The Israeli Military’s killing of over 115 unarmed Palestinian protesters, civilians, and even medical workers in Gaza and the wounding of thousands more, during a series of protests associated with the Great March of Return, has sparked international outrage spanning from the Mediterranean to the Rio Grande.
In the Rio Grande Valley, local activists and community organizers took to Archer Park in McAllen to remember the victims and to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian community, who have lived under illegal occupation, vis a vis international law, since 1967.
“We are here today to protest the killings that are happening in Gaza and to have a vigil for the victims that were taken by the IDF soldiers,” said vigil organizer, Mariam El-Haj, local Palestinian activist and grad student at UTRGV. She held a laminated placard with faces and “Names of Palestinians killed in cold blood by the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces].”
Video courtesy of John Michael Torres
Her father, a Palestinian refugee, came to this country for a better life for him and his future family. “The atrocities that are happening in my homeland make me very upset especially when it’s a place I can’t go back to, and I have family that I can never see and can never see me because they’re stuck there, in an open-air prison.”
Gaza has been under Israeli siege for more than a decade. In 2012, the World Health Organization warned Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020, but now the U.N. says the living conditions in Gaza have deteriorated faster than expected and that the area has already become “unlivable.”
Gathering around a green podium and bleachers at Archer Park on a cloudy evening, 30 RGV community leaders and members opened with introductions. They passed around a roving microphone, each stating their names, affiliations, and the reasons they chose to come out. Solidarity and finding commonalities between struggles were the common theme among all who spoke.
“I’m here today because I am against the border wall that they want to build here in the Valley. And I am against all borders in general,” said Melinda Melo of the No Border Wall Coalition, a grassroots resistance movement to the border wall in the RGV.
Melo talked about her recent visit to Arizona where she met with leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation whose homeland is the Sonoran Desert. She said she was told that Border Patrol intends to place 15 Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT Towers) on their reservation. According to the Sierra Club, the environmental impacts that these surveillance towers would have has not yet been sufficiently vetted.
In 2016, the Sierra Club stated that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and others have also noted the need for additional research on electromagnetic radiation and other aspects of remote towers, including impacts to people, birds, and wildlife.
Melo stated having the towers on their reservation would be akin to leaving an open microwave out in their community. The Tohono leaders actually visited Palestine, according to Melo, and found that the Palestinians also had IFT towers imposed on them. She stated that “they [the Palestinian friends of Tohono O’odham nation] knew it was giving them cancer.”
The company who makes the towers is an Israeli company called Elbit Systems.
“Elbit has deployed hundreds of miles of border-monitoring systems between Israel and Palestine and also provided multisensor surveillance systems along Israel’s border with Gaza and Egypt,” according to Popularmechanics.com, a classic, science and technology journal.
Also in attendance were several members of the local RGV Muslim Community, including Imam Noor Ahmad of the Islamic Society of South Texas, Dr. Shahid Rashid, and Ameera Khan, who helped organize the vigil.
In his introduction, Imam Ahmad also connected the struggles between the people of Gaza and the RGV: “If you want to learn how to resist a border wall, ask a Palestinian,” said the Brooklyn native and spiritual leader.
He went on to warn that the demonization of humans is often the precursor to something worse, citing and juxtaposing the manner in which Palestinians, on the whole, are frequently dehumanized and labeled “terrorists” by Israeli politicians with the ways in which President Trump has recently referred to immigrants as “animals.”
After introductions came prepared remarks, including by writer Mary Scully and local Mathematics and Engineering Professor and Gaza Native, Nayef Shaath.
First was Mary Scully, a local and long-time writer of the Palestinian struggle and other genocides throughout the world like that of the Rohingya in Burma.
Scully began her remarks by claiming boldly that “Palestinians are not terrorists.” She made note that solidarity for Palestine has grown considerably since she first became involved during the Six Day War in 1967, which resulted in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the annexation of East Jerusalem.
