“Have you ever protested against the massacres in Syria?”, asked Israeli police officer Yossi Peretz as he was detaining me along with other activists on our way to an anti-occupation demonstration in Bil’in. “Bashar al-Assad murders tens of Syrians every day and you are silent.”
It was an atrocious day: The security apparatus of the “only democracy in the Middle East” showcased its full force and flexed its muscles to prevent a bus carrying non-violent protesters from reaching an unarmed demonstration; we were detained for three hours in the Givaat Ze’ev police station on a dreary, freezing morning; we couldn’t march alongside the courageous villagers in Bil’in as they commemorated the seventh anniversary of popular resistance against the apartheid wall. What exasperated me the most was the cynical attempt of a man charged with enforcing brutal occupation and military despotism to exploit the blood of Syrian martyrs and feign concern for the victims of Assad’s deplorable atrocities. Ironically, a few days earlier during an anti-Assad protest in occupied Jerusalem, a Palestinian man scolded us for “not participating in a single demonstration against the massacres in Gaza.”
As the Syrian intifada for dignity, freedom and justice enters its second year without showing any sign of succumbing to the regime’s callous, pernicious crackdown, myths continue to dominate the discourse over Syria and Palestine. One such myth is that supporting the Palestinian struggle and the Syrian intifada are mutually exclusive. It is as though Palestinians and Syrians are competing over who can claim the greater measure of victimhood and unfair media coverage. For instance, when I tweet about the flagrant human rights violations and daily crimes that Israel perpetrates against Palestinians, I get similar reactions to that voiced by the Israeli police officer: “And what about Syria?” (Justifying and covering up Israeli crimes by switching discussion to Arab tyrannies is a well-known manipulative trick used by Zionist propagandists that has unfortunately been adopted by *some* Arabs.) Many, on the other hand, complain about the “excessive” focus of mainstream Arab and Western media on Syria and ignoring atrocities in Palestine and Bahrain. Granted, mainstream media has an agenda and a set of politically and financially-motivated priorities, and shedding light on the repression in Bahrain or Palestine doesn’t meet their agenda… or the corporate goals of mass-media conglomerates. Similarly, pro-Assad media outlets in Syria, Lebanon, Iran, etc., blather for hours about the crimes of Israel while turning a blind eye to the massacres carried out by Assad next door. Hypocrisy and double-standards in the media happen both ways. Spending all of one’s time blasting the media and Western governments for their despicable and shameful hypocrisy, selective indignation, and warped “humanitarianism”, while barely uttering a syllable of solidarity with the Syrian people is the epitome of the very hypocrisy and skewed “humanitarianism” one is trying to protest in the first place. As painful as the analogy is, reading circular debates about media coverage of Syria vis-à-vis Palestine reminds me of a football match where the supporters of both teams slam a terribly inept referee for his bias and explain his awful decisions by trotting out worn and tired conspiracy theories. The truth is that the Syrian people are getting a taste of what Palestinians have been enduring for the best part of a century: futile Arab League summits; empty, toothless rhetoric by kings and sheikhs; lip service from the “international community”; crocodile tears; and a horribly feckless and reactionary political leadership that lags light years behind the rebellious youth. Moreover, both Palestinians and Syrians have been blessed with the all-important contribution of Kofi Annan, the undisputed master of equating between victims and executioners, an expert at calling for sham “peace” between the oppressor and oppressed amidst carnage and bloody repression.
It’s worth noting, however, that I’m perfectly aware of the significant differences between the Syrian and Palestinian situations. Palestinians have been struggling for over six decades against an expansionist settler-colonial military occupation erected upon physical and psychological walls, separation fences, and military checkpoints, maintained by the lethal combination of the military-industrial complex and deeply-entrenched institutional racism that penetrates the whole of society. Syrians are fighting a fascist, totalitarian ruling elite that has turned Syria into a private property of the Assad clan and their beneficiaries. That elite class, under Assad’s dominating influence, has acted exactly like an occupation force with a similar lack of legitimacy.
