Criminalizing Resistance

The state campaign against Rasmea Odeh is part of a broader attack on Palestinian activists.

The “War on Terror” has been the operating framework of US imperial domination for over a decade. Its sweep across the globe has meant mass imprisonment, arbitrary detention, torture, extraordinary rendition, and widespread surveillance. Through such repression, it has ushered in a state of global terror, centered on the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.

On October 22, the legal arm of this campaign came for Palestinian community organizer and feminist Rasmea Yousef Odeh. The sixty-six-year-old was arrested at dawn at her Chicago-area home and charged with immigration fraud.

The indictment is a lengthy document, purporting to demonstrate that Odeh did not disclose on her immigration application that she was a former Palestinian political prisoner, held in Israeli jails from 1969 until 1979.

Both the language of the indictment and the publicity around Odeh’s arrest are attempts to label her a terrorist, although the government’s charges are only linked to that lack of disclosure. The indictment refers to a “long list of terrorist attacks” by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), describing it as “one of the first Palestinian organizations to use terrorism.” It contains several paragraphs focused on US anti-terrorism law, which is not implicated in the charges against Odeh. The media immediately picked up the “terror” epithet, eliding the facts of the case, and attempting to push the public away from sympathy with Odeh.

The arrest of Odeh is part of the systematic criminalization of Palestinian organizing — which has always included that of leftists. This project took on a harder edge in 1995 and 1996 when, as part of the Oslo process, the State Department created lists of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). Those lists have made it difficult for Arab and Muslim communities in the US to maintain connections to struggle in their homelands, with material support to a range of politically active groups punishable by lengthy prison sentences.

When the FTO lists were initially created — the first creating financial, the second criminal, penalties for “ material support” of the banned organizations — the parties associated with the Palestinian left, most notably the PFLP, were named, no doubt related to those groups’ criticism of the Oslo process and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.

The criminalization of material support to these groups has reshaped Palestinian organizing in the US, segregating those in exile here from their counterparts in Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab world by creating barriers to common political affiliation and support. With the potential for prosecution looming over politically active Palestinians, a new climate of fear has strongly suppressed organizing.

In the pre-Oslo era, the Palestinian community in the United States openly celebrated its connections to the Palestinian liberation movement. In an environment in which the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was broadly recognized within the community as a legitimate representative, its political organizations and unions found voice among Palestinians in exile. From Fateh to the Popular Front to the Democratic Front and beyond, support for a multiplicity of parties was a part of daily life for those in exile.

In the US, Palestinian leftists won national elections in the General Union of Palestinian Students, at that time an organization of thousands, which represented Palestinian students around the world as one of the PLO’s representative unions. Financial support from the exiled was also valuable, providing funds for the creation of hospitals, schools, and mass political mobilizations.

Each year on December 11, to mark the anniversary of the founding of the PFLP in 1967, events took place in cities across the US, often under the banner of Palestine Day, to support these efforts and to maintain a public and progressive vision for a liberated Palestine. And then, as now, activists faced surveillance and repression, most notably in the case of the Los Angeles 8, when seven Palestinians and one Kenyan faced deportation proceedings in 1987 for organizing of events and distributing PFLP magazines. The campaign for their acquittal found widespread support — a signal of the strength of Palestinian Left, given that such work was an expected and prominent expression of community politics.

For decades, editions of Al-Hadaf, the PFLP’s Arabic-language monthly journal, could be found at Arabic bookstores and community vendors in New York, Chicago, Youngstown, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and numerous other cities. It was not hidden behind the counter, but sold and discussed as part of the community’s intellectual life. English-language editions of Democratic Palestine, the Front’s international publication, were widely and openly circulated among solidarity groups and leftist organizations.

The shift to the suppression and forced marginalization of Palestinian political organizations took place in conjunction with the Oslo Accords. The terror lists stood as the enforcement arm to quash attempts to rebuild a Palestinian revolutionary agenda in Palestinian exile and refugee communities abroad. But the infrastructure of community centers, women’s organizations, and student groups involving thousands of Palestinians across the country did not disappear, even as the activists who built those organizations adapted their work to the new climate.

