Palestinian Youth Perspectives on Syria, Palestine and a Liberated Arab Region
by Loubna Qatami
In December of 2010, Palestinian youth of the world watched anxiously, and participated in, the monumental dawn of the Arab revolutions. Many Palestinian young people, despite our inclination to be suspect of any emerging forces and rapid power shifts occurring, instinctively supported the political earthquake as the means of rupturing decade’s long neo-colonial structures. We joined our brothers and sisters in Tunisia, in Egypt and across the Arab world, in some cases symbolically and other cases literally, in the fight against their repressive regimes. Palestinians are a transnational people, deeply immersed in the disadvantages of being placeless and refugees. We are subject to the repression of those regimes not only by living under them but by their corroboration with the Zionist entity consequentially resulting in our people’s long exile and occupation. Support for the revolutions means standing with our brothers and sisters across the Arab world who suffer from the same systems from which we suffer, dictatorships structurally aligned with Zionism working to stifle movements of dissent as a liberatory catalyst in our region.
December 2010 began a new era in which the face of existing power structures was obliterated. Yet, to some degree, a remaking of our part of the world became a grab for power to whoever has the most force and swiftness. In some cases, quick institutionalization through processes of Western-adopted “democracy” bolstered opposition entities into a position of “power” with limited opportunities to change realities on the ground. Rather, opposition entities were obliged to inherit the former regimes. Neo-liberalism rendered the new governments disadvantaged in their ability to yield real change on the ground for lack of economic autonomy, stability and resources. A turn to Western imperialist allies thus played a critical role in appropriating the aspirations of the masses which had deposed the former dictatorships. Still, the emerging new leaderships cannot be absolved of the partnerships they are choosing which contradict the aspirations of the people and concede on the political principles which had ultimately bolstered their position of power in the first place.
The multiplicity of forces rushing their way to hijack a seat of authority in Syria on the backs of the sacrifices of the grassroots complicates the struggle, as does the fact that Syria is geographic center for regional alliances that have positioned themselves as the anti-imperialist vanguard. However some of these very forces are guilty of being the agents ushering in neo-liberal policies and Western hegemonic structures. Threatening the struggle further is deep-seated popular fear of the rupture of regional alliances and an opening for a new, revised version of Western imperialism to sentence us to another ten decades of what our people have already suffered. In addition, imperialist forces use political jargon that generates fear amongst the masses of another Western military intervention and it’s consequential aftermath, as we have most recently seen destroy Iraq. This fear paralyzes us from working against repressive regimes or persuades us to accept Western imperialist partnerships and their conditions. Alternatively, the devastation of the matter can also compel us to blindly accept the corruptness, ethno-centrism and repression yielded by the opposition forces that have formed in direct contest to the existing regime. Whether they claim to be secular or Islamic is in fact arbitrary based on the striking similarity of the political projects offered to the masses today by varying forces and ideologies on the Arab scene today. All this has hampered our ability to think with clarity about the Syrian Revolution. While all forces continue to rely on the popular slogan of “we support the Syrian people,” I would argue that the will, needs, desires and aspirations of the masses are actually the more sidelined than the interests of outside forces than ever before.
The will of the masses in Syria is certain to defeat the brutality of dictatorship. Many Palestinian youth sympathize with such aspirations, for we know far too well the inhumanity of the regime. Yet, our objection to a potential new ally for imperialism that reproduces the repression of the existing regime under a new ideological banner has also trapped Palestinian youth in a polarized debate about Syria that offers no relevance to what is happening on the ground and to the suffering of our Syrian brothers and sisters—and of the Palestinian population living in Syria.
One of these Palestinians of Syria was my friend, Khaled Barkawe. A real leader, fighter for justice and all things fair, Khaled Barkawe is by no means an exception to the near two hundred thousand people killed in Syria during the last three years, but is an example of youth bravery fighting for the aspirations most young Arabs have. Khaled was a leading member of Jafra Foundation for Relief and Development in Syria and leading international figure of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM). Since the beginning of the revolution, Khaled sacrificed everything to provide dire humanitarian relief to internally displaced Syrians in Yarmouk Camp, the Palestinian refugee camp in the Damascus outskirts where he was born and raised. Khaled fought for what most young people are fighting for in our part of the world; the right to live with dignity, freedom, agency, and justice, and the right to economic and social equity. Both Khaled’s staunch opposition to dictatorship juxtaposed by his relentless fight against Zionism and for the return of the refugee’s makes him a symbol of the youth will to rupture the contradictions of so called fighters against imperialism. Khaled was taken into custody by the Assad regime in January 2013. His family was notified to pick up a death certificate on September 11th, 2013. What happened to the body of Khaled under the hands of Assad’s regime is unclear for the hundreds of thousands of missing bodies places Khaled as part of a broader brutal condition. For those that honor his legacy, we know Khaled died with a scar on his leg from Israeli bullets incurred at the June 2011 demonstration in the Golan Heights. His battle scars, those received from opposite ends of people arming themselves against the aspirations of Palestinian youth, are testament to his life. He fought injustice, no matter who it was and where it was present and knew that it was a part of a broader paradigm of interconnected structures of power and oppression.
