100 years of Palestinian popular resistance

Nasreen Abd Elal

The Nation  /  May 15, 2023

Even among many sympathetic partisans of the Palestinian struggle, a narrative of victimhood prevails. But how we regard our past and present is a choice.

The 1947–49 Nakba is the consciousness-searing fulcrum of Palestinian history. It signified the consolidation of the Zionist project in Palestine, which resulted in the dispossession of 750,000 to a million Palestinians from their lands, homes, and livelihoods. The term “Nakba” means catastrophe: a world-destroying upheaval. Among the 7 million Palestinian refugees today left waiting in the anteroom of history—and the 7 million more living in their historic homeland under an expanding regime of expropriation and domination—this catastrophe is as much a condition of the present as it is a wound of the past.

The trajectory of the Nakba echoes the broader story of colonization in the Global South: A majority-peasant population saw their land sold out from under them, a balance-book consequence of mapping exercises in a far-flung metropole. They endured the plundering of resources and exploitation of labor to build a state that privileges its settler population at the expense of the native masses. They faced expulsion and extermination, enforced under the barrel of a gun. Zionist settler militias and British occupiers worked hand-in-glove to crush the Palestinian peasant rebellions and general strikes that had wedged a bone in the throat of European regional ambitions for decades. For all this, Palestinians have historically understood themselves in relation to colonized peoples across the world who have withstood—and resisted—the ravages of their own catastrophes.

In the present day, commemoration of the Nakba elicits outrage and denialism. This dehumanization likewise colors understandings of Palestinian resistance. Opposition to colonial rule—regardless of the form it takes, or the structural oppression that drives it—is systematically maligned as terrorism. The popular delegitimization of the Palestinian struggle is conditioned by power and capital: the American drive to fragment and exploit the Middle East converted Zionism into a bipartisan orthodoxy, and deputized the Israeli regime as the handmaiden of US regional ambitions. To understand the Nakba is to locate it within the thoroughly modern latticework of interests—imperial, colonial, capitalist—that view Palestinians as the collateral damage of Western redemption.

Even among many sympathetic partisans of the Palestinian struggle, a narrative of victimhood prevails. The Nakba conjures images of hapless refugees herded into tent encampments—the lamentable flotsam of the 20th century’s world-historical churn. In the prevailing American imaginary, Palestinians are, at best, casualties of forces that far outpaced their capacity to resist. Viewed from within, however, Palestinians have metabolized dispossession through a wide range of revolutionary and self-reflexive modes. What Emile Habibi termed “pessoptimism” and Bassel al-Araj indexed as the “romance” of struggle animates the historical righteousness that sustains Palestinian life and rebellion today, even in the face of a century of repression. In the poet Tawfiq Ziyyad’s stubborn register, it would be “easier to catch fried fish in the Milky Way” than to snuff out this spirit of resistance.

How we regard our past and present is a choice—determined largely by how we interpret the world as students and subjects of history. This May, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, the Palestinian Youth Movement will teach a free, three-part course, “100 Years of Palestinian Popular Resistance,” to engage the legacies of Palestinian uprisings from below. Sessions will be held in-person and online from May 26–28 at The People’s Forum, an internationalist political education and cultural space in the heart of Manhattan.

The vision for the course is simple: to transmit the lessons of the Palestinian struggle from the perspective of the popular will that sustained it, without succumbing to defeatism or sloganeering. Over the course of three sessions, participants will encounter the spirit of collective and personal commitment that have animated Palestinian peasants and prisoners in the 1930s, popular committees in the late 1980s, and underground cadres in Jenin, Nablus, and Gaza today. Trans versing prisons, classrooms, camps, and battlefields to push past the political dead end of victimhood, we will rewrite Palestine into our understanding of the global anti-imperialist struggle against the twin engines of colonial and capitalist depredation.

Why do we fight? Who are the agents and authors of political transformation? How can we retrieve stories of mass struggle from the haze of anonymity and unrecorded sacrifice? The answers are complex, occasionally contradictory, and inflected by class and geography. Yet they contain unifying threads, spanning more than a century of rebellion. Palestine means the pursuit of total liberation, a struggle in service of the return of land and the return of its stewards. This course intends to chart out the frontier beyond the last sky of catastrophe. We hope you’ll join us.

Nasreen Abd Elal is a researcher and graphic designer based in New York City; she is a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement