Along With the Turbulent Middle East- Backstage Stories at the launch of the JVC’s Palestine project –

[Original by Kakeru HORIYA, Mariko KIMURA, and Mizuho OSAWA published in (September 30, 2022); Translated by J. Tsuchiya/F. Farina]

30 years have passed since JVC started supportive activities in Palestine in 1992. During this period, we have seen hopeful events toward peace such as the Oslo Accords (1993) and the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (1994). However, the Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000)[1]resulted in increased tension again, leading to a lockdown in Gaza (2007) and repeated attacks on the Gaza Strip, and the situation has worsened.

Therefore, we would like to tell you what kind of activities JVC was doing with what intentions in each period by recalling the situations in Palestine and the Middle East over the last 30 years.

We asked Mr. Michiya KUMAOKA, a member of the advisory board of JVC, about “Why did JVC start supportive activities in Palestine?”. He was engaged in the JVC Vietnam project at that time and knows how they launched the Palestine project and what kind of struggles they faced afterward.

[1]The Al-Aqsa Intifada is an organized resistance movement of Palestinian residents in the occupied territories against the Israeli occupation. “Intifada” means “lifting your head” and “shaking off (the fear)” in Arabic, which turned into the meaning of “uprising”.

<Profile of Michiya KUMAOKA>

Born in Tokyo in 1947. Currently, professor at the Japan Institute of the Moving Image and a member of the advisory board of JVC. Former joint representative and organizer of the People’s Forum on Cambodia, Japan. In 1980, he participated in rescue activities for refugees of Cambodia/Indochina and in the establishment of JVC. In 1981, he worked in a refugee camp in Singapore under UNHCR (The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). He extended support for medical activities in Ethiopia in 1984. He was the representative of the JVC Cambodia Office from 1985 to 1988 and was in charge of the projects in Vietnam from 1990 to 1994. From 1995 to 2006, he served as the president of JVC.

Mr. KUMAOKA, reporting at the Cambodia International Symposium (October 2018)

Q. I heard that the JVC’s Palestine project started from urgent medical aid related to the “Sabra & Shatila (massacre of the Palestinian refugees)” that happened in 1982 in Lebanon. Could you please explain the details?

At that time in 1982, having its headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, JVC was conducting Indochina refugee relief operations and other operations in Cambodia, and the Boat People Refugee Camp operations in Singapore. At the same time, it was preparing to move its headquarters office to Tokyo. Among several member staff in Bangkok, including me, were those who had been having interest in Palestine for some time.

In September 1982, the massacre of the Palestinian refugees happened in Lebanon, and although not as fast as the current SNS distribution of international reports, it was soon reported by mass media such as television, newspaper, and other hard-core photo magazines such as Life. And I was shocked to know what had happened. At this stage, I decided to send two staff members who had an interest in the Middle East (one coordinator and one nurse) to Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon. After finishing some research, around the end of 1982, we started the operation, coordinating with the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

We first planned to work for a year, however, at that time in Lebanon, in addition to the conflicts between Palestinian refugees and Lebanon’s political power affiliated with Israel, there were civil wars with a complicated conflict structure among more than ten political/armed organizations. Therefore, about six months after we sent medical/nursing support, due to extreme deterioration in the security situation, the stationed staff could barely leave the staff quarters with their life in danger outside. Since we had lost our staff along the Thailand-Cambodia border about one year before in 1981, we had to be cautious about our activities and finally, we had to leave Lebanon about half a year later.

We were having extremely busy days at that time: new operations started in Somalia (reintroducing a semi-nomadic lifestyle and providing agricultural support) and in Ethiopia (medical and agricultural support) and we were moving the headquarters to Tokyo. We were forced to shut down Lebanon’s operation, which resulted in a very short activity leaving us only a blurry memory. However, some of the staff members at that time, I think, had an idea that JVC needed to get involved in the Palestinian situation.

