Townhall presenters, from left: Dr. Tamzid; AJ of Get the Lead Out; Rachel Ida Buff of Jewish Voice for Peace-Milwaukee; Erica Steid, Party for Socialism and Liberation; Dr. Roa Qato, MD, Healthcare Workers for Palestine-Milwaukee; and Heba Mohammad, Milwaukee for Palestine. Photo: William P. Muhammad

MILWAUKEE—Defining access to clean drinking water as a human right, a coalition of grassroots organizations recently held a “Water is Life” townhall meeting to explain the crisis of lead contamination in Milwaukee’s Black, Brown, and working-class communities.

The February 3 event demonstrated a relationship between what activists called “water apartheid” in the Occupied Territories of Gaza and the West Bank and the hesitation of local officials to properly address the removal of lead pipes and service lines in their city.

Organized by Milwaukee for Palestine, Get the Lead Out, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), and Jewish Voice for Peace-Milwaukee, townhall panelists told The Final Call they agreed that the control of narratives steers public opinion for or against a given subject but also with knowledge or ignorance regarding the issues of life and death.

“My professional background has been in political campaigns and non-profits for most of my career, but I recently left that because of the restrictions around Palestine and being able to advocate for Palestine within those existing power structures,” said Heba Mohammad, a Palestinian American activist born and raised in Milwaukee. Ms. Mohammad told The Final Call that advocacy was not only her moral duty but also her responsibility by birthright.


“We know that Zionist propaganda has been part of the American education system for decades, that has been intentional, and being born Palestinian, we were born with a resistance to that,” Ms. Mohammad said.

“Something that we found to be very impactful, of course, is seeing with our own eyes what is actually happening, so it’s harder for Israel, and the Zionists who are supporting them, to spin what is happening when the people are able to see it,” Ms. Mohammad explained. “In this current aggression, we’ve seen those videos come out very rapidly.

We’ve seen analysis from Palestinians happening very rapidly, and something we’ve taken to saying as part of this movement here locally is that we believe Palestinians. They have no reason to lie. The suffering is so deep and so extreme that hyperbole is unnecessary,” she insisted.

‘Water apartheid’

On the subject of a people’s right to access clean drinking water, Dr. Tamzid Ph.D., a molecular biologist, scientist, and researcher, told The Final Call that the term “water apartheid” is appropriate in that Palestinians confined to Gaza and the West Bank have no say over the quality and quantity of water they receive in comparison to Israeli citizens and settlers who continue to expropriate their land.

“As we speak, Palestinians are dying on two ends, one is by bombs and the other is by thirst,” Dr. Tamzid explained. “This is no hyperbole, this is real, people are dying because there is not enough water. They are dying by lack of water leading to diseases that shouldn’t be present in this time and age and before the current and ongoing genocide in Gaza, it was still the same.

As I mentioned in my talk, that because of Israeli policies, because of the blockade, because of constant bombing of water infrastructure and sewage infrastructure, the water is undrinkable and an average family in Gaza can spend up to one-third of their income on just buying water,” he said.

“Every single civilization has been on the bank of a freshwater lake or river, so this is using water as a weapon, or the lack of water as a weapon to drive the Palestinians out.”

Labeled by critics as the world’s largest open-air prison, Gaza is surrounded by a heavily fortified 30-foot-high concrete wall, with sensors, watch towers, remote-controlled machine guns, and barbed wire where its border runs adjacent to Israeli settlements. The territory has no airport and Israel controls its access to the sea, effectively sealing in 2.2 million men, women, and children into an enclosed reservation.

Voices rise for peace

As of February 8, the Israeli periodical reported that nearly 28,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed and more than 67,000 have been wounded from the Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7, not counting thousands of women and children whose bodies have yet to be recovered from under the rubble.

Panelist and townhall co-organizer, Ms. Rachel Ida Buff, of Jewish Voice for Peace–Milwaukee, explained her organization calls for the dismantling of institutions and structures that sustain injustice.

Demanding both a ceasefire in Gaza and an equitable solution to the decades-long water crisis affecting the Occupied Territories of Palestine and Milwaukee’s Black, Brown, poor, and working-class communities, Ms. Buff told The Final Call that monies earmarked for war and other interests, to the exclusion of local needs, would better serve the interests of the common good in her city.

“We’re in Milwaukee, consistently one of the most segregated cities in the country, along with that, we’ve been starved by the state, of resources for our schools,” Ms. Buff said. “We have 40 kids in a classroom with one teacher, it’s not a learning environment and that’s because of continued austerity, but we always have money for war overseas, so an easy way to think about this is that instead of funding war abroad, let’s make sure that our water is clean, that the people aren’t drinking from lead, that our schools are safe places, so that instead of policing, we have communities that are keeping each other safe.”

