Towards a new paradigm of the Palestinian cause: the case of Tunisia


Tunisian rulers have quietly normalized relations with Israel. Ordinary Tunisians oppose such efforts, and activists have a chance to harness this with BDS.

Many staunch supporters of Israel who claim to reject Netanyahu’s plan to annex large swaths of the West Bank have no concern for the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, but fear that the planned annexation will irreparably damage Israel’s image in Western public opinion. In fact, support for Israel is waning in the United States and Europe, especially among millennials.

In contrast to this favorable development in the West, support for the Palestinian cause in the Arab world has been steadily eroding over the past decade. If we put this phenomenon on a Tunisian scale, in historical perspective, it emerges that a paradigm shift of solidarity with Palestine is necessary. The very survival of the Palestinian cause in Tunisia and in part of the Arab world is at stake.

Tunis was the last stop on the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) journey after its expulsion from Beirut in 1982 and before its return to Palestine under the Oslo Accords in July 1994. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who was present at all these stops, said, in bidding farewell to Tunis: “We rush from her embrace towards the first pied-à-terre, in the backyard of the fatherland.” Unfortunately, this ‘pied-à-terre’ — the West Bank and Gaza — did not turn into a decent dwelling. The Palestinian people have not known free human life in a state worthy of their legitimate aspirations. In response to a journalist who asked him why his voice was choked with sobs when he recited his poem, Darwish replied:

“Tunisia holds a special place in the conscience of every Palestinian, not only for the welcome and hospitality that the Tunisians offered us, but also because Tunisia is the only country from which we have not been expelled.”

This indisputable fact, however, hides a permanent dissonance in Tunisia between the proclaimed Westernism of the rulers and the dissenting Arabism of society, which no doubt reaches its climax when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at stake.

Tunisian political leaders had had regular contact with Israeli officials since the 1950s, even before Tunisia’s independence. The nationalist leader and first Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba, a man of great intelligence, but also one of great vanity, was frustrated that Tunisia’s small size and limited resources had prevented it from playing as large a role in world affairs as Egypt. He hoped to remedy this by secretly normalizing his relations with Israel, challenging Arab League policy, an attitude that the Zionist leaders knew how to exploit.

Bourguiba’s successor, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, played during the first years of his reign (1987-1990) the card of emotional Arabism to reconcile the population, before resuming and amplifying the normalization policy of his predecessor. Giving Western powers pledges on Israel was the best way to buy their silence on his despotic management of the country, as well as the abuses and human rights violations committed by his regime. Thus he offered a prototype of the current Arab dictatorships.

Taking advantage of the Oslo accords, Ben Ali established official relations with Israel in 1996. A month after the outbreak of the second intifada, in October 2000, he announced that he was severing all diplomatic ties with Israel. But behind the scenes, contacts between the two countries never stopped. Five years later, in February 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that he had accepted an invitation to visit Tunisia from President Ben Ali, on the occasion of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) under the auspices of the United Nations. It was the Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, of Tunisian origin, who ultimately represented his country at the summit. He had come aboard a special plane, making the first direct connection in history between Israel and Tunisia.

The Ben Ali regime repressed any manifestation of opposition to his unrestrained policy of normalization with Israel. Even simple declarations of outrage were banned.

At the source of the Tunisian revolution: from Gafsa to Gaza

On the eve of the Tunisian revolution, in 2010, academics Larbi Chouikha and Vincent Geisser published a landmark article on the issues of the succession of President Ben Ali and the deterioration of the social climate in Tunisia. This was, to my knowledge, the only political analysis that predicted the advent of change in Tunisia. The authors devoted a section to the great popular mobilization in Tunisia following the Israeli aggression against Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. They placed that mobilization in the wake of the revolt in the Gafsa mining basin, a major social movement that had shaken the region in southwestern Tunisia for nearly six months in 2008, and which is today considered the beginning of the process leading to the Tunisian revolution, a year and a half later, at the end of 2010.

Under Bourguiba as well as under Ben Ali, the Arab dramas (Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Intifada, Gulf war, invasion of Iraq, etc.) have systematically produced undulating effects on the Tunisian protest scenes, sometimes going as far as to endanger the stability of the regime. Chouikha and Geisser evoke, “a complex process of resonance between the local (Tunisia), the regional (the Arab-Muslim world) and the international (the rest of the world)” to explain the ferments of Tunisian mobilizations. On numerous occasions, however, the regime succeeded in infiltrating the phenomena of pan-Arab solidarity. Thus, during the first Gulf War (1990-1991), the presidential party skillfully orchestrated a large movement of solidarity with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, powerfully framed by his henchmen.

