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Biden Could Chart a New Path for US on Palestinian Rights. Will He?

We need more than a rollback of Trump policies, or else the apartheid system that oppresses Palestinians will remain.

A Palestinian boy walks past a mural inspired by the coronavirus pandemic, in a street in Gaza City on March 31, 2021.

Part of the Series

Every day my friend in Palestine sends me the local paper as a way to keep in touch. For the past five decades, the headlines have been consistent: “Land Annexed,” “Trees Uprooted,” “Houses Demolished,” “Curfew Inflicted,” “Youth Arrested,” “Village Attacked,” Young Man Shot”… often all on the same front page. For the last year, they have also included a tally of COVID-19 cases and fatalities.

Israel leads the world in vaccine distribution, but it has largely refused to vaccinate Palestinians. In the occupied Palestinian territory, only around 2 percent of the population has been vaccinated. The Fourth Geneva Convention states that an occupying power has “the duty of ensuring and maintaining … the public health and hygiene in occupied territory” and has the responsibility “to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.” Israel is ignoring its legal as well as moral responsibility.

As in many places around the world, the pandemic has laid bare the stark inequalities and injustices that have always been with us. We have seen how the freedoms, rights and lives of people of color and poor people have been deemed less worthy of protections and medical care.

While the Biden administration has spoken out about human rights violations in other countries, it has been notably silent on the human rights of Palestinians — making us feel as though our lives are not worthy of protection. Instead, the Biden administration has reaffirmed its opposition to the boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, opposed the International Criminal Court investigation of war crimes committed by Israel, and thus far has rejected calls to condition military funding to Israel on its human rights record.

Providing financial support for Israel’s occupation is a decades-long bipartisan position in the U.S., and four years of the Trump administration made the situation worse. President Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, disregarded international law by supporting Israeli settlements, cut humanitarian aid including critical support to the refugees, ended all diplomatic efforts with Palestinian representatives and attempted to impose its will on the Palestinian people through the so-called “deal of the century.”

But we need more than just reversing the harms of the last four years. We need the Biden administration to exert pressure on Israel to ensure it upholds the human rights of Palestinians under international law — including by withholding military aid. We need the Biden administration to ensure Palestinians living under occupation are part of all aspects of any peace process. We need an end to the blockade of over 2 million people in Gaza; we need Palestinian self-determination, freedom of movement, and control over our borders, natural resources and trade. And we need an end to illegal settlements and land confiscation. In the U.S., Biden must make clear that criticism of Israel, including support for BDS actions, is protected and legitimate speech.

Without significant changes, the apartheid system that denies lifesaving medical care to Palestinians will remain.

As a Palestinian American, I am tired of having our calls for justice dismissed by U.S. policy makers as illegitimate, unfounded and even antisemitic. I grew up in Palestine and lived there most of my life. I raised my children there and worked as an educator at a Quaker School in Ramallah. Our lived experiences under military occupation are real. The horizons of my students — brilliant thinkers who dreamed of liberation and life beyond occupied Palestine — are legitimate.

The U.S. has long considered itself the sponsor and broker of the “peace process.” For decades, so-called peace processes came and went, with little impact. Nearly 10,000 Palestinians have been killed in the last two decades alone, and hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been imprisoned — including many children. Colonial settlements continue to be built on confiscated Palestinian lands, water resources are stolen and diverted from their legitimate owners, freedom of movement is hampered and basic human rights denied. Jerusalem — the city of my birth — became inaccessible to all of us, and millions of refugees remain in camps waiting for restitution and a chance to return home. And yet, despite these terrible losses, I saw the power and resilience of people all around me.

I remember my experiences during the first intifada in the late 1980s, when I joined with my community to assert our right to self-determination through nonviolent civil disobedience. We invested our limited resources in community gardening and clandestine community education, then deemed illegal. We were united in our resistance and mutual aid.

It is this lifelong resilience that has allowed us to survive. But resilience alone is clearly not changing the conditions under which we live.

Today, I lead an international Quaker social justice organization, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). I have the privilege of working with people in the U.S. and around the world, including in Palestine. Since the pandemic began, we have been delivering emergency aid to those in need.

AFSC and many organizations across the U.S. are working hard to make these changes a reality. We have worked with other faith-based groups to challenge anti-BDS legislation at the state level, we have helped introduce federal legislation that would pressure Israel to end the practice of putting children in military detention, and we have been involved in advocacy efforts to get vaccines to Palestinians. We engage our communities at the grassroots level to support Palestinian rights, and to bring Palestinian voices to the halls of power.

This work is critical for helping people survive. But only political action from those in power can stop the spread of COVID-19, address the underlying causes of these disparities and end the occupation.

Leaders must invest in a new and bold process designed to realize justice, a process that seeks true and lasting peace that is inclusive of equality and rights for Palestinians. We need leaders in the U.S. to follow the lead of powerful social movements that have taken action to express their support for the Palestinian people. The solidarity from the Black Lives Matter movement, from organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and from many others, has been critically important for putting pressure on policy makers in the U.S. and for showing Palestinian activists that they are not alone. This solidarity has given us the courage to speak, to act, and to keep going even in the most difficult times.

As a Quaker, I believe deeply that there is a divine light in every person. As an American Palestinian woman, I believe that we must engage in a lifelong struggle to overcome injustice. I believe that a just and lasting peace, one that brings freedom and security to Palestinians and Israelis alike, is possible.

The Biden administration and the new Congress should not miss the opportunity to chart a new path. We need unequivocal support for the human rights of Palestinians. In the U.S. and in the occupied Palestinian territory, communities and movements around the world will keep working to make sure that they do.

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