Adding that it was a historic development to see that 1,000 Black pastors, who signed an open letter to the Biden Administration over their disagreement with how the Israeli government was conducting its war in Gaza, she said that calling for a ceasefire and being critical of Israel and its policies is not to be anti-Jewish.

“I think a lot of times that non-Jews get really worried, I hear this a lot: ‘I want to criticize Israel, but I don’t want to be seen as anti-Semitic,’ and what I want your (readers) to think about is there are proud and old Jewish traditions that are anti-Zionist,” Ms. Buff explained to The Final Call.

“It is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, and so a lot of people get stuck and they get really nervous about that,” Buff said. “But I was really moved about what happened with the Black pastors last week, really moving, and going to Biden and saying: ‘Look, we’re not going to co-sign this,’ and I think what we’re seeing is communities, particularly African American communities, that Biden just assumes he’s going to take—like in South Carolina in 2020—a lot of people are saying, particularly younger people: ‘I don’t think so,’” she said.

“We’re here to work for justice for all people, we’re here to work with whoever is going to work with us to talk about fighting Zionism, we’re here to work for justice more broadly,” Ms. Buff said of her organization’s desire to build coalitions.

Water is life

Regarding the issue of contaminated water from sewage, hazardous chemicals, or lead in Milwaukee’s service lines, panelist and co-organizer, Dr. Roa Qato, an OB-GYN by profession, told The Final Call that there is no safe amount of lead that a person can ingest, even in levels lower than what the CDC may claim to be acceptable.

“Any amount of lead in the body has harmful effects,” Dr. Qato said after her town hall presentation. “So, in utero, we’re going to see these effects by women going into preterm birth, having preterm labor, those kinds of complications and then the subsequent complications of being born into prematurity, so that’s what’s affecting the women once they are pregnant.

Once a baby is born, and they’re exposed to lead, chronically with time, we start to see neurodevelopmental effects, growth restriction and not meeting their milestones. We start to see a loss in I.Q. levels, being lower in young people who are chronically exposed to lead and learning disabilities,” she said. She also noted that lead poisoning can cause behavioral problems in children as they grow older.

On the issue of toxic exposures in Palestine, Dr. Qato said the long-term and cumulative effects of continuous bombardment, the stress of trauma, and the lack of clean drinking water remain to be seen among the people of Gaza and that its consequences will be devastating. “What’s acutely occurring now, as we’re seeing high rates of miscarriages, high rates of pre-term deliveries to newborns that don’t have access to neonatal care, so they are dying, so infant death, right away after labor and delivery” is a major issue, she insisted.

A corporate connection?

Erica Steid, an organizer with PSL that hosted the “Water is Life” townhall meeting, told The Final Call that greed and inordinate self-interests among the wealthy few often contribute to the suffering of people, both at home and abroad, and said that the nexus between classism and capitalism plays a pivotal role in policies that reduce people to assets and liabilities on balance sheets.

“Here in Milwaukee this is one of the most racially segregated cities in the country, so it obviously has (much) to do with the lead pipes and the contaminated water and the toxins in those environmental hazards,” Steid said. “White supremacy and racism is hand-in-hand with the economic system in this country, and it always has been since the start, that’s why Black people in this nation are hyper-exploited and subject to even worse conditions and that’s by design,” she maintained. 

“The system benefits from people who can be extra-exploited through their labor, overpoliced, and extract more and more resources from them,” Ms. Steid said.  “Paralleled with Palestine, settler colonialism is also what this country is founded on, so at this stage of development, Israel is a settler colony in Palestine and also, it serves the function of promoting United States capitalist interests in the Middle East,” she said.

In his book, “A Torchlight for America,” first published by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan in 1993, he wrote in chapter three that: “The fundamental motivation in this society is greed and the preying upon the weak of the country and the weak of the world, versus sharing wealth in cooperation with the weak and the poor. Greed is defined as a selfish desire for possessions and wealth beyond reason. When greed is exercised in the society, it is reflected by division among the people.”

“The whole society is modeled after division and that old mindset of haves and have nots; of the lord and the servant; the slavemaster and the slave; and the male and the female,” he wrote on page 29. “These mindsets are reflected in the doctrines of White supremacy and Black inferiority and are perpetuated by the root problems of greed and pervasive immorality,” the Minister wrote.