On August 9, tens of thousands of protesters marched around the globe to support the doleful plight of Palestinians in Gaza. Indeed, pro-Palestinian rallies took place in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Sydney, Melbourne, London, Cape Town, Canada, Oman, Iran, Spain, Malaysia and many other countries.
The protest in Washington, D.C. was distinct in two ways. First, the rally was significantly more tense and sullen than any other pro-Palestine rally I’ve attended in D.C., with a large police presence and even counter-demonstrators. Secondly, the protests differed from many of those around the world in that protesters – using chants, speeches and signs – aimed their outrage at the U.S. as much as at Israel.
While those protesting outside Washington were not hesitant to excoriate U.S. complicity in Israel’s latest actions in Gaza, protesters also focused their attention on Israel itself, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Egypt, their own governments or the international community, among others. The sizable Washington D.C. protest evidenced that many American believe that we are morally obligated to stand up against U.S. complicity in the occupation, the recurring incursions into Gaza and the continued denial of Palestinian rights. In front of the White House during the global Day of Rage for Gaza, American protesters did just that.
I have attended many pro-Palestine rallies in the Washington, D.C. area over the last 7 years. This protest was different. The oppressive humidity of August in D.C. rivaled the tense, heavy atmosphere of the protest. The Metro police presence was particularly robust, with many officers carrying riot gear helmets and truncheons and a group of police officers waiting on horseback one hundred yards away surveying the scene for signs of trouble. In the waning months of tourist season, bemused pedestrians ambled through the protest, with some reading the signs and engaging with the protesters and others simply wanting to get their picture taken in front of the White House.
At one point, tensions between rally participants and the few counter-protesting gadflies began to rise and the police forcibly separated the two sides and erected barricades. One counter-protester yelled, “I don’t care what happened 2,000 years ago or 100 years ago or 70 years ago or in 1967, the state of Israel has the right to exist.” He was immediately followed by one of his fellow counter-protesters haranguing the protesters for, what he called, “Palestinian collaboration with the Nazis.” I suppose history only matters when it serves to bolster your argument. Another led a chant of “all mouth, no brains,” assuring the other side that he would always win the argument because he had a megaphone. While the dozen or so counter-demonstrators were unorganized and offered a host of contradictory and uninformed remarks, their protest represents the absurdity of blanket support for Israel. At this point, pundits, politicians and everyday people who support Israel’s illegal actions have to resort to yelling the loudest to win the argument and shut down debate.
Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of the protesters, who mostly ignored the rag tag counter-protesters, aimed their ire at the U.S. and its financial, diplomatic and military support for Israel. Many of the chants shouted by protesters focused on President Obama and the U.S.’s billions in aid:
Hey Obama, how much aid is funding Israel’s raids?
Hey Obama, you will see, Palestine will be free!
Hey Obama, pick a side, human rights or genocide!
Our only course of action: boycott, divestment, sanctions!
Not another nickel, not another dime, no more aid for Israel’s crimes!
Hey Obama, can’t you see, our tax dollars make them bleed!
Here in Washington, D.C., before the seat of international power, American protests aimed their outrage at the United States and its reflexive, and ultimately immoral, support for Israel. The facts are all well-known: the annual $3 billion in aid, the reflexive diplomatic support, the Israel-first penchant of most of the U.S. Congress, the U.S. serving as “Israel’s lawyer” in the peace process and so on. But, when another paroxysm of violence erupts in Gaza, demanding an end to U.S. aid becomes all that much more urgent. As this excellent Truthout report demonstrates, the U.S. directly supplied Israel with a host of military equipment used to kill nearly 2,000 Palestinians, with the overwhelming majority of those being civilian casualties. When bombs land in Gaza that read “Made in the U.S.A.,” Americans have a duty to stand up and demand “No More!” The U.S. is not a helpless actor in this conflict, unable to do anything to stop Israel. To be sure, we are very far from reaching a point where the U.S. will shift its policy course. And, again, that renders protests like the August 9 Day of Rage all that much more urgent.
One common refrain I often here from both Israel’s supporters and those with little knowledge of the Palestine-Israel conflict asks the question “Why do you care?” (for a good example of this type of argument, see this Fox opinion piece). This question has become especially relevant as the latest violent episode in Gaza coincides with the immensely tragic situation in Syria and the terror imposed by the Islamic State on Iraqi minorities, among other international crises. It should go without saying that pro-Palestinian activists do not prioritize Palestinian blood. But, the global Day of Rage and the tens of thousands of protesters and Palestinian supporters around the world have decades of activism and movement building that augment current activism for Palestine. Moreover, American complicity in the carnage in Gaza is explicit and clear. We can demand an end for support to Israel. On the other hand, we can and should protest what the execrable Assad and Islamic State have done in Syria and Iraq. With that said, it’s difficult to imagine tens of thousands rallying worldwide for anti-aircraft missiles for the Syrian rebels, for example. Ultimately, this type of argument is a diversionary tactic, and a hollow one at that, meant to shift the focus of the discussion from Israel’s actions to a broader discussion of humanitarian crises throughout the world.
Washington, D.C.’s Day of Rage sought to demand an end to our government’s support for Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights. Ultimately, the end goal is to not only push the U.S. government to cease its multifaceted and unflinching support for Israel, but to press Israel to end the occupation, provide equal treatment to Palestinian citizens of Israel and honor the rights of Palestinian refugees.