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A Palestinian peace activist’s arrest shows that we need solidarity, not ‘peace’

Last Thursday, Hamas’s security forces arrested Gazan activist, Rami Aman. His crime? Organizing a Zoom video chat with Israelis to discuss life in Gaza. Rami was charged with holding a “normalization activity” that Hamas says whitewashes Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and in turn betrays the Palestinian people and their sacrifices.

Muhammad Shehada | artist: Noah Lubin

Muhammad Shehada | artist: Noah Lubin

There’s no two ways about it: Rami’s arrest is indefensible and stands in violation of international law and his right to freedom of expression and opinion.

But Palestinian reactions to Rami’s arrest varied. Some condemned Hamas, but others applauded Rami’s arrest.

What could explain this level of hostility towards something as innocent as campaigning for peace?

In general, we Palestinians have always called our country “the land of peace,” and the majority of Palestinians remain committed to the two-state solution. But when the word peace is paired with Israel, the question most Gazans ask is peace with whom?

Living under a blockade, many Gazans have never seen a single Israeli civilian. Any interaction we have with Israel is confined in its entirety to the Israeli army. Its soldiers are the only Israelis we know, and we encounter them more often than not through the rockets they rain down on us. As a result, for most Gazans, the very word Israel is synonymous with suffering and oppression. And many believe there can be no peace until the oppression ends.

Moreover, Israel routinely rewards Hamas’s rockets with millions of dollars in Qatari cash each month, while simultaneously withholding tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority, which has long advocated for a two-state solution. It conveys a stark message: Advocating for peace with Israel is a waste of time, a service to the occupation, or a whitewashing of reality.

In the absence of tangible results stemming from Palestinian advocacy for peace with Israel, it’s nearly impossible to convince people that peaceful engagement has any benefit. Instead, it looks like selling out, indulging in “normalization” that promotes a positive public image for Israel.

Members of the Israeli government love to complain that they have no partner for peace on the Palestinian side. But what support to give people like Rami? What recognition do they grant someone who has spent a decade putting his life in danger to advocate for peace? The only attention he ever got from Israel was for his arrest, which some on the right are predictably using to attack Palestinians.

The truth is, the word “peace” has lost all meaning to average Palestinians, due to its use in contexts that are anathema to the very concept. While Netanyahu works relentlessly to kill the two-state solution, he never misses an opportunity to assert his desire for “peace.” It’s the calling card of a cynical right, the word they use when they are about to describe the exact opposite, so much so that to Palestinians, the word has become simply another way of spelling oppression.

In the absence of political progress or any improvement in Palestinian lives, the word peace has lost its meaning. Instead it implies providing Israel with unrequited quiet. It implies Palestinian surrender, an end to our quest for freedom and equality. While for others, including Israelis, peace is an ideal, for us, the word has become hollow, even traumatic, implying that Palestinians must move on from their grievances without freedom, without equality.

Still, despite Palestinian skepticism and opposition to normalization activities, there’s still a strong Palestinian contingent that embraces Israelis who recognize our suffering, take responsibility for it and show their willingness to help us end it. These Israelis aren’t showing us their desire for peace, but rather, their commitment to solidarity — like the group of Israelis who, during Gaza’s Great Return March in 2018, approached the separation fence to show solidarity with Gazan protesters.

This gesture of empathy was warmly welcomed and embraced. Some Gazans even managed to greet the Israeli activists face-to-face, through the fence. No one slammed this as “normalization” — not even Hamas.

Hamas was wrong to imprison Rami. And I believe that the Palestinians cheering his arrest are wrong, too. But they are not wrong to be sick of the language of peace. Israelis wishing to make common cause with Palestinians should speak not of peace but solidarity (something Rami’s Zoom chat no doubt encouraged). We are, after all, not equals in this conflict, a fiction that acts of normalization can perpetuate.

Muhammad Shehada is a contributing columnist for the Forward from Gaza. His work has also appeared in Haaretz and Vice. Find him on Twitter @muhammadshehad2.

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