Mark Muhannad Ayyash
Al-Jazeera / October 10, 2020
Despite repeatedly being cast as a nuisance to the peace and tranquillity of the world order, Palestinians continue their fight for true liberation.
In the last few years, Israel has further cemented its grip on Palestine. The list of Palestinian losses is depressing: the marked movement towards international recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, official annexation of Palestinian land, an increase in the number of settlers and the development of settlements on Palestinian lands, the horrific besiegement of Gaza and the world’s participation in the siege, the “de-development” of the Palestinian economy, uninhibited killing and maiming of Palestinians, suffocating restrictions on movement, gender-based violence in prisons and at checkpoints, continued demolitions of Palestinian homes, the stifling of Palestinian activism and speech for Palestinian rights in Western Europe and North America, and the rising tide of diplomatic normalcy between Israel and Arab states.
Add to the mix common social issues like patriarchal oppression, interpersonal conflict, crime, socioeconomic inequality, family feuds, and political corruption, combined with a lacklustre and largely handcuffed leadership, and you begin to get a picture of how remarkable Palestinian resistance really is.
That Palestinians do not give up is precisely what is so historic and inspiring about their resistance. For more than 100 years, the Palestinian people have been resisting and fighting for Palestine, holding on to what they have left of it, clinging on to the hope of one day reclaiming what they have lost.
Attention is often given to the armed resistance, but far more numerous, diverse, and long-standing is the unarmed Palestinian resistance. Labour strikes, boycotts, legal actions, political and community organising, demonstrations, marches, hunger strikes, passing the keys of demolished homes from one generation to the next, the formation of Palestinian societies and cultural groups in exile and refugee camps, lobbying politicians across the world, building creative local and sustainable economies, and everyday acts of resistance are all peppered throughout the history of the struggle.
Resistance also comes in the form of cultural productions that narrate and communicate the suffering of Palestinians; intellectual and academic studies that illuminate the history and lived realities of Palestinians; the development of political manifestoes and ideologies that pave a path forward towards freedom and liberation.
It is impossible to count the number of people who have given, and continue to give, their time, efforts, livelihood, and their lives in the fight for Palestine. The problem is not that these lives are never reported or (re)presented in the international discourse. The problem is that the core and underlying essence of Palestinian actions remains unregistered and unaccounted for, it is buried and prevented from being released into the mainstream discourse.
The Emirati and Bahraini political elites, for example, never register these lives when they proclaim their so-called peace deals with Israel. Many Palestinians, as well as common Bahrainis and Emiratis who have no say in the policies adopted by their rulers, have rightly labelled these agreements a betrayal of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause.
Palestine is entirely absent from these “peace in the Middle East deals” not just in terms of Palestinian officials being excluded from negotiations and agreements, but in the real tangible sense of erasing Palestinian lands, rights, freedoms, and lives from the geopolitical landscape and political grammar. These deals seek to constitute a new status quo in which it becomes normal to accept that Palestine does not exist and therefore deserves, or even has itself earned, its erasure.
We do not need to imagine how this normalisation of erasure would operate in the mainstream discourse of Western European and North American media. It has been happening for many years. For a recent example, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) despicably apologised for using the term Palestine on air just one day after one of its hosts dared to pronounce this apparently forbidden and offensive word.
Hiding behind vacuous policies filled with fluff and pretentious legalistic phraseology, the CBC maintains that Palestine does not exist as a modern state and therefore does not warrant naming. These kinds of actions and policies, which are active in other settler-colonial and neo-colonial countries, are an affront to the millions of lives that have dedicated their very existence to the fight for Palestine.
The ‘problem’ of Palestine
One of the mechanisms in which Palestine is erased in the two examples above is the casting of the question of Palestine as a “problem” in the sense of a nuisance to the peace and tranquillity of the world order, since Palestine does not fit the conventional categories through which the world order is made legible.
Thus, the very same categories that emerged in the colonial era in order to dispossess and/or rule over Indigenous peoples across the world, such as laws of property ownership, statehood, and sovereignty, are presented in the contemporary world as “natural” categories that simply describe how the world is “naturally” organised.
