Palestine speaks for us all

Image: Marcelo Guimarães Lima
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By JODI DEAN*

Recognizing the right to resist an oppressor, the right to national self-determination, means defending those who are willing and able to fight against their oppressors

The images on October 7th of paragliders fleeing Israeli air defenses were moving for many of us. These were moments of freedom, which defeated Zionist expectations of submission to occupation and siege. In them, we witness seemingly impossible acts of bravery and defiance in the face of the certainty of devastation that would follow (it is no secret that Israel practices asymmetric warfare and responds with disproportionate force). Who wouldn't feel energized to see oppressed people tearing down the fences that imprisoned them, taking to the skies in flight, and flying freely through the air? The disruption of the collective sense of the possible made it seem as if anyone could be free, as if imperialism, occupation and oppression could and would be overthrown. As Palestinian activist Leila Khaled wrote about a successful kidnapping in her memoir, My People Shall Live: “it seemed that the more spectacular the action, the better the morale of our people.” These actions shatter expectations and create a new sense of possibility, freeing people from hopelessness and despair.

When we witness such actions, many of us also feel this sense of openness. Our reaction is indicative of the subject effect that the actions trigger: something in the world changed because a subject inscribed a gap in the data. To use an idea from Alain Badiou, we see that the action was caused by a subject, thus producing that subject as a retroactive effect of the action that caused it. Imperialism tries to put an end to these feelings before they spread too far. He condemns them and declares them off limits.

The images of Palestinians that we see in our imperialist environments are often images of devastation, mourning and death. The humanity of Palestinians is conditioned by their suffering, by what they have lost and by what they endure. Palestinians receive sympathy but not emancipation; emancipation would end sympathy. This image of the victim produces the “good” Palestinian as a civilian, even better as a child, woman or elderly person. Those who fight back, especially as part of organized groups, are evil: the monstrous enemy who must be eliminated. But everyone is a target. The blame for the attack on the “good” Palestinians is therefore attributed to the “bad” ones, which further justifies their eradication: every inch of Gaza is a hiding place for terrorists. The policing of affects eliminates the possibility of a free Palestinian.

The policing of affections is part of the political struggle. Anything that ignites the feeling that the oppressed will free themselves, that the occupations and blockades will end, must be extinguished. The imperialists and Zionists reduce October 7th to a list of horrors not only to prevent us from seeing the history and reality of colonialism, occupation and siege. They do this to prevent the rupture gap from producing the matter that caused it.

The First Intifada, in 1987, began with the “Night of the Gliders”. On November 25 and 26, two Palestinian guerrillas from the PFLP-GC (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command) landed in the territory occupied by Israel. Both were killed. One of them killed six Israeli soldiers and injured seven others before dying. After that, the guerrilla became a national hero, and Gazans wrote “6:1” on their walls to provoke IDF troops. Even PLO President Yasser Arafat praised the fighters: “The attack demonstrated that there could be no barriers or obstacles to stop a guerrilla who decided to become a martyr.” Nothing could stop or block them if they had the will to fly. The Night of the Gliders rekindled the emotional energies of the Palestinian revolution that followed the Arab defeat in June 1967 and stimulated the growth of the guerrilla movement after the battle of Karama in March 1968. After the Night of the Gliders and during the First Intifada, being Palestinian again meant rebellion and resistance rather than acquiescence to second-class citizenship and refugee status.

In 2018, during the Great March of Return, Gazans used kites and balloons to escape Israeli air defenses and set fires on Israeli territory. It seems that it was young Palestinians who started sending the incendiary kites. Later, Hamas became involved, creating the al-Zouari unit, which specialized in manufacturing and launching incendiary kites and balloons. The kites and balloons boosted morale in Gaza while damaging the Israeli economy and angering Israelis living near the Gaza border. In response to an Italian journalist's comments about the “iconic new weapon” that was “driving Israel crazy,” Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar explained: “Kites are not a weapon. At most, they set fire to some stubble. A fire extinguisher, and that's it. They are not a weapon, they are a message. Because it's just string, paper, and an oil-soaked rag, while each Iron Dome battery costs $100 million. These kites say: you are immensely more powerful, but you will never win. In truth. Never."

