Palestinians march through the ruins of the village of al-Lujjan, April 15, 2021. Al-Lujjan was destroyed and depopulated in the 1948 Nakba, when residents were forced out of their homes by Israeli forces. The march was held while Israelis celebrated the creation of the Zionist state. Over 700,000 Palestinians were dispossessed during the Nakba, and to this day those expelled are prevented from returning to their homes and properties. Photo © Heather Sharona Weiss/ ActiveStills
By Lara Kiswani
A couple weeks ago I was asked by Organizing Upgrade to share some thoughts on the shifting landscape of Palestinian solidarity work in the U.S. Since then, people across the world have witnessed a profound escalation in Israeli state and settler violence that has included pogroms of Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem and other parts of 1948 Palestine, lynchings, an armed assault on the Al Aqsa mosque, and military bombardment of Gaza. I won’t bother reporting the numbers of lives lost here as they will likely have grown by the time this comes to print.
Concern, despair, and grief are all in order for people of conscience. We witness yet another reminder of the grinding violence that racism, colonialism, apartheid, and Zionism impose on our people – all unconditionally backed by the U.S. But I also feel compelled to share with readers of Organizing Upgrade that my feelings of hope and inspiration are stronger than my feelings of despair.
There is a term in the Palestinian community, sumud, meaning steadfastness. It is commonly used to describe the enduring resistance to settler-colonialism, and the enduring commitment to Palestinian liberation. What we are witnessing in Palestine today is just that. Sheik Jarrah is inspiring. Palestine is inspiring. Despite every attempt to fracture and destroy the movements and the people – whether that’s in the Occupied Territories, in 1948 Palestine, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, in the prisons, in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, in the diaspora here in the U.S. and elsewhere – everyone is resisting. Even though Apartheid Israel is bombing us, shooting at us while we pray, desecrating one of the holiest sites on earth for Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike, resistance is growing.
Days after the attack on Al Aqsa, 90,000 people showed up to pray and defend their land. People have used everything they can to defend their dignity against one of the most advanced militaries in human history. People have abandoned their cars to take to the streets to break through checkpoints and join the people in Jerusalem. People have shared what they are seeing and feeling with the world.
People of every walk of life across the world have raised their voices and stood with Palestine. Every attempt to divide and conquer, to destroy our people, under the most possible circumstances, the will of the Palestinian people to continue to fight for their land and their lives is nothing less than remarkable.
I want to invite readers to hold this in their hearts as they think about their solidarity with Palestine. Given what we are seeing on the ground, the attempts to normalize settler colonialism, apartheid, racism, Jim-Crow type citizenship laws, and every other horrible part of life under occupation are unraveling. As I write today, I can’t help thinking about my father. He was born on October 3, 1938 in Beit Iksa, in the district of Jerusalem. He is older than the state of Israel. My mother is a refugee from Aqr, whose village was dispossessed 1948.
But this is not only a story of loss. This is a reminder that the colonization of Palestine is not very old, that it is not permanent, that it is not guaranteed. We don’t know what will come of the uprisings, and our struggle forward will be hard no matter what. But what is happening in Palestine and the internationalism and solidarity that has been and continues to be the life-spirit of our movement – and all movements for freedom and emancipation – is absolutely inspiring and overflowing with potential and hope.
A THRESHOLD CROSSED
In that spirit, I turn to addressing a number of questions about Palestine solidarity posed by the April 27 release of “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Human Rights Watch is an establishment group whose reports and statements are often cited approvingly by the U.S. State Department. HRW’s new report makes points that Palestinians and the Palestine solidarity movement have been making for many, many years. What is the significance of this report, and why do you think it has been issued now?
First I would say that the work of the national movement in Palestine, and the work of grassroots forces raising consciousness, taking up campaign work and pressuring – and sometimes working with progressive-leaning legislators in the U.S. and Europe – has created a more favorable context for HRW to come out more boldly in this moment. A lot of progress has been made on building popular consensus around the apartheid nature of the Israeli state. Of course, this has long been a framework developed and pushed by the national movement in Palestine. As always, it’s been harder to build this consensus with big human rights NGOs and among legislators. But HRW’s report is significant evidence of a critical breakthrough.
I would add that this Human Rights Watch report is also a product of progressive advocates working within HRW and the broader human rights NGO ecosystem. This work has been tireless and often unacknowledged. But these progressives have likely been emboldened, and in some cases developed, by the support and pressure coming from the grassroots.
