2018 Palestine Center Annual Conference: Panel 1

Video & Transcript
Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, Zena Agha, Lamis Deek, Josh Ruebner
Transcript No. 513 (November 16, 2018)



Josh Ruebner:
I’d like to thank the Palestine Center for inviting me to speak here this morning. The US Campaign for Palestinian Rights is a national coalition of more than 300 organizations across the country including the Palestine Center as one of our longtime members and supporting organizations, so it’s always good to be back here. Today we’re convening this annual conference of the Palestine Center in the midst of what could be argued as an unprecedented crackdown and repression by the United States against the Palestinian people and against their legitimate rights.

We see this take a myriad number of forms from the cuts to UNRWA, to the ending of bilateral ‘humanitarian assistance’ form USAID, to the closer to the PLO office in Washington DC, to the transfer of the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to the disillusion of the US consulate general in Jerusalem. Which is, actually I believe, one of not the most significant of these trump administration efforts to repress the Palestinian people, even though in many respects has gotten the least attention of the trump administration’s many moves to repress the Palestinian people. And the reason why I believe that’s the case because it marks a very significant policy shift in the way that the United States thinks about its relationships with the Palestinian people.

The US Consulate General actually predated the establishments of the state of Israel by some 80 years and actually predates the establishments of the modern Zionist movement by 20 years. And it’s an institution which is always operated separately and independently from to the US embassy to Tel Aviv to be the reporting channel to listen to the interests of the Palestinian people and report that directly back to Washington DC without the interference of the embassy in Washington. So for the Trump administration to subsume the consul general within this new US embassy in Jerusalem and to create within the US embassy to Israel an office for Palestinian affairs, despite secretary of state Mike Pompeo announcing that this does not affect any so-called permanent status negotiations or positions of the United States, it actually does, because the United states is now articulating that it sees its relationship to the Palestinian people as officially a subset of its relation to Israel.

So why is the Trump administration engaging in all these steps to repress the Palestinian people. In my estimation it’s an attempt, a very heavy-handed attempt, to weaken and soften the Palestinian leadership in an attempt to get it to capitulate to what Trump is euphemistically referred to as the ‘deal of the century’, his plan to establish a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace. Now it should be noted from the leaks and the bits of information about this so-called deal of the century, which have trickled out over the past year or so, that it does differ from details from previous “peace plans”. But that it actually does not fundamentally differ in substance from previous offers made to the Palestinian people, under the Clinton administration, under the George W. Bush administration, under the Barack Obama administration, which were of course all plans pre-coordinated and preconceived between Israel and the United States then attempt to impose on the Palestinian people. So, under this plan the ‘state-minus’ aspects the so-called Palestinian state that would arise are more explicit, more blatant than under previous plans Israel might annex more of the West Bank under this plan than under previous plans but in substance it does not differ fundamentally from previous plans. The plan always was for a state minus, the plan always was for the Palestinian entity not to be sovereign state, not to have an army, not to have an independent foreign policy, not to have any control on its borders, its airspace, its sea lanes. This was always the plan, the Trump administration that made that plan much more explicit. And so, in addition to the repression we’re seeing the trump administration engaged in toward the Palestinian people in the attempt to get them to capitulate US and Israel demands.

We’re also see intense repression facing people who advocate for Palestinian rights within the United States and indeed across the globe. We’re seeing this though the Trump administration in the appointment of Kenneth Marcus to be the assistant secretary for civil rights within the department of education. This is the job within the department of education that looks into allegations of discrimination and bigotry towards students on college campuses and Kenneth Marcus comes to this position from a Zionist organization whose primary and sole mission was to file false allegations of anti-semitism against student organizers for Palestinian rights on campus. In all five or six of the investigations that Kenneth Marcus either filed or conspired to help file, the Department of education threw out these charges being baseless and said that advocating for Palestinian rights constitutes legitimate political expression on campus even if people are uncomfortable with it. What Kenneth Marcus has failed to do from the outside he has been brought into the government by the Trump administration to now accomplish from within, and so already, he was just confirmed a few months ago, he has reopened closed cases into alleged acts of anti-semitism, and he has unilaterally decided that he is going to impose this redefinition of what constitutes as anti-semitism to include legitimate political criticisms of Israel within the orbit of that definition. So that the force of the federal government will come down on student organizers for Palestinian rights who are advocating successfully on their campus to pass boycott and divestment resolutions and to label them anti-semitic for doing so.

