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We must envisage the possibility, however remote, that black Americans interested in African Affairs may refocus their attention on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Taking into account the African descent of American blacks, it is reasonable to anticipate their sympathies would lie with the Arabs who are closer to them in spirit and, in some cases, related to them by blood. Black involvement in lobbying to support the Arabs may lead to serious dissension between American blacks and Jews.”
This revealing quote comes from a formerly top secret ‘White Paper’ of the National Security Council, dated March 17, 1978 – at a time when the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa was beginning to spread significantly throughout the United States. While it does indeed touch upon part of the reason why the so-called “Arab-Israeli conflict” (more appropriately called the Palestinian freedom struggle) has resonated in the heart of many black Americans, it is my humble perspective that a memorable quote of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulates the reason far better. Dr. King wrote:
“Being a Negro in America is not a comfortable experience. It means being part of the company of the bruised, the battered, the scarred and the defeated. Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple. It means seeing your mother and father spiritually murdered by the slings and arrows of daily exploitation, and then being hated for being an orphan.
“Being a Negro in America means listening to suburban politicians talk eloquently against public housing, while arguing in the same breath that they are not racists. It means being harried by day and haunted by night by a nagging sense of nobodiness, and constantly fighting to be saved from the poison of bitterness. It means the ache and anguish of living in so many situations where hopes unborn have died.”
For me, a fairly conscious upper-middle-aged African American Muslim, it would be easy to transpose the words “being a Negro in America,” in the 1960s, with being a Palestinian in Occupied Palestine (aka, Apartheid-Zionist Israel) today! This is one of the reasons why the story of the young Palestinian, Ahed Tamimi, has resonated with me so deeply – as a Muslim, a father, and a black man born and raised in America.
Ahed Tamimi’s story of slapping an armed Israeli soldier, after the IDF tried to enter her family’s home without permission on December 15, 2017, is but one oppressive incident in a turbulent young life controlled by military occupation. It is also emblematic of what all young Palestinians face on a day-to-day basis, as part of the decades long brutal occupation and theft of their own ancestral land.
Ahed and her mother Nariman were imprisoned four days later, on December 19th, after video of the confrontation went viral. That December 15th confrontation – again triggered by the IDF’s attempt to enter the Tamimi home without permission – is part of a long train of human rights violations which have directly impacted this family.
The Tamimis are leaders of an indigenous struggle in the village of Nabi Saleh (a Palestinian village of approximately 600 people) intent on resisting Zionist Israel’s brutal occupation. The village and spring have been targeted for confiscation by occupants of an illegal Zionist settlement by the name of Halamish.
Absent from the video that was seen around the world was the violence of the occupiers of that Palestinian village. According to my information, earlier that day, a soldier shot Ahed’s 14-year-old cousin Mohammed in the head with a rubber-coated steel bullet. Three years ago Israeli soldiers shot Ahed’s mother Nariman in the leg. Two years before that, soldiers shot and killed her uncle Rushdi. The year before that it was another cousin, by the name of Mustafa, who died from being shot in the face (reportedly at point blank range) by a high-velocity tear gas canister.
Ahed’s father, and a host of other relatives, have been arrested and imprisoned for their resistance as well. But the ones who are about to stand trial are not the real criminals; it’s a young Palestinian activist who just turned 17 on January 31st, and her Mother! (Ahed now faces the possibility of a 10 year sentence for merely defending herself and her family.)
It should also be noted that Palestinians of all ages (including young children) are frequent targets of beatings, other forms of physical and psychological torture, and interrogations without parents or lawyers present in violation of well-established international law.
As I near the conclusion of Part One of this commentary, I have the pleasure of sharing a beautiful letter written by Bassem Tamimi (the father of Ahed), on the occasion of his daughter’s birthday (this past January 31st).
To be able to write you in a moment like this, I had to lay down in your bed. Then, when I rested my head on your little pillow, you recharged my soul; my soul was charged to the brim with gratitude of the memory of your generosity. How can my spirit not be lifted when you were the one who brought the world to a gale like a hurricane, you made it bare itself like a volcano?
