From the US to Palestine: We Have Work to Do

The year is 2019.

In the United States, the first 25 days of the new year have been spent in a bitter battle of wills that held 800,000 government employees captive as collateral damage. Along with these 800,000 human beings were thousands more in the country who suffered from the effects of the fallout.

Separation wall art. Bethlehem, West Bank. "With love and kisses nothing lasts forever."

Separation wall art. Bethlehem, West Bank. "With love and kisses nothing lasts forever."

Altogether spanning 34 days, the recent government shutdown, the latest episode in the epic political drama that is the Trump administration, was grounded in a stupefyingly absurd argument: demands for $5.7 billion from Congress to begin construction on a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the bright solution to the present inflammation about border security.

To be clear, the debate about the wall is not, nor has it ever been, about border security. It is not about a humanitarian crisis, which itself is an outrageous claim to make from a country that routinely creates crises. The migrants coming to the United States to seek asylum from hostile environments in Central America are not themselves the problem. The reality is that the border wall of Donald Trump’s fantasy is a physical manifestation of racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy, which, along with the red, white, and blue stitching of our flag, are themselves paramount ideals sown into the very fabric of our society.

Separation wall art. Bethlehem, West Bank.

Separation wall art. Bethlehem, West Bank.

Of course, the debate over the border wall is not happening in a vacuum. It is one event in a line of many explicitly racist and discriminatory happenings that have occurred since Trump took office. So far in the past two years we have experienced a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville during August of 2017, a jump in attacks against members of the LGBTQ+ communities and murders of Black trans women, and the separation of thousands of Central American and Mexican migrant children from their parents at the border, coupled with an increase in ICE activity that has lead to mass deportations. It was only two weeks ago that we bore witness to the harassment of a Native American elder in the capital of the United States by white youth. All the while, Black bodies continue to be killed with impunity at the hands of law enforcement with little repercussion. While history is being made every single day, it is quite an odd feeling to know that we are living in what will undoubtedly be cited as one of the darkest periods of this country’s existence. With all of the static floating around. what concerns me most is that none of this is new. I like to think that we do not like clichés because of the simplicities of their truths. It is a time old saying that if we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it. From where I am standing, it is clear that we have yet to learn the lesson.

In a moment of perfect, albeit incidental, universal synchronicity, my study trip to Israel/Palestine with the Peace and Conflict Studies Program coincided with the U.S. government shutdown for over ten days.. The proposed monument of coloniality in the United States is the mirror of another in Palestine-Israel, where the lives of nearly three million Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank have been successfully made invisible to both Israeli civil society and the majority of the international community. Israel’s argument for their overall treatment of Palestinians is grounded in an overzealous clamor for security; their wall has been deemed necessary as a protective measure from terrorism following the Second Intifada. Its construction began in 2003 and continues to this day. Of course, this implies that the terrorists are the Palestinians as a whole, a designation which immediately strips them of their humanity.

However, the problem is not only the wall; it is the entire institution responsible for the barrier that stands solely to negate the possibility of a sound and prosperous life for all Palestinians. Those living under occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well the 1.9 million living and surviving in the open-air prison of Gaza, have not known peace since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. It has been the objective of the Israeli government to obtain a Jewish majority in the land called Israel through whatever means necessary. For the Palestinians who have been living on this land for centuries, this has meant that their lives have been made as difficult as possible, in the hopes that they will leave of their own accord. This has looked like the demolition of homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; it has looked like the establishment of checkpoints throughout the West Bank which extends travel time by hours; it has looked like the unequal distribution of water to Palestinian villages in the West Bank and the dearth of municipal services to clear garbage from their streets. Most infamously, it has looked like extreme militarization of the Occupied Territories that, with a strategy of enforcing law through physical and psychological violence, has resulted in high rates of arrest and incarceration, community instability, and the inflammation of resentment and distrust of Israelis.

The land of Nabi Saleh, West Bank. Visible atop a hill is an Israeli settlement.

