In praise of Palestinian steadfastness
As Israel celebrates 60 years of statehood this month, Palestinians are taking the opportunity to remember the catastrophic shattering of their society in 1948. It is not simply a question of recalling the past; they continue to struggle for self-determination and to have their rights recognized under international law.
Yet it is a mistake to consider the past 60 years as simply a story of unmitigated disaster for the Palestinian people. There have also been significant successes and achievements – and it is a story worth telling. This is all the more remarkable, given the extent to which the society was devastated in 1948: Israel destroyed some 400 villages as 85 percent of Palestinians in what became Israel were dispossessed.
In spite of everything, Palestinians have not only survived but won international recognition for Palestinian statehood thanks to unflagging persistence. Often bereft of allies, they have struggled to make substantive political gains. But Palestinians inside Israel, the Occupied Territories, and the diaspora have resisted Israeli domination – and refused to just “go away.”
This Palestinian resolution is embodied in the Nassars, a Christian family I have come to know over the years. Owners of a beautiful piece of land overlooking Nahalin village to the west of Bethlehem, they have seen illegal settlements spring up on the hillsides around them and thus far survived attempts by the occupying Israeli military to confiscate their property.
Whether blocking the path of trespassing settlers, pursuing their case in the courts, or connecting with supporters around the world, the Nassars have mobilized the resources of their family and community. Most inspiringly, they have developed their land to host children’s camps, intercultural exchange, and foreign guests, knowing that they have to fight to remain on their own land.
Theirs is a victory that resonates with the historical Palestinian refusal to simply accept their lot and – especially since the 1960s – the parallel determination to organize grass-roots resistance. Perhaps the most significant achievement was the first intifada, a popular uprising in the late 1980s that showed the Israelis that their occupation came with a price, as well as displaying to the world the oppressive reality of Israeli policy.
A further profound achievement of the past few decades has been the flourishing of Palestinian civil society. Emphasizing democratic participation and education, these refugee camp community centers, dance troupes, media organizations, and human rights groups have offered vital strength to a besieged society. It was in part due to this deeply rooted culture of active citizenship that the Palestinians were able to hold elections that in their professionalism and transparency were the envy of the Arab world.
Building on a vibrant tradition of intellectual life, Palestinian scholars and academics have risen to global prominence in recent decades, not only as advocates of their people’s struggle, but also as figures of repute in their own disciplines.
Meanwhile, drawing on their rich cultural and religious heritage, as well as the experience of exile and struggle, Palestinian writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, and even hip-hop artists have contributed much, not only to their own people, but to the whole world.
Historically, one obstacle to peace has been the fact that Israel felt able to pursue its policies of dispossession and occupation without much international attention. This was closely related to the fact that the Zionist mythologized version of what had happened in 1948 went unchallenged in the West – and within Israel – for a long time.
Now, however, through such factors as the Israeli “New Historians,” the tireless efforts of campaigners, and new media technology that enables wide dissemination of “on the ground” information,” the Palestinians have been able to force cracks in the Israeli propaganda facade.
Meanwhile, international solidarity with the Palestinian cause has increased substantially. The question of Palestine is now loud and persistent, despite attempts to drown it out.
Still, formidable obstacles remain. Israel continues to enjoy the whole-hearted support of the so-called international community, albeit with occasional wrist-slapping. Much of the discussion in the West is still shaped by Zionist assumptions and an Israeli-centric perspective. Palestinians are treated as natives who must “earn” the right to self-determination, dignity, security, and freedom.
Some Palestinians have also unwittingly created barriers to further progress. The first intifada’s positive energy got channeled into the bureaucratic institutions of the Palestinian Authority, while bitter divisions were often created between groups like Hamas and Fatah.
Meanwhile, Palestinian political unity and a strategic, principled resistance have often been in short supply. Score-settling, corruption, and the interference of third parties remain major obstacles.
The Palestinians would also gain by a collective agreement to halt attacks on Israeli civilians. As well as the moral dimension, it’s good politics, too. It could even form part of a broader shift toward less “elitist” resistance strategies based on mass, popular participation. But it should not be confused with the hypocrisy of simultaneously demanding Palestinian pacifism while acquiescing to Israeli military attacks.
Sixty years is a long time. So this anniversary, it’s most appropriate to recognize Palestinian sumud, or steadfastness. It is the Nassars struggling through roadblocks and checkpoints with their children and farm tools, planting olive trees in the shadow of Israeli settlements, determined and dignified.
Against all odds, millions of Palestinians have remained – working the land, starting businesses, marrying, having children, mourning the dead. In the face of determined efforts to marginalize, even erase, their homeland and society, they have continued to live life in all its fullness, the best possible foundation for greater victories still in the next 60 years.
Published in Christian Science Monitor.