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NATFHE, PALESTINE AND ISRAEL: SOME QUESTIONS THAT NEED ANSWERING 13 May 2002

Since the NATFHE NEC issued its statement on recent events in Palestine and Israel, we have received a number of inquiries about the nature of our position. This note is intended to answer the key questions raised.

What business is it of NATFHE's anyway?

NATFHE like other unions, operates on the basis of solidarity and collective action. This has always had an international dimension, both as an individual union and as a member of the TUC and of the global teachers' union body Education International, which last year at its World Congress adopted a careful and balanced resolution seeking a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. We support the sensitive and painstaking initiatives of EI to build links between Palestinian and Israeli teachers.

And what is NATFHE policy?

NATFHE policy is based on an emergency resolution passed at its National Conference in 2001, and the statement by the National Executive Council in April 2002. These are public statements, and are available to inquirers. NATFHE is a democratic organisation, and it is open to members to participate in debates at all levels in the organisation from their workplace branch upwards, to put into effect policies they favour, or to oppose those they don't want. It is clear that 'policy' comprising brief resolutions or statements, cannot adequately address all sides of an issue, particularly in areas of complexity or rapid change, but it is reasonable for these methods to set out basic principles as the basis for further work. Any statement on international matters - from Afghanistan to the euro - tends to attract correspondence from individual members often highly committed on one or the other side of an issue, but this is no substitute for participation in the democratic process, which is open to all members through their Branches and Regions.

Is NATFHE anti-Israel?

NATFHE is not anti-Israel, but has had an interest in Palestinian education since contacts with the Friends of Bir Zeit University in the late 1980's. It seems evident that a sound Palestinian educational system is one of the cornerstones of the civil society which is essential to the building of peace in the region. Equally, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Israel on balance has been the main aggressor in respect of the Palestinian population at large, clearing populations for settlements and for security zones, destroying the fragile infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority at the same time as accusing it of not doing more to root out terrorism. No doubt the Authority could have done more in the past, but the recent destruction in Ramallah and the other West Bank cities can only put this process back, by destroying the Authority's capacity or motivation to cooperate. The concerns we and many others in the UK and across Europe have, are increasingly - and increasingly vociferously - shared by a growing number of officers and soldiers in the Israeli forces, who are refusing, at considerable personal cost, to take part in what they recognise to be an unjust war.

Does NATFHE condone terrorism?

NATFHE, like the rest of the UK trade union movement has been unequivocal in condemning terrorism: we expressed our horror at the events of 11 September, and have condemned terrorism and fundamentalism. However, we have questioned the 'war on terror' in which the UK government has embroiled this country, as the junior partner of a US Presidency with a shaky, ill-informed and highly partisan grasp on geopolitics. In the wake of September 11, NATFHE has also advised its branches on the need to protect students from threats based on their ethnicity or religious beliefs, or their status in this countries for example as asylum seekers. We are clear that the ongoing war being waged between Israel and Palestine is different in kind from the global terror perpetrated by those behind September 11. NATFHE, again with a number of other unions, has been a supporter of the opposition to the war in Afghanistan, which has killed an unknown number of Afghan civilians and further destabilised the region, a war led by a US Presidency whose objectives have slowly changed as it has gone on, meanwhile drawing the UK more deeply in as the conflict is prolonged.

Is NATFHE encouraging anti-semitism by its position on Israel?

We think not: NATFHE has a long record of fighting fascism and racism including anti-semitism, reflected as recently as 3 May in an NEC motion deploring the National Front success in the French Presidential elections, and condemning the recent attacks on synagogues in London and elsewhere in the UK. However, we believe that it is unacceptable for supporters of Israel's actions towards Palestine to invoke the argument that critics are anti-semitic or giving comfort to anti-semitic views. A just peace must be in the interests of all in the region, and the actions of the Israeli government and military have brought that peace no closer.

Is NATFHE ignoring the history of Israel and Palestine?

NATFHE, no more than any other single organisation or individual can claim a definitive view of the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and we do not intend to debate it with correspondents. However, we are a UK based organisation, and the UK bears some responsibility as the former Mandate power for the circumstances under which the present day problem - and its intractable character - arose. As with apartheid South Africa in the past, many in the UK and in NATFHE feel some moral responsibility for seeking a just and lasting solution. Given that the Israelis have a functioning state, whose prosperity and security are underwritten by the world's only remaining superpower, and the Palestinians have no state, are economically impoverished and with their civil institutions and security structures, imperfect though these are, harassed and in recent weeks utterly crushed by the Israelis, and while a high proportion of their population are largely dispossessed from the lands they owned or occupied under the Mandate, we have a clear view that this imbalance needs to be addressed - as well as the violence from both sides which is a basic obstacle to a just peace.

Why has NATFHE not made pronouncements on other international controversies? Why pick on the Israel/Palestine conflict?

The answer has already been partly given, but to reiterate: NATFHE is a democratic organisation, whose policies and views reflect the expressed views of the union's members. The members don't express views through the union's structures on many international issues - if they did, we would be bound to take these issues up. Equally, it is for the members to participate in the formation of policy on Palestine and Israel, through involvement and debate at Branch and Regional meetings. Individuals writing letters and emails may contribute to an informal debate, but that isn't a substitute for seeking to shape actual policy.

Is NATFHE offering one-sided support for Palestine?

No, but the positions of Palestine and Israel are so different in terms of the development of their 'civil society' structures, economies and capacities for all forms of collective action, and these differences are so clearly a major obstacle to dialogue and a lasting peace, that NATFHE is concerned to assist Palestinian education in the ways mentioned, and this by definition is about seeking to redress the imbalance. Israel's flouting of international opinion, most recently by setting impossible terms - including guaranteed immunity from accusations of war crimes - for a UN mission to visit the city of Jenin to see what happened there, make it difficult for outside observers to remain even-handed.

Why doesn't NATFHE criticise the Palestinian Authority?

We have tried to limit our concern to the 'civil society' issues referred to. No doubt the Palestinian Authority is far from perfect, and under the circumstances of its creation, that is hardly surprising - but the devastation of its capacity to do anything whether it had the will to do so or not, has given it the perfect excuse for its own failings. We have condemned the suicide bombings as well as the attacks on Palestine. It must be recognised that the recent desperate actions of the suicide bombers come after more than ten years, since the first intifada, of teenagers pitting themselves against the Israeli tanks and soldiers on their own streets armed only with stones, during which time the overwhelming number of casualties were young Palestinians - a pattern which continues to this day. However, we see, like most outsiders and a growing number of Israelis, that for the Israelis to use military means while effectively shutting off all dialogue with the Palestinians is not a viable - let alone a fair or civilised - way forward.

Isn't it unfair and counter-productive to seek to isolate the Israeli (higher) education system?

It is clear that some academics in the Israeli higher education system have bravely stood up - and suffered - for their opposition to Israeli government and military policies towards Palestine. They are playing the critical role in society that we expect of our universities. However, the universities are a part of the establishment in a society that has condoned and supported official Israeli policy. NATFHE as an actor in the field of education, can only use the means it has at its disposal, and in calling for post school institutions in this country to review their links with Israeli institutions, we believe we have taken only a limited and measured initiative. Palestinian universities and academics are trying to play the same role in respect of Palestine. As mentioned above, a growing number of Israeli military personnel are openly challenging what they perceive as an unjust and /or unsuccessful policy - that opposition only highlights the continued support of the military establishment, and other elements of the Israeli establishment - for the Sharon government's policies.