By: Vijay Prashad
Yes, there is violence in the streets. It is the violence that fixates the viewer. Its context is set aside. Why are they using knives or why do they throw stones – that is the horizon of the question. The Western media is always surprised by the paroxysm of violence from the Palestinians – why do they resist? There is no parallel perplexity when Israel bombs Gaza and kills thousands or when Israeli bulldozers and helicopters target the homes of innocent families in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The bewilderment is uneven. Yes, there is violence in the streets, but it is not the only violence.
There is the hot violence of the Israeli army. But there is also what Teju Cole calls the cold violence of Israeli state policy. Right wing Israelis will name the Occupied Palestinian Territories by their own words (Judea and Samaria). Their Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked refuses – against international opinion – to acknowledge that there is even an occupation; she says that the West Bank and East Jerusalem is an “area under dispute.”
Having renamed the territory, Israel’s considerably powerful settler class – under cover of their government and in violation of international law – build exclusively Jewish settlements on this land. This provokes Palestinian reaction. Then come the walls, the checkpoints, the bulldozers, the destruction of Palestinian life, the humiliation – all designed to raise the cost of life and allow the Palestinians to decide to flee. Teju Cole calls the process “cold violence,” in his contribution to Letters to Palestine. “Putting a people into deep uncertainty about the fundamentals of life, over years and decades,” he writes, “is a form of cold violence.”
For Israel there is no peace process, no possibility of a Palestinian state or of justice for the Palestinians. As Justice Minister Shaked said to al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hassan, “The status quo is the best option.”
If you are suffocating someone with a pillow, you cannot expect that person to passively welcome asphyxiation.
The 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which applies to the Palestinian case, allows occupied people the right to resistance. “The process of liberation is irresistible,” says the Declaration.
From the First Intifada’s opening days in 1987 onwards, liberals have scoffed at the Palestinians for their failure to become like Gandhi. Stone throwing children were mocked then for their lack of strategy as knife-wielding children are now painted as merely terrorists. “Why don’t the Palestinians follow a nonviolent agenda,” is the question in the salons of the West.
It is a fair, but disjointed question. The real question is why does Israel – the occupying power – refuse to allow the Palestinians a political path. The Israeli occupation has Orijit posterproduced what Baruch Kimmerling called, at the time of the Second Intifada, “politicide,” the death of politics. Kimmerling argued that Ariel Sharon’s policies eviscerated the Palestinian political and civic institutions, destroyed the Palestinian economy and threw the people into general despair. The ultimate goal, Kimmerling argued, was “the dissolution of the Palestinian people’s existence as a legitimate social, political and economic entity.”
One aspect of politicide was the refusal to allow Hamas, which decisively won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, to govern within the narrow confines of the Oslo Accords. Even that was not permitted. Meanwhile, any political leader who had a genuine mass constituency that would pose a challenge to the Israeli occupation had to be jailed. Marwan Barghouti, the immensely popular Fatah leader who was one of the leaders of the Second Intifada, has been in prison since 2002. Last November, Barghouti called for a Third Intifada. He has his finger on the pulse of his people. So does Ahmad Sa’adat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), also in prison since 2002. In April this year, the Israelis arrested Sa’adat’s PFLP comrade, Khalida Jarrar, who languishes under administrative detention. Barghouti, Sa’adat and Jarrar have a mass political constituency that would seriously challenge the Israeli occupation and the Oslo accords. They are in prison. None of those who sniff at Palestinian acts of violence ask why Israel continues to hold legitimate political leaders on long sentences. It is easier to malign the children on the streets. Far harder to question the basis of the occupation – namely, to question Israel’s acts of politicide.
Barghouti is known as the Palestinian Mandela. When the racist regime of South Africa released Mandela from prison, he took command of a mass movement that led inexorably to the end of the apartheid state. Israel probably fears this outcome. Better to have Barghouti in prison, then to risk his release on political grounds.
In the midst of the Jenin refugee camp sits the Freedom Theatre. It was founded in 2006, a product of the Second Intifada. One of its founders, Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was assassinated in 2011, said around that time, “Israel is destroying the neurological system of the society which is culture, identity, communication.” Mer-Khamis, whose mother was Israeli and father Palestinian, drew from his mother’s work in Jenin amongst the children of the camp. He joined with a number of these children, such as Zacharia Zubeidi – who had previously played a role as a militant in the Second Intifada, to build this theatre – the basis of what Mer-Khamis hoped would be the next intifada, a cultural intifada.
Across Palestine, there are pockets of hope such as the Freedom Theatre, which is deeply political against the Occupation and yet compassionate toward the human spirit. Last year, the Freedom Theatre conducted a Freedom Bus tour across the Occupied Palestinian Territories. On that bus was Sudhanva Deshpande, an actor from the Indian communist street theatre company, Jana Natya Manch (Janam). Both Janam and the Freedom Theatre share a sensibility toward politics and culture. “Theatre isn’t pure art,” says Deshpande. “It cannot be. As the Freedom Theatre people said to me, they’re training freedom fighters. But the weapons used are tools of culture.”
This month, actors from the Freedom Theatre will travel to India, where they will join with Janam to craft a play. They will then take this play across India and then later across Palestine. This is solidarity. It is also part of the Palestinian political landscape. As Faisal Abu Alhayjaa said during a visit to India earlier this year, “There’s occupation, there’s Fatah, there’s Hamas, there are other political parties. There are killings, there are intifadas. There is no freedom. So we have learnt to use art as a tool to resist the occupation. Freedom Theatre is a place for men, women and children to express themselves. In a place divided by checkpoints and patrols, it becomes important to keep the sense of community together.” Art, then, is an antidote to politicide.
Occupation creates frustration and narrows the political imagination. Violence is the child of occupation. Other horizons have to be created. That is the role of culture. In The Wretched of the Earth (1963), Franz Fanon wrote not only about the inevitability of violence in the anti-colonial struggle, but also for the need of a “literature of combat.” What would that literature do? “It molds the national consciousness,” he wrote, “giving it form and contours and flinging open before it new and boundless horizons.”
The endless Intifada remains open to challenge the endless Occupation. They are twins. Between them, through them, emerge other hallucinations of a future. “This poem will not end apartheid,” writes the poet Remi Kanazi in his new collection Before the Next Bomb Drops (Haymarket, 2015). But it will open up the imagination, lead to new possibilities, produce new politics, a politics against politicide.
The Freedom Theatre is seeking funds for its Freedom Jatha to India and back. Please give them a hand. The poster above is by the Indian artist Orijit Sen. It depicts Handala, the character created by the Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali, holding hands with Madhubala, his new Indian friend. Orijit’s posters are available if you donate money for the Freedom Theatre’s Jatha.
Vijay Prashad, director of International Studies at Trinity College, is the editor of “Letters to Palestine” (Verso). He lives in Northampton.