Peoria to Palestine: Welcome to the Occupation

“I feel like in heaven. It’s like heaven, really, in Peoria,” explained Mohammad Mohammad, 29, during a conversation on Main Street near Sheridan Road.
Now that’s something you don’t hear everyday.
A native of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, Mohammad has lived in central Illinois since 2001. “It’s way better than back home, you know, because every time you try to go somewhere, there’s an (Israeli) checkpoint,” he said.
Mohammad is not alone among the Palestinian-American community in central Illinois with his assessment of life in the River City compared to occupied Palestine.
“I love Peoria. Yes, sir!” enthused Abed Fookah, 48, owner of the most visible local Palestinian business, the nearly 3-year-old Jerusalem Restaurant at 2027 W. Farmington Road across from lower Bradley Park.
“All this food is Palestine food. Middle Eastern,” said the Ramallah native who has lived in Peoria since 2006, and believes his restaurant is the only Palestinian eatery in town. “Everybody love Palestine. Everybody love peace. The people here, they just show them one side. But you talk to them, and they understand the Palestinians are nice people. They know that!”
And Mohammad Hussein, 63, a native of the Aluban al-churqy village just outside Nablus in the occupied West Bank, also thinks highly of Peoria. “It’s nice. That’s why I stay here since 2001,” remarked the senior gentleman visiting the Jerusalem Restaurant. “But the Palestinian people need peace. Just to live like everybody else. Now we don’t have it (peace).”
I spoke with these Palestinian Americans in Peoria immediately prior to departing in mid-April for besieged Gaza and the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem to directly observe some of the effects of the continuing Israeli occupation on the Palestinian people since at least the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Turned away by the Egyptian authorities in northern Sinai shortly before attempting to enter Gaza through the Rafah border crossing, I rerouted to Amman, Jordan, and traveled overland into occupied East Jerusalem via the King Hussein Bridge crossing. Israeli authorities control every entry point to Palestine.
Next week here looks to be rather dramatic with the controversial U.S. embassy relocation to Jerusalem set for May 14 when Israel will mark its 70th anniversary, followed on the 15th when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba Day “catastrophe” recalling their mass expulsions and village destructions by Zionist armed forces. The Islamic Month of Ramadan also begins in the region on or about May 15 bringing hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims into occupied East Jerusalem to the landmark Al Aqsa Mosque.
Published reports say the upcoming weekend prior to these commemorations will see the highly controversial annual Jerusalem Day events when Israelis, mostly Zionist settlers, march provocatively through the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City marking the ’67 Israeli military capture of Palestinian East Jerusalem. The march often involves incendiary “Death to Arabs” chants and actions while being protected by cordons of Israeli soldiers and police. All this on top of recent #GreatReturnMarch demonstrations by Palestinians in Gaza where Israeli military snipers from their side of the border have shot dead at least 40 people, including two clearly marked press members and wounding more than 5,000 others by live fire, tear gas attacks and other means.
Several weeks spent living and observing and speaking with the people in the Muslim Quarter of occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City, as well visits in Hebron, Jenin, Ramallah and elsewhere may not account for much, but it’s easy to recognize a military occupation when you see it. As for experiencing it your entire life and understanding its progression in the lives of those who are born and die here is far greater. One of the people to help explain that is Nada Awad, advocacy officer for Al-Quds University’s Community Action Center (CAC):
“When we talk about Israel, we have to talk about colonialism, we have to talk about occupation and not talk about war and terrorism. Because where we live, we are occupied. We live under occupation, and fighting occupation is our right. Whereas in the United States, what you hear is that Palestinians are at war with Israel. This does not exist. We are not at war. We are fighting occupation. So we have to change the narrative that has been . . . a lot of propaganda happening since ‘48.”
Zionist duty to forcibly transfer Palestinians
Awad continued with a position not heard often on U.S. mainstream media sources: “Since ‘48, Israel has had a very clear agenda: to create a state on the Palestinian land. And in order to do so, they had to forcibly transfer Palestinians. It was their duty, you know, for all these Zionist leaders that clearly stated that in order to create the state, we have to expel the Palestinians. And this is a plan that has been ongoing since then, since ’48 until today; and it’s continuous, a continuous crime that was not recognized from the basis in ’48. It should have been recognized as a crime.”
