Protesters wave Palestinian flags outside AIPAC conference
Palestinian and Israeli flags were flying side by side as AIPAC delegates and Palestinian rights advocates aggressively debated their positions on the Middle East conflict outside the Washington Convention Center on Sunday.
Activists from both sides shouted accusations of racism as bystanders filmed the chaotic scenes on their cellphones.
The pro-Palestinian demonstrators had marched to the convention centre to protest outside the AIPAC annual conference in a show of defiance towards the pro-Israel lobby that has secured some top US politicians to speak at its three-day event, including Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"I'm here today because it's time that the world understands what the reality is in occupied Palestine," said Donna Nassor, an activist at the rally.
"It's been 70 plus years of incremental genocide. I'm also here because the American people need to understand what our tax dollars are doing and how it is causing suffering to Palestinians, as we support war criminals in Israel."
Nassor stressed that advocacy for Palestinian rights has nothing to do with anti-Jewish bigotry.
"It's not anti-Semitic to speak up about the war crimes that are happening every day in Israel," she said.
All Palestinians want is peace, justice and equal rights, Nassor added.
Earlier on Sunday, the demonstrators had gathered outside the White House, waving Palestinian flags and signs denouncing the Israeli government.
'We don't mince words'
"From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," they chanted.
The slogan, deemed controversial by supporters of the two-state solution, cost African American academic and civil rights activist Marc Lamont Hill his job at CNN late last year.
Hill faced accusations of anti-Semitism after he repeated that statement in a speech at the UN.
Abbas Hamideh, founder of Al-Awda advocacy group and one of the lead organisers of the protest on Sunday, defended the phrase.
He said calling for equal rights for all the inhabitants of historic Palestine - from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea - is "common sense".
"I believe that all people should live in unison, should live as one. I'm for people living on the land with equality for everyone, nobody is better than the other, no apartheid," Hamideh told MEE.
For any just solution to the conflict, Hamideh added, Palestinian refugees who were displaced from their land in the events leading to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 must be able to return to their homes.
Israeli officials categorically reject that demand, arguing that allowing millions of descendants of displaced Palestinians would make it impossible for Israel to remain a Jewish state.
Still, Hamideh said the idea is not radical, citing UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which called for resolving the issue of displaced Palestinians after the founding of Israel.
"Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date," the resolution says.
Some speakers employed combative language to condemn Israel and its allies at the rally, calling out lawmakers who take campaign contributions from AIPAC-affiliated groups with profanities that would make a sailor blush.
Asked if seemingly far-reaching demands and slogans might hurt the Palestinian cause, Hamideh stood by the effectiveness of his approach.
"We don't mince words," he said. "The difference with other organisations is that they sit there and say we want two states; they want to prolong the occupation. We want to end it, and we're straight to the point."
Heavy police presence
Hamideh's name had appeared in a proposed Congressional resolution aiming to condemn Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib for allegedly inviting him to her swearing-in event.
The symbolic measure, introduced earlier this year by several Republicans, never made it to the House floor for a vote. It accused Hamideh of supporting Hezbollah and Hamas.
Hamideh called the accusations of anti-Semitism against Palestinian rights advocates a "ridiculous" attack on "free speech".
"It is an insult to the Palestinian struggle because our struggle has nothing to do with anti-Semitism," Hamideh said.
As for his alleged support for Hezbollah and Hamas, he explained that he does not back the two groups specifically, but he generally stands by the right to resist the occupation with all means possible.
Despite the apparent mutual animosity between protesters and the attendees of the AIPAC conference, the confrontations remained peaceful amid a heavy police presence.
The convention centre was barricaded with orange roadblocks.
Jillian Abir, a 23-year-old Palestinian-American activist, said protests like the gathering outside the AIPAC conference emphasise Palestinian identity at a time when Israel is trying to erase it.
"It shows solidarity; it shows that we exist and we have not been scared into hiding by Israel," she told MEE. "It shows that we love our roots and that we care about our people."
For her part, Willa Chandra, a recent graduate from Marlboro College, said Americans need to be more aware of the nature of the anti-colonial struggle in Palestine.
"Israelis have been pushing people out [of Palestine] for so long, and there is no recognition of that," Chandra said.
AIPAC refused to grant MEE press credentials to cover the conference itself.