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Why this Palestinian-American graduate refused to shake hands with Blinken

Nooran Alhamdan explains why she refused to shake hands with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at her graduation ceremony
Nooran Alhamdan and her peers walking into the ceremony while holding posters of slain journalist Shireen Abu Akleh (Kannithi Traitonwong)

When Palestinian-American student Nooran Alhamdan found out that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to speak at her graduation ceremony at Georgetown University, she knew she had to do something. 

It was a few days after the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, when Alhamdan and her peers met to discuss a strategy on how to engage with him.

For them, this was the perfect opportunity to get a message through - cut all US aid to Israel and conduct an independent investigation into Abu Akleh’s death.

Being master's graduates from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, they knew they were going to be seated in the front row at commencement. They knew they would be in Blinken's line of sight.

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So, on Saturday, 15 students walked into the ceremony holding posters with Abu Akleh's photo that said: "Resistance until liberation and return. We honour martyr and journalist Shireen Abu Akleh."

Abu Akleh, a highly respected Al Jazeera Arabic journalist, was shot in the head by Israeli forces when she arrived in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin to cover an Israeli raid. Israel has said it was unclear who shot her and has stopped an investigation into her killing. 

Eyewitnesses, including MEE correspondent Shatha Hanaysha, said Abu Akleh was targeted by an Israeli sniper.

A reconstruction by the Associated Press found that the bullet that killed her came from an Israeli gun, and a CNN investigation reveals that evidence suggests she was killed in a "targeted attack" by Israeli forces.

"It's impossible to live a normal life and think 'I'm so happy that I am graduating' when something terrible is happening overseas in Palestine," Alhamdan told Middle East Eye on Monday.

"We came to the idea that we needed to connect her murder to the broader US foreign policy. There's literally an occupation… and we’re still supposed to expect that US foreign policy is somehow inherently trying to be good or working towards the betterment of the world?"

'Not there to beg for crumbs'

While Blinken spoke, the students reportedly held up the posters for the duration of his speech. But Alhamdan and her peers didn’t plan for one thing - they didn't expect the diplomat would stay for the duration of the entire ceremony and greet the graduates as they came on stage. If they had known, they would have written letters and handed them to him, Alhamdan said. So when it was her turn to walk across the stage, she decided to act fast.

In a video that has since gone viral, Alhamdan entered the stage, waved her Palestinian flag and said a few words as she approached Blinken and left without fist-bumping him.

"I said only two things and it was: 'We demand an independent investigation of Shireen Abu Akleh's murder, and we demand an end to all American funding to Israel now.' And that's all I said, it's frankly all I had time to say."

"Truly in that moment, the conscious decision to not shake his hand was because I knew the message that I was about to relay to him was so important. And I knew that he especially has the power to do something but chooses not to, and therefore is not worthy of a handshake or a fist bump."

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At the end of the ceremony, when Georgetown University staff along with Blinken were getting ready to leave, he reportedly approached Alhamdan and told her not to leave. As he exited, he reportedly said: "I hear you and I see you."

Alhamdan said that she told him: "That's great, thank you," and then reiterated what she said before.

Then Blinken, who Alhamdan said seemed engaged and was listening to her, responded with: "We're committed to finding the truth."

She told MEE that she retorted with: "The truth is she was murdered by the Israeli military that we’re bankrolling. We should stop bankrolling Israel and the Israeli military and please cut all American aid to Israel now."

"You know, I was looking Blinken in the eye and it's very difficult to look at someone and know that they know the truth, but that they're basically unwilling to do anything about it. And we were not there to beg for crumbs," she said.

"We felt it was important to show not only Blinken, but really the rest of the world, that young Arab and non-Arab students, people who live in the US, and people who are students of the Arab region, that we care."

georgetown graduation
Madeleine Hall wearing a keffiyeh and holding a poster of Shireen Abu Akleh (Kannithi Traitonwong)

Madeleine Hall, a graduate who walked into the ceremony alongside Alhamdan wearing a keffiyeh and holding a poster, was there when Blinken reportedly said: "I hear you and I see you." For her, those words weren't enough.

"Blinken's comments mean nothing if they're not followed by tangible action," Hall told MEE. 

"Rather than making vague claims about our so-called 'commitment to finding the truth', Blinken should publicly acknowledge that Shireen, an American citizen, was murdered in a targeted attack by Israeli forces, a fact that Israeli authorities have consistently sought to obscure."

"Our government should play a leading role in an independent investigation into her murder and pursue legal avenues for accountability, which could include targeted sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against the individuals responsible, and an end to US military aid."

The Global Magnitsky Act is designed to impose sanctions on foreign persons responsible for gross violations of internationally recognised human rights, and for other purposes.

A spokesperson for the State Department told MEE that it was declining to comment but wanted to affirm "that the Secretary respects and supports the right to freedom of expression around the world and at home".

'Silent and dignified protest'

Alhamdan's actions were part of a series of steps taken by graduates during their commencement ceremonies. Over the weekend, a Palestinian student raised the Palestinian flag on stage at a New York Institute of Technology graduation ceremony.

But what Alhamdan hadn't realised was how much of an impact the last-minute decision of her refusing to fist-bump Blinken was going to make. The School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University is a top destination for undergraduate students looking to pursue diplomatic careers. Many students who graduate from there are hoping to find jobs in government. 

She laughed when asked if she was afraid of potentially ruining her chances of working for the State Department. She said she instead plans on going to law school, though is undecided where. 

While administrators at Georgetown did not mention what took place at the ceremony, Josh Ruebner, an adjunct lecturer at the university's justice and peace studies programme, called the demonstration "silent and dignified".

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"Their protest was a striking and poignant reminder to the Secretary of State that the United States is complicit in Israel's oppressive policies and actions through the billions of dollars of weapons we funnel to the Israeli military every year, as well as diplomatic protection for Israel in the UN, which prevents the international community from holding Israel accountable for its many violations of international law. Bravo to these students who took a stand for justice." 

Fida Adely, an associate professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown, told MEE that she was heartened to see students take a stand for justice in Palestine "and to highlight the egregious killing of Shireen Abu Akleh by the Israeli military".

"Abu Akleh's killing is merely one example of the everyday violence committed by the state of Israel against the Palestinian people," she said. 

"The United States has provided unwavering support for the Israeli occupation and billions of dollars in military aid to what is by all accounts an apartheid regime. As a representative of the United States, Blinken and his administration are complicit in these grave human rights violations."

Middle East Eye reached out to Georgetown University for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

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