By Ray Hanania
Democrats and Republicans this week focused their attention on newly elected Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s criticism of Israeli influence in US politics, but remained silent on Israel’s ongoing human rights violations.
Omar criticized the “dual loyalty” of some pro-Israel activists at a town hall meeting in Washington, with activists subsequently denouncing her as “anti-Semitic.” In America’s skewed, immoral political system, justified critical commentary is denounced while violence by Israel, a foreign country whose activists donate millions to influence US politicians, goes almost unnoticed.
The silence of Congress over Israel’s ongoing violence is a hypocritical double standard. Supporters of Israel exploit this skewed political environment to distract Americans from the real atrocities involving the continued oppression of Christian and Muslim Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
In the shadow of this national debate, Palestinian activist Iyad Burnat is struggling to present his story to Americans. Burnat is from Bil’in, a village in the occupied West Bank. He has been shot and wounded many times, and so have five of his children. Burnat’s story is a powerful and painful one that should inspire others to speak out against Israeli violence and the pro-Israel movement in America without fear of being called “anti-Semitic.”
In 2005, Israel built a wall that separated the 1,800 villagers from more than 60 percent of their farmlands, destroying their livelihood. The residents turned to non-violent protest, holding demonstrations once each week. “Bil’in is under occupation and, from time to time, it gets worse,” Burnat said when I interviewed him last week. “They confiscate lands, destroy lives. They are destroying our olive trees and our livelihood to push the people out of their homes.”
Burnat said Bil’in activists recognize they must be creative to rise above Israel’s distracting propaganda to bring attention to their struggle. When the movie “Avatar” — a fictional story about a people fighting to protect their homes and land — was released in 2009, Bil’in’s residents mimicked the film’s characters and plot by dressing up and tying themselves to olive trees as Israeli bulldozers tried to uproot them.
In 2012, Burnat’s brother Emad, a photographer, made a documentary that was a first-hand account of the protests, including how Israeli soldiers repeatedly destroyed his camera equipment. The film, “5 Broken Cameras,” was nominated for an Oscar in 2013.
But, as Omar is learning, Burnat says the people of Bil’in pay a high price for questioning Israel. He has been imprisoned on false charges of inciting violence. He said that Israeli soldiers grabbed him following a peaceful protest against the wall and drove him to a remote location, where they repeatedly beat him and broke his ribs. Burnat said he was tortured for 10 hours and then dumped at the side of a road. “They tried to kill me,” he said.
Burnat says that Israel’s violence is fomenting anger and even hate among the young. “I have a child who turned five yesterday. He has grown up seeing the soldiers inside our house. He wakes up seeing his brother being arrested, his father being beaten in front of him. If you ask him now, he is very angry. It is hate. But who did that to him?” Burnat asks.
Five of his sons have also been targeted, which he believes is Israel’s way of trying to pressure him. “My eldest son was shot in the leg. It was like a message to me,” Burnat said of Abdel Khaled, who was 17 at the time.
Burnat says the answer to the attacks from the Israeli soldiers and armed settlers is not violence but education. “We need to educate our children so they can become strong voices for our freedom. That’s what the Israelis fear,” he said. On this theme, Burnat has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to help his son Majd attend college, and is touring the US to find sponsors and help set up a larger education fund for all of the children in Bil’in.
The question I have is that, if the critics of Omar claim she is anti-Semitic for raising legitimate issues, what do they say about the Israeli soldiers they support who intentionally shoot civilians with live ammunition? I suspect that is why Congress is criticizing Omar — to keep the attention away from the atrocities being committed in Palestine.