As an African-American male, people have wondered why I chose to study Arabic and am involved in anti-war and pro-Palestinian activism. It’s an image that people are not used to seeing. However, if I were to just stick to fighting on so-called “black” issues, such as civil rights and poverty (which I do, as well), then people probably wouldn’t be so curious. To me, the connection between the black freedom struggle and working in solidarity with other oppressed people around the globe is crystal clear. However, not everyone sees it that way. The black freedom struggle and the struggle for Palestinian self-determination is part of a broader post-colonial struggle for global justice and human emancipation.
Understanding the connection between black and Palestinian struggles for self-determination requires some historical background. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians traces its roots to the early twentieth century during World War I (1914 – 1918). On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated in Bosnia-Herzegovina by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. This triggered of international events that brought Great Britain, France and Russia to war against Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. At this time, the region known as the “Middle East” was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, including the land of Palestine. During the war, the British made a deal with the Arabs. If the Arabs fought with the British against the Ottomans then the Arabs would receive their own independent nation. This seemed like a good deal so the Arabs went along with it. Unbeknownst to them, Britain, France and, to some degree, Russia, secretly carved up the Middle East for themselves in an agreement known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Britain would received present-day Jordan, Iraq and Israel/Palestine, while France would receive Lebanon and Syria. Russia supposed to get a piece of the northern Caucasus but withdrew after the Russian Revolution installed a new leader, Vladimir Lenin, and a new government, the Soviet Union. After the war ended and the League of Nations was established, Britain and France created Mandates based on the borders they drew up in the Sykes-Picot Agreement (which are essentially the same borders we see today). This was essentially a new form of colonialism and the main interest of Britain and France was to exploit the region for its oil.
In addition to this agreement, the British made an other deal – this time with the Jewish people. After centuries of brutal oppression, the idea of a Jewish homeland was becoming salient around the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Zionism was the ideology that advocated the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Because of historical and religious ties, the land of Palestine was chosen to be the location of the Jewish homeland. In 1917, Arthur Balfour, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, issued a declaration stating the British government favored “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
However, this did not sit well with the indigenous Palestinian Arabs. At the time, Palestinians made up over 90% of the population and lived on that land for over 1,300 years. The King-Crane Commission of 1919 surveyed public opinion of the non-Turkish areas of the former Ottoman Empire. It discovered that the Zionists “looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine”, while “the non-Jewish population of Palestine – nearly nine tenths of the whole – are emphatically against the entire Zionist program” (it’s important to keep in mind that the non-Jewish population includes both Muslims and Christians). While the Commission expressed “sympathy for the Jewish cause”, it recommended limiting Jewish immigration and abandoning the goal of a Jewish state. Unfortunately, the Commission’s recommendations and wishes of the people fell on deaf ears during the British Mandate. During British control over Palestine, the Palestinian Arabs launched a nationalist revolt in 1936-9. This was brutally crushed by the British.
After World War II and the horrors of Hitler’s holocaust against the Jews, the push for a Jewish state was stronger and the sympathy greater. In November 1947, the newly-created United Nations partitioned the land of Palestine into one Jewish state and one Arab state. However, this did not sit well with the Arabs since it would establish Jews as the ruling body, violating the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. While some Jews supported the UN Partition Plan, others, such as Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, did not agree with it. Violence and terror broke out on both sides – Arab and Jewish – after the plan’s announcement. While the image of Arab violence is common to Western minds, it is important to know that Jewish violence against Arabs has also existed. On April 9, 1948, Jewish soldiers (members of the Irgun and LEHI) carried out a violent campaign that resulted in the deaths of Palestinian men, women and children. This came to be known as the Deir Yassin Massacre and shocked both Jewish and world opinion. On May 15, 1948, the British Mandate ended and the state of Israel won its independence. This resulted in the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians and an immediate war with Israel from the Arab states. While Israelis view this day as one to rejoice, Palestinians see it as a day of suffering, which why the day is called “al-Nakba” or “day of suffering”.
The most pivotal event occurred between the days of June 5 – 10 of 1967, which became known as the Six-Day War. Israel launched a preemptive strike against neighboring Egypt, Jordan and Syria. After successfully defeating both armies, Israel captured the territories of the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. In 1982, Israel gave back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt after the 1978 Camp David Accords. However, it continues to occupy the West Bank, Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip. Israel’s victory established the tiny nation-state as a military power to be reckoned with. It was around this time that the United States began to solidify its staunch alliance with Israel by increasing foreign aid and military assistance to the country. At the tune of $3 billion a year, the Israel is the number-one recipient of foreign aid from the United States. As an imperial power whose prime purpose for involvement in the Middle East is to secure access and control over the region’s oil, having a friendly client state like Israel has been a huge benefit to America.
