He Threatened Us, Now He Goes to Jail

Dr. James J. Zogby, August 17, 2019

Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation. 

This was Syring’s second conviction. He had been found guilty of the same crimes against me and my staff in 2008 and served over a year in prison. After his release and a period of probation, he began once again to stalk, harass, and threaten me and my office. He accused me of horrible crimes – organizing dozens of terrorist attacks around the world. He referred to me as a “genocidal, anti-Semitic, homophobic murderer,” in addition to threatening me with death by saying that “The only good Arab is a dead Arab” and America would only be free of terror when it was “cleansed of James Zogby” and “all Arab Americans.” 

Although Syring’s threats were communicated directly to me, he made a practice of copying other members of my staff and even our young interns. In all, we received over 700 such emails from Syring and because of their frequency and the hate-filled threats they contained, they were a cause of real concern. 

Each day, when I entered my office I could tell on the faces of my staff and interns whether or not Syring had struck again. Especially after a terrorist attack either in the US or internationally, his language became so extreme that we had to call local police for protection and report the threats to the FBI. The support they provided us was so appreciated. For a time, two agents accompanied me to public events. The Department of Homeland Security gave us an assessment of measures we should take to make our building and office more secure. And because we knew who had sent the threats, they often visited Syring to warn him that there would be consequences to his behavior. 

His obsession with me and his hatred of Arab Americans was so great, that he continued until the Department of Justice finally convened a Grand Jury and indicted him for his crimes. Nothing, however, stopped him. 

It was this obsession and hatred that concerned us most precisely because we never knew when he might act on his threats of violence. Our concern was heightened by his apparent willingness to continue despite having already been punished for the same crime and having been repeatedly warned by law enforcement to stop what he was doing.   

So now the sentence has been given. Syring will be in a federal prison until 2024. At that time, he will begin three years in court-ordered probation, undergoing psychiatric evaluation, and be required to avoid any contact or communication with me or any current of former staff member of the Institute. 
 
It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I’ve been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different. 

In the first place, Syring had tormented us for over a decade. He literally became a part of our daily lives. My wife had his picture handy and if a car was parked outside of our house, she would check to see if he was the driver. My staff were instructed to alter their behaviors – so as not to take the same route to and from the office. And some even had to receive counseling. It was especially troubling to see the reactions of young interns when they would be the unlucky recipients of a Syring email. They had come to have a Washington work experience, not to be threatened or have their ethnicity maligned.  

This is also different because for more than two decades Syring had been a State Department official who had served two tours in Lebanon. During the 2008 proceedings, I learned that on more than one occasion he had been rebuked by the DOS for displays of anti-Arab behavior. I was shocked that instead of taking action they simply moved him to another posting. They even allowed him to remain in the federal service after he was indicted for his first threats against me – some of which he made from his State Department phone or his State Department computer. At that time, I asked DOS officials, “What if a foreign service officer had threatened a Jewish American leader and made repeated anti-Semitic comments against him and called for genocide against the Jewish community – what would the reaction have been?”

That troubled me then and still troubles me now. And while there has been some press coverage of the case, I am compelled to ask, “What kind of press treatment would have been given if a former government official delivered death threats to a Jewish American leader accompanied by the statement ‘the only good Jew is a dead Jew?'”  Why are Arab Americans seen in a lesser light? And why are threats against us less worthy of evoking outrage?

With Syring going to jail for the next five years, my staff and I feel a degree of relief. It won’t give us back the years we lived in fear, but we know that at least for the foreseeable future our daily lives won’t be turned upside down by cruel death threats from this man. We are thankful for that. We are also thankful for the strong support and protection we were given by the Civil Rights attorneys at the DOJ and law enforcement agencies and for the friendship and support we received from allies and friends. 

With this sad chapter behind us, we will now continue our advocacy work. We will fight against hate crimes and demand that hate crimes against Arab Americans be given the same recognition as those against other vulnerable communities. We will continue our work empowering Arab Americans through voter registration, involvement in the political process without fear of discrimination or political exclusion. And we will continue to advocate for an inclusive immigration policy, protection for vulnerable refugees and asylees, and a foreign policy that promotes human rights and justice for all – including the long-suffering Palestinian people. Some may not like what we advocate and may even threaten us because of our advocacy – but we will persist because we know that it is our duty, as Americans, to continue to fight for what we know is right. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates.

