Indians Who Oppose Colonialism Should Support the Palestinian Cause

This is not a “conflict” with two equal sides to the narrative. It’s not a “civil war” or “riots” or “communal violence”. It’s a fight for decolonisation.

May 15 was Nakba Day. It’s a day commemorated every year to mark the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, a process that didn’t only begin in 1948 when Jewish Zionists set up a settler colonial state called Israel. It also never ended.

In 2009, when I was a professor at An-Najah University in Nablus, I spent a great deal of time visiting families across the West Bank and East Jerusalem where Palestinians were expelled from their homes. Then, too, some families were being dispossessed from the inside out with Israelis (often from the United States) taking over their homes one room at a time. From the Jaber family in the Old City of Jerusalem to the Anas family in Aqraba, to the al-Kurd family in Jerualem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, I witnessed Palestinians resisting Israeli violations and aggressions by staying on their land, even at times in tents because Israelis demolished their homes.

This is the ongoing Nakba. And it’s what triggered this latest uprising in Palestine. It began in with social media coverage of that same al-Kurd family I met over ten years ago in Jerusalem who are continuing their struggle to stay on their land and in their home in Sheikh Jarrah.

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But the moment Israeli forces invaded Al-Aqsa and Palestinians in Gaza began firing rockets into Israel, this story made headlines in India and around the world and the story of ethnic cleansing became a footnote. Hamas became the main talking point. But the moment Palestinians across historic Palestine took to the streets in protest it became difficult for the Israeli narrative, that this is a “conflict” between Israel and Hamas, to prevail. In West Bank cities like Bethlehem and Nablus and in Israel in Palestinian cities like Lydd and Jaffa, as well as Palestinians across the globe, the majority of whom are refugees from 1948, are speaking with one unified voice: end this ongoing Nakba now.

It seems as if many people across India and around the world are starting to understand this context more clearly. This is not a “conflict” with two equal sides to the narrative. It’s not a “civil war” or “riots” or “communal violence”. It’s a fight for decolonisation. It is a fight against apartheid, something Palestinians and South Africans have been saying since at least the 1960s and that is finally also being recognised and shown by UN agencies and human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem.

Language and analogies matter. Historically, that’s something Indians understood. Indeed, it was not that long ago that Indian passports had a stamp issued across the opening pages stating that it was a violation to travel to apartheid South Africa or to Israel. Unfortunately, India has largely abandoned its former role as a leader in the Non-Aligned Movement against colonisation. Implicit and explicit collusion with Israel from agriculture to arms sales has become the norm. And with this normalisation of relations some form of amnesia seemed to strike the minds of far too many Indians who now side with the coloniser and against the colonised.

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Comparisons that prove most helpful to comprehending what’s happening in Palestine right now would be the South African uprising in Soweto in 1976 or the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1944, or the Indian uprising in 1857. In each of these contexts, ordinary people decided to fight back against a power that was far more powerful militarily in order to obtain their freedom. Indians familiar with that watershed moment in their history will know that the British tried to brand Indian resistance as a “mutiny”, as if Indians were rising up against themselves instead of a foreign occupier.

Rescuers carry Suzy Eshkuntana, 6, as they pull her from the rubble of a building at the site of Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City, May 16, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Mohammed Salem

As I watch what’s happening in Palestine from afar, I’m struck by the sheer terror that Israeli settlers have unleashed on Palestinians in cities like Haifa, Jaffa and Lydd, with the full support of Israeli police. It recalls the kind of terror my family experienced in Eastern Europe before fleeing to the United States in the late 19th century. The Yiddish word pogrom describes these massacres that targeted Jewish communities at that time. It’s no wonder that some Palestinians have used that word to describe the kind of violence that Israelis have subjected them to this week. That, along with scenes of Israelis destroying Palestinian shops across the country, evokes Kristallnacht (literally Night of the Broken Glass when Nazis engaged in a similar rampage in 1938), especially with images of shattered glass on the ground. That Palestinians are resisting and rising up against this brutality makes their struggle all the more powerful.

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These historical resonances should conjure up a sense of clarity. They should also make people want to take action to put an end to a colonial apartheid regime akin to that of 1948-1994 South Africa. Indeed, one of the reasons for this particular comparison is to elicit a similar global response with the goal of holding the perpetrating regime accountable. This is why Palestinians have been calling on the international community to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel (BDS) for the past 15 years. Although there are pockets of Indian society who have actively participated in BDS, it is far from mainstream. And yet the Palestinian boycott movement is very much connected to India, particularly with respect to India’s use of Israeli weapons and tactics in Kashmir.

It’s time for Indians to look more closely at Palestine, see these connections, and take action. Those of us committed to the principle that colonial crimes such as those committed in India during the Raj should be opposed at all costs extend this anti-colonialism to Palestine or any other place subjected to similar treatment.

Marcy Newman is the author of The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans and a founding member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.