Opinion: Palestine deserves to be free

Free Palestine rally in Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Tony Pesta, May 16, 2021

The Israel and Palestine conflict has created years of suffering and a peaceful resolution is long overdue.

For many Americans, foreign policy issues are just that – foreign. We tend to only focus on the problems that directly impact us while ignoring the ones that seem out of our realm. 

But for the more than 80,000 Palestinians living in Cleveland, the situation in Israel hits close to home.

If you attend Cleveland State University, odds are you have interacted with someone who has been impacted by the conflict. And if you haven’t been made aware of it yet, it’s becoming hard to ignore as there has been a recent surge of support for a peaceful resolution between Israel and Palestine.

Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) is a student group at CSU created in 2021 by Farah El-Ashram that is dedicated to spreading awareness of the situation.

The group encourages the CSU community to learn more about Palestinian history and culture as a first step towards finding peace in the Middle East.

Understanding the conflict as an outsider can be difficult as the tension between each side is often at a boiling point. Because of this, I wanted to share my experiences learning about both Palestine and Israel. 

A brief history of the conflict

The core of this conflict is often traced back to the fall of the Ottoman Turkish Empire in the 1900s. 

The Ottoman Empire had ruled over a large area of land in the middle east prior to its collapse. 

In the wake of the Ottoman’s defeat in 1918, a region that was populated by Jewish, Muslim and Christian people was now in limbo. (ABC News)

Four years later, the British Mandate for Palestine was put in place to temporarily give Britain control while the Muslim population looked to establish Palestine as an independent state.

However, Britain had also made a similar promise to the Jewish population, declaring that the land would belong to them. 

Conflict between the Jewish and Muslim communities ensued as both felt entitled to portions of the land. Violence increased until the United Nations settled on a two-state solution in 1947. 

The idea of a two-state solution was simple: both Palestine and Israel would exist on their own, according to the borders drawn by the UN. 

Issues arrived when the Muslims, who accounted for two-thirds of the population, were given just 45% of the land despite previously owning 90%.

(Map of Palestinian loss of land by MSNBC)

The UN plan was rejected as another war over the land began.

In the end, Israel was able to win more than they had started with while Palestine was split into two separate locations. Gaza and the West Bank were divided more than 50 miles apart from each other. 

Israel was declared an independent state in 1948 and has continued to expand deeper into Muslim territory while Palestine has yet to be officially recognized as an independent state. 

Current affairs

Fast forward to 2022 and the battle between Israel and Palestine has hardly reached a conclusion. While both sides have taken violent actions against one another, a disproportionate number of the victims have been Palestinians.

From 2008 to 2021, the United Nations estimates that 5,967 Palestinians have died in the conflict compared to 263 Israelis killed during the same period. The U.N. also estimates that more than 1,300 Palestinian children have been killed during that period. Qatar-based regional broadcaster Al Jazeera reports that Israeli bombings have killed more than 3,000 Palestinian children since 2000.

Most recently, a Palestinian journalist was shot and killed on May 11, 2022. Shireen Abu Akleh, a reporter for Al Jazeera, was murdered “in cold blood” despite wearing a press jacket, according to multiple eyewitnesses (Washington Post).

How the U.S. is complicit

Farah El-Ashram, the former president of CSU’s Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, says this is not an equal fight between two sides. The massive amounts of U.S. funding given to the Israeli military grants it a significant advantage over the lesser-developed nation of Palestine. 

“The U.S. sends $3.8 billion annually to Israel for military aid. Palestine does not get that protection. Many times when there is aid coming from the outside — such as people donating — they (Israel) do not allow it through,” El-Ashram said. 

Israel is protected from missiles by the Iron Dome, a defense system funded partially by the United States which spent $6 billion dollars on manufacturing. It can reportedly block 90 percent of incoming rocket attacks.

