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What a Difference 20 Years Make: The Time is Now to Speak Out for Justice and Peace in the Middle East
25 April 2002
You might not know if you were not there yourself. You certainly would not know if you relied on the New York Times for your news (the paper ignored the event altogether), but over one hundred thousand people made history April 20, 2002, when they rallied in Washington, DC and San Francisco for peace and justice and where, for once, Palestine and the Palestinians were not ignored.
"April 20" was originally planned as a peace rally to "protest racism and George Bush's war on the world," organizers said. But after the Israeli invasion of the West Bank on March 29, "we couldn't ignore what was happening," said Rev. Lucius Walker of IFCO-Pastors for Peace, a co-sponsor of the April 20 demonstrations. Walker, a veteran peace and civil rights activist, told Working Assets Radio: "We had to take a stand."
Arab and Muslim Americans turned out by the thousands on both coasts to march for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The result was one of the largest pro-Palestinian rallies ever in the United States, but the really big news was that tens of thousands of peaceniks, fair traders, anti-interventionists, and civil rights activists marched with them.
Looking out over the crowd from the stage at the day's-end rally near the Capitol, speaker after speaker remarked upon the scene. It's traditional for rally-speakers to exult over a big turn-out (with even the DC police admitting that the crowd far exceeded their expectations), but Saturday's speakers thrilled to the sight of something else, too so many Palestinian flags.
Familiar from news footage these days, where they flutter in the dusty skies of devastated Nablus or Jenin, in the showering sunlight of Washington, hundreds of Palestinian flags flew next to peace groups' banners and the signs held by members of trade unions. The Palestinians' black, red, white and green flapped near Vermonters for Peace, Veterans Against War, and the brilliant red T-shirts of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).
A glance around revealed this astonishing tableau: a woman from the Israeli group Peace Now carried a text-heavy sign: "As a high school teacher, it horrifies me when Jewish and Israeli students say they can't wait to fight in Israel. Is this the future we will all share?" The gray-haired Peace Now member occupied a spot between a group of young Black Bloc anarchists, and a granddaughter with her grandmother who was wearing a head-to-toe black Hijab.
"Did you ever think you'd see the day?" I asked my friend Phyllis Bennis, a tireless writer and organizer on Middle East issues. Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies has been working on the subject for more than twenty years. "So many Palestinian flags at a peace rally?" asked Phyllis. "No."
It wasn't always this way. On June 12, 1982, American activists massed in New York City to call for peace and nuclear disarmament. But the Central Park rally made no mention of the week's own bombing Israel's then defense minister, Ariel Sharon, had just sent Israeli forces into Lebanon two days earlier. While the actions of the Middle East's only nuclear nation were certainly a threat to regional stability, the Israeli state was just too close to many U.S. peace organizations' hearts. Organizers had concluded that speaking out against its invasion of Lebanon was just too "divisive," recalls Bennis.
As it turned out, an historic million Americans marched that June 12th almost 20 years ago. The mood was festive I remember puppets on Fifth Avenue and an enormous inflated globe floating over an endless sun-soaked parade. But while we rallied, U.S. jets flown by Israeli pilots dropped bombs on Palestinian refugees and men, women and children in Lebanon. The 1982 invasion led to the massacre of over 1,000 Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila for which even the Israeli Knesset ultimately held Sharon indirectly responsible.
If 20 years ago organizers had taken a harder stand not for or against Israel, but for global justice and international law would a million have turned out? Maybe not, but American activists might have sent a message to their leaders that no nation, not even Israel, is above the law. A message sent then might have saved a generation of Palestinians and Israelis from 20 years of occupation, fury and fear. For 20 years, it has been "too dangerous" to speak out. Now we see how dangerous that silence was. April 20 saw a break with a shameful tradition. The standing-together may not have been entirely easy or comfortable, but it came not a moment too soon.