an Interview with Gretta Duisenberg

Symbols are important. Israeli soldiers react like a bull in front of a red cloth when they see the Palestinian colors. This same reaction was elicited from Dutch Jews when a Palestinian flag was hung from the balcony of Gretta Duisenberg’s house last year. The hysterical response to this symbolic gesture didn’t send Mrs. Duisenberg cowering, but instead it strengthened her resolve to speak out against Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people. She helped set up the activist group, Stop the Occupation, which aims to educate the Dutch public about the nature of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and to change Dutch policy in the region. In January 2003 she visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories eliciting the by now predictable response from right-wing groups in the Netherlands.

PAUL de ROOIJ: How did you become involved in the campaign to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine?

Gretta Duisenberg: In April 2002 there was a large demonstration in Amsterdam against Israeli actions against the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. At that time, I was in Germany (where I live part of the year) and I saw the announcement of the demonstration. I ordered a Palestinian flag via the web and went to Amsterdam to participate in the demonstration. On the way I met two students from Jenin whose parents were experiencing terrible things. At the time of the demonstration, the events in Jenin had just ended, but the Israeli army siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was continuing. It was all very emotional. When I went home I thought: this is not enough, I must do more. Because I had to travel, I placed the Palestinian flag in the veranda of my studio. When I returned from my trip, it turned out that the flag had caused much commotion among my – Jewish – neighbors. Crazily enough, this incident made it into the press.

I was invited by a Palestinian solidarity group in Haarlem to attend one of their discussion sessions, and out of these meetings came the idea to set up a solidarity movement at a national level. With some activists and some knowledgeable people in these matters, we set up a group to push this initiative. We aimed to address the enormous shortage of information among the public in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We also aimed to address the Western proclivity to address the symptoms, but not the cause of the problems in area. We also aimed to address misconceptions like the commonly heard refrain: “stop the violence on both sides and go back to the negotiation table.” Given the context of the conflict this would mean that the Palestinians would have to negotiate their freedom with their occupier. Israel is not only much stronger militarily, economically, but also in the cultural and historical realms — for these, several centuries of Orientalism are responsible. The Western world can easily identify with the Israelis who are like “us”, and who have a similar “modern” society. Something had to be done to address the overwhelming asymmetric advantage that Israel always seemed to have. Finally, something had to be done to rectify the gigantic injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians. They paid for the guilt feelings in the West because of the holocaust, while they had nothing to do with that. Europe must not allow its guilt feelings about what happened to the Jews during the Second World War to silence its criticism of the inhuman Israeli policies.

The heaviest burden the Palestinians are enduring now is the occupation of their territories. UN Resolution 242 calls on Israel to withdraw from the territories it occupied since 1967. Although the international community supported this resolution, the United States and the European Union in particular, have allowed Israel to ignore this resolution for more than 35 years, to lay siege to the land, to build settlements, steal resources like water, and to make normal life impossible for the Palestinians.

“Stop the Occupation” is a slogan that will be understood by all. With our petition, addressed to all governments of the European Union, to the European Parliament and the European Commission, we try to exert pressure for them to take on a more pro-active role in resolving this conflict, rather than slavishly following the United States.

PR(2) Had you been active in any similar cause in the past, e.g., the war in Vietnam?

GD: I have been an activist all my life. All along I have been engaged in human rights activities, ranging form the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, the struggle for independence of Rhodesia, where I chose the side of the late Joshua Nkomo, the movement against stationing cruise missiles with nuclear warheads in the Netherlands to, nowadays, the movement to bring peace and justice to Israel and the Palestinians, by establishing safe borders for both peoples, and finding a just solution for the plight of the Palestinian people and helping them to rebuild their devastated territories.

PR(3) What elicited the hostile reaction to the Palestinian flag hanging from your balcony, and what arguments were used against it?

GD: My neighbors with whom I got along very well were bothered with the flag hanging from by my balcony. They asked me to remove the flag because according to them I was expressing sympathy with the Palestinian suicide bombers. I was going to remove the flag, but first I wanted to talk to them about it. I explained that I hung the flag in solidarity with the Palestinian people, and not for any other reason. The neighbor became angry and held me personally responsible if something happened to their children who live in Israel.

