North Africa, West Asia: Feature

What do Black Lives Matter and Palestine solidarity have in common?

On the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, it is hard not to draw comparisons between Black Lives Matter and growing international solidarity with the Palestinians

Sharmeen Ziauddin
25 May 2021, 12.00am
Palestinian artist Ayman al-Hasari paints a mural of African-American George Floyd on a wall in Gaza City
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ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

For the past two weeks, social media platforms have been awash with solidarity posts about the Palestinian struggle. As we mark the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, it is hard not to draw comparisons with the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the impact it had on the growing international solidarity with the Palestinians.

For 11 days, the world looked on to see death and destruction descend upon Palestinians. Some 248 Palestinians have reportedly been killed, among them 66 children, and more than 1,900 have been injured in Israel’s most recent offensive on the besieged and impoverished Gaza Strip. On the Israeli side, 12 civilians and one soldier were killed. In the bleakness of the past two weeks, since Israeli police attacked worshipers in Al-Aqsa mosque on 8 May, Palestinians have sought comfort from global support. Not necessarily from world leaders, but from ordinary people protesting and using social media to spread awareness.

It started with protesting the forced expulsion of Palestinian residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. The residents’ case gained worldwide attention due to the campaigning of young Jerusalemites, who spread the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah, despite Israel desperately trying to keep the media’s attention on Hamas.

“Palestinians are in awe. The solidarity is appreciated,” said Ziad Al-Qattan, a 26-year-old Palestinian writer from London. “What’s amazing is that every city in the UK was out protesting, it wasn’t just one or two protests. The march on Saturday in London was amazing, I have never seen anything like it.

The UK witnessed mass protests across many cities over the last two weekends, including London, where organisers said more than 180,000 people attended a rally in Hyde Park on Saturday. The Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, along with other organisations, called for the British government to impose sanctions on Israel.

“This whole series of events has breathed life into our national movement which for so long has felt dead and stagnant,” said Al-Qattan.

Let’s talk about colonialism

Unfortunately, Black communities in the US and the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation have a lot in common. Colonisation, police brutality and discrimination are just some of issues they face.

Could this be a chance for change for Palestinians who have endured aggression from consecutive Israeli governments? The ambition might be overly optimistic, but the BLM movement started the conversation about colonisation, oppression and justice in a capacity that has not been seen before.

Following the murder of George Floyd and the global BLM protests that ensued, people realised that the status quo on racial equality had to change

Amin Husain, a core organiser for Decolonize This Place, a movement in New York City, thinks that BLM has “undeniably helped the Palestinian cause”.

He said: “The BLM movement has cracked a certain ceiling around radical politics. Once you start talking about Black freedom and Black liberation, you are talking about something that is not meant to be talked about. During that you open up space for Palestinian freedom.”

Across the world, white and non-Black people of colour actively engaged in supporting the BLM movement, and big corporate companies offered support and solidarity, as well as money and pledges to change.

In the weeks after George Floyd’s death, BLM content regularly went viral on social media, and in the past weeks we have seen a similar trend with Palestine solidarity content, if not on the same scale.

For those wanting to learn about Palestine it is important to know its history and the ties it has to colonialism. The letter sent to Lord Rothschild by the then British foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, in 1917, known as the Balfour Declaration, pledging Palestine as a home for Jewish people, is key to understanding the current crisis.

“I think there is now an appetite to learn about British colonialism. For some reason people seem to forget that Palestine is part of that story. The UK promising to give a place away that it did not own, had no right to give away, set us on this disastrous course that we are in now. The UK bears some responsibility,” said Al-Qattan.

A new vocabulary

Following the murder of George Floyd and the global BLM protests that ensued, people realised that the status quo on racial equality had to change. And with social media flooded with posts and stories about BLM, there was a renewed hope for that change.

“There are concepts and ideas embedded within BLM that are helping people to understand a bit more deeply what Palestinians are experiencing. I think people are understanding, not just about Gaza but about the entire regime of oppression which dominates all Palestinian communities wherever they are,” explained Al-Qattan.

The BLM movement ignited a passion in people globally that has seldom been seen before. Palestinians, like most communities across the world, also came out to support BLM.

Colonialism and systemic racism are part of regular vocabulary now and the same language is being used to fight for the freedom of Palestinians. Words like genocide and apartheid are openly used to describe Israel’s treatment of not only Palestinians in the Occupied Territories but Palestinian citizens of Israel too.

In a tweet, the Black Lives Matter organisation expressed its support for Palestinians and said: “We are a movement committed to ending settler colonialism in all forms and will continue to advocate for Palestinian liberation. (Always have. And always will be).”

The biggest obstacle in publicly supporting the Palestinian cause is people’s fear of being accused of antisemitism

A Human Rights Watch report, published in April, concluded that Israeli authorities are committing crimes of apartheid and persecution, and recommended targeted sanctions against Israel. This is on par with what Palestinians are fighting for.

“BLM was not just protesting George Floyd’s murder or one incident of police brutality. Protesters were saying there is a whole system to dismantle,” said Al-Qattan. “This is about dismantling a whole system of apartheid. We don’t just want protests, we want it to result in concrete change. We need accountability and we need sanctions.”

Silencing Palestinians

While the BLM movement was accepted in the mainstream and promoted freely across social media, the same cannot be said for the Palestinian struggle.

Activists are facing censorship on platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Al-Qattan and many others have had their posts deleted or removed without any explanation.

It is not the first time there has been collusion between Israel and social media companies. In a bid to silence Palestinian voices, the Israeli government has pressured Facebook in the past to remove anti-Israeli content. But supporters are resorting to changing spellings on hashtags so that their posts are not hidden or deleted.

The biggest obstacle in publicly supporting the Palestinian cause is people’s fear of being accused of antisemitism. “The atmosphere of fear is directly connected to the weaponization of antisemitism through the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition, which says it is antisemitic to describe [the existence of] Israel as a racist endeavour,” says Al-Qattan. “It is putting people in a bind because in front of your eyes you are seeing something that can only be described as racism. This fear is preventing this from growing into a scale that we saw with BLM.”

Celebrities such as Lewis Hamilton and Rihanna posted messages showing concern for Palestinians but swiftly deleted them. There were also calls for those who spoke up for BLM, influencers and celebrities alike, to speak up for Palestinian oppression too.

The silencing goes as far as the bombing of the Al-Jazeera and the Associated Press’s premises in Gaza, and other attacks on journalists and media, which showed the impunity with which the Israeli government operates.

With a ceasefire called on Friday, for Palestinians the struggle will continue even though the bombs have stopped falling. It is up to the world to keep caring and showing the Palestinians that their lives matter too.

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