Palestinian activist and writer Abir Kopty is from Nazareth and holds Israeli citizenship. Defying Israel’s attempts to separate Palestinian communities from each other, she has been very involved in the popular struggle in the occupied West Bank in recent years, including the Bab Al Shams protest village, as well as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement challenging Israel’s system of colonization and apartheid.
Kopty is currently touring the US and was in Chicago this week where she spoke on a panel featuring activists from other communities of color with the goal of building transnational solidarity. The panelists drew comparisons between the systematic injustice in Palestine and in the US, particularly mass incarceration.
Before she left for the US, Kopty was summoned to an Israeli police station for interrogation over her writing, which she was told contained incitement to violence and terrorism. During the interrogation, the authorities attempted to pressure Kopty to give a DNA sample, which she refused, and so they opened another file against her. “I entered with one file and left with two files,” she told me in the following interview yesterday (the transcript is edited for length).
Maureen Clare Murphy: You’ve been in the US for several days now. Can you talk a little about your tour, the groups you’re meeting with, and any observations you have about the solidarity movement in the US?
Abir Kopty: I’ve been to five cities — Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Providence and Boston — and I’m going to St. Louis and San Francisco. I’ve been to the US before and I think that I’m seeing more engagement of the people with what is happening in Palestine, which is really amazing. I’m aware that most of the people who attend [my events] are already involved in Palestine solidarity. But when I used to meet people who were involved in solidarity a few years ago, they weren’t as informed as I see they are today. So I think there is progress; people are more interested in knowing what is happening and not talking about Palestine as an abstract thing. Also, the student movement here is really moving and very encouraging.
I see the older generation with a lot of fatigue and frustration and I see the younger generation with more energy and hope and creative work. I think those two levels are totally disconnected and there’s a need to do something about it. The experience of the elders — their involvement in human rights movements and the anti-apartheid movement and anti-segregation, etcetera — is a rich history that we need to learn from and we shouldn’t give up those people. On the other hand, we need to energize the movement, have a way of joy and energy and not fatigue and frustration because it can destroy the spirit of the movement.
The other observation is regarding the African American community, because I think we need to do much more work to speak to the community and to make the connections and the common ground with our struggle and their struggle. We’re not reaching out enough, although there are so many African Americans that I’ve met here and it’s really moving to see their commitment to Palestine and how their analysis sees the similarities common to oppression everywhere. I think we as Palestinians need to do more about this, which can be really effective for the movement-building.
MCM: Are there specific steps that you think the solidarity movement can take to make it broader and make it accessible to communities that aren’t currently well represented in the movement?
AK: I think what happened for instance yesterday with the panel discussion, this was one of the ways that can be really effective in speaking and what Aisha [Truss Miller] said was really amazing: we need go to the street and speak with people.
I think also with regards to choosing our campaigns, choosing our focus, we should take into consideration other communities. For instance, if you want to lead a campaign on divestment and boycott, then we need to speak about the violations of the company not only toward Palestinians. We need to make it more principled; the issue is not about Palestinians, it is about human rights, it’s about the dignity of the people, it’s about justice. For instance, if you take a company like G4S and G4S’s involvement in the repression of African Americans here, Latinos, immigrants and other communities — this is only one example, but I think we need to look more into making the struggle more universal and not just talking about the violations of Palestinians’ human rights.
MCM: Yesterday you mentioned that Palestinians in Palestine aren’t very aware of the solidarity work that is being done here, including the campus movement which is led in large part by Palestinians who were born here. What do you think can be done to bridge this gap?
AK: I think [this disconnect is] mostly because of the separation and segregation policies of the occupation and apartheid. But also I think we as Palestinians should do more to reach out to each other and to communicate, and what can be effective in that sense is using social media more effectively, because this is one of the tools that we have as Palestinians that is not subject to any of the barriers of the occupation or separation. I think this tool can be utilized better to inform Palestinians in Palestine about what’s happening in the solidarity movement, and vice versa.
MCM: Before you left for the US, you were summoned for interrogation at an Israeli police station in Akka (Acre). Can you briefly describe what happened?
AK: I was summoned for interrogation and the only reason that I decided to go is that if I did not go, they would come back and take me from the house and I wanted to spare my family this [experience]. There is a piece I wrote on my blog, and they claim that this piece was incitement for terrorism and violence against the organizers of a meeting that was initiated by the Israeli defense ministry with Christian religious and community leaders to encourage Christian youth to enlist in the Israeli army.
