Image by Noah Schmeling

From the Ground: Action and Awareness in the Fight for Palestine

Artistic protest actions allow for an educational and emotional response. Spreading awareness and tapping into empathy are the first steps towards a strong and unified pro-Palestine movement in Portugal

Activists from Palestine, Europe, and beyond gathered in Praça do Comércio this past Sunday for Portugal’s first die-in protest since Hamas’s attacks on October 7 and the massive Israeli bombing campaign and ground invasion that followed. More than 25 participants, myself included, lay beneath white sheets covered in red paint in mourning and solidarity with the 11,000-plus children and adults that have been killed in Palestine. Around 100 other activists, allies, and passing tourists, observed the action.

Image by Noah Schmeling

Rashid, a tourist visiting from South Africa, applauded the effort of the activists he happened to stumble upon in one of Lisbon’s busiest tourist areas. “I think it’s important that we all stand together with the cause of Palestinians. We all need to stand together against this genocide that’s being committed,” Rashid commented. “We just had a huge march over the weekend in Cape Town. Thousands of people came to show their solidarity with the Palestinian people. It’s great for me to see that all the way in Europe this is also happening. I’m very grateful that I was able to get here in time to witness this.”

The practice of the die-in as a tool of protest can be traced back to the ACT UP AIDS movement of the 1980s and ‘90s. It acts as a physical, material symbol of the dead and murdered. The die-in uses the stillness and silence of death as a mode of impact in contrast to the vital uproar of a conventional protest march. 

On Sunday, the die-in was used to mourn and draw attention towards the thousands of people who have died in Gaza since the start of October, 40% of whom were children. That number, pulled on November 13, continues to rise daily at a sickening pace. 

Image by Diogo Pereira

For some, a die-in is the most appropriate action to take in the current moment. While marches are a powerful and productive tool of protest, they often must avoid disruption and stick to their sanctioned routes, which can ultimately mean they don’t reach anyone besides the people already convinced of the cause. The average person who passes a protest, and is not already invested, isn’t likely to be drawn in or taught anything by the activists marching past who have already surrounded themselves with like-minded comrades. 

The die-in, on the other hand,  takes place in the middle of the daily bustle and presents a learning opportunity. 

Our message succeeded in reaching out to the type of person who would likely never be seen at a protest. While lying under my paint-splattered sheet, I heard curious whispers from around the perimeter of the action. Onlookers asked our activists who stayed standing up what our reasons were, and some even asked to participate. Rubble was painted onto the faces of some observers in solidarity with the thousands of unidentified human beings still caught under Gaza’s destroyed buildings. Some of our Palestinian comrades took to the microphone to talk on their experiences and the experiences of their families still in Palestine, and spoke directly to a crowd of potential, now likely, allies.

Sunday’s action was an intense and unique experience for the people under the sheets as well. One participant, Freya, an activist from New York now based in Lisbon, told me she thought the die-in was “a very powerful, peaceful. . . message to show the gruesomeness of what’s happening in Gaza. Many folks that came here mentioned the feeling of being uncomfortable for the brief amount of time we were lying down, which is nothing compared to actually living in Gaza right now. I feel like it’s a symbolic way in which we can share  .0001 percent of what they’re going through. Maybe it won’t change anything or maybe it will, maybe it will get one tourist to read up about Palestine.”

Image by Noah Schmeling

Serenah and Sarah are two Palestinian activists who were central to the organization and execution of Sunday’s action. While we were speaking after the die-in as the crowd began to disperse, they explained why they staged it.

“The last event I went to was the vigil last Wednesday. It was the day that my cousin was murdered, and her house was bombed. Her children were playing outside and they were orphaned. She was murdered with her husband and her father-in-law. I felt like just standing in the vigil was not enough for me,” Sarah said. “I think for people who were actually in the die-in, laying down, it was really emotional. For me, covering people up, putting the flowers or the olive leaves on them, was also really emotional. We want to deliver the message that we want a ceasefire, and we want to be free.”

“I’ve been protesting throughout my whole life. Even when I was in the West Bank, I’ve always done that,” said Serenah. “My main purpose when I left Palestine [for Europe] was to put more impact on people outside of Palestine. People in Palestine, we all know what we’re going through, so I thought I could do more by spreading awareness to the people outside. Since I left 10 years ago, I’ve been participating in a lot of events. . . It’s so sad that people in the West [don’t] see Palestinians as human beings. It’s frustrating that we have to come here, we have to put on a scene for people to feel us.” 

