Witness, Resilience, Accountability

Against the Current, No. 223, March/April 2023

interview with Rabab Abdulhadi

AGAINST THE CURRENT editors Dianne Feeley and David Finkel spoke with professor Rabab Abdulhadi about her recent experiences and observations on the Palestinian struggle. Dr. Abdulhadi is the founder and director of the AMED (Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas) Studies program at San Francisco State University, where she has faced attacks by rightwing Zionist forces and bureaucratic obstruction from the university administration. She began by discussing her most recent trip. Dr. Abdulhadi would like to thank Anais Amer of National Students for Justice in Palestine and Saliem Shehadeh for editing assistance.

Rabab Abdulhadi: Last September, I co-organized with emergent scholars two international conferences and a delegation to Lebanon and Tunisia as part of our multi-year project, Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivisibility of Justice.

We focused in 2022 on the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the September, 1982 Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres that took place after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut.

We also commemorated the 20th anniversary of both the Israeli invasion of Palestinian areas under Palestinian Authority (PA) control (at the height of the Aqsa Intifada), the 2002 Jenin massacre and the start of the Apartheid wall. This same year marked the 15th anniversary of the blockade on Gaza and the 50th anniversary of Israel’s assassination of the Palestinian organic intellectual Ghassan Kanafani.

Linking these anniversaries together and commemorating them in a contextualized, comparative and historicized analysis that is relevant to the lived realities of marginalized (in this case Palestinian and Lebanese) communities is an essential cornerstone of justice-centered knowledge production and accountability that has been the trademark of Teaching Palestine.

Not unlike other colonial and repressive forces within and outside governments, Israel has historically and continues until this very day to assassinate Palestinian leaders, uproot them from and banish them within their land. For example, last month Israel deported Palestinian lawyer Salah Hammouri from Jerusalem to France.

Comparatively speaking, 2022 was also the 50th anniversary of the Portuguese assassination of African leader Amilcar Cabral. In the United States, COINTELPRO has been exposed in systematic attacks against leaders of the American Indian Movement, Black Panther Party, and the Puerto Rican and Xicano/a movements.

We commemorate these heroes and sheroes, drawing lessons of what it means to deprive movement from leaders and organic intellectuals whose analysis made huge contributions to the liberation movements.

It was a great honor for us to hold the Beirut conference at the headquarters of Assafir, the major leftist, anti-colonial and anti-sectarian newspaper, known as “the voice for those who have no voice.”

We were also gratified that the Beirut two-day conference featured a segment of who’s who among the Living Archives of Palestinian and Lebanese joint resistance against the Israeli invasion, as well as international witnesses who risked their very lives to defend Palestinian and Lebanese resistance.

We then traveled throughout Lebanon, visiting almost every Palestinian refugee camp that had not been destroyed in one or another Zionist or rightwing attack.

Teaching Palestine and Solidarity in Tunisia

We immediately flew to Tunisia for the second Teaching Palestine symposium, which we held on the eve of the Insaniyyat international conference, organized by several Tunisian and international bodies, including AMED.

A week earlier, our Tunisian keynote speaker, Ghassan Ben Khalifa, was detained by the authorities who confiscated his files and computer and subjected him to interrogation. Luckily, Ghassan was released just as our colleague, Dr. Oubada Kassar, editor of the social media page of Al-Adab Journal, was about to share the link of our petition demanding his freedom.

A founder of the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Tunisian anti-normalization collective, Ben Khalifa has been a leading activist in the struggle of the unhoused and poor people’s movement. His keynote address significantly and appropriately connected economic devastation and repression in Tunisia to the struggle for justice for Palestine.

In past ATC issues, including May-June and July-August 2020, we’ve discussed the genealogy and development of Teaching Palestine. As a pedagogical praxis, we bring together academics and non-academics, students and non-students, to hear from community elders, to whom I’ve referred to as Living Archives, who pass on Indigenous knowledge often absent from academic studies.

These intergenerational conversations highlight the significance of comparative studies and the indivisibility of justice, while rejecting the exceptionalization of Palestine.

Likewise, following the global pandemic that imposed a virtual conversion of all classroom instruction, we expanded our Teaching Palestine Open Classroom Series. Doing so enabled us to emphasize our commitment to the openness of the classroom both in the diversity of topics we discuss and the comparative critical lens we apply, as well as our refusal to abide by the neoliberal imperative of forcing students to pay for education.

