There Is No Defense for This:” A Palestinian Rights Advocate on the Gaza-Israel Border Violence

Vox interviews USCPR Executive Director Yousef Munayyer on the Great Return March, the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, and the Trump administration’s move of the US embassy to occupied territory in Jerusalem.

In light of the recent events, I reached out to Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a coalition of groups working to advocate for US policy change and to combat racism, to get his perspective on what just happened.

Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, follows.

Alexia Underwood

In recent days, we’ve seen the US move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. At the same time, there was this violence at the Gaza-Israel border, where Israeli soldiers shot and killed more than 60 Palestinians who were protesting.

Can you explain what’s going on there? Why are people are protesting?

Yousef Munayyer

The events of the last couple days, they’re not really about the relocation of the US Embassy. There’ve been ongoing protests at the Gaza border for the past several weeks, and they’ve been planned for some time.

The protests began on March 30, which is known as Land Day. This commemorates an event in 1976 when several Palestinians, who were citizens of Israel, were massacred by Israeli forces when they were protesting land confiscation. The protests then continued every week until May 15, which is when Palestinians mark Nakba Day.

But really, the genesis of these events goes back 70 years, to 1948, during which time there was a massive refugee crisis that was created by the depopulation and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian towns and villages. So 1947 through 1949. The most significant year during this period was 1948. And for Palestinians, this is perhaps the most important year in their history of the people because it is the moment in which their society as they knew it was obliterated.

And just so you know, about 80 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip is not originally from Gaza — even though Gaza itself has been inhabited for millennia. But most of the people there today are from surrounding towns and villages that were forced into exile in 1948.

And so the people protesting today, some of them might even be the original refugees from that period. Many of them are the children or the grandchildren of refugees who have never been able to go home.

I think most people around the world take for granted that every day, they are able to do something very simple, which is at the end of the day, they go home. For Palestinians, they have not been able to go home for 70 years. That day has never ended. And so this is what is at the core of Palestinian grievances.

Which means that May 15 is a date that Israelis and Palestinians look at in diametrically opposed ways. This is a moment of celebration for many Israelis, and it is a moment of remembering tragedy and loss for Palestinians.

So for the United States to not only make the decision that they did in terms of locating the embassy in Jerusalem, but to decide to unveil it and to celebrate it on this particular day, can only be seen by Palestinians as a deliberate effort to justify the Israeli historical narrative over the Palestinian narrative and to rub salt into the wounds of Palestinians writ large. (The protest organizers have said that they were inspired to plan the protests in the aftermath of the US decision to move the embassy.)

I don’t think this level of depravity and cruelty is something that Palestinians have witnessed by the United States in the past. And I think that is important.

I think it’s also important that the events of yesterday offered a juxtaposition of images from Jerusalem and Gaza, that showed American government officials clapping and singing and smiling alongside Israeli government officials while Palestinians were being massacred by Israeli troops, who were acting on Israeli government orders.

That’s not something Palestinians are going to forget; that’s not something I think people of conscience around the world are going to forget. And so to the extent that the embassy move is related to the events of yesterday, it was because I think it exposed the degree to which the United States is complicit in Israel’s abuses of Palestinians.

Alexia Underwood

You mentioned Nakba Day, or the Day of Catastrophe. Talk a little bit more about what that means for Palestinians.

Yousef Munayyer

The Nakba is an experience — the Palestinian experience of dispossession. It primarily refers to one period in history, when 700,000 to 850,000 Palestinians, a vast majority of the native inhabitants of Palestine, were forced from their homes and denied the ability to return.

This is a central moment for Palestinians, and I think one of the reasons it’s so important is because so much of what is being done to Palestinians by the Israelis relies on a denial of Palestinian history, the creation of a myth about what the land was like before 1948, and the creation of the state of Israel.

So asserting that history, remembering it, making clear what our connections to the land are, is a central part of not just Palestinian resistance today but Palestinian existence today as well.

Alexia Underwood

A lot of responses that we’ve heard from the Israeli government focus on Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. They’ve said that Hamas is at fault for the violence. And on Wednesday, a Hamas official said that several of the people who were killed were affiliated with the group. What’s your response to people who make that argument?

Yousef Munayyer

You know, I think the short response to this is that it is victim blaming. That’s what it comes down to, and you see it throughout history in many contexts. But let’s be very clear about what took place here. Overwhelmingly unarmed protesters, posing no imminent risk to people, hundreds of meters away [from the border fence] were gunned down by snipers carrying automatic weapons, sitting on dunes behind the fence. Let’s recognize what took place.

I think these attempts to blame Palestinians for being killed by Israelis is just — it’s disgraceful, is what it is. It struck me as the kind of thing that you would’ve heard about civil rights protesters protesting segregation in the 1960s.

As the world began to watch the beatings and the repression of protesters crossing bridges or what have you during the civil rights movement, there were people who responded, “Well, these protesters are looking for trouble. These protesters are putting themselves in danger. These protesters are responsible for the bloodshed that takes place today.”

Look, protests are by their very nature a provocation. They are provoking people into asking moral questions. When Martin Luther King crossed that bridge, it was a provocation. When Rosa Parks refused to stand up, it was a provocation. When the students at Kent State went to protest the bombing of Cambodia, it was a provocation.

And each and every time people were provoked into asking moral questions about what was taking place, it was the response to those protests that clarified the answer about what is right and what is wrong.

