Pali-Rican Solidarities: The Dizzying Parallels of Colonial Occupation

Image by Vin Jack.

Whoever among you sees evil,
let him change it with his hand.If he cannot do so, then with his tongue.
If he cannot do so, then with his heart […].

-Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)

As I sit to write this piece, bombs rain down in Rafah and all of Gaza. Settler encroachments into the occupied West Bank intensify. Nina* sends me a message on Instagram, a picture of Palestinian journalist, Bisan Owda and a group of men, holding up a Puerto Rican flag. Nina is in tears. I, too, feel them welling up in my throat. Two hundred sixty eight days. Nine months. Seven and a half decades. One hundred twenty six years. My people have been fighting colonial occupation. Nina* and I, who many nights stayed up talking about the parallels between the Puerto Rican struggle and the Native American struggle, discuss once again the parallels between Palestine and Puerto Rico.

The parallels between Puerto Ricans and Palestinians are many – both occupied territories, both subject to experimentation with bombs and medicine, both experiencing disaster capitalism, both experiencing forced displacement, both dying – one slowly through austerity measures and the other rapidly through the onslaught of bombs by occupation forces. After Hurricane María ravaged our homeland, my Puerto Rican research participants each declared resoundingly – “El desastre real es el colonialismo.” So, too, for Palestinians – the real disaster is colonialism.

Since the onslaught of escalated violence against Palestinians by the Israeli occupation in October 2023, officials one after the other, have declared that “there are no innocent civilians” in Gaza and all of occupied Palestine. The characterization of Palestinian youth by occupation Prime Minister Netanyahu as “children of darkness” highlights a widespread misrepresentation of all Palestinians as terrorists and ignores the ongoing history of the occupation of Palestine and the legacy of the Nakba in 1948 and numerous instances of occupied forces’ aggression against the Palestinian people. The characterization of Palestinians as terrorists is corroborated by the U.S. government, the occupation’s greatest ally in the ongoing colonization, displacement, and genocide of Palestinians. As early as October 8, 1997, the U.S. Secretary of State designated multiple groups advocating for Palestinian liberation as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), including the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and HAMAS.

Palestinians are not the first people seeking liberation from military occupation that have been labeled by the U.S. government as terrorists – a label intended to dehumanize and justify genocide. Since at least the 1950s, through the covert FBI program COINTELPRO, the U.S. government has undermined the Puerto Rican liberation movement by classifying its activists and advocates as terrorists, thereby criminalizing their struggle and justifying continued state repression. As early as October 24, 1935, the U.S. backed police force opened fire on a group of students at the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, resulting in the deaths of four young Puerto Rican nationalists. In the infamous 1937 Ponce Massacre, the U.S. government killed 19 Puerto Ricans and injured more than 200. In 1948, the same year as the Nakba, students protesting the Ley de la Mordaza (Gag Law), which suppressed Puerto Rican independence movements, faced violent crackdowns by police, resulting in numerous injuries and arrests. In the 1960s and 1970s, Puerto Ricans along with other students across the world protested against the Vietnam War and were met with military and police repression and violence. From the 1990s and into the present, students protesting austerity measures, tuition hikes, and university closures have been met with violent confrontations with police, who have used tear gas and batons to disperse students, arresting numerous student activists.

Repression of Puerto Ricans does not only occur on the archipelago, but extends to the diaspora. For example, in the 1990s, a teacher at a Puerto Rican alternative high school in Chicago, IL was revealed to be an FBI infiltrator who later testified against nationalist activists, labeling them as terrorists (Ramos-Zayas 2004: 31, quoting Oclander 1995). Taken together, all these repressive tactics are part of a broader historical process where Puerto Ricans have been racialized and constructed as “enemies of the State,” as “anti-American,” and, most dangerously, as “terrorists” (Ramos-Zayas 2004: 35). Media representations play a powerful role in this, categorizing some Puerto Ricans as “deserving” American citizens, those proving their worth through upward mobility, and others as “undeserving” ones, deemed criminals (Ramos-Zayas 2004: 35, citing herself 1997; 2003). Similarly, the everyday programs of Puerto Rican nationalist activists within the diaspora are branded as un-American terrorist activities, legitimizing their criminalization and producing unequal citizen-subjects (Ramos-Zayas 2004: 40-41). The possibility of a free and independent Puerto Rican nation continues to be undermined through FBI and CIA programs (Bosque-Perez 2006; Caban 2005), which use violence and surveillance to undermine local organizations on the archipelago that are aimed at self-determination, including the bombing of multiple independence party headquarters (Caban 2005), the murdering of independence leaders and their children, including the assassination of Filiberto Ojeda-Rios on September 23, 2005 (a date which honors Puerto Rico’s independence struggle against the Spanish Crown), and the incarceration of Puerto Rican independence leaders and activists well into the present (Bosque-Perez 2006; Caban 2005; Lopez-River and Headley 1989).

