Sacrifice, suffering and struggle: MLK’s message resonates in Palestine

Photo shows boy holding Palestine flag crouching between Israeli soldiers

Palestinians are forced to navigate a racist system and its corresponding violence on a daily basis

Ryan Rodrick Beiler ActiveStills

In the spring of 1917, race tensions increased in East St. Louis as African-American laborers were hired to replace striking white workers. By the summer, confrontations and clashes between whites and blacks continued to rise.

Then, on 1 July, four white men drove through a black neighborhood, shooting at houses and bystanders. Fearing for their lives, some residents armed themselves. Later, a similar car was seen driving through the neighborhood. Residents shot at the car, killing the two passengers inside who happened to be police officers.

As word of the shooting spread, white people began attacking, beating, clubbing and shooting blacks on the street, buses and in public areas. By the time the rioting and violence subsided, between one and two hundred blacks and nine whites had been killed, according to estimates by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Three hundred homes owned by blacks were destroyed.

Centuries of racism

This eruption of violence was not an isolated incident but rather a result of centuries of racism pervading every aspect of society, including the economy, land distribution, urban planning, security and politics.

Nearly one hundred years later, the voices of angry Israeli mobs chanting “death to Arabs” are echoing in the streets of Jerusalem. Online video footage shows Palestinians being chased off public transportation, thrown into lakes and attacked on the street. On 5 July, groups of Israeli youths were filmed stopping taxis in search of Palestinian drivers to attack.

It is not just angry mobs attacking but also government-funded Israeli security forces. Palestinian-American Tariq Abukhdeir was attacked by two undercover Israeli police dressed as Palestinian civilians who beat him until he was unconscious and then arrested him.

These attacks were in reprisal for the disappearance of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank last month. Two weeks after the three went missing, their bodies were found in a field near Hebron.

Although it was not clear who carried out these killings, members of the Israeli public, taking the cue from government officials, promptly called for revenge against the entire Palestinian people. In an interview with CNN, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “May God avenge their blood.”

Modern-day lynching

The call for vengeance led to a gruesome result on 2 July, when the body of a sixteen-year-old Palestinian from Jerusalem, Muhammad Abu Khudair (Tariq’s cousin), was discovered in a nearby forest. He had been kidnapped, beaten and set on fire.

The autopsy showed soot and smoke in Muhammad’s lungs at the time of death, meaning that he was still alive when his assailants set him on fire. Muhammad had nothing to do with the disappearance of the three Israeli teenagers. However, because he was Palestinian, he was attacked and killed — a modern-day lynching.

It is not only Muhammad’s death that is reminiscent of the events in East St. Louis. After the three Israeli teens went missing, Israel launched a massive assault on the entire West Bank and Gaza was subjected to daily airstrikes.

The West Bank saw the largest Israeli military incursion in more than a decade, since the second intifada. Universities, homes and charitable societies were raided. More than five hundred Palestinians were arrested, including fifty who had been released in a 2011 prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas.


Although the Western media have reported these events as an escalation in conflict after a period of calm, Palestinians are forced to navigate a racist system and its corresponding violence on a daily basis. Home demolitions, arrests, siege, checkpoints, identity card systems that determine access to regions of the country, imprisonment and violent attacks have been part of daily life in Palestine since before 1948.

“Calm” is something Palestinians never fully experience. Rather, they experience varying degrees and tactics of oppression.

If anyone referred to the era of the civil rights movement in the United States as a conflict of “balanced” and “equal” fighting parties, he or she would be called racist at best. Yet despite the similarities of struggle that Palestinians face, western media paint the situation in Palestine as a conflict.

What is happening Palestine is not a conflict but rather a colonizing force coming face to face with a liberation movement led by Palestinians and supported by some Israeli and international activists.

At the peak of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King said the goal of justice requires “sacrifice, suffering and struggle.”

The Palestinian liberation movement embodies all three through its determined work for dignity and freedom despite the violent attempts by Israel to suppress it. The liberation movement is calling for international support for their pursuit of justice through boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, with the vision that someday colonization, race riots and lynchings will cease to exist.

Rachelle Friesen worked with an international aid organization based in Jerusalem for four years. In May 2014, she was denied entry and deported by Israel. She currently lives in Canada.




Just wanted to let you know about our film, Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine Here is what the Vancouver International Film Festival wrote about it. “The glorious strains of gospel music wash over the West Bank in Connie Field’s potent new film. As the Palestinian National Theater and an African-American choir mount a touring play about Martin Luther King Jr., written by Stanford Professor and King scholar Clay Carson, an impassioned cultural exchange ensues, new friendships are forged and attitudes are altered. A rousing portrait of the changes unfolding in the Middle East, this dynamic and complex work is born of a brilliantly simple and potent idea: what would happen if African-American Christians--the same group who served as exemplars of the Civil Rights Movement--could witness first hand the plight of Palestinians today? Field has done something truly impressive; she has folded multiple perspectives and forces together to truly moving effect.” VIFF