On the 73rd anniversary of the ongoing Nakba, Spring Magazine spoke with the artist and activist Rana Nazzal Hamadeh. Speaking from the occupied Palestinian West Bank, she discussed the history of settler colonialism from Canada to Israel, the new uprisings across Palestine, the limits and strengths of social media, and the importance of global solidarity.
Western media is reporting a renewed “conflict” between Israelis and Palestinians. What’s actually happening, and what have you witnessed?
I think for most of us involved, nothing that is happening today is new. There are a lot of things that have happened in the past week that are unprecedented, but it really feels like this is a historic story. This is an outcome of what’s been happening for the past 70 to 100 years. In many ways, what’s happening is about Jerusalem, and about the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinians are being forced out of their homes by Israeli settlers supported by the Israeli army and by the Israel courts. But at the same time the very story of what we’re seeing in Sheikh Jarrah is the story that occurred to so many of us in 1948 and in 1967. In 1948, for example, 750,000 people were forcibly expelled from their homes, and over 400 villages and towns were completely destroyed to the ground. So what we’re seeing in Sheikh Jarrah, it stirs in every Palestinian because so many of us are internally or externally displaced.
What we’re seeing over the past week has been this collective uprising across all parts of historic Palestine, and it really feels like we haven’t seen this kind of collective action in decades. Historically, Palestinian cities—Haifa, Nazareth, Lydd, umm el fahm—we’re seeing uprisings that we haven’t seen before. It really is unprecedented. And at the same time we’re seeing people raid the so-called borders. We’re seeing Palestinians who are in Jordan, tens of thousands of them and their Jordanian allies, raiding the Allenby Bridge which separates Jordan from the West Bank. We saw people coming from Lebanon to the border fence and trying to break through it. It really feels like a moment of historic opportunity.
But at the same time we’ve seen incredible devastation, incredible violence—from the Israeli state, the Israeli army and from extremist Israeli settlers. And I don’t even want to say extremist because it’s quite a popular movement of Israelis who are committing what you would call extremist violence against Palestinians. And they know that they have impunity. This is not new for us: Israeli settler attacks have been happening for as long as settlements have existed in the West Bank.
I’ve been joining popular protests in the Ramallah area over the past week. Our marches are all ages, but young people are clearly leading the way. We walk from the city center to the illegal Israeli settlement Beit El, where we face the Israeli army. They’ve been shooting live ammunition at the protesters, as well as rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas fired from jeeps (dozens at a time) and from aerial drones, and the “skunk truck” – a water cannon that fires a manufactured sewage liquid. We respond with stones and photographs. Yesterday, a young man was shot in the head with a live bullet at Beit Eil and is in critical condition in hospital, joining dozens of serious injuries from the protests that are filling up our already overwhelmed hospitals.
And the violence our siblings are facing in Gaza is unparalleled. We’re hearing of people losing entire families in single air strikes and of new and frightening military technologies. In a few days, almost 200 people have been massacred, including entire families and over 50 children. Israel is also bombing essential infrastructure – from roads to clinics and media offices.
What’s the problem of the “violence on both sides” narrative, and what’s a better way to understand the context?
The problem with “violence on both sides” is that it suggests that we are two equal parties who are fighting each other. And you often hear people characterize the case of Palestine as an issue of Jews vs Muslims, or as a religious conflict, or as a matter of Palestinians and Israelis hating each other. And the problem with all of these narratives is that they hide the reality of settler colonialism. Israel is a settler colony which brought Jews from around the world—largely from Europe with the preference of Ashkenazi Jews—to come and settle and colonize the land of Palestine. And today Palestinians live under a kind of triple threat system of an apartheid regime, of military occupation and of settler colonialism.
And if we want to talk materially, the idea of “violence on both sides” is ridiculous because Israel has one of the most powerful armies on the planet, and Palestinians have no army and are resisting with what means they do have. And our resistance to violent and rapid ethnic cleansing is not only justified, but necessary, because without our popular struggle over the past century, we as a people would not exist today. That said, at over $50 million dollars per unit, Israel’s iron dome weapon defense system basically renders Hamas’ rockets obsolete. There’s an undeniable disproportionate use of force on air, land and sea by Israel. There’s also Jewish Israeli settlers cross the occupied West Bank who are armed, who have virtual impunity to lynch Palestinians, attack Palestinian villages, people, and land. The rate of settlers attacking Palestinians is growing, and it’s virtually impossible for a Palestinian to level a charge against an Israeli settler.
It’s clear to us on the ground that there’s collaboration between the Israeli state and violent settlers to systematically eradicate Palestinians and to ethnically cleanse the historic land of Palestine to ensure Jewish supremacy in the region. And you only have to look to Israel’s own language about itself to see that Israel wants a Jewish state on a land that is historically very diverse religiously.
How are Palestinians resisting the latest siege?
What’s exciting right now is that this is a popular resistance. It’s really undefined by political parties, by religion or by gender. It’s led by youth and it’s for all Palestinians. Social media in this respect has been a really crucial tool in upholding coverage of the events that are developing on the ground. Even though we have a pretty complicated and difficult relationship with social media as Palestinians, really looking to social media is where you are seeing the news of what’s happening, because it’s not being covered comprehensively anywhere. Palestinians are rallying to protect their homes and their families in the West Bank, in Gaza, and across Palestinian communities in what’s called “Israel” (what we call the ’48 Palestinians) are resisting in ways that we haven’t seen before.
