The Struggle for Palestine: Empowering Palestinian Voices
by Dr. Ramzy Baroud
The story of Palestine is the story of the Palestinian people, for they are the victims of oppression and the main channel of resistance, starting with the creation of Israel on the ruins of Palestinian towns and villages in 1948. If Palestinians hadn’t resisted, their story would have concluded right there and then, and they too would have disappeared. Those who admonish Palestinian resistance, armed or otherwise, have little understanding of the psychological ramifications of resistance, such as a sense of collective empowerment and hope amongst the people. In his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth”, Jean-Paul Sartre describes resistance as a process through which “a man is re-creating himself”. (Sartre, 1961)
And for 70 years, Palestinians have embarked on this journey of the recreation of the “self”. They resisted, and their resistance in all forms molded a sense of collective unity, despite the numerous divides that have been erected amongst them. A new articulation of the Palestinian narrative is necessary now more than ever before. The elitist interpretation of Palestine has failed, and is as worthless as the Oslo Accords. It is no more than a tired exercise in empty clichés aimed at sustaining American political dominance in Palestine as well as in the rest of the Middle East. (Baroud, 2018)
It is only when the Palestinian intellectual is able to repossess that collective narrative that the confines placed on the Palestinian voice can be finally broken. Only then can Palestinians truly confront the Israeli Hasbra and US-Western corporate media propaganda, and, at long last, speak unhindered. (Sheizaf, 2011)
Zionism and the Palestinian People
While Palestine and the Palestinians can be recognized based on a degree of geographic cohesion and cultural and political identifiers, the modern definition of the Palestinian people cannot ignore their protracted rebellion against various colonial entities, most notably the British mandate (1920) and Zionist colonialism (1947-48), Israeli military occupation (1967) and the current state of apartheid.
While the same perception of national identity can be formed around many anti-colonial struggles throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Palestinian case is a unique one. Unlike anti-colonial movements throughout the Southern hemisphere, the formation of the modern Palestinian identity was not allowed to develop based on the same organic flow of national formation, as was the case of Egypt, Algeria or many of other nations that won its independence throughout the 20th century.
In Palestine, this process was interrupted ab origine due to the creation of Israel: a western colonial implant that, unlike Palestine, had no unique history (aside from a mix of biblical and pseudo-historical contexts) and without any particular connection to the land. Israel was established with British colonial decree (originating in the Balfour Declaration in November 1917), with the conditional approval of a nascent and undemocratic United Nations, itself largely under the control of the United States, Britain and other traditional western powers.
Also considering that Israel’s continued existence as an exclusive, Zionist Jewish state that has no regard for the national identity, history and rights of the original inhabitants of Palestine, the Palestinian people, it can only be sustained through violence. Zionist, later Israeli violence was met with two already existing cultural values: sumoud – steadfastness – and muqwama – meaning resistance. These are existing cultural tools used in the fight against previous invaders long before Israel was established.
Both concepts, however, carry deeper meaning. After 70 years of their persistent application and massive sacrifices in blood, freedom and resources, they have both been internalized as collective tools, inherited from one generation to the other, both reflecting a deep sentimental meaning that supersedes politics, ideologies and factions. They have also stood guard against the politicking of the Palestinian elites, who have historically safeguarded their interests at the expense of the rights and freedom of the Palestinian people.
Oslo and Political Paternalism
It is an unrealistic notion, for example to suggest that the Palestinian Authority, established with an American, Israeli mandate in 1994, constitute a semblance of sumoud or muqawama. Steadfastness and resistance, in this context are owned by the Palestinian people, and can only be truly expressed by their collective actions – their rebellions, their uprisings and so on.
In fact, the current elitist approach – disconnected, detached and self-serving – adopted by a largely un-elected Palestinian political establishment has clearly demarcated two entities: the Palestinian people, oppressed, yet continue to resist, and the ruling class – advantaged and often used by Israel to ensure the very oppression of the Palestinian people.
The Oslo Accords resulted in the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, which marginalized and essentially dismantled the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a far more representative body, theoretically representing all Palestinians, everywhere. The PA’s original mission was tolerated by Palestinians based on the assumption that it was the first step in state building. 25 years later, no such state was ever built and the PA eventually became the local police, protecting the interest of the elites and guarding the security of Israel. The PLO, on the other hand, is no longer there to fill its traditional role of being the bridge that connects all Palestinians around a common objective.
Samer Badawi argued in an article published in 2016, that Fatah, the main faction controlling the PA, and the PA itself are not rooted in Palestinian civil society:
“It is tempting to see Abbas’s re-election as a coronation of sorts, the new emperor draped in his invisible clothes. But it is also important to remember that, as in the fairytale, those around him hail the Fatah leader out of despair, not adulation. With 40 percent of the Palestinian population employed by the public sector he controls, it should be little wonder that they do.”
This “fairytale” is sustained largely through misleading legitimacy, a concept that late Professor Hisham Sharabi referred to as “paternalism in politics”. In his book, Neopatriarchy, Sharabi posits “a theory of distorted change in the Arab world,” one in which “the paternal will is the absolute will.” When it comes to politics, this paternalism is easy to miss, Sharabi argued, because it uses “external trappings,” like elections, to give the illusion of consensus – all while relying on familiar patterns of “ritual and coercion.”