The means by which Israel attacks and suppresses the Palestinian population may be different from those used by Assad. Israel’s violence, especially in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and within the Green line, is not as visible as the Assad regime’s – although Gaza gets more than its fair share of air strikes and missiles – but it’s equally as destructive. The silent ethnic cleansing of an indigenous population in the form of rapidly increasing home demolitions, settlement construction, strict control on the freedom of movement of Palestinians and systematic denial of basic infrastructure such as water and electricity gradually squeezes the lifeblood out of quarantined, defenceless communities. In addition, Palestinians have had to deal with the ongoing theft of their land, identity, and collective memory since the creation of the state of Israel. The discriminatory legal system and racist bureaucracy that controls the tiniest minutiae of Palestinians’ daily lives re an evil force that is not as flashy and dramatic as bombs and rockets; therefore, it will never make the headlines of the New York Times and the BBC. Conversely, the brutality of the Assad regime since the start of the uprising has been much more perceptible, graphic, and less sophisticated. However, despite these aforementioned differences, the wound of Syrians and Palestinians is one; our demands are the same – dignity, freedom and justice – and we both have to fight our battle on our own as the world stands by meekly. The Palestinian cause transcends ethnicity, religion and nationality, which explains why it has become a symbol of the oppressed throughout the region. This is precisely why we Palestinians should be the first to support the Syrian people’s intifada – not as an act of solidarity, but as recognition of our shared demands and destiny. This unconditional support for the Syrian revolution does not, however, mean approving of the Syrian National Council or any human rights abuses committed by the Free Syrian Army or any other armed opposition group in Syria. On the contrary, it is in the revolution’s best interest to condemn human rights violations, sectarianism, and corruption regardless of the culpable party. Yet, it’s also crucial not to equate between the oppressed and oppressor and to keep in mind that the Syrian regime bears full responsibility for driving the country into violence and for fomenting sectarian tensions. The Syrian regime has done nothing to liberate the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, let alone Palestine, but even if it were the only entity in the world capable of liberating our land, we must stand against it. You can never achieve your liberation on the blood of your brethren and with the aid of the very regime that denies your fellow men and women their most basic rights.
This is what makes the support of some corrupt Palestinian leaders, couch leftists, and Arab nationalists for the Assad regime so repellent and disgraceful. By brazenly exploiting the cause of one oppressed people to justify the oppression of another, Palestinian cheerleaders of Assad inflict irreparable damage on the Palestinian cause. Khaled Jabbareen, a veteran Palestinian activist I met during the demonstration we held in Haifa to mark the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising, told me: “I quit political activism for 15 years. What spurred me to be active again was watching an obsolete Palestinian ‘leader’ sing Assad’s praises on Syrian State TV. We have been repeatedly scapegoated because of contemptuous stances taken by self-appointed Palestinian leaders and we paid the price dearly. We cannot allow the same to happen with the Syrian intifada. We cannot sit idly as Syrians are being killed and repressed in our name.”
Jabbareen added that the Syrian intifada has unmasked the traditional Arab “Left” and exposed its moral bankruptcy. For decades, Arab leftists and modernists have been urging the masses to rise up. When the masses did rise to break the walls of fear in Syria, most of those self-proclaimed leftists and revolutionists cowered and either supported the regime in the guise of “anti-imperialism” and “Arabism” or sat on the fence, perhaps because the intifada was not attractive enough to satisfy their self-perceived intellectual superiority or because they were never revolutionary in the first place. Although those intellectuals and “leaders” are unashamedly loud in their support of Assad, and although one cannot deny that minhibbakjiyeh exist in Palestine as well, they do not represent the Palestinian people – as much as they shame me – and they do not represent the Palestinian cause. They do not represent the values and principles Palestinians are fighting for. Palestinians chanted “Yallah Irhal Ya Bashar” in Nazareth, Haifa, Jaffa, Baqa, Jerusalem, Bil’in and Nabi Saleh. Many of us will continue to do so since it’s our duty to stand on the side of those who sing for freedom, dance, and even make jokes through the horror visited by bullets and mortar shells. A victory for the brave Syrian people over Assad’s tyranny will be a triumph for every oppressed community in the world. Such a triumph could change the discourse of resistance and turn it from a pretext to crush revolt into a leaderless, grassroots movement. Resistance is not a tyrant’s speech, and the Palestininian cause lives not in the ivory towers of intellectuals or in the dungeons of dictators. It lives in the voice of Ibrahim Qashoush, the innocent soul of Hamza al-Khatib, the heroic “Sumoud” of Homs and in the unbreakable spirit of the Syrian and Palestinian people.