Pressed about conditions on the ground, Awad spoke from an office location only yards away from Israeli military units controlling access to the Al Aqsa Mosque grounds, the holiest site in Islam only after Mecca and Medina, as well as the final checkpoint in the Muslim Quarter leading into the plaza surrounding the Western Wall, a site revered by countless numbers of the Jewish faith.
“Those efforts to forcibly transfer Palestinians are increasing. Definitely. Definitely increasing. We are seeing it increasing with the laws in Jerusalem, but also the bedouins who are being forcibly transferred around Jerusalem. From Hebron being heavily colonized. (Like) in 1948, it’s the same idea.
“I just talk about Jerusalem. We are very specific (at the CAC). It can be more generalized, but for me, the message I want to convey every time I speak about the situation in Jerusalem is we have to stop seeing the occupation as a good provider of services, etc. The occupation tries to show itself as a democracy that has everyone (in mind); in Jerusalem we have the three religions. And we have to stop looking at the occupation this way. We have to change glasses, and look at it the way it is.
“Palestinians in Jerusalem live at risk of forcible transfer every day.”
Many Palestinians cannot even stay in Jerusalem because the Israeli government has targets, Nada Awad said, noting the Israeli government wants to maintain numbers of about 30 percent Palestinians but will allow up to 40 percent.
“We have to (nonviolently) fight to be able to stay in our city we were born in. Where our grandparents were born in, and where our grand-grandparents were born in, Nada Awad said, adding “If there is one message about Jerusalem, it’s forcible transfer. It’s not the only city where there is forcible transfer, but the fact that Americans through their administration has recognized the unity of the city, and denied that East Jerusalem is occupied in an illegal event.”
According to a published history, East Jerusalem was integrated into the Israeli controlled sectors of the city by extension of its municipal borders and placed under administration of Israel in 1967. In a unanimous General Assembly resolution, the United Nations declared the measures trying to change the status of the city invalid. Jerusalem was effectively annexed by Israel in 1980, an act internationally condemned.
In December 2017, the Trump administration announced its official recognition of a unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but delayed relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv until now. The embassy move will be in contravention of international law and long accepted diplomatic norms. No other major Western power recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, including every NATO member state. Israel has militarily occupied East Jerusalem since 1967, which the Palestine authorities also claim as their rightful capital. Trump himself may attend the embassy transfer, though no confirmation is yet provided.
A U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be referred to by name, at the Jerusalem Consul General office, which will be the temporary site of the new embassy, responded via email about the embassy transfer:
“We are proud to announce that on May 14 we dedicate the new U.S. Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem. In doing so, President Trump fulfilled a major campaign promise. As the President stated in December, for the United States, recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a recognition of reality. Seventy years ago the United States, under President Truman, recognized the State of Israel. Ever since then, Jerusalem has been the seat of the modern Israeli government. And today, after years of promises and waiting, we are fulfilling a pledge; Jerusalem is now also the home of the U.S. Embassy to Israel.”
Perhaps trying to minimize the international controversy surrounding the unprecedented U.S. recognition of Jerusalem, the State Department official added: “The United States continues to support the status quo with regard to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, and we are committed to continuing to respect Jordan’s special role regarding holy sites in Jerusalem. By taking the long-overdue step of moving our embassy, we are not taking a position on final status issues. We are not taking a position on the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem nor on the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved. We remain committed to advancing an agreement between the parties that leads to a lasting and comprehensive peace.”
4th Geneva Convention still applies
“This is very important for people to know what it means,” Nada Awad remarked about the status of military occupation. “It is not just a term, occupation. The Law of Occupation, and the 4th Geneva Convention that’s applicable in occupied East Jerusalem provides protection for Palestinians. And removing the term “occupied” means that this is not applicable anymore, and the 4th Geneva is not applicable any more. And this protection, we’ll lose it as a population under occupation. It’s very important.”
Nada Awad stressed what those in solidarity with the human rights conditions in occupied Palestine can do: “We call on the international community to do what it should do. To bring back Israel to legality. By all means that are legitimate. It means if we lose also the Geneva Convention, the Palestinian population will lose protection. This is the standard to people living under occupation. We have that. We cannot lose that.”
Palestinian fears concerning the loss of occupation status center around the Trump administration’s decision for the first time in U.S. history to remove the term “occupied” in reference to the Palestinian territories in its annual 2018 State Department Report on Human Rights.
