For weeks, crowds of Chicagoans have been filling the Loop to express their fierce desire for Palestinian liberation. Armed with keffiyehs and tablas, protesters in Chicago and across the world have been crying “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”—a decades-old slogan referencing the original land of historic Palestine between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
On May 19, five Palestinian scholars echoed these sentiments of resistance at a University of Chicago panel on the ongoing attempts to expel Indigenous Palestinians from their homes and the mobilizations across Palestine to resist them. The panel was co-sponsored by the University’s Global Studies Center, Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and the Arab Studies Institute.
The recent bombings in Gaza were present in the Zoom panel even as the discussion unfolded; one panelist, Jehad Abusalim, anxiously checked his phone throughout the event for updates from his family because his hometown in Gaza was being bombarded by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
“Even when we are thousands of miles away [from Palestine] we get suspended in time—our lives are completely dominated by this violence each and every moment,” said panelist Rabea Eghbariah, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School.
Hadeel Badarni, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the UofC, said that the protests function as both acts of solidarity and acts of defiance against a global order of capital and violent domination. “Palestinian popular resistance has caught up to the simultaneity of its oppression and is mobilizing with it movements on regional and global scales.”
The panelists condemned two-sides discourse that equates Hamas and other Palestinian resistance with the IDF. Describing the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people as a conflict between equals does rhetorical violence, said Eghbariah, because it erases the unequal power dynamic between the Israeli state—which enjoys funding and legitimization from the United States and other global powers—and the Palestinian resistance.
Eghbariah, who is also a human rights attorney with the Haifa-based Adalah legal center, called such framing “epistemic violence,” a term that describes harm exerted by colonizing powers when they produce narratives to maintain their supremacy. In Palestine, and for Palestinians across the world, its application damages their ability to speak, be heard, and craft their own narrative and identity. “The violence extends to the way that the Israeli propaganda machine extends its framing to mainstream media, not only in Israel, but also around the world,” Eghbariah said.
Randa Wahbe, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Harvard University, agreed. “Palestinians, especially Palestinian women, are doing the work and the labor everyday to change the discourse, to reject the language of occupation, of clashes, of two-sides, and to center settler-colonialism, indigeneity, and liberation,” she said.
Settler-colonialism is a form of colonization that aims to replace the Indigenous population of the colonized area with a new population of settlers, rendering the Indigenous population either stateless and displaced, killed, or second or third-class “citizens.” According to the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions Movement (BDS), Israel’s settler-colonial foundation is enshrined in its laws: “The superior status and rights of nationals are reserved for persons classified as “Jewish” in Israel’s Law of Return (1950), including new immigrants and settlers.”
A Jewish resident of Chicago has the right to go to Israel and claim citizenship, while a Palestinian resident of the Gaza Strip does not. The 1950 Law of Return gives Jewish people across the world the right to live in historic Palestine and gain Israeli citizenship.
“We need to destroy the rhetorical separation between settler and soldier; they work in tandem, together and for the continued expulsion of Palestinians,” Wahbe asserted.
Other examples of settler-colonial societies include the United States and Canada, where Europeans displaced and exterminated the Indigenous populations across Turtle Island—a name for North America based in Indigenous creation traditions—and settled there permanently.
Eghbariah underscored the importance of counter-framing Israel’s narrative of equal citizenship for “Arab-Israelis,” calling it a myth. He explained that the Israeli state promotes Palestinians living in historic Palestine as “Arab-Israeli” citizens with the same rights as Israeli settlers. “This is an official story of Israeli propaganda to try to create a façade of ostensibly equal citizenship that applies to Palestinians,” he said.
“But of course we know that this is not true.”
Eghbariah said that Israel regulates Palestinians using multiple distinct legal systems in order to divide and conquer them, a practice the United Nations and human rights groups identify as apartheid. In 2014, the outgoing U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine issued a report charging Israel of maintaining an apartheid regime in its treatment of Palestinians.