This attempt to repress coming from within the Trump administration is coupled with attempts coming from within congress to repress on many different levels, and what i like to do is to point your attention to three pieces of outstanding legislation which may or may not get debated and voted on in the three remaining weeks we have left in this congressional session.

Number one is something called the anti-semitism awareness act, this is a bill that would take what Kenneth Marcus is doing within the department of education and mandate the department of education use of this flawed definition of anti-Jewish bigotry as it stands for adjudicating whether there is bigotry on college campuses. Basically, it would be enshrining in law what Kenneth Marcus is already doing though the department of education.

Number two, I’d like to draw your attention to combating BDS act, which is being is being pushed by senator Marco Rubio in the senate. This a bill that encourage the states and localities to pass the exact same type of laws which have been declared unconstitutional by 2 federal district judges, that in essence, punish people by refusing contracts with the state for supporting boycotts for Palestinian rights.

The third and most draconian of the bills being debated in congress relating to the repression of activism and advocacy for Palestinian rights, is the Israel anti-boycott act. This bill not only seeks to punish and harm people who advocate for Palestinian rights but actually throw them into jail for up to 20 years. This legislation states, if you provide information to or if you advance the international organizations call to boycott Israel or even Israeli settlement products, if you do this you are liable to criminal penalties of up to millions and 20 years in prison. With this amount of outright repression being openly and proudly debated in congress, one might take it as a sign that Israel and its supporters are stronger than ever in this country, but I believe the reverse is actually true because all of this repression is not a sign of strength. You don’t need to engage in repression if you think you are winning, you engage in efforts to repress and silence because you are on the losing side of history, and so I view this as an indication that we collectively are on the right track in advancing Palestinian rights in this country.

Now I would be very bad organizer if I was all doom and gloom and did not leave you with at least a grain of hope, but I actually see much more of a grain of hope, not on the long term horizon but on the short horizon, and let me tell you why I think the repression of the Trump administration, of congress, of Israel is failing in 3 different reasons.

Number one, this direct Trump administration efforts to repress the Palestinian people in order to get them to try to capitulate to US-Israeli demands has backfired. Even the compliance Palestinian Authority which has been so quick to enter into and continuing to perpetuate the charade of negotiations for 25 years, even this attempt to crack down on the PA and to pressure has backfired, with the position taken by the Trump administration being so extreme that PA Mahmoud Abbas has cut off all contact with the administration and the feeling is mutual. No longer do we have a fig leaf of a dialogue, no longer do we have the fig leaf of Israelis and Palestinians sitting down together around the negotiating table. But we have a clear scenario in which it is the United States and Israel which is attempting to dominate and dictate a one-sided outcome, something which was already there but it’s just more obvious to everyone that this is the case.

Number two, the attempts to repress people who are engaged in advocacy for human rights in Palestine rights in the United States has also backfired tremendously and even though you now have the states, about 25 in number, which have passed laws to punish people who support boycotting for Palestinian rights. The negative ramifications and the pushback for engaging this type of blatant behavior to silence out first amendment right to engage in boycotts has been tremendous. So, the fact that you have these laws introduced and passed at the state level and attempts to do at the federal level has brought the American Civil Liberties Union on our side. Clearly defending our right to engage in this type of advocacy in these types of boycotts, and in fact the ACLU, which is arguably one of the most influential civil society organizations in the entire country, has filed and successfully won 2 court cases challenging laws that have attempted to punish people who support boycotting for Palestinian rights and in both cases the federal district judges have for the first time set a precedent, that we have a constitutional First Amendment protected right to engage in boycotts for Palestinian rights and we also see that this repression at the congressional level has mobilized the ACLU to oppose all 3 bills which I alluded to earlier. Placing us in the ACLU in one corner and Israel and its supporters in the opposite side, that’s absolutely a fight I want to have, and I think we could win.

Number three, the identification of the Trump administration not only with Israel but with the extreme right annexation apartheid impulses of the most right-wing government in the history of Israel has not only enabled and continued a process of creating a partisan divide on this issue but it is established a firm partisan divide. Republicans are now the party of Israel and Democrats are the one questioning that relationship and in many upending it. And so, we heard a little bit about results of the midterms, and we could look to innumerable public opinion polls to affirm this yawning chasm between the base of the democratic party and the base of the republican party. We see that there are now thirty-one Democratic members of Congress who are supporting in this current congressional session the first ever bill to advocate for Palestinian rights unabashedly without any mention of Israel’s ‘security’. To say that abusing, interrogating, and in some cases torturing Palestinian children through Israel’s military detention system is wrong, immoral, and no US aid should be used for that purpose. We have a representative elect Rasheed Al Talab, who not only supports a one state resolution but also sanctioning Israel until it ends its human rights abuses against the Palestinian people, and just the other day we had another representative elect Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, not only say that she supports our right to engage in boycott for Palestinian Rights but supports BDS.

