Texas organizers have drawn thousands of people to pro-Palestine rallies, but convincing state officials to support the cause won’t be easy.
Five days after the bombs stopped raining down on Gaza in early May, Fadya Risheq still hasn’t heard from her family there. The tiny strip of land is home to nearly 2 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants who were displaced in 1948 by the state of Israel.
“They’re still pulling out bodies from the rubble,” says Risheq, the executive director of American Muslims for Palestine’s Dallas chapter. The rest of her family in Jerusalem, where she grew up, is safe for now, even as Israeli forces crack down on Palestinians protesting against their forced displacement from homes. For Risheq, the images coming out of occupied Palestine are familiar and painful. But in years past, public figures and the general population have been reluctant to speak out about the human rights violations that Israel commits against Palestinians who live under occupation. In 2018, for example, the Israeli military killed 150 Palestinian refugees demonstrating at the border wall and calling for their right to return to their ancestral homes; in 2014 its air strikes largely targeted civilian structures and killed 2,100 people. Israel has defended the attacks, blaming Hamas for inciting violence and claiming that buildings targeted housed militants—a defense readily accepted by President Joe Biden and the U.S. State Department, as well as Governor Greg Abbott and other Texas leaders.
Israel’s most recent military campaign followed weeks of aggression from Israeli settlers, often backed by security forces, in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Settlers attacked Palestinians who have been protesting the government’s attempts to seize their homes and give them to settlers. In response, Hamas, a political and military organization in Gaza—which the U.S. and Israel view as a terrorist group—launched rockets towards Israel. They were quickly shot down by the nation’s advanced defense system. But Risheq says this isn’t simply a conflict between Israel and Hamas. “It’s apartheid, it’s ethnic cleansing, it’s occupation. This is about Palestinian human rights.”
The bombing in May razed apartment complexes, homes, bookstores, roads leading to hospitals and several media organizations, including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. Across Texas, Palestinian organizers and people from all walks of life have responded to calls for solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank, another occupied territory. In Dallas, crowds numbered in the thousands at two protests in May. In Houston, organizers held three rallies, including a protest in front of the Israeli consulate in Texas. In El Paso, a handful of high school students organized a march in just over a week, drawing hundreds of people from across the city to participate; marches in San Antonio and Austin drew large crowds as well.
For local activists, the fight continues to build solidarity and push the United States to think more critically about its role in Israel’s occupation of Palestine. American Muslims for Palestine, along with the Council on American Islamic Relations and dozens of other groups bused people from Dallas to Washington, D.C., over Memorial Day weekend for a national rally. It was one of the largest pro-Palestine rallies in the nation. Activists are calling for the U.S. government to impose sanctions on Israel, which would end the more than $3.8 billion in military aid to the country annually. The demand is in line with Palestinian calls for economic sanctions against Israel for its human rights violations. The U.N. is also investigating whether the Israeli bombings were a war crime. In Houston, the Palestinian Youth Movement is organizing rallies that will take place in front of Boeing’s office in Clear Lake. The airplane manufacturing giant also builds satellites, missiles, and rockets—some of which end up in the hands of Israeli forces.
In Congress, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would block a recently approved, $735 million arms deal between the United States and Israel. But for the most part, Texas delegates have balked. Some Republican representatives have implied that most Palestinians living in Gaza are terrorists affiliated with Hamas. Representative Pat Fallon wrote a resolution in support of Israel stating that “radical Islamic terrorists intent on destroying Israel are equally dedicated to the destruction of the United States.”
Only two Texas representatives, Eddie Bernice Johnson and Veronica Escobar, signed a letter to the State Department urging the agency to investigate whether Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes violates the terms of the Arms Export Control Act. The act regulates how foreign governments can use weapons purchased from the United States. Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz introduced legislation supporting arms sales to Israel. Risheq says that in the past, Cruz has refused to meet with members of American Muslims for Palestine and his office did not return a request for comment for this story.
In 2017, shortly after an Israel bombing campaign in Gaza, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill prohibiting state agencies from contracting with companies that boycott Israel. He has also voiced his support for Israel’s right to defend itself, but has not mentioned the hundreds of Palestinian civilians who have been killed. The state of Texas is one of Israel’s largest trading partners: In 2018, eight Texas lawmakers participated in an all-expenses trip to Israel sponsored by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council and energy companies CenterPoint and Vistra.
In addition to protests, Palestinian organizers are using Instagram and other social media platforms to reach supporters. Sammy Homsi, a Houston-based organizer with Palestine Youth Movement (PYM), says the organization’s follower count on social media has more than doubled, even as social media companies censor Palestinian content. PYM says its posts have been taken down by Instagram and story views plummet when the organization posts political content about Palestine. In Dallas, Risheq says that Facebook temporarily removed and censored some of American Muslims for Palestine’s posts about Palestine, including event pages for the two rallies it helped organize. Another Dallas advocacy group says that at least five clients have received visits from police after making pro-Palestine posts.
Despite those obstacles, Palestinians in Texas now have a sister social movement to learn from. “I think a big turning point was the events of last summer, with developments in the movement for Black liberation,” says Mohamad Fattouh, another activist in Houston. “People have this idea that they want to be apolitical, but [Black Lives Matter] set the groundwork so that people were already politically reoriented, and they wanted to do more direct action. Even the older generations are engaged more.”
As images of Israeli soldiers attacking Palestinians in Jerusalem went viral, sometimes using the same maneuvers that police used to kill George Floyd, the connections between Palestinian liberation and Black Lives Matter have become more apparent to a wider audience of Americans than ever before. At rallies in major Texas cities, it wasn’t just Palestinians who showed up: People carried flags from the Philippines, chanted slogans about the border wall in Mexico, and held signs linking the occupation of Kashmir and indigenous movements against ongoing settler-colonialism in the U.S. to Palestine. “We claim that we stand up for human rights in America, but no one should be living like this,” Risheq says. “Our cause is their cause, and their cause is our cause.”
Local Palestinian activists were part of Black Lives Matter marches in Dallas last year after George Floyd was killed by a Minnesota police officer, says Jennifer Miller, the co-chair of the Dallas Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression. Ties between Black activists and Palestinians go back years. Miller spoke recently at a Dallas rally about the connections between the Palestinians’ and Black Americans’ struggles for human rights. “Ultimately, our liberation is tied,” she said.