Meanings of Palestinian Peoplehood

Against the Current No. 225, July/August 2023

Leila Kawar

Crossing a Line:
Laws, Violence, and Roadblocks to Palestinian Political Expression
By Amahl A. Bishara
Stanford University Press, 2022, 376 pages, $30 paper.

REFLECTING ON THE struggle for self-determination in Palestine in the May/June 2023 issue of Against the Current, David Finkel writes: “The question for Israeli society is whether it can confront the consequences of the Zionist movement’s denial, from its very inception, of the Palestinian nation. That struggle requires assistance from the outside, through the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) campaign and other actions of solidarity for Palestinian rights.”

In her recent book Crossing a Line: Laws, Violence, and Roadblocks to Palestinian Political Expression, Palestinian-American anthropologist Amahl A. Bishara addresses the struggle for self-determination in Palestine with a similar set of concerns, but from a different perspective. Indeed, one of the strengths of Bishara’s contribution is that it foregrounds the perspective of ordinary Palestinians and the questions that are important to them.

Even as Palestinians appear to be “losing” in the realm of official politics, Palestinian youth today are actively engaged in creative practices of protest, commemoration, and solidarity that build bridges across the geopolitical borders that separate their communities.

For these ordinary Palestinians, what is Palestine today? What are its possible futures? And what could Palestine be if not a state? These are the timely questions to which Bishara’s book directs our attention.

Research and Red Lines

Crossing a Line is a title with a double meaning. First, it describes the research method on which the book’s analysis is based. Over a period of more than a decade, Bishara herself repeatedly crossed back and forth between her primary sites for ethnographic research.

Specifically, this meant passage across the Green Line — the 1948 armistice line — that separates Palestinians living inside Israel’s 1948 territories, such as Bishara’s family residing in the Galilee village of Tarshiha, from Palestinians living in the West Bank, including those in Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem, which was another principal research site and a community where Bishara also has close family connections.

In short interludes between the chapters, Bishara recounts these trips in vivid detail.

The book’s title also has a less literal meaning, however, in the sense of crossing a red line politically. For the Palestinians whose experiences are recounted in this book, including the author herself, it is crucial to think about Palestinians of 1948 and Palestinians of 1967 as a people “with a collective relationship of care and connection.”(59)

As Bishara emphasizes, Palestinians hold a deep sense of connection to the place name Palestine and to its visual icon, which is depicted on the book’s cover. The book demonstrates the multiple ways in which this connection to historical Palestine persists, even as it remains outside the bounds of acceptable discourse in diplomatic circles to analyze the linkages between settler-colonial practices inside 1948 Israel and in the 1967 Occupied Territories.

Indeed, as Bishara reminds us, the degree to which such an analysis means crossing a red line politically was reinforced in January 2017, when a United Nations report discussing apartheid across the territory under Israeli control was rescinded following pressure from the Trump administration.

This red line has been baked into the structure of diplomatic conventions and NGO grant mechanisms as well as into how Israel administers border controls and research permits. Yet it is also something which activists committed to anti-imperial struggle, particularly those who came of age politically over the past two decades, are dedicated to challenging.

The Specificity of the Local

While recent scholarly writings, as well as the statements issued by Palestinian legal organizations such as Adalah, have explicitly sought to theorize a larger vision of Palestinian political community, the key contribution of Crossing a Line is to elucidate how the practices of ordinary Palestinians are also contributing to challenging settler-colonialism and offering expressions of political community across borders.

In doing so, Bishara’s analysis builds on existing scholarly and activist writings in three interrelated ways. First, Crossing a Line insists that Palestinian intellectuals, legal theorists and community leaders must remember that expression is always articulated in relation to place. As Bishara puts it, anti-imperial intellectual theorizations “should never be allowed to reduce the specificity of people’s struggles and life experiences.”(258)

Israeli rule operates in part by severing and immobilizing Palestinians, and it is important to acknowledge these real conditions of difference caused by Israeli occupation. Bishara is keen to foreground how places present specific conditions, while at the same time highlighting in her ethnographic analysis how Palestinians in her field sites resist this ordering.

Second, the book focuses not only on the referential dimension of political expression but also on its phatic, or connective, dimension. Through its use of the term “political habitus,” the analysis emphasizes the embodied sensibility that shapes political practice. Attention is also devoted to examining the affective dimension of how Palestinians orient themselves to the political world, a dimension that tends to be overlooked in intellectualized political writings and argumentation.

In guiding her readers to these aspects of political expression, Bishara writes that her aim is to offer a “sense of texture of politics for Palestinians.” (xxiii)

Third, Crossing a Line asks us to consider how the reflexivity that is a cornerstone of ethnographic method might allow for a deeper understanding of class and decoloniality. Approaching political analysis reflexively means asking: Who is the writer and who is the audience for which that text is written?

