In one of the most contentious sections of his thoroughly contentious Cairo speech, Obama declared:
Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.
It’s difficult to know where to start with this. Perhaps by registering just how insulting it is for the representative of the imperial killing machine – responsible directly and indirectly for millions of deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia – to lecture the dispossessed and massacred Palestinians on their occasional attempts to strike back. We can be sure that the sleeping children Obama is concerned with here are the Israeli children who live on the stolen land of Palestine, not the unsleeping, traumatised children of Gaza, several hundred of whom were burnt and dismembered six months ago. Then it’s worth remarking how the erudition and intelligence shown in Obama’s pre-presidential book ‘Dreams from my Father’ have been immediately crushed on his assumption of the presidency. How otherwise could his historical vision be so partial and simplistic? There was certainly a key non-violent aspect to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, but pretending that violence played no role in the process makes it necessary to ignore the American Civil War (half a million dead), Nat Turner, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and rioting Chicago. Violence, or the threat of violence, was important in South Africa and India too, and certainly in Obama’s ancestral Kenya, and was the dominant anti-imperial strategy in Vietnam and Algeria.
In the Palestinian context, it is essential to emphasise once again that while Palestinians have a right to violent resistance, most resistance to the extreme violence of Zionism has been, and continues to be, non-violent. A small minority of Palestinians fight in the militias, but most Palestinians have participated in tax strikes, unarmed demonstrations, non-cooperation with Israeli bureaucracy, and similar actions. Penned in with US-made and granted weaponry, and ignored by the Western media, these tactics have not yet done the Palestinians any good.
Yet the act of resisting, when it becomes a habit, makes the actor stronger than he was before, and changes him, so that each of his acts becomes infused with resistance. The great Palestinian thinker Edward Said said, “Culture is a way of fighting extinction and obliteration.” For 61 years Palestinians have engaged in cultural resistance, in the widest sense. This means farmers continuing to farm even when their trees are slated for uprooting. It means couples building a house of their own even when they know it will be bulldozed. It means giving birth to children even though it is forbidden to dream of their future. It explains why Palestinian children in Damascus, Dubai and San Diego still speak Arabic in the Palestinian dialect, and in the accent of a village not even their parents have seen.
Students resist by studying. Palestinians are among the world’s best educated people, despite the school closures and curfews, the bombs and enforced poverty. Raja Shehadeh resists by walking in the hills, which themselves seem to rise up against the weight of settlements and military roads. Mourid Barghouti writes in “I Saw Ramallah”: “There is less green now. Israel has been stealing the water since 1967, but even so the green still resists.”
Most persistently, Palestinians resist by remembering. The refugee camp alleyways are named after the raped villages their inhabitants fled. Refugee families keep the keys to their homes on hooks or framed in their temporary shelters. A giant key hangs over the entrance to the Aida camp in Bethlehem, and many Palestinians are named Ayid (Returner), or Jaffra or Falasteen (both mean Palestine), or Bisan (a city in Palestine). Perhaps the most characteristic Palestinian name is Sumood, which means endurance and remaining.
A common motif of Palestinian art is an olive tree wreathed in barbed wire. Another is the crucified Christ (Jesus is surely the most famous Palestinian of all, even if the American Christians haven’t worked it out). Hanzala, assassinated Naji al-Ali’s cartoon creation – eternally eight years old because that was Naji’s age when he was driven from his home, and always with his back to the world because the world has turned its back on Palestine – stands on almost every wall. The body of Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s ‘national poet’ who died last summer but who is obviously not yet dead, is imprinted in the marketplace and near the checkpoint. In every café and sitting room stories are told of the struggle and the land and the days before.
These memories are the symbols of Palestine and also Palestine’s first weapon of refusal, because the destroyers of Palestine insist on forgetfulness. This is why stones are stolen from the walls of old Jerusalem and used to build houses for Jews, to give them an air of age and authenticity. This is why archeology in Israel is a matter of military security. This is why the Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are described as ‘Arab-Israelis’, as if they’ve recently arrived from Algeria or Kuwait. It is why Zionist-compliant media never explained that the refugees in Gaza come from Ashkelon and Sderot.
Memory is related to truth and justice, and constitutes a fundamental challenge to the Zio-Disney version of the Holy Land, and to any oppressive system. Yet memory can also burn the oppressed.
The danger of memory, particularly traumatic memory, is that it freezes the rememberer in eternal retrospection. The flow of the present coagulates in him, and he dies. But the Palestinians are focused on the present moment too, on today’s existence and endurance. When their land calls to them it calls with immediacy. The refugees don’t want to return to the past; they want to return to their land today, they want their rights today.
And right now there is an explosion of Palestinian expression which more than compensates for the deaths of Darwish and Edward Said. Palestinian films are now the most sophisticated in the Arab world, and the most accessible to global audiences. Paradise Now, for instance, was shortlisted for an Oscar for best foreign film. Palestinian hip hop is powerful and distinctive and has an international fan base. A new crop of poets completely at ease with contemporary mass media include Tamim Barghouti, Suheir Hammad and Nathalie Handal. Politically, websites like the Palestine Chronicle and Ali Abunimah’s Electronic Intifada are signs of the beginning of an effective lobby.
It would be difficult to find a nation more alive. The Palestinians are solidifying and prospering as a nation – an imagined community – even as the earth disappears under their feet. Mourid Barghouti says, “The long Occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine.”
Ideas can be more fertile even than bank accounts. Eventually, they can prove more powerful than anything. The apartheid Wall is painted with Palestinian identity, and with messages of solidarity in any language you can think of.
This changes the equation in the long term, and the equation needs to be changed. All that we can currently hope for is that Obama is as radical as Carter has become. In other words, all we can hope for is a bantustan on bits of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel will continue to be a sectarian settler state which disenfranchises its Palestinian citizens. It will continue to hold Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees will have their moral and legal right to return to their land denied.
No self-respecting people would acquiesce in this, least of all the Palestinians, with their thousands of years of history and their enormous cultural momentum.