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Silencing human rights advocacy in Israel has broad implications, PC(USA) webinar says

Panelists discuss US role in displacement of Palestinians, efforts to smear critics of Israeli government

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Protesters at an emergency rally for Jerusalem, save Sheikh Jarrah protest in London on May 11, 2021. (Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona via Unsplash)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Toward the end of Tuesday’s online presentation about the United States’ role in the Israel-Palestine conflict, Foundation for Middle East Peace President Lara Friedman broadened the terms of the discussion.

The hourlong webinar:

  • Showed the conflict in disputed lands such as Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian residents are being forced out in favor of Jewish settlers.
  • Traced support for the evictions to the United States, where groups carrying out the evictions enjoy support from U.S. charities.
  • Covered ways in which opponents of Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights are being silenced by intimidation and laws, known as anti-BDS (boycotts, divestment, sanctions), which penalize people and organizations that boycott Israel.

During her segment, Friedman expanded the scope of concern.

“If you start giving a kosher stamp for laws that erode the right to protest, that erode free speech, it starts in Israel-Palestine. It doesn’t end in Israel-Palestine,” Friedman said. “So today, I spend as much time tracking what I call anti-BDS copycat laws as I do following the anti-BDS and faux anti-Semitism laws, which are the laws trying to legislate a definition of anti-Semitism, which would basically make almost any criticism of Israel considered anti-Semitic if you don’t criticize every other country in the world doing anything bad at the same time.”

The conversation was framed by a portion of a news story from AJ+, an online service of the Qatar-based state media outlet Al Jazeera that covers international news. The story, posted on May 1, recounts recent efforts to evict the Salem family from the Sheikh Jarrah home it has owned for decades, and traces support for that eviction back to the United States and U.S. charitable organizations. According to the report, the 11-person family is one of more than 90 out of 200 households in that area facing eviction to make way for Israeli settlers.

Punctuating the report that portrayed heated exchanges between residents, settlers, and police was news Wednesday morning that Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed while covering an Israeli Army raid on the occupied West Bank. Witnesses blame Israeli soldiers, while the Israeli government has said it was armed Palestinians who shot the journalist. The United Nations and European Union are among those calling for independent investigations into the death of Abu Akleh, who was a U.S. citizen.

Following the video, Sami Huraini, a political activist and community organizer in Southern Hebron who co-founded the peaceful resistance group Youth of Sumud, and Cody O’Rourke of the Good Shepherd Collective offered perspectives from the ground in Israel. Huraini talked about violence, discrimination, the constant threat of evictions and Israeli courts indifferent to the complaints of Palestinians.

Huraini said, “All of these efforts that they are doing is funded by the U.S. charities … which is completely used for oppression and for apartheid and for classism against us as a Palestinian living under occupation.”

O’Rourke, who came to Israel from the U.S., added, “The violence that happens in their communities, it comes from very specific sources.” He cited one group, saying, “this organization is a secular organization. Their objective is to push Palestinians off of their land so it can be developed for the Israeli state.

“For these Palestinian communities, these organizations really represent the tip of the spear of the violence and the displacement that they’re facing.”

Diala Shamas, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, focused on ways human rights advocates for people in Palestine are being silenced by the courts, legislation and intimidation. Human rights advocates, she said, are frequently labeled as “anti-Semitic,” equating criticism of the Israeli government with criticism of all people who are Jewish, and terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

Shamas said she normally doesn’t like to spend time discussing those sorts of attacks, but “unfortunately, we’re in a situation where audiences like this one who want to support Palestinian rights are likely to encounter these kinds of attacks. And it’s important to understand that they are part of a very deliberate campaign. So, it’s crucial that we hold our representatives or institutions or politicians accountable, to not be amplifying these kinds of framing and sorts of policies and not be amplifying these kinds of attacks.”

Attacks like these, she and Friedman said, make government officials and corporations reluctant to challenge the Israeli government and support Palestinian rights. Friedman said that a lot of the effort to quash criticism is coming as Israeli government policies and actions become increasingly indefensible and public opinion shifts away from unquestioning support of the government’s actions. Successful efforts to silence human rights advocates for Palestine will be duplicated elsewhere.

“It’s coming for the ability to advocate for human rights in Ukraine, for the Uyghurs, for anybody,” Friedman said. “If Human Rights Watch and Amnesty [International] cannot operate because they’re not allowed to talk about Israel, they’re not going to operate at all.”

Click here to watch the webinar “Israel/Palestine: U.S. Complicity and Accountability” in its entirety.

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