Hours after President Donald Trump wrapped his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, protesters lined a path near the White House holding signs against Israeli’s occupation and in support of a “free Palestine” and “Palestinian Lives.”
It was a rare, near freezing night during an unseasonably warm winter. About 70 huddled protesters behind banners saying “end the captivity of Bethlehem and all of Palestine” and “stop the settlements.” Some dressed in pink hats, the same as those worn during the Women’s March last month. An organizer of that protest, Linda Sarsour, spoke from a microphone.
“We are not outnumbered by the right-wing zionist, we are not outnumbered by the white supremacists and the white nationalists, but up to a certain point, we were out-organized by them. But there is a new day and this day is being led by all of us, and by young people across this country, and yes by women,” she said.
Sarsour then turned her attention to Trump, describing him as a stopgap to a longer U.S. policy on Israeli-Palestinian peace, designed to fail in delivering its promises to Palestinians.
“Unfortunately when it comes to the Palestinian cause, those before Donald Trump weren’t actually that much better,” Sarsour continued focusing on Netanyahu, “so let’s be clear here, this has been a long-term fight and we’re probably going to have to fight a lot of administrations to come, but Benjamin Netanyahu is not welcome with his racism and bigotry in this country.”
Netanyahu, she said, “he found another bigot [Trump], two bigoted peas in a hateful pod”—to which the lot of protesters laughed.
In a briefing to press Wednesday, Trump announced a dramatic shift in U.S policy by stating he would consider options outside of a negotiated two-state solution. In particular, Trump floated the notion of a “one state” solution but offered no background, leading of his supporters to speculate the U.S. would soon flash a green light toward a single Jewish state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. In this scenario Palestinians would not be issued equal rights or citizenship, and would live under a formal system of segregation, not unlike apartheid in South Africa, critics at the demonstration said.
Similar assumptions were made in Israel yesterday by right-wing politicians who championed what they saw as an effective Netanyahu strong-arming Trump to back their vision for Israeli annexation of the West Bank. On social media Knesset member and leader of the far-right Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett praised Netanyahu for taking down the “Palestinian flag,” and“ today the flag of Israel rose and replaced it.”
On settlements, Trump soft-peddled the idea of a construction freeze during the Wednesday press conference with Netanyahu.
“I’d like to see you [Netanyahu] hold back on settlements for a little bit, we’ll work something out. Would like to see a deal made, I think a deal will be made,” Trump said. Protesters picked up on the conflicting messages of stopping settlements, yet supporting policies Israeli officials see as an encouragement to settlements.
Sarsour elaborated to Mondoweiss.
“Donald Trump has absolutely no experience in foreign policy, nor does he understand the nuances, understand the circumstances that are currently happening in Palestine. So when he says freeze settlements…I don’t think he has an understanding, I don’t think he will hold Benjamin Netanyahu accountable,” she said.
“I already knew what to expect, having a press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump providing ‘alternative facts,’ and omitting the voice of the Palestinian people,” she said.
Moving forward Sarsour said her focus is grassroots movement building, carrying on the work she has done before and since the Women’s March. Sarsour is the director of an Arab-American group in New York, and a noted progressive advocate.
“What we are going to be focusing on is mainstreaming the Palestinian cause, which has really picked up steam in the past few years including the recent primary elections that happened in 2016, including across university campuses, including in Pew studies that show young people in particular are pro-Palestinian, and for justice in Palestine.”
“Racial justice groups bringing in the Palestinian cause, civil rights groups, Sarsour said, “that’s what i’m proud of and that’s what I’m continuing.” Lobbying Trump, less so.
The event was organized by the Arab American Institute, the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Palestine Legal, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, The Jerusalem Fund, ArabAmerica.com, the Network of Arab American Professionals, American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine, and the National Arab American Women’s Association, and Our Revolution–a political action group piggy-backing off of the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Sander’s former chief of staff and board member of Our Revolution Huck Gutman explained to Mondoweiss, “there is nothing unusual in our opposing the specific agenda that we think Prime Minister Netanyahu is bringing to Washington.”
“[T]o bring people together to face the large issues that our nation and the world face, we need to address issues and not just offer broad statements. We take specific positions on Standing Rock (and not just environmental sanity), on Trump’s executive order on refugees and those from certain Muslim countries (and not just on immigration),” he said.
For some protesters, Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu was demoralizing.
Yasmeen El-Hasan, 18, a Palestinian-American who studies at Georgetown University said she came to protest because “the issue is not a political issue, it’s an issue of humanity.” Her extended family lives in villages near the northern West Bank city of Jenin and in close proximity to settlements. She resides there during most summers.
El-Hasan has childhood memories of uncles checking roads to make sure settlers do not fire gunshots as their passing vehicle, and soldiers enter their hamlet at night—“actually, the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] raided my family’s house last week,” she said.
“It’s shocking, it’s striking, and it hurts me,” El-Hasan sighed, “all they have done is nothing but just live there.”
“This protest” Connie Romaine, 64, from central Virginia said “It encourages them”—Palestinian family friends in the West Bank who are closely observing the mood in the U.S. “I mean when they saw the Women’s March they were just floored,” she said.
In her hands, Romaine carried a placard with the names of dozens who live in the West Bank city of Nablus, a group who traveled to the U.S. to build homes for a charity affiliated with the Presbyterian church, of which Romaine is a member.
“We have names and faces in it,” she said tearfully, “for us it’s no an ‘issue’.”
Stephen Zunes, a professor who teaches politics and directs the Middle Eastern Studies program at the University of San Francisco said he has been committed to achieving two states over the past 20 years. Trump sandbagged that initiative, he said.
“When Donald Trump and Netanyahu talk about one state, they are not talking about one based on equality and democracy,” Zunes said, adding “I don’t think Trump has a grasp of the actual issues or an ideology.”
Milling in the crowd, retired army Col. Ann Wright, a seasoned activists in Palestinian-cause circles scoffed at Trump’s seriousness and knowledge of the Middle East, “It’s very obvious that the Trump administration doesn’t have a plan here and for him to make a negotiations remarks without any background is tepid behavior.”
Wright wore one of the pink hats distributed at the Women’s March.
“There are no details to anything. There is this broad brush just like during the campaign,” she said, noting one exception when the president told Netanyahu he would prefer a halt to settlement growth in the West Bank. That point baffled Wright.
“That was the most clarifying statement from him on any subject,” Wright mocked.