At the time when we learned about the meeting [with the defense ministry in October last year], we had a lot of anger and rage, and I wrote a piece raising questions and suggesting solutions. They think this is incitement because I’m writing against the plan itself, against the recruitment of Palestinian Christians and against the meeting itself, and criticizing those who participated in it. But [I was] also asking how we reached the point that those people participate [in such a meeting] and feel it’s normal to do it. So I’m also discussing things internally [within the Palestinian community]. And they claim it’s incitement.
MCM: You’ve written so much on your blog about a variety of things and you’re so active and visible. They know who you are and what you do, so why do you think it was this article in particular that they were interested in?
AK:This is part of a campaign they are doing to persecute Palestinians on this specific issue. Before the meeting [with the defense ministry] they interrogated two Palestinian men from Nazareth who talked publicly against the same meeting, and they took DNA from them. They are dealing with this file seriously. According to the news, the legal advisor of the state checked this file and recommended to the police an investigation of this case.
I think they have mainly two aims. They are [targeting] public, known activists in order to frighten others not to speak up against the recruitment of Palestinian Christians, so they may go on with the plan and the attempt to recruit Palestinians. And the second is to frighten us, to silence us. So it’s totally political persecution.
MCM: Do you put your interrogation experience into the wider pattern of what is happening to Palestinian activists who are also citizens of Israel?
AK: Because we are citizens, they deal with us in a different way [from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza]. It’s the same system of political persecution, but they cannot put us on military trial, for instance, or administrative detention. So they always have to find cases and usually the cases are related to security. “Security” is the magic word used by Israel to legitimize whatever violation of human rights they do and they use it a lot with the Palestinians in ‘48 [Palestinian citizens of Israel].
MCM: Do you think there is, in the last few years, an increased repression of Palestinians activists in ‘48?
AK: I think the repression is taking different forms because for decades, the main policy of the state is silent ethnic cleansing, making Palestinians’ lives inside ‘48 unbearable so they will either leave or be obedient to the state, like forget about their cause and identity and just be a good citizen.
I talked about it yesterday — they create the problem and then they exploit it in a way that will serve their interests. They create the problem of unemployment and they use it to encourage Palestinians to do civil service. They create the problem of racism in the universities in the acceptance to different subjects and then they tell Palestinians that if you do civil service, you will be accepted, you will easily find jobs, etcetera. It’s mainly these two goals — either we leave or we become ‘good’ Arabs, ‘good’ citizens.
And repression is taking so many forms. For example, this issue of illegal weapons that we’re drowning in as Palestinians; the issue of poverty and unemployment; the issue of house demolition, in the Naqab [desert], for instance, which is really massive; the issue of racism and discrimination in [government] budgets. All of these are [forms of] repression but it’s not necessarily physical, like they raid your house or put you under administrative detention. But it’s targeting you, persecuting you as Palestinians — let alone all the racist laws that have been passed in the recent Israeli Knesset [Israel’s parliament], the one before this and over history; there are over 50 bills that discriminate against Palestinians.
MCM: You helped organize some of the direct actions that sprung up in the occupied West Bank in the last year. Can you talk about some of the tactics grassroots activists are using, whether there is coordination between villages, and where this movement is going next?
AK: I’ve just published a big article talking about the successes and failings of the popular resistance in the West Bank. What happened in recent years is that the model of popular resistance in the form of weekly protests has failed to break through to the Palestinian [society at large] and it remained limited within certain circles and local residents of the village [holding protests]. So we tried in recent months to go beyond those villages and try to implement different tactics such as direct actions where we surprise the occupation and make a challenge and disrupt the lives of settlers, by blocking roads or storming a supermarket.
One of the main problems that I also talked about [in the article] is there are so many actions happening, so many forms of resistance, but they are not fitting into the same vision and strategy. We are so fragmented and divided and we don’t have a united leadership or even uniting vision and strategy for the whole Palestinian people. Where does every part of the Palestinian people fit into this strategy, and what should the resistance look like, what’s effective in resistance? All these [individual] actions are not really building a cumulative effect; it can be more effective if they fit into one vision. What we need in this phase, in my eyes, as Palestinians as a whole, is to bypass the PA [Palestinian Authority] leadership and build a uniting vision and strategies for the resistance. But I don’t think resistance on the ground should stop until we have this vision. People will still resist and will still be steadfast and will still do things in different forms regardless if there is a vision or not. But I think it will be more effective if we have both.
MCM: Is there anything that you want to add, that solidarity activists should know about?
AK: You see amazing Palestinian activists involved in BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] and leading [the work] in many places, but other traditional Palestinian communities are totally disconnected from the BDS movement. This is something we need to put our finger on and find out and understand how these communities have lost hope for anything that can be effective in freeing Palestine. We need to find a way to reach those communities and revive the spirit of resistance and find a way to have them more involved and even leading the movement.