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Palestinian Advocates Say It’s Not A War, But A Military Occupation [Panther Now interviews CAIR-Florida's Sabha Hammad ]

By Lara Coiro & Diego Diaz / Staff Writers, For Panther Now | FIU, On 25 June 2021, Read Original
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Sabha Ali Hammad, President of the Muslim Student Association and a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), likened Bennett to former U.S. President Donald Trump due to his use of racial and nationalistic language.

Ali Hammad said that Bennett is much more vocal about his anti-Arab position than Netenyahu. Bennett has been quoted talking about killing Arabsopposes the creation of a Palestinian state and favors annexing the West Bank territory.

“[People in Israel are] not even hiding [anti-Arab hate] at this point. This is a majority-selected prime minister, so if that is the majority, that is representing a good [percentage] of the population,” said Ali Hammad. “That is the scary part as well.”

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(6/23/2021, Miami, Fla.)On May 21 at around 2 a.m., a ceasefire concluded 11 days of brutal conflict between Israel and Hamas, an Islamic militant organization. The deal was arranged with the assistance of Egypt, after the international community witnessed the most violence between Israel and Gaza in years. 

In the early hours of June 16, Israel bombed Gaza for the first time since the ceasefire. Israeli military officials said they were responding to fire balloons sent across the southern Israeli border.

Tensions had been heightening throughout the previous month until the attacks on May 10, when Israel and Hamas began a bombing campaign that claimed the lives of over 250 people. At the start of the ceasefire, 256 Palestinians and 13 Israelis had been killed. 

“Even now, when you hear a noise, if someone flushes a toilet, or the laundry, you stand up shocked thinking, ‘Where is the closest bomb shelter?’” said Nadav Weil, an FIU political science freshman associated with Hillel at FIU, and currently studying at Bar-Ilan University in Tel-Aviv. 

Weil felt like things were coming back to normal, but Israelis were still concerned in the aftermath of the unrest. 

“There was this big party for all the students to get together and me and my friend were walking to it. As we were walking to the party, the siren went off,” he said. “So we’re in the middle of campus and you have to decide, ‘Are you closer to the party or are you closer to the dorms?’ We ended up being closer to the dorms to shelter.” 

After more than a year, Lana Shehadeh, an FIU PhD candidate majoring in international relations, has still been unable to obtain a travel permit from the Israeli government to enter Jerusalem from the West Bank and visit the university to work on her research.

Shehadeh was born in Coral Springs to Palestinian parents and moved back to the West Bank as a fellow with Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2020. 

Tear gas being used to dispel protest near Shehadeh’s apartment. Photo courtesy of Lana Shehadeh. 

She said that despite the ceasefire, violence had escalated in her town. There have been nightly protests organized by young Palestinians. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. 

At the time of the crisis, Israel’s parliament prepared to vote on a new coalition government on June 13. Neftali Bennett has now replaced Benjamin Netenyahu as the country’s Prime Minister, ending the former leader’s 12 years in power. 

Sabha Ali Hammad, President of the Muslim Student Association and a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), likened Bennett to former U.S. President Donald Trump due to his use of racial and nationalistic language.

Ali Hammad said that Bennett is much more vocal about his anti-Arab position than Netenyahu. Bennett has been quoted talking about killing Arabsopposes the creation of a Palestinian state and favors annexing the West Bank territory.

“[People in Israel are] not even hiding [anti-Arab hate] at this point. This is a majority-selected prime minister, so if that is the majority, that is representing a good [percentage] of the population,” said Ali Hammad. “That is the scary part as well.”

These turbulent relations have been characteristic of Israeli-Palestinian society since the inception of the state of Israel in 1948.

On the first night of Ramadan, a religious holiday held by Muslims, Israeli police forces entered the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and cut the cables to the loudspeakers which announced daily prayers to attendees. 

Less than a month later on May 7, Israeli police forces entered the Aqsa Mosque again. This time, they fired rubber bullets and stun-grenades at the worshippers. Israeli police stated that they were responding to the risk of a riot at the mosque. Palestinians retaliated by throwing rocks and bottles.

