Aaron Magid
Last updated: 1 April, 2014

Why Palestinians in the US can’t get along

The rift within the Palestinian-American community is very real. Aaron Magid takes you through the mess, from bad-mouthing on Twitter to a lack of financial muscle.

The New York Times sparked interest in the internal dynamics of the Pro-Israel movement in America with its recent front-page article detailing the tensions within the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). A similar, less visible internal disagreement has also erupted within the Pro-Palestinian American community, right before the Obama Administration plans to put forth its framework agreement to Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Founded in 2003 during the heart of the Second Intifada, the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) is an American lobbyist group advocating for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. “The reputation of Palestinians at the time was not to far removed from the reputation of Bin Laden,” declared Dr. Ziad Asali, President of the ATFP who works full-time for the organization pro-bono. 

Only a few years later, the ATFP has reached the highest levels in Washington, across both sides of the aisle. At its 2006 annual Gala, Republican Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered the main address; her Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton spoke at the 2010 Gala. Especially during ATFP’s early years, Asali admits to Your Middle East that “we had no money and no votes” – generally considered two of the most important ways of influencing policy in Washington.

“We had no money and no votes”After overcoming its initial underdog status, the ATFP won over Washington’s elite with its moderate message and its unassuming work ethic. “They’ve been critical in getting sustained and high levels of support from both Republican and Democratic administrations,” an Obama administration official explained. “They have pretty high access, they can pass messages, they can work quietly with the Hill, they’re not media attention seekers, they are trusted and they try to work behind the scenes.”

When funding for the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) has been at risk – the largest employer within the West Bank – the ATFP has played a critical role in explaining to Congress the aid’s importance. In the spirit of tolerance, each summer, ATFP runs a joint program with the Jewish organization, Americans for Peace Now (APN), where ATFP hosts an Israeli intern while APN works with a Palestinian intern.

Although ATFP has drawn criticism from right wing elements of American Jewry for its backing of Palestine, the organization’s harshest critiques come from hawkish elements in the Pro-Palestinian community. After Asali was photographed with the Israeli Ambassador at a 2012 Israeli Independence Day event, pro-Palestinian activists Susan Abulhawa and Sa’ed Atshan denounced that Asali’s attendance was “tantamount to dancing on their (Palestinians) graves.” Asali dismissed these attacks, arguing that for years the ATFP has openly worked with diverse groups in Washington, including the Israeli government, to advance Palestinian causes.

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Following the P.A.’s decision to unilaterally apply for state membership at the United Nations, the ATFP remained neutral  as the organization believed that little would change on the ground from a petition to the United Nations, infuriating some for its stance. Al-Monitor Columnist Daoud Kuttab resigned from ATFP’s Board after this decision declaring, “If ever there was an issue that ATFP should have taken on front back and center, the approach of the Palestinian leadership to the UN requesting recognition to statehood would be it.”

In contrast to ATFP’s inside-the-beltway approach, the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Movement operates at a grassroots level across the country. Palestinian civil society called for a campaign of BDS against Israel in 2005, and the initiative spread throughout the world including in America. Activists have published pro-BDS op-eds in the most influential newspapers around the nation including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. BDS successes have included the American Studies Association boycott of Israel at its 2013 annual conference and legendary NBA basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabar cancelling his scheduled tour of Israel in 2011.

The continued Israeli Occupation over the West Bank has driven some activists to rethink the traditional approach to solving the Palestinian issue. “The US-brokered peace process has facilitated the death of the two-state solution and together with diplomatic paralysis, the situation is only worsening,” exclaimed Noura Erakat, Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and a fervent BDS supporter. “In contrast, the BDS movement works to apply the pressure upon Israel that states have failed to place circumventing political deadlock.”

“Some activists rethink the traditional approach to solving the Palestinian issue”Nonetheless, many disagree with BDS’s ideology, most notably Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who enraged hardcore activists when he proclaimed in South Africa after Mandela’s passing, “No we do not support the boycott of Israel… We have relations with Israel. We have mutual recognition of Israel.” Furthermore, most Washington policymakers, both Democrats and Republicans, view the BDS movement’s demand to boycott all of Israel, not just the settlements, as extremist and counterproductive in reaching a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Ideological differences between the two Palestinian movements frequently cross into bitter personal feuds. Ali Abunimah, one of the strongest backers of BDS, attacked Hussein Ibish, Senior Fellow at the ATFP, on Twitter: “How did Hussein Ibish turn from a defender of Palestinian rights into an apologist for Zionism? Was it something in the water? #Gaza?” Not to be outdone, Ibish wrote “Pathetic how @AliAbunimah has totally denigrated into a totalitarian enforcer of political correctness & hatred vis all alternative views.”

However, one area of agreement between both sides of the Palestinian divide is on the decentralized nature of the pro-Palestinian activism community, especially compared to the pro-Israel movement. “Palestinian-Americans as a collective have not been present and active in the United States for as long as the American Jewish community,” explained Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director for The Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development. Munayyer added that financial resources are important to consider in addition to the fact that other issues have often superseded the Palestinian question within Arab-American or Muslim-American organizations.

The rift within the Palestinian-American community will likely intensify while Kerry continues mediate between Israeli and Palestinian leaders with the hope of agreeing on a final status accord. The role of the Diaspora Palestinian community will be critical as sensitive issues such as the Right of Return are dissected. If President Abbas compromises on refugees in exchange for Israeli concessions on Jerusalem and borders, the question remains if Palestinians worldwide will provide him with the necessary cover to make such a dramatic move to finally reach peace. The continued struggles between the BDS and ATFP may be a window into finding out this answer.