On Wednesday afternoon, as lawmakers and journalists fixated on efforts to censure Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) for saying political influence made American politicians unduly loyal to Israel and afraid of criticizing its policies, 15-year-old Saif A-Din Abu Zaied lay dying in a Gaza hospital after being shot in the head by Israeli soldiers.
Zaied and other Palestinians didn’t get a mention in the resolution Democratic leadership pushed through the next day that condemned various forms of hate, including anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism. And the discussion of Omar’s comments ended up mostly being about America’s national conversation: What’s really shaping policy toward Israel if it’s not, as the congresswoman once claimed, “all about the Benjamins” and how this country has, from the Oval Office on down, kept alive the bigotry she’s accused of invoking.
That left the underlying human rights crisis as overlooked as Omar suggested. “Nobody ever gets to have the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine,” she said last week at the bookstore appearance where she sparked her latest controversy.
So, in the spirit of refocusing a smidgen of the sudden attention to U.S.-Israel relations to the millions whose lives are affected by them on a daily basis, consider the news out of Palestine ― the West Bank, globally considered illegally occupied by Israel since 1967, and Gaza, which Israel has cut off from the outside world since the militant group Hamas took over in 2007 ― since Omar spoke.
(The U.S. today has effectively no relationship with internationally recognized Palestinian leaders as a result of President Donald Trump declaring the disputed city of Jerusalem the capital of Israel, cutting off nearly all American aid and closing their Washington mission.)
The day after Omar’s remarks, the United Nations concluded that Israel had violated international law and potentially committed war crimes by responding to a fresh wave of Gaza protests in 2018 by killing 189 Palestinians, including 35 children, three clearly marked paramedics and two clearly marked journalists, and injuring thousands. U.N. investigators noted one death of an Israeli soldier and injuries to eight others but rejected the government’s claims that the rallies ― aimed at Israel’s blockade of Gaza and refusal to let over a million registered refugees there return to their historic homes ― were overall a military operation.
The next day, Israeli forces again shot at demonstrators at the fence between the country and the Gaza Strip, wounding 17. Some protesters involved in the new “Great March of Return” campaign that began March 30, 2018, have used stones and devices like incendiary kites, but their leaders have urged peaceful activism, and Israeli forces have in many cases attacked people too far from the fence to cause harm.
A new week began with a fresh blow: The U.S. on March 4 shut down the consulate it maintained for decades to deal with the Palestinians, folding it into the new embassy to Israel. The move further undermined the prospects of a lasting, just peace and signaled how little the Trump administration values Palestinian claims or concerns about Israeli behavior in the dispute between the two nations, former negotiators said.
On Tuesday, a group of Israeli settlers in the West Bank attacked a school, wounding a child and damaging several teachers’ cars in the 11th assault on the facility, the Palestinian news agency Maan reported. Violence by settlers ― Israelis who move into areas generally considered part of a future state of Palestine and establish permanent homes ― has increased dramatically in recent months amid Israeli anger over Palestinian attacks and an apparent decline in Israeli authorities’ desire to rein in what they call “Jewish terror.” The U.N. says the settlers’ violence has killed one Palestinian and wounded 14 so far this year.
Wednesday brought an Israeli shutdown of water supplies for 2,600 Palestinians, per Maan, and the nighttime clash on the Gaza border that killed Zaied. The military ― which receives more than $3 billion in U.S. aid per year ― then launched airstrikes into Gaza, one of the poorest areas in the world, hours later in response to the launch of armed balloons and a rocket into Israel.
On Friday, Israeli forces killed another Palestinian protester. Stateside, the media and political attention to Omar ― and, with it, the news peg to talk about the issues she raised ― began to fade.
Tacitly accepting a status quo in which rights are violated regularly with massive support from the U.S. is, after all, the norm when it comes to Israel and Palestine. It’s what has allowed steady changes, like an uptick in Israeli settlements, and permitted that strategy of expansion to use cynical means to gain more legitimacy by, for instance, selling an opportunity for Americans to profit and have a good time. Airbnb, Expedia and other travel giants are now drawing vacationers to visit some of the disputed regions, Amnesty International recently reported. “This is an illegal practice [but]… tourists are pouring into these areas,” the group’s Philippe Nassif said.
And it’s how the daily injustices in the West Bank and Gaza become so normalized that they’re rarely even mentioned now in coverage that does talk about flare-ups in violence or political shifts. Under the occupation, Palestinians have to travel miles out of their way to avoid the lengthy, potentially violent process of trying to get through settlements and can frequently face sudden lockdowns of their towns or other intimidation from soldiers that they’ve got little chance to complain about since courts are deferential to the Israeli security forces, Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch told HuffPost. In Gaza, people’s lives are “on hold,” he added, because of how tightly Israel and Egypt limit the ability to leave to study, work or see loved ones, and basics like electricity and water are in short supply.
Amid the suffering inflicted by Israel, Palestinians find little recourse from their own leadership. Neither Hamas nor the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank has much appetite for popular representation or questioning of their rule. “If you criticize corruption on your Facebook page or if you’re a journalist who tries to write about this, you’re at risk of not only being arrested but being tortured, whether or not you’re ever charged,” Goldstein said. Because of the stasis in the peace process, which lets them redirect Palestinian anger to Israel and the U.S. and argue change could threaten the community’s already-diminished status, the two governing bodies don’t see much incentive in reform.
Omar raised the need to think about what is happening with Palestine. Maybe now her colleagues ― and their millions of constituents less vulnerable to the political pressure she identified ― will try to do something about it.