By Bindu Desai

08 December, 2012

Firstly I must thank my friend Rupa for letting me know about this conference! It was held at the University Club House about 3 kms from my home. I was initially intrigued by the flyer of the ‘India Palestine Solidarity Forum’, which included these quotes:

Mahatma Gandhi (1946) :

But in my opinion, they (the Jews) have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism. Why should they depend on American money or British arms for forcing themselves on an unwelcome land? Why should they resort to terrorism to make good their forcible landing in Palestine?

Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar (1949) :

The Zionists are a threat to World Peace

Nelson Mandela ( 1994) :

When the Palestinians are free, our struggle will be complete.

I quickly decided to attend and come December 1, made my way to the meeting hall. Scheduled to open at 10.00 am, I reached a little early. I was surprised to see the gate to the clubhouse building shut and a posse of policemen all around. I went up to the gate and said I was there to attend the conference, a lady signaled to the police to open the gate and I was soon at the meeting hall where only 3 people were sitting. I introduced myself to them. One was a distinguished elderly gentleman Maulana Azhari who was from Malegaon. He nodded vigorously when I mentioned Hemant Karkare’s and Teesta Setalvad’s name. I then went to meet the other 2: former Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and his wife Niloufer Bhagwat. We started chatting and were puzzled to find only the 4 of us there.

Soon Feroze Mithiborwala, General Secretary of the Forum, joined us and related that he had got a call from the Registrar of the Bombay University, as a letter had been sent to him from the Marine Drive Police station. The Marine Drive police station is in the same vicinity as the Israeli consulate and it appears that there are certain police officers who are beholden to them. The organisers received very good cooperation from the University, but due to the police letter stating that the conference organizers had not been granted the ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC) the University would have to withdraw permission. The Registrar made it clear that if the police withdrew the letter, they will let the organizers proceed. Here Husein Dalwai (MP Rajya Sabha) & Additional Commissioner of Police Krishna Prakash supported the organizers. Thus when they finally got the police station to give us the letter, even though the police NOC was not really required. Feroze’s colleagues were awake till 1.30am sorting the NOC matter out. There was also an attempt by a certain rightwing teachers union to book the hall on those very dates, but even that attempt was foiled & dealt with. It seems the Israeli Consulate and their friends had exerted pressure to get the conference cancelled. Amazing how the Israelis monitor any activity that reveals the truth about Palestine.

Chatting with the Bhagwats, I recognized Niloufer’s name from her previous writings. Coming home that evening learnt via the internet that Admiral Bhagwat had protested the promotion of a communal minded officer to his staff and was dismissed by the then Defense Minister George Fernandes. Niloufer Bhagwat has been active for decades in defending the rights of minorities. The Bhagwats are determined and dedicated individuals who take the Constitution of India seriously.

Soon the hall filled. The organizers included Dalit leaders, active among them Kishore Jagtap. Many students from radical Dalit groups attended and the hall was nearly full. Later I read that Feroze and Kishore were detained for a day by the Mumbai police when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Mumbai on July 17, 2009. Apparently this was to prevent Feroze and Kishore from organizing a protest of US policies in Asia and elsewhere.

The curtain opened to reveal a ‘brick wall’ symbolizing the ‘Siege of Gaza’ and a banner that had photos of Indian and International leaders and heroes with Yasser Arafat’s photo in the centre. The conference was originally scheduled for 17th November but had to be delayed as the Government of India (GOI)’s bureaucracy moved slowly. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) was very cooperative; the delay was bureaucratic and not political. Delegates from Pakistan & Iran were not granted Conference visas, though all the other Indian embassies cooperated. One Palestinian delegate Hisham Jamjoun was not allowed to leave Occupied Palestine (Israel) and enter Jordan to catch his flight to India & thus he missed the conference. As it happened the delay was fortunate as the weekend of November 17th Bombay was under lockdown (Bandh) due to the death of Mumbai’s right wing Shiv Sena’s ‘supremo’ Bal Thackeray.


