Archive for May, 2011

Why June 5 matters

Posted: May 30, 2011 in Uncategorized

I gasped as the first bullet struck a young man standing a few paces ahead of me. Watching him crumple to the ground, I struggled for breath and fought my natural urge to run. “Allahu Akbar!”, the crowd roared around me. “Yalla, Shebab!” A half-dozen other men – none of whom could have been older than twenty, and most of whom looked much younger – rushed forward, retrieving their fallen compatriot and carrying him quickly to a waiting ambulance. A thin trail of blood marked their path, ending in a small, dark puddle where the first of the day’s many gunshot victims had fallen.

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Thousands of refugees and other Palestinians had gathered at the Erez Crossing in the northern Gaza Strip. An imposing military structure of massive concrete barriers and machine gunners’ towers, the border wall separates Gaza Strip residents from the 78% of Palestine seized by the State of Israel in 1948. For the two-thirds of residents who are refugees, it also prevents their return to the homes from which they and their families were forcibly expelled that year. Palestinians throughout the world remember this Nakba, or catastrophe, every May 15 with gatherings, demonstrations, and resolutions to someday return.

But this year would be different. Inspired by the popular uprisings against dictatorships across the Arab region, Palestinians were resolved to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of 711,000 people from their country by making history, rather than remembering it.

On the morning of May 15, Nakba Day, tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered around the borders of Israel and its occupied territories, determined to march to the homes and homeland denied to them for generations. In Beit Hanoun, they walked from buses forced to stop kilometers from the crossing by the sheer numbers of the crowd. Many remained at checkpoints preceding the crossing. Others pressed forward, their eyes fixed on the distant gate.

The Israeli response came quickly. Bullet after bullet penetrated the crowd of unarmed demonstrators, each one finding its target. Artillery shells pounded the sandy dunes around us, and after several hours, tear gas canisters hissed through the air. Over a hundred people were hospitalized with serious injuries, while elsewhere on the border, a 17-year old boy was killed by artillery fire. The rest of us escaped with tear gas inhalation, cuts from exploding concrete and shrapnel, and bloodstains from the limbs, torsos, and faces shattering around us.

Yet the demonstrators kept coming. After every retreat from gas, gunfire, or the thunderous boom of artillery, there was another surge. Only when the sheer brutality of the Israeli forces had sufficiently depleted the number of those capable of pressing forward did the strength of the crowd begin to wane.

And somehow, the overall mood remained one of measured, but tangible joy. The victory sign was everywhere, and smiles were common not only on the runners ferrying injured marchers to medical attention, but also on the young men and women they carried. Everyone seemed to intuitively sense that they were doing something historic, closing one chapter in the long, painful struggle for Palestinian freedom and opening another one that offered more hope for a happy ending.

Elsewhere, the state violence inflicted upon peaceful marchers was even worse. At the border between Syria and the occupied Golan Heights, Israeli gunfire killed four of them, while in Lebanon, ten suffered the same fate. Hundreds, if not thousands, were seriously injured.

But like the returnees in Beit Hanoun, those from Lebanon and Syria refused to be dissuaded by military repression. Dozens of the latter poured through Israeli barriers, spending hours in the welcoming villages of the occupied Golan Heights before leaving under the protection of their Syrian hosts. One, Hassan Hijazi, made it all the way to the Jaffa home from which his family was exiled in 1948. Before surrendering to Israeli police, the 28-year old told journalists, “I wasn’t afraid and I’m not afraid. On the bus to Jaffa, I sat next to Israeli soldiers. I realized that they were more afraid than I was.”

Hijazi’s seven million fellow Palestinian refugees aren’t afraid either. On Sunday, June 5, they will return to the borders created to exclude them, and perhaps beyond. Like the 63rd Nakba Day, this 44th anniversary of the Naksa, or setback – Israel’s 1967 occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and subsequent expulsion of 300,000 additional refugees – promises a commemoration like none before it.

June 5 will not determine the outcome of the Palestinian movement for return. That outcome was already determined by the decades of grassroots organizing and popular struggle that culminated in the historic mobilization of May 15. Its finality can be glimpsed in grievances by Western media like Reuters that “[t]he Palestinians who forced their way across Israel’s border on Sunday turned back the clock on the Middle East conflict, putting centre stage the refugee question that many believed would be negotiated away,” and confirmed by the sweaty, stammered insistence of Zionists like Benjamin Netanyahu that “it’s not going to happen. Everybody knows it’s not going to happen.”

Those suddenly forced to defend not only the brutal excesses of their system, but the very racism of ethnic cleansing, exclusion, and apartheid upon which its existence relies, find themselves in a situation both uncomfortable and unprecedented. They have no reason to expect it to become easier in the coming months, as further waves of returning refugees push their fight for justice closer to the center of the world’s attention.

But June 5 will shape the outline of this next chapter in the Palestinian saga: its intensity, its length, and what follows it. Was May 15 a singular moment, or perhaps one suited for occasional repetition? Or was it the harbinger of a sustained, consistent struggle to come, a Third Intifada simultaneously challenging Israel from within, on every border, and across the globe?

