A Tradition of Defiance

No atrocity is decisive, though the quantity of atrocities may be. What is decisive is the context in which atrocities are committed. Context is of course what mainstream commentators rule out of bounds when they begin history on October 7. But what happened before October 7 does count. What I’m talking about here is Israel’s longstanding campaign to drive out the Palestinians and take over their land.

Any American who blames the violence of recent weeks on Hamas, or even just on Hamas and the Israelis, leaving America out, is not looking in the mirror.

Photo of Gaza in the 1940s
Gaza, 1940s. Via Library of Congress.

The following talks were delivered at a teach-in at the New School on October 26, 2023.

Why a teach-in? As scholars, thinkers, and writers, we thought a great deal about what kind of intervention to make at this time, when so much is happening. We are all seeing the escalation of violence in Palestine and Israel, grieving the loss of civilian life, and many—hundreds of thousands of people all over the globe—are standing with the Palestinian people and their ongoing struggle for liberation and freedom, and against Israeli militarism and colonial occupation. What form might solidarity take in an educational institution like this one?

Part of what it means to practice solidarity, is my view, is to situate the events unfolding within a historical, political, and regional context. For that we need spaces where we can come together to learn from one another and have critical dialogues about things. We have the right to speak and the right to be heard, the right to teach and learn about the hundred-year war on Palestine. We have a right to share knowledge about the Israeli state’s continual efforts to isolate, dehumanize, and punish Palestinians for resisting decades of violent land seizure and occupation—for resisting what UN agencies, Human Rights Watch, and an Israeli human rights organization (B’tselem) have rightly called an apartheid regime. And we have the right to demand a ceasefire and work towards permanently ending the colonial conditions of structural violence, war, and siege across all Palestinian geographies—to use our knowledge to compel action. Being here together, in other words, is a step towards manifesting justice.

We know that The New School is

committed to academic freedom in all forms and for all members of its community. It is equally committed to protecting the right of free speech of all outside individuals authorized to use its facilities or invited to participate in the educational activities of any of the University’s academic divisions. A university in any meaningful sense of the term is compromised without unhindered exchanges of ideas, however unpopular, and without the assurance that both the presentation and confrontation of ideas takes place freely and without coercion.

With people across the country facing retaliation and doxxing for organizing in solidarity with Palestinians, students, faculty, and staff across this university are quite right to demand that they will be safe from retribution. It is a reflection of our times that this must be so clearly stated and reinforced, but it is crucial. Our right to resist is tied to our ability to share knowledge, speak, and engage in action, and our ability to mobilize in the present is rooted in the historical struggles from which we emerge—in the resistance of our ancestors and elders, the people who have taught us how to fight.

As Siddhartha and I were organizing this teach-in, I heard the voice of my late father, Sukhdev Singh Dhillon, ringing in my head. My father grew up under British colonial rule in India and, quite literally, on the fault lines of partition in 1947. “Beta,” I remember him telling me, “if you don’t stand up, who will? You can’t expect other people to act and demonstrate a commitment to justice if you don’t do this yourself.”

We never do this work alone. I stand here alongside anti-colonial feminists who have been fighting for freedom, justice, and liberation for decades—organizers, writers, and thinkers who have been actively remaking the world. I echo the call for clarity and critique voiced by Angela Davis, who stresses that, “it’s time for a conversation about what constitutes anti-Semitism, the relationship between anti-Semitism and racism, and the difference between critiques of the state of Israel and its military, critiques of the occupation of Palestine, and anti-Semitism.” I heed the call for expanding our understanding of the Middle East voiced by Palestinian human rights activist and lawyer Noura Erakat, who insists that “what we should be examining is the underlying framework that characterizes everything that happens. And that framework is the crime of apartheid.” And I invoke the sentiments of Grace Lee Boggs, who reminds us that “you cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”

That is our task here, at a university on Turtle Island. By understanding what is happening in Palestine one can also come to ask important questions about the history and present-day reality of the settler colony we know as the United States of America. I do not intend to flatten the specificity of these places, but rather to examine the ways that settler colonialism has been augmented, in parallel ways, through national and international legal structures, land theft, and violent dispossession; enacted through border control, segregation, and citizenship status; supported by policies targeting children and youth; reproduced through systems of racialized labor, US police training in Israel, criminalization, and incarceration; and reinforced through gender and sexual violence. These are conjoined struggles, in the words of Nadine Naber—and the purposeful withholding of water, food, fuel, and electricity we see in Gaza right now is the genocidal project of settler colonialism in action—one that is deeply tied to similar struggles against oppression and violent land occupation throughout the world.