We crafted these multilingual intergenerational conversations, and brought together our students who have not been taught this history. Holding these conversations in Arabic as well as several other languages — English, Spanish or French — challenges and draws attention to the domination and hegemony of colonial means and mediums of communication. Students and youth stepped up and volunteered their time and skills in simultaneous interpretation from Arabic.

As you know, producing knowledge within and outside the classroom has been integral to the framing of teaching Palestine in Palestine, South Africa, Cuba, Vietnam, Andalucia, and now Lebanon and Tunisia.

Connecting the ’68 movements in Paris, Tunisia, Mexico and at U.S. colleges has also been part of this pedagogical praxis. For example, at the World Social Forum in Mexico, we connected the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa with Israeli oppression of Palestinian students, including the use of Israeli spy software, Pegasus and NSO.

Our delegation was hosted by Beit Atfal Assomoud (BAS, or The House of the Children of Steadfastness), its director Kassem Aina, and the amazing women and men in various Palestinian and Lebanese grassroots organizations. Founded by the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) in 1976 to provide a dignified refuge for orphaned children whose families were martyred in the 1976 Tel Zaatar massacre, BAS now has fully operational kindergartens, schools, vocational and arts centers.

It was such a pleasure to attend a performance of Kamandjati, a full Palestinian Orchestra of more than 50 singers, dancers and musicians ranging in age from seven to 35-year olds. Supported by Italian leftist and trade union organizations, this impressive orchestra and chorus performed songs in Arabic and Italian to mark the anniversary of the massacre. Hearing the beautiful voices of children and youth singing revolutionary songs was truly a display of solidarity and love across borders, languages and cultures.

From Lebanon to Tunisia: Neoliberalism and Devastation

The resilience we witnessed was a radical contrast to the unprecedented devastation of Palestinian and Lebanese impoverished communities along with the growing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers from Syria and other parts of the Third World, especially African and Asian communities.

In both Lebanon and Tunisia, we saw the impact of neoliberal economic policies, devastation and repression and the workings of the police state. It was quite shocking even to those of us who have been following the news on a daily basis.

The economy in Lebanon is devastated. Though I’ve been visiting since 2000 to interview survivors of the massacre, I have never seen such devastation.

Lebanon used to be the center of banking for the region, particularly for the Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia. Before the Lebanese Civil War, Beirut was labeled as “the Paris of the Orient.” That image stood out as an Orientalist trope, before the fierce resistance against the 1982 Israeli invasion and the occupation of South Lebanon (1982-2000) switched Lebanon in the Western imaginary to an “uncivilized” space.

In both Lebanon and Tunisia, boycotting Israel and refusing to collude with the U.S. imperialism and neoliberalism have been intimately connected to international defunding aid, and intensified “securitized” intelligence sharing and military know-how.

An instant example in Lebanon is that you can’t withdraw cash from ATM machines. They don’t work anymore. Instead we learned of a new concept called “fresh dollars.” This literally means that the U.S. dollar is the only currency available for survival. This applies to professors, engineers or  employees of NGOs, who are paid in dollars — they hasten to cash in their paychecks as soon as they receive them. Waiting for even a week or two risks the real possibility that the banks might “run out” of “fresh dollars.” “Robin Hood” incidents whereby individuals rob banks at gunpoint to claim their deposits have become frequent occurrences, and at times they’re acquitted for just cause.

Unemployment has risen astronomically among Palestinian and Lebanese poor, especially the youth. The proportion is much higher among Palestinian refugees, who are directly impacted by chauvinistic tendencies among Lebanese lawmakers who have banned Palestinians from practicing over 60 professions. Other discriminatory Lebanese laws prohibit Palestinians from inheriting their property to their children.

Basic services, such as water, electricity and sanitation have been either cut back or completely shut off in some neighborhoods. In Palestinian refugee camps as well as in Lebanese poor areas, services are almost non-existent. The sewage system has never been adequate, nor has the electrical grid, since the refugee camps were set up in the early 1950s following the Palestinian Nakba.

Given these conditions, it is not surprising that many people, especially the youth, are trying to migrate to any country through “legal” and “illegal” means.

A major casualty of such economic devastation and chauvinistic Lebanese policies has been education. For Palestinians (as well as other marginalized communities), education has always been a cornerstone of survival and struggle.

Rarely do you talk to a Palestinian anywhere in the world who would not tell you one story or another about elders emphasizing that a college degree is the only passport a Palestinian can carry when faced with Nakba and displacement.