Palestinians have amply demonstrated their ability to resist occupation over the long haul, while the global solidarity network supporting them has reacted capably to atrocities like the slaughters of 1,400 Palestinians during Operation Cast Lead and nine passengers on the first Freedom Flotilla. If these two movements can organize and mobilize as effectively now, seizing a unique opportunity to take the offensive and keep it, the Palestinian freedom struggle could prove a quicker and more decisive one than many of us had dared to hope.

Barack Obama wants it both ways. Like every United States president since Bill Clinton, who partially brokered the now-defunct Oslo Accords in 1993, he aspires to act as a trusted intermediary in the 63-year old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, while simultaneously pandering to America’s massive pro-Israel lobby. These clashing goals have spurred him to propose an array of conflicting claims and positions that, aside from being fundamentally incompatible, are often simply painful to observe.

Over the course of four short days in mid-May, he managed, in three separate addresses – at the US State Department, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House briefing room, and at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful flagship of the Israel lobby – to offer blatant discrepancies, of policy or omission, on nearly every aspect of the conflict. This jarring discord did nothing to bolster Washington’s role in the situation and, to careful listeners, reinforced its ultimate irrelevance to any genuine resolution of it.

Obama’s glaring hypocrisy was perhaps at its most obvious on questions of armed force. It takes a special brand of chutzpah to proclaim, as Obama did at both the State Department and AIPAC, that “every state has the right to self-defense,” and then to propose, in the very same paragraph of both speeches, that Palestinians should settle for “a sovereign, non-militarized state.” When it comes to the rights to which all states are equally entitled, it seems, some states are more equal than others.

Despite dwelling on the theme of political violence, Obama showed little interest in violence emanating from Israelis, which killed 7,342 Palestinians between September 29, 2000 and December 31, 2010, dwarfing Israeli casualties, according to a recent report by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. At the State Department, while offering multiple platitudes about “the moral force of non-violence” and sermonizing that “[t]he United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region,” he did not see fit to mention that Israeli troops had killed fifteen unarmed Palestinian refugees demonstrating at the country’s contested borders, and wounded hundreds more, only four days before. Nor did he mention this massacre while later feting Israeli representatives at the White House or AIPAC. His speech at the latter did, however, include a formulaic demand for the “rejecting [of] violence” by Palestinians.

Obama caused the biggest splash, it seems, by opining that “[t]he borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps … The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.” Following Netanyahu’s insistence at the White House that Israel “cannot go back to the 1967 lines,” Obama tempered his position at AIPAC to “account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.” Those “demographic realities,” incidentally, are the illegal settlements Obama has defended at every turn, most pointedly by vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning them on February 18.

Leaving aside the word “contiguous,” which the 1967 borders of the Palestinian territories are not, several obvious problems emerge. Elsewhere in his State Department address, Obama suggested that “the future of Jerusalem” should remain unresolved in the new negotiations he proposed. Surely he is no unaware that East Jerusalem falls within the 1967 borders of the West Bank? More likely, he is relying on the perceived ignorance of his American listeners, while forgetting he has any others.

Likewise, he probably hopes the public has forgotten his previous statements on the matter. The day after securing the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2008, Obama told AIPAC, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” And while President Obama similarly suggested postponing deliberations on “the fate of Palestinian refugees” at the State Department, Candidate Obama blustered that “the Palestinians are gonna have to recognize that the right of return as they’ve understood it historically would extinguish Israel as a Jewish state, and that’s not an option.” Those aware of such brusque pronouncements may easily doubt the sincerity of his current garment-rending on these “wrenching and emotional issues.”

No did Obama stop insulting his audience’s intelligence there. Palestinians must “adher[e] … to all existing agreements,” he thundered at AIPAC. Would those be the Oslo Accords or the Wye River Memorandum, Mr. President? Surely you’re aware that the first expired on May 4, 1999, while the second was never implemented by Israel? Some of us are.

But Obama saved his greatest ire for “efforts to delegitimize Israel.” “Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist,” he said at the State Department. “[H]ow can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” “[I]t is very difficult for Israel to be expected to negotiate in a serious way with a party that refuses to acknowledge its right to exist,” he sympathized in the White House. At AIPAC, he hardened this line. “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist,” he said after quoting himself: “Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate.”

Of course he didn’t mention the platform of Israel’s ruling Likud party, which “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.” Nor did he broach the positions of its fundamentalist coalition partners like Shas, who would deny not only Palestinians’ right to exist in a self-determining state, but also their humanity.

Such hypocrisy emanating from Washington doubtlessly accounts in part for the independent course Palestinians have charted since the beginning of the Arab revolutions, and particularly the overthrow of Egypt’s Mubarak regime on February 11. The anti-settlement Security Council resolution vetoed by Obama, the reconciliation of the Palestinian Authority on April 27, the marches of tens of thousands of refugees to the borders of their historic homeland on May 15 and June 5, and maneuvers by the Palestine Liberation Organization for United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood in September have all faced opposition by the Obama administration. Together, they demonstrate that while efforts by Palestinians to achieve self-determination have not reached full accord, Palestinians are through waiting for Washington’s approval of their liberation. Americans who are equally tired of condescending deceit would do well to learn from their example.