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Roundtable: Palestinian Americans share their perspectives on conflict in Gaza

Palestinians walk next to the buildings destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in Bureij refugee camp, Gaza Strip. (Hatem Moussa/AP)
Palestinians walk next to the buildings destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in Bureij refugee camp, Gaza Strip. (Hatem Moussa/AP)

The health ministry in Gaza reports at least 3,700 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes since Oct. 7.

How are Palestinian Americans processing the ongoing conflict?

Today, On Point: Palestinian Americans share their perspectives on conflict in Gaza.

Guests

Leila Farsakh, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Author of “Palestinian Labour Migration to Israel: Labour, Land and Occupation.” Editor of “The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond.”

Philip Farah, economist at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Founding member of the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace. Co-founder of the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace.

Laila El-Haddad, award-winning Palestinian author, social activist, policy analyst and journalist.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Last week, we heard from a roundtable of Jewish Americans who shared their stories about Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel and what the impact of the conflict is and what the impact the conflict is having on them. Hamas killed more than 1,400 people in its attack, according to Israeli officials.

And now, in Gaza, almost 5,800 people have died so far in Israel’s retaliatory bombing, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. So today, we’ll hear from Palestinian Americans.

LISTENER MONTAGE: These are things that the collective Muslim population sees and sees that the world doesn’t do anything about or care about. And, then it makes us feel very abandoned. But when an entire people are oppressed or victimized in so many ways for so long. It’s bound to happen that certain actions are going to act out.

I do recognize that many of Israel’s actions through its 75-year history are born out of a deep sense of past cultural trauma. Israelis must recognize, though, that they as well have imposed a deep cultural trauma upon all Palestinians through their ongoing military invasion. I ask, how can Israelis, they’ve been traumatized by their own persecution, then go on to inflict such trauma upon another innocent people, the Palestinians.

The solution to end the violence really lands on the Israeli leadership to end the illegal occupation, granting them the ownership and control of land, the dignity of human rights, and the ability to have political control as well as control of the future of their children and their families.

CHAKRABARTI: Those were On Point listeners Rami Jabber from Monroe Township, New Jersey, Laurence Qamar from Portland Oregon and Raheel Kahn from Sacramento, California.

Now joining me, we have a round table of Palestinian Americans, Leila Farsakh is with us. She’s a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Author of “Palestinian Labour Migration to Israel: Labour, Land and Occupation,” and she’s with me in the On Point studio. Professor Farsakh, welcome to the program.

LEILA FARSAKH: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Also joining us is Philip Farah. He’s an economist at the United States Government Accountability Office. He’s retiring at the end of the month. He’s also a founding member of the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace and a co-founder of the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace.

Philip, welcome to you.

PHILIP FARAH: Thank you, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: And with us as well is Laila El-Haddad. She’s an award-winning author and journalist and author of “Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting, and Everything in Between.” Laila, welcome to the show.

LAILA EL-HADDAD: Thank you for having me, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: And I do appreciate all of you for joining us at this time. And Laila, I’m wondering if we could start with you actually. Because you still, you have family members right now in Gaza, is that correct?

EL-HADDAD: That’s right. I have over 100 family members scattered across the Gaza Strip. About half of them right now are in, we’re trying our best to stay in touch. I’ve lost touch with a third of the family in central Gaza. We haven’t heard from them.

And I keep checking the rosters of those that were killed by Israel to check if their names are on there. The ones in the city, we’re maintaining contact through cell phones they charge using car batteries. They’ve lost all power. Israel’s cut off their water supply. It’s difficult all around. They’ve had flyers dropped on their house by the Israeli army, telling them that if they don’t voluntarily self-displace and leave, they will be considered accomplices to terror organizations.

So this is the kind of psychological and terror that’s being unleashed on them right now. And they’re standing strong. They’re trying their best to just survive and stay sane right now. And we’re trying to help them through that and help amplify their voices, as well. And yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me a little bit more about how the family members that you’ve been able to stay in touch with are surviving through the bombardment and the blockade of supplies. I’ll note that just over the weekend a few trucks started being allowed to come in.

