Last month, over 120 Palestinians in the United States published a list of principles aimed at candidates seeking office in 2020.
The “Palestinian Americans’ Statement of Principles and Policies for 2020 Elections” include ending the occupation, support for the Palestinian right of return, opposition to anti-BDS laws, and an endorsement of Rep. Betty McCollum’s historic House Resolution 2407.
“Palestinian Americans speak for ourselves. We do not define the Palestinian issue solely in terms of religion, but rather in terms of human, political, and civil rights. We expect all campaigns to include Palestinian American voices in their decision making processes, and we ask that all candidates running for federal office affirm these principles and policies founded in morality, human rights, and international law,” reads a statement released alongside the principles.
Mondoweiss asked Ghada Elnajjar, a Palestinian-American community activist, political organizer, and one of the statement’s signatories about the demands, some questions about these principles and the upcoming election.
Can you explain how this list of principles was developed and what the impetus for the list was?
Ghada Elnajjar: On June 26, 2020, over 120 Palestinian Americans from the arenas of academia, politics, and community service published a document titled, ‘Palestinian Americans’ Statement of Principles and Policies for 2020 Elections.’ This initiative is one of Palestinian-American unity and strength in a political world that too often ignores our voices.
The statement is a community wide effort initiated by Palestinian-American activists and organizers to come up with agreed upon principles to ensure that our voices are heard during this election cycle. It is important to note that too often, Palestinian-American voices are absent from policy making arenas, in which decisions in regard to the interests of our community and the core issues outlined in the statement are made by others.
The purpose of the Statement of Principles is to ensure that our positions are clear. We
do not define the Palestinian issue solely in terms of religion, but rather in terms of
human, political, and civil rights; that as a community, our support for candidates to
federal offices is determined by their level of recognition and agreement with these
principles. We ask that all candidates running for federal office affirm these principles
and policies founded in morality, human rights, and international law; and that
Palestinian Americans speak for themselves and expect that all campaigns include
Palestinian-American voices in their decision making process.
The Democratic party seems to be (slowly) shifting when it comes to some of the issues you identify. We see legislation like HR 2407, more talk about the concept of conditioning military aid, etc. Can you talk about some of the political progress that you’ve seen over the last decade or so?
There is definitely an important ideological shift within the Democratic party when it comes to Palestine and supporting justice and human rights of the Palestinian people, however this change has been slow and gradual over the recent years. The shift has been brewing at the grassroots level due to the adoption of the Palestinian cause by the party’s progressive base composed of activists, solidarity groups, young voters, and constituents. We can go as far as to say that Palestine has become a center piece in what defines one as progressive.
The Palestinian American community credits the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders, Representatives Jaypal (D-WA), McCollum (D-Minn), Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Omar (D-Minn), and Tlaib (D-MI) amongst many others in the Congressional Progressive Caucus for highlighting this shift on the national platform.
In addition to its main goal of influencing the debate on Palestine and receiving affirmation of its principles during the U.S. elections, the Statement of Palestinian Principles also hopes to find room on the DNC national platform, and gain traction during the recent wave of support for Palestinian human rights by various DNC and Congressional members.
In looking at the 13 principles listed in the statement, you will find the same sentiments are echoed by other progressive supporters of the Palestinian cause. From supporting the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination, to ending the blockade on Gaza, to non-recognition of Israeli annexation of any parts of the occupied West Bank, to reversing Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, to placing conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel due to human rights violations under international law, and to opposing anti-BDS legislation as unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment right of freedom of expression.
There are a number of Palestinian-American national delegates to the DNC who have been working hard to include the entire statement or elements of it in the party’s 2020 draft platform to be approved by the full platform committee at the end of July. Whether any of the principles are actually included or approved remains to be seen, although I’m not very hopeful due to a strong pushback from the non-allies in the party. One of the national delegates worth noting is Palestinian American Zeina Ashrawi-Hutchison (State Delegate for Bernie Sanders 2020 and National Delegate for the DNC) who is also one of the drafters and organizers of the Statement of Palestinian Principles and signatories.
Ashrawi-Hutchison was instrumental in passing a resolution supporting Palestine in the VA Democratic State Party’s resolution package.
This resolution supports human rights, equality, freedom, and self-determination for the Palestinian people, affirms the right of both the Palestinian people and Israeli people to live in peace and security. It Endorses H.R.2407 “Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act” cosponsored by 24 Democratic members of the House of Representatives; and it condemns and denounces, in the strongest terms, the annexation of land and expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Trump administration’s “Peace and Prosperity Plan” and the endorsement of the illegal annexation agenda, and flagrant disregard of the Palestinian people’s human rights and freedom.”
There were other similar efforts by national DNC delegates from other states who urged the 2020 Democratic National Convention to support the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ efforts to place conditions on US military aid to Israel if plans for annexation continue.
There has been a series of efforts by members of Congress, mainly from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who have been at the forefront as allies in the Palestinian rights movement, to voice opposition and warn that there will be consequences to unilateral Israeli annexation:
A recent letter dated June 30, 2020 led by Representatives Ocasio-Cortez and Jayapal that was signed by 10 other US representatives and Senator Sanders, to Secretary of State Pompeo, opposed annexation and threatened to pursue legislation that conditions the $3.8 billion in U.S. military funding to Israel. The letter went as far as saying the annexation “would lay the groundwork for Israel becoming an apartheid state,” echoing a similar statement made by former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014.