Before the 1982 expulsion of Palestinian fighters from Lebanon, the PLO used to battle UNRWA for better education for children inside refugee camps while simultaneously securing funding and scholarships in Lebanese and other Arab and international universities. However, in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion and the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon, Palestinian refugees lost their backbone. This is a major context of the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

Undergoing policing by Lebanese state security was a bitter pill to swallow for someone like me, who grew up under Israeli occupation with the emotional and mental scars of military checkpoints and constant surveillance.

I was not naïvely assuming that because these were our Arab siblings we would be treated well — but I was jolted by having to surrender my passport to Lebanese intelligence forces and be investigated by a computer linked to international intelligence agencies before we could enter Palestinian refugee camps still under siege.

My reaction was not dissimilar to visiting South Africa for Teaching Palestine in 2019 and to Brazil for the World Social Forum-Free Palestine in 2012. Viscerally, my body almost remembered the intolerable heat that you experience at the waiting area of Israeli border police when crossing from Jordan to Palestine.

Incarceration and Massacres by Design

Samir, a freed Lebanese prisoner at al Khiam, demonstrates various torture techniques used by the Israeli military and their Southern Lebanese Army collaborators. Teaching Palestine

We also visited Khiam Prison, set up during French colonial rule of Lebanon and used by the Israeli military and the South Lebanese Army (a puppet militia during the Israeli occupation — ed.) as a detention, interrogation and torture center for Palestinian and Lebanese resistance fighters.

The relationship between Israel and its collaborators in the South Lebanon Army could be approximated to that which the World War II Vichy government in France had with the German occupiers.

Israel bombed Al-Khiam in 2006 to eliminate physical evidence of this torture center, as Samir, a former Lebanese prisoner who guided us through Al Khiam and demonstrated torture techniques, explained to us.

Lebanese resistance prevented Israel from destroying the whole compound. You could still see the cells for women prisoners where many were tortured — as Kifah Afifi described in her oral testimony at the Beirut conference where she was joined by Anwar Yassine, a Lebanese militant who was tortured in Israeli prisons in Palestine ’48 areas.

The most impactful moment of our delegation was the commemoration of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre at the hallowed grounds of the mass graves. The commemoration site exists only because the municipality of Ghubairy, a Beirut district run by the Lebanese Hezbollah, built it. When you are standing on it, you’re actually standing on top of the bodies of those Palestinian and Lebanese martyrs.

As countless Palestinian survivors have testified, and as tribunals have documented, the massacre lasted for three days. Lebanese rightwing militias allied with, and guided by Israeli forces, the Israeli military turned on floodlights to enable the killing to go on through the night. They were led by the late Israeli war minister Ariel Sharon, who was elected years later as prime minister.

Palestinians and Lebanese were killed by knives, machetes and guns with silencers (to cover up the killing) and dumped into mass graves. News spread partly because butchered bodies began to decompose in the hot September days. This also made it impossible for many relatives to identify their dead.

Forty years later, thousands of “disappeared” remain unaccounted for. Throughout our trip, we heard over and over how there were at least 17,000 Palestinians and Lebanese “missing.”

Everyone we met emphasized that “massacres were not accidental.” They were speaking about Sabra and Shatila as well as massacres before and during the establishment of the state of Israel. As in other such cases of systematic violence, mass killings are intended to eliminate colonized people and crush their spirit of resistance and defiance.

Israel produced the Cahan report, which cited Israel and Sharon as being indirectly responsible. The reference of Sharon as “the Butcher of Lebanon,” which became a rallying cry for Palestinians, Lebanese and their international supporters, is an apt description.

The U.S. government was also culpable. Its special envoy Philip Habib had promised the PLO leadership that Palestinian civilians left behind after the withdrawal of the fighters would be protected. Then the United States (and European countries) withdrew their multinational troops leaving Palestinian civilians defenseless.

Forty years later, there has been no accountability. In fact, some Lebanese rightwing leaders who were allied with Israel and known to have participated in the massacre have made statements contemplating a run for the presidency of Lebanon.

Today, acceptance of the Palestinian narrative and support for Palestine is growing in the same way that people are much more aware of white supremacist structures and how they are connected to racial capitalism.

Israel and its apologists, along with the U.S. government, are invested in the myth that it was only rightwing Lebanese Christians who sought revenge over the assassination of their leader, Bashar Gemayel. But this does not correspond with the testimonies of survivors of Sabra and Shatila, including medical volunteers at Gaza Hospital, such as Dr. Ben Alof, Dr. Swee Ang, Dr. Aziza Khalidi and RN Ellen Siegel, who were treating the wounded at the Gaza hospital in Sabra and Shatila, who were treating the injured at the hospital in 1982 in Sabra and Shatila.

