The West has forced millions to become wandering, destitute refugees, as it destroys nations and peoples that get in the way of Empire. Palestinians have lived this reality for 67 years. Beirut sits at the lip of the volcano.
They cluster on the prosperous, Christmas-themed streets of Beirut: Syrian mothers and their children begging from passersby until deep in the night; young girls holding infant siblings; pre-teen boys with shoe shine cans who persist for blocks before finally taking no for an answer; grandmothers tapping on the windows of traffic-trapped cars. One million Syrians have descended on neighboring Lebanon, a tiny nation of only four million people that now hosts the highest percentage of refugees in the world.
When Syria held presidential elections in June of 2014, so many refugees rushed to vote at the Syrian Embassy, located high on a hill (everything is high on a hill or low in a valley in Lebanon), that many had to abandon their cars and walk several kilometers to cast their ballots, according the Eva Bartlett, part of our small delegation in solidarity with Palestine. We were hoping to spend a few days in Syria before participating in the Third Global Convention of Solidarity with Palestine, at a grand hotel in southern Beirut, December 8 through 10. The problem was, nobody in the Syrian ambassador’s office had been informed of our urgent need for visas, and soon our time would run out.
Nowhere is the refugee crisis more acute than in the camps of Palestinians, themselves exiled from their neighboring homeland by Zionist terror 67 years ago. Half a million Palestinians are registered as refugees in Lebanon, with somewhat less than half of them living in 12 camps. The Bourj el-Barajneh camp sits next to a highway in what used to be the southern outskirts of Beirut, but is now surrounded by a crowded Shia neighborhood that is overwhelmingly loyal to Hezbollah, the most politically and militarily powerful institution in the country. Bourj el-Barajneh was already densely packed with 18,000 Palestinians before the West and its royal Persian Gulf allies plunged Syria into a multi-front proxy war, in 2011. With the influx of Palestinians from Syria’s 13 refugee camps – especially the largest, Yarmouk, which had nearly 150,000 residents before it was partially overrun by al-Nusra terrorists – Bourj el-Barajneh more than doubled in population, adding 25,000 new residents.
“One million Syrians have descended on neighboring Lebanon, a tiny nation of only four million people that now hosts the highest percentage of refugees in the world.”
Ayoub is the fatigue-jacketed leader of the dominant political organization in the camp, a man who carries around his own coffee and knows every nook and cranny of the one square kilometer warren of alleyways and lethal, drooping wires. (On average, 10 or 12 people are electrocuted in the wilderness of wires, every year.) He escorts our small group of two Americans, a French/Moroccan, a Canadian and an Englishwoman out of the camp shadows and down a hill to the street where two ISIS suicide bombers killed 43 people on November 12. The Shia neighborhood, also known as Bourj el-Barajneh, is once again full of shoppers – poor people, patronizing cheap shops, whose deaths were cheapened when western media focused all their attention on the attacks in Paris, the next day.
Swarms of Palestinian and Lebanese youths on battered motor scooters buzzed past a memorial to those “martyred” in the bombing, mostly young men, whose photographs sanctify the corner. The street is still indented where the first bomber blew himself up. A block away, another scar in the pavement marks the second bomber’s self-demolition, timed to kill people coming to the aid of the first victims.
Riches and Refugees
If it were located in Manhattan, the Hamra area of Beirut would call itself Chelsea. It abuts the wealthy seaside international corporate zone, where English advertising blasts from blinding billboards. Christmas rules along Hamra Street, with holiday mall-music wafting over shoppers and Syrian beggars. Dollars (but not euros) are as spendable as Lebanese lira. On the cross streets are bars and clubs in numbers that rival the new York City’s West Village. The neighborhood is also home to the American University, where delegations like ours can find an audience.
If there is anyplace that exudes “internationalism,” it is the American University in Beirut. In a country where it is permissible to smoke almost everywhere, tobacco stops at the AU campus gate. Mariam, an AU professor and political activist who spent many years in the Triangle area of North Carolina, filled a classroom with students, teachers, and activists. I stressed that internationalism lay at the core of the Black Radical Tradition; that, historically, when Black folks talked among themselves about foreign policy, they would say, “What are THEY doing?” in Vietnam, or Latin American, or wherever the U.S. was meddling in other people’s affairs – not “What are WE doing?” We didn’t identify with the actions of the U.S. government: that was “them,” not “us.”
Early in African American history, for complex reasons, many Blacks chose to identify as “Arab” or “Moorish” – culturally advanced civilizations that had defeated whites, militarily, crossing from Africa to conquer Spain. Moorish societies proliferated in Black America, along with the wearing of the fez. Deep into the late 20th century, Black men who sold fruits and vegetables from horse-drawn wagons on the streets of Baltimore were called “A-rabs.” Not Arabs, but A-rabs.
Identification with Arab civilization led to identification with Islam, so that by the 1930s and ‘40s Black Americans had created their own, Black brand of Muslim religion: the Nation of Islam. This was, I told our university audience, “an entirely political project, an ideological assault on the belief system of the white American oppressor.” It was a project rooted in identification with the Arab world.
The Nation of Islam provided “a pathway to the internationalist framework espoused by Malcolm X, without whose influence the Black Panther Party’s internationalism would not have been possible.” The explosion of Black American Islam began with Elijah Muhammad’s organization, and then spread to mainstream Islamic branches. By the early Nineties, Black Americans made up a majority of Muslims in the United States.
Even today, after a huge influx of Muslims from around the world, African Americans still make up 23 percent of U.S. Muslims – and 60 percent of third generation U.S. Muslims.
