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How my father survived a hunger strike in Israel

“If we had not resisted through mass hunger strikes, we would have remained like the slaves from the Middle Ages,” my father, Ismail, told me during a Skype call after I forced him to revisit his memories from the 33-day legendary Nafha prison hunger strike that he joined 37 years ago…

This article was originally published on Al-Jazeera English. My father Ismail and I at Gaza beach

On May 27, Palestinians worldwide celebrated the end of the Freedom and Dignity hunger strike that approximately 1500 Palestinian political prisoners joined on April 17. After 40 days of hunger and streets mobilisations, the Israeli authorities were forced to listen to their demands.

This was not the first hunger strike– Palestinian political prisoners sought this means of resistance repeatedly since 1967 to call for an end for Israeli brutal practices against them. It may not be the last strike- the Israeli Prison Service has constantly violated treaties forged with Palestinian detainees as they openly violated other international conventions. However, the Freedom and Dignity hunger strike said it clear and loud, “we will never submit to their oppression. We will always resist even if the tool is hunger.”  

Let’s keep in mind that Israeli cycle of violence against Palestinian political detainees as well as civilians had been non-stop since Israel’s existence. Therefore, the fight for justice continues. We should take it as a lesson from Palestinian hunger strikers to never give up.

 

Israeli ambassador talk at SOAS an “exercise in state propaganda”

This article was first published at the Electronic Intifada.

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Chants echoed loudly outside the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, last Thursday. Hundreds had gathered to protest an event featuring the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, in a meeting organized by the SOAS Jewish and United Nations societies.

Protestors could be heard inside the meeting room where Regev was speaking. “They are chanting, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’” Regev said during his presentation, decrying the protestors as “supporters of a hardline, maximalist Palestinian position.”

Regev’s rhetoric was hardly surprising.

Israel and its supporters have been waging a war on campuses to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in support of Palestinian freedom. The global campaign is inspired by the international mobilization against apartheid in South Africa.

SOAS has been a major target as the “first UK campus to back anti-Israel boycott,” according to The Times of Israel.

In February 2015, 73 percent of SOAS students backed an academic boycott of Israel in a school-wide referendum. SOAS is the first campus visited by Regev since he became Israel’s envoy to the UK last year.

In an op-ed in The Times of Israel a day after his talk at the London university, Regev stated he had gone there to put forward Israel’s case, arguing that there was a tendency for academics at the school “to rewrite history and portray Israel as a colonial imposition on the region’s indigenous peoples.”

Regev charged that Israel had been victimized at SOAS – “no Israeli government voice had been heard at SOAS,” an “absence” that “conforms to a troubling trend.” He brandished the anti-Semitism card, condemning SOAS for hosting speakers “notorious for their vociferous hatred of Jewish people.”

The defensive tone of the op-ed, slamming those “falsely portraying the Jews as infiltrators and the Jewish state as imperialist,” suggests Israel feels threatened by the SOAS community and the scholarship its faculty and students put out countering the state’s narrative.

Broad opposition

Regev rose to international prominence as an Israeli government spokesperson justifying brutal violence against Palestinian civilians during Israel’s periodic “mowing-the-grass” massacres in Gaza.

Academics were at the forefront of opposition to Regev’s appearance at SOAS. Holding the meeting seemed like “a deliberate provocation,” professor Jonathan Rosenhead argued in an open letter to school director Valerie Amos that was signed by more than 150 academics from SOAS and other UK universities.

“Liaising with the Israeli embassy on such an event, despite the continuation of Israeli policies to deport and ban entry of SOAS staff and students because of their views on Israel, including legally penalizing support for BDS,” the academics state, “is an affront to the SOAS community.”

Thirty-two student societies at SOAS protested the university’s decision to allow what they described as an “official exercise in state propaganda” to go ahead. They called on all students to participate in an “Apartheid Off Campus” day to protest the visit.

A recent UN report found Israel guilty of having “established an apartheid regime” and practicing “demographic engineering, in order to establish and maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority in Israel.”

