On October 15, representatives of the Iqrit Community Association Shadia Sbait and Ameer Toume spoke to Congressional representatives in room 221 of the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Sbait and Toume, both Palestinian citizens of Israel, have been making the case for Palestinian right of return on a month-long tour of the United States. Sharing the panel organized by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation was the USA representative for Adalah, Nadia Ben Youssef and human rights attorney Noura Erakat. Because the United States continues to be the primary benefactor of the state of Israel, the panelists appealed for an end to Congress’ inadvertent support of human rights abuses in Israel and the occupied territories.
Members of the audience included Congressional staffers, particularly those who work in the offices of House Representatives. It was clear that the staffers had been sent by their bosses in Congress, as was made clear by a member of Joseph Kennedy’s office who wished to remain anonymous. This suggests an interest by some members of Congress on changing the discourse on Palestine.
Ben Yousef spoke about her work with Adalah, the legal center for Arab and minority rights in Israel, focusing on the specific case of Iqrit, a Palestinian village near the Lebanese border that was evacuated of its residents during the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. It was not immediately clear that everyone in the audience was familiar with the Nakba, or catastrophe as it is known in the Palestinian historical narrative. She explained the event’s significance, noting that 85% of Palestinians became refugees after this point.
Included in this percentage are Sbait and Toume, whose great grandparents were expelled to neighboring cities Haifa and Kfar Yasif. Sbait is the General Coordinator of the Iqrit Community Association and Toume is an Iqrit community activist and student at Haifa University.
Sbait commented that while the state of Israel continues building Jewish-only settlements both inside the country and in the West Bank, “we are forbidden from access to our original lands.”
The Iqrit community association raises awareness about their plight, and with the legal aid of Adalah, challenges rulings in the court that continue to forbid their right of return. It is a particularly exceptional case because the approximately 1,400 descendants of Iqrit are all Israeli citizens. The obstructionism by the Israeli government against their return is about keeping a Jewish edge on the demographic balance. But as Ben Yousef pointed out, “they already are a demographic threat…they pose no additional threat than what they are.”
Ben Yousef said connecting to the movement for social justice in the United States to that of Palestine is of primary importance because in many ways “the struggle in Israel and Palestine is the battleground for human rights.”
Ben Yousef posed a particular reason for the resonance in the United States of the movement for social justice in Palestine. She posited that “because we’re using international language, and de-exceptionalising Israel/Palestine, bringing it into this language of human rights, language of equality and supremacy, we’re seeing extraordinary links happening between other oppressed communities around the world.”
Systems of oppression feed on stereotypical tropes of “the other,” and this has been seen time and again with the killing by police of unarmed black men deemed a vague threat in the United States. “One [link] in particular, that I hope you follow and bring back to your Congressman and civil society organizations and media outlets,” Nadia stated, “is the idea of Black-Palestinian solidarity.”
“The struggles are fundamentally linked and the struggles are about challenging systems of supremacy. Challenging meaningless or conditional citizenship on the basis of who you are.”
A Jewish American audience member expressed her frustration with Congress over its unflinching support of Israel. “My representatives from Congress, like Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, do not reply to my letters.” Referencing her work with Jewish Voice for Peace, she said “We’ve got to stop this. There are many people like me in the United States, old and young, that say enough.”
Erakat contextualized the US relationship with Israel, pointing out that in 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson established a policy that funds Israel in order to “maintain a qualitative military edge throughout the Middle East.” Attributing this rationale to proxy war against the Soviet Union, Erakat wondered why the US has continued the policy even with the fall of the USSR in 1991.
One reason she said “has to do with the fact that there still is some benefit, because we can outsource…a lot of our militarization and abuse to the Middle East to our allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.”
The other reason Erakat said, noting their choice of a capitol hill briefing, “has a lot to do with domestic policy in the US – what members of congress want to say, but cannot,” in reference to AIPAC and influential pro-Israel political donors.
Erakat also had suggestions for practical measures members of Congress can take, likely at the urging of their staffers in attendance.
The 1975 Armed Exports Control Act and Leahy Amendment are two pieces of legislation that predicate US military aid to foreign countries on adherence to human rights. If members of Congress can make the case that Israel is perpetrating human rights abuses on a daily basis, they would be forced to suspend military aid to Israel.
As Erakat reminded the audience, Congresswoman Betty McCullough from Minnesota recently wrote a letter to Congress asking for suspension of military aid because of proven abuse of Palestinian children by the Israeli military. Congressman Keith Ellison is currently pushing for an IRS regulatory investigation into an alleged $7 million US tax dollars given to illegal West Bank settlements through non-profit organizations.
US aid to Israel is exceptional on a geo-political level, but also contingent on the will of Congress.
Darkly aware of this US complicity in Israeli crimes, Sbait urged action and further discussion with American government officials, because “we live in one of the states that belongs to your government in fact.”