(Destruction in Gaza. Photo credit: Omar Radwan)

Meanwhile, Palestinians are “protected” by something called ‘roof knocking’ — a warning system in which Israel sends a missile with no warhead, meant to shake the roof of a building and alert civilians that an actual bombing will take place within the next 15 minutes. 

The back and forth battle has been deemed by Israel as a response to the rise of Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that has bombed Israeli civilians as recently as this year. The U.S. has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization

Hamas was formed in 1987, decades after the initial conflict began. Their goal was to liberate Palestine from Israel’s control. As with many extremist groups, their mission has become intertwined with hatred and violent retaliation against their perceived opposition.  

There is no excuse for any violent actions from Hamas. Yet, there are roughly 5 million civilians living in the West Bank and Gaza. The innocent people of Palestine do not have many options to distance themselves from Israel’s vicious response to the rise of Hamas. 

This is in part due to Hamas centering its efforts in densely packed civilian areas. Though, this does not justify the overwhelming response from Israel that has led to devastating civilian causalities.

(Streets of Gaza. Photo credit: Omar Radwan)

Gaza – the world’s largest “open-air prison”

Perhaps the harshest consequence of the battle between Hamas and Israel has been the occupation of Gaza, which is often considered the world’s largest “open-air prison.” 

Former Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, put up miles of walls in Gaza and the West Bank to keep Palestinians, or as he called them “wild beasts,” from leaving and to protect Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands.

All imports coming into Gaza are controlled by Israel while many exports are blocked. The borders are often closed and citizens who are looking to leave need special permits which can be difficult to acquire. 

“There is always a fear of being arrested. There are checkpoints everywhere. They cannot leave, they cannot go anywhere. It is a constant fear,” El-Ashram commented. 

Basic needs such as clean water and electricity are frequently unavailable. According to the United Nations’ Children Fund (UNICEF), just one in 10 people in Palestine have direct access to safe water.

“They (Palestinians) are limited to electricity for about four hours a day. They don’t have clean water and they have very limited food,” El-Ashram said.

The unemployment rate in Gaza soared to over 50% in December of 2021 while more than 80% of workers earn less than minimum wage. This leaves few, if any, opportunities for civilians to improve their quality of life.

In June 2018, 120 countries in the United Nations Assembly voted to condemn Israel for the response in Gaza. Eight countries voted against it, including the United States whose ambassador Nikki Haley led a bid to place the blame on Hamas. 

Apartheid in the West Bank

Palestinians living in the West Bank face a different set of challenges. 

While they are afforded many of the basic needs that Gaza is deprived of, their status in society is often below their non-muslim counterparts. 

In February 2022, Amnesty International, a non-government organization dedicated to global human rights, declared the West Bank as an apartheid state.

The word apartheid, which origins can be translated to “the state of being apart”, is modernly defined as “any system or practice that separates people according to color, ethnicity, caste, etc.” (Dictionary)

Examples of apartheid include South Africa in the 1900s, or more familiar to Americans, the Jim Crow segregation era of the United States. 

According to Amnesty International, “Israel enforces a system of oppression and domination against the Palestinian people wherever it has control over their rights.”

This oppression includes maximizing control over land and resources, fragmenting Palestine geographically and politically, refusing to provide citizenship, displacement and dispossession, discriminatory laws on land allocation and draconian movement restrictions. 

Palestinians are unable to lease 80% of Israel’s state land while more than 500 roadblocks and checkpoints are in place to monitor Palestinian civilians. 

Taking a look at a map of the West Bank, it is evident how these checkpoints and Israeli settlements fragment Palestine. 

“The report shows that, while some of Israel’s policies may have been designed to fulfill legitimate security objectives, they have been implemented in a grossly disproportionate and discriminatory way which fails to comply with international law. Other policies have absolutely no reasonable basis in security, and are clearly shaped by the intent to oppress and dominate.” (Amnesty International)

Obstacles to diplomacy

The Israel and Palestine conflict is often described as complicated

Issues such as the rise of Hamas, the genuine problem of global antisemitism and a divided Palestinian government (West Bank and Gaza) are often cited as obstacles to diplomacy. 

