Letter from ‘Kibbutz Israel’

In these dark times, it is heartening to see the Palestinian cause conquering new terrain in Washington and beyond.

Banners are seen during a pro-Palestinian demonstration outside of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Saturday, March 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Banners are seen during a pro-Palestinian demonstration outside of the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, on March 2, 2024 [Jose Luis Magana/AP]

In the wee hours of May 8, police officers in Washington, DC violently cleared the pro-Palestine encampment at George Washington University (GW) with the help of pepper spray, arresting 33 people. University president Ellen Granberg had called the cops on what she claimed was an “unlawful” on-campus expression of solidarity with the victims of Israel’s current genocide in the Gaza Strip, which has officially killed some 36,000 people in less than eight months, although this number is no doubt a grave underestimate.

Granberg denounced the encampment as “an illegal and potentially dangerous occupation of GW property” – an ironic choice of words, to say the least, given the context of the ongoing illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the Israeli military’s decidedly dangerous behaviour. Now, the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict” – which is not so much a conflict as a psychopathic Israeli campaign to usurp other people’s property – is playing out in a battle for the landscape in the capital of the United States, Israel’s BFF and devoted arms supplier.

I witnessed the aftermath of the police assault on the GW camp, as I had just arrived back in DC from self-imposed exile in Mexico for a brief visit with my mother. Having never excelled much at optimism, I had found it enormously heartening that the pro-justice narrative was gaining ground in a country pathologically disconnected from reality. Graffiti and placards in support of Palestine had proliferated across public and private space alike, and pasted onto the window of the #33 bus I found a priority mail envelope addressed “FROM: THE SEA; TO: THE RIVER” – a reference to the Palestinian slogan,“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

I arrived at the GW encampment site around 8am on May 8 to find the area cordoned off and a battalion of sanitation workers systematically loading the camp’s contents into a garbage compactor truck: tents, prayer mats, backpacks, stuffed animals. A young Jewish man who had participated in the encampment turned up in a kippa and keffiyeh to watch the destruction, remarking drily as a table was heaved into the truck’s jaws: “Oh, that’s the table we had the Torah on.”

Granberg hardly had the final word, however, and on May 19 her speech at the GW commencement ceremony on Washington’s iconic National Mall was interrupted by students chanting demands that GW divest from Israel and cease funding genocide.

Four days before that, on May 15, I paid a visit to another epicentre of the showdown between Zionism and justice on this side of the Atlantic: the Israeli embassy in the northwest section of Washington. It was Nakba Day, the annual commemoration of the mass slaughter and dispossession of Palestinians that characterised the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 – and that set the stage for the next 76 years and counting.

Here was a concentrated battle for the landscape in the space of one city block. The embassy compound was saturated with Israeli flags, while the streets surrounding the building had been taken over by pro-Palestinian protesters and signage. One sign announced: “WELCOME TO KIBBUTZ ISRAEL”, with an addendum underneath: “SINCE THEY THINK SETTLEMENTS ARE COOL”. Indeed, what more symbolic way to protest a murderous occupying force than through a counter-occupation?

In addition to Palestinian flags, other visuals lining the street included invitations to “Honk 4 Palestine”, pictures of bloodied Palestinian babies and other carnage in Gaza, and a reminder of Israel’s use of starvation as a weapon of war. A faux street sign read: “Genocide Street Northwest”. Directly in front of the embassy was a memorial to Aaron Bushnell, the 25-year-old active duty member of the US Air Force who self-immolated outside the compound on February 25 in what he warned was an “extreme act of protest – but compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonisers is not extreme at all”.

Bushnell’s literal self-sacrifice was what launched Kibbutz Israel, now three months old. On the day of my visit, a charming character emerged from the embassy and attempted to topple the memorial, after which he received a talking-to and then a handshake from the US Secret Service officers on duty. As he was whisked off in a black vehicle, he snarled through the open window at one of the female activists: “Whore.”

Kibbutz Israel protesters and Israeli embassy personnel struggled for occupation of the auditory realm, as well, and protesters had erected a sign advising that there was a “noise demonstration” under way. Complimentary earplugs were offered along with the suggestion to “please cover your ears (and open your eyes/rise up against genocide)”.

To that end, protesters took turns shouting through megaphones in the direction of the embassy, while embassy staff intermittently blasted music from within the compound to drown them out. But if Israel’s diplomatic representatives in Washington can’t even deal with the ruckus made by a handful of people with megaphones, perhaps they should imagine how noisy it must be to live under apocalyptic Israeli military bombardment for nearly eight months.

Of course, the US political establishment in Washington remains firmly committed to the idea that genocide is “self-defence”, and continues to fling money and armaments at the Israeli military accordingly. And yet folks on the ground are finally opening their eyes, as the truth conquers new terrain in the nation’s capital and beyond – from the Potomac River to the Chesapeake Bay, you might say.

Or better yet: From sea to shining sea, Palestine will be free.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.