But Ben Ali could not channel the popular movement against the war in Gaza that began in December 2008 in the same way, for at least two reasons. On the one hand, unlike at the start of his reign, Ben Ali was completely discredited both for his internal repressive policies and for his normalization with Israel. On the other hand, civil society made up of the independent opposition, Human Rights Associations, professional orders and trade unions, had created a Coordination of Independent Associations and launched a joint appeal (Appeal of January 19), in order to democratically frame solidarity with the Palestinian people in Gaza and above all to thwart the presidential party’s attempts to recover.

In January 2009, several hundred thousand Tunisians took to the streets to protest the Israeli war on Gaza. The popular solidarity movement had affected almost the entire territory, both large regional agglomerations and towns in the interior. The towns of the Gafsa mining basin, barely recovered from the bloody crackdown in 2008, had also organized several solidarity marches with the people of Gaza, defying interior ministry bans.

“[T]he regional workers’ unions of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) have initiated many local mobilizations,” Chouikha and Geisser note.

More rooted in the field and humanly present in the ‘Tunisia of the interior’, the local chapters of the union have helped to effectively structure a popular movement which suggests the socio-political role that they could play in the near future on more ‘national’ issues.

It is not insignificant that UGTT regional unions had refused to support the protest movements in the Gafsa mining basin in 2008. They had learned the lesson of Gafsa during the 2009 demonstrations for Gaza and would apply them again a few months later by framing the revolution that put an end to the Ben Ali regime.

It therefore emerges that the popular mobilization against the war in Gaza in 2009 served as a springboard for the Tunisian revolution, a fact rarely noted in political analyses of the ‘Arab Spring’.

One would have expected Tunisian normalization with Israel to stall after the fall of Ben Ali.  This did not happen.

Today, political leaders continue to make pledges to Western powers on this issue, either to gain acceptance as ‘credible’ partners, or to obtain paltry financial and economic benefits in these times of endemic crisis. In addition, Tunisian civil society organizations regularly reveal instances of normalization in all areas (economy, tourism, sport, etc.). Campaigns denouncing these creeping normalization efforts are seldom successful.

An important exception concerns the Israeli shipping company ZIM which was forced to stop its services to the Tunisian port of Radès in August 2018, following a campaign jointly led by the Tunisian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (TACBI) and the UGTT union. But this success, to this day, remains an isolated instance.

In addition, popular demonstrations of support for the Palestinian people in post-revolutionary Tunisia no longer mobilize many people. In contrast with the mass mobilization against the 2008-2009 Gaza war, popular protests to protest the 2014 Israeli summer war on Gaza three years after the Tunisian revolution mobilized only a few hundred people. Yet the people have not lost their taste for barricades.

There are at least two reasons for the erosion of the Palestinian solidarity movement in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

On the one hand, as the field of political action opened up, both grassroots activists and civil society organizations were absorbed into internal politics. The Palestinian cause, which was the only relatively tolerated outlet under Ben Ali, has been relegated to the background since the revolution. There is relatively little room to maneuver to remedy this problem. We could certainly hope that civil society actors in the medium term tire of the mediocrity of the local political scene and regain interest in the Palestinian cause, where their commitment can shake things up. The enthusiasm that this cause is arousing in the West may particularly appeal to younger people.

On the other hand, the democratic transition, especially the establishment of freedoms of expression and demonstration, has greatly reduced the classic resonance effects between support for the Palestinian cause and the legitimate social and political demands of the Tunisian population. This phenomenon, on the other hand, brings new opportunities: new resonances exist and are just waiting to be implemented. Let’s explain.

Our enemy is common, our struggle is the same.”

The new solidarity with the Palestinian people is expressed in terms of convergence of struggles and intersectionality. This approach has proved particularly relevant in the West with minorities and oppressed communities (blacks, Hispanics, LGBT, immigrants…). Its applicability to the Tunisian case stems from the fact that several forms of normalization with Israel aggravate the inequalities and injustices suffered by certain classes of the population, while threatening the security of the country. These new resonances can easily be seen in surveillance and security and in agriculture, two of the most successful sectors in Israel. But there are also opportunities in other sectors.