Perhaps the best way to close out my part in setting the stage, then, is by sharing the words of Indigenous activist and writer Winona Laduke, who powerfully reminds us that “we can’t talk about Israel because we can’t talk about Wounded Knee. Because we can’t talk about Sand Creek or Carlisle ‘Boarding School.’ Because we can’t talk about forced sterilization or smallpox blankets or Kit Carlson and his scorched-earth policy in the Southwest. Because we have Andrew Jackson on our twenty-dollar bill. Because we are one huge settlement on stolen land.”

—Jaskiran Dhillon

Charles Dickens, who wrote so sensitively about childhood, poverty, and debt in England, was also notoriously anti-Semitic in his description of Jewish characters. He similarly had nothing but contempt for inferior races, deservedly colonized by western people. In 1857, Indian soldiers of the British East India Company, both Hindu and Muslim, rose up against their officers. It was a violent uprising, in which hundreds of European soldiers and civilians were killed. In response, the British press went into overdrive, circulating “rumored accounts of European women and children killed by Indian soldiers . . . embellished with lurid and often grotesque details of torture, mutilation, and rape.”1 Dickens said that he wished he were “commander-in-chief in India.” Had he been in this position, “I should do my utmost to exterminate the race.”

The race was clearly not exterminated, although not for want of trying. Over a hundred thousand Indian soldiers were killed in the reprisals that followed, bodies stuffed into wells, villages burnt to the ground. Even the civilian population dropped precipitously enough for the colonial masters to notice a massive labor shortage. Famines would kill tens of millions over the next ninety years of British rule. By the time they departed, rendering my father a refugee in Bengal, the life expectancy of the average Indian had dropped to 27.

Does any of this matter? Britain itself now has a prime minister of Indian descent, which doesn’t stop him, or other politicians of Indian origin like Priti Patel, from running an inhumane program of immiseration at home, along with a demonization of migrants and asylum seekers—who they would like to deport to Rwanda—and the usual posturing imperialism abroad. As for India, which is what most of my writing has been about, it is ruled by a violent, Hindu-right government fronted by Narendra Modi and programmed by a foundational ideology that drew direct inspiration from Italian fascism and Nazi Germany, the Muslims being India’s Jews, as it were. Not unrelatedly, India is now a fawning ally of both the United States and Israel.

I have written extensively, in fiction and in journalism, on the Modi government’s long, bloody program of disenfranchisement of minorities, in particular 200 million Muslims, and I have no qualms in saying that India is, in some parts of the country, an apartheid state. Muslims are subject to laws that do not apply to the Hindu majority from whom I am descended. As a Hindu-right organizer told me when I was visiting the Ram temple in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, built on the site of a 16th-century mosque demolished a few decades ago by the Hindu right, Muslims had no place in India as citizens. “What can we do? We can’t kill them all,” he had said to me in a long lament. They should have their voting rights and all state benefits taken away, he believed. They could live and labor in India, but no more. (Incidentally, I went to Ayodhya to report a piece commissioned by Tablet, the Jewish magazine based in New York.)

I bring all this up in order to say that I understand at a personal level the violent repetitions as well as the twisted variations in history, that I know how a nation founded on principles of anti-colonialism, socialism, freedom, and diversity—I am talking about India, founded a year before Israel—can morph into a state celebrating new forms of colonialism, exploitation, disenfranchisement, and violence. How a state can go from historical solidarity with Palestine because of its own long, brutal experience of colonialism—a solidarity that did not exclude solidarity with the Jewish experience of centuries of European anti-Semitism and the horrors of the Shoah—to becoming an ally of Israel.

I hope I have complicated matters. That is the complaint some of my family and friends have against me, that I am always complicating matters, that I can’t ever accept the convenient narratives, the official statements, that I am unable to accept that because a war is supported by the United States and Britain, it is inevitably a just war.

What is not complicated, however, is that we are here in opposition to the logic of imperial justice, the arc of which tends toward extermination. I recently reread James Baldwin, who puzzled over the French treatment of the Algerians in Paris, which he attempted to connect with his experience as a Black American in the United States. “I was struck by the fact,” he writes about Camus, that for him, “European humanism seemed to expire at the European gates, so that Camus, who was so dedicated to liberty, in the case of Europeans, could only speak of ‘justice’ in the case of Algeria.” I think we are seeing that same divide being played out in the responses in the west with regard to Palestine, which can only be the recipient of Euro-American-Israeli justice, never the liberty to which these powers are supposedly devoted.