The land of Nabi Saleh, West Bank. Visible atop a hill is an Israeli settlement.

The histories of the United States and the state of Israel have been intrinsically connected and woefully similar for the last 70 years, and the parallels between the two are striking. Specifically, the weaponization and recycling of fear is constantly employed as a mechanism to influence both policy and public opinion. The use of fear is how Trump got himself elected and continues to garner support. The use of fear is how Israel maintains its position on its relations with the Palestinians. Fear is the fodder used to feed the sheep abroad. Not only this, but the connections between our two countries military industries and law enforcement practices have created a link between the two countries in blood. To understand how such platforms can function and feed each other, it is necessary to recognize the basis of fear and what it can do. As I walked onto the plane to leave the debate over one wall, I would see with certainty what another wall, and the system behind it, has done.

For Palestinians living in the West Bank, the rule of law is that of the Israeli military. This situation varies slightly depending upon one’s residency in Areas A, B or C, but the authoritative power lies with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) across the board. In comparison, a Jewish Israeli living in the state of Israel is judged in accordance with civil law. This means that for the same action, there are two different codes of law that determine the severity of any punishments. However, the brand of justice promoted by the Israeli courts in the case of Palestinians is anything but; how could it be with a conviction rate of 99.74%? This frequency suggests that every Palestinian who walks into a courtroom is guilty.

In researching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one important resource is Addameer, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that advocates for the rights of Palestinian political prisoners. Their work has educated me on the realities experienced by those living in the Occupied Territories. When a person can be imprisoned for upwards of 10 years for throwing stones, and such a ruling can be billed as justice, my heart bleeds. When a child can be arrested at 13 as a juvenile and remain incarcerated until 14 when they can then be tried as an adult for their “crime,” I ask seriously for the justification. Is it the case that the mistreatment of a child is the only method of ensuring safety? Or, is it that the system has been constructed in such a way that bends the human spirit to the point where it will break?

Immediately, my mind was pulled back to the Bronx. I have many friends who have had less than pleasant encounters with police officers as their Black and Brownness constitutes as probable guilt of any crime. They have been stopped, and they have been frisked. They have been beaten down before having cold shackles placed tightly onto their wrists. I thought of my friend’s boyfriend, who was wrongfully imprisoned for over three months and who suffered physical assault at the hands of his arresting officers. I thought of Kalief Browder, who had been wrongfully imprisoned, at the age of 16, in Rikers Island for over three years and subjected to violent physical and psychological abuse while he was inside. His suicide, resulting from mental trauma sustained by over 400 days in solitary confinement and the brutality carried out against his body, was not a suicide. It was a murder committed by the City of New York, the Bronx Criminal Court, and a criminal justice system that defines justice through plea deals instead of trials. The glaring holes in the system are the size of bodies, and that is where it fails. As the gavel is brought down against Black and Brown bodies in the Bronx, the echo of “guilty” without consideration of innocence reverberates loudly across the sea to Palestine, where the result is the same.

In order to get to prison, one has to do something that prompts an arrest. At least, this is how it is supposed to work. For Palestinians, one of the main funnels to prison has been their participation in demonstrations and protests. In alignment with respective Muslim and Christian worship days and times, every Friday and Sunday across the West Bank, hundreds of such protests occur in response to unfair treatment at the hands of the state of Israel. This is evident in Nabi Saleh, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Nabi Saleh is home to the extended Tamimi family, whose members are the catalyst of much inspiration to myself and supporters worldwide as a result of their commitment to resistance. This village has been the subject of intense media attention in recent years, especially with the arrest and gross retaliatory incarceration of then 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi. Its story has been documented in Ben Ehrenreich’s A Way to the Spring. A natural feature of Nabi Saleh is its five water springs, which have been central to the villagers’ way of life for centuries. The springs provide support for agriculture, as well as water for personal use. With the establishment of illegal settlements in the nearby area, three of these springs have since been confiscated by the Israeli government for use by settlers. In addition to the three springs, over two-thirds of their natural agriculture and residential land has been annexed by Israel for use by the settlements.

