Today marks the 67th anniversary of the Nakba (“Catastrophe”)—the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the land that would become Israel. We mourn for the 13,000 Palestinians that were killed and the 750,000 that were displaced, and we remember the 500 Palestinian towns that were destroyed.(1) Today also marks the first anniversary of the deaths of Nadeem Nuwara and Mohammed Odeh, ages seventeen and fifteen, who were shot and killed while protesting the ongoing oppression of their people.
Nakba Day is celebrated soon after Israeli Independence day, showing the stark contrast between those who see the events of 1948 as the beginning of their national self-determination, and those who see it as the beginning of exile from their homeland. In Israel, organizations such as museums and universities that acknowledge the Nakba risk losing state funding.
Across the Segregation Wall, Palestinians in the West Bank congregate for political rallies, parades, and demonstrations. A year ago, the streets of downtown Ramallah were filled wall to wall with spectators waving their flags as they watched the Nakba Day parade. The true commemoration, however, did not come from Palestinian Authority speeches, or the pomp and ceremony of planned celebrations. Rather, it unfolded outside Ramallah on a dusty street barely east of the Green Line, outside the gates of Ofer Prison, home to approximately 1,100 Palestinian prisoners at any given time.
Palestinians are convicted by Israeli military courts at a 99.7% rate, and nearly half of Palestinian men have been incarcerated at some point in their lives.(2) Most are convicted of a range of political crimes, from inciting demonstrations, to throwing rocks, to trespassing on settlement land. Hundreds of current detainees have not even been charged with a crime.(3) Perhaps most tragically, Palestinian children as young as twelve are consistently imprisoned in Ofer, and reports by journalists and human rights groups highlight that some of these children spend weeks at a time in solitary confinement.(4) These conditions are prevalent in sixteen other facilities that house Palestinian prisoners, but Ofer has the distinction of being the only Israeli prison in the West Bank, making it powerful and visible symbol of the Occupation.
The demonstration outside Ofer last Nakba Day was small, mostly men and boys, hoping to march all the way to the gates of the prison, only to be repelled by soldiers shooting teargas and rubber-coated bullets as they approached the parking lot. The demonstrators would push forward, sometimes responding by throwing rocks, until they were pushed back into the town to regroup. It was during this point in the action – the falling back -- that two teenage boys were shot and killed.
Two video clips caught the story in action. The first, from a security camera outside a local business, captured footage of the two boys as each one was shot, Nuwara first, and Odeh an hour later. Both were unarmed, neither was even facing towards the prison. A CNN cameraman shot the second video, which caught Israeli border policeman Ben Deri firing the shot that killed Nuwara. Deri did not have orders to shoot live ammunition.
Many mourned the loss of these two young men, and many hoped their deaths might mean something. It seemed an ironclad case: unarmed teenaged boys shot by soldiers with no orders to shoot, all caught on camera by no less reputable a source than CNN. Yet even with seemingly irrefutable evidence, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) insisted for weeks that its troops had not fired live ammunition at the demonstrators. It took a further six months for charges to be raised against Deri, or for his name to be publicly released. If convicted of killing Nuwara, he will face at most a few years in prison.
At the time, the thought of young protesters being shot down must have been a faraway concept for many Americans. The images of young men in Keffiyahs and draped in Palestinian flags at their funeral might have seemed foreign and intimidating. Yet since then, many have come to understand how shockingly close to home these events were. The experiences of Palestinians demonstrating against brutality at the hands of the Israeli military are not so different from the experiences of Americans protesting brutality at the hands of the local police.
Like the youth demonstrating in front of Ofer, protesters here in Boston demonstrated outside the South Bay Correctional Center. They are frustrated that their government has used prisons to disenfranchise black and brown men and women, just as Israel has used its military prisons to disempower generations of Palestinian men and women.
The Israeli military punishes Palestinians who expose their crimes, just as American police sometimes use their power to punish those who publicize their brutality. Shortly after Deri killed Nuwara and Mohammed, Israeli soldiers raided the shop of Fakher Zayed, whose security cameras recorded the incident. They confiscated Zayed’s cameras, as well as those of several other nearby businesses. Similarly, the Staten Island police arrested Ramsey Orta on a felony gun charge after filming police officers strangle Eric Garner. Orta maintains that the charges were fabricated as a punishment.
When Freddie Gray died after being abused by Baltimore police officers, crowds took to the streets with unparalleled passion. The day after the deaths of Nadeem Nuwara and Mohammed Odeh, almost a thousand demonstrators marched outside Ofer, enraged by the fact that the Israeli military continues to treat Palestinians with the same brutality that began sixty-seven years ago. Protesters in both places faced tear gas, rubber bullets, and the possibility of arrest and imprisonment.
The Nakba is not a singular or isolated event. It is an ongoing catastrophe that parallels injustices committed all over the world. The struggles for equality in Palestine and America have a great deal in common, and both communities are increasingly recognizing this fact. When protests against police brutality first broke out in Ferguson, Palestinians reached out to them with messages of support and advice on how to withstand rubber bullets and tear gas. Black organizers have travelled in delegations to the West Bank, while Palestinians in America have joined Black Lives Matter marches in dozens of cities in the United States. Most importantly, Palestinians and Americans alike have begun to mourn each other's losses.
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