The stench of mass graves in Syria smells a lot like the consequence of Zionism. From Dar’a to Homs, Hama to Ghouta, and Aleppo to Damascus, the bloodshed is unparalleled and a true reflection that what is happening in Syria is not a civil war nor an uprising, but one of the greatest tragedies of our region and a symbiotic reflection of the ongoing Nakba that has plagued our people for decades. Nearly two-hundred thousand Syrians are dead; millions displaced; thousands imprisoned; bodies exchanged for information and money, children and women raped and sold and human bodies branded like cattle.
This ongoing Nakba has taken different forms throughout our recent pasts. It’s most obvious forms have been the Western colonialism of the Arab nation, the imposition of nation-state borders through the Sykes-Pico agreement, the conquest of Palestine in 1948 and its consequential aftermath. In the recent times, it is also reflected in the US occupation of Iraq and rupture of its society, the referendum diving Sudan into two separate states, the overtaking of Libya by Rebel forces supported by the US, and the continued US military base expansion in the Gulf that is testing new weapons machinery on Arab bodies, such as the unmanned drones in Yemen. By examining the current political moment through a vertical and horizontal analysis across time and place, we can understand these events as symptomatic of colonialism and its discontents, as the contradictions of aspirations for freedom and sovereignty amidst an increasingly globalized and capitalistic region. Real political alternatives are relegated as utopian imaginaries for the centralization of power in our region into the hands of the elite is the by-product of colonialism, militarism and capitalism. If only we young people of consciousness can dissect the complexities in the region and come to understand there does not have to exist an inter/intra community struggle divide. Rather, if we examine power in the broader sense of the word we can come to understand that struggle for justice and a struggle against Western colonialism is not actually mutually exclusive. By examining this tragedy as the by-product of colonialism, we can envision and thus create a stronger apparatus for justice-centered resistance. By doing so, we will come to see that contesting this regime is in fact mandated as a radical youth who have spent our lives fighting Zionist Settler-Colonialism in Palestine. It is in the interest of the Palestinian and broader Arab masses to continue to resist injustice wherever it may be present as part of putting into practice a different kind of political project that diminishes the contradictions and pitfalls of our existing systems. For all those who anticipate Palestinian voices to “stand in solidarity” with the Syrian people, I am sorry to say I will not be one of those Palestinians. Why, one might ask? The reason being is that I envision the Syrian struggle as intricately connected to my own struggle as a Palestinian and also as a Jordanian. You are not an estranged group that I should claim to be in solidarity with. While I cannot possibly know or imagine the horrors of life for Syrians today, and do not claim to, I do not see this struggle as one outside of my own. It is for this reason that I have chosen to break my silence about Syria and also say to the millions of Palestinians who continue to call for “neutrality,” that we are not in any position to be “neutral” about a struggle we see as intrinsic to our own. We must relinquish our fears and take leadership from our Palestinian brothers and sisters in Syria who are bearing the consequences of our dirty political games disguised under the banner of neutrality. This is real solidarity. It is only with Syrian liberation that we can come to understand prospects for Palestinian liberation. With this said, I urge all Palestinians despite your political loyalties and affiliations to re-consider the framework through which we are understanding the Syrian condition and to re-claim and act out our responsibilities to Syria. It should not be done through tokenizing displays of pity, sympathy and solidarity. Rather, we must look at ourselves as stakeholders of Syria’s liberation and continued oppression. There is no better way to do this than to re-assert our deep connections and accept leadership from our Palestinian brothers and sisters in the refugee camps under siege by the Assad regime.
Palestinian Responsibilities to Syria
We as Palestinians must add our witness and storytelling to the record of the Syrian Revolution. It is more than a story of lives lost, a tokenizing of martyrs, but testament to a remaking of the Palestinian struggle once again. Not to participate in this witness erases Syria’s Palestinian martyrs and strugglers from the Palestinian nationalist imaginary entirely and from the history that has befallen us.