The Arab American Action Network (AAAN), where Odeh is associate director and coordinator of the Arab Women’s Committee (AWC), is just one example of Palestinian progressive organizing in the post-Oslo period. The AAAN was formed out of the Arab Community Centre, a Palestinian leftist community organization founded in 1972, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Associations (UPWA), for many years a major force among progressive Palestinian women.

The AWC includes hundreds of Arab and Palestinian women from across Chicago involved in political education and organizing, an effort Odeh saw as central to the liberation struggle:

In Palestine, we helped women face a difficult political situation. We taught them how to deal [with challenges], how to live. When the schools were closed, we taught their kids. When there was a curfew, we brought them food. When they were giving birth and the Israeli soldiers refused to let them through checkpoints, we tried to take them [to the hospital ourselves] . . . We need to organize for our rights. Social work and political work are connected.

Groups like the AAAN also emphasized alliance-building with other oppressed communities. Executive director Hatem Abudayyeh explained the organization’s philosophy in 2003:

[W]hat needs to be done is to connect our issues to the working class in this country, especially in resisting the US war drive . . . a movement for true racial and social justice must include the unity of the multinational working class with the oppressed nationalities of this country.

In addition to Odeh’s work with AAAN, she has been a mentor to Palestinians organizing across generations, playing a significant role in the US Palestinian Community Network (USPCN), a progressive Palestinian exile formation.

This activism was, of course, forged out of necessity.

Odeh, along with millions of Palestinians, is a refugee, forced from her home village of Lifta in 1948, and expelled to Ramallah by the occupying Zionist military forces. Rasmea began attending meetings of the Palestinian section of the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), a pan-Arab revolutionary organization with chapters around the Arab world, as a young woman. She later enrolled in the American University of Beirut, where she studied political economy.

This was the era of the emergence of the modern Palestinian revolutionary movement. The Palestine Liberation Organization was founded in 1964. Fateh’s first public battle was in 1965, and in 1967, the PFLP was founded.

While the revolutionary Fateh of the 1960s bears little political resemblance to the party of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, the PFLP was a consciously Marxist-Leninist alternative, the post-1967 outgrowth and evolution of the ANM, throwing it into conflict not only with Israeli and American forces, but Palestinian and Arab reaction.

The new organizations soon helmed the PLO and issued the Palestinian national charter, still in force today. Palestinians both inside and outside Palestine flocked to support them — openly outside where they could, and secretly from within the occupation, faced with the threat of Israeli imprisonment. Then, as now, Israeli treatment of Palestinian political prisoners violated all norms of human decency.

In 1969, Israeli military forces arrested Odeh herself in Ramallah. She and her sister Aisha were taken to Moskobiyeh detention center, where they were subject to torture and sexual assault. Odeh has recounted her experiences under Israeli captivity:

The first time they stripped me and threw me on the floor, the room was full of men — civilians and soldiers. They laughed at my nakedness and kicked me, beat me with sticks, pinched me all over, especially on the breasts; my body was covered with bruises. Then they got a wooden stick, not a smooth one, and pushed it into me to break the hymen. They brought my father and fiancé to see me. I lost consciousness and when I woke I was in another room, lying on the floor with a blanket over my legs but my body still naked.

Odeh was charged with membership in the PFLP, and with organizing two Palestinian military operations on behalf of the Front. Like 99.74 percent of Palestinians facing Israeli military courts, she was convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Rasmea and Aisha’s home was destroyed by occupation authorities after this verdict.

Yet she and her fellow women prisoners became symbols of the Palestinian national movement. Palestinian groups and brigades took the names of the women prisoners, including Rasmea, in order to bring attention to their cases, and honor their struggle.

The Sunday Times exposed Odeh’s experience of torture in 1977. In 1979, she was released along with Aisha and seventy-four other Palestinian prisoners in a prisoner exchange with the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon.