My courageous, beautiful, shy and bold little girl – victory is befitting of you as much as joy suits you. My daughter, I am so sorry I could not protect you from the ugliness of the Occupation. I am sorry I left the oranges of Yafa sad and unpeeled, yearning for your touch. You are now surrounded by bars of iron, in a place where time is stale, and freedom and love are non-existent. Yet, it is in that cell that my hope of a better future and the certainty we will achieve it is now placed. You, my ray of hope, are locked in a prison, which is built on the ruins of Imm Khaled, near the shore of our sea. The same Imm Khaled that was ethnically cleansed by the army you slapped.
Ahed, your cell, halfway to Haifa, on the [road] through which we will one day return. There, I imagine myself with you, the sound of my voice resonating from behind the walls – Ahed… Ahed… Ahed… My daughter, the strings of my soul – may each year see you shine brighter with the truth you hold inside. May each year see you stronger, more joyful, and as solid as the rocks that hold back the rage of oceans.
When parents celebrate their children’s birthdays, we try to make them special and unforgettable – worthy of this wondrous occasion. As parents, these days bring a soft and graceful joy to our hearts.
Today is your birthday, but I woke up in the middle of the night, not with excitement, but rather uncomfortable and short of breath. This birthday of yours different than the ones before it. Yes, it is the day you were born in, but you are forcefully kept farther away than I can bear. Still, you are closer to my heart than you could ever imagine.
Today my daughter you are a year wiser, a year filled with an even deeper love for your homeland. Today you enter a year that will be harder than those that preceded it. I dread the thought of your prison nights and the knowledge of their chill.
Prison nights are not like those at home, with us. The commotion of birthday parties is a stark contrast to the loneliness of the prison cell they have you in. I am so sorry. All I want is to gently stroke your golden hair my little girl, as I’ve done since you were a baby; to tenderly embrace you after you blow the 17 candles on your birthday cake, like I have done since you turned one. But how can my longing for you surpass those bars of steel that are now placed between us?
Do not worry Ahed, we will see joy again and celebrate as we always have. I hereby promise, your brothers and I will stand at the gates of prison and sing for you and your mother’s freedom. We will demand the freedom of all those imprisoned unjustly; we will demand freedom for all free spirits. And you and your mother will sing with us, and pound on the prison walls with your mighty power.
Tonight we will celebrate your birthday by showing the world that no matter what happens, we celebrate life. We teach life. We love life and will not let this love be squashed. Never.
But until this evening comes when we celebrate together as a family, I wish you to stay strong and resilient. I know the soldiers may come at midnight, shackle you, and drag you through another interrogation session. If you can dress warmly, put on an extra shirt, because they will do their best to take away the warmth. Every room they will put you in, every military vehicle, will be freezing cold, on purpose. But I know I need not worry. I know how warm your soul is. You shouldn’t be, you really shouldn’t be, my little girl, but I know that you can take whatever darkness and coldness they try to torture you with.
Whatever decision it will make, the Israeli military court you will be tried in will not give you justice. These courts were not built to bring justice, these judges do not desire justice, they were built in a realm outside of humanity. 99% of those who stand before them are found guilty. But these are all just the symptoms of the illness – even if you are acquitted, these courts cannot ever be a tool of justice, since they are just another cog in the machine of military occupation. Colonialism and the basic values of mankind will never cross paths. The Occupation can never intersect with freedom, justice, and dignity.
Humanity is beautiful. It paints life with a brush of grace and endows it with beauty. The occupation is ugly, and it is made to disfigure the face of humanity. My daughter, free people do not get lost in their own narcissism, for none of us alone are anything if we do not connect to a deeper purpose and do not dedicate ourselves to positive action. It is through our deep connection, purpose, and action that we move from the solitary conditions of our birth to the real meaning and preciousness that the world has to offer. It is this awareness that allows humanity collective consciousness. You, my little girl, have tapped into that consciousness of all humanity.