Since 2009, the residents of Nabi Saleh have organized weekly Friday protests with the intention of reclaiming access to their water springs. Manal Tamimi, Ahed’s aunt, speaks a lot about her personal experiences with the IDF as the military arrived every Friday to quash the resistance movement. One of her sons had been imprisoned for several months; her other teenage son has only recently been released, but he had been beaten so badly that he could no longer use some of his fingers. Her husband, Bilal, films and compiles footage of their resistance and altercations with military personnel for use by the Jerusalem-based human rights NGO, B’Tselem.

It is often said that we have been desensitized to violence through the news, movies, and video games. Before you stand firmly in that sentiment, I implore you to go onto Bilal's YouTube channel and watch his videos. There isn’t anything like watching a small child be hauled away by four to five soldiers into an armored truck and seeing his mother fight with all of her energy to stop his arrest from happening. Her screams are felt like ice in my veins as her fear plays out visibly in every fiber of her being; my body lifts her emotions and consumes them so thoroughly that it is frozen in the heat of her agony: my tears were the only things that move as the ice is scalded by her pain. I cannot fathom what it must be like to experience this in person every week. On one occasion Manal and her family had collected the tear gas canisters, produced by the United States, that had been shot at the protestors on a single day: the number was well over 1500. Yet they had little choice but to continue protesting. When one’s land and livelihood are under siege and there is no one coming to assist, it must be understood that resistance very much equals life, where the alternative would be a very slow death.

I had seen the videos of Nabi Saleh’s struggles on a Wednesday. In two days time, the village would erupt again.

Any person, government, or society that actively creates an environment where success is complimented by suffering cannot earn my regards in good conscience. As is the case with my feelings towards the United States, every new story of injustice practiced by the Israeli government concerns me deeply. During the Israel/Palestine study trip, we visited the desert region of the Negev in southern Israel and toured Ben-Gurion University. Our tour guide was friendly enough; she was a junior at the university studying political science and had just been elected president of their student affairs committee. She made good-natured attempts to keep our spirits high by pointing out the abundance of cats and telling jokes as we walked around the campus. During our time at the university, we had the chance to sit and talk directly with a group of eight Jewish Israeli students. It was a true sample size of Israeli civil society; their political and religious identities spanned a wide spectrum of ideologies. Of the eight students, seven were majoring in political science. Since this field is my academic wheelhouse (along peace and conflict studies), I found myself warming through the small line of commonality that could be drawn among us. Though I did not agree with some of their politics, I could develop a bridge through our interests.

It was thus in the vein of good faith and what Professor Atshan calls radical humanization that I sought to engage with one of the students who most often voted with the political right. I needed to make some sense of the justification for the egregiousness of the occupation. Her name was Tal; she had finished her military service before enrolling in the university, and she studied political science with the intention of influencing public policy. Our conversation then was the one of the most thought provoking I had in my time in Israel/Palestine. It shined a melancholy light on what has been the crux of the problem for the 70 years that this conflict has endured. As we walked back towards the bus, I asked her with sincerity why, from the Israeli perspective, it was better to be feared than to be loved, when the ultimate goal of peace does not have a place in the model of fear. This Machiavellian concept has been taken and run with by nearly every nation state since the publication of his theory, and the ramifications have often times been brutal. So, why still use it?

“Because,” she said simply, “as Jewish people we have never been loved. The only alternative to love is hate. So, my friend, without the fear, we have nothing.”

It is with a heavy heart that I concede (slightly) to her point. As a matter of history, she is correct. This is exemplified best by the Holocaust and the rise of Nazi Germany, as the international community as a collective undeniably allowed for chaos to ensue with no extension of refuge. Though the project of Zionism existed long before the Holocaust, it was precisely because of such an extreme tragedy that the attractiveness for a Jewish-majority state found its anchor. Her answer is based in the assumption that the Jewish people will never be loved: even to this day, she is still afraid.