Afterwards, Odeh continued her education, becoming a lawyer. She remained politically active, and in 1994 traveled to the US, obtaining her citizenship in 2005. There, she joined numerous relatives, many of them active youth leaders and organizers in Detroit, Chicago, and elsewhere.

Odeh’s arrest is part of an ongoing campaign of repression against the Palestinian and Arab communities in the US, and especially against Palestinians who remain connected to the struggle in their homeland. Political prisoners pepper not only Israeli jails, but American ones, too.

On the day of her arrest, in the courtroom and consulting with the prosecutor was Assistant US Attorney Barry Jonas. Jonas had worked to convict the Holy Land 5 and secure up to sixty-five-year prison sentences for the five men who had organized a Palestinian charity which donated to the same zakat committees as USAID. The trials of Sami al-Arian, Abdelhaleem Ashqar, and Mohammad Salah are part of the same passel of cases targeting Palestinian fundraisers and charity organizers for “material support of terror.” Elsewhere, the NYPD has targeted Palestinian activist groups like Al-Awda New York for infiltration, while building a massive surveillance dragnet over the larger community.

These cases build on earlier attempts at criminalization of Palestinian activism like the Los Angeles 8. Those eight activists, threatened with deportation, were successful in bringing that case to a victorious end in 2008 after twenty years of legal struggle.

All Palestinian political parties opposed to Oslo, including the PFLP, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, were placed on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list at its creation. The effects of these parties’ placement on the list are not limited to direct impacts on exile communities, but also on the Palestinian liberation movement’s ability to pursue an independent course from the Palestinian Authority and the funding under its control.

One common criticism of the Palestinian Left raised by Palestinian and solidarity writers and activists debating the future of the Palestinian liberation struggle is its acceptance of funding from the Palestine Liberation Organization, connected to the PA. But political parties and liberation movements require funds to operate — not simply to pay salaries, but also to support prisoners in Israeli jails, or to support organizing among the population. The funding that once came from grassroots fundraising from the Palestinian exile community, particularly in North America, to strengthen progressive and left Palestinian politics has been cut off amid post-Oslo criminalization and the terror-listing.

This cut-off has been intended to hobble liberatory Palestinian organizing — and so challenging them may be a critical step for the next stage of struggle.

Nor is Odeh alone in her struggle with domestic law enforcement, making clear the concerted nature of this campaign to gut the Palestinian struggle and those supporting it. Even the actors are the same: Jonas, the Holy Land 5 prosecutor who appeared in Odeh’s hearing, is also leading the investigation of twenty-three anti-war and international solidarity activists in Chicago, including AAAN’s Abudayyeh.

In 2010, the homes of anti-war and international solidarity activists were raided in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sample interrogation questions left behind left no doubt as to raids’ focus: The FBI intended to interrogate these activists about the PFLP, delegations to Palestine, and support for progressive Palestinian women’s organizing. Numerous questions about the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, a left-wing Palestinian women’s association, and the visit of UPWC chair Maha Nassar to the US in 2003, were planned for the activists’ interrogation.

Odeh appeared in court on November 13, 2013 in Detroit, where she was arraigned on the charge against her: obtaining naturalization by fraud. Dozens of supporters protested outside the courthouse and organizations throughout the country, from the Palestinian Youth Movement to Students for Justice in Palestine National and the US Palestinian Community Network, have called for the charges to be dropped.

The re-criminalization of Odeh and the media narrative spun around that effort are simply the latest phase in an ongoing legal push against Palestinian resistance, including the isolation of community leaders and the intimidation of the wider public.

There is a vast potential for new generations of Palestinian activists and organizers to not only confront the criminalization drive against Palestinian activists, but to continue to build upon their work for the liberation of Palestine. That includes re-examining the history of the Palestinian movement in exile before Oslo, before terror lists, and before “material support” legislation. The depth, richness and historical legacy of the Palestinian progressive movement in exile in North America must be reclaimed.

The challenge to state repression — and, more generally, Oslo-era politics — contains the potential for rebuilding the structures, networks, and capacities of Palestinian left organizing in exile.