Samer Alatout, an associate professor of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke to students about the historical context of the Israel-Hamas war and his personal experiences as a Palestinian activist during an Oct. 24 Wisconsin Union Directorate lecture at Memorial Union.
Alatout, who grew up in the West Bank town of Nablus, said Palestinians are still living in the legacy of the 1948 war “because it wasn’t resolved.” He gave an overview of a timeline starting with the British Mandate in 1922.
Throughout and following the 1947 Arab-Israeli war, more than half of the existing Palestinian population was displaced in what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba. More than 5 million Palestine refugees live throughout the Middle East today, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
“There aren't many wars, there is one war and one war only, and it started in 1948 and never ended,” Alatout said.
Human Rights group Amnesty International classified Israel as an apartheid state on the grounds that Israel has repeatedly seized property, demolished homes and forced evictions of Palestinians, mandated restrictive control over their lives, and created diminished Palestinian opportunities for education and work.
In a 280-page report, they outlined patterns of Israeli inhumane acts and unlawful killings. They also condemned Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which “prevents Palestinians from accessing adequate healthcare, in particular life-saving and other emergency medical treatment only available outside Gaza.”
Pro-Israel groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, have refuted the classification, saying that Israel has democratic institutions, Israeli-Arab citizens work in Israel’s society and there are Arab members in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature.
Alatout spoke about how the Israeli government has clamped down on Palestinian movement in the West Bank with their separation wall — Israeli settlers and foreigners are able to pass points denied to Palestinians and Palestinians who legally work in Israel must cross through a number of military checkpoints every day.
There are more than 700 roadblocks controlling Palestinian movement in the West Bank, according to OCHA.
During a heated moment, a student asked Alatout what prompted the Israeli government to build the wall and continued to interrupt part of the professor’s response when he said that the wall was a “stupid response for suicide bombing.”
Israel started the process of building the wall in 2002 as a security measure. Between September 2000 and August 2002, 415 Israelis were killed and 2,000 were injured in the second Intifada, or Palestinian resistance, from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Alatout said Palestinians have routinely been dehumanized by Israeli society and Western media. He referenced a 2001 tape when Benjamin Netanyahu said the way to deal with Palestinians is to “beat them up, not once, but repeatedly beat them up so it hurts so badly until it's unbearable.”
He also condemned Israel’s controversial Nation-State Bill, which enshrined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and enumerated “Jewish settlement as a national value.” It established Hebrew as Israel’s official language and demoted Arabic to “a special status [language],” encoded Jewish state symbols and affirmed Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Members of liberal Jewish groups including the American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism and J Street criticized the law as anti-democratic.
“If you are a Palestinian, you have to accept the fact that you are a second-class citizen,” Alatout said.
Alatout pointed out the conditions for Palestinians prior to fighting between Hamas and Israel. Last year, Israeli forces killed more Palestinians than in any year since the U.N. recorded fatalities, the majority killed during clashes in West Bank cities Jenin and Nablus.
He took issue with media coverage that asks Palestinian interviewees to first condemn Hamas as a terrorist group before sharing their perspective, which he said forces him “to follow a specific narrative about Palestinians.”
He said he would put Hamas in the same category as the Israeli state.
“If you have money to buy rockets that kill 6,000 in a few days and injure 15,000 in a few days, is that okay because it's a state? No, it's a terrorist genocidal state,” Alatout said.
Hamas is designated by the United States and the European Union, among other countries, as a terrorist organization. Its 1988 charter calls for the destruction of Israel as a condition for the establishment of a theocratic Islamic state in Palestine, explicitly calling for the slaughter of Jews in Article Seven.
“The Day of Judgement will not come about,” Article Seven of the 1988 Hamas charter reads, “until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
The group presented a new document in 2017 that does not recognize Israel but accepts an interim state along borders prior to the Six-Day War and “affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion.
During Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack in southern and central Israel, the group killed the most Jews in one day since the Holocaust and took more than 200 hostages.
Alatout said many Palestinian activists are afraid to speak out for fear of their safety and academic retribution. Many have condemned efforts like the Canary Mission, which says it documents “people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews,” but which Palestinian activists say have contributed to doxxing efforts for their activism.
“We cannot have the dominant narrative be Israeli or Western colonial and then we assume that the others don't speak, and we muffle their voices, and we tell them, ‘Don't talk. Don't say anything. Die silently.’ I cannot do that,” Alatout said.
UW Hillel expressed disappointment with the WUD lecture’s title and speaker in an Instagram post, saying the title failed to recognize the Oct. 7 terror attacks and lacked sensitivity.
“Exploring the history of Israel and Gaza completely ignores and disregards the horrific 9/11-like attack on Israelis and citizens of over 20 countries and diminishes the impact of this horrific attack and the taking over 200 hostages,” the statement read.
Rachel Hale is a senior staff writer who covers state politics and campus events. Before getting involved with The Daily Cardinal, she was a culture editor at Moda Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @rachelleighhale.