Educational facilities have been a primary site of attack by both the U.S. government in Puerto Rico and by occupation forces in Palestine. Palestinian schools and universities often face accusations of fostering terrorism, and students and teachers are subject to surveillance and arrests under the pretext of security concerns. For example, Israeli occupation forces have bombed numerous UN schools throughout Gaza claiming that HAMAS is hiding in the schools, killing dozens of teachers, students, and families sheltering there. These actions serve to delegitimize Palestinian resistance and to portray the struggle for self-determination as inherently violent and terroristic. As with Puerto Rico, this labeling extends beyond the educational sphere, permeating media representations and public discourse, and thus justifying ongoing military occupation and repression.

From the viewpoint of the present moment, then, we can see a prevailing blueprint for the dehumanization of occupied peoples by their occupiers, one that serves to justify their ongoing disenfranchisement, displacement, and death. Taking stock historically, it is striking how rooted, enduring, and analogous the parallels are: occupied by the U.S. and Israel, respectively, Puerto Rico and Palestine have been subject to settler-colonial rule for 126 and 76 years. Both occupations have been marked by political and economic control with military presence and mass displacement of indigenous populations. Both occupied territories have limited self-governance and lack full sovereignty. While organizations like the PLO and Hamas have come into power through elections in Palestine, neither organization has had the ability to decide Palestine’s political future without Israeli intervention. Similarly, while Puerto Rico has limited self-governance and elections, the local government is often beholden to the whims of whatever the U.S. Congress decides, and the archipelago is subject to U.S. federal law without full representation, meaning that while Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they do not have the right to vote for the U.S. president if they are residing in Puerto Rico. Like Puerto Ricans living in the U.S., Palestinians residing within the borders of Israel qualify for citizenship but have limited civil and political representation in government, right down to something as concrete as infrastructure, for example, unequal access to Israeli roads, while those living in Occupied Palestine are subject to mass policing and detention. Furthermore, Israeli control of the Palestinian economy through restrictions on trade, movement, and access to resources has resulted in economic dependence on international aid. Similarly, the Puerto Rican economy has been shaped and hampered by U.S. interests, leading to mass austerity measures, economic dependence intended to stifle the attainment of political sovereignty, and mass debt due to incentivized programs for non-Puerto Rican investors. Symbolically, the Palestinian and Puerto Rican flags were both outlawed in their respective territories and flying them has become a symbol of resistance. Both Palestine and Puerto Rico, then, have had ongoing movements for independence, which were and continue to be met with violent resistance from their occupiers.

The license to take license: occupation and experimentation

The histories of U.S. military testing on Puerto Ricans and Israeli military testing on Palestinians reveal further parallels, in this case the disturbing use of colonized and occupied populations for experimental purposes. In Puerto Rico, the U.S. military used the island of Vieques extensively for naval training exercises, including the detonation of bombs and the release of toxic substances, leading to severe environmental contamination and significant health problems among the local population. This testing, which spanned several decades, resulted in high rates of cancer and other serious illnesses among Vieques residents, highlighting the exploitation of a marginalized population that lacked political power to challenge such actions effectively. The legacy of these actions underscores both the basic underlying attitudes of colonialism and the many ethical violations inherent in using a territory and its people as a testing ground for military purposes (Zavestoski and Agüero 2004).

Similarly, allegations have emerged regarding the use of Palestinians as subjects for military and medical testing by Israeli forces. Reports suggest that during periods of heightened conflict, such as the Intifadas and various military operations in Gaza, new military technologies and crowd control methods have been tested on Palestinian civilians, including advanced surveillance technologies and crowd control weapons. Additionally, there have been accusations of Israeli pharmaceutical companies conducting drug trials on Palestinian patients without proper informed consent. These actions are facilitated by the ongoing occupation, which has left Palestinians with limited sovereignty and political power, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. The same could be said for Puerto Rico: in addition to knowing, but indirect biological harm, with slow consequences, the U.S. government carried out knowing, direct, permanent biological harm, in the form of sterilizing one-third of Puerto Rican women, from 1930 to 1970, without their informed consent. Both cases exemplify the ethical and human rights concerns associated with using occupied and colonized populations for experimental purposes, reflecting broader patterns of military and political dominance over marginalized groups (Amnesty International 2020; Physicians for Human Rights-Israel 2015). And both cases point to genocidal effort: either through circumventing biological reproduction from the start or through all-out war. Both are bent on the control and, when expedient, the extermination of dehumanized civilians.