By the late Sixties, U.S. Zionists were calling Black Americans the “most anti-Semitic” group in the U.S. That was never true, although Blacks were by far the most Islamic-oriented major ethnic group in the country. The long-time Black identification with Arabs had nothing to do with Jews; it was all about Black rejection of domination of the world by white people. If Jews wanted to be “white” – here in the U.S. and in the Middle East – that was their own doing.
The Zionists threatened to withhold their money and bring down the wrath of their influence on Black projects if African Americans did not tow the Israeli line in foreign policy. The blackmail has been very successful, especially with the Black political class aligned with the Democratic Party – which means virtually all Black elected officials. In the summer of 2014, every Black member of Congress voted for a resolution favoring Israel during its murderous assault on Gaza – even though Black Americans are the nation’s most pro-Arab (or the least anti-Arab) constituency, historically and currently.
How do you prove such a proposition, when the overwhelming bulk of Black elected officials are in Israel’s pocket? The best evidence came in February of 2003, six weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Zogby polling organization (owned by two Lebanese Americans of Arab Christian extraction) asked the question: “Would you support a U.S. invasion of Iraq if it would result in the death of thousands of Iraqi civilians?”
Strong majorities of white males said Yes, bring the war on, to hell with Arab civilians.
Slightly more than half of white females agreed.
Among Hispanic Americans, 16 percent answered the Zogby question in the affirmative.
But, only 7 percent of Black Americans were willing to go to war if meant the death of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
When it comes to blood lust, White America – and even Hispanic America – live in a different world than Black America, where war mongers are confined to single digits. Black American internationalism flows from humanitarian compassion and identification with the victims of white American savagery.
Resistance, and Dissidence
Malcolm X is big in Lebanon. Ajamu Baraka, a founder of the U.S. Human Rights Network and columnist for Black Agenda Report, found that out early last year when he spoke about Malcolm on a television station that caters to Shia Lebanese, the country’s largest population group. When Baraka returned to Beirut this December, folks stopped him on the street to commend his presentation. Thus, when Baraka was called upon to speak to the full Convention of Solidarity with Palestine, he cited Malcolm X and declared: “There can be no compromise between settler colonialism in the U.S. and settler colonialism in Palestine. We have never given up on that objective. We have stood shoulder to shoulder with Palestine and Palestine has stood with us,” most dramatically since the rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore (where the “A-rabs” once roamed). “The 21st century,” said Baraka, “will be the last century of western dominance.”
“There can be no compromise between settler colonialism in the U.S. and settler colonialism in Palestine.”
With almost daily reports of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinian youths, the convention hummed with excitement at the prospect of a prolonged Third Intifada. Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of Hamas in Gaza and former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, said in a video message to the convention:
“The Intifada will only stop at its real stop, which is the stop of Return. We call on all states to unite around the Intifada. The real enemy, the constant enemy, is the Israeli occupation.”
Salah al-Khawaja, of the Stop the Wall campaign, told the convention:
“There has been a clear message from the youth of Palestine to the political leadership: If you are resisting or not resisting, you will be a target. You have no choice but to unite and adopt a position of resistance. The political and diplomatic movement of the occupation has to be paralyzed all over the world, especially the Arab world.”
Saeb Erekat, Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), called for an international tribunal to hold the Israelis “responsible for their crimes, their war crimes.”
But the most compelling comments, rebelliously delivered, came from a Palestinian student who somehow gained possession of the microphone amidst the turbaned and suited dignitaries. He spoke for “a new generation that doesn’t waver to any kind of aggression.” The PLO was directly criticized for its “absence” from the struggle and its role in the discredited Oslo agreement. “We have no arms because of the Oslo authority in our homeland, and we will not accept the continuity of the aggression, regardless of who signed the occupation agreement,” said the young activist. “There is no money for the resistance, for schools, but there is money for the big shots, it goes to their pockets, probably to those who are among us, here.”
Soldiers, Sons and Sheikhs
The next day, the remaining convention delegates boarded busses to southern Lebanon to visit Beaufort Castle, a Crusader fort once held by the Israelis when they maintained a six-mile “buffer zone” of Lebanese territory, and the Mleeta Tourist Memorial to the Hezbollah fighters that drove the Israelis from the country once and for all in 2006. At one of the observation platforms high on a mountain, a young Palestinian engaged the Americans from the solidarity delegation. He had snuck out of “occupied Palestine” to attend the conference and to make contact with comrades outside of Israeli-controlled territory, and intended to return by the same dangerous path. Yes, he said, it was horrible that Arab nations like the United Arab Emirates and Dubai were considering “normalizing” relations with Israel, but he was even more concerned that militancy was ebbing on the occupied West Bank. Tens of thousands of Palestinian households were now hooked to home mortgages, a pacification policy urged on the Israelis by Americans – and it was having an effect. Still, he said, there were plenty of youth willing to fight the occupiers and their Palestinian collaborators. “That guy is a soldier of the revolution,” the Americans agreed.
Only days later, Kristian Bailey, the organizer who helped get 1,000 Black American academics, artists and celebrities to sign a petition to stand with Palestinians and against Zionism, and who was among 100 youths from around the world that attended the Beirut convention, was arrested by the Israelis. He’s becoming a soldier, too.
Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, leader of Nigeria’s Shia Muslims, and his son Hammad left Beirut while we were touring battle sites. Hammad was dead by Saturday, killed by the Nigerian military along with as many as 1,000 other unarmed Shia while trying to defend his father, who suffered four bullet wounds to his hands. Six years ago, the Nigerian military killed three other sons of Sheikh Zakzaky. His followers have also been suicide bombed by Boko Harma, which the Sheikh charges is manipulated by the Nigerian military and elements of the country’s elite.
Nigeria recently joined the Saudi Arabia-led coalition against “terror” – which means exactly the opposite.
Glen Ford is the executive editor of BAR