Yasmeen El-Hasan: “Israel is a colonial occupier”

03/05/2023 |


Feminism, youth and peasants resistances in Palestine are the subjects of this interview with the Union of Agricultural Work Committees’ activist

Yasmeen El-Hasan is the Advocacy and Community Mobilization Officer at the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC). She grew up in the United States, and had returned recently to Palestine — “home is home, and I wanted to go home”, she says.

In an interview for Capire, Yasmeen shared her worries about the imperialist criminalization of struggles and her thoughts about the women and youth daily resistances. The UAWC was one of the six political organizations attacked and criminalized in 2021 as terrorists by Israel. This offensive demanded and still demands solidarity of the movements from all the world. For Yasmeen, “the most fulfilling thing is being able to work to protect our land and community”.


Yasmeen, could you tell us how did the terrorist classification against UAWC happen? How is this situation now?

For context, Israel has legally designated UAWC along with a number of other Palestinian human rights organizations as terrorist organizations under Israeli law. Israel is a settler colony. The primary goal of settler colonialism is to eliminate or displace the indigenous population, and replace them with a settler population. In order to accomplish that, they need land. So the basis of settler colonialism is land theft. Which, in turn, means dispossession of land for the indigenous people — in this case, that’s us, Palestinians. Any organization, individual or movement that pushes against that or attempts to fight the oppression of settler colonialism or the dispossession of our rights, land and resources is a direct threat to a settler colonial entity. Therefore, civil society organizations that have been working for decades to defend Palestinian rights and advocate for our liberties and freedoms, that to Israel is an existential threat.

As Palestinian organizations, we are working to directly advocate and organize for our liberties and freedoms, and therefore in opposition to Israeli occupation. Because of that the occupation views us as a roadblock. In response, they declared us as terrorist organizations. On October 19th, 2021, Israel designated six Palestinian civil society organizations as terrorist organizations: UAWC, Al-Haq, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Defense for Children International-Palestine and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees. All of these are excellent Palestinian civil society organizations that do amazing work for the community. They’re all based in the grassroots and they have international legitimacy as well. So, following the designation, a massive international solidarity campaign took place that opposed this designation. There were countless statements by international bodies, international organizations, political figures, and grassroots condemning the designation, including from the United Nations, the European Union, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty. The United Nations has called on governments to resume funding the designated six, and in July 2022, nine European countries issued a joint statement affirming that the designation has no basis and that they will continue to work with the six organizations.

According to Israel, the basis of the designation is due to financial flows. This allegation was debunked several times through rigorous financial audits conducted on UAWC, mainly by the Australian and Dutch governments. However, even though every investigation proved that the designation was false, unfounded, had no actual factual basis, it still affected us and our funding. While the designation of us as terrorists and the criminalization of Palestinian civil society is very obviously a stunt, a performative political move, and proven to be false, it was a fear tactic. Unfortunately, for some entities, internationally, it worked. That has led to a pause on certain funds even after the investigations proved that there’s no founding.

It has made our situation quite difficult. But we’re strengthened and motivated by our own community, our partners, our solidarity allies from all across the world that have stood with us throughout this. We know that what we’re doing is fighting for liberty and land. Of course, the situation remains really difficult. We are still now, according to the Israeli government, legally terrorists. The Israeli military raided the six offices in Ramallah in August 2022. At UAWC, they destroyed and stole our electronics, they made a mess of our entire office, boarded the doors and left a military order saying that we are not allowed to continue our work. That also garnered a significant international response in defense of Palestinian civil society.

Just for more context, UAWC works to support, advocate for, and protect Palestinian small farmers and their land rights. We’ve done this since 1986, promoting small farmers’ steadfastness and their access to and sovereignty over natural resources in the face of the vulnerable socio-economic situation resulting from the Israeli occupation and exploitation of Palestinian land and water. It’s important to note that our work with the land is not abstract, it’s very material. Palestinian communities are rooted in the land. We’re intertwined with our ecosystem. I don’t say that as a metaphor or to be poetic, but quite literally, Palestinian communities are physically rooted in our land. When there are attacks against our land, that’s not just an attack on the economy, for example, or the GDP. That’s not the bigger issue. It’s an attack on our existence and our livelihoods.

UAWC works to protect that. Our work includes land reclamation and rehabilitation, installation of irrigation pipes, construction of agricultural roads, creation of income-generating projects for youth and women, the establishment of a seed bank that protects varieties of indigenous local seeds and facilitates their distribution to local small farmers, and knowledge exchange and transfer, just to name a few. But this type of work, material work with the land, scares the occupier. We continue our work. It’s difficult, and our capacity has certainly been affected, but despite that, our commitment will always remain to our community. That means that no matter how challenging it may be, we’re going to keep working to protect and advocate for Palestinian small farmers, peasants, and rural communities.


How do you see the reality of women in these communities?

Women are the foundation in Palestinian society. Women are the heart of our struggle. There’s a hadith that is very culturally ingrained that says that paradise lies beneath the feet of our mothers. Our mothers, whether visibly or otherwise, are at the forefronts. As an organization, we support women as much as possible. UAWC supports a number of women’s cooperatives and we also have programs to support women’s handicraft, women’s production of goods based on their crops, resources, things that they grow on their land.