“This is a political event not an academic presentation,” student signatories asserted, challenging SOAS’s proposition that an event format that allowed the Israeli envoy’s views to go unchallenged constituted a free debate.

Anti-BDS law

In a separate letter, Palestinian students raised the “very real risk” that attending and voicing criticism at the meeting would put them at risk of being interrogated, detained, or deported and banned by Israeli border agents, especially in light of the country’s new law denying entry to supporters of the boycott movement.

That law was recently used against Kamel Hawwash, an engineering professor at the University of Birmingham.

Senior SOAS academic Adam Hanieh, who like Hawwash is of Palestinian origin, was also recently detained upon arrival to Tel Aviv and banned from entering Israel for 10 years.

“The SOAS management would turn our campus into an extension of Israel’s military occupation by allowing students to be monitored and have their rights trampled on,” Palestinian students warned in their letter.

The meeting, protesters argued, “constitutes a violation rather than a defense of academic freedom and of freedom of speech.”

In exile, something as small as a button can ignite a hidden wound

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My father -on the right- and I at Gaza beach in the summer on 2013, my last summer in Gaza.

One of my jacket’s buttons fell off today. You might be wondering: “So what? What’s the big deal?” This is not the story. I know people experience their buttons falling off of their clothes the whole time. But for me, this incident opened up a hidden wound that I’ve been struggling to cope with for the past three and a half years.

If I were at home, in Gaza, this button would never fall. You know why? Whenever I bought a new jacket or a shirt with nice buttons on it, my dad would take them and re-sew the buttons tightly, so that there is no chance that I would lose any of them. My dad would do this for all my family members. Given his awareness of my quite extreme clumsiness, he would put extra care in my clothes.

Three years and a half have passed since I saw any of my parents, my heroes. Three years and I’m still counting. This counting hurts, especially considering that Israel and its neighbouring ally Egypt are collaborating to tighten the stranglehold over Gaza, making the reunion with my parents an uncertain issue. My story is one among the thousands of Palestinian families who have been left dispersed due to this brutal siege on Gaza and the ghettoization of the remainder of Palestinian lands by the Israeli colonial occupation.

Skype is now my crouch that I lean on to ease the pain, but Skype doesn’t allow me to touch their skin, or contemplate the new wrinkles that appear on their faces. It stands in the way of feeling the full extent of their unconditional love such that I live on its memory to recharge myself. It doesn’t allow me to show how much I love them, in return. 

My heart jumps when I think of my parents, or when I see or do anything that reminds me of them. I terribly miss their physical presence around me. Despite the distance and the years that have passed away from them, I see them with my eyes closed, and I strongly feel their presence. I think of them for tranquillity, for peace.

My parent, my heroes, my life without you is exile. You will always remain my home. A reunion is bound to come.

UK student leaders slammed for Israel trip

This article was first published at the Electronic Intifada.

Many pro-Israel propaganda trips for students are indirectly funded by Israel. (StandWithUS)

Many pro-Israel propaganda trips for students are indirectly funded by Israel. (StandWithUS)

Student union leaders in the UK and Ireland have been slammed for accepting expenses-paid propaganda trips to Israel.

Palestinian students on Tuesday condemned the trip as a “whitewash” of “Israeli crimes and decades-long oppression of our people.”

statement signed by Palestinian student groups and unions across Historic Palestine said that “far from being ‘educational,’ these trips focus on giving a one-sided, pro-apartheid vision of our reality here in Palestine.”

The call came after Shakira Martin, a vice president of Britain’s National Union of Students, last week annouced her intention to accept the trip on Facebook, a day before her departure.

She wrote that it was “essential I listen to the voices of my membership and educate myself on particular issues such as Israel and Palestine to ensure that I make informed decisions as a leader.”

But the Palestinian students’ statement said that “participants on such trips have met with Israeli officials, military officers and even visited illegal settlements – actively normalizing their existence despite the breach of Palestinian land rights and international law, which they represent.”

A group of college students has launched a petition calling on the NUS’ executive committee to hold these officers to account.