In the prologue to her book, Bishara discusses her own embodied research experiences of risk and fear, and how these informed her knowledge about a highly militarized colonial setting and how Palestinians are impacted by forms of violence. Here, the credibility of the writing is tied convincingly to its grounding in experience.

While these three elements might each exist separately, the methodology by which the book integrates them comes into view through Bishara’s engagement with critical Indigenous scholarship. I found particularly helpful in this respect her reference to the publicly-oriented writings of Native Hawaiian scholar J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, who explicitly draws parallels between struggles for self-determination in Hawaii and in Palestine.

According to Kauanui, “citing international law is a necessary tactic by which to challenge U.S. and Israeli domination, respectively.” But Kauanui then goes on to insist that legal/juridical argumentation is not enough on its own.

For meaningful modes of solidarity to be developed, it is also essential to identify and promote decolonial practices of relationships not premised on state recognition or other forms of domination. Inspired by these theoretical insights, Crossing the Line draws on ethnographic analysis to model how and where to look for decolonial self-determination in the context of a “no-state solution.”

Recollecting and Reconnecting

Crossing a Line shows us that one place to look for decolonial practices of self-determination is in commemorations of Nakba Day on both sides of the Green Line (and beyond). Nakba is the Arabic word for catastrophe, and the term which historically has come to mark the Palestinian dispossession that was a result of the establishment of Israel in 1948.

Bishara explains that Nakba Day commemorations have assumed increased importance as an occasion for collective political practice since the late 1990s, when the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced (ADRID) began planning marches of return inside the Green Line.

Nakba Day was also slowly institutionalized in the occupied territories during this same period, with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat building on street level practices that had begun during the first Intifada to declare it a national holiday in 1998.

Bishara acknowledges the often-prosaic nature of these commemorations, which like other Palestinian commemorative occasions invoke familiar repertoires of protest, human rights, and nationalism.

At the same time, based on her participant ethnography, she highlights that — more than anything else — Palestinian participants attending these commemorations wanted to spend time together and that they found in the very repetitiveness of collective political gathering a sense of grounded connection to past resistance.

In addition, Bishara emphasizes how these commemorations often brought Palestinians together across geographic and political divides, such as by bringing people living in the city into rural areas, or as they invited participants to march toward the Green Line. In these ways, they made Palestinian history “a felt, acknowledged part of people’s regular experiences.” (132)

Moreover, in some cases local Palestinian organizers sought to build relationships across the Green Line by approaching these commemorations as occasions for learning and exchanging.

Marches of Return in the West Bank and inside the Green Line deployed different graphic imagery and poster slogans, and made different choices of destination, but as Bishara shows they were often in conversation with one another. And in adopting these locally-grounded and creatively distinct forms of expression, she argues, they were speaking across the Green Line.

Nakba Day commemorations are not the only occasions on which Palestinians explicitly aim to build relationships across the Green Line. Working with Palestinian photography instructors in downtown Jaffa and in Aida Refugee Camp, Bishara herself co-facilitated a youth media project that aimed to explore what it would mean to photograph the built environment in each community “through a Palestinian lens.”

The organizers explicitly grounded the project in a framework of connection across difference. Yet in writing about this project from the perspective of a participant observer, Bishara reveals the practical challenges of imagining how to take photographs in dialogue with counterparts across a geopolitical border that many of the participants had never been able to cross.

As she shows, each group used their photographs (several of these images are reproduced in the chapter) to reveal the embodied and affective dimensions of political experience and knowledge. At the same time, the participants found that logistical limitations on movement made it hard to access what dispossession and exclusion meant – in terms of embodied orientations and political intuitions — for their fellow Palestinians across the Green Line.

Nevertheless, as Bishara recounts, the exhibition openings were experienced by all participants as a space for connection that was “Palestinian, but not nationalistic in the confines of the West Bank and Ramallah-centric, state-building version of nationalism.” (170)

Solidarity and Mourning on Social Media

Crossing a Line also directs its ethnographic lens to address a more spontaneous form of political expression in a chapter dedicated to social media practices of offering condolences and memorials for Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers or police.

Bishara’s analysis shows how the combination of social media platforms like Facebook with videos taken from cell phones and surveillance cameras has made military and police violence visible in new ways and with distinct meanings in Palestine, as these technologies have done in the United States for racist police and extrajudicial violence.

Her analysis points to the fruitfulness of approaching media responses to racist state violence through ethnographic method, offering a visceral account of her own embodied, emotional experience of watching these videos of lethal violence while living in Aida Refugee Camp.

