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Middle East peace: combative Sydney academic speaks up for Palestine

An Australian professor is at the heart of a Middle East peace conference that has gone largely unreported in the west, writes Nikki Barrowclough.


One evening in Doha, in December: Sydney University’s Professor Stuart Rees is standing in the middle of a packed room, deep in conversation with the veteran Palestinian negotiator, Dr Saeb Erekat.

Famous figures in the Palestinian political landscape mill around them. Hamas chief Khalid Mish’al is there, along with Hamas’s head of international relations, Osama Hamdan. Rees is completely engrossed in his discussion with Erekat, a key figure in the latest round of peace talks brokered by the US secretary of state, John Kerry. But later on he’ll meet Mish’al, and will become part of a conversation between the Hamas chief and the UN’s special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, Richard Falk. “He insists that the soft power of international public opinion is strategically far superior to any further use of violence,” says Rees of Falk. Meanwhile, Mish’al tells the two men that establishing common ground with Palestinians in the West Bank and in the diaspora is one of his key goals.

It was an extraordinary gathering in the Qatari capital, which went largely unreported in the western media. The Qatar-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies had organised a three-day conference titled “the Palestinian cause and the future of the Palestinian national movement”.

Little did anyone there know that just over a month later, on 11 January 2014, the world would learn that the former Israeli general and prime minister Ariel Sharon was dead. The man known as “the sleeping giant”, who had been in a coma for eight years after suffering a stroke, was 85 when he died: still hated by most Palestinians.

Rees, the founder of Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and the Sydney Peace Foundation – he set up the annual Sydney Peace Prize, Australia’s only international peace award – and who was one of the speakers at the Doha conference, says the former Israeli PM should be regarded as “a military thug”.

“The fact that he died eight years ago but has officially only just died, indicates to me that his image as a military warrior was synonymous with the identity of Israel, and that they couldn’t afford to let him appear to die. It’s almost Kafkaesque that this should now be headline news with the mainstream media paying their respects to him,” he adds.

One can only speculate about the tenor of the speeches at the Doha conference if Sharon had died while it was still being held. More than 200 Palestinians attended the three days of talks, and the Palestinian journalist, Mohammed Daraghmeh, reported in Salon.com there was “an overwhelming sense of a national movement in crisis” – writing as well that it was a sign of the Palestinians’ political and territorial fragmentation that top decision-makers and thinkers had to travel to Doha to be in the same room.

However Rees believes the Doha conference could prove valuable in the long term, even while commenting that the Palestinians “have no cards to play” in the peace talks. “Saeb Erekat wouldn’t admit they’re powerless, but everyone knows they are because of the absurd claim that the Americans could be considered the honest broker,” he says, before adding that Erekat does believe Kerry is completely sincere in wanting to make the peace talks work.

“I said in Doha that the peace process over 20 years has been an appalling piece of game-playing on both sides. The Israelis didn’t take it seriously, ever, and the Palestinians were poorly represented by the Palestinian Authority which did not defend the human rights of its own people,’ he says

“But one of the things that may come out of [Doha] is a new force that will establish a coherence in the Palestinian point of view. The conversations I had with the Hamas people were really for that end. The rhetoric is division [between Hamas and Fatah], but when you see them together as I did: you had Saeb Erekat and Osama Hamdan embracing each other as blood brothers when they met informally.”

For Rees, who has visited the Gaza strip twice, in 2006 and 2012, ending the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is “the moral political priority because the failure to address justice for the Palestinians is the catalyst for so much other violence. All the time, extremists can say ‘Well, look how you behave towards the Palestinians.’ My formula is simple,” he adds. “Justice for the Palestinians equals security for the Israelis.”

Asked whether there was a single, startling moment during the three days in Doha, he replies, “The startling moment is something in a way that we know but should be constantly reminded of, which is that the lives of Palestinians are a catastrophe – and that there is a well developed cruelty as a policy, which governments like Australia’s collude with.”

Rees is a bluntly spoken, impassioned man whose life almost totally revolves around human rights and conflict resolution. The Palestinian issue has become bigger and bigger for him personally, he tells the Guardian, “even though it’s much further away from West Papua or Sri Lanka where I’ve also been and worked. Palestine is a priority for me emotionally, ideologically, because [of] the cruelty that is witnessed, for example, in the paddling of Gaza schoolchildren at this moment through sewerage to get to school because more than half of the power systems are down, which also means that intensive care units, dialysis machines, incubators, and operating theatres don’t work.”