U-turn?

The NUS has repeatedly voted in favor of the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

Martin herself voted in favor of BDS in 2015. “I’m proud to support peace and justice for Palestine,” she said in her 2015 election speech, “because everyone has the right to free education and not military occupation.”

Malaka Mohammed, a Palestinian activist and PhD student in the UK, commented on Martin’s Facebook page that she wondered “how someone would get educated when they’re going on a sponsored-trip representing one side of the conflict.”

“Would they get you to see Palestinian families who lost their loved ones in occupied territories?” Mohammed asked. “Or those detained for no charge or trial? Or maybe families of over 400 children in Israeli jails? Or those whose lands are confiscated? Or maybe my family in Gaza who lost many of their neighbors and friends? The answer is unfortunately no … You will get educated for sure but on what they want you to see and learn.”

Martin’s trip was organized by the Union of Jewish Students, a staunchly pro-Israel organization which receives funding from the Israeli embassy in London, as revealed by a recent undercover documentary.

Al Jazeera’s film The Lobby also showed that Richard Brooks, another NUS vice president, had been plotting with pro-Israel activists to overthrow elected NUS president Malia Bouattia, a supporter of Palestinian rights.

Normalizing apartheid

The film led to the resignations of Shai Masot, a senior political officer at the Israeli embassy, and Maria Strizzolo, a civil servant who plotted the downfall of a senior UK government minister along with Masot.

Investigations have been launched into Strizzolo and Brooks.

Palestine societies in the UK last week wrote a letter to Martin urging her to uphold her previously stated position on BDS. “You risk being part of Israel’s attempt to ‘rebrand’ and whitewash its apartheid system,” they wrote.

The letter says that “standing with Palestine means more than holding flags and verbal solidarity  – not only did you fail to live up to your words, but you are using your power and agency to normalize apartheid.”

The trip Martin accepted appears to be part of a wider wave of such pro-Israel propaganda visits of student leaders this month.

Angela Alexander, women’s officer in NUS Scotland, also disclosed in a Facebook post that she joined the same UJS trip.

screenshots of NUS-USI President Fergam McFerran's Facebook post on 20 Jan 2017 revealing his presence in an Israeli illegal settlement

A screenshot of NUS-USI President Fergal McFerran’s Facebook post on 20 Jan 2017 revealing his presence in an Israeli illegal settlement

And Fergal McFerran, president of the NUS Union of Students in Ireland, unintentionally revealed his presence in an illegal settlement in Israeli-occupied Syria last week.

A posting to his Facebook page on an unrelated subject revealed a location of Kidmat Tzvi, an Israeli colony in the occupied Golan Heights.

McFerran later deleted the post and reposted it without a location specified.

So far, McFerran has failed to publicly disclose his trip, and it hasn’t been made clear whether he was on the same UJS delegation.

A third NUS vice president, Shelly Asquith, last week disclosed that she declined an “all-expenses-paid trip to Israel on account of my role” in NUS. The offer was made by StandWithUS, a strongly pro-Israel group which has received Israeli government funding.

“I would not take up such a trip because NUS’s policy is to support the BDS movement,” Asquith posted on Facebook. “These trips are part of a public relations exercise to encourage people to view Israel in a favorable way in the context of the ‘conflict.’ They are open about that purpose.”

Women Revolt: Between Media Resistance and the Reinforcement of Oppressive Gender Structures

Below is the abstract of an academic article I published at Kohl JournalTo read the article in full, press here.

Abstract: After a video accidently caught a sexual harassment incident I was subjected to at the Rafah border, my body became the ground upon which the most hegemonic ideological powers operating in Gaza fought for dominance. The video pushed me and my personhood to the margins under the rubric of my “protection” as a woman, an issue that is perceived by the general community as “common sense.” The media discourse that surrounded the incident demonstrates women’s multiple struggles in the Palestinian community and the central role that media and power structures play in defining and reinforcing certain hegemonic discourses, such as patriarchy. However, women have performed uncountable examples of implicit and explicit resistance to reclaim their agency in the face of oppression and patriarchy. In my case, social media tools allowed me to reclaim the original context of the event and expose the patriarchal cultural traditions that reduces women to their bodies and restricts and marginalises them. It also succeeded in paving the ground for more open discussion around the violations the women are subjected to on a daily basis in public and private spheres, and challenged the cultural taboo around sexual violence against women.