There is additional context to reading the kites in Gaza as messages from a people who refuse to submit. In 2011, 15 Palestinian children on a Gaza beach broke the world record for the most kites flown at the same time. Many of the kites featured Palestinian flags and symbols, as well as wishes for peace and hope. Rawia, an 11-year-old girl, who made her kite in the colors of the Palestinian flag, said: “When I fly it, I feel like I am raising my country and my flag in the sky.” The 2013 documentary Flying Paper, directed by Nitin Sawhney and Roger Hill, tells the story of some of the young kite flyers. “When we fly kites, we feel like we are the ones flying in the sky. We feel we have freedom. That there is no siege in Gaza. When we fly the kite, we know that freedom exists.” Earlier this year, kites were flown in demonstrations of solidarity that took place across the world, expressing and amplifying the hope and desire for Palestinian freedom.

Refaat Alareer's latest poem, If I Must Die, is based on the association of kites and hope. A video of Brian Cox reading the poem circulated online after the IDF killed Alareer in an airstrike that demolished his building.

If I have to die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of fabric
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking at the sky in the eyes
waiting for his father who left in a fire
and didn't say goodbye to anyone
not even for your flesh
not even for yourself
see the kite, my kite that you made, flying up there,
and think for a moment that an angel is there
bringing back love.
If I have to die
may it bring hope,
let it be a story.

The kite is a message of love. She is made to fly, and in flying, she creates hope. Alareer's words refer to the making of the kite, its creation from fabric and strings, as well as its flight. Making the kite is more than just fighting; it is an engagement in practical optimism, an element of the subjective process that establishes the subject of a policy, the “you” instructed to fly the kite and tell its story.

In 1998, the Palestinians built Yasser Arafat International Airport. In 2001, during the Second Intifada, Israeli bulldozers demolished it. As Hind Khoudary explained, the airport was deeply intertwined with the dream of Palestinian statehood. She interviewed workers who built the airstrip that was reduced to rubble and sand. As Khoudary writes, “Gaza airport was more than a project. It was a symbol of freedom for the Palestinians. Flying with the Palestinian flag in the sky was every Palestinian’s dream.”

The paragliders who flew to Israel on October 7 continue the revolutionary association of liberation and flight. Although imperialist and Zionist forces attempt to condense the action into a singular figure of Hamas terrorism, insisting against all evidence that with the extermination of Hamas Palestinian resistance will disappear, the will to fight for Palestinian freedom precedes and exceeds it. . Hamas was not the subject of the October 7 action; he was an agent who expected the subject to emerge as an effect of his action, the last instance of the Palestinian revolution.

The words used by Leila Khaled to defend the justice of the PFLP's kidnapping tactic apply equally to October 7th. Khaled writes: “As one comrade said: We acted heroically in a cowardly world to prove that the enemy is not invincible. We act “violently” to blow the wax out of the ears of deaf Western liberals and to remove the straws that block their vision. We act as revolutionaries to inspire the masses and spark revolutionary uprising in an era of counter-revolution.”

How can an oppressed people believe that change is possible? How can movements that have experienced decades of defeat feel capable of winning? Sara Roy documented the despair that permeated Gaza and the West Bank before October 7th. Factionalism and the feeling that not only Fatah but also Hamas were cooperating too much with Israel had destroyed confidence in a project of national unification. A friend told Roy: “Our past demands have become meaningless. Nobody talks about Jerusalem or the right of return. We just want food security and open passages.” The Al Aqsa flood attacked this despair. The coalition of resistance fighters led by Hamas and PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad) refused to accept defeat and submit to the indignity of slow death. His action was planned so that the revolutionary theme appeared as its effect.

I

In the six months since the start of Israel's genocidal war against Palestine, there has been a wave of global solidarity with Palestine, reminiscent of the previous wave of the 1970s and 1980s. As Edward Said told us, in the late 70s “no there was a progressive political cause that did not identify with the Palestinian movement.” Solidarity with Palestine united the left, uniting struggles for liberation into a global anti-imperialist front. As historian Robin DG Kelly says, “We radicals regarded the PLO as a vanguard in a global Third World struggle for self-determination, traveling a “non-capitalist road” to development.” The militancy and dedication to the Palestinian struggle made its revolutionary fighters models for the left.

Currently, the struggle for Palestinian liberation is led by the Islamic Resistance Movement – ​​Hamas. Hamas is supported by the entire organized Palestinian left. One might expect the left in the imperial core to follow the lead of the Palestinian left in supporting Hamas. However, most of the time, left-wing intellectuals echo the condemnations that imperialist states impose as a condition for talking about Palestine. In doing so, they take sides against the Palestinian revolution, giving a progressive face to the repression of the Palestinian political project and betraying the anti-imperialist aspirations of a previous generation.

Judith Butler's October 19 essay in the London Review of Books is an excellent example. Instead of placing the seventy-five years of the Nakba and Palestinian resistance at the center of his analysis, Butler criticizes Harvard students for exoneration of the heinous killings of Hamas. Harvard Palestine Solidarity groups issued a statement that held the Israeli regime “fully responsible for all the violence unfolding.” Butler's essay foreshadowed an attitude that would soon take hold in academia, as it did at Columbia, Cornell, Penn, Harvard, the University of Rochester, and elsewhere. He diverted attention from the reality of genocidal violence in Gaza to the affective environment of safe and privileged American universities. Butler's targeting of students—their language and feelings, how they expressed themselves—served as a model for the congressional hearings that led to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and Penn.

Against the Harvard students, Butler condemned “without qualification the violence committed by Hamas.” Butler does not think this condemnation is the end of the policy or that it will impede learning about the region's history. On the contrary, Butler insists that condemnation be accompanied by a moral vision. This vision includes or may include equal rights and mourning rights, as well as “new forms of political freedom and justice.” For Butler, however, this view excludes Hamas. Butler treats Hamas as solely responsible for October 7th, ignoring the fact that the armed forces of several Palestinian groups participated in the action, thus signaling support for the action that goes far beyond the military arm of the party that was democratically elected to govern Gaza. Furthermore, Butler wants to be part of the “imagination and fight” for the kind of equality that “would force groups like Hamas to disappear.” It is not clear what is considered “like Hamas” for Butler, nor what characteristics would lead a group to disappear. If, for example, what matters is the violent use of force, then the liberation struggle of a colonized, occupied and oppressed people is discarded in advance. The political horizon that united progressive forces in the late 1970s is shortened.

By wanting to “force groups like Hamas to disappear”, Butler’s position overlaps with that of Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu. Unlike them, however, Butler names and rejects occupation. But Butler echoes their position and their tactic of separating Hamas from Palestine and making Palestinian liberation conditional on that separation. When Hamas is the widely recognized and accepted leader of the struggle for a free Palestine, hoping for its dissolution is a failure of international solidarity. It is a blow against and a wedge in a united front of resistance to imperialism. Defending Hamas is something so inconceivable that it can barely be addressed; it is avoided through an early condemnation, as if sealing a door already closed and locked. “Siding with Hamas” is an accusation, an excoriation, not a recognition of one’s position in a fundamental conflict.

Butler says Hamas has “a terrifying and terrible answer” to the question of what world will be possible after the end of settler colonial rule. Butler doesn't tell us what Hamas' response is. No mention is made of the policy document the group issued in 2017, which “accepted the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, UN Resolution 194 on the right of return, and the notion of restricting armed struggle to operate within the limits of international law”. This document seems neither frightening nor terrifying to me, even if it is difficult to imagine, given the proliferation of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. On December 13, Butler issued an apology to Harvard students. She acknowledged the possibility that Hamas is “an armed resistance movement” that could be situated within a longer history of armed struggle, or at least that these are “important questions.” Defending the leader of the Palestinian liberation movement remained out of the question. On March 11, 2024, Butler said, “Not all forms of 'resistance' are justified.”