The occupation of the Palestinian territories has been a nightmare for Palestinians. According to the Foundation for Middle East Peace, between the years of 1972 and 2007, the number of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land (West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights) increased from 10,608 to 484,862. While Israel withdrew settlements from Gaza in 2005, most of its settlements are in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. To make room for these settlements, Israeli bulldozers demolish Palestinian homes, causing immense suffering for Palestinian families. This practice is in clear violation of international law, particularly Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibiting “individual or mass forcible transfers” and Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights protecting the right to “adequate food, clothing and housing”. The presence of settlements on Palestinian land also violates international law, namely Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention stating: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory is occupies.” Israel is party to both of these treaties and, thus, is obliged to abide by them.
In addition to home demolitions, Israel began building a massive, concrete security wall in the West Bank separating Jewish land from Palestinian land. Its purpose is to prevent suicide bombings in Israel. While suicide bombings have dropped since the wall began construction, it is in violation of international law. In 2004, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion about the legality of the wall. It found that the wall is “contrary to international law” and demanded that Israel cease construction of the wall, “dismantle” it and “make reparation for all damage caused by the construction of the wall”. Israel and the United States vehemently rejected the ruling. Two weeks later, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution demanding that Israel obey the ruling. Israel, the United States, Australia, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau voted against the resolution, while 150 nations voted in favor and 10 abstained.
In addition to the wall’s illegality, it has reduced the freedoms of Palestinians and worsened their socioeconomic situation. The wall surrounds many Israeli settlements and takes away portions of Palestinian land. This makes it difficult for Palestinians to move around as they have to go through a ridiculous serious of checkpoints to get wherever they wish to go. It is very common for Palestinians to face abuse by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints similarly to how black people are abused by police officers. The wall also prevents essential medical supplies from getting to Palestinians in need. While the Gaza Strip has no Israeli settlements, the situation is similar since Israel controls the Strip’s borders (except for the Gaza-Egypt border) and has prevented essential economic and health supplies from reaching the people of Gaza. This has caused a severe socioeconomic catastrophe for Palestinians as over half live in poverty. According to the Palestine Monitor, the poverty rate in the West Bank is 45.7% and 79.4% in Gaza. As of 2008, unemployment in the West Bank is 16.3%, while it is 45.5% in Gaza. Unemployment in Gaza increased considerably under the Israeli siege going from 29.8% to 45.5% in the first quarter of 2008. In comparison, as of November 2009, official African-American unemployment was 15.6%. Among young African-Americans (16 to 29), unemployment is as high as 30%. The national unemployment rate is 10%.
So how does this connect with the plight of black people in America? While there are obvious cultural and historical differences between the plight of African-Americans and Palestinians, there are some similarities. Perhaps the biggest similarity is racism. The ideology of racism justified the oppression of blacks in America ever since we were brought over as slaves from Africa. In Palestine, racism is a prime ideological motivator for the oppressive policies the Israeli government pursues against Palestinians. But it’s more than just racism. Colonialism is also an important element.
Black people, as slaves, were exploited for their labor to build the capitalistic American empire that we know today. After the end of slavery, the colonial power structure continued to oppress black people through racial segregation and economic subordination. While formal racial segregation ended in the 1960s, black people are still oppressed through attending underfunded schools, an unjust judicial system that fills up its prisons with mainly blacks and Latinos, and a corporate-capitalist economy that keeps black people economically subordinated. Now, in order to militarily dominate a region and control the oil, the American empire provides essential economic and political support to Israel – a regime that unjustly oppresses an indigenous people by violating their fundamental human rights. Palestinians, like black people and all human beings, deserve human rights, freedom and justice. This is not an anti-semitic or a racist position. It is a position based on love for humanity.
Therefore, the black freedom struggle needs to think beyond the borders of the United States and think globally. It must work with other cultures and act in solidarity with oppressed people around the world. The power system we face is international. Policies enacted by governments don’t just affect people domestically but they also reverberate across borders. The money America uses to build up Israel’s military, provide bail-outs to greedy bankers and launch imperial wars could be used to provide basic human services such as better schools and healthcare (which would definitely help African-Americans) or assistance to poorer countries. This makes the fight for black liberation not just a fight for black people alone but a fight for human emancipation from an unjust world. Such a fight is monumental but through the dedicated work of citizens around the globe, it can be won.
Author’s note: For those interested in where I got my information about the history of Israel and Palestine, I suggest reading these:
- “The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & The Palestinians” by Noam Chomsky
- “Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East” by Rashid Khalidi
- “The Origin of the Palestine-Israel Conflict” published by Jews for Justice in the Middle East. You can read the booklet on their website or download the PDF file.