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The Great March of Return in the Gaza Strip has reminded the world of Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian struggle for rights. Since March 30, Palestinians in Gaza have engaged in peaceful, grassroots mass protests at the Israeli military fence that imprisons them, calling for an end to the dire conditions in the Strip as well as for the right to return to the land from which they were expelled 70 years ago this month – what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe. The protestors are literally placing their bodies on the line risking being shot by Israeli snipers. Before the US embassy move today, more than 40 Palestinians had been shot dead by Israeli snipers, and thousands had been seriously injured. Today saw the bloodiest day, with over 52 Palestinians killed at the demonstrations and again thousands injured. The brutal cost that Palestinians in Gaza are paying is because of their resistance to Israel- a resistance that began over seven decades ago.
In 1948, the Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic) saw the state of Israel established, 750,000 Palestinians forced into exile, and over 500 Palestinian villages and towns destroyed. Palestinian society was torn apart and Palestinians were geographically fragmented. Yet not only did the Palestinian people survive, they also demonstrated remarkable resistance to the attempt to erase them through sumud (steadfastness), collective action, and defiance. The Great March of Return is the latest manifestation of this legacy.
In the first few years after 1948, thousands of Palestinian refugees attempted to return to their homes, only to be shot by the Israeli military along the new borders. The Israeli state called them “infiltrators” and passed the Prevention of Infiltration Law to legislate its practice of preventing them from returning. Meanwhile, Israel placed the 150,000 Palestinians who managed to stay within the borders of the new state – the Palestinian citizens of Israel – under a severe military regime and politically repressed them.
Under this atmosphere the Palestinian citizens of Israel survived and even developed their own spaces of political, social, and cultural agency. In 1958, for example, a group established the Al Ard Movement, whose platform connected the struggles of all Palestinian people, no matter their geographic location, whilst also developing a pan-Arab tone. It called for a secular and democratic state in Palestine, as well as the right of return for the refugees. Israel frequently arrested its members and placed them under surveillance, and shut down its publishing operations. The movement was banned in 1964.
Although Al Ard had a short existence, it paved the way for other Palestinian politics inside Israel, such as the movement known as Abnaa al Balad, which is still active today. Abnaa al Balad grew out of the student movement and also initially presented a mandate for the development of a Palestinian democratic and secular state. The movement was at its height in the 1970s and gained further momentum after the event known as Land Day.
Land Day took place in 1976 following the Israeli government’s announcement that it would appropriate huge swathes of Palestinian land in the Galilee, in northern Israel. Palestinian citizens organised a mass collective action in resistance not only to the theft of the land but also to overall settler colonial policies of erasure. Protests in solidarity took place in other areas of Israel as well as the West Bank. Israeli authorities placed six villages in the Galilee under curfew, and met protestors there with serious violence: In addition to six killed, hundreds were injured.
A decade later, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel joined together during the First Intifada. The uprising, which lasted from the late 1980s until the Oslo Accords of 1993, was the result of years of grassroots organising that built the foundation for political mobilisation. Palestinian left-wing factions took the lead during the 1970s, including by establishing popular committees, women’s committees, workers’ unions, student organisations, and volunteer groups. These groups took inspiration from other Third World anti-imperial struggles and were run in a decentralised, democratic, and collective fashion. Important to this struggle was the establishment of a self-reliant economy; as such, the movement explored economic models based on cooperatives that would not be subservient to the occupation and would serve the national and social Palestinian agenda. These models laid the foundation for current initiatives that aim to build economic resistance, such as Amoro, Palestine’s first mushroom farm.
Palestinian resistance doesn’t only take place in the occupied territories or in Israel proper. Palestinians in Yarmouk camp in Syria – home to over 25,000 Palestinian refugees in the 1970s and 80s – engaged in left-wing ideas of liberation and resistance, such as Marxist theories of revolution, during the time of the First Intifada. Many organised within the camp despite the dangers of doing so under the Hafez al Assad regime. Yarmouk was also home to youth organisations that would often rally in response to events in Palestine. Since the Syrian civil war, many of the refugees have fled the camp as it has suffered an ISIS invasion as well as siege and in the last weeks a severe bombing campaign that left the camp mostly destroyed by the current Assad regime.
A more recent act of resistance occurred in the summer of 2017, when Israeli authorities installed security cameras, turnstiles, and electric metal detectors at the Haram al-Sharif compound following an attack on Israeli soldiers by three Palestinian citizens of Israel. In response, the Islamic Waqf (trust) called for mass civil disobedience. Thousands of Palestinians from Jerusalem and around the country responded to the call, abstaining from entering the compound to protest Israel’s attempt to further control the space. Instead, they prayed in nearby streets and checkpoints. Israel met them with brute force, killing three Palestinians and injuring hundreds. Nonetheless, the perseverance of the protesters and their clear, tangible goal led to Israeli capitulation: The electronic metal detectors were removed.
This month thus marks not only 70 years since the establishment of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba, but 70 years of ongoing Palestinian resistance – only a fraction of which is outlined above. This discourse of resistance and survival must be the focal point of the Nakba narrative. It emphasizes that the settler colonial project has not succeeded in Palestine and that the indigenous Palestinians have long fought for their rights to and existence on the land.