Fear has been the keystone of the modern state of Israel since its founding because it is effective; the construction of a perpetual enemy in the Palestinian people continues to make tangible a decades old trauma. This is a complex that is entirely self-sustaining. This is not to say that the threat of violence is not entirely unfounded, though not to the proportions that are widely touted. In Sderot, an Israeli town located about one mile from the border of Gaza, the residents have long been attuned to extremist violence. Their town is often the target of homemade rocket fire launched from nearby Gaza across the border. We visited Sderot during the study trip and learned of the hundreds of injuries, infrastructure damage and deaths that have occurred in the years since these attacks first began. To intercept these rockets, the Iron Dome was implemented as a counteractive security measure in 2011. Similarly, because of the uncertainty of where the rockets may land, a bomb shelter playground had been created for children in the area.

This does not mean by any count that these measures are sufficient, nor are they without flaws. This was made clear to Dana, a Jewish Israeli mother living and working in the town, when her son went missing for hours during a particularly heated episode of rocket fire. Over the span of three hours, extremists had launched over fifteen rockets across the border in an attempt to overtake the capacity of the Iron Dome. Her 14-year-old son had been outside in the fields playing soccer with friends and hadn’t heard the initial alarms that signaled an attack.

As Dana told her story, it was obvious that the trauma from that day was still very much affecting her. Her hands trembled as she recounted not knowing the whereabouts of her son whilst she was stuck at home, unable to go out to look for him. Again, the familiar feeling of ice found its way into my body and I shivered in my seat. While the circumstances were not the same, the fear most definitely was. A mother’s pain is the deepest wound that can be obtained and there are gashes being dealt freely on both sides.

But is the prospect of fear a legitimate justification for large scale injustice? In which court is it decided that one group’s fears are more valid than another’s?  As Israel’s fears are substantiated by the United States in its unwavering support of its military, it does not remain a battle over principle but becomes a battle over life itself. As Americans, our tax dollars go into the funding of the oppression of Palestinians just as it goes into funding of our very own carceral state. The military industrial complex does not exist without funds, and it operates successfully on our own ignorance of how it shows its face. But we can see it: we only need to open our eyes. In the United States, I have seen it in the streets of the Bronx where it has failed my friends, and in the system that has failed Kalief Browder. I have seen it fail the people of Ferguson. I have seen it fail my brothers and sisters throughout the county. I have now seen it in Palestine.

Injustice should not fool us when we see it change forms. Instead, we must position ourselves to change the status quo and bring light and love where justice has been made weak.  We as members of the human family have a moral responsibility to respond to the cry for justice and liberation that our brothers and sisters throughout the world are calling for. It is a right for all to be free, but until all are free our freedom is a privilege. In leveraging our privilege to extend support to those beleaguered by the weight of systemic chains, we lift them towards justice at the same time that we lift ourselves. As Americans who bear witness to clear violations of justice on a daily basis, we need to first begin by recognizing it for what it is. We must then move to act. If we do not, we will remain in the same cycle of unrest that has brought our world to a boiling point.

In truth, we have been playing a very dangerous game for 70 years where human beings are again being used as collateral.

Baha'ullah quote, Baha'i World Center, Haifa . “ The Earth is but one country and Mankind all its citizens.”

Baha'ullah quote, Baha'i World Center, Haifa . “ The Earth is but one country and Mankind all its citizens.”