These types of developments were unimaginable in Congress even a year ago, and so I believe and if we work smart and if we work hard over the next two years and continue to seed this transformation that is beginning to manifest itself at the grassroots of the democratic party and now up to congress. We will be in a position to create the fundamental transformation that we need to achieve Palestinian rights in 2020. Thank you very much.

Lamis Deek:
I’d like to begin my portion by first and foremost – because I think it’s always important for us to begin at the beginning, which is our people of Palestine – and honoring our fallen heroes in Gaza, especially those who we lost in the weekend and who in their act of what I think is the purest form of love, a not self-interested love, gave their lives to protect the two million people of Gaza who are imprisoned by Israel and who without the resistance are but two million hostages and walking targets of the Israel decolonizing project for ethnic cleansing. In particular the sacrifice of Sheikh Noureddin Baraka, Mustafa Aude, and Mohammed Atari, which brought to Gaza and Palestine a tremendous victory by their discovery of an Israeli military cachet inside of Gaza which preempted a broader massacre, saved countless Palestinian lives, and materially protected the global struggle for peace at which Palestine is most essentially situated and for which Palestine is best poised to push forward.

BDS is our only form of indirect accountability and the Palestinian resistance is the only form of direct accountability and preemption of Israeli violence that Palestinians have and so it’s my hope that we normalize and elevate the Palestinian resistance. Now much like we saw stem from the attacks and violence and massacres and especially the latest, what we see as Josh touched upon in the expanding circumference of the Zionist and Israeli repression and violence even in the US, is an exposure of Israeli weakness, an exposure of Israeli arrogance, in which is an opportunity, and of course an exposure of their desperation. I’ll address the dangerous repression that has plagued first and above all Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims in the United States in which has had consequences far graver than what we see in the academy. I personally join you as a member of an organization perhaps one of the only organizations in the US that has endured and fully and unequivocally defeated some of the most concentrated liquidation counter-intelligence efforts of Zionist and US forces of repression.

I myself was a primary target of this operation, which we deduced over a period of years and which began on the same day the Mavi Marmara was raided and continued until at least 2015. Repression of Palestinians in the US did not begin after 9/11 but was part of US policy for decades. In fact, Nixon’s Operation Boulder of the 70s and the supreme court ruling related to this, that US executive agencies are permitted to implement foreign policy by targeting dual nationals inside the borders of the United States is piece and parcel and the original codification of the right to repress Palestinians and past Palestinians speech. So what Josh was talking about is actually refusal of court policy and pre-existing policies and taken in context is actually a huge victory. Now post 9/11, as many of you know Palestinians, Palestinians organizations, and Palestinian communities were the first and biggest target of the Patriot Act and its exact execution throughout the United States. I was practicing at the time and I had already come to defending the Palestinian community, even before I graduated law school. So, what we were watching were surreal and I mean this, no exaggeration, surreal levels of militant made for TV type of surveillance, case after case that appeared before the courts or the news framed as some big terrorists’ plot were manufactured cases that had been developed and prosecuted at the behest of and in coordination with Israel and Zionist operatives and think tanks right here in DC.

So, it was in these first cases that we first saw, we have to understand how this was all the time, and it was in these cases that we first saw the actual criminalization of speech on Palestine, even before it had reached the legislative effect. It was in the executive agencies both state and federal meant not to just chill speech on Palestine but to terrorize and destroy entire communities in the US and to break their relationship with international networks in support of Palestine. It should’ve been scary at the time, but it got worse. Around the same time, the NYPD in coordination with the CIA, which is not allowed to operate inside US borders, though I caught them doing that several times, and in coordination with Israel, had set up a secret illegal unit operating in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and likely elsewhere that was modeled precisely on network and surveillance and control practices and policies used in the West Bank. So, we had inside the United States, a mechanism modeled and coordinated with the Zionist entity’s practices and policies of controlling, killing, and colonizing people and this was implemented in the United States. Their tactics were so thuggish, so brazen, and so arrogant that it was because of our organization with our ability to decode what they were really doing that not only lead to the dismantlement, for the most part, of this unit but even caused and really succeeded in removing the sacred at the time, police commissioner, Ray Kelly, from his post. Our rag tag operation, which had a budget of anywhere between one and three thousand dollars each year, defeated a multi-million dollar NYPD project with the might of Israel behind it and that is a tremendous victory. I want us to take away from what Josh said and what I’m trying to convey to you – here are a few points:

Number one. We must make sure we study and understand the detailed minutiae of coordination between Israel, the United States, and international forces of repression. An example, at same moment that the Mavi Marmara was being raided, Obama dispatched a team of lawyers and strategists from the United States to Israel to help save Israel from its legal and PR nightmare. On that very same day is when the NYPD sent two undercover agents to infiltrate our organization, which would really deplete our resources, though we defeated them for approximately five years. On the anniversary of Al Nakba, almost every year for a number of years various agencies, federal and state, would parade around a case that involved Palestinians even when it as was blatant lie, it often was a blatant. To the point judges would tell the prosecutors, “What does this have to do with terrorism? This is a regulatory case, this is a criminal case.” But they would parade around so as to criminalize and deplete any resource they could for the commemoration of Al Nakba. This is how detailed the coordination is between New York State, Federal Agencies, and Israel and its important that we understand that there are no coincidences and that we prepare for this.

Number 2. We should know and always keep in mind whenever we’re dealing with any case, that no case that were addressing whether if it is the legislation, the campus cases, the actual the criminal prosecutions, nothing is isolated. This is internationally coordinated on every level and so our approach to this must also be multilayered and cross continental. We saw that in the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-semitism in the UK, not two week later. It’s being used by the Department of Education here. Lastly, in all of this even in the legislation (and) the infiltration that we are very attentive to what’s happening and know that if we employ just a modicum of creativity and courage, we have many gains to be made.

I’m going to use myself as an example. There is nothing particular about me other than I work hard, and I hope that I am very committed to my people here and in Palestine. Because in my practice I’ve lost very few cases, but I take no credit for this. One case I lost and it was reversed on a peer appeal, a political case, another we had to take the offer because it was too good to pass up, and the third was an issue of proportionality. All of the cases that I’ve won in my practice, domestic or international strategizing, were always the result of mistakes made specifically because of government arrogance and they’re kind of getting high on their own power. Like Josh said, in this arrogance are critical opportunities for us to seize. Like I said, our organization three thousand dollars at best our annual budget were able to take down and render useless a multi-million dollar project.

Third. The wholesale unmasking of even the facade of diplomacy and the exposure of Israeli desperation brute violence (and) repression, reveals a deep fear and exposes them. That’s a lot easier to address and push back against than what we saw under the Obama administration, which is this invisible omnipresent kind of unable, you can’t convince people it’s happening. So, for years we were forced to work alone and so it’s an opportunity. I say this to the Riyad Al-Mansour points as well. Yes, the nation state law is horrible, but in this, this is the only time that we are seeing the UN trying to hold Israel accountable for its finally honest admission that it is in fact an apartheid state. Some might think that the closure of the PLO mission is a problem. That’s not my perspective quite frankly, because what I see happening and if you know the conditions of having the PLO mission in DC. I mean they were so horrible that the PLO mission was effectively made hostage. It was controlled by these awful conditions which prevented the PLO mission and thereby the Palestinian Authority from protecting and acting in the interests not just of Palestine, Palestinians in Palestine, but of Palestinians in the US. What does this mean for us? This means for us the peeling of the facade of an administrative layer that serves our interests, opens the door for us to become creative and to take up those spaces and to undo the failures of those conditions of having that mission here based in DC. So, this is a tremendous opportunity. I do not see this as a defeat.

Lastly, for some perspective again and to bring it back to Palestine, in 2014, the entire Palestinian gross domestic product (GDP) was 7.5 billion dollars. In that same year, the Israeli military budget alone was 23.5 billion dollars, excluding another 3 and a half in direct military aid from the US. So, 7.5 billion Palestinian GDP to 26 to 27 billion just on military, spent on the starved, besieged, occupation, and still the resistance in Palestine, the resistance in Gaza, not only defeated them strategically and militarily but politically and psychologically won hearts of masses across the world. If they are able to do this, we are capable of so much more. All we need is some courage, some commitment, and some elbow grease. No cause and no case have ever been won by the timid.