But when you say that people are having to, family members are having to charge their cell phones off car batteries, what about eating, drinking, things like that.

EL-HADDAD: Yeah, if they were sitting here right now with us, they might say that there are limits to the humanitarian discourse and that ultimately this is not about food, though, of course, that is an important part of the story. Because it bears mentioning that I don’t know of another instance in the modern world where, you know, so called democratic countries have stood up and brazenly called for the collective punishment of a civilian population by depriving them of food, fuel, water, life’s basic necessities, and our government here going right along with that plan.

So I think the question isn’t how many trucks are coming in or what food they might have right now, but why are we allowing them to turn the water off in the first place. And prevent the entry of fuel and vital humanitarian supplies. I think that’s the real story. In terms of how they’re surviving, to answer your question, they’re basically down to canned foods right now.

They’re eating stale bread that they managed to get a bag of bread about a week ago before the bakeries shut down. And the only bakery near them was bombed actually by the Israeli army. They toasted that bread over an open fire, and they’ve been eating that, sort of hard pieces of bread with some canned foods and lentils.

But again, they keep emphasizing it’s not about the food. What good will food do us if we are killed by the Israelis?

CHAKRABARTI: One more question for you, Laila, and then Philip and Professor Farsakh, I promise I’ll come to both of you. How are you, Laila, thinking through this or trying to process and cope with what has happened and what is happening, especially as you continue to fear for your family’s lives.

EL-HADDAD: It’s a lot. It’s a heavy burden to bear.

This is not the first time Gaza has been bombarded, assaulted, obviously which speaks to the fact that this doesn’t begin and end with Hamas, this is not beginning and end with the current onslaught on Gaza, but there’s a certain urgency to being able to deliver the message, to amplify the voices of my family, to put an end to the killing.

And so there is no rest right now. We’re in survival mode. And I think most Palestinians with family in Gaza feel the same way. I can speak personally that I’m dividing my time between checking in on my family. Looking over my own shoulder to make sure I’m okay, and I’m a visible Muslim, I wear a headscarf along with my daughter, speaking to the media about what’s happening.

And mainly though, mainly, and I think this is the most exhausting part, trying to justify our humanity to the world and explain why we and our people don’t deserve to be killed. This is what I’m spending the most amount of time doing.

CHAKRABARTI: Philip, let me turn to you and I would love to hear your answer to the same question about how you’ve been feeling, how you’ve been trying to think through everything that’s happened since October 7th.

FARAH: It’s a feeling of frankly, oscillating between extreme outrage and extreme sadness. I have family in Gaza, Laila does. And I’ve been trying to check on them. Of course, communication is very bad as Laila has explained. One relative, he finally responded, he’s safe, but he reported that his uncle died when a bomb exploded next to his house, and he had a heart attack and passed away.

… My family originated in Gaza. Although I grew up in Jerusalem, I immigrated at the age of 27 to the United States, but my family’s life centered around the St. Porphyrius Church, that was bombed recently. 18 people were killed. Some of them are relatives. [Families] completely exterminated.

Does not exist anymore in Gaza. I was unable to reach any of my relatives who were survivors at the St. Porphyrius Church, where the church where my dad and uncles and aunts and grandparents were baptized and had their weddings and celebrated.

And one of them … his house was bombed. He emerged from the rubble. He was lucky enough to emerge from the rubble. He, all the Christians in Gaza are now at churches, especially St. Porphyrius and the Orthodox Good Shepherd Church. And so he moved along with all his family members to that church, and he was killed in that bombing.

So you can imagine. And frankly the Christian community is somewhat privileged, I tell you, I’m a Palestinian from Christian background, and we have it somewhat better than Muslims, because there’s frankly racism. There’s utter racism towards all Palestinians, all Arabs, but especially towards Muslims.

And, things are far worse for people who are refugee, refugees and refugee camps, which are the 70% of the population of Gaza.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I just want to note that indeed the Israeli military did say that last Thursday the blast that damaged or destroyed the St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church was a result of an Israeli airstrike. The Israeli military did indeed acknowledge that. Professor Farsakh, we’ve only got less than a minute before our first break. So I’ll promise to give you a bigger, a larger chance to speak after that break, but if you could choose a word right now about what your, what’s been going through your mind or your mindset has been over the past couple of weeks, what would it be?