Another aspect that is worth considering is the breakdown in Zionist hegemony and its ability to normalize settler-colonial violence in Palestine. The far right in Israel unmasked the most naked aspects of the colonial project in 1948 Palestine (what is now commonly referred to as Israel), in Gaza, in the West Bank and in Jerusalem. This includes Netanyahu’s blatant racism and connection with the global right, including Trump.
ONLY A TOOL TO ADVANCE THE STRUGGLE
Of course, the Human Rights Watch report is only as significant as its use to advance the struggle against apartheid Israel. This report potentially creates space, and reveals lessons and challenges:
- The entire framework taken up by HRW has been developed and led by the Palestinian anti-colonial movement, not by western statesmanship or NGO legal organizations. The apartheid framework emerging from HRW report reclarifies that Israel is a settler-colonial state, and supports the long-standing question/reality – in a broader way – that Zionism is a racist, supremacist ideology.
- This is a gain for anti-colonialist movements in the 21st century.
- This report is a product of struggle that reminds us that however daunting or gigantic settler colonialism can seem, it can be taken on strategically, understood popularly, and struggled against by a broad front of organizations and movements. As Mandela teaches us: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”
- The fact of the HRW report bodes well for continued Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) work. BDS has long been based on the fact that Israel is an apartheid state. This has been the common sense in the movement for 20 years in the U.S.. So much so that BDS has been targeted and criminalized on federal and state levels across the US. (The U.S. has a strong investment in crushing BDS and other anti-apartheid activity given its imperialist interests.) The HRW report justifies, for lack of a better word, the BDS movement and gives it fuel and possibly a wider set of tools–both in its struggle to pressure Israel and the US, but also in its defense against criminalization.
- The HRW report gives us footing to create mobilizing capacity on the state terrain, especially in its clarity regarding international law and conventions. This can help the movement make deeper and broader gains when it comes to the sanctions part of BDS. For example, right now it seems that a logical, broad and popular demand would be for sanctions against Israel. The HRW report can help educate people as to why sanctions make sense. Again, this has long been the thinking of the Palestinian national movement but there seems to be new openings.
Another development that is new in U.S. politics is Congresswoman Betty McCollum introducing the Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act in the House, now with more than 20 co-sponsors. This has been called the most expansive act in defense of Palestinian rights ever introduced in the U.S. Congress. Can you describe the substance of the bill, and what impact it may have?
The Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act is the farthest-reaching bill as it relates to Palestinian human rights, and also falls short in meeting the longstanding demands of simply stopping U.S. aid to Israel. This bill basically reiterates currently existing law—prohibiting the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Defense from providing military assistance to forces that violate human rights – Israel. However, Israel has been exceptionalized and not held accountable to these standards. HR2590 would ensure that U.S. tax dollars, $3.8 billion in military and economic aid to Israel, are not being used by Israel to cage Palestinian children, destroy Palestinian homes, and steal Palestinian land. It is simple, but saying “Israel should be held accountable for how it uses U.S. funding” actually adds teeth to that accountability (as opposed to previous legislation such as the Leahy bill).
As it relates to the legislative arena for Palestinian solidarity in the U.S,, it is extremely significant for more than 20 legislators to explicitly name Israel’s human rights abuses and to advocate exerting control over funding in an explicit way. With over 120 endorsers, including United We Dream, the Movement for Black Lives, and the Working Families Party, the bill also reflects the centrality of Palestine to other movements for social and economic justice. Finally, it also indicates the important work of anti-Zionist Jews who have been able to move liberal Zionists on this issue. The endorsement of J Street, a liberal Zionist institution, is an indication of this. This is also an indication of the breakdown of the ability of Zionists to organize Jews in the United States.
PALESTINE IS A RACIAL JUSTICE ISSUE
These developments come against a backdrop of many years of grassroots Palestine solidarity organizing that seem to be having an impact. This year’s annual Gallup survey of attitudes of people in the U.S. toward Israel-Palestine showed the highest percentage ever sympathizing more with Palestinians than Israelis (25%) and likewise the highest- ever percentage of people saying the U.S. should pressure Israel (34%). Can you describe some of the work that got us to this point? And are there other indications of progress in denting the longstanding iron grip that Zionism has had on U.S. politics and public opinion?
