There are no winners in the current battle between Hamas and Israel. The loss of life on both sides — while unequal — is heartbreaking. As of Sunday evening, 197 Palestinians had been killed, including eight children who died Saturday when an Israeli airstrike destroyed their home in a Gaza refugee camp. At least 10 Israelis, including a 5-year-old boy, have been killed by Hamas rockets.
If history serves as a guide, however, after a ceasefire is reached, the conflict will slowly fade from the headlines, the world will go back to its business and the Palestinians will largely be forgotten — yet again. For those who sincerely want to see a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, this time must be different. The world, and especially the Biden administration, cannot look away but must engage on the question of Palestine. It’s 2021 — a homeland for Palestinian Christians and Muslims is long overdue, as is safety and equality for Palestinians.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My Palestinian father, born in the 1930s in what was then Palestine (controlled by Britain until 1948), but now the West Bank, would tell me stories about it when I was a child in the late 1970s. This wasn’t a political discussion, rather it was one focused on how my relatives and other Palestinians navigated daily life under Israeli military occupation. The limited freedom of movement, the myriad of Israeli military checkpoints that denied personal self-determination, my grandmother’s land being stolen by Israeli settlers, etc.
For the decades that followed, few American elected officials on either side of the aisle prioritized Palestinian human rights. Thankfully, Sen. Bernie Sanders changed that during the 2016 presidential campaign when he declared, “We are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.” Sanders, while defending Israel’s right to exist, called for the United States to stop being “one-sided” in the conflict.
While unthinkable a decade ago, last week a diverse group of 25 Democratic House members — including Reps. Marie Newman, Ayanna Pressley, Mark Pocan and Judy Chu — called on the Biden administration to condemn the effort of ultra-nationalist Jewish groups to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.
And Thursday, a group of House Democrats rallied on the floor in support of Palestinian human rights. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noted that while President Biden stated Israel has a right to defend itself, she asked, “But do Palestinians have a right to survive?” adding, “If so, we have a responsibility to that.
Pressley made an impassioned speech, first linking the Black Lives Matter movement to Palestinian human rights, then declaring, “We cannot stand idly and complicitly by and allow the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people to continue.”
Others joined in these speeches, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a fellow Palestinian American, who summed it up well: “Palestinians aren’t going anywhere.”
She is correct. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there are more than 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 2.1 million in Gaza. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel says there are about 358,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem.
The reality, though, is that Israelis aren’t going anywhere either, with a population of more than 9 million, nearly 7 million of whom are Jewish. As Pressley rightly stated Thursday, “The destinies of the Israeli and Palestinian people are tied.”
But though the futures of both are linked, it does not mean the respective people are equal — either in terms of resources, political power or level of suffering. For example, in Gaza, 95% of the residents don’t have access to clean water and 80% of the population relies on international aid to survive. And Human Rights Watch recently released a 213-page report in which it accused the Israeli government of engaging in an “apartheid” system of polices that favor Israeli Jews over Palestinians in both Israel and the territories. (In January, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem made the same charge.)
Bluntly, a broad peace deal currently looks all but impossible given the leadership. Who can Israeli officials speak with in Hamas? Conversely, when it comes to the Palestinians in the West Bank, who could be their partner for peace when current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared there will be no Palestinian state on his watch and has vowed to annex large swaths of the West Bank?
Not forgetting about the Palestinians is more than pushing for peace — it’s the United States taking a stand for Palestinian human rights. For example, there’s not just the threatened evictions of Palestinians from their homes and the “sweeping, decades-long restrictions on the freedom of movement and basic civil rights” for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza detailed by Human Rights Watch, but also the alarming rise of Israeli extremists who have taken to the streets to menacingly chant, “Death to Arabs.”
Once a ceasefire is reached, President Biden must make it clear that Palestinians are deserving of the same security, equality and homeland as Israelis. The days of denying the humanity of Palestinians must end. And very importantly, Biden should declare he’s willing to leverage the $3.8 billion in annual aid the United States provides to the Israeli government — along with America’s leadership role in the world — to achieve that. This even-handed approach is step one in hopefully laying the foundation for a lasting, just peace deal.