In closing, to bring it back to the great return March, it is unfortunately a failure of our negotiators that for 70 years we have left the Palestinian right to return as a footnote. In post Oslo having it as that footnote is what has really defeated you know strategic gains for Palestinian return and liberation. What we saw the great return march do just in the past five months, was more productive and more materially beneficial to Palestinian return. Again, I say in real direct material ways, therefore, more beneficial to the struggle for global and regional peace and stability then people in DC, London, and Ramallah would have been able to do
for 50 years. So, we are not to underestimate the importance of this moment. We do not need to revive a resolution 242. We need our people to lead the way and for us to follow and support them. I thank you and I hope to add more later.

Zena Agha:
Thank you very much everyone for coming, thank you for the Palestine Center for organizing your annual conference. I was here last year, so it’s nice to be back and see the same event happen again with such gusto, and thank you to Lamis and to Josh and to Salman for joining us on this panel. My name is Zena Agha I’m the US Policy Fellow at Al-Shabaka: the
Palestinian Policy Network and we aim to advocate for Palestinian rights within international law. Our network is spread all over the world, and I’m very happy to say that a few members of the panel are here today, as part of Al-Shabaka. Although my areas of expertise do lie in settlements in spatial and mapping practices, lately I’ve been completely consumed by what’s been happening with UNRWA and with the cuts to refugees and the threats to the right of return. I think if you’ll indulge me, I want to spend the time that I have exploring that subject, because I think if we’re not careful, and if we don’t mobilize around, it really will pass us by.

As my co-presenters have demonstrated, it’s clear that the top of the Trump administration has a very close ties with the right-wing nativist government. We’re seeing in Israel and has given a green light in unprecedented ways, we saw this in Jerusalem, of course, we saw this with the green light settlements including many settlers and pro-settlement advocates who are actually in the administration itself which is unprecedented. Israel really has a green light to act as it police’s in a way than it never has before, but I think it’s important to also stress that this isn’t a break with the past in as much as a deterioration of a pre-existing condition. The Trump administration is perhaps just more open and more naked in its approach to vilifying Palestinian rights, but it wasn’t the first to come out with a policy for attacking Palestinians. This has been a long-standing approach by Western governments, particularly the United States, in shutting down Palestinian claims for sovereignty, for return, (and) for self-determination. The latest casualties of Trump’s attacks of course have been the Palestinian refugees, and before I go on and talk about the details, I have a central point and I think it’s very clear that this comes across. Let it be perfectly clear that underlying all of these political mastications, this is an attempt at depriving Palestinians of their inalienable right to return to their historic homeland and therefore do away with their claims of millions of Palestinian refugees worldwide to a court in political limbo and have been for the last seven decades.

UNRWA, which is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is UN body designed to deal with Palestinian refugees was founded in 1949, the year after the State of Israel was created, to deal with some 750,000 Palestinian refugees who were recently expelled or displaced from their homelands and who were forbidden from returning. They spilled over into neighboring countries, today that number has grown to 5.3 million registered Palestinian refugees: in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank, in Jerusalem. That’s within historic Palestine or Palestine Israel but also in Syria, in Lebanon, in Jordan, and really all over the world. UNRWA as an organization provides much-needed health care, food, education, and vital services which really are indispensable to the Palestinian refugees. Palestinians are some of the most educated demographics in the region, Palestine has more university graduates than any other Arab state and this is largely in thanks to the robust education system that UNRWA
has in place. I think it’s important to also stress that the relationship with UNRWA has never been a rosy one and I think in defending UNRWA as I am today, as I hope many people in this room are, it’s important to flag that unparalleled support really isn’t what we’re asking for here. Nobody likes to be dependent on aid, least of all Palestinians, in the way if one were to hear the remarks and the support that Trump and Haley have attacked on UNRWA. You would really think Palestinians relish being on aid and they would relish the fact that they cannot return to their homelands and that they should be grateful for the pittance that they have been given. Of course, the relationship between Palestinians and UNRWA, the UN body tasked with caring for them, has always been necessary but uneasy and I think this is something that is important to remember as we as we’re critical UNRWA but also as we work to defend UNRWA. It has for all intents and purposes become a welfare government in exile, it doesn’t have no political mandate, but it provides all the services that our welfare state would. Of course, prior to the PLO’s assumption of leadership in the mid-1960s, it really did operate as a state for Palestinians to advocate for their rights. Today however, UNRWA operates as a versatile, diverse, (and) robust political entity, the fact of the matter remains as there is no alternative to UNRWA, the size, the scale, and the funds UNRWA operates has really nothing to compete with it. Just take for example that 70percent of Palestinians in Gaza rely on UNRWA for support and bearing in mind that of the two million people trapped in Gaza 1.8 million of them are refugees, one starts to understand the scale of the problem.