FARSAKH: Despair and determination to speak and tell our stories as Laila said, it’s our humanity. The hardest part is to prove our humanity and we don’t need to prove it because we’re all equal human beings. And war is not justified and the genocide going on is petrifying.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Last week we heard from a roundtable of Jewish Americans, and if you missed that program, you can listen to it at our website or in our podcast feed. And Professor Farsakh, last week from our Jewish American guests, we heard a great deal about the need to understand the context of Jewish lives in Israel and how that connects to the families of Jewish Americans, both there and here. And the context is of course very old.

The same goes for understanding the place that Palestinians are and Palestinian Americans find themselves. So I wonder if you might tell us or deepen the understanding of your particular context. Because you’ve written about how your father, you say that he saw Palestine get lost twice.

What did you mean by that?

FARSAKH: Yeah, my father was born in 1934. And what I mean by that is that the first time, we have an expression, we lost Palestine, was in 1948 when Israel was created and it expelled two third off the Palestinian population at the time from its homeland, which many of them are now the descendant living in Gaza.

That’s something you need to understand. So the context for the Palestinian is that this war has not started on the 7th of October, has not started 17 years ago when Israel put the Gaza Strip on the siege. It started in 1947, ’48 when Israel got created and expelled the Palestinians.

So we are coming from that context and what is very scary and problematic is that many thought that with the peace process that started in 1993, we could come to an end to the suffering. That Palestinians and Israeli can live side by side in two states. And what has happened over the past 30 years is that the Palestinian has seen that their possibility of creating a state has dwindled and been fragmented because of Israeli settlements policy.

People forget there are 750,000 settlers today in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is triple their size in 1993. They fragment the West Bank. They, Israel has direct control over 60% of the West Bank, has put the Gaza Strip under siege. And I think that’s something that we keep wanting to emphasize.

We are not just in a humanitarian crisis. We are in a political crisis. I think what Laila has said is very important. We’re not here just to prove our humanity and make our voices heard, but also to explain that the problem is not just about getting people, Gaza is not a humanitarian problem, is a political problem.

And Gaza is a microcosm off the problem that we live. But on a personal level, it’s been hard because my father, okay, in ’48 he saw the refugees coming into his town. He lived in the West Bank. In ’67, he was not allowed to be back home. In ’94, he came back and thought,” Okay, I can settle and live there in peace.”

But then this, you know, more Israeli incursions, more Israeli settlements, more checkpoints. So he got his wish, which was to die there. But what is very hard is to see this continuous assault on the Palestinian by fragmenting them. Israel is trying to fragment them and dilute the question and reduce the question to a humanitarian crisis.

And I think what we see in front of our eyes right now is that this is not just a humanitarian crisis. This is a political crisis.

CHAKRABARTI: So since you put it that way, help us understand the different layers of this political crisis. And Philip and Laila El-Haddad, I want to hear responses from you on this very specific question as well, because yes, looking across that 70 plus year history, you clearly see that this is a profound political crisis.

At the same time, there have been moments when partial responsibility has rested on the shoulders of Palestinian leadership.

FARSAKH: Correct.

CHAKRABARTI: In terms of not being able to resolve the political crisis. I’m thinking of when Arafat and the PLO walked away from or could not come to an agreement in around 2000, or 2000-ish about —

FARSAKH: Camp David.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, at Camp David. In looking at the history of Hamas, we were looking at its original founding charter and then the subsequent charters, and it says clearly that Hamas will never be party to any international agreement whatsoever. That’s just, they simply do not believe in that as a solution, a workable solution for the Palestinian people.

How do you think through that as well in terms of, have there been opportunities missed? Who do we look to as holding responsibility for that?

FARSAKH: And that’s a very good question. And definitely the Palestinian leadership has a lot to be blamed for, but I think there’s also lots of misconception about what was the mistake of the leadership what the mistakes of Hamas and the atrocities Hamas did.