We are here today in opposition to that, because that is what solidarity means. I mourn the loss of all civilian lives, Israeli and Palestinian, but I do so with the awareness that all civilian lives do not matter equally in the eyes of the imperial west, that they never have. All humans are equal, apparently, but those described as “human animals” matter less than others. We are here in opposition to that, to offer you our thoughts in these broken times in a broken world, and because we recognize, across the range of our different, shifting identities, that something terrible is happening and that it must be stopped now.

—Siddhartha Deb

I remember very distinctly how the Iraq War played out on American television screens: the coverage aesthetically resembled Monday Night Football. War is entertainment in our country. It is so deeply baked into the fabric of our society that it hardly noticeable. Much scientific knowledge is produced for war (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Our infrastructure is partly built by the military (Army Corps of Engineers). War is a major employer that preys on disenfranchised communities: my working-class public high school in Louisiana, like most public high schools that cater to students of color and from the working class, was crawling with recruiters. A good percentage of our tax dollars goes into greasing the war machine.

“Shareebet dam,” my cousin calls them. “Drinkers of blood.” By that he refers to warmongers and the west in general. Their thirst for blood shows no signs of relenting, certainly not in the context of Israel’s war on Gaza, for which the United States keeps providing weapons, refusing to call even for a ceasefire. This is nothing new. In 2014, my uncle, who lives in Gaza, called to ask why Obama kept giving bombs for Israel to drop on Palestinians. (So far over sixty people in my mother’s family, based in Gaza, have been killed by Israeli forces.) Guided by my uncle’s question, I would like to reflect on the US role in Israel’s war on Gaza and Palestine more broadly—for which it has been providing monetary, legal, and ideological support.

Regarding the money, I think most people know that the US gives over $3.8 billion in aid to Israel annually (Biden is intending to send even more). According to the Wall Street Journal: “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of overall U.S. aid since World War II, including billions for missile defense and purchases of U.S. military equipment.” The cumulative amount of money given to Israel is estimated to be $318 billion (adjusted for inflation).

It should not be hard to see how ceaseless funding for war and militarism benefits the private sector. Weapons manufacturers are profiting enormously right now, as they do in every war. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and General Dynamics corporation are probably the largest beneficiaries. Military analysts have described Gaza as a “laboratory” for US and Israeli weapons. Lockheed Martin has proudly declared that “Israel was the first foreign country to fly its advanced F-35 jet fighter.” Now the US has sent over two massive warships, including one, the USS Gerald Ford, which is the largest warship ever built in human history, which will be on its first mission.   

Resistance has been a part of Palestinian society long before Hamas, but it has always been criminalized by the west. In terms of the legal framework, the first thing to understand is that every single Palestinian political and resistance organization has been placed on the US State Department list of designated “foreign terrorist organizations” (FTO). The only exception is Fateh, the party of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which holds little legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians who view it as enforcers of the Israeli occupation. However, even Fateh’s armed wing, Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, is on the list. The legal criminalization of Palestinian resistance movements has led to a total misunderstanding and non-engagement with them on the behalf of the US. Of course, Hamas is on the list and has by now been turned into a total bogeyman and caricature rather than a complex and nuanced—even if imperfect—anti-colonial resistance group. It must be accepted that Hamas is an integral part of Palestinian society—and not just in Gaza. When Hamas came into the political arena in 2006, it was elected by a popular election that was fed up with the previous party’s corruption. Not all residents of Gaza may not support Hamas, but many do, and quite a few are employed by the de facto government and its institutions, which is one of the few sources of work in the Gaza Strip.

All the same, the current resistance movements active on the ground are not all part of or answerable to Hamas. They number many different groups, who have been collaborating at least since 2021 (during the Unity Intifada) in what is known as the “Joint Operations Room”—among them the armed wings of Fateh (Al-Aqsa Martyr’s brigade), Hamas (Izzedine al-Qassam brigades), Islamic Jihad (Al-Quds brigades), and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (Abu Ali Mustafa brigades). There are also several smaller new groups emerging, such as the Lion’s Den in Nablus in the West Bank, which, as far as I know, has no explicit affiliation with any of the groups I just listed. This is why it is ludicrous and reductionist to frame the ongoing conflict as a war between Israel and Hamas, when it is in fact a war by the Israeli state on every Palestinian since even before its founding in 1948.

