For the sake of Palestine, we need to talk about the infighting eating away at pro-Palestine activism

For the sake of Palestine, we need to talk about the infighting eating away at pro-Palestine activism
7 min read
24 Jan, 2022
Toxic tendencies, resembling dogmatic belief rather than a reasoned study of effective activism, has led to fragmentation among Palestine solidarity groups. This is doubly damaging at such a crucial time, writes Dana El Kurd.
Pro Palestine activists protest against the eviction of Palestinian families by Israeli authorities in the Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem at the Israeli Embassy on 21 January 2022, in London, England. [Getty]

Yet another obscene murder in the West Bank drew outrage from the usual circles, but was passed over by most as just "business as usual." Omar Abdulmajeed Asaad, an 80-year-old Palestinian man from Jiljilya village outside of Ramallah, was detained by Israeli forces without charge, beaten, and then left to die handcuffed and blindfolded in an abandoned building.

Unlike most other Palestinians who are maimed and/or killed daily, Asaad was a US citizen. This brought his case to the attention of the US establishment; Congresswomen Betty McCollum and Debbie Dingell, for example, discussed his case on social media, and certain Democratic Party members pushed the state department to voice its "support" of an investigation into Asaad's killing.

Although this response is more than most other Palestinians can hope to expect in the event they suffer injury or death at the hands of the Israeli state – the reaction remains woefully inadequate.

As the UN Human Rights Council notes, Palestinians are facing the highest levels of violence recorded in recent years. Violence comes from both armed settlers, protected by Israeli occupation forces, as well as at the hands of the Israeli military and police directly.

"[I]t has become increasingly clear that some activists espouse a one-size-fits-all strategy and a disdain for any sort of advocacy in formalised spaces"

Incidents of Israeli repression and violence are almost too many to list. In the last few months, the world has watched as lynch mobs (protected and aided by Israeli police) descended on Palestinian communities within the green line, Gaza was bombed in the most brutal assault since 2008, military forces forcibly occupied the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, armed settlers attacked farmers in the South Hebron hills, and protestors from Sheikh Jarrah to Beita have repeatedly lost their freedom and their lives trying to protect their homes.

Most recently, the Salhiyeh family in Jerusalem were brutally attacked, arrested, and had their home destroyed in the dead of night so no one could document the crime. Asaad's murder is yet another manifestation of this trend: increasingly aggressive and violent acts of slow ethnic cleansing by the Israeli state and its affiliated mobs, secure in the recognition that their ally states (both in the West and in the "East") remain stalwart in their support.

Moreover, this upswell of violence reveals an issue of pressing concern: the lack of a coherent and effective strategy among Palestine solidarity organisations and activists. Palestinian civil society on the ground is facing unprecedented challenges, with the Israeli state going on the attack even further and limiting the ability of organisations to provide the basic relief Palestinian society needs.

Meanwhile, in the diaspora, the situation is not equally challenging, but indeed just as troubling.

Perspectives

There were an outrage on social media, mildly successful hashtags, calls for sanctions and BDS in response to the latest Israeli aggressions - but little coordination on how to pressure the US or Western establishment effectively.

Instead of capitalising on the fact that Palestinians across the diaspora face varying pressures, and that the unique positionality of each community can be wielded as an asset rather than lead to fragmentation, it has become increasingly clear that some activists espouse a one-size-fits-all strategy and a disdain for any sort of advocacy in formalised spaces. Anyone who engages in human rights organisations, international law organisations, think tanks or electoral politics is at risk of harassment and subject to bad-jacketing.

For example, Omar Shakir, who made headlines for being deported by Israel for his work with Human Rights Watch, was attacked for taking meetings with Palestinian Knesset members. Palestinians who disagreed with the DSA's position on Jamal Bowman were vilified and harassed.

These behaviours and dynamics have severely hindered the ability of activists from all circles to coordinate effectively and indeed to trust people within their own community.

Voices

One activist told me, on condition of anonymity, that she feels alone in Palestine organising spaces, unable to express her opinions, and uncomfortable with the toxicity she sees displayed.

Another activist found themselves blocked on social media by members of an organisation they had previously worked with, for expressing solidarity with Syrian organisers. These toxic tendencies, resembling dogmatic belief rather than a reasoned study of effective activism, has led to a fragmentation in effort among Palestine solidarity groups.

At the same time, non-Palestinian activists active in those circles limit effective solidarity in the other direction, often having conversations about the two-state and one-state solutions and violence or non-violence, without understanding the severity of what is happening on the ground, or how far removed these discussions are from people’s concerns. This has led to a situation where those in the US monitoring conditions in Palestine "are not ready to comprehend the next chapter."

Jehad Abusalim argued online recently that "the discourse is so fragile and limited I'm afraid it won't be capable of absorbing the major shifts ahead of us or keeping up with how things will unfold as violence intensifies." How will liberal advocates reckon with the fact that, as a result of Israeli state violence, armed resistance increasingly seems to Palestinians the only viable and effective option?

This fragmentation is doubly damaging, given that today the possibilities for impactful activism in Western countries is greater than ever before, but also the attacks facing activists are more targeted and more effective. Thus pro-Palestine solidarity is more at risk and also wasting more opportunities.

In such a context, solidarity groups should be coordinating more across different spaces, not less. Grassroots organisations with expertise in mobilisation should work alongside those in advocacy organisations with expertise in media and messaging. Advocates in policy-making positions can take their cues from such movements, and those working in the legal field can coordinate more effectively around not only adding pressure on Israel via legal channels but also protecting activists from backlash.

To fight the battle in the legal system, in the media, in policy circles, and on the ground requires people in all of those spaces. Does it make sense to critique, for example, inaction among human rights organisations if we harass anyone active in such institutions? How can we lament the Palestinian lack of success in impacting policy if we tear down anyone who works to do so? Should we hold Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship, who want to maintain access to their homes and families, to the same standard of conduct as Palestinians elsewhere?

As long as there is adherence to basic principles – the belief in Palestinian right to self-determination and sovereignty in all of historic Palestine, a discussion of Israel's policies as part and parcel of settler-colonialism rather than disparate transgressions, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees – activists should understand that different strategies can be used in different circumstances.

"The internecine battles between different pro-Palestine advocacy circles are not unique to Palestine solidarity work; maybe it is a reflection of a generally deteriorating public sphere" 

This is not to claim that we should suppress discussions or critiques about strategies that might be problematic, that concedes too much, or that we have reason to believe do not adequately support the cause. But we must believe that - barring the most egregious evidence - these choices are indeed well-intentioned.

We must remember that it never pays to be vocally pro-Palestinian in Western contexts: not in policy circles, electoral politics, or grassroots organising. Anyone who chooses to be open about Palestine will face repercussions big and small. There are various reasons why some choose certain paths in their advocacy and not others, reflecting generational divides, class differences, and personal risks.

The internecine battles between different pro-Palestine advocacy circles are not unique to Palestine solidarity work; maybe it is a reflection of a generally deteriorating public sphere exacerbated by social media algorithms, which plagues all aspects of political discussion today. But we must self-reflect when we engage in these battles on what we are actually achieving for those bearing the brunt of the violence.

Perhaps in doing so, we would recognise that such behaviour has more to do with burnishing our personal brands than it does effective advocacy. Yet, this cause is more important than our hot takes and our egos. There is much more at stake. People in Palestine are suffering.

Dr Dana El Kurd is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Richmond. She is the author of "Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine" (Oxford University Press, 2020). Dr El Kurd's work focuses on authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, state-society relations in these countries, and the impact of international intervention.

Follow her on Twitter: @danaelkurd

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.