Representative Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American elected to Congress, hosted an educational event on Wednesday at the Capitol to highlight the 75th anniversary of what Palestinians recall as al-Nakba, which is Arabic for “the catastrophe.” But it wasn’t easy.
Amnesty International and other human rights groups have long recognized the historical reality of al-Nakba—“the displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.” But the Michigan Democrat’s attempt to discuss that history, and its ongoing influence on efforts to achieve Middle East peace, was disrupted by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
The California Republican attempted to cancel the “Nakba 75 and the Palestinian People” event—which was organized by Jewish Voice for Peace Action, the American Friends Service Committee, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and other groups—by reserving the room Tlaib planned to use. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, defended McCarthy’s move with a revealing complaint: “I think Congresswoman Tlaib has freedom of speech, First Amendment, but the speech is very anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian.”
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders intervened at the last minute and allowed the event to take place on the other side of Capitol Hill, in the hearing room of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which Sanders chairs. Tlaib responded with a declaration that “Speaker McCarthy wants to rewrite history and erase the existence and truth of the Palestinian people, but he has failed to do so.”
The event finally convened in a room that was packed to capacity for a discussion that the organizers explained was arranged to “uplift the experiences of Palestinians who underwent the Nakba, and educate Members of Congress and their staff about this history and the ongoing Nakba to which Israel continues to subject Palestinians.”
It was a small victory in a much bigger fight on Capitol Hill, where serious discussions about the Palestinian condition remain rare, and where most members—Democrats and Republicans—tend to adopt an uncritical approach regarding Israeli policies.
However, a growing, if still small, group of House members are seeking to bring clarity to the debate. Seventeen House members signed on last week as sponsors of the Defending Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act. Citing accusations of human rights abuses by the Israelis, the measure would put conditions on the $3.8 billion in security assistance the US provides to Israel’s government each year. Specifically, according to the office of its chief sponsor, Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum, the bill would “prohibit Israel from using US taxpayer dollars on the military detention, abuse, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention; to support the seizure and destruction of Palestinian property and homes in violation of international humanitarian law; or on any support or assistance for Israel’s unilateral annexation of Palestinian territory in violation of international humanitarian law.”
The bill, which would require the secretary of state to annually certify to Congress that foreign aid to Israel did not violate any of the prohibited uses, is backed by Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and Democratic Representatives Don Beyer (Va.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Donald Payne Jr. (N.J.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (Ill.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Summer Lee (Penn.), Dwight Evans (Penn.), and Tlaib.
Not $1 of U.S. aid should be used to commit human rights violations, demolish families’ homes, or permanently annex Palestinian lands. The United States provides billions in assistance for Israel’s government each year—and those dollars should go toward Israel’s security, not toward actions that violate international law and cause harm. Peace can only be achieved when everyone’s human rights are respected, and Congress has a responsibility to not ignore the well-documented mistreatment of Palestinian children and families living under Israeli military occupation.
Congress has been slow to recognize public sentiment on the issue, but McCollum says, “Support is growing rapidly for the Palestinian people, who deserve justice, equality, human rights, and the right to self-determination.”
To illustrate the breadth of that support, McCollum released a list of 75 civil society groups that have endorsed the act. They include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam America, the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, Pax Christi, the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Democracy for the Arab World Now, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Americans for Justice in Palestine, Peace Action, ReThinking Foreign Policy, J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace Action, the IfNotNow Movement, and Americans for Peace Now.
Speaker McCarthy may not be prepared to allow it, but Americans of diverse backgrounds and experiences are ready for a real congressional debate about all the issues that stand in the way of Middle East peace.