Why I March in Gaza

Palestinian demonstrators on a sand plateau during clashes with Israeli forces last Friday east of Gaza City. Residents of Gaza are mounting a series of protests called the Great Return March. (Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Fadi Abu Shammalah, New York Times, April 27, 2018

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — Early in the morning on March 30, my 7-year-old son, Ali, saw me preparing to leave the house. This was unusual for our Friday routine.

“Where are you going, Dad?”

“To the border. To participate in the Great Return March.”

The Great Return March is the name that has been given to 45 days of protest along the border between Gaza and Israel. It began on March 30, Land Day, which commemorates the 1976 killings of six Palestinians inside Israel who had been protesting land confiscations, and ends on May 15, the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the mass displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 war that lead to the creation of Israel.

“Can I come with you?” Ali pleaded. I told him it was too dangerous. If Israeli military warnings were any indication, the risk that unarmed protesters might be shot by Israeli snipers was too high. “Why are you going if you might get killed?” Ali pressed me.

His question stayed with me as I went to the border encampment in eastern Khan Younis, the southern Gaza town where I live. It remained with me on the following Fridays as I continued to participate in the march activities, and it lingers with me now.

I cherish my life. I am the father of three precious children (Ali has a 4-year-old brother, Karam, and a newborn baby brother, Adam), and I’m married to a woman I consider my soul mate. And my fears were borne out: 39 protesters have been killed since the march began, many by sniper fire, including a 15-year-old last week and two other children on April 6. Israel is refusing to return the bodies of two of those slain.

Thousands more have been injured. Journalists have been targeted; 13 of them have been shot since the protests began, including Yasser Murtaja, a 30-year-old photographer, and 25-year-old Ahmed Abu Hussein, who died Wednesday of his injuries.

So why am I willing to risk my life by joining the Great Return March?

Transporting a wounded Palestinian demonstrator. (Mohammed Saber/European Pressphoto Agency, via Shutterstock)

There are multiple answers to Ali’s question. I fully believe in the march’s tactics of unarmed, direct, civilian-led mass action. I have also been inspired by how the action has unified the Palestinian people in the politically fractured Gaza Strip. And the march is an effective way to highlight the unbearable living conditions facing residents of the Gaza Strip: four hours of electricity a day, the indignity of having our economy and borders under siege, the fear of having our homes shelled.

But the core reason I am participating is that years from now, I want to be able to look Ali, Karam and Adam in the eye and tell them, “Your father was part of this historic, nonviolent struggle for our homeland.”

Western media’s coverage of the Great Return March has focused on the images of young people hurling stones and burning tires. The Israeli military portrays the action as a violent provocation by Hamas, a claim that many analysts have blindly accepted. Those depictions are in direct contradiction with my experiences on the ground.

Representatives of the General Union of Cultural Centers, the nongovernmental organization for which I serve as executive director, participated in planning meetings for the march, which included voices from all segments of Gaza’s civil and political society. At the border, I haven’t seen a single Hamas flag, or Fatah banner, or poster for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, for that matter — paraphernalia that have been widespread in virtually every other protest I have witnessed. Here, we have flown only one flag — the Palestinian flag.

True, Hamas members are participating, as they are part of the Palestinian community. But that participation signals, perhaps, that they may be shifting away from an insistence on liberating Palestine through military means and are beginning to embrace popular, unarmed civil protest. But the Great Return March is not Hamas’s action. It is all of ours.

And our action has been so much more than tires burning or young men throwing stones at soldiers stationed hundreds of meters away. The resistance in the encampments has been creative and beautiful. I danced the dabke, the Palestinian national dance, with other young men. I tasted samples of the traditional culinary specialties being prepared, such as msakhan (roasted chicken with onions, sumac and pine nuts) and maftool (a couscous dish). I sang traditional songs with fellow protesters and sat with elders who were sharing anecdotes about pre-1948 life in their native villages. Some Fridays, kites flew, and on others flags were hoisted on 80-foot poles to be clearly visible on the other side of the border.