This pictures featured me stranded behind Rafah Border Crossing on 29 September 2013

This picture features me behind Rafah Border Crossing, protesting against its closure on 29 September 2013

Manchester students vote to cut links with Israel

This article was first published on the Electronic Intifada on 13 December 2016

University of Mancester BDS campaigners celebrating passing the BDS motion.

University of Manchester BDS campaigners celebrating passing the BDS motion.

Student representatives at the University of Manchester have voted to back the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

A motion in favor of BDS was approved by 60 percent of the student union senate at the British university last week.

The decision is a bold challenge to the university’s administrators who have developed strong links with Israel in recent years.

In 2013, the University of Manchester signed a cooperation pact with the Technion, Israel’s technology institute.

The Technion works in partnership with a number of Israel’s arms manufacturers and has even helped develop a remote-controlled function for the D9 bulldozers that Israel uses to demolish Palestinian homes.

The BDS motion also demands that the University of Manchester sells nearly £15 million ($19 million) worth of shares in corporations linked to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. These corporations include Caterpillar, maker of the D9 bulldozer.

The vote is the result of a long campaign by Palestine solidarity activists in Manchester, who insisted that their tuition fees must not be used to support institutions complicit in Israel’s crimes.

The BDS motion was approved following a poignant speech by Huda Ammori, a British-Palestinian student, who chairs the Recognise Refugee Rights society in the university. She referred to how her own father had to leave Palestine when he was just 6 years old. His family’s home in the Tulkarem area of the West Bank came under attack by Israeli forces in 1967.

“My father was forced out of his house in Palestine,” Ammori said. “The Israeli military shot at him and his siblings. He had to hide under the table, hoping to survive. They ran from the back of their house barefoot and had to hide in caves without any means of survival.

“I wish I had the privilege to say that my grandparents were in Palestine. But I don’t because they were ethnically cleansed. My great grandparents were there. My great great grandparents were there, too. But they [my grandparents] were forced out in order for the State of Israel to exist and to maintain a majority Jewish population – on the ruins of Palestinian refugees.”

“BDS is necessary to strip Israel of its impunity,” she added. “It is necessary to ensure that Palestinians regain their most fundamental human and political rights: freedom, justice, equality and return.”

Reputational damage?

The vote is particularly significant as the University of Manchester has strong historical links to the Zionist movement. Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist movement’s top lobbyist in Britain during the first half of the 20th century, worked as a scientist in the university. He went on to become Israel’s first president.

Today’s Zionist lobby is dedicating much energy to try and counter the BDS movement. The pro-Israel lobby tries to portray the BDS movement as motivated by anti-Semitism, despite how the movement explicitly condemns all forms of racial and religious bigotry.

Some opponents of the BDS motion in Manchester alleged that it made Jewish students feel unsafe. Ammori stressed, however, that growing numbers of Jews are insisting that Palestinians be granted justice and equality.

“This support is growing because they understand that it has nothing to do with Jewishness but with the Zionist oppressive colonial ideology that enables Israel’s ongoing oppression against Palestinians,” Ammori told The Electronic Intifada.

The BDS work will have to be sustained in the University of Manchester, even if demanding respect for Palestinian rights would appear to be in line with the college’s official commitment to “social responsibility.”

“It’s a great victory but this is only the beginning,” Etisha Choudhury, chair of the Action Palestine society in the university, said. “We are going to celebrate it but also work harder to be stronger and more effective in order to bring about more victories. We still have a massive journey ahead. We will continue until the university divests and cuts ties with the Technion.”