The awarding of the 2003 Sydney peace prize to the prominent Palestinian academic and nationalist Dr Hanan Ashrawi generated considerable hostility towards Rees, who believes he was invited to the Doha conference because he’s regarded in the Arab academic world as someone who “sticks up for the Palestinians in general”.

The hostility came from some members of the Australian Jewish community – though not exclusively from them. And yet several international figures, including the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, praised the decision to give Ashwari the award.

The Israeli politician and peace activist Yael Dayan, daughter of the Israeli general Moshe Dayan, spoke favourably about the Palestinian winner (and on the day she left for Australia to collect her award, as Rees himself pointed out at the time, Ashrawi travelled from Ramallah through checkpoints to Jerusalem and on to Tel Aviv airport in the middle of an Israel-wide transport strike).

At the Doha conference, the Australian academic also talked about the controversial boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which Rees supports. Inevitably, he has been labelled as anti-Semitic for this stance, although he may have confounded his critics last year when he revealed the 2013 Sydney peace prize was to have been awarded to Stéphane Hessel – a concentration camp survivor, resistance fighter and diplomat who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and author of the 2009 bestseller, Time for Outrage – who died aged 95, shortly before the announcement could be made. (The Peace Foundation awarded Hessel a posthumous gold medal for human rights instead, which was presented to Hessel’s widow, Christiane Hessel-Chabry at a reception hosted in Paris by the Australian ambassador to France, Ric Wells).

Rees says most of the Doha conference delegates, “Arab and non-Arab, European and African,” knew about the landmark lawsuit launched recently by the Israeli legal group Shurat HaDin against fellow Sydney University academic Professor Jake Lynch, for supporting the BDS campaign. Lynch, the current director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, declined an application by the Israeli Professor Don Avnon for a fellowship to visit Sydney University, explaining that he could not support his request even though his research sounded interesting and worthwhile. Rees, in an On Line Opinion piece published last year, wrote that “however meritorious certain individual academics might be, the non-co-operation policy makes for no exceptions and some Israeli academics fully understand and accept that principle.”

The Israeli historian Professor Ilan Pappé, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, who lives in self-imposed exile in the UK (“I have lost the right to work in Israel, not to live in it,” he tells the Guardian), also attended the Doha conference and met Rees. In his opinion, the lawsuit against Lynch hasn’t received enough international attention.

“I think the whole issue is tackled from the wrong angle,” he says. “Jake is like many decent persons around the world that for years look for ways of ‘doing’ something for the oppressed Palestinians. He engaged in what most of us, many among us Jews, found as the most moral, non-violent and affective way – the BDS option. He made the distinction between institutional BDS and a personal boycott and acted in the particular case under review, as most of us would. But the question [should be] different. Why do Jewish bodies, who are supposed to represent the affairs of the Jewish community and not that of Israel, become embassies of a state that in 2014 practises apartheid laws and policies and is engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians?”

In Doha, Pappé goes on, he had “uneasy conversations with some of the more dogmatic representatives of the competing ideologies in the Arab world”. But like Rees, he’s optimistic about what the conference achieved. “There was a wide basis for consensus and cooperation for the future,” he says.

Rees, meanwhile, recounts a tale Pappé told him.

The historian recently returned to Israel with a Palestinian refugee living in Denmark, who wanted to speak to Israeli students about his right to return. When they met him, the Israeli students had insisted, “You only want to kick us out.” The Palestinian replied, “I simply want to live with you.”

The Israeli students had not expected this response, and were stunned.

As so often happens, says Rees simply, such anecdotes – told privately – reveal more than any conference paper.


Nikki Barrowclough is a New Zealand-born journalist who worked full time as a writer with Good Weekend magazine and the Sydney Morning Herald from 1990 until 2012. She was nominated for a Walkley award in 2010 for an exclusive interview with Julian Assange. Her last story for Good Weekend was from Zimbabwe, where she profiled the politician Sekai Holland. She has spent time in France, Russia and Africa.

This article was first published in The Guardian on Tuesday 14 January 2014. It is currently facing technical issues.