Within a month of its introduction, 20 members of Congress have cosponsored a bill that focuses on Israeli violations of Palestinian children’s rights.
Thirty years ago, I witnessed an uprising in the occupied Palestinian territories. Today I feel I am witnessing one in the halls of Congress.
Three decades ago I worked as a volunteer teacher at a Quaker school in Ramallah. I remember that December in 1987 to be full of uncertainty – Israeli army raids, curfews, house arrests and street protests were part of our daily lives.
Each morning we didn’t know if the schools would be open or closed, whether our students were safe, if stores selling bread or markets selling produce would be open for business, or if a curfew would remain in force. We relied on a transistor radio and our neighbors for news, as this was an era before cell phones and the Internet.
Little did I realize that I was to witness a popular uprising, later to be named an “intifada” or shaking off, against what was at that point two decades of Israeli military rule.
I remember how almost every member of Palestinian society participated in this first intifada – predominantly nonviolent resistance to Israeli soldiers occupying towns, villages and refugee camps throughout the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza.
While the iconic images of young Palestinians confronting heavily armed soldiers helped coin the phrase “the children of the stones,” the uprising I witnessed was more than a clash of rocks and Israeli army firepower.
Palestinians organized through popular committees to provide needed medical and food relief to communities targeted by curfews and military assaults.
Community health workers taught people how to bandage a wound, how to counter the effects of tear gas and how to set the broken bones of children who were victim to then Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s policy of “force, might and beatings.”
Women knit sweaters to send to prisoners filling Israeli detention camps, sewed flags to hold at protests and worked overtime in hospitals, clinics and human rights centers to document the daily assaults on Palestinian communities. Agricultural relief committees shared seedlings and encouraged people to plant “victory gardens” to help sustain long periods of army-imposed curfews.
Road signs were taken down to confuse military tanks and jeeps (in an era before GPS navigation) and roadblocks were made out of tires and stones to slow down the Israeli army arrest raids.
Teachers opened up their homes to continue classes despite school closures. One teacher I met used his kitchen as a science lab. Another had students study history together in her living room.
Palestinian collective action gave everyone a sense of hope.
An underground Unified National Leadership of the Uprising managed to write and distribute a daily leaflet that would magically appear on doorsteps each morning.
The leaflet would include instructions about curfews and which communities needed support, but also an ongoing account of what was happening throughout the occupied territories. This important daily communication built cohesion and a sense of joint purpose.
Hope in change
Despite the real suffering – and deaths – of so many people during the first intifada, I felt that the demands for self-determination and statehood, and international attention to the realities on the ground for Palestinians, would be realized.
I left my work in Ramallah to return to the United States where I knew it was important to share what I had witnessed during the first intifada.
I remember my first visit to a congressional office in 1989, where I was told that absolutely nothing can be done to stop unconditional support for Israel, despite countless media and human rights reports documenting widespread abuse against Palestinians.
In some encounters on Capitol Hill I was told “there are no Palestinians” and that the suffering I witnessed as a teacher was justified because “Israel needs to protect itself.”
Through my role at the American Friends Service Committee – a Quaker organization which began its work in Palestine in the refugee camps of Gaza in 1949 – I helped organize numerous visits of Palestinians and Israelis to meet members of Congress and their staff, but repeatedly was told, “We can do nothing due to domestic political considerations.”
Like many others in the movement for peace and justice, I had given up hope in change coming from our elected leaders. Instead, I worked with others to build greater understanding in communities across the United States.
We held events on college campuses and in houses of worship, using popular culture, traditional and nontraditional educational methods. We organized speaking tours, art exhibits, film festivals and book readings. We wrote letters to the editor and met editorial boards, spoke on radio shows and television newscasts and produced documentaries and billboard ads.
We organized delegations to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and more recently engaged in economic activism through boycott and divestment campaigns.
I witnessed the growth of our movement to include more organizations, faith communities and a broader cross section of US society responding to the Palestinian call to support their efforts for freedom, justice and equality.
A few years ago, the American Friends Service Committee joined colleagues at Defense for Children International-Palestine – an independent child rights organization based in Ramallah – to explore the possibility of developing congressional allies to help change the uncritical support for Israeli military occupation.
In the context of failed peace processes and diplomatic overtures, escalating violence and continual expansion of settlement colonies, Palestinian children – who represent nearly half of the population in the West Bank – are subjected to widespread and systematic abuse, including torture and solitary confinement, in the Israeli military detention system.
To my surprise, on our advocacy visits on Capitol Hill, we found a few members of Congress who were open to hearing about and taking a public stand on the human rights of Palestinians.
Unlike three decades ago, members of Congress read with interest the human rights and media reports documenting the abuses of Palestinians by the Israeli authorities.
Instead of dismissing the experiences of those living under military rule, elected officials began to ask, “Why is this happening? How is this in Israel’s security interests?”
They began to question why two sets of laws exist in the same territory, with rights based on one’s ethnicity.
When presented with videos capturing the Israeli detention and arrest of Palestinian children, some as young as 12 years old, members of Congress asked, “Why am I not aware of this happening?” and “Is this being done with US taxpayers’ annual $3 billion in military aid?”
In 2015, the first year of our grassroots educational and advocacy campaign “Israeli Military Detention: No Way to Treat a Child,” 19 members of Congress sent a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry stating their concern for the abuses of Palestinian children’s rights.
A year later, 20 members wrote a second “Dear Colleague” letter asking President Barack Obama to appoint a special envoy to hold Israeli and Palestinian leaders accountable to their obligations under universal human rights norms.
Each year of our campaign, the concern for human rights and calls for accountability for US assistance to Israel have grown.
Last month in the days leading up to the introduction of H.R. 4391 – the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act – we watched the extensive networks of US-based activists call on their elected officials to publicly speak out for the rights of Palestinians.
In the first week, 10 members of Congress signed onto the bill that requires the secretary of state to certify annually that no funds obligated or expended in the previous year by the United States for assistance to Israel have been used to support the ill-treatment of Palestinian children detained by Israeli forces from the occupied West Bank.
A month later the number of cosponsors has doubled.
Perhaps it is too soon to say that an uprising on Palestinian human rights is taking place in Washington. But for certain, we are beginning to shake off the silence that typically existed when calls for accountability were asked of members of Congress.
In 2018, we will continue to mobilize for a change in US policies, continue to document and share the experience of Palestinians and their Israeli supporters who work to end decades of military rule and injustice. We will continue to be inspired by the creativity and resilience of those who “shake” the powers maintaining an untenable status quo.
Jennifer Bing is director of the Palestine-Israel program for the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago and co-leader of the No Way to Treat a Child campaign.