Opinion guest column

Understanding the Palestinian struggle is not difficult

Why Palestinians are outraged and why “dialogue” is not the first step

Understanding the Palestinian struggle is not difficult, despite what a recent op-ed in The Tech suggests. It is quite simple. Israel displaced Palestinians in 1948 and has been the dominant power ever since, while the Palestinians have struggled to survive. One side clearly has the upper-hand and the other side is clearly struggling (but surviving). This is the reason we, as Palestinians, have rejected “engaging in dialogue” and “talking it out” as a first step. I will briefly clarify why this “conflict” is one-sided and then respond to the claims in the op-ed.

Created in 1948, Israel has full sovereignty, a well-established and effective military with top-of-the-line weaponry, tanks, missiles, and nuclear weapons; food and water security; unwavering backing from the United States in terms of diplomatic support (vetoing numerous UN resolutions calling on Israel to stop various violations and moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, effectively ending the possibility for peace talks) and military support (nearly $4 billion annually in aid); and – perhaps most importantly — military control of the West Bank and a blockade on Gaza.

Palestinians have none of this. They are not sovereign (meaning they do not fully and solely have control over the territory in which they live); they do not have a military nor access to weaponry to protect themselves; they do not have food or water security; and they certainly do not have any semblance of diplomatic or military support from the United States. They have their bodies and their will to survive, which the international community saw on full display over the last month as the Israeli military killed and injured scores of peaceful protesters in Gaza — peaceful protesters who still returned the next day and continued to stare down the guns that Israeli soldiers held, even after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the soldiers could continue to open fire on unarmed civilians.

As Palestinians struggle to survive, the Israelis only struggle to maintain the status quo. That’s it. That’s the whole “conflict.” The Israeli state has prioritized its mission to control all of historic Palestine (what now encompasses Palestine and Israel) and has cleansed Palestinians in its way. From the recent targeting of protesters in Gaza to the ongoing destruction of Bedouin villages to the continuing expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian land, it is easy to see why the blame and pressure is aimed at Israel. They are Goliath, despite their attempt to portray themselves as David. What else needs to be said?

This has been the status quo for 70 years. Systematic and ongoing ethnic cleansing began in 1948 (called the Nakba, meaning “catastrophe”, by Palestinians) and continues to this day. Palestinians in the West Bank are living under brutal military occupation; Palestinian Bedouin are being uprooted constantly; those in Gaza have been blockaded since 2005 and constantly targeted and bombed; those living as Israeli citizens are treated as less than second-class citizens; those in Jerusalem have no legal status (they are not recognized as citizens by the Israeli or Palestinian governments) and yet can lose their homes because of Israel’s new loyalty law; those in refugee camps have continued to live in particularly destitute conditions; and those in the United States have, as Palestine Legal has pointed out, experienced repeated attempts to silence their voices when they merely speak up about the struggle. I should note that the brevity of this summary does little-to-no justice to the struggle the Palestinians have experienced.

Everything that the Palestinians have done since then has been in response to these injustices. And they have exhausted all means available to them since 1948: they have tried to reckon with the emerging Israeli state, negotiate with it, peacefully resist it by appealing to international bodies and by protesting, and, yes, even turned to violence to fight it, just as any peoples would when they have experienced decades of ethnic cleansing, oppression, dispossession, militarization, mass incarceration, racism, siege, and apartheid.

The playing field is utterly uneven. This is why Palestinians are not interested in “meaningful and constructive” conversations with Israel or its supporters. An oppressor cannot demand that the oppressed engage in conversation; it does not work that way. Israel must cease its siege of Gaza, its military occupation of the West Bank, its practice of child detention, and, more generally, its extensive violations of international human rights law before any real negotiation can begin.

I repeat: you cannot continue to oppress people and demand they simultaneously engage with you in dialogue. The Israeli government and military have been talking for a long time; if the world is interested in dialogue, they should begin by listening to the Palestinians in their struggle for freedom and dignity. Well-meaning individuals need to understand this. Malcolm X once said that “if you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out that's not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven't even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound.” So it is for the Palestinians: the knife is still being jammed in. If progress (including dialogue eventually) is desired, the knife needs to be pulled out and the wound healed before it can begin. Unfortunately, the Israelis re-elected their Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015 on his promise that no Palestinian state would be established.

When Palestine@MIT put up the Mock Wall in front of the Stratton Student Center, we tried to bring attention to these issues and many others. And we did not misrepresent information, despite the claims of the authors of the aforementioned op-ed. First, they claimed that the wall was constructed only to protect Israelis from attacks by Palestinians. But, as the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has shown, the wall has been used to help Israel take more Palestinian land, limit Palestinian access to their farms (and, thus, livelihoods), and to cement a system that South Africans have declared is the only apartheid system left in the world.

Second, they claimed that calling Gaza an “open-air prison” is unfair and that we ignored the fact that Israelis have allowed food aid to enter the territory. This claim is remarkably ludicrous. Gazans want an end to the illegal blockade of Gaza and opportunity to survive, thrive, and live with dignity, not the minimum amount of food aid to survive while the siege continues!

The authors then played the “terrorism card” by pointing fingers at Hamas. This argument is getting old. As human rights attorney and George Mason professor Noura Erakat has made abundantly clear, Palestinian civil society has risen up, banded together, and protested their right to return in the face of Israeli oppression. Blaming Hamas and assuming that Palestinians have absolutely no agency in their actions to protest and demand rights is dehumanizing to Palestinians. The consequence of dehumanizing Palestinian civil society is that it gives Israel the green light to act inhumanely with impunity, simply by accusing Hamas for anything Palestinians do. Palestinians resisted Israel before Hamas’ creation in 1987 and have continued to resist it since. Israel has used Hamas as their excuse to collectively punish Palestinians.

Finally, it is important to note the misrepresentation by the authors that the parties involved include “Jews, Palestinians, Bedouins, Christians, and Druze.” The Palestinians are a nation, they are generally — though not exclusively — Arab in ethnicity and speak Arabic, and, before Israel’s creation in 1948, included people of the Jewish, Christian, Druze, and Muslim faiths. Palestinian Bedouin are historically-nomadic peoples but are not otherwise particularly distinct from the Palestinian population at-large. They all collectively experienced the beginning of ethnic cleansing in 1948 and have continued to experience it in similar manners ever since.

The good news is that the response to Palestine Awareness Week on campus was heartening: people stopped in to understand the Palestinian perspective that is woefully under-represented in the U.S. They asked thoughtful questions and sought resources to learn more about the struggle. Pressure is mounting on Israel as Gazans protest peacefully, as activists call for boycott of Israel and the companies that support its brutality, as more American and Israeli Jews stand in solidarity with Palestinians, and as intellectuals in the US like Professor Erakat continue to call it out on its violations. The turning tide means that Israel will no longer be afforded its carte blanche to act with impunity in Palestine.

One final note is worth mentioning: to constantly and repeatedly explain this narrative is tiring. Writing these articles is exhausting. Can’t anybody see what is going on? Does anybody care? Like black Americans and indigenous people in this country and the world over, disregard for our oppression is normal. Our expressions of frustration at the status quo are reprimanded and we are told to express our views only in a way that is comforting to the oppressors and their supporters. Palestinians are repeatedly told to “come to the [uneven] table.” Black NFL players are being told to respect the flag of a country that still does not respect them. People must understand why we get angry and why we are disinterested in simply “talking about it.” Resolving these issues must prioritize the voices of the oppressed, and not the feelings of the oppressor. If you cannot understand this, then you are certainly part of the problem.

Nasir Almasri is a PhD student in the MIT Department of Political Science and a member of Palestine@MIT.