It asserted that Israel’s “oppressive” occupation “seems designed to encourage residents to leave Palestine, which is consistent with the apparent annexationist, colonialist and ethnic-cleansing goals of Israel.”
Though Palestinian activists have been saying it for years, B’Tselem, a human-rights watchdog group based in Jerusalem, became the first Jewish-Israeli human rights organization to level the same charge of apartheid last January. They noted that Palestinians are subject to different legal controls, ranging from civil law with special restrictions applied to Palestinians living under the Israeli regime in historic Palestine, to military law in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, to a permanent residency law in occupied East Jerusalem.
The U.N. report found that the “strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people” legally and geographically is “the principal method by which Israel imposes an apartheid regime.”
Such fragmentation of Palestinians is “a strategy of domination,” Eghbariah said. “It is a strategy of terminating a cause for liberation, a cause for freedom.”
According to Al-Shabaka, a think tank where panelist Abusalim is a policy associate, considering the Palestinian liberation fight within the paradigm of human rights and international law can be useful.
Human rights attorney Noura Erakat, an Al-Shabaka policy advisor, writes that U.N. assessments of the Palestinian struggle can be used as a tool in shifting the discourse in order to center it as a humanitarian one as opposed to one of security and threat.
However, she cautions that international law is to be used as a tool, and not a general framework, because of its limitations. “Legal remedies are inherently limited because they seek to reform rather than to revolutionize. As such, a rights-based solution guarantees a non-revolutionary outcome that tolerates the structural inequalities that gave rise to conflict in the first place.”
Affirming that the Palestinian cause is primarily a national liberation struggle, she emphasized that these assessments should be used in tandem with the work of national organizing structures and representational bodies such as the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions National Committee.
The Palestinian struggle for freedom today can be understood only in relation to the Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic, the panelists said. Abusalim, a doctoral candidate in history at New York University, explained that in the 1948 Nakba, at least 750,000 Palestinians were violently dispossessed of their land and homes by Zionist forces. Many of their houses still exist and now house Israeli settlers.
The Nakba resulted in the destruction of Palestinian society and the establishment of the Israeli state, he explained. “For Israel it is more territory, more wealth, and less Palestinians in body and mind,” Badarni added.
Following the Nakba, the population of the Gaza Strip more than doubled as tens of thousands of Palestinians from Yafa and Bi’r as-Sab‘ were hurled into exile. “Those refugees in ‘48—they thought that their stay in the Gaza Strip and the refugee camps that were established there would be a temporary stay. It’s been seventy-three years,” Abusalim said.
In 1967, during the Six-Day War, Israel took control of the Gaza Strip. The space allotted to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to Abusalim, has been shrinking ever since its partition. He said that by 2005, about 8,000 Israelis—largely European immigrants—had settled one-third of the Gaza Strip. Two million Palestinians reside in the remaining two-thirds.
Only 141 square miles in size, the Gaza Strip currently has one of the highest population densities in the world. Though Abusalim noted that many of their home villages are within walking distance of the overcrowded refugee camps where they currently live, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are prevented from leaving or entering, creating what many call the world’s largest open-air prison. “Palestinians in Gaza from the cities of Majdal and ‘Asqalan can see their hometowns from the rooftops of their houses every night, every day.”
“It is very important to remind ourselves that the Gaza Strip… in its current geographic and demographic composition is, was, and will continue to be a product of a war of conquest and aggression that the Zionist movement launched in 1947, 1948, and throughout its settler-colonial experiment in Palestine,” Abusalim said.
The Nakba is “the common thread that combines all of what is happening across historic Palestine and connects all Palestinian communities, whether in the homeland or in exile.”
Ethnic cleansing, or the killing and expulsion of Palestinians from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, was one factor galvanizing the recent sweep of worldwide solidarity protests. Palestinian families have long been fighting Israeli settler groups in the courts, but the courts have consistently ruled against the families.
