‘It’s different this time’: Palestinian Americans find support in US progressives

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA</span>
Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

Eid al-Fitr marks the conclusion to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Usually cause for celebration, this holiday is sorrowful for Palestinian Americans, Muslim or otherwise, who are mourning amid the worst violence seen in the homeland in years.

“I doesn’t feel like a holiday for us,” Amani al-Khatahtbeh, a Palestinian American author and founder of online magazine Muslim Girl, told the Guardian. “These types of atrocities that are taking place really harm the collective diaspora.”

Related: ‘This is more than a reaction to rockets’: communal violence spreads in Israel

The images of the compound of al-Aqsa mosque – Islam’s third holiest site – engulfed in flames during the final nights of Ramadan were widely circulated on social media.

The days-long violence in Jerusalem and now Gaza over the contested neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah sparked international condemnation, notably by a growing cluster of US progressive lawmakers who spoke out against Israeli military , accusing it of using excessive force to try and displace Palestinians from their homes.

UN human rights officials also urged Israel to stop evicting Palestinians from their homes and abide by international humanitarian law which states East Jerusalem remains part of Palestinian territory.

Palestinian activists reacting on social media say this public denunciation of Israel is a seismic shift from previous language used by American politicians surrounding conflict in the region.

“It’s really different this time and honestly I think it’s in large part because of social media,” al-Khatahtbeh said.

“Especially with young people becoming more vocal, our new generation is really not OK with injustice being swept under the rug or covered up. It’s impossible now to hide all of the abuses taking place. That’s terrifying to the old guard that has invested so much in the status quo. We’re decentralizing and democratizing that.”

Joe Biden has been criticised by groups within his own party after he made a statement who saying he believes in “Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself”; the statement from the White House failed to address the violence against Palestinians. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took direct issue with Biden’s position, saying: “Blanket statements like these with little context or acknowledgement of what precipitated this cycle of violence – namely, the expulsions of Palestinians and attacks on al-Aqsa – dehumanize Palestinians and imply the US will look the other way at human rights violations. It’s wrong.”

On Twitter, the Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, called out the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, saying: “When will the US condemn racist violence against Palestinians? Is it your policy to support settlers stealing Palestinian homes & burning their lands? Billions of US taxpayer $ support the racist Netanyahu government & the apartheid state they enforce every year.”

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The criticism from Tlaib and other Democrats prompted a response from Blinken, who announced the US is sending an emergency envoy to the Middle East to “urge calm between Israel and Palestinians”.

Calls to place sanctions against Israel, which receives $3.8bn in aid from the US each year, were echoed across a leftwing bastion in the US House of Representatives in the past that included Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush.

Muslim members of Congress including Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and André Carson joined forces to release a statement expressing their horror at the violence on al-Aqsa mosque and Palestinians by Israeli forces and also urged retaliatory violence by Hamas to come to an end. Tlaib and Carson also protested outside the state department.

The current conflict is also proving to be a major issue in the New York City mayoral race. Andrew Yang, the race’s current frontrunner, backtracked after he was lambasted for tweeting his support for Israel without any mention of violence against Palestinians.

Yang planned to deliver groceries in Astoria ahead of the Eid holiday but organizers asked him not to attend. Residents in Astoria, Queens, confronted the candidate in person in a video shared widely on social media.

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Soon after Yang’s blunder, the Islamic Leadership Council of New York issued a statement demanding that public officials seeking to wish Eid greetings to people to also condemn Israel’s attack on the al-Aqsa mosque earlier this week.

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“To me, Andrew Yang’s tweet was a milestone to the movement. He was immediately, completely demolished on social media. He had to go back and issue a second statement acknowledging Palestinian lives. That’s never happened before. There’s a whole new bar now,” said al-Khatahtbeh.

This week, protests against the Israeli occupation in Palestinian territory erupted in US cities including Chicago, New York and Washington DC.

After a video of an Israeli settler threatening to steal a Palestinian woman’s home went viral, Palestinian-American social media influencers like al-Khatahtbeh and Subhi Taha utilized their platforms to share infographics and videos explaining the history of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

Palestinian celebrities also used social media to condemn the forced displacements of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem. Palestinian American models and sisters Gigi and Bella Hadid expressed their outrage on Instagram. Other celebrities including the actors Viola Davis, Natalie Portman, Mark Ruffalo and musicians Dua Lipa and the Weeknd also voiced their support to #SaveSheikhJarrah.

Samer Owaida, a Chicago-based Palestinian artist and activist born and raised in the West Bank, credits grassroots organizations like US Palestinian Community Network and the Students for Justice in Palestine, for the growing global awareness of the movement to liberate Palestine and end the “Zionist occupation and colonization of all Palestinian and Arab lands”.

On the future outlook for Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah, Owaida said he isn’t holding out hope to be saved by US politicians.

“Do I think politics in America will free Palestinians? Absolutely not. Freedom can only come from Palestinians in Palestine. Palestinians are robbed of our agency. The least that we can do is honor that agency by respecting, uplifting, and honoring their calls to action, whether it be boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning [Israel] or boosting [social media] posts as much as possible.”

He concluded: “I believe the youth are the catalyst for change.”

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