as Israel descends into the abyss and as people in the mainstream, as Ehud Barak, for example, are warning that there are signs of fascism taking over in Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think, Omar Barghouti—what would you like to see come out of this meeting next week on May 3rd between Mahmoud Abbas and President Trump that Juan was just referring to?

OMAR BARGHOUTI: I think I’m not alone among Palestinians who have very little hope that anything can come out of this. First, the Palestinian officials who are currently leading do not have a democratic mandate to lead. They do not have a democratic mandate to compromise on any Palestinian rights as they’re doing. So they’re not upholding Palestinian rights under international law. They’re not upholding the right of Palestinian refugees to return, the right to live without apartheid or occupation. They’re asking for a very small subset of Palestinian rights. And they’re heeding the dictates coming from the Israeli and U.S. administrations. So I have very little hope. This is a very weak leadership, without any democratic mandate. And we do not expect much coming out of it. We rely more on society, on civil society, popular resistance, and international solidarity with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Omar Barghouti, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Palestinian human rights defender, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, or BNC. Israel placed a travel ban on Omar Barghouti as part of its crackdown on BDS. But after he won a temporary suspension of the ban, Barghouti came to the United States to receive the Gandhi Peace Award.

That does it for our show. We’re on a nationwide speaking tour. I’ll be speaking this morning at 11:00 at Harvard Science Center, at Yale at 3:30 at the Yale Law School Auditorium, Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts at 7:30 p.m. On Wednesday, we’ll be covering Vermont. It’s Middlebury at noon and then Montpelier in the evening on Wednesday. Bennington and Burlington in the evening, that’s on Thursday. Then we move on to Washington, D.C., where Democracy Now! will be doing a 5-hour broadcast covering the People’s Climate March on April 29th. We’ll be speaking on Saturday night in Washington, and Sunday, and then on to Raleigh/Durham and to Atlanta and to Tampa and places beyond, right through to California. Check our website at democracynow.org.

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