Q. Since then, as far as the record shows, it took JVC quite some time to start supportive operations in Palestine. During this period, how did the JVC’s stance toward Palestine vary? Did JVC consider supporting Palestine with an operation or not at first? If it didn’t, why not?

JVC had operated in nearly 20 places totally in refugee camps, farm villages, and urban slums in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries (the number of activities was twice as many). In addition, we supported camps for boat people in Singapore and the Philippines and started domestic support in Cambodia in 1982. And because there were conflicts between Somalia and Ethiopia, we started support for Somalia in 1983 and started medical support for Ethiopian famines in 1984. Though we had interests in Palestine, we didn’t have enough manpower, so we didn’t consider starting any more operations there. Still, some had interests in Palestine.

Q. I hear that you recognized that Palestinian issues were of importance and urgency in the Middle East when JVC conducted an urgent humanitarian aid operation for Iraq after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the following Gulf War in 1991. And I assume that your decision might have been affected by many factors such as JVC’s other operations in Southeast Asia, differences in opinions among staff members, and international political trend that includes American intervention in the Middle East. Could you explain the background of your decision?

Iraq led by Saddam Hussein was worn out militarily and economically after the Iran-Iraq War, in which Iraq was backed up strongly by Western nations including the US. However, once Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US-British-centered military waged the Gulf War, by veering away from a pro-Iraq stance.

After the war finished, both the Japanese government and NGOs considered supporting Kurds in the northern part of Iraq, influenced by the foreign policy of the US and so on. JVC started to support the people in Bagdad, which was not well targeted as an operational site by other NGOs as well as Western countries and the UN. However, even though Iraq was worn out by two big wars, we figured out that it had abundant natural resources such as oil, and sturdy social and economic infrastructure including health and hospital facilities. It had social and economic power and would be able to rebuild the country by itself in the long run.

The JVC’s resources were limited. At the end of the first year of operation in Iraq, we discussed and came to a conclusion that it was necessary to focus on Palestine which was thought to be the center of conflicts in the Middle East and in the world. We sent out our two staff members to research. That is my understanding. I was in charge of an operation in Vietnam that started in April 1990 (a cooperative operation with UNHCR, “Job Training Program for returned and local people”, operation for social welfare for handicapped children, and so on). Therefore, I was involved with the Palestine operations not directly but from northern and southern Vietnam.

Q. JVC finished the relief operation for Iraq in 1992 and was finally going to start operations in Palestine. It started activities first by planting trees to protect Palestinians’ land from Israeli settlement activities. Given the current or the past few years’ assistance for Palestine, I am a little surprised to hear that it was not a direct economic, medical, and educational aid for deprived people suffering physically and mentally. Would you please tell us in detail why you decided to focus on planting along with the local situation?

Olive trees on the West Bank (photo by Hank Hanegraaff, 2018)

As I have told you, I stayed mainly in Vietnam at that time and cannot tell you from my experience. But as a basic stance of activities since 1980, JVC thought that the issues of refugees and slums in Thailand originated from exhausted villages and agriculture or, in other words, their “chemicalization” and industrialization. We also had awareness of the restoration of nature and the prevalence of organic farming in places where the environment has been destroyed by wars and other reasons not only in Cambodia and Somalia. So, my understanding is that JVC had a basic stance in human rights and humanitarian activities including livelihood support of the Palestinian farmers who had been attacked or expelled by Israeli settlers.

I understand that JVC started its activities in Palestine both from the point of view of politics and of human rights/humanitarian aid. The Japanese society, which is the base of our activities, has a demographic that would likely respond to political intention and would take supportive action. However, JVC, I would assume, chose forestation as its activity in Palestine not only because it was conscious about the environment but also because there was a trend to describe the political activity as humanitarian aid that could reach many people. The mid-and-long term example of the latter includes Indochinese Refugee Assistance, which is intrinsically very political activity.

