The Nakba, or Palestinian catastrophe of dispossession in 1948, indeed continues, as the prominent Palestinian slogan al-nakba mustamirra (the catastrophe is ongoing) declares. Israel has destroyed the village of Al-Araqeeb in the Naqab (Negev) over 150 times and Israeli soldiers shoot and kill wounded Palestinians who pose no threat. Most recently, Palestinians mourned the killing of Eyad Hallaq, a Palestinian man with autism shot by Israeli police in his own neighborhood as he fled from them in fear, an incident that has been compared to the police killing of George Floyd in the United States. President Trump’s 2020 plan—referred to as the “Deal of Extinction” by some Palestinians—advances dispossession and Israeli settler colonialism in flagrant contravention of human rights principles and international law. The looming threat of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank is a “brazen violation of international law,” as the editorial board of The New York Times stated in a headline, and threatens to harm Palestinian agriculture and tourism and further displace Palestinians in the Jordan Valley. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is corrupt, authoritarian and complicit with Israeli occupation, while other Arab countries are taking steps to establish more normal relations with Israel.
It is a cliché to talk of the death of the two-state solution; yet, there is no new clear strategy from the Palestinian leadership. President Mahmoud Abbas’s latest declaration that he will end all agreements with Israel may be an act of throwing down the gauntlet, or it may be a refusal of responsibility in the midst of an unpredictable and dangerous healthcare crisis that demonstrates more than ever how Israel and the Occupied Territories are entangled. In either case, it is hardly an articulation of Palestinian goals and strategies that takes into account Palestinians’ full predicament.
The Underlying Problem of Fragmentation
Perhaps the most fundamental problem facing Palestinians today is their geographic, cultural and political fragmentation. It is one of the less recognized instruments of settler-colonial dispossession and it impedes the ability of Palestinians to frame and discuss issues as a collective. Fragmentation means that Palestinians around the world are confronting vastly different challenges—including, for example, struggling for the right to work, coping with an economic crisis and tending to new refugee arrivals in Lebanon; managing under military occupation in the West Bank; surviving under siege in Gaza; demanding rights that should come with citizenship in Israel and surviving the devastating effects of war and siege in Syria.
Fragmentation also means that even within these polities, Palestinians have different legal statuses. In Jordan, Palestinians who arrived after 1967 lack the citizenship that most other Palestinians hold. Even in Israel and the Occupied Territories, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, those in Jerusalem, those in the West Bank and those in Gaza each have different statuses. Even though they all ultimately live under Israeli sovereignty, they are constrained by different limitations on movement and even face different restrictions on expression. Inside Israel, commemorating the Nakba can lead to sanction, while in the West Bank and Gaza each of the Palestinian authorities repress dissent. Because Palestinians outside of historic Palestine do not live under Israeli sovereignty, their struggles for justice are especially complex: Many wish to fight for the right of return even as they must also struggle for civil rights and a decent life in the countries where they have been living for three or more generations now.
Beyond these forms of fragmentation by polity and political status are others. In the springtime Palestinians in the Galilee might visit the Naqab to enjoy the early spring blooms, but generally it feels far away. Residents of unregistered villages in Area C—which constitutes about 60 percent of the West Bank and where Israel has near total control—face problems that may seem distant to those in the urbanized center of Ramallah, located in Area A, where the PA has control. Those villages in Area C suffer from lack of access to water, house demolitions, settler violence and even the destruction of a clinic in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified. In turn, these can seem distinct from the challenges of living in refugee camps on the outskirts of places like Ramallah and Bethlehem where Palestinians deal with daily (and nightly) Israeli military incursions and live in the shadow of the Israeli separation wall.
Are these many problems or one problem? Yes, and yes. Despite fragmentation, Palestinians find certain experiences and trials are shared. There are similarities between life in those unregistered villages in Area C and the unrecognized Bedouin villages of the Naqab across the Green Line in Israel, just as the settlements in the West Bank resemble the Jewish towns created by admissions committees inside Israel. Palestinians everywhere must be wary of triggering Israeli and Facebook algorithms that determine what counts as “hate speech” or incitement online, lest it land them in prison, restrict their access to social media or prevent them from entering the United States to study. Each year, Palestinians in Shatila, Jaffa, Bethlehem and Boston commemorate the Nakba, but it is difficult to find thorough coverage of all of these events in one place—Palestinian news media are fragmented too.
Challenging Fragmentation, Implicitly and Explicitly
While much recent public discussion about the Palestinian struggle for statehood revolves around Trump’s “Deal of the Century” or the prospect for PA elections, it is crucial to look beyond formal political processes. Election strategies like those of the Joint List of Arab parties in Israeli elections may staunch the losses, but they alone will not ultimately transform the political landscape for Palestinians—so thorough is Palestinian exclusion from the real spheres of power in Israel. The bright spots—and there are always bright spots—revolve around grassroots action that address the national project of liberation, the problems of the Palestinian political leadership and other urgent issues of dignity and equality, including women’s rights.