Oppressed people fight their oppressors by any means necessary. They choose – and are forced to choose by the scenarios in which their liberation struggles take place – the strategies and tactics they need to win. How much dissent will the oppressor tolerate? How much force will the oppressor use to suppress the rebellion? What is the degree of dependence of the oppressor on the obedience of the oppressed? How much moral dishonor is the oppressor willing to absorb? Recognizing the right to resist an oppressor, the right to national self-determination, means defending those who are willing and able to fight against their oppressors. This advocacy need not be uncritical – it is common for individuals, groups and states to find themselves in the political position of defending those with whom they disagree. But this defense must be guided by the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, not by the oppressor or by the larger imperialist order that allows and validates oppression. It needs to root solidarity in “common points of resistance” rather than “common points of oppression,” to use Robin Kelley’s formulation. This idea is not new, it has a long history in anti-imperialist and national liberation struggles.

The decline of anti-imperialist solidarity apparent in positions like Butler's reflects a broader depoliticization, a different and reduced set of premises. Nowadays, at least until October 7th, people complain that the left doesn't exist or, if they don't complain, they imagine left-wing politics in terms of an infinity of singularities, countless individuals with all their specific choices and feelings. . Even as calls for intersectionality attempt to establish connections between issues that four decades of neoliberal fragmentation sought to keep separate, the liberal legal foundations of the concept often position the individual as the intersection and the issues as questions of identity. Depoliticized at the level of the organization, issues are repoliticized in individuals and as individuals. What does an individual think? Does she feel comfortable expressing this? What expressions threaten that comfort and undermine your sense of security? The restriction of politics to the management of individual anxieties reframes egocentrism as moral, whether on university campuses or in localities that regulate public protests. This restriction is just one moment in the more general and systemic displacement of politics by moralism manifest in the replacement of aid work by militant political organization, of administration by struggle, and of NGOs and CSOs by revolutionary parties.

What we find is not depoliticization, it is defeat. Politics continues, but in a form structured by this defeat. Unable to constitute ourselves as a coherent side in the fight against imperialism, we have difficulty taking sides, failing to see or ask which side we are on? Even recognizing sides is dismissed as binary thinking or a childish inability to accept complexity and ambiguity.

II

The 1969 Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) strategy document gives us a window into the political world evoked by Said and Kelley, a world that Butler's moralism not only conceals but, in its maintenance of Zionist and imperialist conditions to speak, actively opposes. Prepared in 1967, after the Arab defeat in the June War, the text was the founding document of the PFLP. The issue of imperialism is fundamental for him. After World War II, the document states, colonial capitalist forces gathered in one camp, led by North American capital, while socialist countries and liberation struggles made up an opposing revolutionary camp. Through neocolonialist techniques to contain national liberation struggles, the US tried to realize its interests. Furthermore, the party noted that, as the American invasions of Vietnam, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic proved, the US was perfectly willing to use armed force. After the US failed to prevent the Arab movement from merging “with the world revolutionary camp”, American imperialism gave its military support to Israel. This meant, for the PFLP, that the Palestinian struggle could not avoid confronting the enormous power and technological advantage of imperialism. As a matter of strategy, then, Palestine had no choice but to “enter into full alliance with all revolutionary forces on a world level.” The document states:

The people of Africa, Asia and Latin America suffer daily from a life of misery, poverty, ignorance and backwardness, the result of colonialism and imperialism in their lives. The greatest conflict experienced by the world today is the conflict between exploitative world imperialism, on the one hand, and these people and the socialist camp, on the other. The alliance of the Palestinian and Arab national liberation movement with the liberation movement in Vietnam, the revolutionary situation in Cuba and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America is the only way to create the field capable of confronting and triumphing over the imperialist camp.

The political solution to the Palestine problem, therefore, necessarily unfolds in a global struggle against imperialism. The “we” in “we are all Palestinians” is the name of the side that fights for all of us. In the words of Ghassan Kanafani, novelist, poet and founding member of the PFLP who was assassinated by Israel in 1972, cited in the introduction to the 2017 document, “the Palestinian cause is not a cause just for Palestinians, but a cause for all revolutionaries , wherever they are, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses of our time.”

On several university campuses, the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” was banned. There was even an international debate over the slogan, another part of the war against the feeling of solidarity with Palestine and the extinction of the subjective process that October 7th incited. What should really bother the imperialists is another slogan: “In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians.” This rejects fragmentation, recognizing the anti-imperialist subject as an effect of the Palestinian cause. It replaces the individualizing assumptions of neoliberal managerialism and humanitarianism with the divisive universalism of anti-imperialism.

In defending Hamas, we side with the Palestinian resistance, responding to a revolutionary subject – the subject who fights against occupation and oppression – and recognizing this subject as an effect of a contested and open process. Which side are you on? Of liberation or of Zionism and imperialism? There are two sides and no alternative, no negotiation of the relationship between oppressor and oppressed. Oppression is not administered through unnerving concessions to the norms of permissible speech; she is knocked down. The illusion of a milieu and a multitude disappears as the constitutive division of the political appears in all its brutality.

This may suggest Carl Schmitt's classic formulation of the political in terms of the intensification of the friend/enemy relationship. But what sets it apart is the recognition of hierarchy. Colonial occupation and imperialist exploitation produce enmity; enmity is not the emotional scenario of equals in conflict. It is not a war of all against all. It is a war of the oppressed against their oppressors, the rebellion of those whose right to self-determination is denied against those who deny it. The two sides employ radically different orders of meaning: from within one of them, the other appears mad and monstrous, utterly meaningless. There is no third point from which to assess the situation, no neutral sovereign authority or system of legality that does not get swept one way or the other. Deaths cannot be tabulated and entered into a calculation that guarantees when everything will balance out. History does not determine the issue. The dates from which we begin to narrate the sequence of events are not simply alternatives. The constitutive division of the politician goes to the end.

It might be tempting to treat Palestine as a symptom of some larger failure – of international law, for example, and the human rights regime or the bland world of globalized neoliberalism. In this case, Palestine would mark the point at which these systems come into contradiction with themselves, their constitutive exclusion. This temptation must be resisted. The law always encounters difficult cases and implementation challenges without falling apart. Globalized neoliberalism has proliferated the fragmentation, separation and perforation of political space into countless individual zones. As Quinn Slobodian has demonstrated, decentralization has been one of the main mechanisms for ensuring the interests of the capitalist class. Palestine does not name a symptom; it names a side in the struggle against imperialism. When Palestinian resistance dramatically pierced its backdrop of occupation and oppression, the fact of this side resurfaced. She confronts an order that wants to ignore her with the fact of a continuous will to persist, to correct injustice, to recover what was taken and to be recognized as a people, a nation, a State with the right to self-determination. Palestine is a political issue.

A rich literature can be recruited to fill out the idea of ​​Palestinian political subjectivity. Key points might include: the centrality of resistance to the creation of a national identity in the wake of the Nakba; the specificity of Palestinian religious diversity (Muslim, Christian, Jewish); and the dispersion of Palestinians in Israel, the occupied territories and the diaspora. Even more convincing is the provocative claim that we are all Palestinians. This statement should not be understood as that kind of sentimental identification that says that all forms of suffering are variations of the same suffering and therefore we must all deal with it. Instead, it is the political slogan of radical universal emancipation that responds to the issue as an effect of the Palestinian cause. Not everyone speaks for Palestine, but Palestine speaks for all of us.

Originally published on the Verso Blog. Translation authorized by the author for Boitempo's blog.

*Jodi Dean is a professor of political, feminist and media theory in New York. She is the author, among others, of “Comrade: an essay on political belonging (2021)” [https://amzn.to/4atuJh9]


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