On the 69th anniversary of the Nakba and with 1,500 Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, Nourhan Ashraf Elsayed looks at how activists are showing solidarity
Last month, a Dublin City Council sub-committee passed a motion to fly the Palestinian flag over Dublin's City Hall in an act to the Palestinians. The gesture was joyfully applauded by BADIL, a Palestinian legal rights NGO. Underlining the importance of this symbolic act of solidarity with the Palestinian people, BADIL quoted Tamir, a 13-year-old child from Aida refugee camp located in Bethlehem as saying:
Wow… imagine what would happen if all people around the world become like Irish people… We will get our freedom.
The motion was passed by majority on 8 May at a Dublin City Council meeting, allowing the Palestinian flag to fly over Dublin City Hall for a month,
as a gesture of … solidarity with the people of Palestine living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, with the Palestinian citizens of Israel denied basic democratic rights and with the over 7 million displaced Palestinians denied the right of return to their homeland.
Welcoming the motion, Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s spokesperson stated:
It is fitting that the flag will begin flying on May 15th, ‘Nakba Day’, or ‘the Day of the Catastrophe’, when we commemorate the forcible expulsion of over 750,000 indigenous Palestinians from their homeland between 1947 and 1949 to facilitate the creation of the apartheid state of Israel on 78% of historic Palestine. … It is also fitting that the flag will remain in place until the first week of June, which will mark the 50th year of Israel’s ongoing military occupation and illegal colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza.
It is especially fitting that the flag will be flying while an estimated 1,500 Palestinian political prisoners continue an open hunger strike in Israeli prisons. Known as the “Freedom and Hunger Strike”, the movement began on 17 April 2017, which marks Palestinian Prisoners’ Day.
Organised by Marwan Barghouti, veteran Fatah leader and possibly the most popular political figure in Palestinian politics according to a Palestinian public opinion poll, the strike is a last-resort attempt to improve the conditions of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons.
The main demands of the strike include “more frequent and lengthy family visits, better prison conditions such as improved medical care, and an end to solitary confinement and administrative detention – detention without charge or trial.”
European solidarity with the Palestinian hunger strikers
The hunger strike received huge support from pro-Palestine activists based in Europe. On 10 May 2017, a resident of Northern Ireland penned a letter to the editor of The Irish News, expressing support for the Palestinian hunger strikers, lamenting the West’s lack of action, and encouraging his Irish brethren to stand with the Palestinian people. He wrote:
The people of Palestine are in trouble. They need our voices and our help. … The tormented prisoners of Palestine deserve solidarity from the people of Ireland who have both a conscience and a backbone.
The Irish people, he believed, can be the Palestinians’ closest sympathisers, because
We know the pain and suffering of oppression, colonisation and conflict. We are aware of the trauma and pain associated with hunger strike.
The Irish are arguably among the most emotionally attached people to the Palestinian cause as many of them view parallels between the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice against Israel and the Irish struggle for independence from Britain. But the Irish were not the only European community to express solidarity with the Palestinian hunger strikers.
Two weeks after the hunger strike began, student and non-student groups from England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy went on a hunger strike in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners and announced support for the BDS movement. As European citizens, they argued, “It is not only our right, but also our responsibility to end this injustice.”
Football fans also joined the ranks of supporters of the hunger strikers. On May 6th, during a match against St. Johnstone, the Green Brigade, the Glasgow Celtic football club “ultras” fan group, raised Palestinian flags and banners with slogans such as “Freedom and Dignity” and “Hungering for Justice” in support of the Palestinians.
The Celtic fans’ support was not the only show of solidarity that Scotland witnessed on May 6th. Earlier that day, a nation-wide Day of Action had been underway to support the hunger strikers. Jointly organised by several Scottish solidarity groups, the Day saw protests in several Scottish cities, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness.
European politicians also joined the international movement. On April 29th, several members of the European Parliament, including parliament members from Sweden, Greece, France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Denmark and Portugal, took part in a sit-in to support the Palestinian hunger strikers.
At the time of writing, the transnational solidarity events have not lost steam. In fact, so many events have been planned in Europe and elsewhere, that Samidoun, a Palestinian Solidarity Network, set up a page titled “Global Schedule of Events to Support Palestinian Prisoners’ Hunger Strike” just to keep track of them.
Transnational solidarity success stories
Transnational solidarity efforts can wield immense transformative power. A striking example of a transnational solidarity movement that successfully advocated for its cause and influenced state policy is one that was launched by a US-based feminist organisation called Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF).
In 1997, FMF launched a nation-wide campaign titled “Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan” to raise public awareness and mobilise public support for Afghan women and girls, who suffered shocking human rights abuses under the Taliban regime. Building on the efforts of Afghan anti-Taliban feminists, FMF informed the American public about the plight of Afghan women using a variety of advocacy tools including online organising, public education materials, media appearances and visibility events.
The campaign was ultimately successful, playing a role in “preventing US and UN recognition of the Taliban, increasing the admission of Afghan women and girls as refugees, increasing humanitarian aid to the region and pressuring UNOCAL, a California oil company[,] to abandon its plans for an Afghan oil and gas pipeline which would have produced over $100 million annually in royalties for the Taliban.”
A more recent example, and one directly related to the Palestinian cause, is the ongoing successful campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against G4S, a British multi-national security company. G4S operates in Israeli prisons in the West Bank, where many Palestinian political are held, staffs West Bank checkpoints, and provides equipment and services in illegal Israeli settlements. The company has been a target of an international campaign by BDS titled “Stop G4S Campaign”.
Launched in 2010, the international campaign has been remarkably successful, causing the security firm to “[lose] contracts worth millions of dollars with unions, banks, charities, universities and other public bodies.” The lost contracts included ones with two UN agencies in Jordan, an international Columbia-based restaurant chain and the Bill Gates Foundation.
The take-away from the FMF and BDS stories is simple: transnational solidarity works.
Transnational solidarity can empower Palestinian NGOs and counter the right-wing Israeli narrative
Transnational solidarity with the Palestinian hunger strikers can be crucial in helping them achieve their demands. One of the most effective ways that international activists can help the hunger strikers would be to work closely with small, local Palestinian NGOs that are attempting to raise awareness of the hunger strikers but lack the resources to reach a larger international audience.
Should these NGOs be empowered to build new, and strengthen existing transnational solidarity networks, they would gain access to, and be able to mobilise, the additional resources, including manpower, expertise and funding, that they often urgently need to successfully organise and launch large-scale pro-Palestine events and campaigns.
In the words of Najwan Nerekdar, a Palestinian activist:
International solidarity...not only [gives] hope for the Palestinians to continue their struggle knowing they have support, but it also brings our struggles closer together, as we have been learning new tactics which were used by colonised people everywhere.
Working together across borders is also the only way that Palestinian and pro-Palestine activists can counter the right-wing Israeli narrative that is overhelmingly oblivious to Palestinian suffering. Most activists are aware of the stronghold that this narrative enjoys, particularly in Europe and the US, where it saturates both the political and media discourses, and is a primary cause in swaying public opinion against the Palestinian cause.
The popularity of this narrative comes partially as a result of decades of hard work by the financially and politically powerful Israeli lobby, and, as such, can be hard to dismantle. As difficult as it may be, however, exposing the cracks in this narrative, and incorporating the Palestinian one to show the public 'the bigger picture', is the only way to influence European and American foreign policy in Israel and Palestine, in a way that pressures Israel to address the grievances of the Palestinians.
Such an achievement can only be reached through the collective efforts of Palestinian and pro-Palestine activists and organisations working together transnationally in a systematic fashion to spread awareness and mobilise action for Palestinian rights.
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