Catastrophes exploited and exploited yet again: disaster capitalism, displacement, and beyond

The violations attendant on colonialism and active occupations do not stop at social and biological labeling and control. They extend to encompass–to harm–the health of the economies of the occupied lands in question, as well. For instance, both Puerto Rico and Palestine have experienced a crushing form of disaster capitalism, or the exploitation of crises for economic gain, leading to significant displacement and disenfranchisement of local populations. In Puerto Rico, the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the financial oversight imposed by policies like the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), have facilitated both privatization and austerity measures, a double-sided baton that brutally exacerbates inequality and help drives out-migration. Acts 20 and 22 incentivized and attracted external investors, further displacing local communities. In Palestine, the ongoing blockade of Gaza, violent repression of protests like the overwhelmingly peaceful 2018 Great March of Return, and settlement expansion have similarly led to economic deprivation and forced displacement. Both regions experience international interventions prioritizing profit over local needs, yet the contexts differ: Puerto Rico faces economic policies under U.S. colonial rule, while Palestine contends with illegal military occupation and systematic violence by Israeli occupation forces. Despite these differences, both cases illustrate how external actors exploit crises to impose neoliberal reforms, deepening existing inequalities, doubling down on existing displacements, as in the Great March, and catalyzing new displacements with free market abandon, all the while undermining local resources, life force, biological integrity, and collective resilience.

In Puerto Rico, PROMESA in combination with the influx of wealthy non-residents buying property after Hurricane Maria have led to significant displacement, including via traditional gentrification but by no means being limited to that. Since 2016, for instance, over 500,000 Puerto Ricans have left the archipelago due to economic hardship, the closure of over 300 schools, austerity measures that have raised tuition and the local cost of living, and a lack of medical infrastructure to deal with health crises (Census Bureau 2020; Rosario-Ramos et al. 2020). Puerto Rican youth struggle to find employment, obtain affordable and timely education, and are faced with an uncertain future in their homeland, many feeling forced to leave as a means of survival.

Since 2016, over 11,000 Palestinians have been displaced in the most blunt object of ways, due to settlers demolishing Palestinian homes and appropriating their lands. And since October 2023, the genocidal actions by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) against Palestinians in Gaza have resulted in roughly 1.7 million Palestinians being displaced across Gaza (UNRWA; Human Rights Watch; OCHA; Al Jazeera). Every university in Palestine has been destroyed by the Israeli occupation since late 2023 and Palestinian youth lack access to education, healthcare, housing, and food, while having bombs rain down on them on a daily basis.

The systematic targeting of youth as a form of dispossession and control are the law of occupation and an apparent tool of genocide and forced displacement. In Puerto Rico, historical actions, such as the U.S. government’s placement of Puerto Rican youth in Indian boarding schools, aimed to suppress cultural identity and impose Americanization – another form of stifling not just self-determination efforts but the space to imagine such efforts in the first place. Today, ongoing austerity measures regularly threaten university education, forcing students into extended academic paths due to class shortages and financial constraints. Further, the closure of hundreds of schools threaten their futures and the futures of motivated students to come.

In Palestine, the situation is even more dire. Schools are routinely targeted and destroyed by Israeli forces under the pretext of security concerns, severely limiting educational opportunities for Palestinian children. It is well reported that the Israeli occupation forces specifically target Palestinian youth – Netanyahu’s “children of darkness”– shooting them, maiming their limbs, and detaining them in prisons. Annually about 500-700 Palestinian youth are detained by the Israeli occupation, freedom out of sight. The deliberate targeting of Palestinian youth underscores a systematic effort to undermine the future generations’ ability to resist occupation and assert their national identity.

In 2023, we were still uncovering the bones of massacred Native American youth in the U.S. For how many more centuries, will we be uncovering the mass graves of Palestinian youth?

In examining the shared experiences of Puerto Rico and Palestine under colonial occupation, we see clear and unnerving parallels in their struggles against dehumanization, displacement, and exploitation. From historical mislabeling as terrorists to ongoing military occupations enabling experimentation and disaster capitalism, Puerto Ricans and Palestinians face extensive injustices by colonial design. Whether in Palestine, Puerto Rico, Congo, Sudan, Hawai’i, Haiti or elsewhere, colonial extractivism and violence persist effectively unchecked. The labeling of indigenous peoples as once savages and now terrorists while their lands are seized and their lives are taken captures, in a single stroke, the brutality of colonial occupation. As Palestinians raise the Puerto Rican flag in Gaza, and Puerto Ricans march on the archipelago and across the diaspora adorned in keffiyehs and Palestinian flags, they communicate to the world that the true disaster is colonial occupation. In alignment with the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)’s words, they see evil and don’t look away. Parallel histories of injustice are matched with parallel shows of mutual support born of knowledge sharing and shared experiences. Here, I can both point to the empirical record and speak from personal experience when I say that the Pali-Rican solidarity is strong and ongoing. It and interrelated abolitionist struggles around the planet are being expressed through pen, tongue, and heart. If the Prophet (PBUH) suggests an obligation to change evil, then heeding parallel histories of colonial outrage is one important starting point.

Dr. Melinda González is a Puerto Rican scholar and poet, who was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, with ancestral home in the lush mountains of Moca, Puerto Rico. She is a socio-cultural anthropologist who focuses on environmental anthropology/disaster studies. She is currently an Assistant Professor at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.