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Pro-Palestine activists rally in Washington against Israeli prime minister's visit

Protesters called for an end to US military aid to Israel and a halt to the expulsion of Palestinians from neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem
Pro-Palestinian protesters rally in front of the White House to demonstrate against Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's visit
Pro-Palestinian protesters rally in front of the White House to demonstrate against Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's visit (MEE/Umar Farooq)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

Dozens of pro-Palestinian demonstrators rallied near the White House on Thursday to denounce a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Washington.

Protesters rallied near the White House lawn to call for an end to US military and diplomatic support for Israel, citing Israel's human rights violations against Palestinians.

US President Joe Biden was set to meet Bennett at 15:30 GMT, but the talks were moved to Friday following developments in Kabul where two suicide bombers killed and wounded scores of Afghans who had amassed outside Kabul airport.

Shortly before departing Israel on Tuesday, Bennett told reporters that he would maintain Israel's seige on Gaza while Hamas remained in power there, and vowed there would be no independent Palestinian state under his leadership.

"This government will neither annex nor form a Palestinian state, everyone gets that," Bennett said.

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The Israeli leader, who was a former head of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group for Israeli Jewish settlement organisations, said Israel would also continue to expand existing settlements - deemed illegal under international law by many international organisations - in the occupied West Bank.

"Israel will continue the standard policy of natural growth," Bennett said.

Since taking office, Biden has reversed some of former President Donald Trump's pro-Israel policies, restoring aid to Palestinians and returning to a two-state-solution approach, but his administration has been criticised both by rights groups and lawmakers for not doing more to ensure the rights of Palestinians.

During Israel's offensive on Gaza in May, which killed at least 260 Palestinians - including dozens of children - the Biden administration blocked multiple efforts by the United Nations to call for a ceasefire, and continued with a $735m arms sale to Tel Aviv.

"The Israeli prime minister of the apartheid state is meeting with Biden today to discuss peace, security and prosperity of Israelis and Palestinians," Laura Albast, an organiser with the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), told Middle East Eye.

"We're out here to let the administration know that it is no business as usual. You can't just go back to the random meetings and photo ops while people are still dying."

In a report this year, Human Rights Watch accused Israel of codifying privilege for Jewish Israelis into its laws while repressing Palestinians, saying this had "crossed the threshold" into apartheid.

"Joe Biden is breaking his promise to protect human rights for the Palestinian people by welcoming Naftali Bennett today," Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said during the rally.

"He is sending a message to the world that Israel is an exception."

Conditioning aid to Israel

The groups organising the protest, including the PYM, Americans for Justice in Palestine Action (AJP Action), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the Arab Resource and Organising Centre (AROC), and Code Pink, slammed the US government for its continued unconditional support of Israel and called for limiting military aid to the country.

Several progressive US lawmakers have also shown support for adding conditions to the annual $3.8 billion military aid Israel receives from the US - but Biden has publicly stated his opposition to any such restrictions, calling the idea "outrageous" as a presidential candidate.

"The United States is the enabler of the Israeli occupation. The United States is contributing to perpetuating the occupation of the Palestinian people and the oppression of the Palestinian people," Osama Abuirshaid, executive director of AJP Action, told MEE.

"We want to send a clear message to Biden that Israel should not get more military aid. Military aid should be conditioned on Israel's adherence to international law and to the norms that we claim to adhere to here, like freedom, equality and justice for all."

After initially demonstrating directly in front of the White House, police forced protesters to move hundreds of feet away, saying the area was closed.

Abuirshaid, however, said this was an excuse, and they were likely removed to avoid having a pro-Palestinian protest in direct view of the White House while the Israeli leader was visiting.

The protesters chanted "Palestine is not for sale, we won't give up, we will not fail", as they marched towards their new location.

Protesters hold up signs during a rally against the White House visit by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Protesters hold up signs during a rally against the White House visit by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (MEE/Umar Farooq)

Forced expulsions

The coalition of protesters also called for an immediate halt to the forced expulsions of Palestinian families in occupied East Jerusalem.

At least 28 Palestinian families, living in East Jerusalem's Shiekh Jarrah neighbourhood since the 1950s, are facing Israeli court-ordered evictions. If carried out, almost 500 Palestinians will be made homeless.

Meanwhile, in the Silwan neighbourhood, Israeli forces began demolitions at the end of June, destroying houses and shops while assaulting and arresting their Palestinian owners.

Israel has long attempted to clear Palestinians out of the Silwan area, with plans to build a string of tourist parks, themed around biblical stories and figures.

Protesters rally together after marching around downtown Washington.
Protesters rally together after marching around downtown Washington (MEE/Umar Farooq)

US Congresswoman Marie Newman in July demanded the expulsions be stopped, and urged President Biden to advocate for their halt - as have more than 100 progressive groups.

Washington has stated its "concern" over Israel's displacement campaign and killing of Palestinian civilians, but has avoided specific calls for the Israel to change course.

The protest ended with a short march in downtown Washington, and while the numbers did not match the thousands of protesters in the city during Israel's May offensive on Gaza, the PYM's Albast said the grassroots movement for Palestinian rights had been growing.

"In the past few months, specifically, we've seen an increased solidarity around the world; we've seen thousands take the streets in DC and London, even in Morocco and in Pakistan," the organiser said.

"Momentum has only died on TV screens and newspapers, it did not die on the street. We're out here almost every week, and not just in DC, in Toronto and LA, and in other cities in North America."

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