Introduction to Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation, edited by Vijay Prashad
Palestine is easily forgotten. There is war. There is suffering. The war ends. The suffering vanishes. Silence.
Was there even a “war”? Palestine is under occupation, and has been since 1967, since 1948. An occupied land is not at war, can never be at war. It is occupied. Occupation is a state of war. The occupied space retaliates. It seeks its freedom. It is punished. Was Operation Protective Edge a war or a punishment? Operation Grapes of Wrath, Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Cloud—names less of defense and more of vengeful retribution.
On the night of Tuesday, July 29, 2014, three shells hit the Jabalia Elementary Girls School in Gaza—a UN-designated emergency shelter for 3,300 Palestinians. Those who had taken refuge there came because the Israelis had warned them to leave their homes. The UN had given the Israelis the coordinates of this school seventeen times. Their warnings made no impact. The shells killed at least sixteen people and wounded hundreds. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) chief, Pierre Krähenbühl, said in a powerful statement, “Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today, the world stands disgraced.”
Israel destroyed Gaza’s only power plant, which impacted the already fragile sewage and water purification system as well as food storage. Electricity was mostly off, which meant that the Palestinians were cut off from the world. As it is, when Israel conducts its “operations” inside Gaza, it seals the area, preventing media from entrance. The aftermath of these operations has been devastating, whether in Gaza City’s neighborhood of Shuja’iyya or the town of Khuza’a. Forty-four percent of Gaza’s 140 square miles (360 square km) was designated a “buffer zone” by the Israelis. By the end of this pummeling Gaza’s Ministry of Health puts the figure for the dead at over 2,000 and the wounded over 11,000. Seven of ten Palestinians killed in this war were children.
The UN Human Rights Council voted for an investigation of alleged war crimes by Israel against the Palestinians. The call for accountability came from most of the world’s states. But accountability there will not be. Indeed, there is barely memory. Palestine is forgotten.
As I write these lines, Jerusalem is in torment. Tensions are about as high as they were in 2000—when Ariel Sharon went to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I watch a video taken by B’Tselem of a disabled twelve-year-old boy, a-Rajbi, being detained by two strapping Israeli soldiers; they handcuff him brutally as he stands there and screams near his village of Jabel Johar, Hebron, near the settlement of Kiryat Arba. The settlers stand and cheer, one throwing out a clichéd racist slur. I watch another video of an Israeli officer accusing Israeli activists of treason for trying to prevent the removal of Palestinian farmers from their land. There are fast-moving tragedies. Already the 2014 Gaza War seems dwarfed by the escalation in Jerusalem.
One day Palestine will become what it wants. But that day is not now. Now Palestine is a shadow.
I drew her bleeding
One more war, one more exhausting period for the Palestinians filled with death and destruction, terror and its traumas. Wars come in a sequence: 2014, 2012, 2009, 2006 . . . This chain of numbers says nothing of the everyday war that eclipses the smiles of ordinary people who have to make bare lives in extraordinary times. Every document of the Israeli occupation and suffocation of Gaza resembles every other one. There are the forensic texts of human rights groups and the UN commissions—actuaries of the occupation, the authors of these documents give us the scaffolding of devastation. Poets and filmmakers, storytellers and pamphleteers fill their artifacts with sentiment. How many times can a human being hear that in seven weeks the Israelis killed over 2,000 people, injured tens of thousands, demolished the lives of hundreds of thousands, wiped out buildings that heal, teach and shelter?