I think to understand, we need to understand that the Palestinians accepted to enter the peace process in 1993. From a political point of view, people would argue they had no choice, but still they entered this process and they, with the international community, thought they will get a Palestinian state.

And what happened over the past 30 years is that Israel actually used the peace process, not to reduce or retreat from its colonial structure of domination, or what many Palestinian calls the apartheid reality. Israel inadvertently maybe created an apartheid reality, and we call it apartheid because Palestinians are fragmented in the West Bank and Gaza.

I’m not, they cannot, people who are in Ramallah cannot get to Jerusalem, cannot get to the Hebron, cannot get to Nablus, we’re talking about me living in Cambridge, not being able to come to you on the other side of the river because there’s so many checkpoints and bypass roads. And imagine that will be Israeli settlements.

Okay, so we’re talking about this reality. What Palestinians saw is this has been entrenched, losing more and more land and blaming the Palestinians for every time they rebelled against the oppression. So if you’re asking me, what is the solution, if that’s where we’re going, or what is the, I find it difficult to blame the Palestinians.

CHAKRABARTI: Can I just, sorry to interrupt, but I don’t think that it’s fair for me to ask anyone, what is the solution now?

FARSAKH: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: So if that’s what it sounded like, I didn’t mean that at all, but mostly trying to understand how the different layers, because the Palestinian people are not a monolith.

The Israeli people are not a monolith. And I find that in the media, we tend to reduce people down to very flat and two-dimensional caricatures. And that’s not fair or just. So I was just trying to ask you how you think through.

El-HADDAD: I want to say in that respect.

CHAKRABARTI: Leila, go ahead. Just one second. Let me let Professor Farsakh finish.

FARSAKH: It’s important to understand that the Palestinian Authority and Fatah said, “Okay, we’re going to make peace with the Israelis.” By accepting the Oslo Agreement, and the international community said, “Let’s have a two-seat solution. But for many Palestinians, is that what did we get?

Many Palestinians are saying, “Okay, you did peace for 30 years. What did you get out of it?” You get out of it more and more fragmentation. Hamas is saying, “Armed struggle is the only way that you could get a two-seat solution.” Because Hamas inadvertently said, “Why would I accept Israel?” Because those who did recognize Israel got nothing, from that perspective that’s coming. I just want to explain.

CHAKRABARTI: Laila El-Haddad. Go ahead.

EL-HADDAD: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: And thank you for being patient, by the way.

EL-HADDAD: Yeah, no problem. Just a few things here. To be made very clear, Oslo was simply a pretext for continued settlement expansion. There was never a mention anywhere in the Oslo Accords, and you can look this up, of Palestinian statehood. I think this is a myth. Edward Said, the late Edward Said, has talked extensively about this. And just on the point of, I always like to emphasize this doesn’t begin and end with Hamas, but if we’re talking charters, the Likud charter of the current Netanyahu government calls for the destruction of any concept idea of Palestinian statehood, rejects the idea of Palestinian statehood.

And the sitting minister on that government has said that Palestinians have two choices. They either accept a life of subjugation under Israeli apartheid rule, or they leave their own land. And this is a sitting minister. So let’s be clear about that. I do want to backtrack just a little bit here. Because the overarching theme that drives all Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, way before Oslo, through Oslo, and to the current day, is maximizing control over Palestinian land with as few Palestinians in that land that Israel controls as possible.

And in line with that is the demographic threat, right? The Palestinian demographic threat. That’s what drives Israeli policy. And just one more point, talking about history and about, I was a reporter in Gaza between the years of 2003 and 2007. I raised my young son there.

I was there as the disengagement was happening through the elections, through the beginning of the blockade. And I just, we tend to have a short-term memory here, but before Hamas was on the scene, it was Fatah and the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat that were the bogeymans of the hour, right?

They were the ones being referred to by Ariel Sharon as, Arafat was referred to as a terrorist and Israelis were referring to them as saying they did not have a partner for peace on the other side. So this is cyclical and continuous. And then we had the disengagement happened, this unilateral process that was not coordinated with the Palestinian Authority, during which Israel dismantled its settlements, restructured its occupation, moved the settlements to the West Bank and retained an iron fist on Gaza from the outside.