Concerning Sunday’s action, Serenah says, “It was really awkward, to be honest, to show people that we have kids that are dying on a daily basis in Palestine.”

In spite of the indescribable pain and sorrow that has been brought to Palestinians at home and in the diaspora, and the millions of people around the world who believe in the dream of a free Palestine, there is an underlying hope that energizes and motivates the activists. 

“This has come a long way, and we know that it won’t finish here. We know this is the start of liberation. . . Our purpose is to spread awareness about the truth, about what’s really happening,” Serenah told me. 

Image by Diogo Pereira

In my experience, action always begins with awareness. It was only a few short years ago that I was almost entirely ignorant of the plight of Palestine. Back then, like many people today, I couldn’t see how to begin decoding what seemed to me like an impossibly complex situation. For a long time, instead of trying to dissect and understand what has been happening in Palestine for the last 100 years, I chose to simply write off the whole ordeal. 

But eventually, as can be seen happening with innumerable budding activists and allies today, humanity eventually overpowers apathy. And once that shift occurs, the urge to learn and understand and act can kick in. It is urgent and necessary, today more than ever before, to help coax this humanity and understanding out of everyone around us. Real progress can only be made once awareness gives way to empathy, which in turn gives way to action.

Some believe it shouldn’t take much research to understand who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor in Palestine-Israel.

“For me, ignorance is a choice,” Serenah told me. “You have all the resources to know everything, so if you really want to be a human, to stand with humanity, you can find the truth.” Sarah added, “People are not aware of what’s happening. The fact that what’s been happening to Palestinians, that Zionism, has been going on for so long, makes it normal for some people, so we want to un-normalize it. We are humans. . . We didn’t do anything. We were just born Palestinian.”

Image by Diogo Pereira

Most of the people I spoke to on Sunday agree that, if we are to get more people to side with the Palestinian cause, we must categorically remove religion from the question of the Palestinian’s right to life. Supporting Palestine is all too often conflated with being antisemitic, when in fact the pro-Palestinian movement is largely grounded in the belief that oppression and discrimination of any kind, including antisemitism, must be fought against. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) argue that we all must learn from the horrors of the past and never again be complicit in the genocide of a people, and that includes the Palestinians. They insist that Zionism does not represent all of Judaism, and that genocide must not be committed in their name. Israel’s occupation of Palestine has affected people of all faiths, including Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians, and Israeli Jews who are critical of the occupation. JVP’s website also states that “throughout the Jewish diaspora, we envision our communities beginning to heal from the Zionist movement’s attempts to dilute and erase many of our diasporic histories, languages, and traditions.”

Palestine is, historically, a multicultural and multireligious place. “It’s crazy that I have to explain this,” Serenah said, “but I am a Palestinian Catholic Christian born and raised in Palestine, so are my parents and grandparents and everyone else. If you go to Palestine, you would never see Palestinians asking each other if they were Muslims or Christians or Jews. It’s considered rude. Israeli narratives and propaganda gets into people’s heads that this is a religious conflict. I just ask people not to fall for [it]. As Palestinians, we are raised not to hate Jews. It’s not about Judaism, it’s about Zionism. We need the West to understand that.”

Sarah agreed. “We don’t have a problem with people from different religions. I am not religious, [but] there’s a lot of religions in Palestine, whether in Gaza or West Bank. The idea is for us to live in peace and be able to just go to our land and live there, to be able to be free to travel, to be free to live our lives.”

The activists I joined on Sunday, like all other activists around the world, need the support of everyone who reveres human rights and condemns genocide. There is only one place where infants in incubators are dying due to lack of electricity and constant bombardment. There is only one place where UN chartered schools are being bombed. There is only one place where over 40 journalists have been murdered while trying to maintain transparency in a time when internet, electricity, and even cell service is intermittent at best. And there is only one government that has defended their genocide as a “war between the children of light and the children of darkness.” The situation is dire.

“We have a long way to go,” Serenah said. “People in the West Bank are sick of all of this. We’re sick of wars. People in Gaza, they’re sick of wars, but they know this war is not like any other war. . . It will take a long time, and what will come after is the hard work that needs to be done.”

Sunday’s activists insist that Palestine is everyone’s problem. “If people who have no clue about this think that being far away from it means it will not affect them, they are so wrong. The injustice that is happening in Palestine now can happen anywhere in the world,” Sarah told me. This Palestinian genocide is bigger than the Middle East. As Serenah said, “Palestine is humanity.”

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