It is difficult to find a peaceful resolution to the situation when there is so much tension and violence coming from both sides. The conversation itself has been mostly silenced in mainstream discourse as support for Palestine often comes with accusations of antisemitic beliefs.

The actions taken by Hamas deserve to be condemned just as much as anything Israel is doing. 

Yet, a radical group such as Hamas will not be defeated through brute force. Treating innocent Palestinians as collateral damage will only create push factors that cause an extremist movement to grow. 

A peaceful resolution can not be found while Hamas is launching attacks on Israel. Similarly, Hamas will only continue to grow in defiance so long as innocent Palestinian people feel they have nowhere else to turn for support.

Considering Israel wields a disproportionate amount of power in this conflict, the responsibility to find a peaceful resolution should lie on its shoulders.

(Free Palestine rally in Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Tony Pesta, May 16, 2021)

Today’s push for peace

The recent Ukraine, Russia situation is an example of how economic sanctions can be used by the United States in an attempt to dissuade an aggressor without directly becoming involved in the conflict.

While these conflicts are not identical and the invasion of Ukraine has not stopped, sanctions are a non-violent option for other countries to incentivize diplomacy. 

Up to this point, no OECD (organization for economic co-operation and development) nation has placed sanctions on Israel. The ice cream manufacturer Ben and Jerry’s is the most notable company to boycott Israel. 

The vast majority of U.S. congress members voice support for Israel — though there is a growing progressive movement showing solidarity for the Palestinian people.

Increasing awareness of the ongoing conflict and pressuring politicians to take steps towards brokering diplomacy is the solution. 

“People in Congress are silenced. Nobody wants to listen or even try. But, if enough people want it, to some extent they could listen. So reach out to representatives and show them that we are here and we want change,” El-Ashram said. 

The overall lack of awareness surrounding Palestine’s struggle for national sovereignty and independence from Israeli occupation has led to only small rallies in the past. However, May 2021 marked an important surge of support for Palestine across the United States. 

“It was amazing,” El-Ashram said. “My first protest [was] when I was 11 years old in Public Square but it wasn’t nearly this many people. Most of the people before were Palestinian. This year it wasn’t that way.”

Cleveland is home to one of the largest clusters in the country. While this group mostly stood alone at rallies in the past — something changed in 2021. 

In May 2021, Israel began to enforce mass evictions of Palestinian families. This tension led to violent reactions from both sides with an estimated 256 Palestinians (66 children) killed and 13 Israeli deaths (including two children).

During this time, one organized event in Cleveland saw protesters flood the streets surrounding Public Square in an effort to call for a ceasefire between the two nations. Another brought roughly 400 people to the Free Stamp in Willard Park just a few days later for the same cause. 

“It was a mix of everybody,” El-Ashram said. “Rather than always feeling like it is only Palestinians caring, it was so many other different people caring.”

(Free Palestine rally in Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Tony Pesta, May 16, 2021)

Despite a ceasefire agreement in May, Israel has continued to bomb Hamas groups as recently as August 29. The occupation has not ended, the U.S. funding of Israel has not stopped, and Palestine is still hoping for freedom. 

“We need the numbers. We need different types of people because it isn’t just about Palestinians or Muslims it is about human rights because that is what is being violated,” El-Ashram urged.

As for students at CSU, El-Ashram stresses the need for education and empathy. 

“Educating yourself is the first big step,” El-Ashram said. “Please show up and learn. We offer a lot of opportunities to educate yourself with civil discussions. Learn about Palestinian history.”

Cleveland State is adding a course on the Palestine, Israel conflict beginning in spring 2023. This can be seen as another important step in bringing a previously controversial conversation into the mainstream. A list of upcoming events for SPHR can be found on the group’s Instagram page (@CleStateSPHR).

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