At that time, there were the Third and Fourth Middle East War, and Palestine was being confined to a narrow area and suppressed [2]. In August 1993, the Oslo Peace Accord was agreed upon between Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister and the leader of the Israeli Labor Party as well as the former military top, and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The accord was intermediated by the Norwegian and American government. Back in those days, the power balance between the dove and hawk [3] was maintained in Israel, and the Labor Party was said to be liberal and represent the dove. Some specialists and NGO activists worried that the Oslo Peace Accord would not be fruitful in the end, or it would not reach the exit because of the following three issues that remained unsolved: returning of refugees, attribution of the capital Jerusalem, and the Israeli settlement. Still, in the short run and superficially, it seemed that we could see illusory brightness as there was no fight. Two years later in 1995, I visited Palestine and Israel and there was an atmosphere of this “illusion of peace”.

[2]Israel won all four Middle East Wars and took Palestine’s land each time.

[3]People or groups holding peaceful and moderate thoughts are called “doves” and people or groups that do not hesitate strong measures such as the use of force are called “hawks”.

Q. Please tell us what was difficult at that moment and the process of constructing a cooperative framework with local NGOs.

This includes very delicate problems. Most NGOs in Palestine were affiliates of some political party/political power. Even so, it was necessary to work with any of those groups to do activities there. The medical and agricultural groups which we worked with were very politicized, and our local staff members often had discussions with each other and with Tokyo about what stance we should have taken. In the due course, we had come to cooperate with more neutral groups or with local Zakat (Palestine Zakat Authority: a social welfare department in the administration).

Q. Since then, JVC has done various village facility supports and agricultural aids. It seems that the planting trees activity, named the “Olive Tree Campaign” [4], was the main operation. What were the reactions of the Japanese and Palestinian people?

[4]The Olive Tree Campaign is the aid for Palestine that JVC started in 1994. JVC asked Japanese people to buy olive nursery plants and planted them on the site.

Palestinians were used to political activities, but I think they didn’t have much experience in humanitarian and agricultural activities with Japanese NGOs, which demand work on-site. They welcomed every operation very much or even too much.

Q. How was the response to the Olive Tree Campaign in Japan?

Certain levels of the Japanese had a high interest in the Palestinian region, culture, and political issues. Besides, Christians (either Catholic or Protestant), about one percent of the population, and those who were not Christians but went to a mission school or read the Bible as a story, had high interests in this region. I think a part of those people took interest in our campaign.

A movie titled “Lawrence of Arabia” was released in 1963 in Japan. It might have awakened those people’s interest in the modern history of the division in the Middle East and Arab countries, possibly leading to our campaign. Although there were pros and cons to the movie, David Lean, the director, depicted fairly correctly Lawrence who was a British spy and the vanguard of the “triple-tongue diplomacy” in the political maneuverings of big countries in the First World War.

On top of that, people in my generation are so-called the generation of the All-Campus Joint Struggle League [5]. The activists’ movements in the Cuba conflict, Vietnam War, and Palestinian Liberation Movement resonated in some way with us. Of course, many of us wished the movements would be non-violent. Those who participated in youth movements, labor movements, and unions took an interest in our campaign. Some of our upper generation in their 60s and 70s thought of people’s sufferings in each conflict’s region as their own, since they themselves experienced the war and came back from the battlefields.

In addition, olive is a kind of symbol of the Palestinian region and one of the signs of peace. We, JVC, sold olive soaps in the past. We’ve got a certain good reputation for those activities. Furthermore, we conducted study tours around our activity sites that include sacred places of Christianity. The names of the places to which I came to know by reading the Bible, such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth appeared in person, which brought back memories in a mysterious way. We got a wider circle of support from people in groups or privates who visited the actual places in relation to JVC, including the participants of group tours of other organizations.

[5]The generation of All-Campus Joint Struggle League is the generation of people who joined the All-Campus Joint Struggle Movement, a student movement spread over Japan from the end of the 1960s to early 1970s.