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Why Americans Should Support BDS


Demonstrators protest New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s McCarthyite executive order requiring state agencies to divest from organizations that support the Palestinian call to boycott companies profiting from, or cultural or academic institutions complicit in, Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people, June 9, 2016. (Sipa via AP Images)

Omar Barghouti, The Nation, July 29, 2019

Last Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed a resolution, H. Res. 246, targeting the grassroots, global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights that I helped found in 2005. Sadly, H. Res. 246, which fundamentally mischaracterizes our goals and misrepresents my own personal views, is only the latest attempt by Israel’s supporters in Congress to demonize and suppress our peaceful struggle.

H. Res. 246 is a sweeping condemnation of Americans who advocate for Palestinian rights using BDS tactics. It reinforces other unconstitutional anti-boycott measures, including those passed by some 27 state legislatures, that are reminiscent of “McCarthy era tactics,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union. It also exacerbates the oppressive atmosphere that Palestinians and their supporters already face, further chilling speech critical of Israel at a time when President Donald Trump is publicly smearing members of Congress who speak out in support of Palestinian freedom.

In response to H. Res. 246 and similarly repressive legislative measures, House member Ilhan Omar, joined by Rashida Tlaib, civil rights icon John Lewis, and 12 other co-sponsors, introduced H. Res. 496, which defends “the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad, as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

Inspired by the US civil rights and South African anti-apartheid movements, BDS calls for ending Israel’s 1967 military occupation, full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the UN-stipulated right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homeland they were uprooted from.

BDS categorically opposes all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. Contrary to the false claim in H. Res. 246, BDS does not target individuals, but rather institutions and corporations that are implicated in Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian human rights.

H. Res. 246 also includes a specific smear against me that has been pushed by Israel lobby groups like AIPAC by quoting a single, out-of-context sentence from a talk I gave in 2013. The same false assertion is repeated in a similar Senate Resolution, S. Res. 120.

In that talk, I advocated for a single democratic state that recognizes and accepts Jewish Israelis as equal citizens and full partners in building and developing a new shared society, free from all colonial subjugation and racial discrimination and separating church and state. Everyone, including repatriated Palestinian refugees, would be entitled to equal rights regardless of ethnic, religious, gender, sexual, or other identity. Any exclusionary, supremacist “Muslim state,” “Christian state,” or “Jewish state,” I argued, would by definition deny equal rights to citizens of different identities and foreclose the possibility of a true democracy, which are conditions for a just and sustainable peace. The House and Senate resolutions, as well as an AIPAC propaganda clip, remove all that context, intentionally distorting my views.

Regardless, this is my personal opinion, not the BDS movement’s position. As a broad and inclusive human rights movement, BDS does not take a position on the ultimate political solution for Palestinians and Israelis. It includes supporters of both two states and a single democratic state with equal rights for all. Continue reading

Palestinian peace activist denied entry to U.S. for speaking tour

Edo Konrad, +972, March 4, 2019

Osama Iliwat was supposed to speak to synagogues, churches, and universities across the United States about the power of nonviolence and bringing an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead he was sent back to Palestine.

A Palestinian peace activist was denied entry to the United States last week after being extensively questioned by American border authorities about his political affiliations and about the funders and leadership of the group for which he works. Iliwat was supposed to join a Jewish-American member of the organization for a speaking tour in synagogues, churches, and university campuses across the United States.

Osama Iliwat, a 42-year-old from Jericho, in the West Bank, had a valid visa for the United States and had been admitted into the country on numerous occasions before last week.

Iliwat, a former Palestinian Authority police officer who grew disillusioned with the violence of the Second Intifada, joined Combatants for Peace in 2014 as its Jericho-Jerusalem coordinator. Today, he serves as one of the organization’s public speakers, delivering talks to Israelis, Palestinians, and international audiences on nonviolence as a path toward reconciliation. He has never been convicted of a crime and Israel even gave him a general entry permit that allows him to cross into the country whenever he wants.

During his interrogation at New York’s JFK airport, Iliwat was repeatedly asked about Combatants for Peace and about his political affiliations. In a telephone interview with +972 upon returning to the West Bank, Iliwat said that interrogators focused most of their questions on the organization’s activities, asking for information about the its founders, their political beliefs and affiliations, how often Iliwat speaks to them, and whether they have spent time in Israeli prison. Iliwat said the interrogators also asked him about the West Bank tours Combatants for Peace organizes, and which Palestinian political movement he supports.