Inaugural Session:

Feroze Mithiborwala gave the keynote address. Israel cannot subdue Gaza, he said, and called Israel an apartheid state which should be treated as such & called for the boycott of Apartheid Israel. He also stated that “the Israeli occupation of Palestine, is the central geopolitical crisis of our times & thus its both a moral as well as a political imperative for the Indian & Asian people’s movements to play a decisive role”.

There was a general mood of buoyancy in the audience as the UN resolution upgrading Palestine’s status had recently passed 138 to 9. Feroze rightly remarked that except for the US, Israel, Canada and the Czech Republic the other 5 states included some whose names were insignificant & one did not even know. Rather like Bush’s ‘Coalition of the Willing’ I thought! He declared that the walls that divide us will break one day and that our goal was a free Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. He was happy to hear from the Palestinian Ambassador to India Adli Sadeq that India had co-sponsored the UN resolution and worked hard to lobby for votes. He felt the fight against Zionism was part of a larger struggle against US and Western Imperialism as well as Manuvad (the laws of Manu that serve to justify caste in India). The Palestinian resistance is the vanguard of the global struggle against Imperialism & Zionism & thus the struggle for the liberation of Palestine is a struggle for the liberation of the world. He also stated that the international scenario is changing rapidly & the Western powers are on the decline, as Asia & the other former colonized nations & continents continue to rise.

He lauded the help given by Dalits and Other Backward Castes to help organize this conference at every level. This is also due to the fact that now the Bahujan ideologues have understood the strategic alliance between Manuwad & Zionism, both of which are fascist religio-supremacist ideologies.

Advocate Niloufer Bhagwat was happy that the conference was being held in Mumbai as the city had always been on the side of the Palestinian people who she noted were determined to find new ways to attain their freedom.

Ambassador Adli Sadeq thanked India for its support for the Palestinian cause from the days of Mahatma Gandhi. He praised the Government of India for acting at the UN in concert with the spirit of the Indian people. He pointed out that Israel was guilty of preemptively bombing Gaza. Palestinians were to be assaulted and then blamed too!

Rabbi Weiss (USA) of the Neturei Karta who are religious Jews opposed to Zionism, declared that Judaism had been hijacked by Zionists into a base materialism. The Commandments of the Torah, clearly say not to steal or kill and Israel does both. He called Israel a “rogue state that had resulted in an endless river of blood”. Jews had flourished in every Arab & Muslim country prior to the formation of Israel and that Jews would not be destroyed no matter what happened to Israel. Israel was an impediment to peace, Zionism a racist & supremacist flawed ideology.

Paul Larudee (USA), one of the founders of the movements to end the siege of Gaza, described how Palestine has been home to people from all over the world through the ages. He declared that Jerusalem belongs to all of us. He urged India to be ‘an honest broker’ as the USA clearly could not be one. He was really enthused & buoyant at the fact that the Palestine solidarity movement was now breaking new ground, in a country as crucial as India.

Mr. Abdullah Abdullah of Fatah and the International Relations Commission thanked the GOI for sponsoring the UN General Assembly resolution. President Mahmoud Abbas had delayed this move at the UN till after the US presidential election but when Barack Obama’s stance was unchanged, President Abbas went ahead with the resolution. Most people on this earth supported the Palestinian cause. He pitied those who opposed the UN General Assembly resolution. Mr. Abdullah felt that in a unipolar world the US wanted global hegemony. But he differentiated between the policies of the US government and the people of the US, remembering & paying his tribute to Rachel Corrie who was murdered in Gaza. He felt the solidarity movement had to be rebuilt; Palestinians have to get their house in order and consolidate Palestinian unity.

Former Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat felt that super capitalism was the problem with petrodollars used to buttress Western banks.