Such nuanced understanding of different aspects of Palestinian society and resistance is blocked by the ideological support that the US government and western mainstream media provides to the Israeli state. Part of the problem is that there is no anti-war movement here in this country. Are Americans so unaware of the millions killed by the US war machine in Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq—too many to list? Maybe it is because the wars are elsewhere, but these same weapons are turned toward our own Black communities by hyper-militarized police and in the form of rampant mass shootings. As an Afghan friend reminded me, when Obama pulled troops from Afghanistan, where did you think all those weapons ended up? So again, the question: Why is there no movement to stop all this US military violence? Now is a chance for us to build such a movement, starting by calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

I have been thinking a lot about how in such periods—when the threat of genocide looms, when the ethnic cleansing gathers pace—our social relations are paradoxically strengthened. Family ties are rekindled, people get back in touch, networks of kin and solidarity and love come alive. I’ve spoken with people I haven’t spoken to in years these two weeks. I’m learning more about my family that I am restricted from seeing by the Israeli occupation. In that spirit of coming together, let us seize this moment and put an end to our lives as war. And let Palestine be a compass for an anti-war movement in the US.

—Hadeel Assali

I may have been invited because I can speak as a Jew. That’s fine with me, though there are a lot more Jews speaking out against Israel these days, which means I get less credit than I used to. Getting less credit makes me happy and, at least on the discursive level, somewhat optimistic. For a number of reasons—one reason is Bernie Sanders, another is Jewish Voice for Peace—it’s now possible for us to say many things that used to be unsayable. Mainstream media coverage of Gaza is still nauseating in its double standards and its callousness toward Palestinian lives. But now and then you can see glimmers of moral common sense in it.

I’m not going to speak as a Jew, however, but as the son of a World War II veteran. My father went into the Army Air Corps with the name Eugene Rabinowitz on his dog tags, hence without the best expectation of personal security should he be shot down. He was a bomber pilot flying B-17s over Germany. By the end of the war he was squadron commander.

My father was fighting the Nazis. Fighting the Nazis was a good thing to do, a very good thing to do. But his squadron of B-17s bombed cities. If you bomb cities, you kill civilians, many of them. I have thought about this issue with help from a book titled Air Raid (1977) by the German writer Alexander Kluge, who at the age of 13 happened to be hiding in his basement in the city of Halberstadt when it was bombed by my father’s squadron, who killed about 2500 civilians. Thinking about this, I decided, not in the technical vocabulary of human rights but in terms of my own rough idea of human decency, that even in a just war, killing a lot of civilians has to count as an atrocity.

How does this relate to what’s happening in Gaza now? For the moment, I draw two conclusions. The first is that the killing of Israeli civilians on October 7 was an atrocity. Whatever the right words are for an atrocity, they would have to apply here too. The second is that the fact that an atrocity was committed by Hamas, and to some extent by civilians who came through the openings Hamas had made in the fence, does not make the Palestinian cause any less just.

In the 17th century, when English settler colonialism was driving the majority of Native American inhabitants out of New England, atrocities were committed on both sides. English women and children were butchered by the Native Americans, as Native American women and children were butchered by the whites. The whites of course said exactly the same things about the Native Americans then that Zionists and its mainstream champions are saying about Hamas now. That they are barbarians, incomprehensible monsters. Exactly the same words, which the US media use for Russians in Ukraine, but not for the Israelis in Palestine.

The fact that atrocities were committed by Native Americans does not mean that their cause was any less just. They were defending their land against intruders, settlers, occupiers. They were defending their right to stay on their land. The same holds for the Palestinians today, in Gaza or anywhere.

No atrocity is decisive, though the quantity of atrocities may be. What is decisive is the context in which atrocities are committed. Context is of course what mainstream commentators rule out of bounds when they begin history on October 7. But what happened before October 7 does count. What I’m talking about here is Israel’s longstanding campaign to drive out the Palestinians and take over their land.

