By Parag Dass
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is characterised by an existential fight for historical narrative. The city of Jerusalem specifically calls itself home to the three Abrahamic religions – each of which has historically been threatened by the others. From Moses to Muhammad, the holy has been documented in books and fought for with blood. The recent Israeli political and military offensive on Sheikh Jarrah, Al Aqsa Masjid, and the Gaza strip has continued this legacy, sparking protests in The Hague and Amsterdam on the 14th and the 15th of this month. People showed up in numbers, demanding an end to the apartheid regime under a settler colonialist occupation and the support afforded to such a regime by the Dutch government and the European Union. Cheers of ‘Free, Free Palestine!’, ‘Allahu Akbar!’, ‘We give our soul and blood for Aqsa!’ accompanied some others: ‘Fuck Israel!’, ‘Israel Terrorist!’ An emphasis on peace was maintained throughout both protests, and certain instances that departed from a peaceful approach were dealt with immediately by the organisers. Leather jackets and boots of the protestors, Palestinian kufaiyas, the Palestinian flag, nationalist music and drums beating tunes to the dabke kept the Palestinian identity alive, and these two cities felt its heart beating like many other cities in the world that week.
The Hague, 14 May 2021.
I was at Hofplaats at 2:10 PM on Saturday, which was ten minutes late. Loudly reminded of this fact, I began walking down from Den Haag Centraal, the slogans and cheers of the protestors booming as I neared them. I was here to see how the Palestinian diaspora in Europe had been moved by the recent violence between the river and the sea. The majority of the protestors gathered in The Hague were students, who had identified the issue to be an apartheid regime under a settler colonial state. They understood the recent violence to be symptomatic of such a predicament and stood and sang in solidarity with the peaceful Palestinian resistance to this occupation. The recent evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and violence on the last day of Ramadan at Masjid Al-Aqsa were the two final sheaths of straw that broke the camel’s back, and brought this old conflict to erupt once again. Every time this ripe stage is reached wherein the people are receptive to change, it seems up to the Palestinians to mobilise a resistance to the Zionist colonial project as a whole. A historical longing for pre-Nakba Palestine still lives on in the people’s hearts, even in today’s post-Oslo and post-Camp David reality with Benjamin Netanyahu fighting for control at the Israeli helm. This emancipatory predicament of the protestors here in The Hague has been in resonance with the broader Palestinian consciousness today. Zuhir, a protestor and PhD candidate at Erasmus University Rotterdam, pointed out the protestor’s contention to the two-state solution:
“I believe the reason most people here do not want a two-state solution to end the conflict is because that will [still] continue to reproduce and uphold a settler colony, which is Israel.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Omar al-Sadeh, a part of Students for Palestine – organiser of the protest. He is Dutch-Palestinian, and was deeply let down by the European governments in its approach to deal with the Palestinian issue. Omar, a frustrated student activist, lays out his hope for Europe:
“People look at us from the outside as those who protect international values and globalised human freedoms. I think when it comes down to Israel-Palestine we should step in as the European Union and [sic.] say these values going on there are not our values! We should step in and pressurise [both parties], and we have the power too.”
Omar was not the only one frustrated by Europe and the West, this was also reflected in most of the protestors. This sentiment in turn characterises the present global Palestinian consciousness, which views its oppression not only to the Israeli settler colonial project but also to the world’s apathetic betrayal of Palestinian nationalism. Leila Kataman, a German-Palestinian member of Students for Palestine, quoted Ghassan Kanafani as she echoed this feeling of betrayal:
“‘A conversation with the colonialists is like a conversation between a sword and the neck.’ I’m gonna say [sic.] every declaration, every speech we’ve had with the Israelis or since then the US administration or anyone trying to give us peace has been a conversation between the knife and the neck in which they have put the knife in our neck and cut it through.”
The protest in The Hague was peaceful and socially distanced, and after the demonstration the protestors moved to the main square to sing and shout slogans for Palestinian liberation. The solidarity and passion in the crowd was infectious, and cheers continued throughout the afternoon. One falafel later, as I was headed around Den Haag Centraal, there was a crowd of demonstrators surrounded by a police blockade within the park across. When I tried to get closer, a policeman respectfully told me I was not allowed to go any closer – no questions asked. Upon conversations with people around the area, I found that some demonstrators had been detained by the police for moving beyond the designated space for protest. The demonstrators wanted to continue on which led to a slight tension with the police. Apparently, this had happened in Utrecht the day before as well, according to some protestors gathered near the area. This was, however, dealt with peacefully without any further escalations.
I walked into the city after the protest, having seen an exclusively pro-Palestinian response to the recent Israeli offensive. I hoped to see other convictions interplaying with this Palestinian protest in Amsterdam the following day – I was not disappointed. But Saturday evening, I was still in The Hague – a city which had shown its staunch solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Did it have a message for the Zionists? In a conversation with Joao Nuno Melo, another protestor and student at TU Eindhoven, I found a sympathetic one preaching peace yet committed to the Palestinian cause:
“As someone whose grandfather was a coloniser in Africa, I can say that you only notice the pain you’re causing once the systems of oppression have subsided and those things actually come out. When you’re in those systems, you don’t realize it. Maybe you should think that you’re the one seeing the wrong media and not every single other person in the world.”