All this was taking place under the rifle sights of Israeli snipers stationed about 700 meters away. We were tense, we were fearful — indeed, I’ve been in the proximity of people getting shot and tear-gassed — but we were joyful. The singing, the dancing, the storytelling, the flags, the kites and the food are more than symbols of cultural heritage.

They demonstrate — clearly, loudly, vibrantly and peacefully — that we exist, we will remain, we are humans deserving of dignity, and we have the right to return to our homes. I long to sleep under the olive trees of Bayt Daras, my native village. I want to show Ali, Karam and Adam the mosque that my grandfather prayed in. I want to live peacefully in my historic home with all my neighbors, be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish or atheist.

The people in Gaza have been living one tragedy after another: waves of mass displacement, life in squalid refugee camps, a captured economy, restricted access to fishing waters, a strangling siege and three wars in the past nine years. Israel assumed that once the generation who experienced the Nakba died, the youth would relinquish our dream of return. I believe this is partly why Israel keeps Gaza on the brink of humanitarian collapse — if our lives are reduced to a daily struggle for food, water, medicine and electricity, we won’t be able to think about larger aspirations. The march is proving that my generation has no intention of abandoning our people’s dreams.

The Great Return March has kindled my optimism, but I am also realistic. Alone, the march will not end the siege and the occupation, address the huge power imbalance that exists between Israel and the Palestinians or right the historical wrongs. The work continues until everyone in the region can share equal rights. But I could not be more inspired by or proud of my people — seeing us united under one flag, with nearly unanimous acceptance of peaceful methods to call for our rights and insist on our humanity.

Every Friday through May 15, I will continue to go to the encampments. I will go to send a message to the international community about the devastating conditions in which I am forced to raise my sons. I will go so that I can glimpse our lands — our trees — on the other side of the militarized border as Israeli soldiers surveil me through their weapons.

If Ali asks me why I’m returning to the Great Return March despite the danger, I will tell him this: I love my life. But more than that, I love you, Karam and Adam. If risking my life means you and your brothers will have a chance to thrive, to have a future with dignity, to live in peace with all your neighbors, in your free country, then this is a risk I must take.

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A History of Boycotts: Israel, South Africa and California

Pacifica Radio Letters and Politics, 02.14.18

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Today, Mitch Jeserich is in conversation with Sunaina Maira, Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis, and author of the book Boycott!: The Academy and Justice for Palestine. She explains the whys and the wherefores of the boycott movement against Israel, and other historic boycotts as the one against South Africa and the one against grape growers in California during the 1970s.

 

 

Kansas Doesn’t Even Try to Defend Its Israel Anti-Boycott Law

Brian Hauss, Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, November 30, 2017

 

Graffiti on the Israeli separation wall dividing the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis reads, Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock

Kansas officials are scheduled to appear in court tomorrow to defend a state law designed to suppress boycotts of Israel. There’s just one problem: The state quite literally has no defense for the law’s First Amendment violations.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in October against a law requiring anyone contracting with the state to sign a statement affirming that they don’t boycott Israel or its settlements. We represent Esther Koontz, a math teacher who was hired by the state to train other teachers. Together with members of her Mennonite church, Esther boycotts Israel to protest its treatment of Palestinians. After she explained that she could not in good conscience sign the statement, the state refused to let her participate in the training program.

The law violates the First Amendment, which protects the right to participate in political boycotts. That right was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1982, when it ruled that an NAACP boycott of white-owned businesses in Mississippi during the civil rights movement was a protected form of free expression and free association. But despite long-held consensus around the right to boycott, we were still pretty surprised when Kansas didn’t even try to argue the law is constitutional.

We asked for a preliminary injunction, which would immediately halt enforcement of the law and allow Esther to do the job she was hired for. In its response brief, Kansas doesn’t mention the First Amendment even once, even though the entire case turns on the myriad ways the law violates First Amendment rights. Instead, the government relies on a couple half-baked procedural arguments in an attempt to convince the court to leave the law in place for now.