One such project is the Great March of Return in Gaza, which commenced on March 30, 2018, the day Palestinians mark as Land Day. The march is a reminder of how rich Palestinians’ political culture is because of the way in which it builds on what came before. The name of the march echoes the name of annual marches inside Israel organized by the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced (ADRID) and its partners. The Gaza March of Return was both a march against siege and for the right of return. In this way, it spoke to the most urgent demand of Palestinians in Gaza as well as one of the most central Palestinian claims. When Israeli forces killed over 59 people marching in Gaza in a massacre on Nakba Day 2018 in the same hours that Israeli and US officials celebrated Trump’s move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, Palestinians were spurred to protest in Haifa, Ramallah and beyond.
When Palestinian protesters in Haifa voiced their support for the march and its demands, they faced police violence—and their subsequent protests addressed that problem. Their local concerns around discrimination, arbitrary arrest and related issues came to the fore as they protested for the broader goals of the right of return and end to the siege. While Palestinians sometimes need to make difficult choices about priorities and messaging under Israeli settler colonialism, the local and the national will likely combine more clearly as resistance continues. An example of this is when Palestinians in Ramallah stood up for compatriots in Gaza and found their protest violently repressed by the Palestinian Authority. They needed to voice their opposition to PA policies that tacitly support the siege of Gaza and protest their own repression by the PA. Thus, when Palestinians in Haifa or Ramallah march to support Palestinians in Gaza they are not only marching in solidarity but also to articulate their own local visions of justice. The Gaza March of Return persisted until December 2019, and in March 2020 the leadership urged Palestinians to commemorate the second anniversary of the march from their rooftops due to coronavirus concerns.
A second movement that demonstrates the strength of local visions of justice that cross political boundaries in surprising ways is the Tal’at movement, catalyzed by the killing of Israa Ghrayeb by her family in Bethlehem. This feminist movement challenges fragmentation by addressing violence against women in the West Bank, the Naqab, Gaza and beyond. It also calls out the neoliberal framework of Oslo as part of the problem and foregrounds the experiences of those who are socially and economically marginalized. Finally, it holds Israeli policies accountable for exacerbating violence against women, even as it turns neither to Israeli nor PA institutions for solutions. Instead, as Hala Marshood and Riya Alsanah write, “our struggle is an internal Palestinian one for the building of our social and political fabric, embarking on a process of radical collective healing, that informs our liberation struggle, in discourse and practice.” We see from the mobilization of this movement and others that when Palestinians organize, the streets belong to Palestinians, even when they have been renamed after Ben Gurion and even when Israel controls the air above and the water below.
In another example of activists thinking creatively about how to build Palestinian power, civil society leaders in the West Bank are advocating for a rejection of the conditions placed on European Union funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These conditions, also imposed by US-funded projects, criminalize Palestinian dissent and make it impossible for Palestinians to build civil society on their own terms. In the absence of a state and with the de-development caused by decades of military occupation, Palestinian civil society depends on foreign support for activities ranging from human rights advocacy to the building of wells and the education of children. If European and American donors truly want to support the building of democratic institutions, the imposition of these conditions needs to end. This effort, too, has become a campaign involving Palestinian organizations in the West Bank, Jerusalem, Israel, Lebanon, the United States and Europe, with over 130 signatories.
Organizing around political prisoners is another important arena for challenging fragmentation, especially since prison has been for decades a unique site where Palestinians from many different places live together. The COVID-19 pandemic drew attention once more to Palestinian political prisoners, since incarcerated people worldwide have been regarded as one of the most at risk populations. Many Palestinian NGOs located in both Israel and the Occupied Territories and their allies signed onto a joint statement calling for the release of political prisoners and for better conditions inside prison. While the prisoners’ situation is bleak, the list of signatories spanning the Green Line as well as the globe is challenging Palestinian fragmentation and calling attention to this issue. Twenty-six Palestinian prisoners have been in prison since before the first Oslo Accord of 1993. On the other side of the spectrum, 180 children are currently incarcerated in Israeli prisons, and each year Israel detains and prosecutes about 700 children. These children have found support from the No Way to Treat a Child campaign, a joint project of Defense for Children International-Palestine and the American Friends Service Committee. The project advocates for the US Congress’s H.R. 2407, Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act, which prohibits US tax support for the military detention of children by Israel or any other country. The existence of such a bill in the US Congress is itself a positive sign.
What does the fragmentation of Palestinians and their grassroots efforts to challenge it mean for US policy? While it once was a victory for the PLO to gain recognition as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority’s grip has become part of the problem. While Democratic party politics opened new possibilities during the 2019 primaries, particularly through the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, fundamental changes to the status quo in US foreign policy are unlikely, especially without structural changes in Palestinian political institutions. A new US administration, however, should reverse or refuse to recognize the major political shifts of the Trump administration, notably the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem and any Israeli annexation of occupied territory as sanctioned by the “Deal of the Century.” Moreover, US officials should take note of the legitimate political action and grassroots organizing that Palestinians are engaged with as they strive for a realization of their rights.
[Amahl Bishara is associate professor of anthropology at Tufts University.]