As thousands of Palestinian political prisoners jailed by Israel are going through a hunger strike, we would do well to delve into the deeper, more personal and historical aspects of Palestine. Though the politics and violence of settler colonialism have determined its fate for almost one hundred years, Palestine is not just a “case” or an “issue,” it’s personal. My dear, dear friend Nader Elbanna said to me a long time ago, “The Palestinian tragedy is more than just losing the house and the land.” None of us will ever fully understand Palestine, none of us who are not Palestinian, that is, because it is personal. But there are ways to learn. Visiting Palestine is a good start. Living in Palestine is good too and learning Arabic affords a glimpse. Reading Ghassan Kanafani’s stories is moving and enlightening.
Ghassan Kanafani, in his short stories presents an intensely personal narrative and paints a picture that is painfully detailed. In one of his short stories, a young man asks, “would you like to hear about my life?” and he proceeds to describe a mother who died under the ruins of a house in Safed, the house that was built for her by her husband. He describes the father, now working in another part of the Arab World and unable to see his children, and a brother “learning humiliation” in an UNRWA school. In another short story Kanafani describes a father who is standing in the rain leaning on a broken shovel, taking a break from the back- breaking work of digging a ditch in the rain. He is digging in an effort to stop the rain water from flooding a tent where his family, now refugees, must live. He is cold, tired and hungry but avoids going inside the tent, not wanting to see his wife’s glare, knowing she blames him for the inevitable state of being unemployed and unable to provide for his family. Seeing his child wear a torn, old shirt he contemplates taking part in a scam operation, stealing bags of rice from the UNRWA storage facility and selling them on the black market. “The guard is in on it and for a small fee he will look the other way,” he is told by a man of whose morals he does not approve, and whose very presence makes him uneasy.
The occupation of Palestine is not only about the brutality that is inherent in settler colonialism but the daily, painful existence of a nation that is denied the right to live in the land to which it belongs. A nation forced to live in abject poverty in camps that are unfit for humans and which exist just hours away from the land and the homes from which they were kicked out. A land for which they have the deeds, and homes for which they still hold the keys now inhabited by Jewish settlers. “For us, to liberate our country is as essential as life itself” Kanafani says to an Australian reporter in a rare interview in English. He is fierce and forthright, sitting in his office, with photos of Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh behind him.
But Palestinians are permitted only to be victims or terrorists, never freedom fighters or heroes. If Palestinians wrote “Live Free or Die” on a license plate they will be accused of terrorism and locked up, deported or simply killed, though in New Hampshire it is the official motto. Ironically, Israeli children learn about a legendary Jewish hero who, having been killed in battle in Palestine said, “it is good to die for one’s country” though clearly, he was fighting to take the country of others. Kanafani was brutally murdered, along with his young niece Lamees who was only seventeen, for saying and doing just that – fighting to liberate his country. Since his assassination by Israel almost half a century ago, countless Palestinians were killed by Israel, some fighting, most while sleeping in their beds or trying to flee.
Kanafani talks about “them,” the “Yahud” the Zionists who colonized Palestine and exiled his people, turning them into “people with no rights, with no voice.” “They have put enormous efforts into trying to melt me,” he writes, “Like a sugar cube in cup of tea.” And he talks about “You” the Arab authorities under whom Palestinians are now forced to live. “You had managed to melt millions of people and lump them into one lump, into a single thing you can now call ‘a case.’” And, he continues, “now that we are all ‘a case’” there is no personal attachment to any single person or story. How convenient. That is what allows for the ease with which the world treats the Palestinian tragedy. That is how the West can sell Israel the weapons and technology with which it slaughters Palestinians by the thousands and maintains the oppression.
One wonders what Kanafani would say about the horrific, large scale massacres endured by the people in Gaza since 2008. What would he say if he knew that since his death things have become worse now that Israel’s army of terror has access to more “modern” weapons that allow it to murder and maim thousands in a single “operation.” How would Kanafani react if he heard about entire families that were wiped out by mortars and missiles fired at them and others, incinerated by millions of tons of bombs dropped from war planes? One wonders what stories he might write about children burned and mutilated with such ease in the twenty first century? “We are a small, brave nation” Kanafani said in 1970, “who will fight to last drop of blood.”
Israel – the name that was given to the Zionist state which occupies Palestine – is indignant at the very mention of Palestine and at the idea that as a state it should respect the rights of Palestinians. People who support Israel are offended when they hear accusations of racism, indiscriminate violence and genocide. But these same people have no problem with the actual ongoing campaigns of genocide, ethnic cleansing and the reality of racist apartheid perpetuated by Israel. Because for them Palestine is not personal, it is just a “case,” just a “problem.” But Palestine is not a problem, it is personal, it has a beating heat, and that is why the fight for justice in Palestine is gaining momentum all over the world. As the Palestinian leader and political prisoner Marwan Barghouthi wrote recently from a cell in an Israeli jail, “The chains that bind us will break before our captors can break our resilience.”