Solidarity protest in New York City, November 25 2018. Credit: Nora Lester Murad. All rights reserved.
A photograph of Maria Virginia Duarte sits on my desk, and as I watch the coverage of the migrant caravan approaching the US border I think about her again. Maria arrived in the United States without documents from El Salvador in in the early 1970s. She became part of my family, and when I had my first daughter Maria dipped her finger in a cup of coffee and put it in my baby’s mouth (apparently in El Salvador that’s considered good for babies).
In 1986, Maria was one of the almost three million “illegal aliens” granted amnesty by Ronald Reagan, and she no longer needed to live in hiding. When she and her sister decided to visit El Salvador for the first time since they had escaped, I went with them. I met their relatives on both sides of the brutal civil war that took the lives of 75,000 people between 1980 and 1992. I took rickety buses on narrow, unpaved mountain roads to visit relatives who had no water, sewage or electricity. I was in the marketplace when in the blink of an eye, all the young boys disappeared into shops and houses just minutes before government forces marched around the corner to “recruit” child soldiers.
Nearly four decades later, Central Americans continue to risk their lives to escape conditions caused in great part by US foreign policy, only to find themselves unwelcome in the oft-touted “land of immigrants.” But something feels different this time around. Individuals and families are marching together. It is not ‘merely’ that thousands of scared people are risking their lives to stay alive as we have seen in the exodus from Syria. It is also a protest of sorts, a refusal to comply, and it’s being met not only with humanitarian aid but with political solidarity.
It might just be me, influenced by 35 years of being married into a Palestinian family including 13 years living under Israeli military occupation, but no matter how they are portrayed in the media, the Central American caravan and Gaza’s Great Return March feel to me like a convergence. Regular people are taking brave steps, inspiring others to join, and building community while claiming freedom.
Today’s protests stand firmly on generations of resistance. They are parts of movements, cultivated over decades out of smaller attempts and in response to increasing repression that has made clear to people that freedom is claimed not granted. And our claims for freedom must be global.
Of course there are many differences in the situations of the Palestinians in Gaza and the Central Americans on the caravan, but there are also a surprising number of similarities. The Central Americans are running away from their homelands to find refuge in the United States. They are challenging the borders that prevent them from living in safety with respect for their human rights. The Palestinians in Gaza are running towards their homeland and challenging the blockade of a “border” that illegally prevents two million people from returning (1.3 million of whom are documented refugees).
The Central Americans are seeking the legal status of asylum, which is part of refugee law, while in Gaza, legally-recognized refugees are denied their right of return. In both cases, the US and Israel distort the law in an attempt to claim that the relevant protections don’t apply.
For example, the US government portrays Central Americans not as asylum seekers but as migrants – people who choose to move “not because of a direct threat to life or freedom, but in order to find work, for education, family reunion, or other personal reasons,” as the UN puts it. This enables the authorities to evoke their rights as sovereign states to deny entry across their borders, and say that caravan participants should apply using existing immigration procedures or face deportation. In fact, Trump has repeatedly called them “invaders,” subject to a security rather than a humanitarian response.
This is nearly identical to Israel’s portrayal of the Gaza protesters. They are deemed a security risk to Israel, criminal, and not subject to any rights and protections – certainly not the right to return to their homeland, the right to protest to secure their human rights, or the right to international protection from a belligerent occupying power.
In fact, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency:
“State responsibility starts with addressing root causes of forced displacement. Strengthening the rule of law and providing citizens with security, justice, and equal opportunities are crucial to breaking the cycles of violence, abuse and discrimination that can lead to displacement.”
Yet in both cases, the US and its allies have not fulfilled their obligations to prevent displacement. Instead, they have invested in funding conflicts and then erecting obstacles to rights-claiming by those who are displaced as a result. Israel constructed an Apartheid Wall that has been deemed illegal; Trump is trying to construct a similar wall along the US-Mexico border, even citing the Israeli wall as a model.
One mechanism used in both cases is the outsourcing of foreign policy enforcement, often paid for with foreign aid. Israel outsources enforcement to the Palestinian Authority (paid for by international donors), while the US has outsourced enforcement to Mexico, again paid for with aid.
In both cases, governments and multilateral organizations are complicit in the violation of human rights. The most obvious example is the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM), ostensibly created to facilitate the reconstruction of Gaza after the 2014 Israeli attack by putting the United Nations in charge of vetting materials and beneficiaries using Israeli-approved criteria.
In my own research I found that the GRM potentially legalizes the perpetuation of a wrongful act (the blockade of Gaza), and also potentially enables the perpetuation of violations by Israel, while the United Nations did not follow a correct process in becoming a legal party to the GRM agreement and inaccurately portrayed its role as a mere facilitator. In addition, the UN and other parties failed to fulfill their legal obligation of due diligence to ensure that the GRM agreement did not violate human rights, and the agreement appears unbalanced in assigning rights and responsibilities in Israel’s favor, while obligations are borne by the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority. Finally, the GRM potentially compromises the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, humanity and independence (for example, by allowing Israel a veto power over aid beneficiaries).
It doesn’t take much digging to uncover the shameful failure of international organizations to protect the rights of Central Americans too. A recent article in an official United Nations news source reported that the “Secretary-General António Guterres was urging all parties to abide by international law, including the principle of ‘full respect for countries’ rights to manage their own borders.’” The failure to prioritize the protection of displaced Central Americans, Palestinians, Syrians, Rohingya, Afghanis, South Sudanese, Somalis and so many more demonstrates that an ongoing battle between human rights and states rights is at play - an existential fight to realize or crush the aspirational potential of international law and global governance.
When the declaration of a “humanitarian situation” becomes a justification for a military build-up, checkpoints, and the collection of personal information that threatens security (as in both these cases), people increasingly recognize that this as a rhetorical slight-of-hand. When Donald Trump says that Central American migrants who throw stones would be shot, a policy almost identical to Netanyahu’s stance against Palestinian rock throwers, people see what they are up against: this cadre of power-mongers intend to criminalize communities that seek to protect human beings from the unconstrained power of militarized states.
But people like Maria Duarte and my friends in Gaza have no intention of giving up, nor of succumbing to the cowardly strategy of divide-and-conquer. Like the generations of activists on whose achievements we stand today, we will respond by recognizing the parallels and similarities in our struggles and in our aspirations for a safe place to live with dignity, and call home.
Nora Lester Murad’s new book is “Rest in My Shade, a poem about roots,” co-authored with Danna Masad and published by Interlink Books with support from the Palestine Museum US. More information at https://www.restinmyshade.com.