Haifa Conference for the Right of Return and the the Secular Democratic State in Palestine


Initial Report

By Yoav Bar (*)

Sort of Apology

Friday and Saturday, 20-21 of June, 2008 - after a year of dreaming and working for it to happen - the Haifa conference was such a great success that we hardly believed it was real… But on Saturday night, as we made the 5 minutes drive from elMidan back home to Hallisa, a poor, mostly Arab, neighborhood in east Haifa, the racist and un-democratic state of Israel was clearly and vigorously there - the streets were filled with police and special "anti riot" units, stopping people and beating them at random. We spent the next week collecting evidence and organizing a demonstration against police violence…

All of you who tried to follow the preparations to the conference, or who are concerned to see the results, might have been frustrated with the chaotic performance of the initiating committee. Others have criticized us for diverting effort from the urgent struggle against the occupation to pipe dreaming a remote future. One thing special about the Haifa conference was that it was initiated and organized by grassroots political activists, in the middle of an intense period of struggles, without budget. It was our moment to raise our heads from the exhausting daily struggle and promise ourselves and the world that the suffering of the Palestinian people may be brought to an end and there can be a bright future for everybody in Palestine after we get rid of the racist Zionist disorder.

Who was there?

Youth Meetings

As a gathering of political activists, working for the future, we started with the youth. The proliferation of independent youth Palestinian movements within the 48 territories is one proof that the new generation is not satisfied with the traditional political offerings. At the Midan theatre, on June 20, 17:00, the conference started with youth meetings - not lecturing to the youth but activists from different youth movements discussing among themselves their views of the future. There were two parallel sessions, one for High School students and the other for the "Shabab", university students and young workers, mostly in their twenties.

The Opening Session

At the opening session, the 300-seat hall of the Midan theatre was almost full. There were several Arab TV crews, including Al Jazeera, taking interviews with political leaders, and reporters from local Arab newspapers. Several Palestinian flags were on the stage, as well as a sign in Arabic, Hebrew and English declaring the "Haifa Conference for the Right of Return and the Secular Democratic State in Palestine". Sahar Abdo, the presenter, called Hanan Wakeem to sing "Mawteni" (My Homeland), and the public stood up to the song and observed a moment of silence for the martyrs. Rajaa Zo'abi 'Omari welcomed the public in the name of the initiating committee, and outlined the vision of the conference.

The main part of the opening ceremony included political speeches by the general secretaries of three parties in the 48 territories: Ayman 'Odeh from the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash - a front that includes the Communist party), Awad Abed El-Fatah from the National Democratic Alliance (BALAD) and Muhammad Kana'ane from Abnaa elBalad, the movement that was the backbone of the coalition that constituted the Initiating Committee. The appearance of Muhammad Kana'ane was most significant as (on 28/5) he was newly released from four and a half years in Israeli prisons, after he was sentenced for political meetings with Palestinian activists in Jordan.

In the second part of the opening session, there were three speeches in Hebrew: Yehuda Kupferman from the "Committee for a secular and democratic state in the whole of Palestine", and Dr Uri Davis from "the movement against Israeli Apartheid in Palestine" - both from the initiating committee, and Dr Anat Matar, a leading activists in support of the rights of Palestinian prisoners and for the rights of Israeli youth to refuse serving in the Israeli army.

There were also written congratulations to the conference, mostly from like minded activists in the 67 occupied territories and the Palestinian diaspora who could not come. The most significant written participation came from the Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Comrade Ahmad Sa'adat, from the Nafha prison in the Naqab desert.

Who was not there?

Professor Bhim Singh from Kashmir, who had to represent the international delegation in the opening session, could not get a visa from the Israeli embassy in India.

A group of Palestinian academics (with foreign passports) from Bir Zeit University were on the bus from Jerusalem to Haifa, coming to take part in the conference, as the bus was intercepted mid-way in Kfar Saba by Israeli security forces. They were held for several hours and forced to return to Jerusalem.