They take you to trial because they want to kill that sense of humanity that is in you; they want to destroy your sense of collective struggle for a better world. It is too dangerous for them to handle. Believe it or not, they are even trying to take away your youth saying that, as you turn 17, you are a child no more. And I ask, does your childhood take a different path than you yourself on the day of 17, or does your childhood have a little more time to play in the orchards of youth and enjoy the last of your school days in peace?
Israel’s experts in immoral law may freely deliberate the unlawfulness of the slap served to their fully armed soldier by a girl; a slap that shattered their military manliness and put their fragile institutions at risk of collapse. Let them. Care not about their immoral military laws, for these laws are outside of the confines of humanity.
My little angel… Do not bother yourself with the words of those who trade in politics and religion like merchants in the market. Religious men, pious in their own eyes, want to discuss your hair in order to take attention away from your struggle and its legitimacy. The indoctrinated, unadulterated in their own eyes, do not recognize the humanity and truth in anyone who does not blindly plead loyalty to their dogmas.
Then there are those who are always absent; the ones who refuse to take a stance for that which is right, who shiver at the idea of standing up in the face of oppression. They refuse to confront brutality, and those who struggle for freedom, like you, tear off their masks to show them for what they are.
Don’t worry about those who criticize you now, my little girl. Your bravery has turned you into a lightning rod and those who fear that their own hypocrisy will be revealed want to hide by hurting you. All their criticism of you is made up so that they can continue to hide behind their fears. They know, it is your courage that has reminded everyone – the emperor has no clothes.
Here you stand before the world – like days past and days to come – full of truth because you were raised to be honest with yourself and others, and you have learned from our land and history that true freedom comes from having agency. It comes from being willing to challenge fear, time and time again. To refuse to give up your dignity.
Now your tiny slap has shaken their mighty blood thirsty military to the core and shattered their symbolic deterrence. Your own personal truth is our truth, the truth of our historical and human struggle to stay on this land. It challenges the false narratives they have, about us and of themselves.
Your truth now carries with it a whole generation that has refused to surrender to oppression, a generation that will continue to fight for its freedom. Your truth shines through because you stood up for your community and your homeland and those you love. You refused to belong to anything but yourself and Palestine.
Your truth is purer than ever, because in our day and age in Palestine, those who are pure can be found in two places, either as political prisoners on the edge of freedom, or as martyrs who have been taken from us and are now watching us in heaven. Your truth is now a beacon of hope for people around the world that have chosen to resist oppression instead of succumbing to it.
Do not worry, my little daughter – your freedom, as is the end of the Occupation is near, and those who stood against our freedom – the hypocrites and extremists and cowards – will not be left with nothing but disappointment when history is written.
When I return home tonight, I will go to your room with your brothers and we will light a candle for you, and feel your presence with us, chanting that you are our “Ahed”, our promise for a better world. Like an Olive Tree grounded in the earth.
Your mother is waiting for you back in prison. If you get to see her, please hug her for me, and celebrate your birthday together with us in your hearts. And if you are kept alone until dawn in their metal boxes, just take a seat on the saddle of hope, rise up on the horse of courage you have imagined since you were a little girl. Do not pay attention to those who want to deceive and hurt you, just look at the sun rise from the small hatch and shine your smile back at it, for it is your smile that will bring us towards a brighter future.
I miss you Ahed, but I say happy birthday. May every year that comes make you stronger. May you always be full of love and bursting with truth.
Your loving father.
(This letter came to my attention courtesy of the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network.)
On a final note, it has come to my attention that U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum has reportedly introduced legislation titled, Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Detention of Palestinian Children Act. The stated aim of this legislation is to prevent the use of U.S. tax dollars for the Israeli military’s ongoing mistreatment of Palestinian children.
To be continued.
El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalakhan is a Metropolitan Washington, DC-based human rights advocate. He serves as Director of Operations for The Aafia Foundation, Inc.