October 11, 2021
CHANGING THE WORDS: HUMAN RIGHTS, OCCUPATION AND COLONIALISM TO TALK ABOUT ISRAEL AND PALESTINE
Insight by Sara Manisera, FADA Collective
If the international rhetoric towards Palestine and Israel, often flattened by unconstructive ideological positions, has changed this year, it is undoubtedly due to two activist brothers. Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd, through online posts, media appearances and their voices, have provided the world with a window into life under occupation in East Jerusalem, to the point that the prestigious Times magazine has included them in its 100 Most Influential People of 2021. Why did their story and their voice have an impact? Because they have been able to change the narrative, too often misrepresented, that portrays Palestinians as violent and terrorists. And because they have brought fundamental words, such as the violation of rights, illegal occupation and colonialism carried out by the Israeli government back to the center of attention.
But let's take a step back. For more than a decade, the El-Kurd family along with dozens of their neighbours in the Sheikh Jarrah district, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, have struggled against the possibility of forced removal from their homes by Israeli settlers. In May, tensions in Sheikh Jarrah spilled over into the nearby Old City, where Israeli forces attacked worshippers gathered during the holy month of Ramadan at the al-Aqsa Mosque; Hamas militants in Gaza responded by firing rockets into Israel. Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd - who were temporarily detained by Israeli authorities this summer - have challenged existing narratives about Palestinian resistance through viral posts and interviews, humanising the experiences of their neighbours and rejecting suggestions that the violence was predominantly led by Palestinians. Charismatic and bold, they have become the most recognisable voices of those at risk of losing their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. In many Italian and international media, however, the words used have minimised the magnitude of the phenomenon, making it impossible to identify the real responsibilities, nor to understand the historical realities that led to this situation. The use of words such as "battle", "clashes", "evictions", "disputed area" has in fact manipulated reality, reducing yet another occupation attempt by the Israeli government to a conflict between "peers", to "incidents between police and Arabs", to "a land dispute".
As Cecilia dalla Negra writes in a brilliant article in Orient XXI, with this narrative "the structural discrimination faced by the Palestinian community living in Israel since 1948, whose expression of dissent is veiled by Hamas rocket fire, disappears. (...). The systematic recourse to a language of war, as well as the narrative built around the concept of 'war', is deeply - and intentionally - misleading. Not only because it conceals the total asymmetry of forces in the field, but because it consciously removes the colonial context in which that clash takes place".
And it is precisely Mohammed El Kurd's own words that make it clearer. "These are not evictions: we have not stopped paying rent. These houses belong to us and they are being taken away by force". For decades, the Israeli government's policy has been to expel Palestinian families living in Jerusalem in order to gain urban and political control of the city, to take away spaces from Palestinians, and to carry out what experts call the "de-Arabisation of urban space" in Jerusalem.
The central problem of the narrative developed about Palestine and Israel is to rarely consider the context of Israeli occupation, from 1948 to 1967, to the present day, and the UN resolutions on these issues. If we look at recent UN resolutions, such as 2334 of 2016, the Security Council has reaffirmed the invalidity of Israeli settlements because they are a violation of international law. According to Paola Caridi, journalist, historian and one of the most important experts on the Middle East, "the narrative on Israel and Palestine is increasingly biased". In an interview with journalist Angelo Boccato on Media Diversity, Caridi explains that "the lack of complexity and the ignorance of some journalists create a context where it is not possible to read what is happening because there is a lack of knowledge of the grammar of Jerusalem and the 'vocabulary' of what is happening there. To write about Sheikh Jarrah, one needs to know the developments that have taken place in the city over the last twelve years and understand where it is".
To understand where it is means, also, to realise that the Palestinian reality and the Palestinian people are not a monolithic bloc, rather the contrary. Palestinians are not Hamas, nor do they represent the leadership of their parties. Palestinians are women and men living in fragmented spaces - West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, refugee camps, the Diaspora - with different internal hierarchies, as a result of a colonial policy of occupation aimed at dividing the Palestinian people. At the same time, it must be recognised that Israelis are not a single bloc made up solely of extreme right-wing orthodox. Within these nuances and this necessary complexity of places and people's stories, however, one cannot flatten the narrative and tell what is happening as if it were a "game between equals". Mahmoud Muna, Palestinian writer and activist, explains this from his fb profile, published by the Independent and translated by Orient XXI. "Israeli society and its political establishment are deeply restless, but they refuse to see that the military occupation, here, is the real problem. In fact, for us, occupation is the main obstacle to liberation and freedom. We have had enough, and we cannot continue to be psychiatrists for Israeli society. We are the occupied, not the occupiers; the oppressed, not the oppressors. We are the colonised, not the colonisers. For the sake of all those who live "between the river and the sea", this occupation must end. It has lasted long enough".