First, Kansas argues that a preliminary injunction isn’t necessary because Esther could always receive monetary damages at the end of the lawsuit, should she win. But courts have long recognized that the government can’t use money damages to buy off the loss of First Amendment rights.

The government’s other argument is that the Kansas secretary of administration would have given Esther a waiver, had she sought one, exempting her from the requirement to refrain from boycotting Israel. But the government can’t neutralize legal challenges to blatantly unconstitutional laws by making one-off exceptions for the people who happen to file lawsuits. Even if Esther could have gotten a waiver, that wouldn’t help other Kansans affected by the law.

The Kansas law isn’t an aberration. Some two dozen states have laws or executive orders on the books designed to chill boycotts of Israel. (Two such executive orders, in Maryland and Wisconsin, were issued just this past October.) A similar law in Texas came under scrutiny when a municipality interpreted it to condition hurricane relief on a commitment not to boycott Israel. A separate federal bill threatens heavy sanctions against people who participate in certain international boycott campaigns against the country.

These laws share a common goal of silencing one side of an important political debate about a decades-old conflict. They simply can’t be squared with the right to free political expression. That must be why Kansas didn’t even bother trying.

Federal Court Strikes Down Kansas Anti-BDS Law


Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters confront each other in Jerusalem’s Old City on Dec. 15, 2017.

Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, January 31 2018

A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that a Kansas law designed to punish people who boycott Israel is an unconstitutional denial of free speech. The ruling is a significant victory for free speech rights because the global campaign to criminalize, or otherwise legally outlaw, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement has been spreading rapidly in numerous political and academic centers in the U.S. This judicial decision definitively declares those efforts — when they manifest in the U.S. — to be a direct infringement of basic First Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The enjoined law, enacted last year by the Kansas legislature, requires all state contractors — as a prerequisite to receiving any paid work from the state — “to certify that they are not engaged in a boycott of Israel.” The month before the law was implemented, Esther Koontz, a Mennonite who works as a curriculum teacher for the Kansas public school system, decided that she would boycott goods made in Israel, motivated in part by a film she had seen detailing the abuse of Palestinians by the occupying Israeli government, and in part by a resolution enacted by the national Mennonite Church. The resolution acknowledged “the cry for justice of Palestinians, especially those living under oppressive military occupation for fifty years”; vowed to “oppose military occupation and seek a just peace in Israel and Palestine”; and urged “individuals and congregations to avoid the purchase of products associated with acts of violence or policies of military occupation, including items produced in [Israeli] settlements.”

A month after this law became effective, Koontz, having just completed a training program to teach new courses, was offered a position at a new Kansas school. But, as the court recounts, “the program director asked Ms. Koontz to sign a certification confirming that she was not participating in a boycott of Israel, as the Kansas Law requires.” Koontz ultimately replied that she was unable and unwilling to sign such an oath because she is, in fact, participating in a boycott of Israel. As a result, she was told that no contract could be signed with her.

In response to being denied this job due to her political views, Koontz retained the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the commissioner of education, asking a federal court to enjoin enforcement of the law on the grounds that denying Koontz a job due to her boycotting of Israel violates her First Amendment rights. The court on Tuesday agreed and preliminarily enjoined enforcement of the law.

The ruling is significant for two independent reasons. The first is the definitive and emphatic nature of the ruling. The court dispensed with an oft-repeated but mythical belief about free speech rights: namely, that they only bar the government from imprisoning or otherwise actively punishing someone for their views, but do not bar them from withholding optional benefits (such as an employment contract) as retaliation for those views. Very little effort is required to see why such a proposition is wrong: Just imagine a law which provided that only people who believe in liberalism (or conservatism) will be eligible for unemployment benefits or college loans. Few would have trouble understanding the direct assault on free speech guarantees posed by such a law; the same is true of a law that denies any other benefits (including employment contracts) based on the state’s disapproval of one’s political views, as the court explained in its ruling (emphasis added):

