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America: Live Up to Your Own Principles When Dealing With Palestine

I admire the stated principles of the United States of America. I want it to live up to them.

Biden at an Israeli war cabinet meeting
Miriam Alster/POOL/AFP/Getty Images
Biden at an Israeli war Cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv on October 18

I have always believed and preached throughout the Middle East America’s principles of the rule of law, equality, freedom of expression, and the universality of human rights. I set up a media nongovernmental organization, Community Media Network, that both trains and gives airtime on Radio al Balad and the AmmanNet website for journalists, youth, women, and marginalized groups to express themselves in an independent and professional way. CMN is the only media outlet in the entire Middle East and North Africa that has received the prestigious Journalism Trust Initiative stamp from Reporters Without Borders.

As an American Palestinian working in the Middle East and the proud executive director of the Palestinian version of Sesame Street, I have, in my years teaching at Al Quds University and as board chair of the investigative journalism group Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, trained and supervised many Palestinian and Arab journalists in the basics of professional journalism. I have proudly used the American First Amendment as an example of a masterful statement in defense of a core civil right.

This is why I am sad to report that I have seen every one of these principles shattered over the past week by American officials as they take Israel’s side so aggressively. Without necessarily cheering it on, they have been implicitly green-lighting acts of violence against Palestinian civilians and refraining, at least in public, from calling for de-escalation and the need to break the cycle of violence. These are not the ideals I have been preaching.

What we are seeing today coming from Washington is administration officials encouraging a four-times criminally charged prime minister whose defense minister publicly said they will cut off water, electricity, and food from an entire people. President Joe Biden’s visit to reassure Israelis is one thing, but his refusal to call for a de-escalation or a cease-fire (his U.N. representative vetoed such a resolution) has produced deep concern and an anti-American feeling throughout the region. Many worry that his visit and the continuing unreserved support for Israel he expressed in his Thursday night speech will give Israeli hawks the green light to continue brutalizing an already terrified civilian population that has no place to go.

While Palestinians, like all people under occupation, have an internationally legitimate right to resist their occupiers, the atrocities, whether by Palestinian fighters or others, are wrong, and they need to be called out and condemned. I add my voice without reservation in condemning war crimes against civilians. All humans are created in God’s image, and we are called by our maker to preserve life, not to end it.

Fairness and equality, however, require that everyone who has demanded the condemnation of acts by nonstate actors like Hamas must also be willing to demand the same from state actors.

Hamas committed war crimes, according to Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnès Callamard. But experts say that Israel’s blockade of Gaza and ordered evacuation violate international law as well. “Collective punishment is a war crime. Israel is doing that by cutting electricity, water, food, blocking aid from entering the Gaza Strip,” said Human Rights Watch’s Omar Shakir.

Even the “‘moderate”’ Israeli President Isaac Herzog has arrogantly said there are no innocent Palestinians, thus denying Palestinian humanity and justifying killing noncombatants. “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible,” Herzog said during a press conference. “It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It is absolutely not true. They could have risen. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’état.”

Both Hamas and Israel are guilty of human rights violations, and everyone must be careful not to treat Palestinians as children of a lesser God. Human rights are inviolate, and all violators must be held accountable.

America cannot wash its hands of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. When an American Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers in May 2022, the United States did little to bring the culprits to account. Shireen, who like me was born in the Biblical town of Bethlehem, had become a popular reporter because of her effort to convey the news as impartially as possible. Washington, with the exception of principled senators like Chris Van Hollen, who insisted on the investigation and accountability for Shireen, allowed the Israelis to get away literally with murder without even holding a proper investigation. This gave the world the signal that Israel will be treated differently, even when it comes to the killing of an American journalist.

Another recent example of U.S. policy that Palestinians see as hypocritical but is probably little known to most Americans involves the decision by the Biden administration to allow Israel into the visa waiver program. This program, run by the Department of Homeland Security, permits most nationals of other nations to travel to the U.S. for 90 days without obtaining a visa. Israel had sought inclusion into this program for many years.

But the waiver comes with a catchall: Americans visiting participating countries must be granted reciprocity and treated with equal respect. Four Democratic senators warned that Israel was not meeting this condition. Haaretz recently reported on a Palestinian American man traveling in Israel with his children being blindfolded and handcuffed for 11 hours. An Arab American civil rights organization is suing over Israel’s inclusion.

My own family members have been caught up in this. They were among some Palestinian Americans who found themselves trapped and unable to get out of their homes in Jerusalem, while Jewish American settlers literally within meters of them were allowed free access to Israeli airports and crossing points. It was hard for my pregnant daughter, who had an extremely sick child, to be trapped like that. She chose to go back to the U.S. to give birth and ensure that her sick child was treated well.

Is it any wonder that Palestinians see the U.S. standing properly for its principles in Ukraine but see a blatant double standard when it comes to us?

Palestinian nonviolent efforts over the years have also been thwarted. My cousin, a nonviolent activist and Jerusalem native named Mubarak Awad, was deported by the Yitzhak Shamir government in 1996. I know the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement is controversial in the U.S., but it should not be. Boycott efforts are nonviolent. And yet, boycott efforts internationally are fought with false claims of being antisemitic. Various U.S. states have passed anti-American laws (possibly violative of the First Amendment guarantees) that ban boycotts and punish those who support the BDS movement. This Palestinian civil society’s nonviolent response was inspired by the South African resistance to apartheid. There are many more instances of Palestinian attempts at nonviolence, including by some of my heroes like Issa Amro from Hebron and Sami Awad from Bethlehem. They are regularly harassed by Jewish settlers and at times by Israeli security.

Peter Beinart has cited examples of nonviolence in a detailed article in The New York Times. Both political and nonviolent activities are restricted by Israel, which has refused to deal with a 75-year-old refugee crisis it has caused, a 56-year occupation its troops are maintaining, and a 16-year unauthorized siege of Gaza. In the meantime, the Israeli army’s almost daily shooting of Palestinians and protecting Jewish settler pogroms have become unbearable, including to many Israelis and American Jews.

Even attempting to follow the international legal remedies has failed to produce any tangible results. The U.S. has even opposed the International Criminal Court in the Hague’s addressing legitimate documented Palestinian charges of apartheid and the illegal Jewish-only colonial settlement enterprise, while speeding up cases against Russian crimes in Ukraine.

But for right now, the most urgent call is for the respect of the law of war as set out by international treaties and entrusted to the International Committee for the Red Cross and U.N. member states. The U.S. must call for an end to indiscriminate attacks (an Israeli army spokesman admitted that their attacks are aimed at damage, not accuracy), for avoidance of civilians, and the provision of a humanitarian corridor. The internationally banned white phosphorus should not be allowed to be used by Israel, as has been documented and condemned by Human Rights Watch. Hamas should be strongly encouraged to release noncombatant hostages immediately and to refrain from its own indiscriminate rockets, even though over a thousand Palestinian civilians are held without charge or trial.

Once a cease-fire is reached, the sooner the better for saving lives and reasserting hope in international law, serious efforts must be exerted to find a political solution that can lead to the end of occupation and the creation of a democratic and independent Palestinian state alongside a safe Israel. In this regard, the U.S. president (whose rights in this area are exclusive) should instruct his representative at the U.N. not to oppose a call for recognizing Palestine as a full member of the U.N. with the goal of pushing representatives of the state of Palestine—President Mahmoud Abbas and his team—to negotiate with their Israeli counterparts on all issues of becoming good neighbors. There is no issue more in sync with America’s principles than that.