The same State Department official referred to earlier also responded via email to a question regarding the recent omission of the occupation description: “We have retitled the Human Rights report to refer to the commonly-used geographic names of the area the report covers: Israel, Golan, West Bank, and Gaza. That is in line with our practices generally. We also believe it is clearer and more useful for readers seeking information on human rights in those specific areas. The use of the term has not been barred, and that will be apparent on reading through the text of the report.”
The Palestinian advocacy officer sat at her desk dressed in casual clothes like any other millennial with no veil or hijab, though at least one other female in the office was dressed in more traditional attire. Young European and American CAC workers and volunteers also were present.
“I think this is the most important idea,” she stressed. “What does it mean to recognize East Jerusalem as part of Israel, and (its illegal) annexation? It means they are denying Palestinians the right to live in their city. They are denying Palestinians. And it’s continuous. The United States has continued to support Israel, have continued to support forcible transfer, which is a war crime against humanity. So the idea is, this is a responsibility (to oppose forcible transfers), a responsibility that should be taken, and policies should be changed.”
As for what Americans can do to help Palestinians, “For Jerusalem, for one thing, oppose (your) government decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I don’t know if there is any movement in the United States that opposes the administration’s decision. That is one thing,” remarked the knowledgeable spokeswoman in spacious modern CAC offices within what was once St. Julian’s Church built during a European Crusader campaign more than 800 years ago. “The other things are to raise awareness of the (ongoing occupation) and stop using the security argument all the time when we talk about Israel.”
Asked if any countries are, in fact, effectively supporting Palestinians in these forcible transfer issues, Nada Awad didn’t have much good news.
“Well, there were in the U.N., for example. We have a lot of states discussing this issue publically, issuing statements,” she noted. “The European Union issued a very strong statement against the (most recent residency) law when it was issued. But it stays in the terms of declarations and statements, and it does not materialize.”
For the past two years, Nada Awad has worked at the Community Action Center, operated by Al-Quds University, which is one of several institutions providing pro bono legal aid to Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem. Other community services provided by the university in the Old City include library, cultural center and Arabic language school currently under renovation.
CAC fights occupation through legal means
“But this center specifically, the Community Action Center, is providing legal aid because they live in a situation of occupation, and they have to fight the occupation on a daily basis, whether it’s because of residency revocation Israel is possibly transferring Palestinians from the city. And to fight this forcible transfer, we fight it legally, through the legal Israeli system, which is illegal. We have to deal with the Israeli system since we realized Israel is, the laws, are becoming more and more discriminatory, more and more clearly violating international law and more and more clearly calling for forcible transfer. We have been working on this aspect of international advocacy.
“We work mostly with other Palestinian and international organizations, human rights organizations. And we lobby states, whether it’s in Palestine, or through the U.N. or through the other representative offices in Jerusalem in Palestine or abroad. The idea is to lobby for changes in the laws . . . and to get criminals, war criminals, and people committing crimes against humanity in the Israeli government to be tried in international courts.”
How busy are the caseloads for the Center’s staff lawyers and support employees? “We have dozens of cases coming in everyday. And we are open six days a week,” she said.
Revoking Palestinian residency, redrawing the borders, not granting family reunification, not granting child registration and demolishing homes in a systematic discriminatory manner are Israeli occupation policies all working together in order to change the overall demographic equation in occupied East Jerusalem, according to Nada Awad.
“The demographic goal is what makes this all become normal, you know,” she added in a matter-of-fact way. “In the (pending Israeli Knesset parliamentary) bills, it is clearly stated it is for demographic goals. ‘And how can the Jewish capital of the Jewish state not be Jewish?’ To be a Jewish state they recognize a percentage of Palestinians or non-Jews living in this state should be a maximum of 20 percent. (Israeli Prime Minister) Netanyahu re-uses these alarming statistics, speaking of, ‘If the (non-Jews) become 40 (percent), there is no more Jewish state. So we have to use extreme measures.’ And he said it very clearly.”
Israel could not kill Palestinian identity
Do people at the CAC working daily with Palestinians under direct military occupation remain optimistic? “Yeah, always,” Nada Awad replied without hesitation. ”The fact that the Palestinian identity is very strong today shows Israel and the colonial aspect of Israel could not kill the Palestinian identity, although we are divided by now. We have East Jerusalem Palestinians, we have West Bank Palestinians, and Gaza Palestinians, refugees all over the world, in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, all over the place. And still you have very strong Palestinian identity.”