But of course, that is not possible; they couldn’t hold me responsible for what happens in Israel! Subsequently, various lawyers have sought to prosecute me for anti-Semitism and “incitement to hatred.” However, please note that anti-Semites judge the existence of Jews, and that is by no means what I am doing. I am judging, and yes condemning, the actions of the Israeli government. I am disgusted by what the Palestinians have to endure.

I removed the flag, but then I received a letter expressing solidarity with the following: “It seems that just like Palestinian people their flag must also be banished! Mrs. Duisenberg, I will give your flag asylum.” The flag then went on a relay tour of The Netherlands until it was stolen and burned by some of our opponents. After that, however, hundreds of Palestinian flags were bought by our supporters and are displayed every first Sunday of the month throughout Holland.

PR(4) The “Stop the Occupation” campaign seeks to obtain signatures for a petition. What is going to happen to the petition list, and what do you aim to achieve?

GD: The petition list has been sent twice to the Dutch government and the other Heads of State or governments of the European Union, to the European Parliament and the European Commission, and will be sent repeatedly with an ever-increasing number of signatories. This petition list now exceeds 50,000 signatories. The signatories are a wide spectrum of Dutch society, and include signatures from some ex-Prime Ministers and other highly respected individuals.
What we aim to achieve is for Europe to exert pressure on Israel to withdraw to the borders of 1967, to comply with the relevant UN-resolutions, and to cooperate in order find a just solution for the Palestinian refugee-problem.
Now that the so-called “Road Map” has been published, according to which the borders of the Palestinian state will have to be negotiated in the next two years, our action becomes all the more relevant. In our view, those borders need not ­ or rather — should not be negotiated anymore: they were defined in UN-Resolution 242. And, as I said before, that Resolution was supported by the US and Europe alike!
Europe, if united, is by no means powerless: the Treaty of Association between Israel and the EU — granting Israel many advantages — could be suspended; this is possible if there are indications of violations of human rights (Art. 1). Furthermore, Article 83 states that Europe must terminate this treaty if Israel violates the so-called territorial principle — this states that Israel is not allowed to export products with a “Made in Israel” label if these are not produced within Israel proper. Israel exports products from the Occupied Palestinian territories with “Made in Israel” label, which is a flagrant breach of the Treaty (Art. 83). Landing rights for airlines and shipping lines could similarly be suspended. And finally, the trade in and transfer of weapons could be forbidden. But there is an even stronger argument to terminate the treaty: not terminating the treaty makes Europe complicit in the occupation and it diminishes its credibility in its stated aim to obtain justice and human rights in the region.
I just would like to point out one thing: doing away with the association treaty isn’t really a sanction. What we are trying to achieve is the removal of certain trade benefits that Israel has presently, e.g., the avoidance of a 14% tariff rate. The removal of the treaty only means that the EU will treat Israel like any other country.

PR(5): Besides the petition drive, what else is planned by the “Stop the Occupation” campaign? Is a boycott campaign gaining momentum in Holland?

GD: We are not an action group. We initiate and stimulate activities, and participate in some. However, our primary aim is to inform the public, to promote discussion, and to influence public opinion and opinion-makers and thereby to muster support for our drive to influence the European decision-makers to raise their fists in the basic conflict in the Middle East. For this purpose we organize information meetings and symposia, we invite speakers and we try to stimulate discussion. We want to show the implications of the occupation on the lives of Palestinians, and show their travails.
A consumer boycott is a strong instrument for all who want to do more than add their names to a petition. However, in The Netherlands there is a large group who has begun to question their unconditional support for Israel. It is primarily this group that we are trying to reach ­ with the facts, with information and with a simple slogan: “Stop the Occupation”. This is a call that means nothing more or less than calling for the implementation of basic international rights and observance of human rights. Can anyone really be opposed to this?

PR(6): To have an effective boycott it is necessary that the country of origin not be hidden from the buying public. Now, Israelis attempt to hide the provenance of their produce by using Holland as an entrepôt. Has there been any discussion with the entrepôt companies to avoid hiding the origin of the Israeli produce and flowers?

GD: As far as I know the discussion of this topic hasn’t started yet. I do know that there is a group researching the mechanism of this Israeli practice. I know that this “repackaging & re-labeling practice”, whereby Israeli imported products are relabeled as “Made in Holland” is occurring on a large scale. To what extent the importers are involved in this, I don’t know, but this practice is common.