Even more important is the court’s categorical decree that participating in boycotts is absolutely protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and petition rights. Citing the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case that invoked free speech rights to protect members of the NAACP from punishment by the state of Mississippi for boycotting white-owned stores, the court in the Kansas case pointedly ruled that “the First Amendment protects the right to participate in a boycott.” In doing so, it explained that the core purpose of the Kansas law is to punish those who are critical of Israeli occupation and are working to end it: “The Kansas Law’s legislative history reveals that its goal is to undermine the message of those participating in a boycott of Israel. This is either viewpoint discrimination against the opinion that Israel mistreats Palestinians or subject matter discrimination on the topic of Israel.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a law that more directly violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech than one that seeks to deny people benefits for which everyone else is eligible due solely to the state’s disapproval of their political views and activism. Since that’s exactly what this Kansas law did, the court concluded that it was unconstitutional.

Beyond the court’s emphatic rationale, the decision is significant because repressive measures like this have spread, and continue to spread, far beyond Kansas. Indeed, as we have repeatedly reported and documented, the single greatest threat to free speech in the West — and in the U.S. — is the coordinated, growing campaign to outlaw and punish those who advocate for or participate in activism to end the Israeli occupation.

Numerous other U.S. states have implemented similar measures as the one in Kansas — including New York, where, as we previously reported, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order directing all agencies “to terminate any and all business with companies or organizations that support a boycott of Israel” and “requiring that one of his commissioners compile ‘a list of institutions and companies’ that — ‘either directly or through a parent or subsidiary’ — support a boycott.” As the New York Civil Liberties Union told The Intercept at the time about Cuomo’s order: “Whenever the government creates a blacklist based on political views it raises serious First Amendment concerns and this is no exception.”

Last year, a measure sponsored by Benjamin Cardin, a Democratic senator from Maryland and an AIPAC loyalist, joined by 43 other senators, went even further, purporting to impose prison sentences and large fines for anyone working with international organizations to boycott Israel. Only after the ACLU vehemently denounced the bill as a grave First Amendment attack that “would punish individuals for no reason other than their political beliefs” did several senators say they were re-considering their support.

Indeed, it’s hard to overstate how pervasive and mainstream these attempts to legally suppress criticisms of Israel have become, including in the U.S. As the legal advocacy organization Palestine Legal told The Intercept yesterday, “Since 2014, over 100 anti-boycott measures (similar to the one blocked in Kansas) have been introduced in the U.S., at least 24 of them enacted. Palestine Legal responded to 308 suppression incidents in 2017 and nearly 1,000 in the last four years.” The report issued by the group this week details just some of those efforts:

  • Hurricane Harvey victims were required to pledge not to boycott Israel to receive relief aid;
  • An NYC bookstore hid a children’s book about Palestine after calls for censorship;
  • A Palestinian American professor at San Francisco State was sued for researching and teaching about Palestine;
  • A Black student leader at the University of Wisconsin was condemned for speaking out against the connections between white supremacy and Zionism by Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

So widespread are attempts to punish and repress speech and activism aimed at ending the Israeli occupation that the Center for Constitutional Rights has dubbed this movement “the Palestine Exception” to free speech rights in the U.S.

The federal court ruling from yesterday is a ringing endorsement of the vital constitutional principle that people cannot be punished by the U.S. government or state governments due to disapproval of their political activism and viewpoints — even if the goal is to protect the Israeli government and its decades long illegal occupation from criticism and activism. The direct result of this ruling is that the Kansas state government is barred from continuing to force teachers and other state residents to take an oath to refrain from boycotting Israel upon pain of being denied contracts, but the broader and more enduring effect may be to emphasize just how authoritarian, repressive, and contrary to core civil liberties the global attempt to abuse the power of law to criminalize or suppress this free expression in the name of protecting Israeli occupation is.