Songs and Slogans:

A group of singers led by the famed cultural icon, Sambhaji Bhagat came on stage and sang songs in Marathi & Hindi about social issues. One dealt with the colonization of the mind by the US, no need for troops, or physical occupation of a country. They sang with fervour and the audience erupted with loud and enthusiastic slogans:

From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!

Palestine Zindabad! (Long Live Palestine!)

One Asia! United Asia!

As the hall reverberated with the force of the many voices that shouted in unison the Palestinian delegates were visibly moved. The slogan ‘Palestine Zindabad’ and ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ was repeated several times.

A little girl with a ‘hammer’ then proceeded to demolish the Apartheid Wall that besieged Gaza & all of Palestine to loud applause.

At lunch I met several remarkable individuals including Advocate Yusuf Muchala who had been very active with the Srikrishna Commission’s investigations of the 1992-93 massacres of Muslims in Bombay engineered by the Shiv Sena.

Session on the Colonization of Palestine

Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh from Bir Zeit University said there are two responses to discrimination: fight or flight. The Palestinian people were forced to flee in 1948-49 when Israel destroyed 530 towns and villages. Palestinians have a long history of resistance from 1891 till today with 15 major uprisings. The separation ‘wall’ that Israel has built is 767 kms long; 1.5 million trees have been uprooted. 87 % of the district of Bethlehem has been taken over by Israeli settlements. There is apartheid in the distribution of water, in the building of roads, in employment.

Israel is one of the largest supplier of arms to India. It has a well organised system to infiltrate Indian media and supply it with pro-Israeli stories. Bilateral trade was presently $5 billion and is expected to grow rapidly. Professor Mazin was much influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and reiterated that the conflict in Palestine was not a religious one but a struggle of an oppressed people regardless of religion. He was Christian and prior to the formation of Israel Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together without violence. He maintained that peace in Jerusalem is necessary for peace worldwide.

Dr Haider Dukmak, a Palestinian from Lebanon, spoke that in Al Quds (Jerusalem) the Judaisation had begun with stones and was now proceeding with increasing settlements to Judaisation of people. The area around the Al Aqsa mosque was being modified with tunnels being dug and access to the mosque being made increasingly difficult.

Session on Indo-Israeli ties, a betrayal of our anti-colonial legacy

Dr Tasleem Rehmani felt that the recent policies of the GOI were not so much anti-Palestinian but pro-Israeli as economic interests are paramount in this post 1991 unipolar world. Indian political leadership feels that Israel is helpful to them in this regard and in promoting Indo-US ties. A sea change from the days when Yasser Arafat was warmly welcomed by Indira Gandhi, he called her his sister and she had reciprocated those sentiments by calling him her brother. The present government would respond to public pressure, he gave the example of the statement of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) when Gaza was bombed. The MEA statement was full of pieties about both sides needing to show restraint and about peace talks. 2 days later reacting to public sentiment the Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid criticized Israel’s use of ‘indiscriminate force’ and reiterated India’s support for Palestinian independence with Jerusalem as its capital.

Dr Suresh Khairnar emphasized that the Palestine issue was not an Islamic issue but a human one. He had been to the Palestinian camps in Lebanon and Syria, so different from the areas of the cities that tourists frequented. The people living in these camps had been forced into exile. On Indira Gandhi he said that though he was jailed by her during the Emergency, he admired her stand on Palestine, her support for their cause never wavered. Dr Khairnar pointed out that Ayatollah Khomeini had also been emphatic in stating that the Palestinian issue was not an Islamic issue but a human one.

S S Yadav, a well known economist affirmed that Dalits were with Palestine as they too were suffering like the Palestinians, their land was taken away, and they too were humiliated and discriminated against.

Maulana Azhari a respected cleric from Malegaon, first addressed the guests from Palestine in Arabic. Switching to Hindi he related how India’s policies had been much appreciated in the Arab world. He was in Misr(Egypt) in the late 60s when Dr Zakir Hussain, President of India was warmly welcomed while General Ayub Khan though from a Muslim country, Pakistan, was not. He stressed that it was the policies followed by India that were respected, not the religions of a nation.