PR(7): You stated that the Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories were worse than the Nazis occupation of Holland (excluding the holocaust). Could you give some examples of this?

GD: Although the press reported this, I never made such statements. This is a clear example of information manipulation. During my trip in the Occupied Territories and an emotional visit to Jenin, a news reporter asked me by telephone: “Do you think that there is a comparison possible between the occupation of 1940-45 and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.” I said: yes, but with the exception of the holocaust, and that the Israeli occupation has lasted seven times longer than the German occupation of The Netherlands. The journalist or his editor changed the published question to refer to the “Nazi Occupation”. It turns out that this journalist was the previous chairman of the Dutch Zionist Organization. I shouldn’t have answered the provocative question posed by this so-called journalist. You really can’t compare what is going on in the Occupied Territories with anything else in the world. Whoever enters this debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict runs into all sorts of political taboos and unspeakable questions. The pro-Israeli supporters know that the occupation is the primary cause of the conflict, but they seem to only pay attention to the symptoms and close their eyes for the background of the conflict. There is a premeditated distortion of cause and effect.

PR(8): The Netherlands and the UK governments are known as the staunchest defenders of Israeli interests in Europe. They are also the ones stopping Europe from taking a tougher and more unambiguous role in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In your opinion, why does the Dutch government take such a stance?

GD: The Netherlands has had a close historical relationship with Israel, and this can be explained by several factors. First, there is a guilt feeling in The Netherlands. During the Second World War, disproportionately many Dutch Jews were taken to the Nazi concentration camps. Of the 130,000 who were transported to the camps, more than 100,000 never returned; and those who did return weren’t always welcomed with open arms. Not much was done in terms of compensation, and the stolen or confiscated goods were not returned. These guilt feelings are justified, but they hamper a serious debate about justice and freedom in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second, after the Second World War the Netherlands became a social democracy, it could easily identify with the “socialist” experiments of the kibbutzim in Israel, and there was jubilation about the viability of such experiments. Third, Dutch foreign policy since the Second World War had a strong Atlantic orientation. In other words, the strong pro-Israeli tendency had all to do with the pro-Israeli bias in the American foreign policy.

Now one sees that the public opinion since the 1980s wavered and people have become more aware of the Palestinian condition, their cause and their human rights in general. However, one cannot yet see the reflection of this on Dutch government, even though there are plenty of politicians who have signed our petition.

PR(9): Many Dutch people of the older generation were very pro-Israel. In your opinion, has this enthusiasm been tempered lately? How about the younger generation, how do they view Israel?

GD: Our action led to us receiving many letters from Dutch people, many written by the older generation, who were ashamed about their previous ebullient pro-Israeli stance. Many found that they hadn’t dared utter criticism before, but now “if Gretta dared, then I dare too.” Among the younger generation there is much more criticism of the Israeli leadership.

PR(10): Is it only a minority of Dutch Jews who voice their strident opposition to the “Stop the Occupation” campaign?

GD: We shouldn’t focus on what the Dutch Jews say. There are Dutch people who support our “Stop the Occupation” action and there are others who try to sabotage us. Among the signatories there are Jews and non-Jews. The unquestioning support for Israel is found among a small but strong rightwing current in the Netherlands that includes the Christian-Right. These groups try to instill fear by equating any criticism of the Israeli regime with anti-Semitism. This is propaganda. It is unimaginable that people who preach loving your fellow man close their eyes when confronted with the injustice Palestinians have endured for more than 35 years.

PR(11) Finally, if you were to advise activists concerned with the situation in the Middle East — Palestine in particular — then what would you urge them to do? In your view, what is the most effective action to oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine?

GD: I would advise the activists concerned to join forces to convince their Governments, the European Union to fight for justice, peace and upholding human rights in Palestine and Israel. We as Europeans have the moral duty and the strength to no longer slavishly follow what the US is dictating.

PAUL de ROOIJ is an economist living in London and can be reached at (NB: all attachments will be deleted automatically). He will forward any valid questions to Mrs. Duisenberg. The website of Stop the Occupation is


PAUL de ROOIJ is a writer living in London. He can be reached at (NB: all emails with attachments will be automatically deleted.)