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From Palestine to the US, we must defend people's right to breathe

Recent deaths at the hands of police should fuel a wider struggle against racism and political violence
A protester holds a placard of George Floyd’s face in Bordeaux, France, on 9 June (AFP)

We have emerged from the global solidarity brought about by the Covid-19 crisis to return to our familiar state of disunity in the struggle against oppressive power, domination and fascist politics.  

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon explains the revolt in Indochina: “It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt. It is because ‘quite simply’ it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe.”

A violent political context not only generates psychiatric patients, but also creates easier victims out of them

In her 2017 film Beyond the Frontlines, French director Alexandra Dols also uses the metaphor of breathlessness to convey the Palestinian experience under occupation. In the film’s opening, she features me in conversation with an Israeli psychoanalyst who challenges me to empathise with Israeli needs. I reply: “We live in a reality where the more Israelis breathe, the more Palestinians choke.”

Throughout the film, we hear Palestinians gasping for air: during interrogation in prisons, at the Qalandiya checkpoint, and under bombardment in Gaza.

It is no wonder that George Floyd’s cries of “I can’t breathe” have provoked so much reaction in Palestine. He uttered these words while being suffocated under the knee of a police officer and amid the approving gaze of fellow officers, a technique commonly used against Palestinians. 

Indeed, Israel has developed a flourishing industry of training international police in the utilisation of such fatal techniques. Palestinians’ sympathetic identification with Floyd’s breathlessness is not only due to the effortless choking of a Black man by a white police officer; it also resonates with the Israeli “no-touch technique”, in which people are suspended in positions where the weight of their own bodies inflict pain and damage, possibly causing them to die alone. 

Institutional racism

In both the US and Palestine, such acts are not restricted to an individual police officer who is quick on the trigger, or to a particular victim. They are pervasive outcomes of group dynamics and institutional racism that permits a sustained pattern of killing on the basis of ethnicity, colour, or group membership.

Examples include the recent killing in Jerusalem of Iyad al-Halak, a Palestinian man who was diagnosed with autism. He was shot and left on the ground to bleed to death, in spite of his caregiver’s efforts to explain to Israeli police that he had a disability - and despite his cries of “I’m with her”. 

Israeli soldiers gather at Qalandiya checkpoint in the occupied West Bank on 12 May (AFP)
Israeli soldiers gather at Qalandiya checkpoint in the occupied West Bank on 12 May (AFP)

About two weeks prior, another psychiatric patient, Mustafa Younis, was killed at the hospital where he was seeking treatment. After a violent confrontation with security guards, Younis was disarmed and lying on the ground; he was then shot with several bullets in front of his mother.

We can learn two things from these recent killings. Firstly, like the casual killing of Floyd, racially motivated killings of Palestinians are commonplace - even as Israel brags about normalising relations with Arab countries. 

Israel acts according to the motto that a “good Arab is a dead Arab”. Many Palestinians have been shot in the back or upper body, with a story fabricated to legitimise the killing. There have been allegations of planted knives and other evidence to implicate Palestinian youth, and of camera footage hidden when it contradicts the official narrative.

Iyad al-Halak: Another cruel killing of a Palestinian whitewashed by Israel
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Secondly, a violent political context not only generates psychiatric patients, but also creates easier victims out of them. I know people who had psychiatric issues and were killed because their paranoid delusions made them carry a knife, or their limited cognitive abilities made them underestimate realistic risks, or their irritability made them fight back when beaten or humiliated by soldiers. 

The reaction to the terrifying killings of people such as Floyd, Younis and Halak must not be restricted to demanding justice for the victims and their families. Their deaths should fuel a wider struggle against racism, and against police and political violence.

Our response must embrace a wider solidarity to defend the right to breathe - for all humankind.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Samah Jabr
Samah Jabr is a Jerusalemite psychiatrist and psychotherapist who cares about the wellbeing of her community – beyond issues of mental illness.