According to panelist Lucy Garbett, a doctoral student of sociology at the London School of Economics who is currently in Sheikh Jarrah, twenty-eight families were exiled from their homes in west Jerusalem. The Jordanian government, which controlled East Jerusalem and the West Bank until Israel conquered and annexed them in the Six-Day War, had granted homes in Sheikh Jarrah to those families in return for revocation of their refugee status; the Israeli courts do not recognize this agreement.
The families, who own the homes, became tenants to settlers in the eyes of the courts. They face their impending displacement. “These Israeli courts are rigged in such a way that the legal structure aims to keep as much land as possible under Jewish-Israeli ownership,” Garbett said.
According to Garbett, Sheikh Jarrah is a microcosm of Israel’s larger settler-colonial project, which views the Palestinian population as a demographic threat. “Israeli state and municipality policy has been one of constant planned displacement and has focused on keeping a sixty-forty ratio of Jews to Arabs in the city [of Jerusalem],” she said.
The Israeli state maintains the demographic ratio via settlement in Palestinian neighborhoods, home demolition, and revocation of Palestinian residency rights, Garbett said. Palestinians in Jerusalem hold residency cards—not citizenship—which can be revoked at any time if Jerusalem stops being the center of their lives, a standard Israel monitors via bill statements, rental agreements, and random home visits, which have included checking to see whether toothbrushes in the bathroom appear used.
Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem staged sit-ins every night of the holy month of Ramadan to protest the ongoing displacement efforts against them. These sit-ins, in addition to larger protests across Palestine, have faced fierce repression by Israeli police, who have unleashed what is known as skunk water, a putrid liquid that smells like rotting corpses, on protesters. “Protesters ended up having to dodge rubber bullets, charging police, mounted horses, armed settler groups, sound bombs, stun grenades, and most notoriously, the skunk truck,” Garbett said.
Sheikh Jarrah has been transformed into a military zone, with checkpoints and harassment from police and settlers alike. Only Palestinians who can prove that they live in the neighborhood may enter. Any Israeli citizen, she said, can enter freely.
Battles over public space were met with brutal police repression and settler marches chanting “death to Arabs.” Though the media often frames brutality against Palestinians as stemming from mobs, Eghbariah stressed the connection between institutional and mob violence, saying that they both operate under the same logic.
In cities like al-Lidd, Haifa, Yafa, and Nazareth, he said that “there is a condoning and allowing of the mobs to attack Palestinians, often surrounded by the police.”
Garbett explained that settler-colonialism impacts every Palestinian. “As these images and videos of settler violence and humiliation, these logics of erasure and displacement, in the neighborhood went viral, they really struck a chord and spoke to every Palestinian because this process of displacement is ultimately what unites every Palestinian, no matter where they’re located,” Garbett said.
Displacement “sets the heart of the Palestinian cause, which is to remain and to belong to the land in the face of a settler-colonial project which seeks to replace, displace, and marginalize Palestinians from it,” she continued.
Badarni said that the Palestinian people are powerful, noting that they are not relying on government, the bourgeoisie, or the international community—just on popular resistance.
Palestinians organized a massive and historic strike of Unity and Dignity on May 18. “It ended up becoming the symbol of the ongoing ethnic cleansing from our lands and homes,” Garbett said.
The panelists emphasized that liberation movements across the world are connected to each other, citing the abolitionist movement that erupted in the public consciousness of the United States after the state-sanctioned killing of George Floyd.
“Palestinians have been practicing abolition in every sense of the word,” Wahbe said. “The fight we are fighting is to abolish the military court, abolish the borders, tear down the wall.”
“All these anti-colonial fronts, all these forms of resistance, are converging today,” she added. “They are rising in concert and ultimately reverberating across Palestine and beyond Palestine.”
Wahbe affirmed the determination of the Palestinian people. “This will be our final thrust in our struggle for freedom and we will realize our freedom,” she said. “Liberation is in our near future. It will happen in our lifetime.”
Aly Tantawy is a writer and creative on the South Side who aims to cultivate resistance with their work. They have previously been involved with Students for Justice in Palestine. This is their first article for the Weekly.