Palestine solidarity activists expect that they will encounter attempts to prevent the BDS motion from being enforced, despite how it was endorsed in a democratic vote. One fear is that the university’s administration will use the argument that cutting its links with Israel will cause “reputational damage.”

Ammori contended that the university would suffer worse damage to its reputation if it kept doing business with the Technion.

“They [the university’s administrators] claim to be socially responsible,” she said. “This is impossible given their association with the Technion, the weapons laboratory of the Israeli military.”

It will take more than sympathy to save refugees from drowning in lifejackets

This article was first published at Media Diversified on 21 September 2016. 

As world leaders were meeting in New York for the UN Migration Summit on Monday, activists transformed Parliament Square, the doorstep of British decision makers, into a graveyard of thousands of lifejackets. These lifejackets had once been worn by refugees that made it to the European beaches. No one knows if they arrived alive or as a lifeless unidentified body.

I am a refugee myself for the second time of my life in the UK; I was born as a third-generation refugee in Gaza’s Jabalia Refugee Camp, and I have recently been granted refugee status in the UK. But I am one of the lucky ones who managed to enter this country on a student visa by airplane and claim asylum successfully. Over the years I’ve met so many refugees who are stuck behind closed borders, putting up with bureaucratic barriers that they experience as a slow death sentence.

More than solidarity is needed

When I first saw the display, I was stricken by the children’s lifejackets which made up the majority of them. It evoked the picture of the Syrian refugee child Alan Kurdi, whose little body laid dead at the shores of Turkey. Though his story resulted in a growing movement of solidarity with refugees, this movement hasn’t yet been strong enough to force world leaders to take concrete actions to help these refugees and offer alternative safe passages to such deadly routes.

graveyardThis graveyard of lifejackets places Alan in context of the 4,176 people who have died or gone missing on the Mediterranean since his death, according to UNCHR. These numbers are most likely to be rising as world leaders are discussing at the UN Migration Summit.

This disturbing scene aims to remind world’s decision makers of the ongoing suffering of tens of thousands of refugees who continue to take such deadly routes as they flee war and persecution. It is a call for immediate actions, based on humanity and solidarity, to put this suffering to an end. Most importantly, it is to emphasize that such decisions are about lives that do not have the luxury of time. These refugees continue to lead a daily struggle for survival.

Untold Stories Behind Numbers

So many stories behind these numbers have gone untold. Rahela Sidiqi, trustee of Women for Refugee Women and an Afghan refugee in the UK, narrated some of these stories that floated on the surface of her memory as she saw this scene. “I automatically remember my friends, my relatives, and so many people who died in the Mediterranean,” she said with eyes open wide as she contemplated the display of lifejackets. “A relative of a friend of mine who was 7-months pregnant died in the Mediterranean as she fled war in Afghanistan. Her husband has gone mad following her death that he couldn’t see any evidence for, except for her disappearance. He gave up on the humanity of world and decided to stay in Turkey, waiting in vain to find the dead body of his wife.”

In her work with Women for Refugee Women, Ms Sidiqi has visited the Calais Jungle Camp to meet vulnerable women stuck at the borders after surviving terrifying journeys. “A lady I met in the Jungle was in the middle of the ocean with her four children when the engine of the boat suddenly went off,” she recalled. “Her only wish to God was not to die in the ocean because she didn’t want her dead body to go missing or unidentified, and to be reduced to a number among the thousands of victims. She survived that terrible crossing, but she is still stuck behind closed borders, in limbo under unlivable conditions, waiting for a safe passage for her and her children.”

We, refugees, are increasingly facing different forms of anti-refugee attitudes from the public and even official bodies in our host countries, including detention, deportation, interrogation. Such ill-treatment is encouraged by the distorted narrative of xenophobia and fear against refugees. This narrative that frames us as a “threat”, “burden” or “problem”, not as an added value to the society. Such a narrative should be discussed at the UN Migration Summit and challenged.

When we think about the alarming numbers of refugees who continue to be forced to undertake such deadly journeys, we must think about their suffering. But also about the utter failure of others to understand, to empathize and to take action.

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