At the end of the raid, 88 Palestinian people were hospitalized for their injuries. Six Israeli police officers were injured.

“A lot of the context surrounding the Al-Aqsa mosque protest wasn’t talked about,” said Weil. “Police officers and soldiers that were stationed there were actually Arab-Israelis, so a lot of the clashes were protestors hurting their own brothers.”  

Close by, in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, the eviction of numerous Palestinian families garnered international attention. 

Before 1948, Sheikh Jarrah was a mixed neighborhood consisting of Arabs and Jews. The neighborhood was later abandoned during the Arab-Israeli war, which ultimately secured Israeli statehood.

In the 1950s, the UN resettled Palestinian refugees into Sheikh Jarrah, where many have lived since. 

Israel has maintained a position of control over east Jerusalem and the West Bank ever since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The neighborhood has been a point of conflict for decades, as continuous efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes have been made by the Israeli government to make way for Jewish settlers.

Children walking to school in Aida Refugee Camp. Photo courtesy of Mohamed Ghumrawi. 

Professor Mohamed Ghumrawi has studied the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for over a decade. He is the faculty director for the FIU In the Middle East Study Abroad Program, an adjunct politics and international relations professor and the senior program coordinator for the Mohsin and Fauzia Jaffer Center for Muslim World Studies

Ghumrawi called the evictions in neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah, Lifta and Silwan “classic apartheid.”

Weil disagrees with this framing, arguing that the 21% Arab-Israeli population within Israel dispute this claim.

Ghumrawi, however, contends that the second-class treatment of Palestinians is a systemic issue within Israeli society.

“You are seeing the ethnic cleansing of Arabs getting out of these neighborhoods and being replaced by Jewish settlers. This is a 19th-century settler colonial idea operating in a 21st-century world today,” said Ghumrawi. “By any contemporary or modern-day standards, kicking people out of their homes based on their ethnicity or religion would be condemned almost globally, but it’s not condemned when it’s Israel. It’s not condemned by the United States, and in fact we are subsidizing this.”

Israel maintains that because the neighborhood was once inhabited by Jews, they have a right to return to the land. But this is not extended to the Palestinians who once lived there.

“If Jews who left in 1948 have a right to return back to these homes, how come Palestinians who also left in 1948 aren’t being afforded the same right?” said Ghumrawi. 

Palestinian advocates claim that the way the relations between Israel and Palestine are framed can be false and misleading.

“[The] narrative that we see in the United States, and especially portrayed by Western media outlets, is a narrative of conflict [and] violence–a war between Hamas and Israel. A lot of these terms and this vernacular are really referring to two sides that are on a level playing field. It’s a conflict between two sides and it insinuates that these two sides are somehow equal. That couldn’t be further from the case,” said Ghumrawi.

Both Ali Hammad and Ghumrawi emphasized the power of terminology surrounding the situation. 

“A single word can completely change a narrative. For example, using the world ‘conflict’, the word ‘war’, the word ‘clashes’ is very detrimental to the situation because its putting both [sides] at odds, when it’s clearly a thing of apartheid, of colonialism, of occupation.” Ali Hammad said. 

Ghumrawi called Israel’s presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem a “violent military occupation” that has been occurring since 1967. This idea has been reinforced by numerous Geneva conventions, international law and United Nations resolutions calling for the end of the occupation.  

Fundamentally, the pro-Palestinian argument is that Israel, as a nuclear power with a developed military and millions in funding from the United States, has continuously used excessive force on a stateless population.

Gaza has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world and practically no available public services like water and electricity. According to the United Nations, more than half the population lives below the poverty line.

Pro-Israeli arguments contend the excessive deaths are due to the lack of development within Gaza. Weil says Hamas is to blame for this. 

“Israelis have the Iron Dome system, which protects [the state] from 90% of the missiles that come in and intercepts them,” said Weil. “Whereas Hamas invests their money not into social welfare, not into a missile defense system like Israel has, [but] rather into missiles to launch into Israel.” 

While the West Bank is considered to be more stable and developed in comparison to Gaza, the societal divisions are still daunting. 

Shehadah lives in between an Israeli settlement and a Palestinian refugee encampment. The encampment has a failing sewage system, leaving excrement to collect in the streets. There is also no reliable access to clean water or electricity. 

Israeli soldiers on a hill pointing an M16 at cars passing the checkpoint on Shehadeh’s way home from Ramallah. Photo courtesy of Lana Shehadeh.

“I’m an international relations major, but I don’t even think of this conflict in that much detail…I want us to get to a point where me and my kids can get into the car and drive to Ramallah…without seeing any guns. That’s all I want,” said Shehadeh.

Shehadeh said that the issue is not politics, but a respect for basic human rights.

“I just don’t want to see an Israeli soldier with a gun pointed at my kid. I just want to get to a point where I can get my kids in the car and drive them to the beach without having to take out permits, asking these Israeli soldiers to let me through a checkpoint,” said Shehadeh. “Do you see how basic this is?”  

Weil said that his pro-Palestinian friends express anti-semitic undertones in their critique of Israel.

“I think more often than not I had a lot of friends that took the Palestinian side, instead of seeing that both sides are to blame,” said Weil. “They’re posting anti-Israel stuff, and actually anti-semitic stuff when they bring Jews into it. You have to separate Jews from Israel.” 

However, Ali Hammad said that the United States and Israel only focus on Hamas to paint the situation as one of Muslims against Jews.

“The Israeli Defense Force is killing Christians, Muslims and even Jewish Palestinians who’ve existed before the state of Israel,” said Ali Hammad. “How does this have to do anything with religion?”

Ghumrawi explained the historical rise of Hamas and the initial role Israel played in legitimizing Hamas’ founder

“If you go back to 1987, in fact, Israel actually supported the creation of Hamas, ironically enough,” said Ghumrawi. “They saw Hamas in its early years as something to counter the influence and power of the secular Fatah party.”  

Both Ghumrawi and Ali Hammad critiqued Hamas’ overrepresentation in the current political dialogue.

“I always make the comment [that] one percent of Palestinians are Hamas, but that one percent gets ninety-nine percent of the media coverage”, said Ghumrawi.

Ali Hammad said, “People say Palestinians defend themselves by going out and joining Hamas. No, they don’t do that. They defend themselves by gathering with their family and friends and continuing to protest, and not let themselves die out.”  

Palestinian protests have ranged from peaceful non-violent protest, to violent clashes with the police and Israeli counter protestors. Ghumrawi said that he views the escalation of violence to be as a result of how Israel treats Palestinians.

“Palestinians have tried everything. The Oslo Accord in the 90s–that didn’t work. Palestinians went to the United Nations to put a bid on statehood; the United States blocked it,” said Ghumrawi. “The Palestinians went to the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes committed by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza, the U.S. sanctioned the court.”

Ghumrawi also referenced recent International Relations research in addressing the ties between Palestinian grienvances and Hamas recruitment.

“When people don’t have opportunity, when they lack economic or socioeconomic development, this will essentially drive people into joining these terrorist organizations,” said Ghumrawi. “You can even look at Iraq or ISIS as one of the more recent cases.” 

Ghumrawi summarized his perspective of the conflict.

“We have this expectation for Palestinians to solve this issue nonviolently, but when they try to solve it nonviolently, they’re blocked by the U.S. or Israel…when Palestinians resort to violence, we blame them for that, calling them terrorists, and continuing the same cycle of violence,” said Ghumrawi.

Despite the difficulties, Shehadeh doesn’t envision herself and her daughters returning to the United States after she completes her dissertation. 

“I open my kitchen window and I have the most beautiful mountains in front of me and this breeze of fresh, crisp air. My kids are speaking multiple languages…I like how simple life is,” said Shehadah. “I want my kids to grow up here.” 

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