Every June 5 for the past 44 years of my life has brought back memories of being a 13-year-old facing life under Israeli occupation. Forty-four years ago I saw Israelis for the first time. It took my generation a very long and difficult time to come to terms with accepting the need for peace and compromise with our occupier. That compromise was the two-state solution. Our goal was to end occupation and achieve freedom, dignity, and self-determination.
Last month in the United States, it became clear to me that few Americans fully understand what it means to be under military occupation for 44 years. Imagine a situation where all universities are closed down by a foreign military power for a total of three years. That happened here in the eighties. Imagine a situation in which all elected local municipality councils are dismissed by the military and replaced by foreign officers. That happened to us in the seventies.
And try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one day and found your business, factory or farm demolished by Israeli bulldozers. That’s what happened during the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008-09. Imagine a situation in which 40 percent of all adult males in your community and a substantial number of women, including young girls, have been imprisoned for political reasons – mostly to suppress freedom of expression. That is exactly what has been happening to us for the past 44 years.
In addition, there is harsh restriction of movement with 600 military check points that prevent people in the West Bank from reaching Gaza and Palestinians from reaching Jerusalem to study, pray and even get to hospital treatment.
Regardless of how hard I try I cannot forget the agony I felt as a medical doctor trying to convince stubborn and unthinking Israeli soldiers to allow Abu Muhammad, a patient suffering a heart attack, or Basem, seriously injured in a car accident, across a check point and into Makassed Hospital in Jerusalem.
Nothing can adequately explain the bitterness and frustration felt when young Israeli soldiers humiliate our fathers and mothers, as well as our sick disabled grandmothers and make jokes about their suffering, while we stand by unable to do anything to stop them.
It is our aspiration to rid ourselves of these injustices and achieve peace through nonviolent and peaceful resistance. We aspire to the same dignity that moved the Arab youth to create the Arab Spring. Our dream is clearly not the same one held by a Congress seemingly mesmerized by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent litany of negatives regarding Palestinian rights and aspirations.
Last month, 15 Palestinians were killed and more than 100 wounded, while peacefully commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when roughly 725,000 Palestinians were dispossessed during Israel's creation in 1947-8. Carried on the winds of the Arab Spring, the demonstrators used non-violent means to demand freedom and justice. They were met in turn with tear gas and live ammunition from Israeli soldiers.
Regrettably, much of the American media coverage of the protests was devoid of any historical context, portraying Palestinians as being motivated by irrational hostility towards Israel and Jews.
This coming Sunday, June 5, Palestinians plan to march peacefully en masse again to demand our freedom from occupation.
While a recently discovered phenomenon to some in the West, Palestinians have in fact long been using peaceful means to protest Israeli policies and actions. Through general strikes, protest marches, boycotts, and others methods, Palestinians have sought redress through non-violent means for the injustices that have been done to them for over a century.
For much of the past decade, grassroots non-violent demonstrations have been taking place in villages like Bil’in, Nil’in, and Budrus. The courageous people there have struggled desperately to stop the theft of their lands for ever-expanding Jewish-only settlements and the construction of Israel’s separation wall, which cuts thousands off from their farmlands and pastures, and severely restricts the freedom of movement of many thousands more.
The Israeli army has used increasingly repressive methods to suppress these demonstrations. Since 2004, 21 Palestinians, approximately half of them children, have been killed by Israeli forces during peaceful protests against the wall and settlement expansion, and between 2004 and 2009, in the four villages of Bil'in, Ni'lin, Ma'sara and Jayyous alone, at least 1,566 Palestinians were wounded.
Since taking office two years ago, President Obama has called on Palestinians to abandon armed struggle completely and embrace the non-violent tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. In his address to the Arab and Muslim world from Cairo in 2009, he stated that, for centuries, “black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding."
Yet, when Israeli soldiers on May 15 gunned down peaceful Palestinian protesters demanding freedom and justice, the Obama administration not only refused to condemn Israel’s use of deadly force against unarmed demonstrators, but a White House spokesman seemed to justify the killings, stating that Israel had a right to “defend” itself.
For non-violent tactics to be effective, it is essential that there be a public outcry and condemnation if and when they are met with violent repression. By encouraging Palestinians to engage in non-violent protest and then failing to support us or condemn Israel’s violent response, President Obama imperils our success and comes across as offering Palestinians only empty words about freedom and how to achieve it.
The way to peace and security is in many ways simple, but it requires accepting Palestinians as human beings every bit the equals of Israelis.
Mustafa Barghouthi, a doctor and a member of the Palestinian parliament, was a candidate for president in 2005. He is secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party.