In a report released on June 22, 2020, Amnesty International revealed that the Israeli computer security firm NSO Group allowed Morocco to spy on Moroccan journalist Omar Radi. The organization discovered that his phone had been the target of several attacks using a new technique to invisibly install the Pegasus spyware, produced by NSO Group. This software has been used in several attacks against journalists, human rights defenders and MPs in several countries. In particular, it was allegedly used in the assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. WhatsApp filed a complaint against NSO Group in October 2019, accusing it of contributing to the hacking for espionage purposes of around 100 of its users, including journalists and human rights activists.

In September 2018, Citizen Lab, a laboratory at the University of Toronto, identified 45 countries, including Tunisia, in which operators of the Pegasus spyware could operate. Its researchers note “that a separate operator who appears to be focusing on Morocco could also spy on targets in other countries, including Algeria, France and Tunisia.” In addition, NSO Group markets a big data analysis tool that claims to track the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic by tracking people’s movements on a map.

NSO Group is not the only Israeli surveillance company threatening our fundamental freedoms. Israeli facial recognition technology firm AnyVision is taking advantage of Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights to export its repressive surveillance technology around the world. Not only are its tools used at military checkpoints in the West Bank, but this company also maintains cameras on behalf of the Israeli army in the heart of the West Bank, in order to spy on Palestinians and enable the Israeli army to unlawfully target civilians. One of its partners, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), is present in Tunisia. Providing servers to Israel’s population control registry, a pillar of its apartheid system, HPE uses AnyVision’s facial recognition technology in its servers.

By fighting against Israeli normalization in Tunisia, we defend our fundamental freedoms while expressing our solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Another sector with great intersectional potential is agriculture. It has been at the heart of Tunisian normalization with Israel from the first secret contacts between Bourguiba’s emissaries and the Israelis. The representative of the World Jewish Congress, Alex Easterman, told Bourguiba Jr. in 1966 that Israel was universally known for developing modern agricultural industries and had passed on its experience and techniques to a number of new African states. The Israeli government, he said, was “very willing and ready to put them at the service of Tunisia.”

Israel’s technological advance over the Arab world in agriculture has grown over the past fifty years. Among the most important Israeli companies are Netafim in the field of irrigation and Zeraïm and Hazera which market seeds. Like many other Israeli companies, over the past decade, these have developed a new strategy to deal with the targeted campaigns of the BDS movement, which consists of selling the majority of their shares to foreign groups and funds, while retaining part of the capital and requiring the maintenance of production units and research and development activities in Israel. This strategy aims to maintain control of a group, its know-how and its patents, while protecting itself from boycott under the umbrella of a multinational.

Founded on the Israeli kibbutz of Hatzerim in 1965, Netafim is the world leader in drip irrigation systems, a technology that this company pioneered. According to its website, the company employs 5,000 people and provides equipment and services to customers in more than 110 countries, including Tunisia. The company is now Israel’s first declared foreign investment in the Arab world. In 2017, Netafim created a subsidiary in Morocco for $2.9 million, thus creating seventeen jobs. In February 2018, the owners sold 80% of their shares to Mexichem, a Mexican petrochemical group, for $1.5 billion. Kibbutz Hatzerim retains 20%. The agreement stipulates that Netafim’s headquarters, business center, existing production plants, and research and development activities will remain in Israel for a period of at least 20 years.

A photo posted on social media for advertising purposes by a seller of agricultural products in the Kasserine region in west-central Tunisia shows rolls of Netafim tubing with integrated drippers from Spain. The Eur1 movement certificate visible on the photo indicates that this merchandise entered Tunisia benefiting from reduced (or even zero) customs duties. Other photos show more recent arrivals.

Netafim now holds a significant share of the Tunisian market. Its drip irrigation technology benefits large farmers at the expense of local peasants. In addition, it promotes the monoculture mode of production which generates harmful collateral effects on the environment, threatens biodiversity and induces economic and social risks, as explained by the Working Group on Food Sovereignty (GTSA) in Tunisia, in an excellent recent report.

In the 1970s, the Tunisian state implemented a policy for collecting and saving water, particularly in the agricultural sector (which consumes around 82% of water resources). In particular, it encouraged and promoted drip irrigation technology through equipment tax exemption and access to finance and grants of up to 60% of the cost of the facility. These mechanisms have encouraged capital to enter the agricultural sector. Small and medium-sized farmers, for their part, have difficulty accessing these subsidies for several reasons, in particular the complexity of their land tenure (lack of title deeds, fragmentation of plots) and over-indebtedness. In addition, the majority of boreholes drilled by peasants are illegal, which constitutes an obstacle to access to state subsidies.