Fida Qishta, born and raised in Rafah (Palestine), took her video camera around to document life in her Gaza. She put her story together in a painful meditation of a film, Where Should the Birds Fly (2012). Scenes of ordinary farmers and fisherfolk trying to ply their trade, while Israeli snipers and gunboats shoot at them, get straight to the point. All those who talk of Hamas rockets being fired into Israel should take a look at this section of Qishta’s film, where there is a banal, even tendentious use of the gun to degrade and frighten unarmed Palestinians as they try to make a living. Bulldozers and border crossings make it impos- sible to lead lives. Then comes Cast Lead (2009). It is a good thing that Qishta has her camera and that she is so brave. The scenes are disturbing and honest—there is nothing manufactured about her film. We are there on the day (January 18) an Israeli attack killed forty-eight members of the family of Helmi and Maha Samouni, whose house in Zeitoun, in the suburbs of Gaza City, was bombed and then occupied. The departing Israeli soldiers left behind love notes to Palestine, graffiti in Hebrew and English: Arabs need 2 die, Make War Not Peace, 1 is down, 999,999 to go, Arabs 1948–2009. Qishta went to see fifteen-year-old Ayman al-Najar, victim of an Israeli bomb which killed his sister, in Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis. He shows Qishta his wounds, his body wracked by white phosphorus burns (the graphic image sears). Qishta takes refuge at a UN compound, a shelter to fleeing Palestinian families. Israeli F-16s release their bombs; some land on the UN buildings, the night resplendent with the white phosphorus traces, beautiful in the sky, barbaric on the skin.
Then we meet Mona. She is the highlight of this disturbingly accurate film. At age ten, she is Qishta’s guide into the suffering and resilience of Gaza. Her farming family were herded into a neighbors’ home by Israeli troops who accuse her brother of being with Hamas; the home is then bombed from the sky. Qishta asks Mona how many people in her family died that day. “In my immediate family?” asks Mona, innocent to the gravity of her own question. So much death, but she appears resigned and wise. “If we die,” she says gravely, “we die. If we survive, we survive.” She shows Qishta a drawing she did of the massacre. “It was a sea of blood and body parts,” she says. “They took the most precious beloved of my heart,” meaning her parents. She points to a person in her drawing, “This is Palestine. I drew her bleeding.”
Watching Qishta’s film once more during this current war brings out all the clichés of Israeli violence—the same excuses, the same brutal attack on civilians, the same paralysis on the ground. What was 2009 could have been 2014. It is all one period, punctuated by moments of anticipation.
From its emergence in May 1964 to its exile from Beirut in August 1982, the Palestinian Liberation Organization was the main—and in many ways only—resistance organization of the Palestinian people. The PLO and its leader Yasser Arafat picked up the mantle of anticolonialism and national liberation movements in the 1960s to good effect. Algeria, Vietnam, Palestine—to have linked the Palestinian struggle to the Algerian and the Vietnamese wars of liberation was a major accomplish- ment of Yasser Arafat’s PLO. But the Israeli and Jordanian assault on it in Jordan in 1970 and then the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982 crushed its capacity to act in the area close to Israel. Even in Tunisia, the PLO was not safe. Israel’s fighter jets bombed the PLO headquarters in Tunis during Operation Wooden Leg in 1985, killing over eighty people. When the First Intifada broke out in the Occupied Territories in 1989, the PLO’s links to the Palestinians in the camps and in the Occupied Territories had been weak. Others had grown to replace them.
In Gaza, the most important movement that supplanted the PLO was Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian organization. Gaza was under Israeli occupation and yet the Israelis allowed this movement— formed in 1988—to thrive. In 2009, an Israeli official told Andrew Higgins of the Wall Street Journal,
Israel’s military-led administration in Gaza looked favorably on the paraplegic cleric [Sheikh Yassin], who set up a wide network of schools, clinics, a library and kindergartens. Sheikh Yassin formed the Islamist group Mujama al-Islamiya, which was officially recognized by Israel as a charity and then, in 1979, as an association. Israel also endorsed the establishment of the Islamic University of Gaza, which it now regards as a hotbed of militancy. The university was one of the first targets hit by Israeli warplanes in the [2008–09 Operation Cast Lead].
Israel saw Mujama al-Islamiya, which would become H. arakat al-Muqaˉwamah al-ʾIslaˉmiyyah (Hamas: Islamic Resistance Movement), as the lesser of two evils. The real problem for Israel was the secular PLO. It had to be crushed. But the PLO, in exile and cut off from the Palestinian people, hastened to make any kind of deal to allow its leadership access to its land. The Oslo accords of 1994 must be seen in that context. But even Oslo, the surrender of the Palestinian leadership, was not enough for Israel. During the Second Intifada, the Israelis decided to destroy Arafat. In fact, on December 3, 2001, at a cabinet meeting, Ariel Sharon said, “Arafat is no longer relevant.” What was relevant was not Arafat himself but the image of Palestinian resistance. A desperate Arafat said on December 16 that attacks on Israelis must end, and so his PLO fighters clashed with Hamas to stop them from their attacks. But this was not enough for the Israelis. The Israeli army’s Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz said that the PLO crackdown on Hamas was insufficient. The Palestinian Authority, he said, “is infected by terror from head to toe and does everything to disrupt our lives and to bring terrorism to our doorstep.” The hammer came down heavily on the PLO. The life of resistance was to be knocked out of it.
