To Show Solidarity With Palestine, Pakistanis Should Observe The Nakba Day on May 15
Can someone please remind or inform Maulana Tahir Ashrafi’s Pakistan Ulema Council that Palestinians observe ‘Youm Dhikr al-Nakba’ – the Remembrance of Palestine’s catastrophe – every year on 15th May?
The conflict in the Middle East erupted once again as Palestinian Muslims worshipping at the Al-Aqsa mosque in occupied Jerusalem were subjected to a hail of rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades on the night of the 27th of Ramadan, corresponding to 10 May 2021. This brutal attack on Muslims at one of the holiest sites of Islam, on one of the holiest nights of the Islamic calendar, incensed not just Muslims but all rational peace-loving people around the world. The backdrop of this latest round of violence and hostilities is not just rooted in the 70-years-long occupation of Palestine, but in the forced eviction of Palestinian families from their ancestral homes in Sheikh Jarrah by an apartheid regime.
What is the Pakistani perspective on this violence in particular, and on the Palestinian issue in general? Or rather, what should be the average Pakistani’s viewpoint on this latest round of conflict in Palestine and on the plight of the Palestinians?
First things first: Pakistan does not officially recognise Israel. But that statement, like the prohibitive notice on all pages of a Pakistani passport, inherently admits that there is in fact a state called Israel. So a more appropriate calibration of Pakistan’s official policy should be “Pakistan does not recognise any state by the name of Israel”. As former US President Trump’s efforts to force his version of a ‘peace’ on the Middle East were under way, many Muslim countries had to step back from their official positions. Some, like the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco recognized Israel and commenced formal diplomatic relations. Others apparently ‘held firm’ to their original stance that no recognition of Israel would be possible without a viable Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, a reference to Palestinian lands recognized as such by international law but occupied after the Six Day War.
Perhaps the growing references to a state called Israel are not directed at nurturing public acceptance for recognition of that state, but to acknowledge the continued suffering of the Palestinian people who face disproportionate violence as well as the dispossession and racism that they suffer at the hands of an apartheid state that values its Jewish citizens more so than the Muslims or Christians living therein. The increasing ‘comfort’ of reference to Israel is, therefore, more about acknowledging who is oppressing the Palestinians, than about recognizing that state as a state.
On another level, references to the state of Israel solely for the purposes of identifying the occupiers and oppressors of the Palestinian people also serves to exacerbate anti-Semitic notions that prevalent among modern Muslims: this is a dangerous trend, since it is equally racist to condemn all Jews – many of whom support Palestine – for the acts of an oppressive and racist Zionist regime. It is as racist and as unhelpful as blaming all Muslims for the ideologies and actions of Islamist extremists. By extension, the Iranian regime appears to be more balanced – if one can say that – in its references to the plight of Palestine, by openly and repeatedly condemning the ‘Zionist regime’ instead of any state called Israel which the Jews consider their homeland as ordained by God and prophecy.
There is no doubt that the violence perpetrated by police forces of the state called Israel on Palestinian Muslims in general, and on the worshippers at Al-Aqsa mosque in particular, quickly spiraled out of control. Police attacks on Palestinian Muslims at Al-Aqsa mosque began on 7 May this year, as they gathered to offer prayers on the last Friday of Ramadan. Right-wing Jewish extremists planned to march on to the mosque on 10 May, what they call ‘Jerusalem Day’ – as they do annually on corresponding dates of the Hebrew calendar, observed this year on 9-10 May – to celebrate their annexation of occupied East Jerusalem. The police actions against Palestinians prior to this had elicited a popular response, and the rallies were called off by the government of so-called Israel. But clashes continued to spiral, and the anger felt by Palestinians – from generations of living under neocolonialism, and more recently at dispossession from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem and other Palestinian territories – transformed into a violent reaction from a previously peaceful and nonviolent resistance against the apartheid policies that specifically targeted them. Visuals of the al-Aqsa mosque ablaze, and videos of Jewish ‘celebrations’ at witnessing the inferno, only aggravated the sense of indignity felt by Muslims around the world.
To acquire new relevance in this turmoil, and to exemplify the inconsequence of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad organizations – called ‘terrorists’ as well as ‘resistance’ depending on who you speak to – issued an ultimatum to Israel that it should withdraw from the Temple Mount and Sheikh Jarrah by 6pm local time on 10 May, or prepare to face the consequences. Yes, Hamas issued the ultimatum to Israel, because it not only recognized who it attacks or wishes to attack, but also conducts ceasefire negotiations with it. At the specified time, these Gaza-based groups began launching rocket salvos into so-called Israeli territories, eliciting a fierce military response that not only highlighted the asymmetric and imbalanced nature of the conflict, but also caused a sharp rise in civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip.
While these projectile exchanges were going on between an organized military force and a loose confederation of militias, riots broke out in the city of Lod/al-Lidda between Jewish and Muslim residents – or, as their mainstream labels say, between Israeli citizens and Palestinian Israelis or Israeli Arabs. Other cities with considerable Palestinian Muslim populations like Jaffa and Nazareth also witnessed unrest, and even mainstream global media was forced to display video coverage of extremist Jewish mobs attacking Palestinian commercial establishments, as well as particularly gruesome videos of disproportionate extremist violence against a solitary member of the other community. This widespread civil unrest is a more revealing aspect of the ongoing phase of the conflict, as opposed to what mainstream analysts would point to, which is the enormous volume of rockets that militias from Gaza are able to launch this time around.