The speakers spoke from their heart, in Arabic, English, Hindi and Marathi. Sometimes translations were not provided but I sensed that our Palestinian guests got the gist of what the speaker was saying.

In the last session we had speakers from various political parties, namely Amil Patel (MLA, Congress), Abu Asim Azmi (MLA, Samajwadi Party), Ramdas Athawale (ex-MP & National President, RPI) & Com. Uday Choudhary (CPI). They all stated that India should once again take a clear position in their support for Palestine.

The next day, December 2nd.

The students set the tone for the second day by their enthusiastic slogans:

Palestine Zindabad!

One Asia, United Asia!

Struggle is our slogan! We will win!

Our wealth is our right! No one is handing it to us!

Before the session started Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh presented Jyoti Badekar and Kishore Jagtap with keffiyehs. They in turn took the keffiyehs and placed them on a small set of bricks adorned with the Palestinian flag and a banner of the India Palestine Solidarity Forum.

A short video was shown that conveyed the reality of Gaza. We were asked not to avert our eyes as for change to occur we had to know what happened repeatedly in Gaza. Jets flew in, bombs exploded, mayhem ensued. The plumes of smoke, the people running helter-skelter, then rescuers trying their best to get the wounded to hospital. Heartbreaking to see those jets deliver their ordinance on an unarmed , defenceless populace, their menacing sounds as they flew in, the loud explosion of bombs, the buildings going up in flames Our Palestinian guest stopped the video halfway stating he did not want us to see maimed and horribly injured children…

Session on the History of the Palestinian Resistance:

Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh had worn a kurta today. He looked very dapper in it! He began his talk with a Namaste and a few words in Hindi which delighted the audience. He told us he was from Beit Sahour near Bethlehem. He related that the first Zionist settlement was established in Palestine in 1880. The first resistance to it took place in 1881. In 1929 women led by Matiel Moghannam protested against British policies in Palestine. The protest was non-violent. Indeed Professor Mazin said Matiel Moghannam was called the Palestinian Gandhi. A more widespread protest took place in the mid-30s. Armed resistance was used. Prof Mazin said that an oppressed people have the right indeed an obligation to resist including armed resistance.

Displaying a chart which detailed the structure of the Palestine Liberation Organization(PLO) he pointed out that the PLO had many wings including Labour, Women, Child Welfare etc.

He described how in the 1987 Intifada 12 children were taken to a nearby valley where Israeli soldiers broke their arms and legs. They left one child’s leg unbroken so he could walk to the nearest village and get help. “To exist is to resist” he said. All simple acts of day to day life like farming, going to school, as well as arguing with soldiers, climbing the ‘separation wall’, sitting in front of a bulldozer constituted such acts. He told us that an activist who had founded the International Solidarity Movement was not allowed to come to India by Israeli authorities. Professor Mazin, though holding an American passport could not go to Jerusalem while an American Jew could go anywhere in Palestine. He urged us not to get disheartened by the inaction of governments. People change first, governments are the last to change he declared.

Basel Mansour (Palestine) displayed a map of Palestine which showed us how relentlessly Israel had expropriated Palestinian land. He spoke about the wall and settlements which are illegal according to International law. The wall isolates 29 Palestinian areas and takes 13% of the 5600 square kms that form the West Bank. When the wall on the border with Jordan is completed 37% of the land will be stolen as settlements grow.