There’s been social media censorship to hide the reality of occupation. As an activist and artist, what is the importance of social media for social change.
Palestinians have a very complicated relationship with social media because it is really one of the key sources for news among each other. But it’s also a great source of repression. If you look at women who are political prisoners in Israeli prisons, one of the most common charges is social media incitement. Same with men, but it’s really visible among women prisoners. Palestinians writing on social media—especially in Arabic—are more likely to have their accounts removed or censored by social media platforms.
You probably saw there was quite a big scandal last week when Instagram mass deleted several stories that had been posted about what was happening in Sheikh Jarrah, but also about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and also about the protests in Colombia. This happened in the span of a day and grabbed people’s attention, but we’ve been seeing this consistently since the onset of social media.
It’s also really interesting to look at what is censored on social media as “sensitive content”. I’m still thinking of this video of a Palestinian young woman being attacked by soldiers, and the soldiers trying to form a line around her to hide the attack on her from the cameras, and then Instagram censors it as “sensitive content”. It’s hard not to see those things as related. I think in the case of Palestinians here, we want to be seen. There’s a huge debate obviously around images of violence, and whether sharing them helps or not. But I think if you look on the ground people are desperate to be seen. Palestinians are really rejecting the idea of being censored as “sensitive content” because it’s been decades of Israel and mainstream media colluding to hide the reality on the ground. People want to be seen, and they want the violence against them to be seen by the world and acknowledged, and have people join in our movements.
I think social media has been absolutely instrumental because we aren’t seeing accurate coverage by any outlet about what’s happening, but also because a single outlet can’t even keep up with what’s happening. There’s just so much, that even reading thousands of tweets a day you’re barely scratching the surface of what’s happening on the ground.
Israel has been applauded for rapid COVID-19 vaccine distribution to Israelis. What’s been the impact on Palestinian public health?
It is really ironic to watch Israel be applauded for its unrivaled rate of administering the COVID-19 vaccine, when 5 million Palestinians live under its control in the West Bank and Gaza it refuses to vaccinate. On top of Israel having a legal obligation under the Fourth Geneva Convention article 56 to ensure that the people living under its occupation are vaccinated, on top of that, since 1967 these two territories have been under a suffocating Israeli occupation with Gaza also suffering under an Israeli blockade since 2007.
The occupation and the blockade have left these territories vastly unprepared for the pandemic. Our public health systems are underfunded, underdeveloped. Every time Israel has bombed Gaza we’ve seen medical facilities targeted, and it’s almost like we’re going backwards. And as a result of Israel’s regime of absolute control over the West Bank and Gaza and over our borders, not only is our healthcare system undersupplied and insufficient, we’re forced to rely on outside help and have never been allowed to develop self-sufficiency internally. So to expect the West Bank and Gaza to procure their own vaccines, suddenly now in our pseudo-state, living under these systems of control, it’s ridiculous.
When the Canadian state was invading Wet’suwet’en territory you called on fellow Palestinians to show solidarity for Indigenous sovereignty in Turtle Island. What are the connections between these struggles?
Canada and Israel have a very long history, and there’s always been unbending support for Israel from the Canadian government. And this can’t be a surprise to anyone who knows Canada’s history of settler colonialism, of state violence against Indigenous peoples. We also know that South African apartheid was modeled after Canada’s permit regime with regards to Indigenous peoples, and that Israeli apartheid borrowed from the South African model. So we can really trace a straight path back to Canada’s complicity in Israeli apartheid.
I think it’s essential that we see transnational solidarity coming from Indigenous peoples across the global south to those who are oppressed in the global north. Part of the power of settler colonialism has been to fool many of us into believing we are victims and don’t have the agency to also lend our solidarity, or to be busy with our own struggles and not to think of the struggle of other people. I think Indigenous and oppressed people everywhere, colonized people everywhere, have resisted this always. Lending solidarity across struggles is one of the most powerful things we can do because it reveals our natural allyship in the face of similar oppressions. Our situations are very different and those differences are important to acknowledge. But the tactics of our oppressors are very similar.
What we’re seeing in Sheikh Jarrah today, and what we’re seeing for the past 73 years since the Nakba—or what we call the ongoing Nakba—is also what happened on Turtle Island 500 years ago and has continued. Canada, like Israel, was founded on the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, on the theft of land, on genocide, and highlighting these similarities makes us better suited to confront what we’re up against.
What’s the importance of international solidarity for Palestinians, and what can people in Canada do?
International solidarity is absolutely essential. You only have to look to how much Israel has invested in trying to wash its image of apartheid, to see how important it is for people to speak up around the world. Palestine has been left behind over and over again by the international community. The entire Palestinian struggle has existed in the era of institutions like the United Nations. It’s happened literally in front of the international community, and repeated condemnations have done nothing.
The Palestinian people put out a very clear call for international solidarity through the civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and I think it’s really important right now for people in Canada to look to their institutions to see if their institutions are invested in Israeli settler colonialism. Almost every university we’ve looked at where we’ve been able to access their investments, we’ve seen massive investments in military weapons and infrastructure companies that support the Israeli occupation but also violence around the world. Divesting your institutions is key, as well as applying steadfast and constant pressure on our political representatives to push for sanctions against Israel. I don’t think our politicians should be allowed to sleep until we see action in support of Palestine. I really do believe that most people who know about Palestine support us, because it’s a natural cause for justice. We have to pressure our politicians to reflect the position of most Canadians, which is to call for an end to settler colonial violence and apartheid in Palestine.
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