National Sections of the L5I:

"The poor of Palestine still lack a voice"

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In Malmö, Sweden, Nakba Day, in remembrance of the 700,000 Palestinians expelled as the state of Israel was established, was commemorated in a demonstration through the city on May 15. At the same time, the Eurovision song contest was arranged in an arena just a few kilometres away. Israel is of course one of the contenders there, despite wide calls from the Palestinian civil society and the solidarity movement with Palestine for boycotting and isolating Israel in cultural exchanges. Therefore, one of the slogans of the demonstration was "Israel welcome back, when Palestine is free!"

Comrades from the Skåne branch of Arbetarmakt, Swedish section of the League for the Fifth International, naturally participated in the demonstration. Afterwards, we talked to Abu Ghassan, one of the speakers at the rally, and a founding member of Gaza Youth Breaks Out. He now lives in Sweden.

AM: Tell us about yourself.
Abu Ghassan: I'm 26 years old. My family is originally from Jaffa, but were forced out to Gaza. I was born and grew up in Jabalia refugee camp. When I was growing up, my father was imprisoned by Israel for seven years. My mother also went in and out of jail, at one point being imprisoned for defending our house from Israelis who were trying to tear it down. I received a scholarship to study mechanical engineering in Egypt, and spent three years there, until the scholarship was cancelled due to the internal Palestinian conflict.

AM: How did Gaza Youth Breaks Out come about?
Abu Ghassan: In 2010, I was back in Gaza, studying English literature, when I and seven friends wrote the first manifesto for Gaza Youth Breaks Out, a movement for peace and liberation for Palestinians. "Fuck Israel", we wrote, but also: "Fuck Hamas, fuck Fatah, fuck UN, fuck UNRWA, fuck USA!" We started mixed groups for boys and girls, studying, discussing together. We taught people English, and we went door to door, talking to ordinary Palestinians about their grievances. Hamas did not take kindly to this. Their policy is called "Prove that she is your sister": if a man is caught walking together with a woman, he needs to prove that she is his relative, or his wife. Friends of mine were arrested for this - for hanging out with girls or boys their age.

AM: What can you tell us about the internal Palestinian conflict?
Abu Ghassan: The Palestinian people did not elect Hamas because of their religious policies, or anything like that. They were seen as the one group that wasn't corrupted, that did not collaborate with Israel. Even Christians voted for them. But Hamas used their position in the struggle, and their power, to become repressive. Ultimately, Israel is to blame, with them constantly putting their weight behind one of the Palestinian groups, fomenting splits and conflicts.

AM: Tell us about how you came to Sweden.
Abu Ghassan: I was invited here in April 2012, to a conference on the Arab spring, and later received an internship at a university here, studying how the oppression in Palestine relates to other historical injustices, such as the oppression of black people in America. There are many similarities when it comes to structural racism. I'm currently working on a project called Social innovation in a digital context, where we take stories from people in the Jabalia refugee camp, and, in collaboration with youth in Washington D.C., give them the form of poetry, of hip hop, in online presentations. You know, the media wants us to think that, while Israelis are always humans, the Palestinians are just numbers on a chart. "So and so many Palestinians were killed". We want to show that Palestinians, too, are humans, like you and I, that their lives and their stories matter.

AM: Currently, there is a big debate in Sweden around REVA, the authorities' new attempt to expel sans papiers through racial profiling. Have you had any experiences of racism here?
Abu Ghassan: When I applied for a work permit, I was met with an incredible coldness by the Migration board employees. They hardly looked at me, and talked to me in a paternalistic way. No one helps you, no one cares. And they kept asking me for more documents, more information. The second time I went there, I did an experiment: I brought a Swedish, blonde friend along. She only had to say two words in Swedish, and the clerk was all about sorting everything out. I had my permit.

The same thing happened when I applied for a bank account - as soon as I brought my Swedish friend with me, the requests for more documents and more information ended, and I got it immediately. I've spoken to immigrants who have had to endure worse experiences here, in Sweden, trying to get to stay here, than they did in the countries they fled from. But no one dares to speak about it. They're afraid that if they raise a complaint, it will affect their process.

My friend and I were looking for a new flat, and we've responded to 50 ads. Two people responded. Our non-Swedish names are a problem there. I've been called a "nigger" when walking the streets two times. One time, as I was walking in Malmö, a man came up to me and made a Hitler salute. When I was flying, at Copenhagen airport, everyone was let through, except me. I was the only person in the group who did not look "Nordic". A "random check", they told me. Events like these are not isolated cases. It's systematic.

AM: What's the situation like in Palestine right now?
Abu Ghassan: Never before have more Palestinians died, never have we been so oppressed. It's an occupation not only of our land, but of our minds, our politics. The occupation is embedded in our minds. But at the same time, people are more aware of what's going on. The campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS), which was initated by Palestinian organisations, remember, is one way of pressurizing Israel.

AM: Would you say Palestine, too, is a class society?
Abu Ghassan: Palestine is definitely a class society. The original inhabitants of Gaza own most of the Palestinian land there, and they're reluctant to mix with the refugees. There's pressure not to marry refugees, not to get involved with them. The political elite own cars and large houses, and they use their role in the struggle to earn more money. I've seen UN food parcels for sale in stores, someone turning a profit on them. It's a commodification of our suffering. And you need political connections to get a job, to get anywhere. If you're just a regular, poor person, without a political organisation behind you, there are no opportunities for you.

AM: Where did the Palestinian left go wrong?
Abu Ghassan: The poor people of Palestine still lack a voice. In the 1970's, the PFLP were a huge, if not the leading, force in the Palestinian resistance. They had financial backing from the USSR, and they were in the front lines of every struggle. Today, the [religious] extremists have taken that role. Why? Because while the left have big meeting rooms, their own cars and solid organisations, the extremists are the ones who are out there, talking to the bin men, the taxi drivers, the ordinary workers. The left has become NGO-ized. The people trust the ones who are out there, who don't just show up at the demonstrations.

AM: Thanks for an interesting discussion.
Abu Ghassan: Thank you!