In the first conference presentation, titled "The (De) Development of Gaza: Economy, Women, and Youth," both speakers, Sara Roy and Laila El-Haddad, and the moderator, Rebecca Stein, all are on record having supported various boycotts of Israel. El-Haddad is a vocal supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. Roy signed a "letter calling on scholars and librarians within Middle East studies to boycott Israeli academic institutions." Stein is a signatory to the Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (ABIAI), which calls to "boycott Israeli academic institutions."
El-Haddad gave an angry presentation that began with her accusing Israel of "settler colonialism," which is a term used to erase thousands of years of Jewish history on the land. She repeatedly spoke of the "Great March of Return" as a heroic and peaceful march met with Israeli violence. El-Haddad never mentioned that within the past 12 months, Palestinian terrorists have fired more than 1300 rockets at Israel. The Jerusalem Post further reported that during this so-called march, "Gazans have also launched thousands of aerial incendiary devices into southern Israel, leading to 2,000 separate fires resulting in over 35,000 dunams (approximately 8,500 acres) of land being burnt."
Continuing with her demonization of Israel, El-Haddad referred to Israel's withdrawal from Gaza as a conspiracy or scheme of "reengagement in the West Bank." In other words, Israel left Gaza to double down on the West Bank.
Toward the end of her presentation, El-Haddad complained that the security zone between Israel and Gaza forced "Palestinians in Gaza to fish without water and farm without land." Yet out in the lobby, there were beautiful photographs on display of vibrant Palestinian farms and of Palestinians fishing in the water. Another presenter complained of Gaza having surplus produce. The messages were bizarrely inconsistent.
Sara Roy, who has been criticized for "draw[ing] parallels between the behavior of Israeli soldiers and Nazis during the Third Reich," spoke next. She discussed what she called the "recent social protests" in Gaza. "People are protesting across all of Gaza's governance. Against inflation rates, the cost of living, and ever-worsening conditions." Roy continued, "These protests are organic and apolitical... They are not directed at Hamas or any faction..." About 10 seconds later, Roy said, "People are protesting several measures, including Hamas' recent tax hike on consumer goods, their very oppressive taxation policy overall, the PA's [Palestinian Authority's] economic sanctions..." Such a peculiar "analysis" explains why many question Roy's basic understanding of the conflict.
Roy said she wanted to conclude by sharing an idea she had in "another context." She said, "Israel claims that it must maintain a blockade against an enemy that threatens it. This question should not be shirked as it long has been but critically examined and clarified legally." Roy's conclusion was that it is crucially important to consider Israel's self-defense but not here and not now. It was a clear acknowledgment that this joint UNC/Duke conference was meant for bashing Israel, not for considering with any depth how Palestinian terrorism forces Israel and Egypt to defend their borders and citizens against endless Palestinian terror.
During questions and answers, the panel was asked to comment on the concerns of many Palestinians that Hamas is diverting humanitarian aid to fund terrorism. Roy responded, "If you truly want to help the people of Gaza, you end the siege...and then everything else can come from that." Roy's response not only blamed Israel for Hamas' corruption but completely dismissed Israel's security concerns. Bizarrely, only minutes earlier, Roy had concluded her presentation by urging people to stop dismissing Israel's security concerns and to start seriously examining them. One again, it was clear, this conference was for attacking Israel.
An audience member asked El-Haddad to contrast the Palestinian experience with the plight of more than 800,000 Jews who were exiled from Arab lands and Iran in the 20th century with no "right of return" and Jordan's expulsion of Jews in Jerusalem in 1948. I was sitting very close to the stage and heard El-Haddad talk off-microphone and tell Stein and Roy that she wasn't interested in answering the question.
Then, with audible disgust, El-Haddad answered by explaining her view that "Palestinian refugees are unique in international refugee law in the sense that they are the only group of refugees that are not given an international protection mandate...where they are not allowed granted rights of return...So there is no comparison. It is an affront, I think, to both groups, to be able to draw such a comparison. So, I don't entertain those discussions, and I don't even like to go there...It's dehumanizing to all groups." In El-Haddad's world view, one should not discuss the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were displaced at the hands of Arab countries and Iran. To do so, she says, is dehumanizing.
Because the panel and the conference were unbalanced and biased, there was no one onstage to challenge El-Haddad.