The Islamic Movement was invited to take part in the conference, as partners in the struggle against Israeli oppression, in accordance to the organizers belief that the secular democratic state is a framework to defend everybody's rights and to ensure full respect to all religions. They didn't officially reject the invitation and the task of building cooperation with them is left for the follow up committee that was formed in the conference.

Saturday full of Workshops

The real attraction in the conference was the workshops program, 3 workshops in parallel at each of 3 sessions. In the 9 workshops there were 41 registered contributors, in addition to the facilitators, all of them leading activists and intellectuals. The list of participants' names, more than 50 of them, on the invitation was a parade of support for the conference, and it was probably the main reason why, while we initially expected the second day of long discussions to have restricted participation, we came Saturday morning and found the premises of elMidan full with festive atmosphere, with many Palestinian activists from different political movements and parties and from many civil society organizations. There was a very significant presence of Jewish activists as well, probably the widest participation in a Palestinian political event ever (except, of course, mass demonstration, where everybody comes but there's not much interaction). There was also a significant presence from international solidarity movements - most of them young activists that volunteer in different programs to support the Palestinian people and came on the weekend to Haifa to support the conference. All in all between 300 and 400 people took part in different workshops on Saturday, with lively discussion about many aspects of the problem, the struggle and the solution.

The enthusiastic atmosphere created the conditions for the most serious discussion that characterized the workshops. The participants made their best to clarify their positions, and the public took active part in the discussion. Many different approaches were proposed, but it only contributed the confidence that we can do important things together.

What happened at the conference?

Details of the Proceedings

I will not dare try to give here any short description of the contents of some 20 hours of discussion in the workshops and full sessions. About half of it was filmed and should go online anytime soon. We also requested all the participants to write down their contributions, and some of it is already on the conference's site: www.ror1state.org. There are also written contributions from many writers that could not make it to the conference.

The full list of participants is on the invitation, and may be seen on the website. To introduce each of them and write a little about their experience in struggle or their writing or other achievements requires a big book - only the internet can give practical answers to this task.

Palestinian Popular Festival

Some of the more sophisticated writers that attended the conference promised to write special articles about the atmosphere that filled elMidan, before going after the conference political and social contents. It was all organized on the principle of a Palestinian popular festival - covering for the lack of budget with the effort of tens of activists, like the family in a wedding party, running around all the time to take care for the guests. Tens of the participants from outside the area were invited to be guests in the homes of local activists; Lunch was traditional wedding's home made food, and after 220 meals were served the rest was contributed to a local welfare institution; Simultaneous translation to Hebrew and English was done by political activists, and in most cases more to the point than the mechanical translation of many professionals.

All Palestinian Gathering

The most important thing about the Haifa conference is its place as part of an all Palestinian awakening for a new vision that will pose alternatives to the dead end of the Imperialist-led fake "peace process". The problem, the struggle and the solution are all common to all parts of the Palestinian people, as was seen throughout the conference. It was stressed in the workshop on ethnic cleansing exposing how it is practiced by Zionism from before 1948 until these days, in the 1948 occupied territories as well as in Gaza and the West Bank and the Syrian Golan. It was clear from the concentration on the right of return of all Palestinian refugees to all the areas from which they were expelled.

Even though only few Palestinians from the 67 occupied territories, mostly from Jerusalem, could come to Haifa, the conference was part of a wider movement: Ajras elAwda, one of the components of the initiating committee is an all-Palestinian network. Ajras published a special magazine on the occasion and distributed it in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria. Special meetings are now taking place in Ramallah to promote the same ideas, and in Haifa we listened to the written participation of Ahmad Katamesh from Ramallah presenting his view toward the future democratic state in Palestine. Salame Kelly, a leading Palestinian activist and Arab Marxist from Syria, sent a speech on video that had to be part of the opening ceremony (but we failed to show it due to technical problems).

