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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Mohammed El-Kurd and Kenneth Roth connect history to the present in discussion of the Israel-Hamas war

The Palestinian poet and activist joined the former head of the Human Rights Watch to conduct open dialogue on the longstanding Israel-Palestine conflict
Catharine Li

On Monday, Nov. 13, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) hosted speakers Mohammed El-Kurd and Kenneth Roth in a sold-out talk titled “Understanding Israel/Palestine: Dispossession, Resistance and Human Rights” at Mahar Auditorium. Moderated by sociology professor Stellan Vinthagen, the speakers each gave opening remarks before answering audience questions.

El-Kurd, an award-winning Palestinian poet and writer, is currently the Palestine correspondent for The Nation magazine. Roth, visiting professor at the Princeton School for Public and International Affairs, served as the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, a leading international human rights organization. The event was also organized by communications professor Sut Jhally, with the Media Education Foundation and Vinthagen of the UMass Resistance Studies Initiative.

Beginning with a briefing on the role of international humanitarian law in armed conflict, Roth explained the core statutes which date back to the 1949 Geneva Convention after the end of the World War II. Roth drew attention to the more than 10,000 Palestinian lives lost due to Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, according to figures from the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. Outlining growing international concern for war crimes committed by the Israeli military and Hamas, Roth refuted the rationale used by both sides in attempted justification of the ongoing war.

“The rules of humanitarian law apply, regardless of whether you’re right or wrong in fighting your fight,” Roth said. “They govern how you fight, and they apply absolutely, regardless of the reason.”

Pointing to Israeli airstrikes causing “disproportionate harm” to the civilian population in Gaza, Roth cited an Israeli violation of international law of war. Roth also emphasized the “minimalistic” Hamas presence within Gaza apartment buildings, challenging the Israeli military’s intentions to attack hidden Hamas fighters at the expense of “hundreds” of civilian lives.

Though recognizing Israel’s observance of the advance warning article in international law, Roth questioned the feasibility of evacuating nearly 1.1 million Gazans as ordered by the Israeli military one month ago. Contextualizing the significant loss of Palestinian life against the “discounting” of Palestinian suffering by the Israeli government, Roth offered his explanation on the continuing escalation of violence.

“This dehumanization of a civilian population is a virtual invitation to war crimes,” Roth said.

El-Kurd, who was raised in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, drew on lived experiences to expand on the points raised by Roth. Recalling a childhood “marked by land theft,” El-Kurd spoke further on Israeli jurisdiction in East Jerusalem, a still-occupied territory, providing historical context on past Palestinian uprising against Israeli forced eviction.

With background as a journalist, El-Kurd commented on the impact of often softened framing pursued by Western news media to cover Palestinian conflicts since the first Nakba. Nakba, the Arabic term for “catastrophe,” refers to the forcible displacement and dispossession of at least 700,000 Palestinians during the creation of the Israeli state in 1948.

“Eviction does not capture the violent militarism — of the forced explosions that we were facing in general,” El-Kurd said.

Pushing back against the characterization of Palestinian people in news media, El-Kurd talked about the compounding effect of physical, emotional and mental trauma endured at a young age, summed up by “anger and grief.”

“Against the backdrop of severe dehumanization, of demonization, we’re not just not allowed self-defense or resistance,” El-Kurd said. “We are not even allowed a basic human reaction.”

Personal perspectives were compounded by descriptions of loss from those El-Kurd maintained personal connections with, as well as reflections on his work in the journalism, literary and activism spheres.

“These are little stories that contain a magnitude of loss that we hear about every single day, and seldom do they make the headlines,” El-Kurd said. “[When] they do make the headlines that are developed, not just on conflicts, they are often devoid of the truth.”

By offering a Palestinian perspective, El-Kurd urged the audience to consider the limitations of media coverage when reported from outside Gaza, reckoning with how to process the sheer scale of human suffering depicted.

“We simply just do not understand,” El-Kurd said. “We simply do not know what life inside the Gaza Strip in particular does to a person. What violence — the violence of being besieged —begets.”

Roth then addressed a prevailing fear amongst many Palestinians and UN experts of a second Nakba, in reference to the sustained violence embroiling the region. He took the opportunity to affirm the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) jurisdiction over Hamas militants and Israeli forces, and the UN General Assembly’s recognition of Palestine as a state.

El-Kurd contended saying, “Everywhere you look on the map there is a story of dispossession.”

This idea of continuity is one Roth also alludes to when discussing the contemporary challenges to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Roth, who was the first to establish the link between Israeli policy towards Palestinians to apartheid-era South Africa in a 2021 report, elaborated on his work with the Human Rights Watch group.

Urging for reevaluation of the “complacency of the status quo,” Roth argued that “systemic oppression” of Palestinians had hardened over time, superseding what was considered temporary policy.

“After more than 50 years of occupation, it became clear that the only people who were still talking about [the] peace process were people trying to avoid one,” Roth said.

Transitioning to ideas on how to move forward from the conflict, El-Kurd felt that the “semantic violence” at the root of criticism on Israel and Palestine protests unfolding on college campuses was a distraction from the “systemic, material violence” occurring on the battleground.

Both El-Kurd and Roth affirmed the existence of antisemitism within discussion of the ongoing war, and in the existing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

“The people who are willing to misuse the term antisemitism to silence criticism are doing a disservice to this very important concept of antisemitism,” Roth said.

In helping SJP organize the event, Media Education Foundation director Sut Jhally reasserted the necessity of confronting such difficult topics, including the dimensions of free speech and student expression on college campuses.

“Israel and Palestine is the issue that needs to [be] talked about in an honest way, and it hasn’t been so far,” Jhally said.

Event moderator Stellan Vinthagen opined on the “plural” nature of knowledge necessary for college campuses to continue forming a culture of dialogue where “differences are seen as resources.”

“We organize this event tonight at UMass in our role as human beings,” Vinthagen said. “But we also organize these events tonight as academics. We see it as our role as academics to critically evaluate and produce knowledge that is not just a reproduction of the dominant ideas and perceptions of our time.”

Though the event was organized prior to the events of Oct. 7, one student was reflective of changing conditions for student expression on campus.

“I am surprised that the event was sponsored and given a room on campus,” Bella Falotico, a senior political science and social thought and political economy major, said.

Various UMass and Five College students, in addition to community members, found the talk informative to their current understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“It’s really important to remember, especially when you’re in an academic institution, that things don’t feel as close to you when you witness these atrocities happening abroad,” Anna Ben-Hur, a 2021 UMass graduate, said. “This talk helped me snap out of the bubble of living in Massachusetts and get the fire going.”

Catharine Li can be reached at [email protected].

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