Now of course as many of you aware, the Trump administration on the 31st of August of this year decided to cut all aid and all funding that they provide to UNRWA, bearing in mind that they had been up until this point the largest donor to UNRWA. Describing it as an irredeemable flawed operation in the press briefing and cut what would amount to 300 million dollars from the organization, roughly 30 percent of its overall budget, leaving the organization scrambling and really putting at risk the lives of refugees not in an esoteric way but tangibly. Hospitals are no longer able to provide for Palestinian refugees, schools might not be able to reopen come the start of the new semester, very real term profound impacts on the day-to-day existence of refugees were already so squeezed and, in many cases, so desperate. As far as the US and Israel is concerned, the crime of Unruh is to perpetuate the refugee issue or crisis and validate the right of return to Palestinian refugees. They do this, according to Israel in the US, by granting descendants refugee status. So, if one was displaced in 1948, their kids and their descendants would also be considered Palestinian refugees with the same rights that international refugees worldwide are recorded and upheld under international law. This isn’t an uncommon practice places with protracted conflicts have always had this sort of practice; Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan. I can go on.

Now the administration has devised a very clumsy and reckless way of dealing with this and, in many ways, it epitomizes the Trump administration’s approach to dealing with issues that it cannot solve. Instead of actually going to the root of the problem, facing it at face value and dealing with it, what they’ve done is they’ve done some this gerrymandering, this demographic manipulation, whereby only those surviving refugees get awarded or given refugee status. That is to say of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees who were displaced during the Nakba or the loss of the Palestinian homeland in 1948, it’s estimated that about twenty to thirty thousand of them are still living. A number significantly smaller than the 5.3 million registered refugees. The theory goes that if you gave these twenty to thirty thousand Palestinian refugees many of whom will die over the next decade or two just with the passage of time. You can redirect money away from UNRWA and give it to the host nations that is to say Syria, Lebanon, Jordan for resettlement or assimilation, and therefore do away with the idea of Palestinian need for return and Palestinian political claims and of course it does all center on a political grievance. The Trump administration isn’t as concerned with Palestinian health care, public health, or public education in as much as the political legitimacy of the Palestinian cause itself, which as Trump often talks about does not go away. But what a Trump and his ilk have fundamentally done is misdiagnosed UNRWA as the source rather than the product of the refugee reality and I think this is the really pivotal point here. Palestinian refugees will remain whether or not UNRWA is there to deal with them or to care for them and rebranding Palestinian refugees doesn’t stop them from being refugees which is a Status enshrined in international law and UN resolutions like UN resolution 194 which gives the right of return. The UN did a very good job of fleshing this out in a recent policy paper which came out last week, highlighting that one; UNRWA has not and cannot changed the definition of a Palestinian refugee, two you can absent honor about Palestinian refugees would still exist, and three both UNRWA and UNHCR recognized descendants as refugees.

What Washington fails to grasp is the route of the Palestinian grievance and I think this political moment that we’re in that Josh and Lamis have touched upon opens the door for this for these sorts of conversations. The Trump administration can continue to meddle with the semantics of the refugee status and try to bleed the resources from the institutions that sustain refugees, but the Palestinians demand remained unshakeable unforgettable and very very clear. They were displaced from the lands from which they came, and they demand to return to them. In such a circumstance Trump is merely shooting the messenger, by going off to UNRWA this really isn’t doing away with Palestinian refugees at all. It’s just pushing it under the rug and making Palestinians yet more at risk and more dependent on an international body which for the last seventy years it has no choice but to work with. Which really brings me up to this political moment that we’re in and I think this is something I just want to spend some time exploring and I hope that we can speak a bit more about this in Q&A; but how are we to understand this political moment that we’re in. The status quo from all sides have reasoned that the status quo is very very untenable. The two-state solution is a bit null now, I know that that is contradictory to some of the other speakers here today but that’s certainly my position, and my personal belief is that we should take this horrific cut to refugees as a rallying cry for shedding light on the Palestinian right of return. If we were to take Gaza alone just as an example, not only because it’s been in the news, but I think it’s perhaps the most illustrious case of what I’m talking about.