And that is what is taking place in Gaza right now. People are watching this, and they understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with gunning down protesters. And I think it’s one of the things that Israel, frankly, is struggling with right now. Because they want to find a way to defend this, but there is no defense for this.

And about the Wednesday comments, from the outset of these protests, there have been critics who have said this is nothing more than a desperate and cynical attempt by Hamas to try to reclaim political support among Palestinians. Some of these very same voices are now taking the statement of this one Hamas person at face value to be perfectly true without verification, and parrot it as some sort of evidence that incriminates Palestinians.

It’s an odd contrast — don’t believe what Hamas says until they say something that you want to be true.

The other point that needs to be made is that somebody having a membership in an organization, whatever that is, whether it’s political or on a terrorist list or whatever, does not justify their murder.

It’s a very slippery slope: We’re saying that a person with a political affiliation deserves to die, regardless of whether they’re doing anything. I think that’s insane. There are many Israelis who are members of the Israeli military who are not in combat. Does that make them legitimate targets at any time, because they’re affiliated with the military?

There are laws and rules that govern the use of force — it comes down to whether there’s an imminent threat to life. Whether or not you don’t like people who are from other groups — Hamas, for example — they shouldn’t be shot because they have a political affiliation. And that’s even if we are in fact taking to be true what this person said. It hasn’t been corroborated. We’re only hearing about this because it serves a particular narrative.

Alexia Underwood

Related to that, the US government has made the argument that Hamas is the one responsible for this violence over the past few days as well. Can you talk about the US response?

Yousef Munayyer

The response from the White House on Monday was shocking because of how identical it was to the Israeli response on this issue. It’s really different from how the US would respond to any other government gunning down protesters anywhere else in the world, right?

But what’s interesting is that the American position on these sorts of issues had evolved over time. You can go back to 2002, during the Bush administration; there was a time when the Israelis dropped a massive bomb on Gaza that killed a Hamas person that they were targeting, but also in the process killed 14 civilians that were in the neighboring area.

The Bush administration condemned the attack and said that they viewed the attack as “heavy handed.” They made clear then that the United States and the Israelis don’t see eye to eye on these sorts of attacks. So it’s just remarkable to me that over time, the killing of civilians in Gaza has become normalized.

And over time, there has been a complete normalization of blaming Palestinians for being killed by Israelis.

It has led us to the point earlier this week where the Israelis can shoot people on video in front of the entire world and then blame someone else for it. The Israeli government used to have to respect and pay attention to the US position on that line, because if they lost the backing of the United States, they knew that they would be open to international condemnation. Now the Trump administration has taken all the brakes off and basically said, “Have at it.”

The White House spokesperson was asked on Monday, “Do you think this is okay?” And he said very plainly, “We think that the people responsible for this is Hamas.”

And the message sent to the Israelis is, “We’re okay with this. If you do it again, we’re not going to say anything.” That is extremely dangerous, and I think it is a clear abdication of any pretext of the United States having some sort of moral standing when it comes to this issue.

Alexia Underwood

Thousands of people have continued to go to the border to protest for weeks, despite how dangerous things have become. Talk a little bit about why.

Yousef Munayyer

There are lots of different reasons why people go to protests. I think people are motivated by the difficult lives they have been forced to live, but they also want to see a better future for their children. People protest because they want to see change, and because they believe change is possible, and they have hope.

There was a very good opinion piece in the New York Times written by a Palestinian in Gaza who explained why he goes out to protest.

Even though he has a family and he cares about his family, and he knows that he could be risking his life, he says very simply, “I go because I hope that there is a chance that change can come, and that my children don’t have to live the difficult life that we live. And that is worth risking my life for.”

I don’t want to speak for everybody who was there, I think they should speak for themselves, but I think that’s the reason why people are speaking out.

They obviously believe that there’s something better out there; they want to see change. They also obviously know that it’s a risk. The Israelis have demonstrated a willingness to shoot people from hundreds of meters away in the head. They understand what’s at stake.

But they also understand that life in the rest of the world is not like Gaza. That people on the other side of that fence have access to the very basic things that they’re denied. And that they deserve that as well.

Alexia Underwood

Given everything that’s happened this week, where do you expect things to go from here?

Yousef Munayyer

I think in the short term, things are going to get worse before they get better. But I do think one of the things that we’ve seen over the past 10 to 20 years is a sort of clarification about what’s taking place on the ground.

For a very long time, people were of the view that Israel was the David facing the Goliath and therefore needed to be supported and needed to be given the benefit of the doubt, and so on.

But over time, people are realizing that that perception that they had was actually inverted. The reality is that you have a very strong and powerful Israeli state using its strength in a very unfair way against a stateless people. And I think that as people come to realize that, that is something that is going to force them to back away from supporting Israel.

The Trump administration is certainly not going to do that. But I think these protests in particular have really sharpened the understanding of the power imbalance.

That’s perhaps one of the most important things — that this is not about two militaries facing off against each other. This is about a military cracking down on protesters. A military that has all forms of weapons at its disposal against, you know, kids with kites and rocks and slingshots and whatever else, that they can lob 30 or 40 or 50 feet, before getting picked off by a sniper from 500 meters away.

And it’s only when that realization happens, and particularly when that happens here in the United States — when people say, “We can no longer be a party to this; we can no longer continue to give Israel a blank check at the United Nations,” and so on — only then will we see real change on the ground.