In order to address this context I would like to mention a book titled My Promised Land (2013) by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit. It has a chapter on the atrocities committed by Israeli forces in the city of Lydda in July 1948, in which hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed. Shavit isn’t just an Israeli. He’s a Zionist. He ends the chapter by saying: Well, it was terrible, but it had to be done in order to create the state of Israel (of course he doesn’t say Israel as a Jewish state), a state where my family and I can live—and so I won’t be one of those bleeding-heart liberals who condemn the killers. It’s a survivalist version of patriotism, which still holds a deep appeal in Israel. But that’s not my point. What’s more relevant is that Shavit’s chapter shows, on the basis of interviews with the surviving combatants and research into the relevant archives, that the atrocity in Lydda was not an accident. It was part of an intentional policy to drive the Palestinians out and take the city for Israel. Shavit says it. The hundreds who were killed, the rest who were robbed of their valuables as they dragged themselves down the road—all that was deliberate policy. It was ethnic cleansing. (Incidentally, there is a very beautiful novel in Hebrew about the same kind of ethnic cleansing that happened in another Palestinian city: S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh (1949). It is taught, or perhaps only used to be taught, in some Israeli high schools.)

As you have probably heard by now, more than half of the residents of Gaza who are being bombed right now—bombed indiscriminately, as the Israelis have permitted themselves to say openly that their goal is less to destroy Hamas than to do as much damage as possible, meaning killing hundreds of children a day—more than half of the residents of Gaza are families of refugees driven out of their homes by the ethnic cleansing of 1948. When I see teary-eyed interviews with Israeli survivors on CNN, I think of an extraordinary bit of video footage of an old man, a soldier in 1948, saying that his battalion used to lie in wait at the Gaza border and shoot the farmers who tried to sneak back across the border to water their fields, which they loved. They couldn’t believe, he says, they would never be allowed back to tend those fields. The old man cries as he remembers what he and his fellows did to them. That footage is not shown on CNN. So that’s a bit of context for you.

I do not “condone” violence against civilians. I would say the same of almost all the Palestinians I know. But that doesn’t make the violence committed by Hamas incomprehensible. It is comprehensible. It’s what happens when you keep people in an open-air prison for seventy-five years, under siege, controlling their access to basics like water and electricity, imports and exports, not allowing any domestic economy to develop, machine-gunning fishing boats, and then periodically “mowing the lawn.” You’ve heard all this before. Maybe less known are Israeli assassinations of those Hamas leaders who embraced nonviolence and some sort of peaceful coexistence.

A few more words on violence. If you are going to use the word “terrorism” about Hamas, and I do understand the impulse to do so, if you are going to call Hamas a terrorist organization, as the US does, then you will also have to say the Israel is a terrorist organization, and then you will have to do with Israel what you do with terrorist organizations—for starters, cut off all aid to it. Otherwise, you are flaunting your double standard, your moral inconsistency, and no one need take you seriously. If you are going to use the word “pogrom,” a term that has a terrible resonance for Jews, then you are going to have to describe as pogroms as what the fundamentalist settlers on the West Bank have been doing to the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank in recent years.

In 2018 and 2019, activists in Gaza tried to bring their situation before the eyes of the world by means of what they called a “Great March of Return.” It was a nonviolent demonstration at the heavily fortified border the Israelis have established to keep the people of Gaza in. In response Israelis shot and killed something like two hundred people, wounding I do not know how many others. Of those, twenty-nine seem to have been Hamas militants. So roughly 85 percent were what you might call innocent bystanders. That’s the Israeli response to nonviolence.

I imagine most of you remember the fury that was unleashed over the past ten or fifteen years against BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). The Zionists brought their powerful propaganda machine to bear on political leaders at every level as well as university presidents and other highly principled representatives of free thought. The results were predictable. BDS was vehemently denounced although it was, as we now have good reason to remember, an attempt to make the case for justice for Palestinians in a totally nonviolent way. When BDS and other nonviolent initiatives are denounced, the people doing so are helping push Palestinians towards violence. Any American who blames the violence of recent weeks on Hamas, or even just on Hamas and the Israelis, leaving America out, is not looking in the mirror.

What’s happening is not a “war,” as the media persist in calling it. It’s a shooting gallery, with civilians as the targets. It’s an extermination. The other day the Israeli journalist Amira Hass said that now, for the first time, she is using the word “genocide.” Does anyone remember when Bill Clinton, talking about US inaction to stop the genocide in Rwanda, said “Never again”? Well, this too is a genocide, it’s happening in real time, right in front of us, and this genocide is on us, here and now.

—Bruce Robbins

What happens to the body when it is deprived of water? Muscle cramps, dizziness, and headaches come first, then give way to seizures, swelling of the brain, kidney failure, shock, coma, and death. This is the mortal threat that tens of thousands of Gazans have faced since Israel cut off their water supply after the events of October 7. It’s a very particular kind of crime against humanity, and, behind it, lies a story that goes well beyond what is happening in Gaza. Let’s call it colonization by dehydration.

This summer I spent a month in the West Bank interviewing residents in villages, towns, and cities about the acute water shortage. Some village households had not received piped water in thirty days. Even in urban centers like Ramallah, many had access to water for only one day a week. Ramallah gets more rainfall annually than London; like most settlements in the West Bank, it sits on top of a vast reservoir of groundwater that lies in the Mountain Aquifer. From a hydrological perspective, there should be no water shortage. However, Palestinians are forbidden to drill wells to access groundwater, and Israel takes 80 percent of the aquifer water for its own needs (along with all of the extractions from the Jordan River). Its water authority Mekorot controls almost all of the remaining supply. In effect, the Israeli state has its hand on a giant faucet, which it can turn on or off at will—as happened this summer, when the water quota for Bethlehem and Hebron was reduced by 25 percent.

Outside of the cities, it’s easy to see how water is being weaponized in the push to force people off land that is earmarked for Jewish settlement. Area C lands—which are fully Israeli-controlled and constitute 60 percent of the West Bank—are especially targeted for settler takeover because sparsely populated and also biblically significant in a way that Gaza is not. Gaza may be valuable coastal real estate (multi-million-dollar condos in the future?) but its acquisition is not an active part of the Zionist imagination in the same way as the “promised land” of the West Bank, routinely referred to as Judaea and Samaria. These are the territories where settlers have been running rampant, as has been well-documented. In addition to physical harassment with arms, they are seizing water springs, and shooting out water cisterns and tanks. This proactive deprivation is a final, existential, threat—people can hold out on their land for a while, but no one can stay without water.

Unlike Palestinians, settlers are permitted to dig wells and deploy advanced pumping technologies to draw from the aquifer, guaranteeing that they have ample supplies once they take over. Many settlements, deep into the West Bank, are connected to Israel’s water grid, ensuring that swimming pools and organic vineyards are well-supplied, while Palestinian communities in the same watershed are subsisting on consumption levels far below the WHO’s recommended minimum standards. This has been described as a condition of water apartheid, but the intentional parching of a population as an instrument of colonization suggests that that might not be an adequate label.

Like the West Bank, Gaza also has a serious water shortage, even when it is not being pounded by bombs nonstop. It too sits on an aquifer, but more than 96 percent of that groundwater is contaminated and non-potable, largely because Israel has bombed wastewater treatment plants and sewage infrastructure in previous acts of war that poisoned the primary water supply. Gazans have dug wells farther away from the sea to access less septic water; they also have three desalination plants. But the plants and the well pumps no longer work because Israel cut off electricity when it cut off the water. Until last week, many commentators hesitated to use the term genocide. But Israel’s militarized state seems to have crossed the line. There is no other word in the vocabulary of international law and human rights to describe what is going on in Gaza.

The need to secure an abundant water supply has always been central to the Zionist version of settler colonialism. During the Mandate period of British rule, hydrological studies estimated that available water resources could only support a population of two million in Palestine, and so the British authorities, in 1937, sought to limit Jewish immigration. In response, the Zionist leadership generated inflated counter-estimates to make the case that water could be diverted from the Jordan and Litani rivers in the North to the more populated South. This effort bore fruit in the fateful UN Partition Plan of 1947, which allocated vast amounts of territory, including semi-arid southern lands, to Jewish settlers.

To encourage immigration after the Nakba in 1948, Israeli authorities stepped up the propaganda campaign to persuade would-be settlers to come to the “land without a people” to help “make the desert bloom.” As the prospect of settling an unpopulated wilderness (and Palestine was anything but) was not always so attractive, this could be a precarious proposition. Among the strategies used to increase immigration flow was the appeal to hydraulic prowess. Indeed, the building of an elaborate infrastructure, funded by overseas donors, was already underway to redistribute water from the North. This vast system of canals, pipelines, tunnels, reservoirs and distribution networks was completed in 1964 as the National Water Carrier; it played a foundational role in establishing national unity for the Israeli state. Over the decades, the system was expanded. Today, settlers are assured that, no matter where they land, every effort will be made to connect them to the grid served by the National Water Carrier.

