Can Palestinians Find Justice in the U.S.?

Every day, pro-Palestinian activities are held in New York. But can a society that lives in peace with its own 47 million poor people act on the behalf of others?

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Pro-Palestinian activists rally in New York against the Israeli occupation.
Pro-Palestinian activists rally in New York against the Israeli occupation.Credit: Anadolu Agency
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The smiling young man told me: “You know me.” But despite all my efforts, I couldn’t fish out his face from my visual memory base, which I am quite proud of. Just before I was about to start to blush and apologize, and maybe because he noticed my embarrassment, he quickly corrected himself: “We’ve never met, but you wrote about me 10 years ago.” My visual memory retained its honor.

So what is so amazing that we have never met, even though I wrote about him? He is Mohammed al Ghozzi, from Gaza. In order to meet, we had to travel all the way to the New School in New York for a panel discussion on Israel’s policy of mass incarceration, particularly among Palestinian minors. I was there to listen, he was one of the speakers.

Now it was my turn to surprise him: “I wrote about you again just yesterday.” It was exactly the talented and thirsting-for-knowledge young people such as him I meant in my April 27 column “Gazans’ only possible collective act of defiance against blockade” (“Lions in a cage” in Hebrew), on the talents of the Gazans, which are being lost because Israel has turned the Gaza Strip into the biggest prison camp in the world.

Because Israel did not allow him to leave to study in the West Bank, he did his master’s degree in London and is now finishing his doctorate in child development in Switzerland. Somehow, when people learn overseas ways can be found to allow them to leave. To return and live now in the closed and blockaded Gaza Strip would be professional suicide. And so we can add another item to the long list of the Israeli actions to destroy Palestinian society: The expulsion of brain.

In 2003, al Ghozzi and another nine students from Gaza were accepted by Bethlehem University for a special program in occupational therapy, which was intended to meet the needs of the population in Gaza and the shortage of essential professionals in medical and paramedical professions. Since 2000 (and until today) Israel has been imposing a total ban on exit of Gazan students to study in West Bank universities. (In the 1990s this ban was not total, but incremental bureaucratic obstacles made it ever more difficult to enroll in West Bank institutions.) The explanation for the ban: “a dangerous age” and other such excuses which hide the real reason that I will never tire of mentioning: Since 1991 Israel has acted to shatter and divide up the Palestinian territories, intended for the establishment of a Palestinian state according to international resolutions and understandings.

Let us return to the smiling young man: Because exit permits were not given to the 10 eager-to-learn students, Bethlehem University improvised an alternative program by remote control. A lecturer was flown all the way from Norway to Gaza and classes were held by video conference, with the practical training held in Egypt. It was harder to overcome the lack of professional literature and absence of lecturers to regularly and closely supervise the studies and training.

The nonprofit organization Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice on behalf of the students. The High Court rejected the petitions, but recommended to the government to establish a mechanism to “deal on an individual basis with cases whose solutions could have positive humanitarian implications,” in the words of Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein.

We are not mind readers so we cannot say whether the justices believed the government would act in the spirit of their recommendation, or whether it was just another one of their quasi-elegant evasive tactics in order not to get in trouble with justice. In other words, in order not to rule that students from Gaza have the right to study in the West Bank.

On a similar note, it seems that every day a pro-Palestinian activity is held in New York. Palestinian poets read from their works; the graduate students union at New York University votes for an academic boycott of Israel; movies, plays and photograph exhibitions on Palestine are held – all under the heading of justice for Palestine, justice for Palestinians, the right of return and also “the cessation of the exceptionalism of the colonialist-settler entity [Israel].”

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S., April 27, 2016.Credit: Michael Conroy, AP

Is the United States the appropriate place to enlist people for activities on the behalf of justice and against the “exceptionalism” of Israel?

Here is part of a mass email sent out by Bernie Sanders: “In the United States today, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, 47 million Americans are living in poverty. Almost 22 percent of American children are poor and we have the highest child poverty rate of almost any major country on earth.

“Let’s be clear. Living in poverty doesn’t just mean you don’t have enough money to buy a big screen TV, a fancy laptop or the latest iPhone. It goes much deeper than that. Living in poverty means you are less likely to have a good grocery store in your community selling healthy food. Far too often it means you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from.

“Living in poverty means you are less likely to have access to a doctor, dentist or mental health care provider. It means you have less access to public transportation, which makes it harder to find a job. It means you are less likely to have access to child care.

“In the United States of America, poverty is often a death sentence.”

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