“I first became involved in Palestinian solidarity in 1967 at the Six Day War,” said the writer and activist. “There weren’t many Palestinian activists anywhere in the country, in the United States, at least. There was one Palestinian on the campus where I went to college,” she added. She noted that now, however, there are “hundreds of thousands of people around this world protesting” what she— in reference to the protests and killings that occurred on May 15, the day the U.S. opened its relocated embassy in Jerusalem— has dubbed the “Trump Embassy Massacre.”
For Palestinians, the date also carries deep historical significance. To them, May 15, 1948, Nakba, the day of catastrophe, marks the day hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes by armed Israeli militias, following the departure of British Empire forces the day before. Many of those refugees resettled in Gaza. Today, an estimated 1.8 million people reside in Gaza, a 25 mile long, 7-mile wide strip of land along the Mediterranean and Egyptian Border.
Last to speak was Shaath. He spoke about Nakba, life on the West Bank and of how, in his opinion, the prospect of a two-state solution is no longer viable.
“The two-state solution, in my eye, now is over,” said the Gaza native. “Why is it over? Because of the settlements.”
The settlements Shaath was referring to are Israeli settlements, developed and constructed in occupied Palestinian territory, which have been expanding ever-more in recent years. According to Bloomberg, one-tenth of Israel’s Jews live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank-occupations that the International Criminal Court and the United Nations have deemed illegal under international law.
A two-state solution has been the long-held view of most parties involved in the dispute. This has been the view of the UN, the European Union, the U.S., the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
But recently, a growing number of scholars and Palestinian activists have moved away from this position, pointing to the settlements as the cause for no longer seeing the two-state process as viable. In its place, growing calls for a one-state solution with equal rights for both Palestinians and Israelis have come. Shaath holds to this view, he told Neta.
After speeches, the activists read the names of 58 Palestinians killed by the Israeli military, whose names (in Arabic) El-Haj wrote wrote-out with English pronunciations on a sheet so that those in attendance could read. After being read, each name was followed by a “Presente” or present, meaning the person is not forgotten.
After the vigil, El-Haj distributed information about the siege of Gaza, a map of how Palestinian territory has shrunk since 1948, and leaflets by the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement or (BDS), “a non-violent response to Israel’s violence against Palestinians; Grounded in universal human rights and international law; Aimed at institutions, never individuals.”
The movement sprung in 2005 when Palestinian civil society groups decided to begin a nonviolent resistance based on the model of BDS used against the South African Apartheid regime during the 1980s.
According to a leaflet by the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, targets of BDS include “consumer goods and complicit academic and cultural institutions” and “can be implemented by universities, churches, unions, pension funds, and other institutions.” It further stipulates that “sanctions require ending U.S. military aid to Israel.”
Prominent Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have criticized the BDS campaign as being biased and simplistic. In a published report, ADL stated that “BDS campaigns promote a biased and simplistic approach to the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict and present this dispute over territorial and nationalist claims as the fault of only one party – Israel.” The report argues that because BDS denies Jewish people the universal right to self-determination and Israel the right to exist as a Jewish state, its founding principles are anti-semitic and conducive to intimidation on college campuses of Israeli/Jewish students.
Many prominent Jews, however, have replied to such criticisms by arguing that criticism of Israel is not equivalent to anti-semitism. Additionally, given that the argument about a Jewish Homeland originated among Jewish believers and dates back to the 19th century, historically it follows that Jews were among many of the first anti-zionists. The Satmar Hasidim are actually a well-known anti-Zionist sect of Judaism.
Nevertheless, for some, the campaign remains an issue of contention. In 2016, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo went as far as to sign an executive order directing state agencies to stop doing business with any institution or company that supports BDS. December of that year, state agencies released a boycott list including 13 companies. POLITICO New York noted that none of the companies were American and “two of the 13 are subsidiaries of two others, making it closer to 11 companies the state will boycott.” Several of the blacklisted companies also told POLITICO that they were either unaware of their inclusion, or that they did not, in fact, boycott Israel” leaving the companies “perplexed.”