In contrast, investors in agriculture and large landowners manage to grab the permits for drilling and reap all the benefits that follow. These incentive mechanisms have helped to massively increase the irrigated area, which grew from around 60,000 hectares in the 1960s to 450,000 hectares in 2010, which favors the monoculture mode of production.

Traditionally, Tunisian peasants use ingenious systems that are very water efficient, including the tiered cultivation of the oases of southern Tunisia. The monoculture mode of production, made possible and promoted by the drip irrigation system, has destroyed this know-how. It applied first to vines, Maltese oranges and Deglet Nour dates, before spreading to olive groves.

The local varieties of plants that are traditionally exploited in rain-fed mode have been replaced by foreign varieties hungry for water. The expansion of monocultures of olive trees is now reaching regions historically devoted to arable crops, thus worsening the national deficit in cereal production. With the commitment to the monoculture of the Maltese orange from Tunisia, the small and medium farmers of Cap Bon have been forced to change their production method to supply exporters with competitive products on the European market. All resources have been devoted to this variety, and the diversity that characterized local agriculture has disappeared, making farmers dependent on the international market.

The turn to a more diversified mode of production is very difficult, as witnessed by this farmer from Béni Khalled:

“Because of the drip irrigation system, the roots of the tree no longer deepen in the ground, they go up towards the surface in search of water. This considerably changes the morphology of the tree and affects the soil, which compacts and becomes impoverished. In addition, with the installation of the drip irrigation system, we can no longer plow under the trees. We are no longer planting anything and we are no longer aerating the soil.”

In addition, the localized irrigation method involves an excessive use of chemical inputs such as pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers, which are now injected directly into the irrigation water. With the leaching of the soil, these harmful products find their way to the water tables and pollute the soil and water. The alternation of droughts and floods predicted in anticipation of climate change will increase soil erosion and leaching, if infrastructure and agricultural practices do not change.

Fighting against the infiltration of the Israeli agricultural giant Netafim in Tunisia therefore makes it possible to fight against the collateral damage caused by its drip irrigation system on the environment and biodiversity, and ultimately to preserve our food sovereignty. The solidarity network with Palestine has every interest in making common cause with the network for food sovereignty which works in North Africa.

The two sectors of surveillance and agriculture are not dissociated. In 2018, Netafim launched NetBeat, an intelligent irrigation management platform that allows farmers to monitor, analyze and control irrigation systems remotely on a closed-loop platform, generating personalized daily irrigation strategies providing real-time data. It is marketed as “the first irrigation system with a brain.” The ‘brain’ of the system was developed by mPrest Systems, a global provider, based in Israel, of Big Data monitoring, control and analysis software. mPrest Systems, a partially-owned subsidiary (40%) of the Israeli state-owned military corporation Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, developed the command and control software for the Israeli missile defense system, Iron Dome, often referred to as the ‘brains’ of Iron Dome. Iron Dome is a short range missile defense system developed by Rafael in conjunction with Elta and mPrest, deployed along the besieged Gaza Strip and in the occupied Syrian Golan.

The Iron Dome command and control software is mPrest’s flagship product and the source of much of its commercial success, according to its advertising brochure:

“We earned our stripes in the highly demanding defense market, having developed some of the industry’s most advanced and sophisticated command and control applications, including the software behind the world-renowned Iron Dome missile defense system. We soon realized that this battle-proven technology is exactly what IIoT [the Industrial Internet of Things] markets require for digital transformation. Over the past decade, we’ve focused on transforming these intelligent, real-time defense IoT capabilities to commercial applications.”

One such commercial application is NetBeat.

Edward Said wrote in October 1993, in his premonitory article ‘The Morning After’:

“With its well developed institutions, close relations with the US and aggressive economy, Israel will in effect incorporate the [Palestinian] territories economically, keeping them in a state of permanent dependency. Then Israel will turn to the wider Arab world, using the political benefits of the Palestinian agreement as a Springboard to break into Arab markets, which it will also exploit and is likely to dominate.”

Here we are!

This op-ed appeared first on August 13, 2020 on Mondoweiss.

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