Palestinian peace activist Osama Iliwat (left) seen in the village of Jeb al-Deeb, south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. (Courtesy of Combatants for Peace)

Palestinian peace activist Osama Iliwat (right) seen in the village of Jeb al-Deeb, south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. (Tatiana Gitlits/Combatants for Peace)

Combatants for Peace was formed in 2006 as an organization founded by both former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian armed fighters committed to nonviolent action against the “Israeli occupation and all forms of violence.” The group leads tours of the West Bank, supports various communities in the West Bank who face violence from settlers and the Israeli army, and has put on an alternative memorial day event for the past 11 years. While the former Israeli soldiers in Combatants for Peace served in an army that receives support from the U.S. government, Palestinian combatants are often seen as former terrorists by both Israel and the United States.

After 12 hours of interrogation, during which his phone was taken away multiple times, the agents asked him to sign a statement confirming the answers he had given them, and that he understood he was being denied entry to the country. Nobody ever told him why, he said.

The border agents then put a red stamp in his passport, annulling his three-year visa to the U.S., and brought him in handcuffs to the plane which took him back to Doha.

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A Teenage War Resister in Israel

An Antiwar Story from the Embattled Middle East
He is a rarity in his own land, one of only a handful of refuseniks living in Israel.

“Let us fight together for human rights, for a country that is democratic for all its citizens, and for Israelis and Palestinians to live together based on citizenship and equality, not segregation and racism.”
Ahmed Abu Artema

Rory Fanning, TomDispatch, March 18, 2019

Hilel Garmi’s phone is going straight to voicemail and all I’m hoping is that he’s not back in prison. I’ll soon learn that he is.

Prison 6 is a military prison. It’s situated in the Israeli coastal town of Atlit, a short walk from the Mediterranean Sea and less than an hour’s drive from Hilel’s home. It was constructed in 1957 following the Sinai War between Israel and Egypt to house disciplinary cases from the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF.

Hilel has already been locked up six times. “I can smell the sea from my cell, especially at night when everything is quiet,” he tells me in one of our phone conversations. I’m 6,000 miles away in Chicago, but Hilel and I have regularly been discussing his ordeal as an Israeli war resister, so it makes me nervous that, this time around, I can’t reach him at all.

A recent high-school graduate with dark hair and a big smile, he’s only 19 and still lives with his parents in Yodfat, an Israeli town of less than 900 people in the northern part of the country. It’s 155 miles to Damascus (if such a trip were possible, which, of course, it isn’t), a two-hour drive down the coast to Tel Aviv, and a four-hour drive to besieged Gaza.

Yodfat itself could be a set for a Biblical movie, with its dry rolling hills, ancient ruins, and pastoral landscape. The town exports flower bulbs, as well as organic goat cheese, and notably supports the Misgav Waldorf School that Hilel’s mother helped found. Hilel is proud of his mom. After all, people commute from all over Israel to attend the school.

He is a rarity in his own land, one of only a handful of refuseniks living in Israel. Each year roughly 30,000 18 year olds are drafted into the IDF, although 35% of such draftees manage to avoid military service for religious reasons. A far tinier percentage publicly refuses to fight for moral and political reasons to protest their country’s occupation of Palestinian lands. The exact numbers are hard to find. I’ve asked war resister groups in Israel, but no one seems to have any. Hilel’s estimate: between five and 15 refuseniks a year.

“I’ve thought the occupation of Palestine was immoral at least since I was in eighth grade,” he told me. “But it was the March of Return that played a large role in sustaining the courage to say no to military service.”

The Great March of Return began in the besieged Gaza Strip on March 30, 2018, the 42nd anniversary of the day in 1976 that Israeli police shot and killed six Palestinian citizens of Israel as they protested the government’s expropriation of land. During the six-month protest movement that followed in 2018, Israeli soldiers killed another 141 demonstrators, while nearly 10,000 were injured, including 919 children, all shot.

“I couldn’t be a part of that,” he said. “I’d rather be in jail.”

However, after 37 days in prison, it was the letter Hilel received from Abu Artema, a key Palestinian organizer of that march, which provided him with his greatest inspiration. It read in part:

“Your decision is what will help end this dark period inflicted on Palestinians, and at the same time mitigate the fears of younger Israeli generations who were born into a complicated situation and a turbulent geographical area deprived of security and peace… I believe the solution is near and possible. It will not require more than the courage to take initiative and set a new perspective, after traditional solutions have failed to achieve a just settlement. Let us fight together for human rights, for a country that is democratic for all its citizens, and for Israelis and Palestinians to live together based on citizenship and equality, not segregation and racism.”

“This letter excited me a great deal,” Hilel said. “It’s Palestinians like Artema who have the true courage, the kind that can only come from the moral authority of those resisting occupation and violent oppression. This type of authority is much stronger than the forces that occupy Palestine.”

After trying yet again to reach him by phone, I send Hilel a Facebook message:

“I hope everything is all right. Call me when you can. By the way, I was listening to this song and it reminded me of you. Stay strong, brother.”

I attach a YouTube video of “The World’s Greatest” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy:

I’m that little bit of hope
With my back against the ropes.
I can feel it
I’m the world’s greatest…”

War Resister to War Resister

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March 26 – April 14, 2019
Naila and the Uprising

On Wisconsin Public Television’s Women, War & Peace

Tuesday, March 26 8:00 pm on WPT 26-1
Wednesday, March 27 2:00 am on WPT 26-1
Sunday, April 14 9:00 pm on The Wisconsin Channel 26-2

Discover the story of a courageous, non-violent women’s movement that formed the heart of the Palestinian struggle for freedom during the 1987 uprising, known as the first Intifada. One woman must make a choice between love, family and freedom. Undaunted, she embraces all three.

During the Intifada, women weren’t just following orders, we were instrumental in making decisions alongside men.

We want our home land!
We want to live free.

Women’s resistance went hand-in-hand with national resistance.

There is a discussion guide available to help you learn more about women’s leadership, unarmed civil resistance and grassroots organizing in Israel-Palestine.

South Hebron Hills Update

Expulsion by a thousand cuts

Dear Friends,

The last weeks have been busy and challenging in the South Hebron Hills. Young Palestinians, with international and Israeli peace activists, have planted hundreds of trees. But this is also a difficult time. Soldiers and settlers have repeatedly forced shepherds off of Palestinian grazing land located near settlements and outposts, settlers have harassed schoolchildren and shepherds, and just last night Settlers uprooted more than 20 young olive trees.


christadelphia.org

The creativity, resilience and commitment to nonviolent resistance is more amazing here each year.

Here are a few recent events and photos.

On the night of February 4 Israeli settlers from the illegal outpost of Havat Ma’on uprooted 23 olive trees on Palestinian land near Tuwani in Humra Valley. The trees have were recently planted during a nonviolent demonstration of Palestinians and Israeli and International activists.

On January 23 Israeli army and civil authorities used a bulldozer to destroy an agricultural field in the Palestinian village of Khalaya Al-Moghrabi. The farmer was already unable to work his land because Israeli authorities had confiscated his tractor.


The Palestinian road to Jinbah and the villages of Massafer Yatta

On January 31 the Israeli army used a bulldozer to destroy two sections of the road that connects the city of Yatta to Jimba village and the other villages of Massafer Yatta, making access to school, health care, commerce and other services even more difficult for the families living in the villages located inside the area claimed by Israel as Firing Zone 918.


School in Khallet Athaba

On January 30 The Israeli Civil Administration (DCO) issued demolition orders for the school and two private family houses in the Palestinian village of Khallet Athaba and a stop work order for a house in the village of Tuba.


Palestinian child from Tuba

Israeli authorities delivered a stop work order for the home of this child’s family in the village of Tuba. It is impossible for families to get building permits. And stop work orders are often followed by demolition orders.

‘No to Apartheid’

Palestinians block Israel’s new ‘Apartheid Road’

Yumna Patel, Mondoweiss, January 23, 2019

Over a dozen Palestinian activists, along with Israeli and international supporters, blockaded the entrance to Israel’s new ‘Apartheid Road’ in the central occupied West Bank district of Jerusalem on Wednesday morning.

The group of activists closed the gates to the newly opened road and formed a human chain, raising banners in Arabic, English, and Hebrew saying “No to Apartheid” and “No to Annexation.”

Israeli forces approach activists at the entrance to the ‘Apartheid Road’ on January 23, 2019 (Photo, PSCC Facebook)

Israeli forces arrived to the scene, which is located adjacent to an Israeli military base, shortly after the activists closed the road and attempted to forcibly remove them.

Two protesters were arrested and at least four others were injured. One of the detained protesters was identified as Ibrahim Musalem, from the southern West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Palestinian activist Ibrahim Musalem was arrested by Israeli forces (Photo: Munther Amira, Facebook)

Palestinian activist Munther Amira, who participated in the protest, said “any shame the [Israeli] Occupation may have had of its apartheid policies is now completely gone with this road. We must not and will not allow for their plan of ethnic cleansing in the outskirts of Jerusalem.”

Israeli authorities opened the ‘Apartheid Road’ or ‘Eastern Ring Road’ earlier this month to widespread Palestinian and international criticisms.

The four-lane highway features two separate road divided by a concrete wall – one for Israeli settlers and the other for Palestinians.

While the Israeli lane allows settlers quick and easy access to the center of Jerusalem, the Palestinian lane is designed to separate Palestinians off through an underpass, diverging to different areas of the West Bank.

In a statement regarding the protest, the Palestinian Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (PSCC) criticized Israel’s plans to expand the road to the south, saying it would “further entrench the two separate and unequal systems of transportation in the West Bank.”

The road is a key infrastructural part of implementing Israel’s ‘Greater Jerusalem’ or ‘E1’ plan, which seeks the de facto annexation of the three settlement blocs adjacent to Jerusalem city – Gush Etzion to the South, Ma’ale Adumim/E-1 to the east and Givat Ze’ev to the north.

If implemented, the southern West Bank would be completely cut off from the north, making a future contiguous Palestinian state nearly impossible.

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My grandfather Nelson Mandela fought apartheid

I see the parallels with Israel

It took an international effort to end institutionalised racism in my country – now it must happen again, for the Palestinian people


Relatives of 12-year-old Faris Hafez al-Sarasawi at his funeral. He was killed after Israeli soldiers’ intervention in the ‘Great March of Return’ demonstrations in Gaza, October 2018. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Nkosi Zwelivelile, The Guardian, 11 Oct 2018

My grandfather, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, would have turned 100 this year. The world is marking the centenary of his birth and celebrating his leadership in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. But while my country has long been free from racist minority rule, the world is not yet free of the crime of apartheid.

Like Madiba and Desmond Tutu before me, I see the eerie similarities between Israel’s racial laws and policies towards Palestinians, and the architecture of apartheid in South Africa. We South Africans know apartheid when we see it. In fact, many recognise that, in some respects, Israel’s regime of oppression is even worse.

Apartheid is defined in international law as an “institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other”. It is about unequal racial power relations upheld by unjust laws that are intended to deny oppressed groups their rights.

History will judge the governments that fail to stand by human rights and international law

Even before Israel passed its “nation state law” (stipulating that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country) it was easy to see, for anyone willing to look, that the country’s government was committing the crime of apartheid. Its segregation wall, discriminatory admissions committees, ID-card systems, roads built for settlers which are not accessible to Palestinians, and the bantustan-like fragmentation of the West Bank gave the game away.

The nation state law made that reality undeniable. Apartheid is the context for a litany of state crimes. Take most recently, for example, Israel’s decision to demolish the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar and evict its residents. The aim of this ethnic cleansing is to make way for illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

Yet despite seven decades of apartheid, ongoing theft of Palestinian land, military occupation and massacres of unarmed protesters in Gaza – rightly called the “Palestinian Sharpeville”, after the mass killing in Transvaal in 1960 – each new generation of Palestinians continues the liberation struggle.

Young Ahed Tamimi turned 17 in prison this year, illegally incarcerated for confronting occupying soldiers in her backyard. But just as my grandfather spent 27 years in prison only to become a global icon of freedom, Ahed has become a powerful symbol of Palestinians’ resolute determination to resist. She and her family represent the courageous spirit of Palestinians everywhere who stand defiant in the face of immense brutality. I salute their bravery.

Although Ahed is now free, thousands of Palestinians – including hundreds of children – still languish in apartheid Israel’s jails. In this Nelson Mandela centennial celebration year, we should recall his avowal that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinian people” and work relentlessly to demand that all Palestinians – whether living in exile, as citizens of Israel or in the occupied territories – are accorded their inalienable human rights.

For we South Africans also know that effective resistance to apartheid requires international solidarity. Just as allies around the world were vital in our struggle for freedom, the spirit of internationalism lives on in the non-violent boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement supporting the Palestinian liberation struggle.


An Israeli soldier with a Palestinian farmer who is waiting to reach a farm to harvest olives, in Yetma, the West Bank. (Alaa Badarneh/EPA)

It gave me hope to see the Labour party call for an end to UK arms sales to Israel two weeks ago. We hope that South Africa will use its standing among the Brics countries to call for an arms embargo too. This important sanction is a minimal requirement to end complicity in maintaining Israeli apartheid. It is not charitable to end complicity in crime, but a profound moral obligation.

These positive and concrete steps continue the struggle that was Mandela’s life’s work. They stand in stark contrast to the shameful attempts to erase Palestinian history (including the Nakba) – a history in which the UK, as in apartheid South Africa, was deeply complicit. They are also a powerful retort to efforts to demonise, if not criminalise, the BDS movement.

All people of conscience have not only the right but also the responsibility to express their disagreement with any state that violates human rights and international law. They have a right to freedom of expression, to speak truth to power, and to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.

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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.

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