Every Friday since March 30, 2018, in what’s known as the Great March of Return, Palestinians in Gaza come to the Israeli border fence to protest nearly 12 years of a blockade that has made Gaza into what’s often called the world’s largest open-air prison. They also come to invoke UN Resolution 194, their right to return in peace to their homes, from which they were expelled in 1948 when Israel was created. Last year alone, some 189 Palestinians — including children, journalists, and the disabled — were killed at the border, most by Israeli live ammunition; 23,000 have been injured. One year later, the protests continue. Why?
Izzy Mustafa is a Palestinian-American trans man who grew up in New Mexico and moved to New York, where he works at the Adalah Justice Project. Two years ago, I interviewed Izzy about Islam and Gay Pride. Recently, I interviewed him about the Great March. I started by asking him what he’s been doing lately.
IZZY MUSTAFA: I’ve been going back and forth between here and Palestine. I was in touch with folks in Gaza. It’s as if my mind’s been in both Gaza and New York City. When the Great March began, I reached out to journalists, bringing pictures, stories to push out onto social media, to help lay the context of what the Great March of Return is about.
SUSIE DAY: What is the Great March about?
IM: For the first time in decades, Palestinian civil society has come together in this mass mobilization to demand their human rights. Because the circumstances in Gaza are dire. Gaza is one of the most impoverished places in the world. Since 2007, people are not allowed to move in or out of Gaza freely. They’re limited to only four hours a day of electricity. In Gaza, 95 percent of the water is unclean and unfit for drinking. People know that they need to bring their demands to the world because nobody is listening.
The banner everyone walks under is the banner of freedom and justice and return. Men, women, children, grandparents, students, teachers — you have bricklayers, shop owners, every segment of Palestinian society in that March. Because everybody is impacted by this horrific siege.
SD: How has this affected you personally?
IM: On April 6 of last year, a week after the first Gaza mobilization, I helped organize a protest in Union Square to let people in New York City know what was happening in Gaza. Hundreds of people came out. It was a very emotionally driven protest.
I asked Palestinians from Gaza to tell their stories. One of them was a really good friend. She was a journalist herself when she was in Gaza two years ago. We were on the train to the protest and both of us were on WhatsApp. Right before the Union Square stop, we got this message about a journalist in Gaza we were working with. It said he was shot in the stomach by Israeli snipers. He was being rushed to the hospital.
I told her, “He’ll be okay. He had a press vest on.”
We got to the protest, and she started to speak. She said something like, “My friend Yaser Murtaja is currently in the hospital. He was shot. He was wearing a press vest. He’s somebody who’s dedicated to bringing the story of Gaza to the world.”
As she was speaking, a man from Gaza came up to me and said, “Yaser is dead.” And my heart dropped.
Then I had to go up to speak. My friend had gone into the crowd and as I was speaking I was looking for her, because I knew she was going to find out the news. Three minutes into me speaking, I see my friend rush toward me. She grabs me with tears in her eyes. “They killed Yaser. Yaser is dead.”
Yaser Murtaja was like a brother to her; she grew up with him. He died at 31, without ever leaving Gaza. He made a film about her family — it’s going to be screened here in April. But in that moment, I made a commitment to help amplify the voices from the ground in Gaza to US audiences.
SD: A few years ago, a UN report said that by 2020 Gaza would be unlivable.
IM: Gaza is already unlivable. You have rising death rates from starvation, poverty, from not being able to go to a decent hospital, suicides because people can’t find jobs. People are putting their bodies in front of these snipers because they know they have nothing to lose. What’s the last step in creating an unlivable situation? It’s the breaking down of a population’s social fabric. Soon, because there’s so much anger and desperation and lack of power, Israel is going to watch Palestinians in the Gaza Strip cannibalize themselves.
SD: You’ve worked with Ahmed Abu Artema, a poet and journalist in Gaza, who was one of the organizers of the Great March. He believes in “peaceful resistance”?
IM: Ahmed Abu Artema is one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met. Yeah, he helped make the Great March essentially peaceful. Just by being Palestinian, people mark us as terrorists, mark us as violent people, as savages, barbaric. Palestinians knew that, in order to appeal to the international community, they had to march in a peaceful way for the world to see us as somewhat human.
SD: What about differences between Palestinians who support Hamas as opposed to other groups?
IM: I think most of the population, whether on the West Bank or in Gaza, are becoming jaded with political parties and leadership that claim to represent Palestinians. Fatah and Hamas aren’t the legitimate leaders of our people. They create this media idea that it’s an equal playing field, that the occupier and the occupied are equal because there are two governments. But there’s really one legal regime — Israel, which controls everybody. Any uprising has to come from the grassroots, has to come from the most vulnerable, the most marginalized. Palestinian refugees in Gaza are that.
SD: Do you see new political groups forming now?
IM: I think it’s more like a change of spirit. What’s great is you can be Palestinian and be in an organization that works on queer rights. Actually, we should be working toward other struggles — other forms of liberation, as well as our own. That’s how you build communities. You work with other people who might not understand your background but do understand oppression; understand we’re all in this life together. Whether you’re an indigenous queer woman from the Navajo Nation or a
Palestinian queer in Palestine…
SD: If there was one thing you could say to the US queer community, what would that be?
IM: We’re all human. If you see my humanity as a trans person, you should also be able to see my humanity as a Palestinian. And, as a queer person in the U.S., you should understand the importance of mass mobilization. The tradition of Pride comes from Stonewall, when people rose up. In Gaza people are rising up. So we must stand with each other; stand for liberation for everybody. Gaza is a ticking time bomb and if we don’t do something now, in my opinion, we have failed all humanity.