The fact that a tiny strip has been under siege for the last 11 years is preposterous, there needs to be an honest conversation about the blockade, no longer is there a conversation about providing fishermen with more nautical miles or negotiating a botched ceasefire or you know providing cancer patients with care. Of course, our stuff is of pivotal importance, but I think it’s important for us, particularly sitting in the West, to take a step back and look more holistic picture. Why is there still a siege in place, and why do Palestinian refugees still not have the right of return from the lands which they came. Since the pro-Israel side of the debate has been very clear Palestinians cannot and will not return to their land, this a political moment for us to say, actually no, the right of the return is instrumental to understanding Palestinian liberation, Palestinian emancipation and Palestinian sense of self and sense of statehood.

So yes, the right of return is the central pillar of Palestinian liberation and I think it’s high time that we listen to that message. I say this not because we are the ones or Washington is the one that decides many of these things, but Palestinians themselves have been saying this, it’s just high time that we listen to them and I’m talking in particular here of the great march of return, which has been going on since Land day in March. Week on week Palestinians have walked up to the arbitrary border fence which separates them from the historic homeland, have been met with live ammunition with disproportionate force to over 200 of which have died, numbers still rising, and 20,000 Palestinians have maimed particularly in injuries to the legs which permanently disables Palestinians. They titled that the Great March of return, for them return has never been a question, a contentious, or a polemical issue has been at the forefront of Palestinians demands, they recognize the state of Israel as their historic homeland and they’ve articulated a peaceful resistance movement which directly targets it. In case there was any ambiguity they’ve called it the March of Return, so I think it’s high time that instead of us here as commentators thinking about the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day reality and we could alleviate it and how can we can make incremental gains. I think it’s time we re-center Right of Return as the central pillar of Palestinian identity and liberation, but also understand that Palestinians themselves have been leading the movement for the last 70 years both in Palestine/Israel, in the region, and abroad, it’s just the question of listening to those demands.

Palestinians have never given up the right to return to their historic homeland and that I think is something that in this political movement that we’re in, as heinous as the current administration it has provided an opportunity for us to actually have a frank conversation and say, right we are at this political juncture and it’s high time we have a conversation about the right of return is not an appendix to any future settlements, it’s not an appendix to Palestinian liberation, it’s at the forefront of the Palestinians claims.

In closing, I just have a few recommendations since we work in policy, it’s always nice to end with some recommendations even if they never bear fruit. The first is that civil society members, many of whom are in the room today, should raise awareness of bill that fundamentally threaten Palestinian rights, and Josh did a very good job of highlighting 3 that are targeting Palestinians right now. It’s time we make politicians accountable to these things and this is something that the pro-Israel lobbyists know very well, it’s a single-issue organization and they say we mobilize politically around this one issue. It’s high time that pro-Palestinian supporters actually adopt a similar practice, whereby say, you’re accountable to us and our demands are X, and making sure that our politicians let take heed and that there’s a political price that comes with one supporting Palestinian rights. I think seeds of hope, but a lot of Democrats taking in the house last week, particularly a few members of the progressive candidates who will now walk the corridors of power and start to speak a bit more vocally, which we’ve already see with Ilhan Omar, and shed light on these very crucial issues. We’re starting to see a change, I think it’s important not to over labor it but just recognize that there are seeds of change. Second, critical members of Congress and civil society should keep a close eye on Trump’s policy toward settlements and I say this because Trump has done a very good job of putting pro-settlement advocates like David Freedman and other right at the forefront of his administration both in terms of making them ambassadors, giving them high-profile positions hiring his son-in-law to be his special advisor. There are strong links not just with the Israeli government which is which in itself is quite a shocking situation but actually also to the settlement movement, so we should keep a close eye on the settlements in so far what the Trump administration seeks to do simultaneously take it off the table and legitimize what’s already been done. Third and perhaps most obviously, nation states should continue to fund UNRWA at all costs and make sure that the organization doesn’t sink and doesn’t become completely overwhelmed. UNRWA for better or worse employs a vast number of Palestinians, many of whom rely on it for their livelihood, and until there has been a just and lasting peace, UNRWA shouldn’t go anywhere.