At this time, the Israelis also turned their gunsights on Hamas. In January 2004, Sheikh Yassin said he was willing to end armed resistance against Israel if a Palestinian state was created in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. Hamas’s political leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi also concurred, saying that the Palestinians would declare a decade long hudna in exchange for independence. On March 22, Israel assassinated Sheikh Yassin. Two hundred thousand people attended his funeral. On April 17, they killed al-Rantissi. Any talk by Hamas of peace was met with assassination.
Hamas is one of the vehicles for Palestinian national aspirations. It is not necessarily the vehicle preferred by many Palestinians. There are many Palestinian Christians and nationalists, non–Muslim Brothers and communists who would like to have a different vehicle for their ambi- tions. But the Israelis have tethered the PLO through the Oslo process, destroyed the left outfits through assassination and incarceration. Israel asks, where is the secular and nonviolent Palestinian movement? It is sitting in Israel’s prisons. What it allows to live is Hamas, and then it says that the Palestinians choose Hamas, and then Israel says that the Palestinians force Israel to violence . . .
Palestine lies on its rickety bed. Israel stands above, pillow in hand. It places it on the face of Palestine. Palestine struggles. It pushes back. In the next bed sits Egypt. It is silent. Its pockets are filled with US dollars, handed over in exchange for a signature at Camp David. Jordan is on the floor. It looks sad, shaken. It does nothing. Nearby the King of Saudi Arabia seems to be speaking about war crimes, sucking his oxygen container in jerks, wondering why it is taking so long for Israel to vanquish his enemies inside Palestine—Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian wing. No one comes to Palestine’s aid. The UN is in the corner. It has been banished by the United States, who stands close by, with its two mouths saying two different things. Palestine struggles alone.
Israel turns, hand on the pillow, pushing down, and says, look—look, Palestine is threatening us, endangering our lives. Others look away, giving Israel license to push harder.
The doctrine of self-defense does not apply to Palestine. It must take the pillow on its face willingly and allow itself to be asphyxiated. Resistance is a doctrine afforded to all, but denied to Palestine.
What is Palestine to do? It fires rockets. These are miserable devices. They fly erratically and scare their adversaries, but kill very few, destroy very little. Why, ask the liberal detractors, do they bother with these rockets? After all, they do no damage and they allow Israel justification for its violence.
What is Palestine to do? Not fire rockets? Conduct a mass civil disobedience campaign? Ah, yes. A good idea, drawing from Gandhi and Mandela—a massive march from Ramallah to Gaza that comes up against the Israeli separation walls and the Israeli forces—making their political leaders decide if they can simply fire on thousands of unarmed Palestinians who want to part the Israeli landscape to join their bifurcated lands.
Sitting in the darkness of Israel’s Hadarim Prison is one of Palestine’s most important political figures, Marwan Barghouti. He has been a guest of Israeli incarceration since 2002—on charges, unproven, that he is a terrorist. For the past decade, Barghouti has called for a general political resistance to Israel, earning him—as he sits in solitary confinement—the title “Palestine’s Mandela.” Why does Israel hold people like Marwan Barghouti in its cells? Why does Israel arrest all those who want a serious political dialogue and who are able to carry mass support, including those who favor a civil disobedience strategy? Here is where Israel wants the conversation to disappear. It is enough to say, “but Hamas is firing rockets and so we have to retaliate.” It does not want to talk about other strategies. These would not allow it to perpetuate its policy of annexation through settlements (in the West Bank and East Jerusalem) and through the production of misery (in Gaza).