In recent years, multi-racial movements in the U.S. have been clearly supportive of Palestinian liberation – from climate justice movements, to migrant justice movements, to movements to struggling against policing and imprisonment. Palestine is a racial justice issue. Palestine is a social justice issue. Palestine is an economic justice issue. We need to get clearer on these frameworks, but we can see this analysis being more widely developed among multi-racial grassroots movements. The criminalization and repression of the Palestinian solidarity movement has also been educational for movements in the U.S. – as far as what’s at stake at home and abroad – especially when it comes to understanding the coalescence of Zionist, right-wing forces, and white supremacists globally. Organizations learn a lot from how our adversaries apply pressure to networks, our ability to gain resources, and our ability to move legislators. In some ways, this criminalization has backfired and consolidated and emboldened movements. This might be an illustration of the old repression breeds resistance adage.
While there have been instances of very effective counter-organizing on the part of well-resourced Zionist organizations (many with direct ties to the Israeli state), we find that movements haven’t been cowed, and have made sacrifices and doubled down in significant ways. For example, I would argue that attacks against M4BL actually had the outcome of M4BL coming out stronger on Palestine and that we were able to forge much more durable and deeper solidarity across our movements than maybe existed previously. Again, this wasn’t spontaneous, but involved hard work, much political education, and movement building. But we know that’s what it takes. And we know that work bears fruit. If we look at movements in motion right now, we find ourselves with an increasingly shared vision. “What is our position on Palestine?” has become a key question for a wider set of movements, and that position is becoming more tightly woven into their agenda. We see this in the M4BL platform, in the frameworks that emerged from Standing Rock, and among trade unions like the ILWU. Just this week, the Sunrise Movement put out a very strong statement on Palestine. This doesn’t only go one way – our national movement now has increased opportunity to be in dialogue with Indigenous, Black, environmental justice, and labor movements. This is all baseline internationalism, but that can’t be taken for granted at this moment.
We hope that our solidarity movement can seize the time and act boldly in the days ahead. For better or worse, there is still much work to be done to push and pull with labor and broader racial and social justice organizations and coalitions. We should encourage trade unions and broad-based racial justice movements to feel emboldened and confident in taking firm stands on Palestine. Progressive except for Palestine can and should be put to bed. The time is right, and conditions are ripe.
Building on these gains now takes place under new conditions. Do you think any adjustments in strategy or priorities are needed now that Biden has replaced Trump in the White House?
Like any movement seeking to strike while the iron is hot, we need to take up the critical task of making sure our priorities are clear and aligned – and that we are mobilized at a scale that reflects our time, place and conditions. In the U.S., this includes key questions of building not only mass and support, but power in communities and across communities. We need to be working to build power, not just support. We need to have a clear understanding of how imperialism works. At the end of the day Israel is a tool (and Palestine is terrain) of U.S. imperialism. Not the other way around. This informs how we think strategically, how our solidarity flows, and how our tactics are deployed. What are the campaigns and organizing working on local and national terrains and how are those strategies coordinated in a complimentary and coordinated way? How are we building bases that build movements that transform economic and political priorities and power? And how are Palestinians themselves taking the lead – not just organizers and activists, but the broadest base of the diaspora? How are we taking the lead in and across communities as opposed to being victims that others are in “solidarity” with?
Now is a time when the BDS movement could think about how it expands its terrain of struggle. The HRW report, the shifts among legislators and growing popular support, seem to indicate opportunities for the D and S parts of BDS to have significant impacts. This includes possible strengthening of a broader anti-war and militarism agenda. Again, this is not a given, but at very least we should consider openings – and movement-building work – here.
The organization you lead, AROC, integrates Palestine solidarity with other issues of U.S. foreign policy as well as with the fight for equality and justice for Arab Americans in the U.S. Can you describe some of AROC’s priority campaigns?
AROC was built from decades of leftist Arabs organizing in the United States and back home. Our vision and our work today reflect this. We fight for the dignity and liberation of our people from here to our homelands, and do so by providing direct legal and other social services to poor and working class Arab and Muslim migrants, and organizing and mobilizing our community to build power and overturn the social systems perpetuating forced migration, racism, exploitation, war and imperialism.
Most recently, we have been helping lead the fight for Ethnic Studies in California, where despite mass opposition, Zionist interest groups successfully control-alt-deleted Palestine and the anti-colonial principles and pedagogy of the discipline from the high school curriculum. The campaign is now moving to coordinate Ethnic Studies efforts nationally, and defend against Zionist and other right-wing attempts to co-opt anti-racist education. We are also consistently engaged in local anti-policing and anti-militarism work, and national policy and movement efforts to challenge apartheid, war, and militarism in our region. Our commitment to internationalism means we work in partnership with struggles of other Indigenous, Black, and Brown movements, through vehicles such as The Rising Majority, and Grassroots Global Justice.