With that disconnect in mind, it is Palestinian civil society and popular networks that provide Palestinians with their enduring sense of societal cohesion, despite every Israeli attempt at weakening the Palestinian people and dismantling their networks. The natural Palestinian response is popular resistance. Again, Sharabi himself argued in his article “The Palestinians: Fifty Years Later”, the “human face” of the liberation struggle is that of the First Intifada, which “will simultaneously lead to building alliances and grassroots organizations”.. But popular resistance can only be understood within the larger context of the Nakba, the Catastrophe invited by the loss of the Palestinian homeland in 1947-48.
Indeed, the Nakba has to be understood beyond a shared experience as a collective trauma, but a constant generator of meaning and identity for generations of Palestinians. In her essay “Calling the Phoenix: Integrating the Trauma of the Nakba into Palestinian Identity”, Ahlam Mustafa, further demonstrates the centrality of the catastrophic loss of the Palestinian homeland (the Nakba) and Palestinian resistance (muqawama) as a core value in Palestinian cultural identity:
“Any discussion of an authentic identity of Palestinians defies the nature of the Nakba as a grand loss of collective wellbeing. The camps’ walls in the life of exiled individuals replaced the ‘borders’ of a nation, and divided suffering in unequal manner between Palestinian populations. Therefore, highlighting the common suffering and commemorating the Nakba as the source of all suffering is essential to overcome such divisions and unify the collective under this trauma-based constructed cultural identity. In this sense resistance and resilience are to be seen not merely as responses of individuals but more importantly, as part of a communal process of living and working with trauma.” (Mustafa, Ahlam)
Recreation of the Collective Self
“I am a partisan, I am alive”, said Italian intellectual and politician Antonio Gramsci in 1917. By “partisan” he was referring to his role in the Italian resistance movement against Nazi-fascism. He lived many years of his life in prison, and died only six days after his release. However, for him, being part of a popular resistance movement – considering that the other options were conformity, or worse, collaboration with fascism – gave his life, however short, a greater sense of meaning.
Gramsci was, of course, not just talking about his own personal choices, but rather those of the larger collective. In his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre describes violent resistance, as it was passionately vindicated by Fanon, as a process through which “a man is re-creating himself.”
For 70 years, Palestinians have embarked on their journey of the recreation of the “self”, a collective self that is able to climb the fences and walls of the camps, sneak through military checkpoints and even scale the Israeli apartheid wall, to unify Palestinians in their struggle, sacrifice, steadfastness and resistance. It is this relentless resistance, a notion now embodied in the very fabric of Palestinian society that continues to deny the oppressor the opportunity of emasculating Palestinians or reducing them to helpless refugees.
Therefore, once again, any meaningful discussion on Palestine, whether concerned with the past or with the present must have at its core the Palestinian people – their sumoud and their muqawama. However, the crisis in the Palestinian narrative – where the ‘peace process’, the ‘negotiations table’, ‘painful compromises’ and other clichés, supplanted old, but urgent priorities, such as national unity, national liberation, global solidarity – is relatively recent.
It was exactly the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993 that shattered the relative cohesiveness of the Palestinian discourse, as it also weakened and divided the Palestinian people. But how are we to reclaim the clarity and integrity of the Palestinian story if the Palestinian political viewpoint is still beholden to the self-seeking aspirations of individuals and competing factions?
Until the Palestinian leadership is itself reclaimed by the Palestinian people as a platform for true democratic expression, it is the responsibility of the intellectual to safeguard and present the Palestinian story to the world in the most authentic, egalitarian way possible. It is only when the Palestinian intellectual is able to repossess that collective narrative that the confines placed on the Palestinian voice can be finally broken. Only then can Palestinians fully and truly confront the Israeli Hasbra and US-Western corporate media propaganda, and, at long last, speak unhindered.
The Organic Intellectual
And by intellectuals, I am certainly not referring to well-educated ‘experts’ or ‘talking heads’ per se, but subscribing, instead of Edward Said’s view of the intellectual as:
“The intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public, in public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues who are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”
Or by Gramsci’s organic intellectual, a “permanent persuader” with a “humanistic conception of history,”
“The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor and organiser, permanent persuader and not just a simple orator.” (Gramsci, 1949)
I would go even further to contend that considering the historical marginalization of the Palestinian intellectual as a core representative of the Palestinian narrative, for the story of the Palestinian people to be told accurately and fairly, the storyteller must to a larger extend be a Palestinian. This is hardly the outcome of any veiled ethnocentric sentiment, but because facts often change in the process of interpretation, as explained by late Palestinian professor Edward Said.
Said argued in ‘Covering Islam,’: that “facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation… for interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is (and) at what historical moment the interpretation takes place.” (Said, 1981)
Of the many interpreters of the facts pertaining to Palestinian history, it is often that neither the Palestinian historian nor the Palestinian people are at the heart of the story. Indeed, Palestine is often interpreted by mainstream corporate media, by Zionist intellectuals, by anti-Zionist, by non-Palestinian intellectuals, and many other groups, and far less by Palestinians. And when Palestinians are permitted to narrate, that narration is often confined to a specific personal and factional agenda. The reason behind that is corporate media and western academic in general views the ‘other’ through colonial prisms.
