MIT Center for International Studies

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The March 30-31, 2009, MIT-Harvard Gaza Symposium sponsors included:
  • MIT Center for International Studies and its Program on Human Rights and Justice
  • Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School
  • Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard
  • University Committee on Human Rights Studies Human Rights Program at the Harvard Law School

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Watch the videos of the symposium.

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MIT-Harvard Gaza Symposium Co-Sponsored by CIS

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Congressman Brian Baird
Congressman Brian Baird speaking at the Gaza symposium on March 30, 2009. Photo courtesy Alexender Biletzki

The second annual Gaza symposium, this year jointly organized by MIT and Harvard, hosted a series of panels on the role of U.S. and international actors, as well as human rights and international humanitarian law in the wake of recent events in Gaza. The symposium brought together experts in the fields of human rights, history, political science, U.S. foreign policy and law over the course of two days on both campuses.

The symposium opened with an address from Congressman Brian Baird who, along with Congressman Keith Ellison (the first Muslim U.S. Congressman in history), were the first U.S. government officials to set foot in Gaza in three and a half years. Congressman Baird stressed the need for more expanded, immediate aid into Gaza, with a focus on quality rather than quantity. For instance, Baird noted that the Israeli administration was not allowing in extraordinary things (lentils, tomato paste, macaroni, and toothpaste) as they were considered a "luxury." To Baird, the issue was not the specific items, but the message being sent by saying that Gazans cannot have these commodities. He pushed the audience to move beyond the false dichotomy of "if you criticize the actions taken by Israel in Gaza, you condone rocket attacks on Sderot" (which he condemns). In reality, Baird argued that one can criticize both acts and recognize that there are many other options for dealing with them.

Questions to the Congressman and subsequent panels pushed the debate forward while sharpening the claims of the speakers. One audience member asked if there is a way to address the conflict without addressing Israel as a racist state. Gabriel Piterberg, professor of history at UCLA, argued that if you want to achieve a nonviolent solution, one must avoid descending into incendiary rhetoric and instead promote reasoned, serious debate and political progress. However, he argued that proper understanding of the situation can not be achieved without perceiving Israel through the settler-colonialist lens, similar in many ways to the British in South Africa and others.

Another audience member challenged one panel by asking: "Where is the talk of Hamas as a terrorist organization in this symposium? What is the purpose of firing missiles into Sderot? Is it democratic for Hamas to eliminate Fatah opposition in Gaza?" Karma Nabulsi, lecturer in international telations at Oxford University and former PLO representative, responded that Israelis would like to have peace and quiet without addressing questions of injustice. Nabulsi claimed that Sderot is built on destroyed Palestinian towns, and the people in Gaza are refugees from previous wars. Nabulsi agreed that firing rockets into Sderot is wrong and should be condemned, but claimed that Israel cannot guarantee its security until it engages with the major issues of the Palestinians. Another questioner later claimed that she had not heard about the human rights of Israelis and asked about their rights to existence and self-defense. Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Center at the American University of Beirut, claimed that he actually agreed with the audience memberís points, but only if she agreed that the rights of self-defense and existence apply to Palestinians as well. Khouri, a Palestinian, stated that if the rules of the game are that Israel gets security and then the Palestinians will later find out what they get, then the answer is thanks but no thanks. However, if the answer is respect and giving the right to existence and self-defense to both sides, then progress can occur.

Gaza Symposium Panelists
Panelists (left to right) Nancy Kanwisher, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the McGovern Institute, MIT (moderator); Gabriel Piterberg, professor of history at UCLA; Irene Gendzier, political science professor at Boston University; Karma Nabulsi, lecturer in international relations at Oxford University and former PLO representative.
Photo courtesy Alexander Biletzki

In the most poignant moment of the symposium, Sami Abdel Shafi spoke to the audience via telephone from Gaza. Abdel Shafi, co-founder of the Emerge Consulting Group in Gaza, was scheduled to speak in person but could not attend because he—a Palestinian and a U.S. citizen—was not allowed to leave Gaza by Israeli authorities. Abdel Shafi stressed that Palestinians are being engineered into perpetual beggars. Palestinians are thankful for the assistance, but they have the skills to take their place among the nations of the world if empowered. Abdel Shafi claimed that no people in the world would accept a situation where they do not have control over their airspace, crossing points, and coastlines. His biggest worry is that people around the world and in Israel no longer visit Gaza and see the people there and their conditions, which has made knowledge of the situation scarce and the bonds between Gazans and outsiders weaker.

On the second day of the symposium, Richard Falk, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, argued that there is no set of issues in which the American political consciousness is more out of tune with the rest of the world than Gaza and Israel-Palestinian issues. He lamented that international humanitarian law is largely absent from the discussion. Palestinians are so weak politically that the conflict gets framed in terms of bargaining over "facts on the ground" instead of recognizing rights of the Palestinian people. On key issues—refugees, removal of forces from territory, right to water—Falk contended that there exist clear statements of rights for the Palestinians that they simply do not receive.

Organizer Hilary Rantisi, director of the Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, closed the event by noting that this was the second annual symposium on Gaza. She expressed hope that there would not be a need for a third symposium and that the situation in Gaza would significantly improve, but recognized that the immense difficulties in the region today mean that Gaza will remain a central, challenging issue in Middle Eastern politics for years to come.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology