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One more war, one more exhausting period for the Palestinians of Gaza filled with death and destruction, terror and its trauma. Wars come in a sequence: 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014 . . . 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 suffocation of Gaza resembles every other one. There are the forensic texts of human rights groups and the United Nations 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, devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands, wiped out buildings that heal, teach and shelter?
Fida Qishta, born and raised in Rafah, 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 do their trade while Israeli snipers and gunboats shoot at them. 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 impossible to lead normal 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 (18 January) an Israeli attack kills 48 members of the family of Helmi and Maha Samouni, whose house in Zeitoun, in the suburbs of Gaza City, is bombed and then occupied. The departing Israeli soldiers leave 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 goes to see 15-year-old Ayman el-Najar in Naser Hospital in Khan Younis, victim of an Israeli bomb that killed his sister. He shows Qishta his wounds, his body wracked by white phosphorus burns; the graphic image sears. Qishta takes refuge at a UN compound, 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 are herded into a neighbours’ home by Israeli troops who accuse her brother of being with Hamas; the home is then bombed from the sky. ‘If we die,’ Mona 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 latest war brings out all the clichés of Israeli violence – the same excuses, the same brutal attack on civilians, the same paralysis on the ground.
From its emergence in May 1964 to its exile from Beirut in August 1982, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was the main – and in many ways only – resistance organisation of the Palestinian people. The PLO and its leader Yasser Arafat picked up the mantle of anti-colonialism and national liberation movements in the 1960s to good effect. Algeria, Vietnam, Palestine – linking the Palestinian struggle to the Algerian and the Vietnamese wars of liberation was a major accomplishment. But the Israeli and Jordanian assault on the PLO in Jordan in 1970 and then the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 crushed its capacity to act in the area close to Israel. Even in Tunisia, it was not safe. Israel’s fighter jets bombed the PLO HQ in Tunis during Operation Wooden Leg in 1985, killing over 80 people. By the time the first intifada broke out in the occupied territories in 1989, the PLO’s links to Palestinians in territories and the camps were weak. Others had grown to replace them.
In Gaza, the most important movement to supplant the PLO was Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian organisation. 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 [2008-9 Operation Cast Lead].’
Israel saw Mujama al-Islamiya, which would become Harakat al-Muqāwamah al-’Islāmiyyah (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 Oslo was not enough for Israel. During the second intifada, the Israelis decided to destroy Arafat. Indeed, at a cabinet meeting on 3 December 2001 the then Israeli leader 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 16 December that attacks on Israelis must end, and so his PLO fighters clashed with Hamas in an effort to stop them. But the PLO crackdown was held to be insufficient. The Palestinian Authority, the Israeli army’s chief of staff Shaul Mofaz declared, ‘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.
Israel also turned its 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 security chief Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi concurred, saying that the Palestinians would declare a decade long hudna, or peace, in exchange for independence. On 22 March, Israel assassinated Sheikh Yassin. On 18 April, they killed al-Rantissi.
Hamas is one of the vehicles for the Palestinian national aspirations. It is not necessarily the preferred vehicle for many Palestinians. There are many Palestinian Christians and nationalists, non-Muslim Brothers and communists who would like to have a different vehicle for their ambitions. 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.
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 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? A massive march from Ramallah to Gaza that comes up against the Israeli separation walls and the Israeli armed 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? But Israel arrests all those who want a serious political dialogue and who are able to carry mass support, including those who favour a civil disobedience strategy.
Sitting in the darkness of Israel’s Hadarim prison is one of Palestine’s most important political figures, Marwan Barghouti. He has been incarcerated 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’.
When Israel planned to build settlements on a pocket of land just east of Jerusalem called E1, 300 activists set up camp there in January 2013. They called their encampment 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 Galilee. The couple meet secretly in a cave called Bab al-Shams, their haven.
The activists who created their encampment of Bab al‑Shams called it their ‘gate to our freedom and steadfastness’. They had no rockets, no weapons. 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 organisers, ‘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 established, author 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 64 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 it until Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that the area be designated as a closed military zone.
Sitting in his prison, during the latest Gaza war, Marwan Barghouti said, ‘Resistance as an option is and will continue to be a sufficient method for retaining freedom and independence.’ If Palestine does not resist, it will be fully suffocated – with no way to breathe, no dignity.