A self-assured Palestinian narration that is situated within a clear set of national Palestinian priorities that reflect the wishes and aspiration of the Palestinian people never fit the prevailing western view of Palestine. This assertion is as true today as it was at the time of the Balfour Declaration over a century ago.
Palestine and the Reductionist Discourses
‘The Great Man Theory’ – history as allegedly shaped by an all-powerful individual – may have been discredited as a historical tool in western learning, but still applies in earnest in the mainstream understanding of Palestine, the Middle East and the south in general. This reductionist discourse – that sees Palestine as competing characters and factions in an endless political drama – marginalizes the Palestinian people, their suffering and heroism for decades in favor of the well-dressed Palestinian negotiator speaking pompously of a ‘peace process’ and ‘painful compromises’ – as if the rights and freedom of any nation should ever be a subjected to compromises and bargains.
This predisposition is not only pertinent in the case of Palestine, but an ailment that has afflicted Middle East history, politics and journalism for decades. Middle East historiography is “a stepchild of orientalism,” wrote Dr. Soha Abdel Kader, who argued that “Middle East history bears the imprint of its birth up to the present in its use of sources, its methodology, and its isolation.”
Palestinian history too faced similar obstacles, persisting in a false, misleading narrative that acquired even greater credence since Oslo and the peace process. While the First Intifada resorted the people at the heart of the so-called conflict, Palestinian historiography after Oslo largely neglected ordinary people, and remained hostage to narrating the history of the elites, their political institutions, diplomatic events, and their self-indulgent understanding of conflict, whether on a socioeconomic level or that of violence and war.
An alternative, and far more informative history – ‘history from below’ – might have served a minimal role in mainstream politics, media and academic understanding of the Palestinian struggle, but continues, at least among ordinary Palestinians to be prioritized above all else. For example, ‘Adab al-Sijun’ or ‘Prison Literature’ is a staple in many Palestinian bookstores and libraries.
‘History from below’ contends that while individuals or small social groups (ruling elites and their benefactors) might prompt certain historical events, it is largely popular movements that significantly influence long-term outcomes. The First Palestinian Intifada was the model demonstrating this assertion. The constant calls for a ‘Third Intifada’ by many Palestinians – although at times lacks understanding of how collective movements are mobilized – demonstrate the kind of astute awareness that only Palestinians are ultimately capable of determining their own reality.
There are other obstacles as well, lead amongst them is an unwavering attempt by Zionist (and many western) historians and institutions to replace the Palestinian historical narrative, whenever it exists, with a Zionist one.
In the Zionist Israeli narrative, Palestinians, if relevant at all are depicted as drifting nomads, an inconvenience that hinders the path of progress – a duplicate narrative to the one that defined the relationship between every western colonial power and the resisting natives, always.
Within some Israeli political and academic circles, Palestinians merely ‘existed’ to be ‘cleansed’, to make space for a different state, one that exists as the supposed racial and cultural antithesis to what Palestinians represent, or are perceived to represent. The ‘existence’ of the natives is only meant to be temporary from the Zionist view. “We must expel Arabs and take their places,” wrote Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion.
Such clarity in the Zionist political discourse was consistently translated to the kind of military aggression that ethnically-cleansed nearly a million Palestinians from their land in 1947-48 and continues to drive the colonial settlements enterprise in the Occupied Territories.
It also continues to be championed by historians, media and political scientists without much quarrel. In his 2004 interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israeli historian, Benny Morris’ views on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians exemplifies the depth of moral depravity of the Israeli narrative: “I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands…There was no choice but to expel that population.”
The assigning of the Palestinian people the role of dislocated, disinherited and nomadic people without worrying much about the ethical and political implications of such decision has erroneously presented Palestinians as a group with characteristics of a docile and submissive collective. Again, they merely existed to be denied that very existence by a powerful Zionist – ‘chosen’, emboldened and ruthless.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and Palestinian resistance is the unremitting example of the strength and resilience of the Palestinian people. Yet the fight has been an arduous one. Between the rock of Israeli occupation and Hasbra and the hard place of Palestinian leadership acquiesce and failure, Palestine, her people and her story have been trapped and misconstrued.
Reclaiming the Narrative
The Palestinian intellectual must now step up. It is sorely needed that Palestinian writers, historians and journalists assume the responsibility of reinterpreting Palestinian history, internalizing and communicating Palestinian voices, so that the rest of the world can, for once, appreciate the story as told by its wounded but tenacious victors.
It is incumbent upon us – not only Palestinians, but those who wish to present a truthful understanding of our historic struggle – to reclaim the Palestinian narrative and dislocate the propaganda-driven Zionist one. We must retell the story, while focusing wholly on the lives, perspectives and representations of ordinary people – refugees, poor, underclass and working-class Palestinians. For it is they who truly epitomize Palestine, not Abbas and his imaginary ‘peace process’.
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