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Building from the Rubble

Palestinian resistance and the road to liberation

The Palestinian literary critic and anti-colonial theorist, Edward Said, taught us that “The native point of view . . . is not an ethnographic fact only . . .  it is in large measure a continuing, protracted, and sustained adversarial resistance” to academic, cultural, and political discourses of empire.

Critical to underscore is how the position, standpoint, and perspective of the native Palestinian is not only an ethnic, racial, or nationalist one. It is first and foremost the position of the dominated, oppressed, and colonized. It is the standpoint of bodies that are marked for maiming, killing, and erasure. It is the perspective that launches a committed, grounded, and adversarial resistance to empire. The Indigenous Palestinian resistance to Israeli settler colonialism is the embodiment of a decolonial alternative to the world of colonial modernity, which is based on an instrumental rationality that drives and maximizes absolute domination, control, and supremacy over all life forms. European colonial projects since the fifteenth century have ravaged the majority of the world’s population through slavery and the slave trade, direct and indirect colonialism, destructive resource extraction, labor exploitation, race and racism, and the transfer of massive wealth from the world’s colonized spaces into the colonizing Euro-American spaces. Particularly destructive in colonial modernity is the erection of the modern nation-state, built on race and racism, resting on absurd notions of ethnic and racial purity.

The Israeli state is a form of modern nationalist settler colonialism that asserts exclusive Jewish sovereignty over the land of historic Palestine. Israel is built on the displacement and ethnic cleansing of the native Palestinian population. But despite the suffering, devastation, and loss, for over one hundred years, Palestinians have resisted their displacement from their lands. Since the Nakba of 1948 and the creation of the Israeli state, Palestinians have resisted an advanced Israeli military apparatus mostly with just their bare bodies.

In order to defeat and derail Palestinian resistance, Israel has long separated Palestinians from each other physically, symbolically, and experientially.

Given the Euro-American laser-focused gaze on Palestinian armed resistance, it is easy to understand why many American readers might find this usage of “bare bodies” controversial or new. In fact it is neither of those things. This statement is simply the insertion of the colonized’s reality into the empire’s orgy of narratives—narratives that serve to conceal that reality: “democracy vs. theocracy,” “civilized vs. savage,” “enlightenment vs. mysticism,” “Western values vs. the backward Orient,” and so on.

Over its long history, Palestinian resistance practices have included labor strikes, boycotts, marches, demonstrations, general strikes, popular memorialization and commemorations, sit-ins, resistance art: the list is indeed too large to enumerate. It is a list full of ingenuity, courage, and humanity. Decade after decade, these practices have stood and continue to stand in the face of Israeli settler colonial violence, which seeks to eliminate and replace the native Palestinians. Two features of this violence stand out: fragmentation and dehumanization.

In order to defeat and derail Palestinian resistance, Israel has long separated Palestinians from each other physically, symbolically, and experientially. Divided and contained within manageable fragments in Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, ’48 Palestine (the lands within what became Israel, where Palestinians managed to remain), refugee camps, or in exile across the world, Israel believed that Palestinians would no longer be able to resist in unison. Many commentators have been observing this fragmentation for decades, concluding that the Israeli plan has in fact worked. But once again, as we are witnessing today, the Palestinian people have proven all such political analyses and calculations wrong.

It is perhaps most glaringly in Gaza that we see both elements of fragmentation and dehumanization. In what is a cruel, vicious, and brutal form of collective imprisonment and punishment, the dehumanization of Palestinians in Gaza is difficult for Palestinians like myself to write about and describe. In fact, it is impossible for anyone to fully capture and understand. A population of largely 1948 refugees and their descendants crammed into a tiny, isolated, besieged space. Nothing comes in or out of that space without Israeli regulation and approval. Clean water, electricity, medical equipment and facilities, jobs, housing, safety from Israeli military onslaughts, dignity, freedom, liberty, movement, food, and much more are all desperately lacking for the majority of the people in Gaza. Most have never been able to leave that place. Most have never seen Jerusalem.

The dehumanization of Gazans does not only happen when the cameras of the world—at least those not being blown to smithereens by the Israeli war machine—are fixated on a wave of military attacks. Dehumanization is always happening in Gaza, and it began long before the onset of besiegement in 2007, when Israel imposed the ongoing blockade. From the very first years of childhood, Palestinians in Gaza receive a clear message from Israel and indeed from the world: you are not human, and we do not care.