Israel planned to build settlements on a pocket of land just east of Jerusalem called E1. For two nights in January 2013, 300 activists set up camp there. They called their village Bab al-Shams, the gate of the sun. The name comes from the novel by Elias Khoury, Bab al-Shams (1998), which tells the story of a Palestinian couple, Younis and Nahila, one a fighter in Lebanon and the other a defender of their home in the Galilee. The couple meets secretly in a cave called Bab al-Shams, their haven. The activists who created their village of Bab al-Shams called it their “gate to our freedom and steadfastness.” They had no rockets, no weap- ons. The young activists came out of the popular resistance committees. Their politics reflected their frustration with the strategy of negotiation and conciliation. “For decades,” said the organizers of the village, “Israel has established facts on the ground as the international community has remained silent in response to these violations. The time has come to change the rules of the game, for us to establish facts on the ground— our own land.”
The day after their encampment was first put up, Elias Khoury sent the citizens of Bab al-Shams a letter. “I see in your village all the faces of the loved ones who departed on the way to the land of our Palestinian promise,” he wrote. “Palestine is the promise of the strangers who were expelled from their land and continue to be expelled every day from their homes. I see in your eyes a nation born from the rubble of the Nakba that has gone on for sixty-four years. I see you and in my heart the words grow. I see the words and you grow in my heart, rise high and burst into the sky.” Israel destroyed the camp three times, even though the activists had broken no Israeli law (they used tents, which did not require permits). The activists kept rebuilding their camp until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that the area be designated as a closed military zone. The pillow had to remain on the face of Palestine.
Palestine, pillow on its face, has to defend the rockets that get fired out of its tattered body; Israel, pushing the pillow down, has never been called to account for its incarceration of Palestine’s most serious and popular political leaders.
Sitting in his prison, during this Gaza war, Barghouti said, “Resistance as an option is and will remain a sufficient method for retaining freedom and independence.” If Palestine does not resist, it will be fully suffocated—no way to breathe, no dignity.
Ceasefires have come and gone before. They promise little. The basic facts of the situation do not change. There is no move to lift the suffocation of Palestine—to end the embargo on Gaza, to allow the Palestinians to form their own state, to agree to borders (Israel does not have declared borders, and yet demands that it be recognized—how can Palestine formally recognize a country whose borders are not clear?). None of this has happened.
Eternal return is the sensibility of these conflicts—no forward motion.
The one proposal that affords some international consensus is for the United Nations to investigate the nature of the conflict, to ensure that that allegations of war crimes heard by the UN Human Rights Council should be fully looked into. The Council’s vote to set up a body for an investigation needs to be fully implemented. Israel has already closed the door to the investigators from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In 2009, Israel prevented a previous UN panel from stud- ying the nature of Operation Cast Lead—its investigation of people inside Israel had to be done over the telephone. A UN member state so cavalierly snubs a UN agency with an overwhelming mandate to do its job. Will the UN at least be able to undertake a proper investigation of the attacks on its institutions by Israel’s armed forces? Without being able to interview those troops and study their target information, any investigation would be incomplete. Israel will contend that the attacks were carried out in error, or else that the targets were not UN buildings at the time but launch pads for Hamas. Israel is going to block any serious investigation of war crimes.
Even with an investigation, nothing will come of it. The Goldstone Report on the 2009 war had sufficient information to indict many Israeli leaders for war crimes, and yet no process was taken forward. On behalf of Israel, the US lobbied hard to prevent any discussion of the Goldstone Report in the appropriate UN forums. In 2009, then US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon several times to stop the progress of an inquiry. She told International Criminal Court President Sang-Hyun Song to block any move to consider Israeli actions against Palestine. “How the ICC handles issues concerning the Goldstone Report will be perceived by many in the US as a test for the ICC, as this is a very sensitive matter.” In other words, if the ICC went ahead with the Report the US would consider freezing out the institution. It was a direct threat.
