No Propagandists on Campus

UChicago students should know better than to host an event honoring Israeli soldiers.

By Alex Shams

On May 3, 2016, Palestinian Ahmed Shehadeh was driving home from his aunt’s house in the central West Bank to Qalandiya, where he lived with his wife and five children. Qalandiya is a Palestinian refugee camp established in 1949, after Israeli forces destroyed 530 Palestinian villages and ethnically cleansed 700,000 Arabs from their homes in what is now Israel. When Israel seized control of the West Bank in 1967, those refugees fell under the rule of the military occupation they had fled years earlier. 

Even though Qalandiya is deep in the Palestinian West Bank, the road to the village passes by numerous Israeli settlements, Jewish-only towns guarded by Israeli soldiers built largely on lands confiscated from local Palestinians. Around these settlements, heavily-armed Israeli soldiers set up checkpoints to stop Palestinians as part of a larger system of intimidation against the local population. 

On that May day, as Shehadeh drove along the narrow, winding road near Talmon settlement, his car hit 3 Israeli soldiers who had set up a surprise checkpoint near a sharp curve, according to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. The soldiers in the area immediately opened fire at him; according to local news sources, Shehadeh was dragged out of the car and Israeli soldiers shot him multiple times, executing him. The injured soldiers were taken away for medical care, even as Shehadeh’s body was left lying on the ground. Born in a Palestinian refugee camp, Ahmed’s life was cut short—and his children left fatherless—by the bullets emptied from the rifles of Israeli occupation forces. 

I tell the story of Shehadeh’s death because this Thursday, the University of Chicago Alliance with Israel, Chabad, and the Chicago Booth Armed Forces Group are bringing Israeli soldiers to campus, including Matan Roettger, one of those wounded by Shehadeh’s car. This event, perversely titled “Triumph Against Terrorism,” hails these Israeli soldiers as “wounded heroes.” 

The title appears to label Shehadeh a “terrorist,” when he was never tried or convicted for any crime—press reports agree only that his car struck Israeli soldiers, with no substantiation of the claims of Israeli officials that he did so intentionally. Israeli soldiers executed Shehadeh in cold blood without first trying to arrest or question him, which is tantamount to an extrajudicial killing. The only party here that we know acted unlawfully and overzealously is the group of Israeli soldiers. But in the Orwellian atmosphere of today’s Israel—where the killing of any Palestinian is defended as necessary in the fight against terror—the murderers become the heroes.  

Labeling Shehadeh a “terrorist” suggests that he intentionally hit soldiers with his car; there is no evidence of that. What there is evidence of, however, is a history of staggering human rights abuses committed against the native Palestinian population by occupying Israeli forces. Beginning in 1948, Israel launched a wave of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians and placed those who remained under a system of military rule that has denied them basic political, social, and economic rights. This system was extended in 1967 to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Soldiers like Roettger are the enforcers of this occupation, where Palestinians are routinely abused, held in military prisons for unlimited periods of time, and can be jailed at any time based on the whims of Israeli soldiers. 

Consider this: Israel’s system of military courts for Palestinians in the West Bank has a 99.7% conviction rate—meaning that any Palestinian they arrest, no matter the evidence in the trial, will almost certainly be convicted and imprisoned. The result is a system of mass incarceration. 

This even includes hundreds of Palestinian minors: Right now, there are more than 300 children in Israeli detention. Among them is Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian girl who made international headlines in December when she slapped an Israeli soldier who was blocking her from getting into her home—just two weeks after her cousin, a 14-year-old who was arrested and jailed for 3 months, was shot in the head. When her mother went to jail to visit her after her arrest, she was arrested too. Her crime? Broadcasting her daughter’s arrest on Facebook Live (they called it “incitement”). Tamimi just celebrated her 17th birthday in jail, her prison time extended with no possibility of bail even though she hasn’t even been tried.  

There are thousands upon thousands of stories like Tamimi’s across Palestine, reminders that Israel’s 70-year-long occupation of Palestinian land has traumatized a nation. During the 1990s, when Palestinian leadership signed a peace deal with Israeli leadership, Israel actually sped up construction of Israeli settlements. While in 1993 there were around 100,000 settlers, today there are more than 600,000. These settlements today cover the West Bank, making any chance for a future Palestinian state—which is the core of what Israel originally promised in the peace negotiations—an impossibility. 

Israel does all of this with U.S. support, to the tune of an astonishing $4 billion in U.S. military aid every year. It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that Israel loans out its soldiers for speaking tours to try to promote its image abroad. What’s shocking, however, is that there are UChicago student groups that have fallen for this blatant propaganda. The support of Chabad—ostensibly a religious, and not political, group—is particularly astonishing. 

Students for Justice in Palestine refuses to stay silent as UChicago becomes a platform for the propagandists of Israel’s apartheid regime, just as we refuse to accept the invitation of white nationalists like Steve Bannon. We denounce any attempt to normalize these ideologies on our campus. The same racist and Islamophobic rhetoric used by Trump and white supremacists here in the U.S. to target people of color is utilized by Israel to demonize Palestinians, and those on campus who have sponsored this military propaganda tour are complicit. 

We invite all those students offended by this event to join us in protest at 5:45 p.m. in Stuart Hall on Thursday afternoon, immediately preceding the event. We hope to send a message that the Israeli military and its propagandists are not welcome on this campus. 

Alex Shams is a third-year Ph.D. student in anthropology.