Others also testified such as Greek American doctor Chris Giannou, but most importantly it was the Palestinian and Lebanese survivors who witnessed it.

New Israeli Government

Against the Current: Given the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu and his extreme ultra nationalist and religious coalition, how will this affect politics in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and  beyond?

RA: We are witnessing an intensification/ escalation of inherent Zionist colonial violence and emerging fascism on a daily basis, which even dominant media cannot ignore. Actually, Netanyahu and what has been described as the far right share the same theoretical and ideological positions. If you recall, in an earlier Israeli election Netanyahu was also employing a dog whistle by urging his support base to vote because “The Arabs are voting in droves.”

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right and deeply racist politician who has been named the minister of National Security, has an expanded security portfolio that includes responsibility for border police in the occupied West Bank. Keep in mind, this elected official was convicted by Israel of racist incitement against Palestinians.

Last fall, Ben-Gvir was part of the crowd of Israeli Jewish settlers attempting to forcibly evict Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, yelling “If they are throwing stones, shoot them.”

From a justice-centered perspective, racial violence has always been at the core of the colonization of Palestine, as of other colonial and settler colonial regimes. However, with the expanding grassroots support for Palestine and its growing social media platforms, racist statements and evidence of Israeli apartheid and colonialism have become much more overt.

When the Israel Knesset (Parliament) passed the so-called “Jewish Nation-State Basic Law” in 2018, this was a triumph for fascist groups and individuals.

This law claims that “the Land of Israel (‘Eretz Israel’) is the historic national home of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established, and in which the Jew ish people exercises its natural, cultural, and historic right to self-determination.”

It adds that the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is “solely for the Jewish people.”

For example, article 4 states that the official language of the state is Hebrew, demoting Arabic, which was previously a second official language, to an undefined “special status.”

Today we witness a more overt license by the Israeli government for violence against Palestinians. This was certainly rubber-stamped by former U.S. President Donald Trump, whose overt hostility against Palestinians was crucial in the act of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the expanding influence of Christian Zionism.

Joe Biden is pursuing the same policies of enabling and protecting Israel. During the election campaign, Biden’s staff made promises, especially to Palestinian members and activists within the Democratic Party, but his administration has backed off on everything. His administration has reproduced the Israeli narrative and is promoting and legitimizing it.

Where is the Israeli Left?

What’s happening to the Israeli left? Larger numbers of Israeli leftists are no longer able to live in such a toxic and racist environment. This is not much different from white South Africans who left under the harsh repression of the apartheid regime irrespective of the privileges they enjoyed while at the same time opposing apartheid. They just couldn’t take what it did to them and their families. Here, it’s perhaps important to remind ourselves that the ability of Israeli Jews to leave Israel and return is never available to Indigenous Palestinians, given the various built in Israeli laws that are purposefully structured to uproot Palestinians and make their exile permanent.

Israeli anti-Zionist activists were beaten up and arrested during attacks on Sheikh Jarrah Lydda and Acre, but the hegemonic media, especially Israel-protective media, such as the New York Times, barely report on Israeli Jews who support and/or part of the Palestinian liberation project.

Another major issue in the dominant U.S. Media coverage on Palestine is that they only rarely talk about Palestinians from other non-Muslim religions or non-religious backgrounds — for example, Shadi Khoury, a Palestinian youth from a very well-known Christian family, who was beaten up, arrested and jailed, then released but placed under house arrest.

Then there are Israeli “leftists” who have moved to the center and more so to the right. In typical colonialist fashion, they blame Palestinians for resisting the occupation.

Every day, we hear about Israeli colonists stealing the farmers’ olives, burning the fields or pulling the trees out, all under the protective eyes of the Israeli military. Sometimes Palestinian farmers are only allowed an hour or two to pick their olives, but when they return the olives may be gone — stolen or burned by settlers.

Meanwhile, settlers are establishing and expanding new colonies. This would have never been possible if it were not for U.S. support. The majority of the world community already recognizes Israel’s repression — with increasing numbers of U.S. people at the grassroots, including young Jewish people.

Without the U.S. shield, Israel would not be able to escape being held accountable for its crimes against humanity and violence against Palestinians. Recent reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Israeli B’tselem, Al Haq and others have affirmed what Palestinians have said all along.