During the current ceasefire talks in Cairo, Israel insisted that the Palestinians concede that they should demand no investigation of the nature of the war and no accountability. It was a remarkable negotiating point. One thought was that Hamas would also be pulled up for war crimes, and so would be uneasy with a UN investigation. Izzat al-Rishq, a Hamas politburo member, said he was not bothered about this aspect. He said that the Palestinians should “act as soon as possible.” Israel has already begun to discredit the UN Human Rights Council’s investigation committee, calling its members “anti-Israel,” while its UN Ambassador Ron Prosor tried to deflect attention by calling for an inves- tigation of Hamas’ rockets. Netanyahu defined the Israeli response to an investigation: “The report of this committee has already been written. The committee chairman has already decided that Hamas is not a terrorist organization. Therefore, they have nothing to look for here. They should visit Damascus, Baghdad and Tripoli. They should go see ISIS, the Syrian army and Hamas. There they will find war crimes, not here.” On November 12, 2014, the Israeli Foreign Ministry informed the United Nations that it would not cooperate with the UN investigation. Palestine, meanwhile, joined the ICC in early 2015. Israel threatened to retaliate with a more aggressive settlement policy. The United States threatened to cut its modest humanitarian aid to Ramallah.
No country is as complicit in Israel’s occupation and wars as the United States. It provides the diplomatic and military support that Israel needs to continue to garrison the Palestinians, make their lives more difficult and migration more appealing. The general tenor of US political fealty to Israeli policy was laid out by US President Gerald Ford to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1975: “Should the US desire in the future to put forward proposals of its own, it will make every effort to coordinate with Israel its proposals with a view to refraining from putting forth proposals that Israel would consider unsatisfactory.” The US government recognizes that while it will plead the Israeli case, it cannot be seen as doing nothing for the Palestinians. Richard Nixon told his consigliere Henry Kissinger in 1973, “You’ve got to give [the Palestinians] hope. It’s really a—frankly, let’s face it; you’ve got to make them think that there’s some motion; that something is going on; that we’re really doing our best with the Israelis.” This dance has been going on from Nixon and Golda Meir to Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, and will likely continue. The fraudulent “peace process,” maintained with complete cynicism by the United States, has smothered Palestinian dreams.
Slowly, cautiously, sections of the US population have broken with the pro-Israel consensus. Solidarity with Palestine has been a consistent feature of the US left. The brave young activists who founded the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in 2001 brought their bodies to bear against the Israeli military’s expansionist policies. Israeli bulldozers and bullets took the lives of young ISM volunteers Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall. This was courageous work, the province of a small number of hardened activists. Four years later, in 2005, activists from Palestine’s growing civil society organizations formed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS called upon people of good conscience to abjure any cooperation—both direct and indi- rect—with institutions and firms that participate in the occupation of Palestine. BDS asks less in terms of solidarity—one does not have to risk one’s own body before a bulldozer or bullet; nonetheless, the backlash against the movement has been fierce. BDS provided an avenue for mass political participation, drawing large numbers of people into concrete action to put pressure on Israel. The BDS movement has grown exponentially across the world, including in the United States. It is a movement designed for international solidarity.
Not far from the offices of Palestine civil society organizations are the pris- ons that house some of Palestine’s most distinguished political figures. The year after the BDS call was published, prisoners from different factions (the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) produced a National Reconciliation Document. This “Prisoners’ Document” called for unity among all organized political forces to rekindle a national liberation movement for Palestine. If BDS invited the world to stand against Israel, the Prisoners’ Document called upon Palestine to stand up for itself. These are the two sides of solidarity. BDS and the Prisoners’ Document are the two inextricable pillars for solidarity with Palestine.
This is a book of documents. They are whispers from corners of the United States of America, whose government has been Israel’s great enabler. The authors of these documents are committed to the people of Palestine as much as to humanity. These are writers who have taken positions, who have traveled to the occupied zones and written diaries, who have modulated their screams into poems and who have conjured up strategies for the streets, the boardrooms, and across the centers of political life. These writers are people that I greatly admire. That they would take the time to so hastily produce such beautiful work to fight against the amnesia over Gaza and the disavowal of Palestinian politics is itself an indication of the worlds that we are prepared to fight against and the worlds we would like to create. These cultural offerings are bundled into this book for Palestine. These are our letters. Please deliver them to the present so that we can make a better future.
- Vijay Prashad, Introduction, Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occuption
See all our Nakba Day related posts, here.