The Palestinians in the 1948 territories

For a long time Palestinian in the territories who came under Israeli control in 1948 were a smashed society, licking the wounds of the 1948 Nakba which included many massacres and the ethnic cleansing of the majority of the population. Some tried to pursue a course of struggle for equal rights within the Israeli context outside of a Palestinian national perspective, but were always frustrated by Zionist systematic racism, that defines the goal of the state as serving the "international Jewish nation". In the nineties of the last century, some tried to pose a perspective of redefining Israel as a state of all its citizens. The Haifa conference was an opportunity to examine in historic perspective all these failed attempts at reforming the racist system, and propose a solution to the suffering from Israeli Apartheid in the context of a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian problem.

It was clear from the list of participants that the discussion of a secular democratic state in Palestine is not confined to Abnaa elBalad, which always promoted this solution, or to radical circles around it. Salman Natur and Hisham Naffa from Hadash, as well as Dr. Mahmoud Muhareb and Yael Lerer from Balad are just some of the more famous promoters of the one state solution. But also the speeches of the secretary generals of Hadash and Balad in the opening ceremony revealed a lot of soul searching and internal conflicts in relation to this perspective. It would not be far-fetched to conclude that there is a majority of Palestinians within the 1948 territories that prefer the secular democratic state, while the main reservation is about the practicality of posing this slogan at the current stage, but there is also no much illusions left about any practical solution to the Palestinian problem as long as the United State and Israel are calling the shots.

The massive presence in the conference of activists from the Palestinian civil society is another show of maturity of the society's confrontation with the harsh conditions of Israeli Apartheid. While there is a whole class of people that dedicate their lives to caring for the daily needs of the people, from education to health, to workers' rights, women's rights, economic and social development, culture and much else, almost nobody expects solutions to those problems outside of a framework of political change. We didn't expect the local NGOs to take a clear political position, and all participants were presenting their personal views on their own responsibility. Ameer Makhoul from Ittijah, Union of Palestinian community-based organizations - an umbrella organization for Palestinian NGOs - was on the initiating committee from its onset, and we had the participation of many leading personalities from NGOs covering most areas of public lives.

Jewish Participation

The numbers are not the only measure, and we still didn't process the registration papers, but the participation of Jewish activists in the conference was very obvious. They covered a whole rainbow from released political prisoners, through different trends of the traditional left, feminists, Oriental Jews (Arab Jews) activists, anarchists, anti war activists, academics, religious activists for peace, democrats, cosmopolitans and many more… But the most significant part was not their presence but the way that they were integral part of the whole conference, not as a separate entity trying to negotiate or to come to terms with a separate Palestinian entity, but as part of a common gathering trying to figure out a common future and how to bring it about.

The Concluding Declaration

When we finally arrived to the concluding plenary, we were not only tired and much beyond the schedule, but it was also clear that the inputs of the conference are too many and too important to try to conclude them in one hour's discussion. The initiating committee decided to present to the participants the draft position paper on which we agreed after long internal discussion, a paper named "The Jaffa Declaration" in tribute to the city where the initiating committee was holding its meetings while it was discussing the document through the first months of the year.

The Jaffa Declaration

The establishment of the Democratic Secular state in the whole of Palestine is the positive solution that will accomplish justice and will bring an end to the struggle on the Palestinian land as it:

1. Preserve the unity of the Palestinian people and their historic connection to the Palestinian land.
2. Achieve the goals of the liberation struggle of all the Palestinian people: The return of the refugees, freedom, equality and the right of self determination.
3. Strip the Jewish presence in Palestine of its colonialist nature, which is connected to the racist Zionist project, as a tool of imperialism and global capitalism.
4. Be based on the principle of separation between religion and the state, while assuring the freedom of believers in all religions to practice their religion.
5. Assure full equality in the rights of all citizens without discrimination on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, class or any other reason.

What Next?

The declaration was read to the public and received general approval as the base for the concluding statement of the conference. Several important comments were made by the public, mostly for additional positions, to be added to the declaration.

Many of the participants asked to join the initiating committee, to form together the follow up committee that will continue the work for these goals after the conference. Hundreds of the participants signed up and requested to be informed of the next steps.

July 18, 2008

(*) The writer is a member of the political bureau of Abnaa elBalad and was active in the initiating committee of the Haifa conference