Sunday began with an early morning drive into Philadelphia to catch the bus from 4722 Baltimore Avenue to DC and take part in a rally and march to end the 40 year occupation of Palestine. The program was developed by a coalition of organizations under the banner US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation in coordination with a second coalition coming together with the heading United for Peace and Justice. If you think that’s a mouthful you’re right. One of the difficulties of building national support is in trying to connect hundreds of groups interested in freedom to one singular message.
The bus was full of activist from a broad group of backgrounds, Jewish, Muslim and Christian alike. I asked Jerry Taylor from Yardley, PA why he got on the bus? “Because people are suffering. I hope there is something I can do. The Palestinians are just being slaughtered. This is government-sanctioned ethnocide. Our government supports this,” he said.
I asked Marilyn Looseman, from Haverford PA, why she was taking the trip? “Because I believe in what we’re doing. Israel will be far more secure when it allows the Palestinians to be secure.” I asked what she wanted the outcome of the day to be? “More Americans understanding what the situation really is by spreading the word.”
I asked Sonia Khalil of Philadelphia why she was on the bus? “Israel and Palestine will be secure if they see the occupation is the source of the violence. Once the occupation is ended violence will be ended. There will be prosperity for both. I do believe in a two-state solution.” I asked what she wanted to be the result of the rally? “It’s good for us to go out there and share that there are Jews as well as Palestinians and Christians out there that don’t agree with the occupation.”
After a brisk walk from the bus-deck of Union Station the group made its way in front of the US Capital. There was a fenced-in quadrangle with a stage festooned with a sign; “The World Says No to Israeli Occupation.” There were some tables set up with literature and a cross-section of books, mostly by socialist authors. Around the perimeter were a few more tables including one from ICAHD-USA, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition, Project Hope, a Palestinian children’s educational program and Trees for Life, an organization to support Palestinian farmers. Just about the time I was considering making a purchase a member of the Rally staff came around to inform all the sellers that they were not permitted to make any sales or take any money on the site because the permit didn’t provide for that. One better, he stopped a man from anchoring a banner on posts in the ground, stating that; “You can’t do that. If you do they’ll shut down the Rally.”
People were flowing in and I heard that there was a significant counter rally being staged by Israeli activists. I didn’t see them in any numbers so I figured the police had that rally taking place a distant site. I ambled up to the right side of the stage, filled out some paperwork and received my press pass and a folder containing information on the day’s events.
Reading from the Call to Action: “We know that occupation is wrong. We see US troops occupying Iraq, and we say no. We see Israeli troops and civilians occupying Palestinian land, and we say no again. Wrong in Iraq, wrong in Palestine.” It goes on to state that; “We in the United States have a special obligation to protest Israel’s illegal military occupation because it is our government that provides Israel with the uncritical military, economic, diplomatic, and corporate support that it needs to sustain and expand its control of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. If we do not protest, then we are complicit in the human rights abuses inflicted daily on Palestinians who are forced to live under Israel’s brutal military occupation.”
I watched as two groups were handing out signs. A red and black one said; “Justice for Palestine.” A yellow and black one from a group called answercoalition.org wanted more; “Free Palestine. Support the Right of Return.”
I met Rana Abdelquder, an eighteen year old from Poughkeepsie, NY. She told me; “My family was pushed out of Palestine in 1948. They had lived in the village of Jimzu. I went back in 1997 to see it with my own eyes. I started an organization, “Palestine: Voices of the Next Generation,” and put it on myspace.com. People around here aren’t educated enough. It’s up to us. We’re the next generation.” I asked what she wanted to happen? “At least equality today. These kids don’t have a future. To give them a chance for a future.”
I spoke with Gwen Dubois a member of the Tikkun Community from Baltimore. “As a Jew raised with the idea life comes first. That Jews are justice loving people. That the occupation is unjust. I care about Israel, but oppose the policy of its government.” I asked what she though was necessary? “Most helpful would be more of a dialog in the Jewish community in the United States.”
I met Desiree Farooz, a member of Code Pink from Arlington TX. “We are women for peace. End the occupation. Give the indigenous people of Palestine their country back. We bring some color and creativity to the movement. We are willing to sacrifice. We have women here who have sacrificed jobs on behalf of peace. Women who can’t stay at home. Can’t tolerate this bloodshed anymore.” I asked what she wanted to happen? “Arab American’s need to unite. More Palestinian American’s saying no to the occupation. More activism. A coalition of everyone to stand up to the injustice.”
I spoke with Ashley Wilkerson a young missionary from the United Methodist Church who was posted in Bethlehem for sixteen months and was now interning for the US Campaign, and serving as an Event Press Coordinator. She was listening to one of the speeches and a tear was rolling down her cheek. I asked what image she held from Bethlehem? “The Wall in Bethlehem is massive and it feels like it’s all around you. Someone in one of the refugee camps told me it’s around his heart. Every night the Israeli military came into Bethlehem and takes somebody. They broke into my room when I wasn’t there. There is no system of accountability.” I switched subjects and asked her if they had a count on the crowd? She got on her cell phone and a couple minutes later a number came back; “About 5000.” I had just guessed that number.
I have been to larger events on the mall. But speaker after speaker including Ambassador Ed Peck, Tony Bing, Judith LeBlank, Husam El-Nounou, Rabbi Jerry Milgom and Cindy and Craig Corrie and many more gave testimony to the climate of injustice that pervades the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and robs Palestinians of their right to move freely, to earn a decent living, to support their families and to look forward to the future. I believe the facts of terror, suicide bombers targeting civilians and rockets hitting S’derot on a daily basis do not bring the people of Palestine closer to achieving their goals of justice, freedom and peace. But this was a day for recognizing the injustices of the occupation and the human rights of the Palestinian people. After a group of rappers charged up the audience, the march began from the Capital to the base of the Washington Monument facing the White House. Drums beat, the crowd chanted and people carried signs along Independence Ave. as they advanced. The police were out in numbers assisted by a large contingent of orange vested volunteers.
And then it happened. The counter demonstration was waiting for the marchers along the parade route. Hundreds of Israeli activists carried signs that went from a simple plea for peace to repudiate Hamas to the announcement that it’s all Israel’s land. Some of the people were contained and some were screaming epithets with one young man waving his middle finger. Some of the chants by the anti-occupation marchers were positive while others made me uneasy.
I noticed a couple of young people, I’d say around twenty years of age holding an Israeli flag. I stopped to talk to them. Benjamin Franblum was from Bethesda, MD. I asked what brought him here today? “I came to make sure I wasn’t one of the one’s who didn’t. I want to fight now while its words. Their leadership is inciting violence. I want all Palestinians and all Israelis to be able to raise their families in human peace and dignity.”
I suggested that that was a most laudable goal. His friend Rachel noted that the marchers are “a lot of confused people. People who need to take self-responsibility to better their lives.” I didn’t answer her by saying that that was exactly what they were doing. I thanked them both and moved back into the crowded streets before I drew a crowd of my own. We marched on toward the White House and then quickly dispersed for the long march back to the buses at Union Station. Others stayed on for Monday’s lobbying effort.