There are officially 300 Israeli check points in the West Bank. In some areas additional check points are erected every 100 meters and these are not included in the total of 300. A hundred kilometers of roads have been constructed in the West Bank for exclusive use by settlers. The wall cuts villages in half, and destroys the local economy. Non-violent resistance is an imperative as the Israeli military is very strong. He continued” We try to keep them ‘busy’ by creative non-violent resistance. In Bil’in with international support creative acts occur every week with different themes. For instance one week we put mirrors in front of the soldiers so it appeared as though they were carrying our protest signs. We have tied ourselves to olive trees, used as a float a model of the Marmara (the ship on its way to help Gaza which was stormed by the Israeli soldiers resulting in many deaths). We have played tennis using a tear gas canister as a ‘ball’. We have used cyber media. Our protest has been partially successful in that some of the wall around Bil’in has been removed, the land reclaimed. We bring diversity of ideas to our protest. Some Israelis also support us. We use Israeli law though we do not trust their legal system. We use it to show how the system functions. We have been called the new ‘Gandhians’ because of our non-violent resistance. The Israeli military has used many weapons and ways to deter us: nightly raids, burning houses and farms, collective punishment, arresting people including children.”

Maysoum (Palestine) began with leading us in cheering: Palestine Zindabad! Yasser Arafat Zindabad! She spoke about those imprisoned by Israel, at present 4700 individuals; 185 under the age of 18; 470 from Gaza, 534 from the West bank. 200 have spent more than 20 years in prison. Prison thouh functions as a ‘university’ where prisoners learn of the history of the area, the many past struggles, the ideas with which to confront Israel etc. Apartheid exists in prison between Palestinian and Israeli detainees. Hamas and Fatah prisoners are also segregated. Since 1967 800,000 Palestinians have been jailed by Israel. Upon release prisoners are often deported, they cannot visit their families, not many countries want them as they are considered ‘dangerous’. She moved many in the audience to tears when she said she could see in our eyes the love we had for Palestine and she therefore felt that she was in Palestine!

Saeed Yaqin (Palestine) whose village was destroyed by Israel in 1984 said that yesterday he felt he had a home again in India. He was clearly touched by the warmth and affection of the attendees to the conference. He remarked on the ‘order’ in Israel’s ideology, “ to kill our smile, our people, our livelihood”. He warned that all religious sites in Palestine were in a precarious state due to Israeli neglect and their policies. The ‘Bantustans’ in Palestine were worse than in South Africa…

Vida Warde, a Palestinian who lives in Beirut spoke eloquently about the “Right of Return” & said that one day soon, all the millions of Palestinian refugees will march back home & brave the Israeli bullets, but will never give up their struggle & soon one day, Palestine will be free.

There was also ceremony where all the international delegates were feted with well crafted mementoes as a token of our affection & respect. The words inscribed herein stated the following.

“We the people of India hereby honour your commitment & sacrifice for the cause of the liberation of Palestine. This is our common struggle against imperialism, Zionism & all forms of racism, oppression & exploitation. It is only then that we will achieve our common human ideal of a just & peaceful world”.

The house all rightly feted both, Feroze Mithiborwala with the title ‘Ibn-Palestine’ or the ‘Son of Palestine’ & Kishore Jagtap with ‘Bharat Gaurav’ or ‘Pride of India’. The house was up on its feet for both these organizers, who have succeeded in laying the foundations for the Palestinian movement in this generation.

I left the conference deeply impressed by the efforts of the organizers, the large and attentive audience, the passion and sincerity of the speakers. May the bond that Dalits and other oppressed minorities in India feel for the Palestinian people grow from strength to strength as both struggle to create a just society. Their identification with the Palestinian cause should act as a brake on the GOI’s headlong rush for closer ties with the Zionist state.

The degree to which Israel and its allies watch any dissent from their policies is sobering. Looking up Paul Larudee and Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh’s name on Google I was astonished by the vitriol that pro Zionist groups had poured on them. But these efforts to defame brave individuals who are not afraid of opposing unjust laws fail. Though the Mumbai meet was ignored by the English media, its message will spread by other creative means & the message has travelled & wide.

The indomitable spirit of the Palestinian people will prevail! They will succeed in their efforts to be treated as equals with the right to full citizenship, freedom for their land, with Jerusalem as its capital. It is a dream we all share and will work for from Bethlehem to Bombay!