[This article is part of a roundtable that is a product of a public forum that Academics for Justice in Palestine (AJP) at UCSB held on 8 December 2023. To see all other entries in this roundtable, click here.]
I stand with you today, a settler on unceded Chumash land. A land drenched in ongoing genocide and resistance to it. I owe a debt to this land and its history. I stand with you today, the daughter of refugees, who survived the Nakba of 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians became stateless refugees, when 150,000 Palestinians were rendered strangers, subject to military rule and now a “minority” on their own lands. It is my inheritance to talk about Palestine.
I stand with you today, a historian of Palestine. It is my job to talk about Palestine. I stand with you today, a small part of a large movement. A movement of people with the courage to utter words like free, Palestine, river, and sea. A global movement that has taken the streets as we witness a devastating war of annihilation on Palestine, on Palestinians, on the very idea of our peoplehood.
I stand with you today part of this large movement that confronts powerful forces trying to silence us, from the floor of the United States Congress to the ruins of the Gaza Central Archive, shattered under the force of the fifth largest army in the world.
I stand with you today as a student of the community in this room: Students for Justice in Palestine, El Congresso, the Black Women’s Health Collaborative, the Student Commission on Racial Equity, the Black Students Union, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Commission on Disability and Equity, the Human Rights Board, the Environmental Justice Alliance, the Muslim Students Association, the Afghan Students Association, the Lebanese Social Club, the Mauna Kea Protectors, Mujer, the Collective of Pueblos Originarios in Diaspora, the Queer and Trans Graduate Student Association, Cops off Campus, the Young DSA, Las Maestras Center, and undergraduate, graduate, and academic laborers and staff, across the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and MCC. You have shown up week after week, in grief, in love, in community.
In keeping with the long, honorable tradition of Jewish anti-Zionism, you remind us that defending Palestinian rights, criticizing Israeli policy, and opposing anti-semitism are wholly consistent and mutually reinforcing positions to hold. You teach us, that to stand for Palestine is to stand against all forms of racism and oppression. You teach us that no one is free until we are all free. I honor these lessons in offering four ways to talk about Palestine: to listen, to witness, to remember, to speak.
Let us witness
Early on in these sixty-two days of a fall that has lasted a lifetime, the content-creator-turned-reporter Bisan Awda began her reel as she did every day: I am Bisan from Gaza, Palestine, we are still alive. That day on October 18, her cheeks were fuller than they are today, her eyes still sparkling with an anticipation now worn down by an unsatiable grief, by witnessing lives lost, dreams annihilated. She said, “I want to show how good people are.” A group of young men, bakers, had started a free bakery in the Shifa courtyard, using what dwindling supplies they had left to feed one another.
Khubz arabi, or Arabic bread, is slightly leavened flat bread. It has five ingredients: flour, water, sugar, yeast, salt. It has many permutations; it responds to the conditions around it. It requires care, dexterity, resourcefulness. Palestinian bakeries, like Palestinian hospitals, have been a recurring target of this war of annihilation. Among the thousands of lives ruined and maimed lie the remnants of the places that fed them. In the third week of October, Oxfam declared starvation had become a key weapon of the war on Gaza. The 2.3 million people of the Gaza Strip had at that point access to two percent of the supplies they needed.
That day, on October 18, Bisan stood in the courtyard of the hospital, transformed from a house of healing to a place of refuge, to a mass burial site, to a site of siege. That day Bisan explained: we craft hope even if we will not live to see tomorrow. Catastrophe is not in the future, the Nakba is not in the past.
Let us listen
A young girl narrates. She is seven or eight, her hair singed, her brown eyes wide, her clothes melted, her hands burned, her face layered with dust, yellow powder, and blood. She is composed. Confident. It is 12 November 2023. She begins: We went to Shifa. We learned it was a target. My mother wanted to go to her cousins, they were sheltering at another hospital. Her story continues: We found a room, we took shelter. The tanks were at the gate. Her voice rises, emotion fills her throat. We were asleep when the bombing started. The sound did not wake me, the smoke did. She does not shake. She does not cry. She is calm, pragmatic, matter of fact. She tells her story as a cautionary tale.
And still, so much escapes words. What did she see that day at Shifa? Did she see the wounded and the displaced crowded into hallways and staircases? Did the smell of death envelop her? Did the reality of decomposing bodies confront her?
Did she walk the packed corridors? Did she glimpse the women sitting on stools making life in the midst of catastrophe? Did she take comfort from the woman with the two-tier electric ovens, kneading dough, putting it on the fire, watching it rise, browning the loaf, filling hungry stomachs with what little supplies were left. Did she get a piece of bread?
Let us remember
Let us remember, on this sixty-second day of 75 years of Nakba, and a hundred years of war, one hundred years of denial of Palestinian political rights and peoplehood. Let us remember November 29, 1947, when the General Assembly of the newly established United Nations voted to terminate the British mandate and partition Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. Let us remember the many dates since then.
Between November 1947 and May 1948, Zionist forces and the Palestinians were immersed in a war for the future. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the state of Israel. The next day, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Iraq invaded. The Nakba of 1948 took place in what historians now categorize as four stages.