Building on this, she then reflects on how the experience might be even more terrifying and enraging for her Palestinian friends in the West Bank who do not have the protection of citizenship and residency abroad, and have lived their entire lives feeling constantly vulnerable and exposed as part of a “demographic of young men who could be shot by Israeli soldiers and immediately dismissed as being a perpetrator deserving of death rather than a victim of excessive violence.” (182)

Bishara then offers a careful reading of Arabic-language Facebook posts offering condolences and memorials for Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers or police, showing how their primary emphasis is on expressing an emotion and maintaining connection with other Palestinians.

Using Facebook as their medium for expression, Palestinians draw on traditional modes of grief expression to draw close to martyrs who are actually strangers. These modes of grief include poems written in a Palestinian spoken dialect and expressions of condolences as prayer.

Social media exchanges around police and military violence thus have the effect of drawing people together in loss. When Palestinian citizens of Israel or Palestinians in the West Bank engage in these conversations, they are often addressing members of their own local communities. Yet Bishara finds that social media users in both communities were actively posting about deaths of Palestinians on the other side of the Green Line.

This digital ethnography leads her to conclude that social media here act as more than simply a pressure valve that deflects energy from more serious politics; rather, they operate as an everyday site for expressive practice, for engagement with local traditions and language, and for making connections among ordinary Palestinians, on which more institutionalized forms of activism may potentially build.

Sensing Politics, Locating the Political

Finally, Crossing a Line addresses forms of expression surrounding Palestinian political prisoners, particularly practices of resistance and self-determination that build bonds across separate subject positions on either side of the Green Line.

She writes, “In and around prison we find some of the most radical political connections between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank.” (207)

Because Israel incarcerates all Palestinian security prisoners in the same facility regardless of their formal citizenship status, the experience of incarceration has itself become a site for drawing new relations.

Bishara gains insight into the depth of the emotional ties created during incarceration in part through the experience of her brother-in-law, a refugee residing in the West Bank who was incarcerated alongside Palestinian citizens of Israel for almost three decades.

In addition, Bishara investigates how new kin ties of a different kind are forged through art and activism. Here she focuses on the experiences of her cousin, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, whose solidarity work with Palestinian prisoners and their families in the West Bank is closely linked to her creative visual and performance art.

The ethnography elucidates the emotional toll of doing solidarity work of this kind — the feeling of being on the margins, but also feelings of pleasure in forging kinship-like bonds and building local communal intimacies. Bishara argues that these practices of kin-making as care, by decentering our assumptions about what politics are and refocusing our attention on process, can cultivate a foundation for liberation and survival.

The theoretical framework that Bishara relies upon to inform this analysis — drawn from critical Indigenous studies, as well as from poststructuralist feminist scholarship and queer of color critique — is premised on concepts and frameworks that clearly diverge from traditional liberal understandings of “sovereignty” and “self-determination.”

They remind us to question party leadership’s repeated claims that the solution to occupation can only be political, or at least to interrogate what “political” means (or could mean). Moreover, in the context of Israel-Palestine, applying these critical decolonial frameworks reminds activists committed to anti-imperialism not only to challenge Israeli rule in the 1967 Occupied Territories, but also to resist the everyday tactics that constrain political expression and action for Palestinians across the Green Line.

Bridges for Liberation

Significantly, this approach aligns with ongoing creative efforts by Palestinian civil society organizations to articulate an Indigenous and anti-colonial vision of Palestinian identity. At the same time, it is a reminder to Palestinian activists that speaking together does not necessitate speaking in unison.

In examining how ordinary Palestinians build bridges across the Green Line, the analysis in Crossing a Line emphasizes the importance of fostering a “multivocality” rooted in place and community experience, even as it is connected to a broader Palestinian narrative and struggle for liberation.

Overall, as a reader I found it refreshing to see how Crossing a Line concretely connects Israel-Palestine to ongoing global structures of imperialism as well as to creative emergent practices of resistance that resist cynicism and despair.

Bishara raises a key question — not only for Palestinians but for all of us — as she urges us to ask: “How can I say something with someone else with whom I share something or to whom I am somehow connected?” (256)

I believe Bishara would agree that this is not the only question that should guide anti-imperial political expression and action today. Yet it is certainly an important corrective to the mainstream media discourse that addresses Israel-Palestine solely through the façade of U.S.-mediated “peace talks” or through bureaucratized United Nations meetings.

It is also a necessary antidote to corporate advertising campaigns that equate the areas administered by the Palestinian Authority to Palestine, and that present a version of freedom as consumption that only thinly papers over the legal reality and injustice of ongoing Israeli occupation.

Crossing a Line serves as a reminder for those committed to anti-imperialism to look beyond the corporate window-dressing version of sovereignty, to unearth alternative and emergent projects for liberation that are more firmly rooted in lived experience.

July-August 2023, ATC 225

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