A Crisis in Zionism

There is a serious crisis in Zionism. For example, the front page of the New York Times recently published an article about how even young Jewish Republicans don’t identify with Israel. They do not identify with repression nor with racism.

Despite bullying and “anti-Semitism” smears, Jewish youth increasingly refuse to identify with Israel.

ATC: When we look at the rightwing Israeli crowds, fascist crowds in Sheikh Jarrah, we see many young people. What does that represent?

RA: I think that it resonates with what’s happening in the United States. Take Charlottesville, or the January 6, 2021 attempted coup. White supremacy, Zionism, and other forms of racism are built on the belief that other people are inferior and don’t deserve to live. This is taught and learned by younger generations through both official and unofficial messaging.

Repeating Trump’s slogan, “take our country back” (meaning that this is a country for white people) or we want to “make America great again,” the discourse of white supremacist groups is not different from Zionists in Israel. Trigger-happy Israeli soldiers who shoot and kill Palestinians on a daily basis are mostly 18-, 19-, 20-year olds.

By contrast, we also see anti-Zionist Israeli and Jewish youth refusing and resisting this racist ideology and increasingly joining movements for justice. The change on a grassroots level is still not reflected in the superstructure but this is not unusual; we know that it takes time, as we’ve seen this in movements from Arab revolutions to apartheid South Africa and the Movement for Black Lives.

This struggle is particularly relevant for me as an educator. Every day in the United States, we hear about a teacher being fired, or a school board being attacked by rightwingers under the claim that we must “protect our way of life.” What’s “our way of life” and for whom, and who is outside of it?

ATC: As a result of what Teaching Palestine and your trips have shown, how does it develop knowledge?

RA: Teaching Palestine entails centering the voices and lived experiences of the marginalized who bear witness to radical changes taking place. This captures the sense that resilience is a major contributing factor to victories. These reciprocal solidarity trips highlight more than ever the need to seriously commit to justice-centered knowledge production.

Second, it is our responsibility to refuse the neoliberal approaches to education that push graduation rates in order to qualify for state and federal funding at the expense of teaching about Palestine and other struggles for justice. Instead of parroting corporate terms such as “student success,” what’s needed is providing the resources to arm neglected students from public schools so they are not left behind in competing with students from elite private schools or wealthy areas.

This requires real commitment and conviction in the purpose of education, and on my own campus, in prioritizing the social justice mission instead of catering to donors’ agendas whose goals are to limit or contain criticism of greedy landlords, unrestrained profit making in militarized and securitized industries, funding the police and maintaining the status quo.

But organizing doesn’t happen by itself; it happens on different levels. Whether you’re talking about the Palestinian economy, or workers’ struggle at Google and Amazon, the balance of forces is shifting and opening up new spaces for the masses to organize.

Also, victories that happen in one area or field of organizing feeds into another — it’s very encouraging and breeds collective motivation. This is why Palestine Studies has such potential. We produce knowledge for justice, for everyone.

When Palestinians across the board — whether they are Israeli citizens, living in the ’67 West Bank, or in Jerusalem or in Gaza — recently went on strike, many people are not aware that the strike call was initiated in the ’48 areas inside Israel. This challenged Zionist narratives that insist on referring to these Indigenous Palestinian as “the Arabs of Israel” in order to erase their Palestinian identification.

This is significant as it signals a new stage in Palestinian liberation in which anti-colonial, anti-capitalist and anti-racist politics and actions are challenging the legitimacy of the corruption of the Oslo team of the historical PLO leadership that has been more in sync with US and Israeli goals than with the majority of Palestinians. This is accompanied by widening grassroots support for Palestine around the world.

Look at the World Football (soccer) Cup games actions led by the Qatari Committee Against Normalization (with Israel). We’ve also seen it at concerts and major international public events where Palestinian flags are raised on the field and the stands.

This defies the status quo notion that athletes are instructed to be “non-political” and instead only focus on entertaining audiences, but there are athletes who identify with movements and find ways to speak out. When the Moroccan team reached the quarterfinal, its members posed for their group photo with the Palestinian flag.

Our responsibility as activists, then, is to pass along our organizing experiences — what we have done well and what we did not accomplish. In other words, we acknowledge both continuity and rupture as we engage in critical thinking as intergenerational conversations.

When we were in Lebanon, young people in the refugee camps were eager to hear about what happened in the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s. Why? They want to be able to craft things differently today, they want to have that knowledge to inform the future. There’s more willingness to strategize collectively and begin to act together.

March-April 2023, ATC 223

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