Palestinians Echo Black Lives Matter as U.S. Activists Repay George Floyd Solidarity

The latest spiral of Israeli-Palestinian violence appears to have punctured American weariness over one of the world's most intractable conflicts, as Palestinians pick up the language of the Black Lives Matter movement for their own cause.

The Jerusalem clashes and exchanges of fire in the Gaza Strip prompted fierce condemnation from the American left, while Palestinian activists seek support from America's minority communities, which they consider natural allies in their battle with the Israeli state.

Palestinians have long complained they are treated as second-class citizens by successive Israeli governments.

Recent efforts to clear Palestinians from disputed land in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem—considered Palestinian land by the United Nations but annexed by Israel in 1967—have sparked a fresh conflagration.

The East Jerusalem neighborhood—the subject of conflicting ownership claims by two Jewish trusts and local Palestinian landowners—has become a symbol of simmering anger, mobilizing Palestinians who have for years faced broad Israeli human rights abuses and a system of occupation described by critics as apartheid.

What began as a land dispute in East Jerusalem has progressed into a grimly familiar exchange of fire between Hamas militants in the blockaded Gaza Strip and the Israel Defense Forces.

The IDF response has killed dozens of Palestinians, among them civilians and several young children.

To some, the violent scenes in Sheikh Jarrah have parallels to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis last year and the subsequent wave of anti-racism and anti-police protests.

One video filmed in the neighborhood last week felt particularly familiar. It captured an Israeli soldier restraining a Palestinian activist by placing a knee on his neck—reminiscent of the hold that killed Floyd.

"I can't breathe, you're suffocating me," the man cried out repeatedly.

An Israeli soldier presses his knee on the neck of Palestinian man in Sheikh Jarrah, occupied Jerusalem, as he screams, “I can’t breathe, you’re suffocated me.”

— CJ Werleman (@cjwerleman) May 4, 2021

The recent dispossessions, raids, and violence have sharpened Palestinian grievances and prompted anger from minority communities in the U.S. who have been fighting their own war against systemic racism and historic oppression.

Progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) wrote on Twitter: "It is long past time we stop paying lip service to Palestinian human rights and finally take action to protect them," an appeal retweeted by the Black Lives Matter organization's Twitter account.

Omar's accompanying written statement was co-signed by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Rep. André Carson (D-IN).

"We condemn all violence in this conflict—these acts only serve to advance the political goals of the powerful at the expense of the suffering of the people," the three lawmakers said.

The local Black Lives Matter organization in Paterson, New Jersey was among the groups to speak out against the violence and condemn the Israeli state.

A statement released by the group on Monday said the Israeli raid on the Al-Aqsa Mosque "harkens to our struggle against a repressive state apparatus."

"Our deep roots of solidarity are part of a rich tradition of mutual support and exchange between Palestine and U.S.-based liberation movements," the group added.

"Our struggles are connected in many ways, not least because the same Israeli forces forcibly expelling the original inhabitants of Sheikh Jarrah train repressive police forces around the world, including the U.S."

On Twitter, users tweeted the #PalestinianLivesMatter hashtag, while some newspapers published op-eds with similar headlines.

George Floyd's murder was a new chapter in America's long history of racial inequality and sparked a fresh wave of popular anger at systemic racism, police oppression, and inequality.

Protests in the U.S. inspired sympathy marches worldwide, including among Palestinians, with Floyd's death seen simultaneously as an American tragedy and also a universal symbol of state repression, police brutality, racism, and inequality.

Soon after Floyd's death, Iyad Halak—an autistic Palestinian man—was shot dead by Israeli Border Police in Jerusalem.

Pro-Palestinian activists compared the two killings, with Saeb Erakat—the chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization who died in November—condemning Halak's killing using the Floyd-inspired hashtag #ICan'tBreathe.

The #PalestinianLivesMatter hashtag soon emerged and spread across Twitter and Instagram.

The liberal Jewish J Street Organization said in a statement: "True justice in the long run requires dismantling the systemic racism that led to these killings in the first place."

There is a long history of solidarity between the Palestinian national movement and Black activism in the U.S.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee accused Israel of "imitating their Nazi oppressors" in 1967, though this drew the condemnation of Martin Luther King Jr.

Others, like Malcolm X, were fiercely critical of Zionism. Malcolm X was among the first U.S. civil rights leaders to meet with members of the PLO in 1964.

The Black Panthers were similarly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Huey Newton wrote in 1970: "We support the Palestinians' just struggle for liberation one hundred percent. We will go on doing this, and we would like for all of the progressive people of the world to join our ranks in order to make a world in which all people can live."

As at the time of Floyd's death, Black American and Palestinian anti-Israeli protests coincided in 2014.

In the U.S., marchers mobilized to condemn the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. At the same time, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge into the Gaza Strip at the cost of thousands of Palestinian and dozens of Israeli lives.

The most recent round of violence may deepen this solidarity between Palestinians and Black Americans.

The rhetoric, imagery, and protest tactics that developed in the wake of Floyd's death are already influencing Palestinian activists and helping them spread their message on social media, particularly English-language services.

Still, the Palestinians have few powerful friends left. Both major American parties are more concerned with the strategically vital and economically lucrative alliance with Israel, while the Europeans criticize Israeli conduct in public but threaten little action in practice.

The Gulf states, traditionally the Palestinians' staunchest backers, have begun to drift towards Israel. Before President Donald Trump left office, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan normalized ties with Israel.

Others like Oman and Saudi Arabia have not yet followed suit, though Oman praised the normalization deals. Such a move would be more politically costly for the Saudi royal family given its role as the custodian of two of Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.

However, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly gave the Palestinian question little regard in his visit to the U.S. in 2018, telling Jewish leaders: "It's about time that the Palestinians accept the offers, and agree to come to the negotiating table—or they should shut up and stop complaining."

President Joe Biden has been supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, but a similar push for Palestinian rights is unlikely to garner more than rhetorical backing from the White House. Biden remains committed to the U.S.-Israeli alliance.

Biden has described American backing for Israel as "ironclad" despite concerns from within his own party about human rights abuses and the continued occupation of Palestinian territory.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged de-escalation on both sides, though said the U.S. was "very deeply concerned about the rocket attacks that we're seeing" from Gaza, adding: "They need to stop immediately."

State Department spokesperson Ned Price, meanwhile, said in response to questions about the deadly IDF airstrikes in Gaza that Israel has the right to self-defense.

But Price dodged questions as to whether Palestinians have the same right to self-defense. Price said the Hamas rocket attacks were an "unacceptable escalation."

Biden and his team remain committed to the two-state solution. But this proposal to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict is de facto defunct thanks to years of political deadlock, continued Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory, and the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land despite opposition from the international community.

George Floyd mural in West Bank
People walk past a mural of George Floyd painted on a section of Israel's separation barrier in the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on March 31, 2021. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images