And then began to effectively close Gaza off more than it had before, from the outside world. This leads us up to the beginning of the Palestinian elections in 2006, which of course the United States did not anticipate the result there.

And instead of allowing things to take their natural course, and perhaps allowing Hamas as a political party to rule and maybe fail and maybe succeed, who knows, they meddled. The CIA meddled and siphoned millions of dollars in arms into Gaza in an attempt to overthrow them, which, of course, didn’t work.

And then a brutal blockade was imposed on the 2.2 million people of Gaza, which has been enduring for 17 years now. There’s a lot more to the story than Palestinian leadership has failed. I take offense at that statement because that’s, I don’t think that’s it at all.

Do we have an effectual leadership? Yes. Do, in my opinion, does the Palestinian Authority simply act as a subcontractor of the Israeli occupation, the West Bank? Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: I appreciate, again, the context really matters here, and I appreciate you walking through. Walking us through all that, Laila, in my defense, I wasn’t just saying, Let’s pin all the blame for these decades of the political crisis, as Professor Farsakh put it, solely on Palestinian leadership.

I am just trying to understand that, look. From the distance where I sit, and I acknowledge that it’s a distance of miles, history, people, et cetera. I can’t say that that there’s been universal flawless leadership throughout this process amongst any group. And I just wanted to understand again how you all think through this.

Professor Farsakh, I’ll come back to you in a second. But I just want to give Philip a chance to chime in here. But Philip, go ahead.

FARAH: Thanks, Meghna. I just want to backtrack a bit. I was identified as being with the U.S. Government accountability office. And I just want to make sure that for your listeners that I’m representing myself certainly, and not any other party.

And yes, to this point, every struggle for emancipation in history has had both a resistance, a nonviolent resistance component, and a violent component as well. The oppressed are never alike angels, and to demand, certainly their oppressors are the ones who visit far more violence than the people who are under occupation or under colonial settler, colonial regime or the like, in Calcutta the airport of Calcutta is named after Chandra Bose, who he’s very revered in India as well as Gandhi is, and Chandra Bose called for armed resistance and sometimes some of his followers did acts of violence against civilians, against Brits.

The important thing is in all these struggles, you have situations where the people who follow a path like Gandhi’s might have the upper hand. Or as in Algeria, it was more the violent resistance and in all of these struggles, as far as I know, from my knowledge of history, it’s the outside pressure that often has an important impact on which path wins, submission is not an option for Palestinians.

It’s either resistance, and nonviolent means, or armed resistance. And the world is really turning a blind eye to them when they practice nonviolent resistance. They are attacked as being anti-Semitic in 30 some states, and the United States will punish anybody who calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Leaders in the Western world have chimed in, some of them, like a prominent member of Congress has said, “Level Gaza.” It’s just mind boggling the complicity of the Western world and the Western media to a large extent, yours excluded. Its preponderance of assisting and messaging the same messages that Israel, the Israeli leadership.

And it’s not good for Israel in the long run, for it to have fascists like Smotrich, who actually is proud of being called a fascist homophobe. By the way, he said we are going to plaster all of the West Bank with settlements and the Palestinians have three choices, not to, as Laila said, one to accept, the other to leave, be ethnically cleansed, basically, or to die. Are these the people that we are supporting?

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Leila, I hear you there also, and I’ll definitely let you come back in. But, Philip, it’s interesting that you mentioned Chandra Bose, because I know his history decently. And you’re exactly right. He definitely, in terms of desire, desiring to overthrow British colonial rule in India. He was not a pacifist. But again, life is very complicated because Bose was also closely aligned with Nazi Germany. He lived in Berlin for a while. It was under tutelage of Nazi leadership there.

And he then moved on to Imperial Japan and supported Japan’s Imperial ambitions in during the second world war. So I don’t even know how to think through that, but people have many layers. We’ll be back in just a moment. We have a lot more to discuss with our Palestinian American roundtable today.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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