 

Backlash in New Orleans: vote to rescind BDS resolution set for Thursday


Dear Friend,

Last Thursday, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a historic human rights resolution!

The resolution, developed by the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee (NOPSC), calls on the city to avoid contracting with or investing in corporations that consistently violate human, civil, or labor rights— including Israel.

Now Jewish establishment groups are crying foul, saying the resolution unfairly targets Israel, and pushing feverishly for the council to revoke its original vote.

And it looks like the entire council is caving.

Click here to tell the New Orleans City Council they had it right the first time. Say yes to human rights here, in Palestine, and everywhere, and yes to the Human Rights Investment Screening Resolution (R-18-5).

Before last week’s vote, Council President Jason Williams said the resolution “specifically recognizes the city’s social and ethical obligations to take steps to avoid contracting with or investing in certain corporations, namely those that consistently violate human rights, civil rights, or labor rights.”

Does he now believe Israeli corporations should be exempt? Does he really think the city has social and ethical obligations to all people except Palestinians?

No matter where you live, we can make a difference speaking out as Jews and as people who love justice. Saving this historic resolution has turned into a truly uphill battle. A re-vote is planned for Thursday, and we have to make sure the City Council hears us.

Support NOPSC by telling the New Orleans City Council: don’t align yourselves with human rights violators in our name. Align your values and your investments, and uphold R-18-5.

If this resolution can withstand the backlash, it will stand as a powerful precedent in the ongoing struggle for Palestinian and truly universal human rights.

Tell New Orleans City Council you support R-18-5 now.

Thank you,
Chana Rose Rabinovitz
JVP New Orleans

Iyad Burnat’s Palestinian Center for Non-Violent Action


Iyad Burnat interview by the Jersey Palestine Solidarity Campaign (JPSC)

 

Dear Friends,

Many of you know Palestinian activist Iyad Burnat, co-founder and President of the grassroots organization, Friends of Freedom and Justice (FFJ) in the West Bank village of Bil’in. Iyad and Bil’in’s heartfelt brand of peaceful resistance were the subject of the 2011 Academy Award-Nominated Documentary “5 Broken Cameras” and have continued to reach more people through the speaking tours of Iyad and his fellow villagers around the world and the visits of people from around the world to Bil’in. Like other West Bank villages, towns and cities, Bil’in is under siege by the Israeli military occupation with its continuous land seizures, and Iyad has been actively working to develop a model of non-violent resistance to the Occupation since 2005, when a nearby Israeli settlement expanded into Bil’in’s fields.

FFJ is now working to establish a “Palestinian Center for Non-Violent Action” (https://www.ffj-bilin.com/); a place where people from all over the West Bank and the world can come to learn the theory and practice of non-violent social change. The Center will include a museum, library, classrooms, learning and play spaces for children, spaces for arts and crafts, a visitor’s center, and guest rooms for visiting instructors and activists from around the world.

FFJ has made an initial down payment of $14,000 for the land on which to build the Center, but recent developments have delayed FFJ’s efforts to raise the remaining $30,000 needed by February to secure the property. Like other activists in the Palestinian peaceful resistance, Iyad and his family have come increasingly attack through harassment, threats, arrests and shootings. His eldest son, Majd, recently underwent surgery for injuries suffered from a shooting by Israeli forces, which caused extensive nerve damage to his leg, rendering him unable to walk unaided. His middle son, Abdul Khaliq, was recently shot, imprisoned, and is now awaiting trial. His youngest son, Mohammed, witnessed the arrest. The fate of the Center is hanging in the balance.

The purchase of this land and construction of Center are a positive answer to the systemic and brutal violence to which Palestinians are subjected to on a daily basis. Iyad, Bil’in and all Palestinians seeking to resist occupation nonviolently need our support.

Please donate to make the Palestinian Center for Non-Violent Action a reality. Together let us help make Bil’in a beacon of peaceful social responses to oppression for Palestine and the world.

Sincerely,
Friends of Freedom and Justice
https://www.ffj-bilin.com/