Mainstream discourse does not question how these categories were produced and “validated” through brutal colonial violence and state terror; instead, it asserts that the categories are justified in their violence because the oppressed fail to belong to these categories which are designed to oppress and eliminate them. And in this world that is birthed and developed in and through colonialism, this comes to pass as somehow sensical.
In The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, WEB DuBois explored what it means to be continuously asked, directly and indirectly, “How does it feel to be a problem?” This question, which continues to be asked of Black Americans, reveals nothing about the struggles, aspirations, and lived realities of Black lives in America. Rather it tells us much more about the power structures in which Black Americans come to be constructed as a “problem”.
The question, in short, never probes the questioner’s own role in rendering Black life as a “problem”, or in creating the social, economic, cultural, and political conditions that oppress and suppress Black life.
Similarly, Palestinians are cast as a “problem” in the international arena, shifting the burden of becoming unproblematic on the subject that has been produced as a “problem” – an impossible task whose sole purpose is really the eradication and erasure of the subject that has been constituted as a “problem”.
For imperial allies led by the United Kingdom and then the United States, the Israeli settler-colonial state, and Arab states that largely have been quick to acquiesce and serve imperial interests, Palestine has always been posed as a “problem” which must be dissolved. If only those who render Palestine a “problem” would have the courage, they would ask Palestinians what they really intend to ask: how does it feel to have the world wish that it did not have to deal with you? How does it feel to be entirely unwanted, unheard? How does it feel to be entirely instrumental for others in your very being and non-being?
These are precisely the kinds of rhetorical questions that the Gulf ruling elites are asking of Palestinians today. Palestine has seen its fair share of allies who appear to stand with Palestinians, only to move on and leave it behind. It is this sense of being left behind that haunts and seems to follow Palestinian resistance that I want to underscore. That in addition to facing all of those immense difficulties of erasure perpetrated by settler-colonial and imperial powers, of which the CBC and Canada are a part, there is also a more hurtful kind of erasure that can take place in the space where Palestinians join hands with others from the “Global South” seeking collective liberation.
If I repeat the term Palestine too much in this piece, it is because it needs to be affirmed and reaffirmed, continuously, forcefully, and vociferously. The effort to erase Palestine, of which the CBC and the UAE/Bahrain ruling class are but a small part, is not going away but is in fact gaining momentum. Whether the CBC or the Emirati and Bahraini authoritarian rulers are intentionally erasing Palestine is really irrelevant, what matters is the effect of their discourse, actions, and policies, which is the erasure of Palestine – a project that has reached an advanced stage.
In this sense, yes Palestine is so far a losing cause. It will likely continue to be a losing cause for the foreseeable future. But make no mistake, Palestine is not a lost cause. So long as the injustice continues unabated, Palestinians will fight for Palestine. And even if freedom remains beyond reach, Palestinians in Palestine and beyond will at least show the world that the violence of this settler-colonial, neo-colonial, and post-colonial world order will never defeat the spirits of those who are being crushed at the bottom of this order.
Yes, in fighting, Palestine will be a nuisance, but in the sense of always reminding the powerful that they are not the “forces of the good” that the world order is neither orderly nor just. To register and release into the mainstream discourse, the essence of Palestinian actions of resistance is to realise that when Palestine does not fit into dominant categories, this is not because of a shortcoming of Palestine, it is because of the violent and oppressive purpose of those categories.
To register Palestinian lives is to realise that the creation of a Palestinian state, for example, is not an end in itself, an effort to join the rest of the world of nations through the category of statehood, but was always, at least for the countless lives that have fought and continue to fight for it, a means towards true liberation and freedom – towards a decolonised life.
Mark Muhannad Ayyash is Associate Professor of Sociology at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada and the author of A Hermeneutics of Violence (UTP, 2019); he was born and raised in Silwan, Jerusalem, before immigrating to Canada; he is currently writing a book on settler colonial sovereignty.