The Great Return March has already made a difference. As thirty thousand non-violent marchers are all indiscriminately viewed as “legitimate targets” for asserting their inalienable human rights, the image of Israel as a liberal democracy, an image already severely tarnished by its brazen embrace of apartheid over the past few years, is now receiving additional blows that will be hard to recover from. US politicians are finally noticing, and expressing criticism of the country that was once untouchable. As Philip Weiss notes: “As protests at the Gaza border get underway this morning, several liberal Democratic politicians have finally objected to Israel’s shooting of unarmed Palestinians at the Gaza fence.” Weiss goes on to point out that the criticism of Israel is nevertheless tempered by the call on Palestinians “to exercise their rights nonviolently,” and describes Senator Elizabeth Warren’s criticism as “tepid.”
My own take about US politicians’ response to these attacks is quite different. Up to the latest attacks, on the weekly Great Return Marches by Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, American politicians have come out in droves to assert that offensive formula, “Israel has the right to defend itself.” It is offensive because Israel is not defending itself, it is defending an illegal occupation, which violates the human rights of a civilian people it is obligated, according to international law, to be protecting. It is also offensive because we have never, not once, heard an equivalent “Palestinians have the right to defend themselves,” even when they are the ones coming under attack.
Much more revealing than the few comments by congresspeople who criticized Israel, Mark Pocan (WI), Pramila Jayapal (WA), Keith Ellison (MN), Barbara Lee (CA), and Henry C. “Hank” Johnson Jr. (GA), is that, this time around, not a single Democrat has actually come out to shield Israel. Not one has stated that “Israel is our friend and strongest ally,” not one has spoken of “joint values.” As Jonathan Ofir noted, Israel’s genocidal comments are isolating it.
From the Balfour Declaration to today’s Great Return March, the past hundred years of Palestinian history have been one painful trajectory of racist settler-colonial injustice imposed upon the indigenous people, followed by uprisings, which in turn are violently suppressed, until the people can take no more, and rise up again, demanding justice. The revolts, the 1936-39 uprising against Mandate Britain, (sometimes known as “the first intifada”) and more recently, the 1987 and 2000 intifadas, have taken on many forms, from armed insurrection to completely peaceful protests. They have invariably been met with extreme violence on the part of the oppressor, whether England, which first imposed martial law and crafted many of the measures Israel still employs in its discrimination against the Palestinians, to the full blown massacres Israel now routinely engages in, as it finally strips off the mask of “democracy:” to declare that every Palestinian refugee is a legitimate target.
This is the turning point we have been looking for, when Israel is finally viewed by its hitherto enablers as a liability, not an asset. At a time when the US is deeply divided between white supremacy and the impulse to resist fascism, the toxic collision between Trump and Netanyahu, and on the popular level between white nationalism and Zionism, is forcing US politicians to distance themselves from an Israel that is ever more open about its true nature as a racist, genocidal state. Now, then, is the time to break the Zionist hold on our “representatives,” and make it very clear to them that they do not have our support while they profess “joint values” with Israel.
And this is already happening, as outraged citizens are indeed confronting our politicians. It started a couple of years ago, at town halls across the nation. We must increase the pressure. We could ask Bernie Sanders, for example, who rehashed the cliché of “disproportionate response,” as he explained that Israel “over reacted” to the marches, what, exactly, he would view as an appropriate “response” to unarmed civilians asserting their inalienable human rights. Should Israel have killed five, instead of seventeen protesters? Maybe only three? Would killing three unarmed protesters be “proportionate?”
If we don’t seize the moment of outrage, now, as Israel shows its bare face of criminality, we might as well abandon the struggle. But if we want change, rather than a scream of pain, we must direct our activism towards those who enable the oppressor. It is past time we stopped discussing such irrelevant matters as whether Palestinian resistance is fully non-violent. It is resistance, by a dispossessed, disenfranchised, oppressed people, against a nuclear power that does not recognize the humanity of the Palestinians whose most basic rights it has been violating for seventy years.
And it was certainly never appropriate to worry about how Israel will be impacted by the Right of Return. Worrying about the impact of the Right of Return on Israel is like university administrators who prioritize the impact of a rape conviction on the rapist. “Oh but it would destroy his career as an athlete!” The Right of Return is non-negotiable. A country that violates it is the criminal party. Palestinians returning to the town and villages they fled during Al Nakba will change the demographics in Israel, but it would be justice at long last. Those demographics, allowing Israel to claim it is a “Jewish democracy,” are themselves the result of violence, and can only be maintained through violence. Besides, qualifying “democracy” voids that very term. Would we ever accept, rather than ridicule and criticize, a country that claims to be a “male democracy,” or a “Muslim democracy?” And Ahed Tamimi’s slapping of the Israeli occupation soldier is no more “violent” than a woman scratching her rapist. We have prioritized the oppressor for way too long.
In a little under a month, Palestinians will be commemorating the 70th anniversary of Al Nakba. We can be part of the solution, by confronting Israel’s enablers here in the US. Or we can let our outrage join history’s heap pile of missed opportunities. And forget about the ideals of freedom, self-determination, justice. They can be buried in the rubble in Gaza.
Let us do our part.