In my question, I pointed out that all three speakers onstage have participated in various boycotts related to Israel and asked, "What other countries are you boycotting?" Stein did not answer. El-Haddad went into a long response saying that she "absolutely" supports boycotting Israel, which she said is warranted because that is what Palestinians want. El-Haddad did not list a single other country to boycott. Roy responded, "I haven't participated in any boycotts of any country," which was curious, since her name appears on a "letter calling on scholars and librarians within Middle East studies to boycott Israeli academic institutions."
A Jewish student from Duke asked the panel what Israel was supposed to do because if it fully opens the border with Gaza, then weapons, weapon materials, and money used to fund terrorism will pour into Gaza from countries such as Iran and will be used to inflict even more terrorism on Israel. El-Haddad responded that the "siege" is "not about Israeli security or protect[ion] of Israel. Very clear, you know, they have stated, you know, it is about stifling development and prosperity...Gaza is Israel's dumping ground...it's a very essential dumping ground for the Israeli economy."
El-Haddad's response indicates that she believes that Israel does not need to protect itself against terror tunnels, rocket fire, and suicide killers and that Israel's security measures are really just an evil plan to be cruel to Palestinians. El-Haddad ended her response by telling the audience member that Israel's security concerns are "another way to dehumanize Palestinians in Gaza."
After the panel, as everyone was leaving for snacks and conversation, the Jewish Duke student politely approached El-Haddad and asked if they could talk. As the student asked if they could talk, El-Haddad picked up her phone, placed it against her ear, and said she couldn't speak to the student. A woman in El-Haddad's entourage told the student in an unfriendly manner that El-Haddad was done with the conference. This all happened inches away from me.
About a minute later, I saw El-Haddad speaking to a group in the lobby. I recognized one person in the group as a local anti-Israel activist. I asked the Jewish student about this because I saw the whole thing. He said he was hurt and annoyed that El-Haddad refused to speak with him. Hours later, El-Haddad was still at the conference, speaking to supporters, eating lunch with supporters, and talking about her book at the bookstore.
I have been to many "academic" conferences. This is the first time I have ever seen a speaker refuse to speak with a student or with any other conference participant.
One of the next speakers was Hani Almadhoun, presenting on "Humanitarian Crisis: Food, Water, and Health." Almadhoun stated that when Israel withdrew from Gaza, it purposely "left a Jewish synagogue or temple so the Palestinians can destroy it and look bad doing that." In this world view, Israel is blamed when Palestinians destroy a synagogue.
A pro-Israel audience member began a question by trying to briefly say he felt sympathy for all people facing hardship. He was immediately cut off by the moderator and instructed to ask his question. This exemplified a theme of the day – moderators allowed anti-Israel audience members long comment periods before questions but quickly cut off Jewish and pro-Israel audience members.
Almadhoun was asked, "Over the years, the Hamas government of Gaza has received billions of dollars in humanitarian aid that instead has been diverted to terror tunnels, rockets, bombs, guns, etc. If that aid is instead prioritized and given for humanitarian aid, do you think that would help the situation? If so, what can you do about it? If no, why not?"
Almadhoun mocked the questioner by saying, "Thank you for your genuine concern for the Palestinian people...I appreciate that." Almadhoun's response caused many in the audience to laugh at the questioner. Until that moment, I had never seen a presenter at an academic conference make fun of an audience member.
While admitting that Palestinian corruption exists, Almadhoun concluded his answer by saying, "Israelis are always interested in blaming the Palestinians for their own misery, and that's a nice copout if it makes you sleep better at night. But you know, the facts disagree with you."
Almadhoun took the time to mock the questioner and to tell this audience member that the facts go against him but did not feel the need to explain what "facts" he was talking about. This Israel-bashing conference had clearly turned into an event in which audience members who support Israel were being treated poorly and differently than everyone else. Many would call that discrimination.
At this moment, much about the conference became crystal clear. UNC and Duke were jointly holding a conference aimed at demonizing and delegitimizing Israel and holding Israel to double standards because doing so is safe. Israel doesn't kill you for disagreeing.
This article is part of a three-part series on the joint UNC Chapel Hill-Duke conference "Conflict over Gaza." Part one ran in The Tower yesterday. Part three you can exclusively read on our website tomorrow.