While the camps of Palestinians in Syria are under siege and the internally displaced refugees denied entry or killed in attempts to seek refuge, many of the establishment Palestinian parties have run in opposite directions, abandoning their responsibilities to the Palestinian refugees of Syria. The Palestinian refugee camps in Syria are a loci, a political, metaphoric, and literal hub of the anti-settler-colonialist Palestinian historical and present-day aspirations. Ignoring the Assad regime’s attacks on Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, particularly on space of Palestinian Diasporic political headquarters Yarmouk Refugee Camp, and ignoring the urgent humanitarian crisis in the camps precipitated by the conflict, relegates the Palestinian refugee and transnational populace politically absent and estranged from the rest of the Palestinian community.
This is particularly disturbing as the Palestinian geographic and economic capital and center of political debates over the last two years, Ramallah, has seen a surge of nationalist rhetoric by the failed Palestinian leadership in an attempt to mask the political project that is erasing the Palestinian refugee population and refugee return mandate as we speak. Celebrations of symbolic gestures toward Palestinian statehood and a united Gaza Strip and West Bank through, for example, the victory of Arab Idol television star Mohammed Assaf, is somehow deemed more worthwhile for the Palestinian political struggle than concern for the deteriorating political and humanitarian conditions in Syria’s Yarmouk Camp. While celebration is important to maintaining the resilience of a people who are rightfully tired of suffering, and can be a healthy refusal to prioritize nationalist dogma over love and life; when celebration is used to conceal the political crisis facing our broader struggle today, it is a sham attempt to distract our people from what is emerging as the milestone conflict of this era. Many politicians have rendered the lack of focus on Syria as a result of the complexity of the struggles and the inability to “do something about it.” I argue that, while this very well may be true, by taking the lens off Syria, the Zionist project of erasing the “Palestinian Refugee Problem” is under grave expansion and unfortunately, aided and abetted by the Palestinian leaderships corroboration and weakness. This becomes no more true than by examining Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas complicity in the negotiations with Israel that seeks to ultimately erase the refugee population as an intrinsic milestone in getting Palestinian recognition for Israel as a “Jewish” state. In this regard, we must return to 1948 and understand our current conundrum through the explanation of colonialism in Palestine as Fayez Sayegh once noted for us, “For, Zionism, then, colonization would be the instrument of nation-building, not the by-product of an already-fulfilled nationalism.” Through understanding the attack on the Palestinian refugee population as a strategy of erasure essentially rooted in colonization we see simultaneous political rhetoric that acknowledges Israel as a Jewish only state flourish.
Abandoning the Palestinian refugee population in Syria renders the years they have spent awaiting their return meaningless. Palestinian refugee abandonment is complacent with the Zionist project of erasure of Palestine and of the Palestinians. Establishment Palestinian voices have evaded standing with the grassroots movement in Syria which positions them as politically complicit. Yet this complicity is challenged by the Palestinian Syrians themselves whose suffering and continued resilience highlights the direct contradiction to the rhetorical claims of the Assad regime as an anti-imperialist vanguard.
The murder of Palestinian Syrian activist Khaled Barkawe under regime torture highlights that contradiction, as he was a son of Yarmouk Camp, a staunch anti-Zionist, and an adamant proponent of justice in Syria. Khaled’s murder calls out to Palestinians to stop living in the shadows of a dogmatic nationalist past and to acknowledge that their story is integral to the Syrian story. It calls out to Palestinians to realize that representation and a seat at the power table does not do justice for our cause and people, it rather adds additional blockades to the generation and leverage of real people power. Centering the stories of Yarmouk Camp and the Palestinians in Syria at the heart of analysis forces Palestinians to examine Syria, the Arab region at large and the state of the current Palestinian struggle through clear eyes. As Palestinians, we must re-prioritize the refugee population at the center of our political project as a means of keeping the Palestinian and Arab liberation cause alive and thriving. This positionality mandates us, as Palestinians worldwide, to take a justice-centered approach to Syria despite the outside forces conspiring against the Syrian struggle through their corrupt infiltration and hi-jacking of the peoples’ movement.
I do not mean that we should turn a blind eye to the power grabs and claims on Syria from regional proxy and global forces that have too gained their legitimacy based on the emotions of the masses and under the banner of religious doctrines. We must remain critical of all opposition forces attempting to sell out or hi-jack the grassroots revolution. We must, however, bolster the agency of those most impacted on the ground, to be the protagonists of the next phase of Syria, Palestine and the region and believe that the people are capable of wielding out corrupt and repressive forces the more they are empowered. We must do this through re-constructing anti-repressive and anti-imperialist movement politics and shatter our ethno-centrism, internal contradictions and double standards. As Frantz Fanon once said, “The unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.” I believe to avoid these mishaps, peoples’ popular movements led by those who bear the most severe material consequences of oppression and who carry the greatest stakes of full liberation must be placed at the power-center of our political consciousness, project and future. If we continue to allow those profiting off of these conditions to be the leadership of our struggle, we will reap the demise of these conditions for decades to come.