All this infrastructure was built at the expense of the indigenous population, trapped in a zero-sum resource game. It did not, and it does not, serve Palestinian communities. The Israeli state took full advantage of its strength as an occupying power after 1967, and then again through the Oslo Accords of 1994, to consolidate its control over the vast majority of the water that flows in the lands between the river and the sea. It exercises a similar degree of control over electricity and food—“imports” that can be turned on or off at will.

In my interviews in the West Bank this summer, I heard the same thing over and over. The next war will be fought over water. At the time, no one could say what that would look like, though everyone knew that the status quo was unsustainable. Over these last weeks, we have been given hints of what is to come by the siege in Gaza. Although cutting off water supply to the enemy is an ancient military tactic, it is a violation of modern rules of war, especially when water is weaponized against civilian populations. In particular, it is illegal for an occupying power to appropriate the natural resources of a people under military rule. It is a graver crime by far to deprive them of access to any of these resources. Yet Israel has been operating outside of international law for so long that the ultimate taboo—committing genocide—has turned out to be just one more line to cross.

—Andrew Ross

I want to offer a few remarks about what we can learn not about Palestine, but from Palestinians. My intention is not to detract from the genocide in Gaza, but rather to insist that the latest calamity be viewed within the long march towards liberation.

The Nakba, or the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, marks the origin of seventy-five years of ongoing dispossession. But it also inaugurates seventy-five years of ongoing refusal. Remember: a long itinerary of loss breeds dynamic traditions of anti-colonial resistance which continue to reverberate, rippling through moments like the one we are witnessing today. To echo the words of Lakota organizer and historian Nick Estes, our history is the future.

I want to take you to a moment in this tradition of defiance: Palestinian revolutionary poetry, which begins to coalesce around the 1967 War, the Naksa, as it brings together poets writing from exile, those writing under Israeli military rule, and others writing from occupation prisons. If there is a single thread that weaves the tradition together, it is land, which remains the center of the struggle. Palestinian poets register an affirmation of their presence against persistent attempts by the settler-state to rob them of their identity, their memory, their relationship to place, and to their material existence.

The urgency of the moment demands that we speak in terms not of our choosing—citing statistics and facts, mobilizing hard evidence to insist on the history and humanity of Palestinians. But I invite you, amidst the barrage of horrifying data, to remain attuned to the frequencies of seventy-five years of defiance, where every unfolding catastrophe adds to the potency of our call for the freedom of our land and its people. I invite you to listen carefully to a tradition that transcends borders, making audible the demands of generations of Palestinians who have been driven to despair but refuse defeat.

Below is an excerpt of a poem from our long tradition. “We Shall Remain” by Tawfiq Zayyad, is translated by Naseer Aruri and Edmund Ghareeb, and published in 1970 in a collection entitled Enemy of the Sun.

We Shall Remain

It is a thousand times easier
For you
To pass an elephant through the needle’s eye
To catch fried fish in the milky way
To plow the sea
To teach the alligator speech
A thousand times easier
Than smothering with your oppression
The spark of an idea
Or forcing us to deviate
A single step
From our chosen march
Like twenty impossibles
We shall remain in Al-Lydd, Al Ramla, Al Jaleel

Here, we shall remain
A wall on your chests
We starve
Go naked
Sing songs
And fill the streets
With demonstrations
And the jails with pride
We breed rebellions
One after another
Like twenty impossibles we remain
In Al-Lydd, Al-Ramla, Al Jaleel

Here we shall remain
You may drink the sea,
We shall guard the shade
Of the olive tree and the fig tree
Planting ideas
Like the yeast in the dough
The coldness of ice is in our nerves
And a burning hell in our hearts
We squeeze the rock
To quench our thirst
And if we starve
We eat the dirt
And never depart
Or grudge our blood
Here—we have a past, a present, and a future.
Our roots are entrenched
Deep in the earth
Like twenty impossibles
We shall remain
Let the oppressor review his account
Before the turn of the wheel
For every action there is a reaction
Read what is written in the Book
Like twenty impossibles
We shall remain—in Al-Lydd, Al-Ramla, Al-Jaleel

—Nadine Fattaleh

  1. Tickell, Alex. “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and the Limits of Colonial Government.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 67, no. 4, 2013, pp. 457–89. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.1525/ncl.2013.67.4.457. Accessed 28 Oct. 2023. 

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