The determined Palestinian spokeswoman maintained that “we have not forgotten the right of return. People are still marching. People have not stopped since 1948. We have not stopped fighting. The fight is very difficult because, well, the power imbalance is very clear, but the fact that we are still fighting the occupation keeps me very optimistic in all ways. In all legitimate ways, we fight occupation, whether it’s through legal services or through advocacy or through (other means) like Boycott, Divest, Sanction.
“I’m not saying the Center supports BDS. But personally now, I’m speaking personally, not in the name of the Center, it’s what touches most of the occupation, which is the economy, and this is why BDS is being fought so hard by the Israelis. Because they feel pressure, and this is one of the only times, one of the only tools we have, to bring back Israel to legality because this is what scares them. If the West stops economic ties, Israel’s economy would fold. So it’s very important.”
And the loss of legal residency for a growing number of Palestinians in Jerusalem leaves them wide open to exploitation by nearly everyone around them with an agenda.
“You can receive a first permit, but it has to be renewed every year,” Nada Awad noted. “Then you try and renew it, and they will tell you ‘no.’ So you can find yourself living in Jerusalem without a permit. This person cannot support, cannot go out, visit their family who lives outside Jerusalem. Well, you will try to work even for an Israeli company who will hire you for less. Of course, everyone without proper documentation is open for society to exploit them. Even for lawyers to exploit them. When they’re vulnerable, it can be an Israeli exploiting you; it can be a Palestinian; it can be your family.
“For example, your husband will . . . you are beaten by your husband, but you don’t have any papers. And you have children. And you want to go to the police, but your husband say, ‘Ah!’ and you can’t say anything. Or the police say where are your papers? And they can forcibly transfer you. So you don’t go to the police about the issue of being beaten or violence at home, domestic violence. Because you’re afraid you will be forcibly transferred. You will be left without your children.”
The CAC provides a referral system for people with mental health problems, chronic diseases based on stress, the need for psycho-social support, and other physical and emotional issues all connected to the ongoing Israeli occupation.
Nada Awad said she has lived behind a checkpoint her whole life, and regularly walks through four or five checkpoints daily from the Damascus Gate to her office, but usually is not stopped because she does not wear a head cover or veil.
For many of her fellow Palestinians, the experience in the Old City and elsewhere is quite different: “The youth, men, veiled women, when (Israeli authorities) see clearly that a person is Palestinian, they will stop them every time. (They) check the bags. For men, (they) do a belly check, and put them on the wall. It’s very humiliating. It’s very important to keep that in mind that this situation only creates wanting vengeance, but not in a sense that everything is a reaction to (only these checkpoint conditions).
“The idea behind the protests and demonstration is the end of this occupation, the illegal occupation, that has been going on for 70 years.”
Israel remains one of the largest recipient nations of American aid, much of which helps to sustain Tel Aviv and maintain its decades-long occupation and suppression of Palestine. According to the wiki page, since 1985, America has provided nearly $3 billion in grants annually to Israel, the largest annual recipient of U.S. aid from 1976 to 2004, and the largest cumulative recipient of aid since W.W. II, $121 billion not adjusted for inflation. In 2014, the United States provided $3.1 billion in foreign military aid. Israel also benefits from about $8 billion in loan guarantees. Almost all U.S. aid to Israel is now in the form of military assistance.
As for Palestine, the numbers don’t remotely add up. According to published reports, the U.S. State Department plans to spend about $215 million in economic assistance for the West Bank and Gaza this year and has requested another $215 million in its 2019 budget request. Those numbers are subject to cuts, and the United States recently cut $65 million in separate funding for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.
Back in Peoria, folks like Mohammad are starting to ask for a different reality.
“It’s not fair, you know, what the Israelis do (to occupied Palestinian people). Every year, the United States funds billions of dollars for weapons for Israelis. This money, you know, should not go to weapons. This money should go to hospitals in the United States to treat cancers. What’s better, money going for weapons or hospitals and schools in the United States? Israel gets all this money from America. They fix their country. This money, instead of going to Israel, why America does not use it for their own people?

Video shot by Lawrence Maushard showing confrontation between local Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers on the main street in East Jerusalem’s Old City:

The author resides on Peoria’s East Bluff. More of his work is at

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