Those who are quick to seize on mainstream narratives that Hamas is a terrorist organization, and that so-called Israel has – as US officials state repetitively – a right to defend itself, must also exercise a modicum of patience and tolerance in order to at least hear the Palestinian side of the argument; they see their occupiers as terrorists, and have no choice left but to support the enemies of their enemy, in the form of Hamas and other militias in Gaza, who are attempting to inflict some measure of indiscriminate damage on the occupation. Of course, the militias in Gaza do not have precision weapons that their adversary has, so their rocket volleys are bound to inflict pain and suffering without care or consideration for the religious beliefs of their targets. Needless to say, despite the repeated pronouncements of the so-called Israeli Defense Forces, their high-tech weaponry and precision guided munitions are also causing civilian casualties and non-combatant fatalities – elements of conflict recognized as war crimes under international law.
However, attempts by the UN Security Council to bring any measure of resolution to the ongoing hostilities have been successfully scuttled by the United States, the most obdurate ally of so-called Israel. This has continued to diminish America’s importance as a reliable interlocutor, since many see this as the incumbent administration pursuing the policy of the highly unpopular preceding administration. It remains to be seen whether calls for a balanced and more sensitive American approach to the Palestine-Israel issue – being issued by all four progressive Democrat congresswomen of ‘the Squad’ including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, along with other politicians and elites who are now forced to see this Middle Eastern dispute from the lens of racism and police brutality in the US itself – will have any effect whatsoever, without an unequivocal demand that so-called Israel must cease and desist.
So what role does Pakistan intend to play in all of this?
Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan reiterated his 2014 statement that he stands with Gaza, and he made calls to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to reiterate his and Pakistan’s support. Pakistani president Dr. Arif Alvi also sent a letter to his Palestinian counterpart as a show of solidarity. Pakistan has reinvigorated its diplomatic efforts for Muslim nation-states – i.e. the Ummah – to recognize the Palestinian plight in a unified manner, particularly on the OIC platform. An urgent OIC ministerial meeting on the issue has been scheduled for Sunday.
Pakistan’s endeavors to portray its correspondences with Mahmoud Abbas as the most prominent signal of its support for the Palestinian cause are misplaced at best, and ill-informed at worst. The Palestinian president is old and infirm, and more importantly has diminishing political relevance for the Palestinian people. Not only because he has failed in negotiating a respectable peace agreement for them, but also because he failed to hold democratic elections and has since clung on to power. Abbas can neither escalate nor de-escalate the response of the ‘Palestinian resistance’ as he has no control over Gaza or the militias lobbing volleys of rockets from there. And sadly, the original Palestinian Liberation Organization, PLO-Fatah which Abbas leads, has become as much a part of the status quo as the oppression that generations of Palestinians have suffered.
More strangely, Imran Khan’s special representative on religious harmony and the Middle East, Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, has announced that Pakistan will be observing 14 May, the second day of Eid-ul-Fitr, as ‘Palestine Day’. The call was officially issued from the platform of a quasi-political organization led by Ashrafi and cleverly named the ‘Pakistan Ulema Council’ – to give the appearance of legitimacy as a national council of religious clerics, which it is not. According to Ashrafi, this would be a show of solidarity for the people of Palestine on behalf of the people of Pakistan – what real effectiveness this declaration will have, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps Maulana Ashrafi wishes to reiterate his own relevance after religious organizations took out rallies across Pakistan on 13 May – when the nation was observing Eid-ul-Fitr – in solidarity with Palestine and in condemnation of blatant aggression by so-called Israel. It should be noted that these rallies, regardless of their professed ‘noble and righteous’ intentions, were held in violation of COVID-19 SOPs and preventative guidelines; many participants were also observed to not be wearing masks, perhaps because showing their faces and being counted as present was more important than saving their lives and of those around them from the deadly waves of an ongoing global pandemic.
It would have been more pertinent if the Maulana – along with other religious, political, and civil society leaders (if there are any left) – would have announced that Pakistan would observe Eid-ul-Fitr with simplicity and minimize celebrations in solidarity with the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people. This would not only have encouraged compliance with COVID-19 guidelines, but could have galvanized a unified response from the people of Pakistan who, so far, cannot even agree on a single hashtag to promote the fact that we stand with Palestine.
More importantly, observing ‘Palestine Day’ on 14 May also sends the wrong signal of misappropriation rather than solidarity with and understanding of the Palestinian cause, since Palestinians around the world observe 15 May as ‘Youm al-Nakba’, or the ‘Day of Catastrophe’: in annual remembrance of the 1948 eviction from their homes and ancestral lands by the occupation forces of so-called Israel.
Maulana Tahir Ashrafi must immediately clarify whether Pakistan’s lonely observance of ‘Palestine Day’ today will precede us observing ‘Youm al-Nakba’ tomorrow, or not. It remains premature to adjudicate whether this is deliberate or just a matter of ignorance whereby the history of legitimate Palestinian resistance against oppression and occupation is being sidelined. Even so, his ill-timed and misplaced declaration will only be seen as an attempt to usurp media attention at the expense of the Palestinian cause, and will serve to further isolate Pakistan as irrelevant to the ongoing developments and evolving realities of the Muslim world.
Shemrez is a research analyst specialising in economic security and the political economy of terrorism, extremism and identity. He most recently served as an intelligence officer at NACTA, Government of Pakistan, where he helped establish the Joint Intelligence Directorate (JID). He tweets at @shemrez.