THE BLOG

When Palestine Becomes an Issue in Philadelphia Politics

03/04/2015 08:36 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

When council woman Maria D. Quinones Sanchez from the city of Philadelphia walked into the Mas Islamic Center January 30th to meet with members of her constituency, she had no idea that she will find herself embroiled with the same kind of political controversy that is shaking up US-Israeli relations.

At the center which also contains the Hidayya Mosque, Sanchez met and honored an official of the Palestinian government. The Councilwoman from the seventh district of Philadelphia presented the symbolic Philadelphia Liberty Bell and a citation honoring the governor of Ramallah and El Bireh D. Laila Ghannam. The occasion was emotional as the Palestinian governor said that she hopes Palestine will be able to ring the bell of liberty and then removed her personal embroidered scarf and offered it to the Latino councilwoman as a gesture of friendship. Both Palestinians and American officials took pictures with the local Arab American community and proudly posted them on their respective Facebook pages. But that is when the troubles began.

Pro-Israeli US organizations and activists began research of the Palestinian governor and discovered a video in which Governor Ghannam participated on behalf of President Mahmoud Abbas in an event marking those Palestinians who sacrifices their lives in the Palestinian struggle. In a video uploaded on YouTube February 12th the governor is seen praising the leaders of the Palestinian revolution who died in the anti-occupation struggle. Ghannam calls these leaders "great" and the anti-Palestinian Israeli group Palestinian Media Watch accuses Ghannam of honoring arch terrorists.

The video of the governor went viral among pro-Israel groups in the Philadelphia area and political pressure started to be mounted on the councilwoman who was on the verge of launching a re-election campaign. Caught between pressure from Jewish groups and her own constituency, Sanchez removed the posts on her own Facebook page but held back on pressure to recant the citation. Shewas was also quoted by columnist Stu Bykofsky (who has been called anti Latino) in the Philadelphia daily news that, "I fully and unequivocally denounce the sentiments attributed to Governor Ghannam in this video, and have consistently condemned terrorist violence."

In a phone interview with Councilwoman Sanchez, she confirmed to me the statement attributed to her but feels that entire story was exaggerated. "This is an unfortunate situation, the incident has blown out of proportion." She said to me. Sanchez confirmed that she was rejected pressure to withdraw the citation to the Palestinian female governor of Ramallah.

When the press reports from Philadelphia reached Ramallah, the governor put out a statement February 22 saying that the "most important citation to her is that coming from Palestinian mothers whose sons were killed or imprisoned." Ghannam blamed pro-Zionist forces for pressuring Sanchez but insists that she "is not sorry for the piece of Palestinian folklore that she gave to the Councilwoman." Ghannam said that the pressures on Sanchez are typical of the continued American denial of Palestinian struggles. "In her speech upon receiving the citation, Ghannam noted that the democratic country which understands the meaning of freedom should be the first to support the rights of Palestinians to determine their own future," the statement states.

Mazen Ozzy Khalil, an activists in the Palestinian community, insists that the Philadelphia Councilwoman has neither apologized nor recanted her citation. Khalil says that in the February 17th launch of her reelection campaign, Sanchez once again praised the Arab American community and refused to be pressured to speak out against Ghannam. "She has not recanted her citation or spoke out publicly against Ghannam despite some of the media reports." In the presence of Mayor Nutter who publicly endorsed her, Sanchez repeated her commitment to support all in her district and announced that she has gotten approval for a $14 million housing project that will benefit Arab Americans. Sanchez noted that she has been supportive of the Arab American community even before becoming a councilwoman and promised she will continue to support them. "We have strong partnership with the two mosques that are in the seventh district. We have also worked closely with the Arab American Community Development Corporation to build a 45-unit affordable housing project across the street from Philadelphia's Al Aqsa mosque at an investment by the city of some $14.5 million," she said.

Regarding the controversy, Khalil also tries to put the issue in perspective. "She honored a Palestinian official who is respected by our community and who came to the US on a valid visa, she knows who Governor Ghannam is and why her citation was the source of political attacks on her from the pro Israeli community," Khalil told me. Other members of the Palestinian community also saod that Sanchez continues to be supportive of their community and causes including the Palestinian cause. Sanchez, a rising political star in the US democratic party, plans to visit the Middle East. Her visit will include Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

The case of the citation to the Ramallah governor and the attempts to backtrack due to political pressure are not new in the US. But pro-Israel groups are more and more frustrated as their powers to silent Palestinian voices are slowly weakening even though the battle for telling the Palestinian narrative is a long way from becoming mainstream in the US.