Q. I learned that JVC’s support in healthcare and welfare for hearing-impaired people, close to the current activities, started around when JVC’s support activities became full-fledged with a newly opened onsite office in Palestine. That was when Palestine’s Autonomous Government was inaugurated and Yasir Arafat who was leading PLO became the first President. Would you please tell us about the change in the scheme of the activities?

In 1991, there was still severe antagonism between Palestine and Israel. However, the confrontation was temporarily loosened thanks to the Oslo Agreement, although it was far from the perfect resolution. That was one of the reasons for the change in our activities. In addition, as I mentioned before, we have changed our counterparts over time. A part of the idea of support in welfare for hearing-impaired people, I think, came from the experience of a staff member at that time. Of course, the whole JVC agreed to the activity change, but the idea might have come from the staff who had found children having various kinds of handicaps while he was staying there for a long time. And that led to the shift of our activities from environment reservation to social welfare fields.

JVC doesn’t decide the field of activities simply because it would appeal to a larger number of supporters. But the aid in the field of medical care, healthcare, and social welfare would be of great appeal to those who have a strong interest in Palestine. It will also attract interest of those who are not yet involved in and would lead to their support. In the field of agricultural activities in Thailand, South-East Asia, Somalia, Ethiopia, and South Africa, we related to the farmers who were practicing organic farming in Japan and Asian countries (about 6-7% of farmers are said to be engaged in organic farming in Japan). We related to co-op activities and consumer-action practitioners as well. The same thing happened in Palestine and relationships were broadened.

Q. I think there was a political difficulty in Palestine before 1993, so what were the JVC’s strategies for advocacy?

I understand that JVC’s way of support was simple and yet dual in a way like my activities and public relations in Cambodia and Vietnam. The activities on sites were done as humanitarian aid but they included political appeal at the same time. We conducted activities together with Oxfam UK and the humanitarian sectors of the UN. Even if JVC had acted alone putting a political slogan at the forefront, I think it would have got certain support, though.

Having said that, I decided to use the word “humanitarian aid” as the first step of our strategy, even though I knew it would sound fishy, naive, and hypocritical. It might not be the proper way, but I made plans for our activities, public relations, and fundraising simultaneously.

On top of that, we cooperated with international and domestic organizations that were well trusted in Japan for advocacy activities. As long as there is a political structure in any activity in the world, there will always be a political message. It was impossible for JVC to act like a big NGO such as Oxfam UK, so we started with a small and practical activity, for example, “restoring a broken pane of glass” to let the Japanese people and society know our activities. I’m afraid some of them were not necessarily successful.

Q. One of the important roles of NGOs is to tell the world what is happening on the activity sites, but I feel that we haven’t yet successfully reached the new group of people. How was the response of the Japanese people to Palestinian issues at that time?

The 1960s and 1970s were exactly a period of political and military struggle. For example, there were tactics taken to confront the world with the Palestinian issue through hijacking [6]. A part of the Japanese political force joined it. People broadly recognized that Israel, whose people were persecuted in Europe especially in Germany, might be suppressing Palestine, I think. It’s hard to imagine now but there were some groups of people who would support Palestine even by accepting acts like hijacking.

There are fewer people who have a strong interest in the Palestinian issues. One of the reasons might be that this issue has become relatively small compared, for example, with environmental disruption, coronavirus pandemic, wars with global impact, extreme poverty, and so on. There are still people who acknowledge that the Palestinian issue sits not only in the center of the Middle East but also in the center of the world’s conflicts. But I think that most people don’t see the Palestinian issue just like the way in the 1960s to the 2000s. People tended to skirt around political topics for these two decades. This may be seen all over the world, but it might be slightly different for young people including the “Z generation”.

[6]The PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), a subordinate organization of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) hijacked five commercial airliners simultaneously in September 1970.

Thank you, Mr. KUMAOKA, for your precious story today.

Share This: