Choose your point of view
The experience of being a Palestinian American in the US is bewildering. After days of devastating bombardment, Israeli troops are massing on the border with Gaza. My state of mind has become uncoupled from the material reality of my life in Philadelphia. Everyday activities – greeting neighbours, dropping my kids off at school – feel unreal. At the same time, I observe the ‘good guys’ – Biden, Blinken, Starmer – express a deadly condescension to Palestinians and a disregard for Palestinian lives: the lives of children who look like mine.
I was born in a refugee camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. As a boy, my only interactions with Israelis were at checkpoints or looking down the barrel of a gun. When I read the Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant’s words describing us as ‘human animals’, I understood his point of view perfectly. Dehumanising the other is easy. It’s easy to think the other side doesn’t really comprise people, that the Zionists are fundamentally different from us, interested only in domination, control and apartheid.
I’m part of a generation that was recruited to the Seeds of Peace summer camps and cultural exchanges organised by elderly white liberals with good intentions. I mostly regarded their efforts with suspicion, as if the superficial embrace of what we were supposed to have in common would override the structural basis of our differences. Or to paraphrase Aaron David Miller on why Oslo failed: the power imbalance between occupied and occupier precludes the possibility of any real exchange among people. The US, in Miller’s opinion, acted as ‘Israel’s lawyer’. He isn’t the only one to have said so.
Many of us at the time, weighing the lofty pronouncements from Washington against the reality of life in the Occupied Territories – the daily encroachment of settlements, backed by the Israeli army – could see that Oslo was a naked ploy. I was fourteen at the time, but could see that the ‘peace process’ was an elaborate effort to consolidate ill-gotten gains, to move past the Nakba – and launder the proceeds of ethnic cleansing – without any kind of moral reckoning or acknowledgment. I was living it, and twenty-five years later I take no satisfaction in having been right.
My view of Israelis, peaceniks and Likudniks alike, didn’t change until I was at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002. The Second Intifada was raging and a former Israeli pilot, Yonatan Shapira, was in the news for refusing to serve. Shapira’s position was sincere and uncomplicated: he was no longer willing to take part in war crimes. His courage was my first introduction to what true solidarity – a fight for justice in Palestine/Israel – could mean.
Since then I’ve met and worked alongside many Jewish people and Israelis who belong to the anti-Zionist movement for justice, including Jewish Voice for Peace. And I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on the birthright lottery that casts us into one camp or the other. I’ve learned that you don’t choose your tribe; you choose your point of view.
For us, solidarity is not predicated on sporting events, or shared affinities for certain kinds of food, but on a non-negotiable commitment to human rights. International humanitarian law is the blueprint for the set of standards we seek to hold one another to. I don’t like Yoav Gallant and I don’t like what he represents, but I recognise his inalienable rights as a human being. For those of us who’ve worked for justice in Palestine/Israel on that basis, the current moment is a calamity. But it’s also an opportunity for moral clarity.
As I write this I think about what my family is experiencing in Gaza. I think about my cousin, his wife and their children who were killed in Khan Younis yesterday. I think about their young son, who survived, but has no future. I think about the 22 people sheltering in the darkness in my aunt’s battered apartment, with barely any water to go around between them. And I call on people of conscience to press their leaders for an immediate ceasefire. I call for the human rights of the Palestinians.