In the Senate, on July 2, 2020, U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) filed an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to prohibit Israel from using U.S. security assistance funds to unilaterally annex Palestinian territory in the West Bank.
There are two initiatives by Representative McCollum. HR 2407, the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act. This bill, introduced to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on April 30, 2019, prohibits the use of U.S. foreign assistance to support Israeli military detention, interrogation, torture, abuse, or ill treatment of Palestinian children, in violation of international humanitarian law.
There is also a new proposed resolution by McCollum currently seeking endorsement titled, “Israeli Annexation Non-Recognition Act,” which urges Congress to condemn any unilateral annexation of any parts of occupied Palestinian territory by the government of Israel as illegal and not recognized as legitimate by the U.S.
Some mainstream figures within the Democratic party have also voiced their opinion on this matter. On May 4, 30 former national security officials sent a letter to the DNC urging the party to include language in the platform that supports the Palestinians’ right to self determination and oppose the ongoing Israeli occupation and plans for annexation.
What are your impressions of Biden’s campaign as it relates to Palestine?
There is still a divide between the conservative and centrist establishment of the Democratic party and its still growing young progressive base. Furthermore, there still exist those who are “progressive-except-on-Palestine” who oppose any U.S. pressure on Israel over human rights abuses. Criticism of Israeli government actions by politicians is still viewed as controversial by many. The Biden campaign can be characterized by the first description with some elements of the latter.
In an effort to unite the party ahead of the November election, the Biden Campaign formed six joint “unity” task forces with Senator Sanders that cover climate change, criminal-justice reform, the economy, education, health care, and immigration. Not only is foreign policy not included under the unity task forces with Senator Sanders, the identities of those chairing committees within the foreign policy working groups and those recruited to work in the various committees are kept secret (they have to sign NDAs). As a result, as the progressive wing of the party has influence in shaping policy in the above stated six task forces, it does not have any influence in shaping foreign policy. The only purpose of the foreign policy working groups is to produce informational documents on the various foreign policy subcategories (defense, intelligence, Palestine-Israel, etc.) to be sent to top Biden foreign policy advisers like Tony Blinken. As a result, the foreign policy working groups can neither be influenced by outside advocates nor wield any influence on the administration themselves.
In a national call between the Biden Campaign and the Arab American community on July 9, Blinken was asked what would the Biden Administration position be on Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank. He expressed that the Biden opposes any unilateral decisions including annexation, however he did not provide a course of action or any consequences for the Israeli government in the case that it continues with the plan, which was frustrating to many Arab Americans who were on the call. He also informed those who participated in the call that although Biden opposes BDS, he would still protect the constitutional right of free speech and added that Biden opposed Israel’s ban on Congresswomen Omar and Tlaib due to their support of the BDS movement. This was welcomed by some members of the community who were on the call and was seen as progress for the BDS movement which has come under attack by numerous anti-BDS laws. Blinken reiterated Biden’s campaign pledges to restore aid to the Palestinians through UNRWA, and reopen the PLO’s office in Washington.
It is safe to say that the Biden campaign positions on Palestine are mostly a return to status quo under the Obama-Biden Administration.
During the call, a concern was raised whether Arab Americans voices will be heard on foreign policy issues pertaining to them, to which Blinken responded that the Biden Administration will make sure to focus on including Arab Americans in policy making positions within the Administration.
Are there any candidates running in 2020 that you believe honor the principles you identify?
All of the members of Congress mentioned I mentioned earlier (Jaypal, McCollum, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Tlaib) are running for reelection and have embodied the idea that the Palestinian rights are human rights that can no longer be ignored. Through their various efforts, they have voiced their support and advocated for at least one of the principles listed in the Statement of Palestinian Principles if not a number of them.
From the senate, Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is running for reelection. He was one of the endorsers of the amendment to the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to prohibit Israel from using U.S. security assistance funds to unilaterally annex Palestinian territory in the West Bank.
I am wondering what you think about the Democrats’ overall response to the Israeli government’s proposed annexation plan?
While progressive Democrats issued statements, introduced bills, and proposed resolutions that oppose in strong terms the Israeli government’s proposed annexation plan, the overall response of the Democrats, unfortunately, has been rather weak. This reflects the widening rift between the progressive and establishment wings of the Democratic Party on the issue of Palestine and Israel. Although the leading Democrats have expressed concern about the annexation plan, they were reluctant to put any pressure on the Israeli government to change its course of action. This was in direct contrast to the progressive Democrats who warned to condition US military aid in order to hold the Israeli government accountable for its actions.
The proposed annexation plan represents a likely death blow to the two-state solution, and any prospect for a future in which both Palestinians and Israelis can live with full equality, human rights and dignity. It is important that such a unilateral move, which violates international law and contradicts US values for democracy and self-determination, be challenged by all Democrats. It is time that the Democratic party attempts to close the gap and bridge the divide over the Palestinian issue, and recognize that support for Palestinian rights is aligned with the universal declaration of human rights that every human being has the right to live with dignity, equality, freedom, and full human rights.