In our study trip’s visit to Efrat, a settlement in the West Bank established in 1983, we met with a settler who gave us insight into his life story and the impetus for his move from Chicago to Israel. The synagogue we were sat in was undeniably beautiful; brightly colored stained glass windows boasting images of native plants twinkled gracefully in the background of the pulpit. I took immediate notice of an image of an olive tree and figs, both of which were hallmarks of Palestinian culture. With an air of excitement, the settler relayed to us the master plan to finish the expansion of the settlement within the next ten years to support a population of 30,000. My mouth went dry. In driving up to the settlement, it was clear from the outside that it was already massive: it spanned widely across the hillside surrounding the Palestinian villages on the same stretch of land. The settler had gone on to explain that there were not only schools and homes, but movie theaters, galleries, shopping centers, and clubs. This was already full blown town with a population of just under 10,000. What was being explained to us as a simple expansion was in fact a plan to encroach upon the land Palestinians were clearly still living on as an attempt to overtake two more of the hills in the region. As I looked out across the rocky hillside, I could feel the vibrations in my body of intense frustration, but more specifically of loss.

I did not know what to do.

How was it that people could not see what I was seeing? Though these settlements are illegal under international law, they are here and still growing.

While we argue here on the outside about the particulars of this Middle East conflict, if walls are adequate measures of security, and if the militarization of borders will successfully curb issues of demographics, the truth of the matter is that we are running out of time. Palestinians in the West Bank have now been experiencing the loss of their land for over 50 years; they cannot afford ten more. The number of Palestinians being born in refugee camps in their own land is growing steadily by the day, living proof of generational trauma that continues to go unhealed. With the cut of all U.S. aid to UNRWA, the UN agency supporting Palestinian refugees, the already hard lives of these people have been guaranteed to become significantly harder as basic services can no longer operate at the same capacity. This is not merely an argument over land, it is an argument over life as the strategy is to displace, replace, and erase. If the conversation continues to center simply on a dispute over territory, we are missing the point. The fact is that human beings are actively being denied rights and freedoms openly enjoyed by other human beings by dint of the privilege of citizenry. The reality on the ground should give us all, but especially as Americans, serious pause as it presents us with a clear picture of what fear can create. There is a very real possibility that there is no amicable end in sight to this conflict for no amount of diplomacy is going to heal these people or the land they are so innately tied to. However, the practice of hope is and must be an everyday occurrence. I believe that peace and justice is possible, but only if there is equal energy put behind desire for change.

Our silence should not surmise as giving our blessing; there can be no further denial that justice for Palestine is long overdue. It should also go without saying that justice for Palestine does not tangentially mean injustice for Israel. In order to move forward towards peace, there must be a genuine attempt made to create a solution based in the recognition of each other’s humanity and a commitment to support a mutual healing process. In the words of  Palestinian Quaker Jean Zaru, peacemaking is a necessary dialogue between life with life. Israelis and Palestinians must come to the table on equal terms in order to build a lasting peace. Fear will not provide stable ground upon which a foundation can be built because it must constantly be replenished; only love will do that.

No change is possible overnight, though we do not need to sit to wait for it to come. In our own individual powers and divinities, we have the capacity to ignite a change within ourselves that will extend outwards into our world. It is my belief that the most nonviolent revolution that can occur is the revolution of the self.  What needs to occur is a self evaluation of one’s personal values and alignments in order to challenge the status quo. What do you stand for and why do you stand for it? There can be no lasting systemic change without work done on our individual transgressions. When we begin to recognize another’s pain as our own, we feel it just the same. It is then that we are able to empathize with people we cannot see or touch, but we are aware that they feel what we feel. Love and compassion know no borders, and unlike the apparati that perpetuate hate, they are absolutely free.

Separation wall art. Bethlehem, West Bank. “We know all too well that our freedom is incomplete without the Palestinians.”

Separation wall art. Bethlehem, West Bank. “We know all too well that our freedom is incomplete without the Palestinians.”

In our fight to combat all of the isms and dismantle the system of white supremacy in the United States, we must link our fights not only to each other but to those being fought elsewhere on the planet. If it was not already clear that our collective struggles are inextricably interconnected, things could not have been made any more clear by the current state of the world. Black radical activists have been giving us the language for human rights and liberation that we sing and preach but do not actively put into practice. There is no better time than now to align ourselves with righteousness. It was Ella Baker sang that “who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” And, as wisely stated by Nelson Mandela, “we know all too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” Time is of the essence: we have work to do.