How then, can we talk about where we are without distorting the image of the revolution and dishonoring the martyrs who have poured their life’s last breath into the Syrian people’s legitimate grassroots movement for justice and freedom? How can we understand this Nakba being waged, over and over, through political alienation as well as mostly through physical torture, disappearance, murder and imprisonment? How do we break free of the asphyxiating conditions of colonialism while the brutality of colonialism in its rawest form is still at large in our world?
As political workers, we must know that no revolution is perfect, but I urge our young brothers and sisters not to ditch their own rights and responsibilities to continue to revolt against injustice wherever injustice is present. However, we also will not swallow injustice under the banner of revolution, fear, or religious shaming. Concessions of those sorts are not strategies but rather alter the meaning of the movement.
At a time in which Third World movements have been hi-jacked and distorted from their foundations that poured masses onto the streets to demand justice and liberation in their purest forms, let us return to the spirit of people power. Let us honor the sacrifices of our elders, learn from their sacrifices and noble leadership, and study the way some of our leaders of liberation became partners to colonialism. Let us reflect on how our movements were co-opted, when and why. Let us study, with a critical eye, the pitfalls of nationalism, of logics of self-determination and inclusion that hamper the necessity to re-envision the broader structures of the system entirely.
Key to this is redressing our disconnectedness from our local communities and from the source of livelihood—our own lands. We often relegate all conversations of justice and freedom to an examination of material consequences rooted in orthodox Marxism and its variations. We continue to re-enforce the center of gravity of intellectual production and power outside of our own being, lands and region. We do this, very well knowing within us that it had always been our lands that have been the provider of indigenous methods of life, resilience, love and the power to continue on. Let us be visionaries, using our relationships with and informed knowledge from lands, as a compass in working resourcefully to produce alternatives to co-optation and hi-jacking by both neo-liberalism and new forms of local authoritarianism. Through this, we strengthen our ability to pull ourselves out of a polarized debate of “with” or “against,” for we should never have to choose between the worse of two evils. The fatal consequences of locating power within the binary of the US- Soviet dichotomy has thus rendered our indigenous forms of knowledge, and connectedness to land as meaningless in the power to re-construct our world. This must be redressed.
Let us take our cue from youth across the Arab world who are saying, “dignity shall never again be reserved for the elite.” Dignity is not a commodity, bought and sold as they have done with our own lands and “undesirable” human bodies- the ill, the poor, refugees, workers, women, children, disenfranchised minorities. Our most marginalized must be protected, for if dignity is not afforded to all, it is afforded to none. Nor can “dignity” be used as a slogan for political forces ushering in new forms of colonialism. Dignity is about the Arab region in its relations to the world splintering away from the polarized dichotomy of the two Western worlds and in particular rupturing the monopoly of power in our region by the US. Dignity is though also about the living conditions of each individual. Through a reconceptualization of dignity and the policies that can offer it, a new practice is born that may pull our people out of the polarization and bloodshed of the tragedies we are surviving today.
Youth, from Tunis to Egypt, Libya to Syria, Jordan to Lebanon, Iraq to Palestine and beyond, we must reconfigure our Arab collectivity based on new conceptualizations of dignity and liberation. We must be building the infrastructure, societal norms, and policies that manifest justice and dignity as part of every human interaction. We must examine the sectarian divides not as ideological divides that are incommensurate with one another but in fact the result of the absence of an alternative means of envisioning political transformation entirely. We must confront the attempts to distort our understanding of liberation and resist the temptation to sacrifice certain sectors’ rights to liberation as a means of seeing a brighter future for ourselves and our children. This contradiction has plagued our movements and we are now suffering the consequences of it. We must resist dogmatic boundaries and become ever evolving. Let us break free of the asphyxiating conditions limiting our ability to imagine, and let us produce thought that breaks through the polarization we have been forced to subscribe to.
I do not have the answer for the current catastrophe in Syria, which is beyond the scope of our worst nightmares. Yet in the spirit of reshaping our world, we must recognize that every interaction is a possibility. Everyone is an organizer, everyone has strengths needed for a remaking of the world and everyone has the potential and the moral obligation to be a political agent of social transformation. A utopia does not await us, for revolution is never over and never perfect, but no life of dignity exists otherwise. We shall overcome the brutality our people are facing, particularly our brothers and sisters in Syria. To Syrians let us, as Palestinian youth, say, “we join you in the struggle for justice, dignity, and liberation.”
For all the worries that weigh on our minds, the fears that burden our hearts and for my dear friend Khaled, as the great Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani once wrote “If the prisoner is beaten, it is an arrogant expression of fear.” You lived and died for your people, in your afterlife, we want to re-assure you that we are winning and your memory is not in vain.
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