Rural communities do not function without women. There’s a lot of invisible labor. Especially because agriculture is talked about as an “economic” sector: the focus is on the numbers, the money. Women are often not visible in the economic part of rural communities as they may not be the face of the agricultural contribution to the GDP.

In addition to this known invisible labor, women are essential to the running of family farms. They’re essential to the upkeep and continued production of natural resources. Women are also very often keepers of oral tradition and oral history. There is a Palestinian mathematician and education scholar named Munir Fasheh who was talking with his mother about “one plus one”. He said “one plus one is two”, and his mother said “no, one plus one can be one”. She was saying: “if you have one drop of water, you add another drop of water on top of that drop, that’s still one drop, because they, together, are not separated anymore”. That example really stuck with me as illustrative of different ways of thinking that are outside the hegemonic ways focused on economic numbers, hard money, the neoliberal cycle and systems. Women are often the essential members of our community that allow us to continue to maintain these community-based, land-based methods of thinking and knowledge.

My richest knowledge of the land has been passed down from my maternal lineage. I learned about the land from my grandmothers. Neither of them ever formally worked on a farm, but they both grew up in rural communities, and they tended their land and grew many of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that we would eat. From them, I learned how to care for our land. From my mother, who grew up in a rural community and now lives an ocean away from her homeland, I learned what it means to relate to our land as a Palestinian woman. Together, they taught me what it means to be rooted. They taught me not just what we get from the land, but what we give to the land. It’s not a transactional relationship. It’s symbiotic. It’s reciprocal. From the maternal figures in my life, I learned what home is and the responsibilities that come with it.

I read an article once about how Palestinian women are not at the forefront of the revolution or active in the fight for our rights. It was almost comical how false it is, because that way of thinking, especially in the global North, does not take into account all of the spheres of participation. For example, women may not always be the ones who are visible in the pictures you see of people throwing stones or rocks when their villages are being raided. But when teargas is thrown, onions can be used to help cleanse, to cry away the toxins, or handkerchiefs with perfume to sniff. They’re often the ones who are providing a lot of the resistance.

Women are at the forefront of the resistance, even if it’s not in the ways that the global North has envisioned resistance, or has envisioned what fighting for your rights look like.

The discourse about that in the global North is often very heteropatriarchal and hyper-focuses on what it deems as visible shows of male aggression, rather than holistically recognizing all of the ways that women, and Palestinian men as well, are resisting. But Palestinian women do it all, are at every line. There’s a phrase that’s repeated often in the Palestinian context: “to exist is to resist”. And there’s a word in Arabic we use to describe the Palestinian people, which is “sumud” (صمود) and means “steadfastness”. One of the ways that Palestinian women and all Palestinians resist is by being steadfast, by existing and continuing to maintain this connection with our land.

How the young people are involved in the movement? How they are dealing with the imperialism in the daily life?

The political and the economic situation is getting worse and worse. Five minutes ago, I checked my phone and saw that there’s another settler invasion of Huwara, a village outside of Nablus. There’s already a number of Palestinians in the hospital.

A lot of things are really discouraging. But the one thing that never fails to make me feel hope is my peers, Palestinian youth. I am so inspired by the way that my peers have self-organized, especially in the past two years. For example we saw the Unity Intifada in May 2021, primarily organized by the youth. We have found new ways to resist. Many of us were not around during and we have only vague memories and stories passed down from the first and second Intifada.

The ways that Palestinian youth are resisting are incredible and based in unity. It’s one home, we are one people, and that is what guides our struggle. We are indigenous to this land. That means we are its caretakers. It is our responsibility to protect the land. Someone said, “they kill for the land, we live to protect it”. We see that a lot now, especially with Palestinian youth. Only this year, I’ve lost count of how many Palestinians have been killed. If you look at their ages, so many of them are young, in their twenties, and so many of them are even kids. It’s heartbreaking. We remember our martyrs.

I also want to take a moment to recognize the diaspora. Palestinians within Palestine, within the West Bank, in 1948 (which is what we call the parts of Palestine that Israel took in 1948), in Gaza… In all of that area the youth resistance is what’s driving the evolution of political and social change. But in addition to that, it’s complemented by unity of the Palestinian diaspora. This was visible especially during the Unity Intifada. We were seeing Palestinians all over the world, not just in Palestine: in the refugee camps and in exile, Lebanon, Jordan, in the diaspora, the US, Latin America, Europe – Palestinians all over the world. I was living in the United States at the time, and I have never felt such a strong unity among members of the diaspora.

The Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), which is a transnational movement of young Palestinians and Arabs in the diaspora, is an incredibly strong network. They work from the diaspora to organize for the liberation of Palestine. The past few years especially, and with evolution of technology, and all of that, we’ve been able to see Palestinians outside and inside complement each other, struggle and work together. Palestinian youth are not just the future, but the present too.

Us youth were not around when our home was colonized. Our grandparents were around at the time of Nakba in 1948, and in 1967, when the Naksa and the Six Day War happened. Our parents lived through the First Intifada. We were very young during the Second Intifada. We don’t know anything else. Some of my earliest memories are Israeli soldiers stopping us at checkpoints pointing guns to our heads. But even if this is all you know, even as kids, you refuse to accept it as okay. Why is this our status quo? You come to this realization very quickly, that this is not normal. It should not be normal. This is not okay. And so the youth act on it. It’s inspiring.

Interview conducted by Helena Zelic

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