According to The Nation, anti-BDS laws have been enacted in nine states: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, and Arizona. At least nine other states have considered or are considering anti-BDS legislation this year, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California, as well as one county in New York.
In 2017, a bill introduced to the Senate by Democratic Senator of Maryland Ben Cardin titled the Israel Anti-Boycott Act was unsuccessful after the ACLU came out opposed to the legislation, arguing it would curtail first amendment rights. The bill would have made it a felony for U.S. citizens to support boycotts of Israel and Israeli settlements and would have made such actions punishable by a minimum fine of $250,000 fine or a fine of up to $1 million and 20 years in prison. No legislative action was taken on the bill.
On the other hand, as legislative pressure mounts against the movement in some U.S. states, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights proudly promotes 200+ boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) wins in the United States.
The types of victories vary from “corporate announcements” or company statements expressing divestment of subsidiaries affiliated with settlement activity, academic boycotts, “faith-based actions” by churches and other religious institutions announcing divestments and/or boycotts, “municipal and state victories,” and “cultural boycotts,” from companies affiliated with settlement activity. No sanctions have been imposed on Israel.
A message to Vicente Gonzalez
After the vigil, all gathered by the stairway and gazebo at the center of the park to deliver a message to their representative in Congress and a chant exclaiming “From Gaza to Mexico, border walls have got to go!”
John-Michael Torres, communications coordinator for La Unión del Pueblo Entero and one of the organizers and speakers of the event, led a video message to Congressman Vicente Gonzalez.
“We are here today, gathered in solidarity with Palestine and to denounce the violence of Israel towards the protesters in Gaza protesting for their right to return and particularly, to send a message to Congressman Gonzalez, that he must speak up…against the Israeli occupation of Palestine; must speak up to denounce the violence last week. That this is unconscionable. We cannot go on with our members of Congress staying silent, particularly us that are here on the border who are fighting against the use of technology to divide us, the technology that, in many cases, has been tested or originated in Israel that we use along our border. We are here to say that…what we stand for is our human rights and the rights of Palestinians, especially to return to their homeland.”
“We are here to fight for the rights of the people of this border and of Palestine,” added Aspen Basaldua, a trans-queer activist and also one of the organizers of the event. “Maybe we’re different colored skin, different genders, different sexuality, [but] we’re all the same. We’re all from one earth, and we are to stand together as a family, as a human [family].”
In January, Gonzalez supported the current administration’s move to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, telling The Monitor that “Jerusalem is the real capital of the Jewish people . . .I believe a lot of countries believe it should be moved that don’t have the courage to take that vote in the U.N.”
The organizers sent the video to Gonzalez but have not yet received a response from his office. Nonetheless, whereas international conflict and solidarity has not always made its way into the political discussion locally, activists and community organizers in the RGV will continue reminding us that a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere
Update: As the great marches of return have continued every Friday, violence on the Gaza Strip has continued. On May 29, Israel launched a set of 35 airstrikes into the Gaza border after claiming that Hamas launched more than 100 mortars and rockets across the border into Israel. Some sources, including Reuters, cite the number as being in the “dozens.” Also according to Reuters, Hamas and Islamic Jihad (a militant group from the Gaza strip allied with Hamas) claimed responsibility, saying that they “fired their salvoes in response to Israel’s killing of at least 116 Palestinians since March 30 in Gaza border protests.” On Wednesday, the same day the U.S. called for an emergency meeting of the security council, a short ceasefire was announced. However, the ceasefire was broken shortly after when the IDF struck over a dozen military targets after claiming projectiles had been fired into Israel from Gaza. It does not appear that any group in Gaza has claimed responsibility for the projectiles. Ultimately, no casualties were reported on either side.
The May 29 airstrikes came just one day after the funeral of Razan al-Najjar, a 21-year-old Palestinian medic shot dead by Israeli soldiers Friday while on duty attempting to care for wounded protestors. Her death has been mourned around the world. This morning, on June 5, 2018, the Israeli military also shot and killed Ramzi al-Najjar, Razan al-Najjar’s cousin.