Palestinians observe 'catastrophe,' temporarily shutter dozens of St. Louis-area businesses | St. Louis Public Radio

Palestinians observe 'catastrophe,' temporarily shutter dozens of St. Louis-area businesses

May 15, 2018

A planned local observance of Nakba, the day Palestinians commemorate their displacement following Israel’s establishment in 1948 and the Arabic word for "catastrophe," took on greater significance for a group of St. Louis activists and business owners Tuesday.

Violence flared Monday at the Palestinian and Israeli borders following the opening of a new American Embassy in Jerusalem. Israeli army forces killed more than 50 Palestinian protesters, and thousands of others were hurt in demonstrations and clashes.

On Tuesday, dozens of St. Louis-area businesses temporarily closed their shops at 1 p.m. for 70 minutes in commemoration of the Nakba, as part of a protest coordinated by the newly formed Missouri chapter of American Muslims for Palestine. The duration of the shutdown represents the 70 years since the founding of the Israeli state and subsequent displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, according to the group.

Neveen Ayesh, of American Muslims for Palestine, helps lead a march down Market Street.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Neveen Ayesh, executive director of the nonprofit group, said the demonstration was a way for both Palestinians and non-Palestinians in St. Louis to “stand in solidarity with Palestine, and also a way to mourn everything that’s going on, from the lives that have been taken, the villages that have been depopulated and the current occupation.”

Around the time of the planned shutdown, a group of Palestinian activists and supporters gathered downtown. They read the names of people recently killed in Gaza by Israeli military forces and the names of depopulated Palestinian villages in present-day Israel.

They later chanted “Free, free, Palestine,” and “End the siege on Gaza now” while marching between Soldiers Memorial Military Museum and the Gateway Arch.

Muath Salameh was among the local business owners who temporarily closed their businesses in protest and joined the gathering downtown. He owns Prompt Tax Services in Florissant, in addition to serving as financial director for Missouri’s chapter of American Muslims for Palestine.

He said the shut-down campaign “is all about the education” and is an opportunity for fellow business owners “to educate yourself, your employees, or customers on Palestine.” Salameh traces his ancestral roots  back to the depopulated village of Dayr Aban, part of present-day Jerusalem.

Demonstrators march through Kiener Plaza park while calling for justice for Palestine.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

New embassy inflames tensions

The opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem has also reignited conflict at the Israeli borders and prompted mixed responses from those in favor of recognizing the holy city as Israel’s capital. Jerusalem is a city with religious significance to for Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Andrew Rehfeld, president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, said the recognition was “overdue,” citing the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. He noted that his organization has long supported the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Mahmoud Lihneidi marches Tuesday with his 3-year-old, son Redah.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

But while Rehfeld supports the recognition, he said the move gave up one of the United States' key bargaining assets as a negotiator between the Israelis and Palestinians.

“America gave that up. Israel shouldn’t be blamed for that. You can be critical of the president and his foreign policy for giving up a [negotiation] gem, but that doesn't mean that it wasn’t the right thing, morally, to do. It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the right thing for Israel to celebrate,” Rehfeld said.

He also noted that the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital still allows for the holy city to be recognized as the capital for the Palestinians.

“At the end of the day, we have to recognize the basic humanity of all people and the striving on [Palestinians’] end for their own political self-determination as well,” he said.

Follow Lara on Twitter: @hamdanlf