Washington, DC, United States – Protesters rallied outside the White House against AIPAC as the lobbyist group kicked off its annual conference on Sunday amid divisions among US politicians over support for Israel.
Pro-Palestinian groups, including Al-Awda, Students for Justice in Palestine, Answer Coalition, Code Pink and Neturei Karta, gave speeches condemning the Israeli occupation in Palestine and what they called AIPAC’s overreach in Washington.
Others said they were there to show solidarity with Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota congresswoman who came under attack over the past few weeks for what has been labelled as anti-Semitic rhetoric and questioning AIPAC’s influence on US politicians.
Several protesters held up placards in support of Omar, while a speaker from Al-Awda, who organised the protest and a march to the convention centre in the afternoon, called for the backing of Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first two Muslim women in US history to win seats in the House.
Demonstrator Christie Brink joined the protest from Arizona. As she does every year, she planned to visit a number of politicians on Monday to “lobby against AIPAC”.
“My [fliers] might end up in the trash, or end up with someone at the desk who might become president one day,” she said. “Ilhan Omar might have gotten blowback, but … she started a conversation on AIPAC and lobbying in the country.”
Rajaa, who withheld her last name fearing Israeli repercussions when visiting family in Palestine, travelled from Philadelphia to Washington, DC to take part in the protest. She said that while some politicians have decided not to attend AIPAC this year, more work was still needed to strip AIPAC of its influence.
This year’s AIPAC conference has become a point of contention among Democrats following a growing movement calling on progressives to boycott the three-day event.
Last week, liberal advocacy group MoveOn released data showing that 74 percent of their members did not think progressive presidential candidates should attend the conference. Soon after, seven Democrats running for office in the 2020 election have said they would not attend the conference.
Other politicians followed suit. In the run-up to the conference, Congressman John Yarmuth tweeted: “I’m not going to the AIPAC Conference, and not only am I pro-Israel and pro-Jewish, I AM Jewish. I’m also anti-Netanyahu and anti-Trump.”
Abbas Hamideh, executive director of Al Awda, said the large number of Democrats choosing not to attend was an applaudable step and a win for the pro-Palestinian movement.
“This is something we have been fighting for for many years,” he told Al Jazeera. “We – the entire Palestinian movement in the US – are finally making a dent – making a difference, through our rallies, through our lectures here at university, through BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions].”
While some believe the conference boycotts are partially due to Omar shedding a spotlight on AIPAC, others said it had more to do with a demographic change in the democratic party and a response to a Trump presidency that has cosied up to Israel, much to Palestinians discontent.
Over the past year, the Trump administration moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, shut down the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) office in Washington, DC, and last week recognised Israel’s sovereignty over Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967.
“The US is the ultimate battlefield for the liberation of people in Palestine,” Jamal J, who joined the protest from Paris, France, told Al Jazeera. “Nothing will happen if it doesn’t happen first here,” he added.
“I believe the Trump administration gives a reason and motivation for the minorities and the oppressed to organise and to pushback. We have to take advantage of that and put forward out concern for human rights.”
Amar Masri, from Indiana, believed AIPAC’s influence on politicians runs deep.
“[Just as] Muslims go to Mecca to go to heaven, politicians go to AIPAC for their blessing to get to the White House,” he told Al Jazeera.
US President Donald Trump is expected to sign an order recognising Isreali’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights on Monday as he meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, who is also scheduled to speak at AIPAC.