Stage one was from December 1947 to March 1948. The Zionist military organization, the Haganah shelled neighborhoods and villages and authorized the destruction and expulsion of the villages of Arab Suqeir and Qisaraya, south of Haifa, in February 1948. Two militias, the Irgun, and the Lehi, targeted Arab fighters and Palestinian civilians at bus stops, shopping centers, and markets. The Haganah’s military advances and psychological warfare marked this period as one of panic and fear. During these four months, Palestinians with the means to do so fled, in hopes of return.
Stage two began in March 1948, when Plan Dalet was dispatched to Haganah forces. The plan was a shift to large-scale, highly organized, and sustained operations; the war of conquest was in full force. On April 9, 1948, paramilitary forces, the Irgun and the Lehi, numbering about 120 troopers advanced on a village near Jerusalem called Dayr Yassin. The troopers pillaged the village, shot fleeing civilians, and killed 100 to 120 villagers, including combatants. Later that month, the Haganah overpowered Arab forces in Haifa. By May 1948, expulsion of villagers became regular practice. By the end of June, 250,000 Palestinians had fled or been expelled under the force of fire.
Stage three of the Nakba was between July and October 1948. That July, Israeli forces expelled 60,000 Palestinians—men and women; children, and the elderly—from the towns of Lydda and Ramla, southeast of Jaffa. The refugee columns left behind a trail of belongings, some refugees perished along the way. Stage four of the Nakba was between October 1948 and March 1949, when Israeli forces conquered the Naqab, the Jerusalem Corridor, and the Upper Galilee.
In December 1948, Israel issued the “Emergency Regulations on the Property of Absentees.” Later embodied in law, this emergency legislation facilitated the expropriation of the land and property of Palestinian refugees. By the end of the Nakba, Israeli forces had destroyed 470 to 530 Palestinian villages and emptied Palestinian cities and neighborhoods. Looting, massacres, and imprisonment prevailed.
Let us witness
Let us witness the Palestinian condition: Separation. Subjection to premature death. Colonization. Brutality. Necropolitics. Borders that cross and define you. The constant threat, erasure, and denial of rights to basic politics and peoplehood. A suffocating subjugation. The Nakba has never stopped. It is now in full-scale assault. Today we rehearse another inventory.
Since October 7, every day, we grieve lost lives. We grieve the loss of 1,200 Israelis. We grieve the 17,177 Palestinians, including nearly 7,112 children that we have lost. We grieve the thousands missing under the rubble. We grieve as more than more 1.9 million of Gaza's 2.3 million Palestinians are now officially Internally Displaced Persons.
The grief overwhelms us, and yet we hold on to it. We hold on to the children rocked by pain crumpled in their heartbreak over their dead parents. We hold on to the parents devastated unable to let go of their dead children. We know, as Hala Alyan teaches us, that bearing witness is an honor. That we owe these Palestinians our endurance.
The UN warns of a ‘risk of genocide’ against Palestinians. We do not have time for these warnings. We cannot await a secular salvation or a messianic apocalypse. We are in the apocalypse. From perpetual climate crisis, to the extinction of plants and animals, to the forces of white supremacy, misogyny, and global fascism, we live in a world of generalized catastrophe, in a condition of “trouble without end,”of “transit,” in the “wake” of interminable events. In this age of catastrophe, Palestine is a paradigm. It can teach us about our present condition of the permanent temporary.
Palestine is a place of abundance, an abundance of lessons about persisting in the present. Like many other struggles, Palestine reminds us, in the words of Jodi Byrd, that the “post has not yet arrived.” There is no postcolonial, postracial, postZionist.
As we witness, listen, remember, speak apocalypse, we hold tightly to the lessons that the keepers of families and the keepers of stories teach us. To bake bread, to tell your story, it is these acts to which we return.
Let us speak
Crisis and speech, we have learned from Rosemary Sayigh, are inextricable; crisis is motive, content, and structure of speech. The stories of everyday people witnessing extraordinary things are based on experience; they are non-chronological and fragmented. They exceed geopolitical plots. Those storytellers, they do not reflect history, they make it. We must listen to these embodied, polyvocal testimonies of storytellers like Bisan. They are as old as Palestine itself.
These stories are not, as Hana Sleiman reminds us, only a register of resilience, sumud, and hope. They are cautionary tales. The tellers of these tales are calm, pragmatic, matter of fact. They know that the worst is yet to come, because the worst has never stopped. Palestinian storytellers offer a set of tools, skills, and mindsets. They shape a historiographic form, a way of telling history.
In this sixty-second day of 75 years of Nakba, and a hundred years of war, there is a raid every half hour. A Palestinian child dies every ten minutes. Palestine is the place where a world is unmade, a world where the illusions of international law, humanitarianism, the claims of civilization shatter ever further into an inferno of hypocrisies and lies.
Today, amidst genocide, we follow the lessons of the bakers and the storytellers, kneading dough, crafting narratives, making worlds, even as they face the certainty of their death. I am smiling, Bisan says, because I love life, because I am still alive.