Amsterdam, 15 May 2021.
The aura of Amsterdam is that of a protest town. For the amount of anti-establishment sentiment that emanates from Amsterdam, it is really no surprise that the Dutch Body Politique moved its corridors away from the capital. This was confirmed as I first turned towards Dam Square on Sunday, for it was full. Hundreds of people had gathered to protest the occupation and the recent violence, once again with an overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian majority. Students were again at the helm of the protest, and people of all ages and all backgrounds were in attendance. Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+, Turkish, and even Islamic State flags flew under the Palestinian flag in Amsterdam – protesting the occupation as one. There were even a few Zionists in attendance a block away, protesting the protest in turn. I walked into the crowd, curious about how these diverse identities viewed the conflict and what brought them together or pushed them apart.
Dov Israeli, a Zionist activist present at the counter-protest, views the current situation as an inevitable yet unfortunate one. He applauds the Israeli political body for taking over evictions of the illegal Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah. He also applauds the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza and their efforts to root out HAMAS commanders from the region. When asked how this could ever be a proportionate response to the desperate, haphazard shelling of non-navigable rockets by HAMAS, he responds – reminding us of the grim reality of the region:
“If you talk about the military options or the military capacity of Israel we can destroy Gaza in two hours. The whole of Gaza will be flat in two hours. Why are we not doing it? Because, only one reason. We’re too human.”
Convinced that casualties in Gaza are unavoidable due to the cowardice of HAMAS commanders for hiding behind women and children, he still lamented that this had to be carried out on the last day of Ramadan. Dov believes that such an offensive should have been delayed by at least a week in respect for the religious sentiments of Palestinians. He empathises with the Palestinian people living in Gaza, but finds the authorities to be root of the terrorist threat against Israel. He repeated a resounding message of peace:
“We want peace. We want the same like you [Palestinians]. We want to wake up in the morning and go to work and have a normal life. Please stop with all the extremists from both sides so we can move towards the direction of peace.”
The minority of pro-Israel demonstrators were lost in the sea of the pro-Palestinian voice. This majority too was very diverse. Curious about the presence of extremists on the other side of the spectrum, I headed towards a small pocket of Islamic State sympathisers – who were waving a hoarding that demanded the Caliphate. I asked multiple members for an interview, but to no avail. The Islamic State demonstrators, however, remained a fringe minority of less than ten people, and in no way represented the protest community.
Given recent talk of intervention by Turkey, I moved towards the Turkish flags on the street. A gentlemen, Yakub, obliged my request, communicating his disgust towards the recent violence perpetrated by the Israelis:
“We are standing for a free Palestine because Israel is killing babies. They say they believe in God and Prophet Moses, but Prophet Moses never killed children even though Ramesses II did. Today the position of Israel is that of the Pharaoh Ramesses II, and not of Prophet Moses.”
With Yakub’s words still ringing in my mind, I shifted my attention to the Palestinians in the crowd. I had the great opportunity to meet Shuri, a Palestinian-Jordanian woman who had been living in Amsterdam with her husband and two children for four years now. With hoodies flashing ‘#SaveSheikhJarrah’, this family had never really left their home in Palestine. When asked about her children’s understanding of the situation, she said:
“I have seen where I have come from. I have visited the West Bank and Jerusalem – they didn’t. They are still young. They don’t completely understand why this thing is happening. It’s amazing when you talk to kids, [everything distills down to] why is this happening? It’s crystal clear who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed.”
Shuri hopes her children can one day travel to Palestine and be able to live freely in the land where they belong. Her story, like many other Palestinians’, was celebrated in Amsterdam on Sunday like several other cities across the globe. This age-old conflict is just beginning to cement itself into the minds of the young kids of the present age. I wonder when everyone will have forgotten of this historical hatred. Until then, I can follow the protest as it turns into a march. The crowd marched onwards from Dam Square through Rokin and along the Amstel all the way to the end of Wibautstraat. From then on, it carried on throughout the city although I had left it – for it had already touched me, like it had touched every other person in town on Sunday. Whatever your take may be on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Edward Said’s words still resound today:
“Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present.”
Terrific analysis of a complex situation. By walking near the two protesting parties, you give a first hand account of the situation, as seen by the present day Palestianian’s and Israeli’s. Their perceptions today are important. How history & geography of this place, mixed with the politics of the 20th & 21st century, have left behind a legacy, that is difficult to reconcile with. Parag’s conclusion that our focus on the past , to throw up solutions , needs rethinking. The demonstrations in Amsterdam , show that such issues resonate with the masses, and cannot be ignored.