By Benay Blend
Plans were to hold the march in conjunction with the Palestine Writes Festival (March 27-29), but due to the Coronavirus the literary gathering has been postponed, and the march, like so many other events, has been transformed into a virtual event.
Two years ago, on March 30, 2018, Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip launched the Great March of Return in order to demand an end to Israel’s closure of the Gaza Strip and the right of return for millions of Palestinian ethnically cleansed from their homes.
Despite Israel’s ongoing use of live ammunition, tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets, Palestinians continue to use every legitimate means possible—including armed resistance, general strikes, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns, and the Great Return March—in their struggle for national liberation.
This year, in the words of Tamara Nassar: “Palestinians face two enemies: occupation and pandemic.” As Nassar notes, their struggle against the virus entails the same precautions as the rest of the world, while, in addition, Israel “continues to demolish structures, conduct night raids, arbitrarily arrest children and routinely harass civilians.”
For example, palinfo.com reports that on March 27, 2020, Israeli occupation soldiers invaded several areas in the West Bank city of al-Khalil where they “deliberately spat” at Palestinian homes and cars. After their departure, Palestinian workers sterilized the places where the soldiers spat in order to reduce the chances of infection.
Moreover, while the West Bank and Jerusalem are quarantined, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights last week recorded that Israelis undertook 59 home raids and 51 arrests.
All of these atrocities and more are unique to the Occupation. Nevertheless, there is a larger framework that makes it possible to place the Palestinian struggle within a broader context. As stated in Samidoun’s decision to transform the various rallies in support of Gaza into virtual events:
“Protecting each other’s health at this critical time is essential to continuing the struggle against the forces of oppression and exploitation that deny people health care or price it with a profit motive.”
For many in the labor force, this is not an option. In countries under the rule of right-wing capitalist leaders, workers are being told that they have a choice between staying home without a paycheck, thus placing their families under economic hardship, or going to workplaces that put them at risk for serious infection with the virus.
For example, the lieutenant governor of Texas Dan Patrick suggested that older Americans would surely sacrifice themselves in return for guaranteeing their grandchildren’s economic future. He also advocated that the country should be opened up for business in weeks, not months as health professionals propose.
President Donald Trump’s call to open up the country for business by Easter echoed a similar prioritizing of business and mega-church religious leaders over the lives of workers and their families.
In Palestine, too, Akram Al-Waara reports that workers face a similar dilemma, though aggravated by realities of the Occupation. For those working in Israel, new restrictions related to the Coronavirus mean that they have a choice between sacrificing a “much-needed income,” or taking the chance of being apart from their families for months.
As the virus continued to extend across Israel and the West Bank, Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennet, who had already closed the borders around Bethlehem, announced that only workers in “essential” fields—construction, healthcare, and agriculture—would be granted entry; everyone else would be quarantined at home.
“While the Israelis are staying inside their homes, they are putting us to work so that things don’t collapse,” Kareem, a Palestinian construction worker, told Middle East Eye, all “for the sake of saving their economy.” Though the situation is different within the context of the Occupation, the paradigm of profit over people is inevitable wherever there is a capitalist economy. In New Mexico, where I live, Indian reservations make up expendable labor pools, much like Palestinians are today.
In the preface to Simon Ortiz’s Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land (1980), historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz explains that “Indians have a basis of unity with non-Indians,” and it is there, “in the fields and on the picket line, that they may see through the smokescreen of racism” to pinpoint the real cause of their oppression: capitalism.
“For the Indian and non-Indian worker in the United States and most of the hemisphere, their exploited labor provides the profits for those who claim to own the land and the factories and have armies to back their claim.”
Dunbar-Ortiz’s analysis is more important today than ever as we see workers around the world faced with the choice of watching their families starve without a paycheck or bringing sickness home from their workplace.
As Italians called for a General Strike on March 25 under the slogan “Our lives are worth more than your profits,” and requests for a nationwide rent strike erupt in the U.S., it seems an excellent time for international solidarity among the working class, Indigenous, immigrants and all other oppressed groups of people.
Meanwhile, news sources such as NPR are using fears over the Coronavirus to air the following message: “Israelis and Palestinians now have a common enemy: the Coronavirus.”
Described by +972 Magazine as “ ‘colonization of the mind,’ whereby the oppressed subject comes to believe that the oppressor’s reality is the only ‘normal’ reality that must be subscribed to, and that the oppression is a fact of life that must be coped with,” “normalization” never sleeps. Neither does colonialist oppression, even during the height of the pandemic.
As Akram Al-Waara relates, Palestinian workers in Israel who are suspected to have the virus are “dumped…like trash” near the most convenient checkpoints. “This is the true face of the Israeli occupation,” Ibrahim Abu Safiya told Middle East Eye. “They kill us on a daily basis, so this isn’t any different for them.” No cooperation here over a “common enemy to battle,” as Daniel Estrin of NPR termed it, only the continuation of the Palestinian struggle for liberation.
In Israel, the United States, and around the world, exploited groups of people are expendable, thrown away when no longer serving the needs of the elite. As a community activist and scholar Oliver Baker wrote on Facebook, this is how “whiteness in capitalism works. It expects you to consent to give it your labor and enforce empire. But it cares nothing about your life. It’s time to betray it, or if not, you’ll be in the way of people trying to free themselves from these conditions, and you don’t want to be in the way of that right now.”
Nevertheless, the message of Land Day 2020 remains one of sumoud (steadfastness) and creativity, as Palestinians from Gaza to Bethlehem mobilize collectively to fight the virus.
“If we can overcome Coronavirus, we can overcome the occupation,” writes Suha Arraf, a sentiment echoed by Lucy Thaljiyeh, a city council member and feminist political activist: “The solidarity between people has returned, the solidarity we had during the First Intifada which somehow disappeared in the Second Intifada. We are together once again, trapped; we are taking care of each other.”
As support gathers around the world in the coming days for Land Day 2020, it seems fitting to end with the words of Palestinian American activist and scholar Steven Salaita:
“I find myself thinking about the Gaza Strip, Attica, Wounded Knee, the Warsaw Ghetto, not because our situation is analogous, and not because suffering must be exceptional to have meaning, but because they’re examples of incredible strength amid hardship and insecurity and therefore provide a radical vision of fortitude in which victims of power, not its beneficiaries, serve as inspiration for survival.”
– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.