where is the palestinian mlk?

March 28, 2019
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“The Palestinians need a Gandhi. Where is the Palestinian Martin Luther King?”

The argument behind this common question goes that Palestinians are inherently violent, and if only someone emerged like MLK to preach peace and love and happiness, Israel would finally establish the peace it so desperately strives for on the daily.

In case you couldn’t tell, this question is complete nonsense.

It conveniently ignores that Martin Luther King was assassinated by the US government because of his politics against racism, militarism, and capitalism.

King did not operate by himself, either. The success of the civil rights movement was due to the organization of thousands of everyday people, often under the leadership and mentorship of women.

This framing also plays into the false binary of the “good” and “bad” protesters, with King and Civil Rights Movement vs. Malcolm X and Black Panther Party. Rather than pit these groups against each other, we can understand all of them as “anti-violent,” or seeking to overcome the source of violence against them.

In the context of Palestine, this question ignores the fact that there is not one Palestinian MLK, but many.

Every Friday for the past 52 weeks, tens of thousands of Palestinians have been marching at the edge of their prison fence in the Gaza Strip, demanding to return to their original lands in what is currently Israel. March 30th will mark the one year anniversary of the Great March of Return.

In the words of the organizers, The Great March of Return “is a sustained and cumulative struggle, not a seasonal or a one-day event. It will only end with the actual return of Palestinian refugees and the sit-in may last for weeks or months. It is a fully peaceful march from the beginning to the end. It adopts the style of open sit-ins, gradual progress, the construction of tents and the establishment of a normal life near the separation fence with their lands, homes and properties which they were forcibly removed from in 1948.”

This sounds pretty MLK-like to me.

I recently met the man who inspired the March – Ahmed Abu Artema, a 35-year-old poet and journalist. Ahmed was in the US on a speaking tour about Israel’s 10-year siege on Gaza, the nonviolent vision of the march, and the need for more solidarity from the US. Ahmed believes in one democratic state shared by both Palestinians and Israelis.

“We want a solution based on the foundation of justice, equality, and freedom,” Ahmed said. “A country where indigenous Palestinians coexist with their Jewish neighbors according to the values of citizenship, equal rights, and the implementation of international justice.”

As Ahmed said during an event in New York City, “I, as a Palestinian refugee, suffer like the rest of my fellow Palestinians from expulsion, occupation, blockade, and aggression for more than 70 years. It is my right to return to the town from which my family was forcibly expelled in 1948. It is my right to live in dignity and equality, because I am a human being. It is my right to enjoy freedom of movement and travel. It is my right to enjoy the opportunity of education and employment that would enable me to live normally. It is my right not to see the fence of death, caging me and millions of people, preventing us from moving and their natural human rights.”

His central question  is simple: “Is it too much to be liberated from behind these walls and fences?”

Western media have largely painted The Great Return Marchm as “clashes” between one of the world’s strongest military forces and an unarmed civilian population. They have focused on the destruction of Israeli farmland more than the Israeli military injuring over 28,000 Palestinians and killing nearly 200 people.  

This includes 21-year-old Razan Al-Najjar, a volunteer paramedic at the protests. An Israeli soldier shot her in the chest while she was wearing her white medic uniform.

“To those who claim peace, where is this peace?” Razan’s mother asked shortly after her death.

Israeli soldiers have also killed children, journalists, and people with disabilities and have injured over. The UN released a report earlier this month that Israel may have committed war crimes in its repression of the Gaza protests.

But some seek to delegitimize the marches in Gaza by pointing to molotov cocktails, burning tires and kites, or false accusations that the marches are secretly organized by a terrorist group. Much of the same rhetoric was and is used against poor Black people resisting their oppression, whether in Watts in 1965, Detroit in 1967, or Ferguson in 2014.

As Dr. King himself said “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”

What is it that the world fails to hear in Gaza? That Palestinians are marching for their freedom, their right to go home, and for their lives.  

Palestinians do not need to emulate Martin Luther King to be acceptable or successful, and Israel does not want a Palestinian MLK or civil rights movement. Such a movement would have the power to end military occupation and apartheid.

The call for nonviolence never extends to the military that kills in the name of “security.” No one ever asks “Where is the Israeli Muhammad Ali?” who refuses to fight in a war against oppressed people.

There is no Palestinian military that can fight Israel on equal footing. Ahmed Abu Artema understands this power difference, which is why he advocates nonviolent resistance to Israel’s siege on Gaza.

In a powerful documentary about the march, Ahmed is seen talking with some youth who argue “what’s taken by force can only be returned by force,” with regards to Israel’s military occupation.

Ahmed’s response is instructive about his understanding of nonviolence: “When I talk about peaceful struggle, I don’t talk about it because I’m weak. I talk about it because it’s my point of strength…As a Palestinian, you can’t match the firepower of an F16 fighter jet. Your advantage as a Palestinian is to besiege the occupation economically and through the media. This is a long-term plan, it can’t be resolved in a day, or a month or two.”

When I hear at Ahmed and see the thousands of people marching in Gaza, I see the vision, steadfastness, and movement that Dr. King embodied.

In Ahmed’s own words, “The peaceful choice is not a weak choice. It was never a weak choice.”




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