But just as Frantz Fanon taught is the case in all contexts of colonialism and settler colonialism, the colonized never forget that they are in fact human. Despite all of the censorship and propaganda in Euro-America, many heart wrenching and devastating images, videos, and words from Palestinians in Gaza are reaching the world to communicate this very fact. One example is a photo of two young Palestinian children. In the background, their homes have been reduced to rubble. But amid all of the unbearable death and brutal odds, the two stand smiling, holding a small jar of water with their fish inside. In their smiles, they’re clinging to contentment, maybe even happiness that their fish is still alive. That they rescued from their devastation this small creature, this small life form, allows them to stand firm and as affirmative of life. Of a human life that still reaches out to all life forms, and connects with them, as one precious life to another.

Some children in this world get to gaze at the stars, kickstarting their sense of wonderment and discovery. The children in Gaza are forced instead to gaze at stones, at the rubble. But instead of descending into the nonhuman, of breaking down into a rubble among the rubbles, of losing themselves in the rubble, they find the beauty in the rubble. They stand on top of the rubble carrying in their small hands the life they saved, enmeshed as they are in their harmonious connection to all life forms, engendering a sense of wonderment, belonging, and exploration of all the human potentialities that lie deep within them. Their defiance to live as humans, on top of the rubble and the death, in the face of horrendous dehumanization, is in fact the very core of something grander than colonial modernity’s depraved notion of the human. They bring life from underneath the rubble, transforming the meaning of the rubble away from death and back to a harmonious life. Not the instrumentalizing homo-economicus of colonial modernity. A human life properly connected to all life forms with care, dignity, contentment, and happiness in the face of all that threatens life. The rubble becomes the building blocks of the rejuvenation of a new life.

Palestinian resistance is not just the story of Palestinians and Palestine, but the story of all those who are dominated, colonized, enslaved, oppressed—who are being crushed like rubble under the weight of the world of empire.

Today, we are witnessing this rejuvenation in Palestine. On May 18, Palestinians across all of Palestine and in exile heeded the call for a general strike. In their call for the strike, activists from ’48 Palestine signed the statement with the following words, “‘Ashat Falastin Waheda / ‘Ashat Intifada Al-Wahda”: “Long Live a United Palestine / Long Live the Intifada of Unity.” As Palestinian activist Salem Barahmeh describes the strike in a tweet: “The scenes across Palestine are breathtaking, Ramallah chanting for Gaza, Haifa singing to Ramallah, the Palestinian flag being raised in Jerusalem. It is an incredible day, led by the people for their liberation from the subjugation of a tyrannical regime. Long live Palestine.”

This Intifada of Unity has been on display from the very beginning of these recent events. Despite all Israeli efforts to block them, ’48 Palestinians—who are the Palestinian second class citizens of Israel—worked with Palestinians in Jerusalem to ensure that they were able to reach al-Aqsa Mosque and stand in solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah. When Israeli mobs, supported and protected by Israeli soldiers, attacked Palestinians in Lydd, Palestinians from Jerusalem and the Naqab drove there in buses to protect them by sheer numbers. From Lebanon and Jordan, children of Palestinian refugees who were displaced in 1948 managed to temporarily cross back into their historic lands. Despite their brief stay, the images were powerful: for a brief moment, they rejected the reality of empire and colonization that has been imposed on them, and in doing so, revealed the depth of their yearning for return.

This is but a small taste of the incredible unity that Palestinians have communicated and shared with each other over the last week, which suggests that underneath their fragmentation, that unity never disappeared. If you are not stirred into action by the images, videos, and words reaching you from colonized Palestine, then you are part of the problem of colonial modernity and its uninhibited brutality. And so perhaps you need to gaze at the rubble instead of the stars. Do not look away from the images and videos, and hear them in accordance with their voice, not the voice of empire.  

And if you are stirred, or become stirred, then you already know, implicitly or explicitly, that Palestinian resistance is not just the story of Palestinians and Palestine, but the story of all those who are dominated, colonized, enslaved, oppressed—who are being crushed like rubble under the weight of the world of empire. Let’s build from that rubble, from our shattered and fragmented selves, a new humanity and a new world. This is why empire fears Palestinian resistance; because it excites the revolutionary spirit, reinvigorates the revolutionary soul, and points us towards a new world, a better and more just world for all of us. A decolonial world.