Bassem Eid spent the first 33 years of his life in a Palestinian refugee camp. As an investigative journalist and later as a leader of two human rights organizations, he has gained the respect of both the Palestinian people and Israeli authorities.
Lately, Bassem has been touring American college campuses to, in his words, “inject some facts” into what has become an emotional political discourse. And in a talk he delivered at Vassar Feb. 17, Eid denounced the worldwide BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel as potentially devastating to the Palestinian people.
“If BDS is successful, I am 100 percent sure some Palestinians would starve to death,” Eid told more than 70 students, faculty, and staff who attended the hour-long talk in Spitzer Auditorium in Sanders Classroom Building.
He noted more than 92,000 Palestinians cross the border to work in Israel every day, and another 15,000 are employed in the West Bank by Israelis in the settlements. “BDS can do huge damage to the Palestinian economy,” Eid said. “I can see nothing good about this movement.”
Eid was born in East Jerusalem, grew up in the Shuafat U.N. refugee camp, and currently lives in Jericho in the West Bank. He is the founder and former director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, a non-partisan organization dedicated to exposing human rights violations in Palestine. Before he founded that group, Eid was a chief investigator for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, publicizing and denouncing incidents of abuse by the Israeli military.
His talk at Vassar was sponsored by the college’s Dialogue and Engagement across Differences Fund.
In a conversation before he gave his talk, Eid said he realized the BDS movement was gaining popularity in the United States and in Europe. “But I can tell you, nowhere in the West Bank where I live can you find anyone who supports BDS,” he said.
Eid said he had recently spoken to a Palestinian who had lost his job when an Israeli-owned company, Soda Stream, moved one of its plants because of economic pressure. “When I told him this had happened because of BDS, he said to me, ‘Who is this BDS? I want to kill him,’” Eid said.
Eid lays most of the blame for the plight of the Palestinians on the Palestinian leaders themselves. “When people ask me who does (Palestinian President) Mahmoud Abbas represent, I tell them, ‘Perhaps his wife and his two sons, certainly not the Palestinian people,” he said during his talk at Vassar.
Now that the titular leadership of the Palestinians has been split between Abbas’ Fatah Party in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Eid says he has become even less optimistic about the possibility of a political solution in the region. “Despite five brokered agreements with Israel, we now have Fatah and Hamas and no unity at all,” he said.
Nevertheless, Eid said he did see a path to a better life for his people. If they work with the Israelis to improve economic conditions, a democratic government and true self-determination could eventually follow. “Right now, I see only corruption upon corruption among our leaders,” he said. “They have built not one university, not one clinic.
“So don’t expect me to give you a political solution,” Eid continued. “The only path is an economic solution, boosting the economy through cooperation with Israel. That would lead to both sides putting an end to violence and, I would hope, a young, charismatic leader would emerge.”
Eid was brought to campus through the efforts of a student, Jason Storch ’17, and the college administration. Storch, a Russian and chemistry double major from Lynbrook, NY, said he wanted to enhance the dialogue on campus about the Israel-Palestine conflict. “There were a million and one different perspectives on the issue, but I noticed none of the people we were hearing from was actually living in Palestine or speaking from firsthand experience of spending a lifetime in Palestine,” Storch said. “Bassem Eid does just that, but he doesn't use this lifetime experience to tokenize his ethnicity or nationality. Rather, he uses it to bolster his ethos and his already credible statements.”
Before he delivered his talk, Eid said he had toured the United States last fall, giving speeches on 27 college campuses. Asked how he assessed the mood on those campuses regarding Israel and Palestine, Eid said he was encouraged. “I think there are some who don’t know the facts and just parrot what others are saying, and there are others who know the facts but ignore them,” he said. “But I am happy to say, those are in the minority. The vast majority of students are eager to learn the truth about what is going on.”
Photo by Karl Rabe