Houston Palestinian organizers speak out

by | Jun 7, 2021 | Foreign Affairs, Politics

“We View Our Bodies as a Form of Resistance.” Even as thousands of Houstonians take to the streets in solidarity with Palestine, media coverage is sparse.

Around 15,000 Houstonians took to the streets in solidarity with Palestine over the last three weeks. One rally alone was attended by around 10,000 people, who marched to City Hall demanding an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the bombing of Gaza. 

Local coverage of the protests was limited, but lead organizers tell the Texas Signal that they were some of the largest and most enthusiastic pro-Palestine rallies they had ever attended, and that more are planned in the near-future. As long as Palestinians remain an ethnically marginalized group, they explained to the Signal, they will continue organizing communal support for Palestine.

Although a tentative ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is holding, the Israeli government is continuing police actions against Palestinians in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967. 

The Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, whose impending displacement sparked the latest wave of global outrage, are still slated to be evicted from their homes. And 19 Palestinian families living in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan are facing eviction with the next month. In both cases, Israeli settler organizations are poised to take over the homes of the Palestinians. 

For the Houstonians who organized the rallies in solidarity with Palestine, the ongoing struggle for Palestinian rights is deeply personal. 

To Mohamed Fattouh, an alumni of the University of Houston and organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement, recognizing Palestinians’ rights has an immediate impact on whether he can see the members of his family who are stuck in Gaza, which has been blockaded since 2007. 

“My parents were mostly raised in Gaza,” Fattouh says during a phone interview with the Signal. Both sides of his family were originally from Mandatory Palestine. They were displaced during the 1948 ethnic cleansing of over 700,000 Palestinians, Fattouh explains.

Palestinians collectively remember this event as the Nakba, which means catastrophe in Arabic, and commemorate on May 15 every year. Israelis celebrate this event as part of its Independence Day, which is observed on May 14. 

While Fattouh was helping to organize the massive Houston City Hall rally on May 15, his family in Gaza were besieged by the Israeli military. “My dad’s uncle, he had his apartment bombed,” he says. 

“They gave him a 15-minute warning, so thankfully he was able to grab whatever he could and got out of the apartment.” The Israeli military keeps a close record of where nearly every inhabitant of Gaza lives, and often calls or texts residents in the moments leading up to a bombing of their home that they should leave or risk being killed. Other times, the military will send a mortar to ‘tap’ the rooftop of a building set to be demolished to let residents know their home will be destroyed.

Gaza is also one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, meaning any bomb landing on a building can cause widespread damage to its clustered city blocks. Fattouh relays that his grandparents’ houses windows had been blown out by nearby Israeli shelling, even though they were not the primary target of the bombing. In Gaza, where poverty, hunger, and lack of resources determines daily life, repairing blown-out windows is an added expense few are positioned to afford. 

“When I say ‘Free Palestine,’ It’s because I’m for the freedom of my people,” Fattouh says. 

Mahmoud, another organizer of the recent rallies and member of the University of Houston’s Student for Justice in Palestine group, tells the Signal of the Nakba’s impact on his family. 

“All my grandparents’ villages in Palestine were ethnically cleansed, massacred, and all the inhabitants were either imprisoned, killed, or exiled,” Mahmoud says bluntly during a phone call. 

“My grandmothers had to, as teenagers, walk to Lebanon.” According to Mahmoud, one was able to eventually go to the U.S. before she died, and while another is still stuck in a refugee camp in Lebanon. 

“It’s extremely important for people to realize that Palestinians are universally directly impacted by this,” and that Palestinian protestors are doing so in order to see their families be freed from refugee camps.

“My whole life, I’ve always believed in the inherent humanity of everybody,” Mahmoud explains, noting that ‘Free Palestine’ to him means a one-state multiethnic democracy encompassing Gaza, the West Bank, and the current state of Israel. 

Dina, a community organizer of Palestinian descent, tells the Signal that her experiences as a Palestinian in the Middle East motivates her to push for Palestinian rights. 

“When I was an eight year-old, I fled Zionist violence,” she says. In the summer of 2006, Dina was visiting family in southern Lebanon when a war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah, who control much of Lebanon’s south. 

“There was this one night where me and my cousin were sitting on the balcony around two or three in the morning, and I see a helicopter coming straight towards us.” She and her cousin ran into the house and awoke her grandfather, who pleaded with them not to go outside.

Then on “the next day, around eight or nine at night, Israeli helicopters start flying all over southern Lebanon releasing letters urging people to leave if they didn’t want to die, because they were planning on destroying all of Hezbollah’s land.”

Afraid for their lives, Dina, her mother, sister, and uncle quickly packed up their things and fled on a bus to Syria. They didn’t have enough money to fly back to the U.S., so they took a shorter trip to Sweden.

“That moment has always stuck with me forever. That’s what created this desire in me for a movement building and change,” Dina says. “From that day on, questions of humanity started lingering in my head.” 

“It was a process of being displaced,” she remembers.

To Dina, being Palestinian is itself a political act. “We view our bodies as a form of resistance,” she explains. 

“We carry being Palestinian with us everywhere, and we carry it proudly.”

Much of Dina’s family remains in squalid refugee camps in southern Lebanon, where they are systematically denied basic human rights, professional careers, educational opportunities, and property rights. 

Dina, Fattouh, and Mahmoud were surprised by the amount of enthusiasm Houstonians showed in coming out to protest for Palestinian rights and against Israeli military aggression. 

Fattouh attributes this in part to last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. “A lot of this huge turnout wouldn’t be possible without last summer’s events,” he says, since the videos of police killings of Black Americans made people feel “they needed to be political, to take direct action, so when the recent events in Palestine happened this summer, people were more inclined to hit the streets.”

In both the Black Lives Matter protests and the pro-Palestine rallies, which took place all over the country during the month of May, much of the anger was centered around viral videos on social media depicting racialized groups suffering police brutality. In addition, Fattouh mentions growing awareness of the role Israel has played in training American police officers, as well as the political influence of arms manufacturers like Boeing, who collectively enable states to pound civilian targets with state-of-the-art weaponry. 

“It is optimistic to see more people use the language Palestinians use, like talking about colonialism and the Nakba,” Mahmoud says.

All three organizers tell the Signal that local Pro-Palestine groups in Houston are planning on holding further public demonstrations including rallies, teach-ins and other community building events.

For the first time in his life, Mahmoud says he feels seen by the broader American public. “We weren’t alone anymore. People who might have been quiet before were coming with us. This was genuinely heartwarming.”

He is cautiously optimistic about what the future holds for the Palestinian cause.“It feels like the whole world has had enough,” he says. 

“We have people power on our side now.” 

Ty Joplin is a freelance journalist

Photo: Syeda Amina Trust / Wikimedia Commons

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