Refusing Colonial Constructs

Cynthia G. Franklin

Where should we go after the last frontiers?
Where should the birds fly after the last sky?
Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air?
We will write our names with scarlet steam.
We will cut off the hand of the song to be finished by our flesh.
We will die here, here in the last passage.
Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree.

— Mahmoud Darwish,
from “Where Should the Birds Fly After the Last Sky?”(1)

ISRAEL AND THE United States have sustained the genocide taking place in Gaza since October 7, 2023 — and legitimated decades of Israeli settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing — through language concerning who and what counts as human.

The colonial rhetorics that underwrite what poet and professor Refaat Alareer called “the most brutally wild occupation the world has ever known”(2) establishes sharp lines between Israeli Jews as humans and Palestinians as animals. But rather than petition for admission into this way of human being, many Palestinian artists and activists offer another way of life — one that is necessary not only to realizing a free Palestine, but to creating futures in which we all can not only survive, but thrive.

Descriptions of Palestinians as animals that have been made by leaders of the right-wing Israeli government and echoed by others — referring to them as human animals, as inhuman animals, as snakes, as dogs, as beasts, as insects — prop up Israel’s Dahiya Doctrine, a military doctrine of collective punishment and deterrence that began in 2006.(3)

This labeling of Palestinians as “human animals” that serves to explicitly justify genocidal methods, dates back to the rise in Israel of the post-1967 militant national-religious ideological settler movement. In contrast, the early Zionist colonial-settler movement may have regarded the Indigenous population as backward or culturally inferior, but in the words of Vladimir Jabotinsky, founding guru of rightwing Revisionist Zionism, the Arabs would refuse to surrender “in return for either kind words or for bread and butter, because they are not a rabble, but a living people.”(4)

This relatively recent phenomenon animalizing Palestinians, which helps to establish an understanding of the human premised on domination, expendability and degradation of all deemed not-or less-than-human, is far from unique to Israel. This language supports Franz Fanon’s insight that “the terms the settler uses when he mentions the native are zoological terms,”(5) ones that construct colonizer and colonized as “different species.”(6)

Even as this animal-human divide is a familiar colonial construct, attention to its specificities matter. In their most seemingly insignificant as well as consequential manifestations, they expose the urgent need — and insights into how — to practice other, decolonial ways of being and belonging, those that “teach life,” to draw on Rafeef Ziadah’s 2011 poem condemning Western journalists for their complicity in the dehumanization of Palestinians in besieged Gaza.(7)

Tears for Gaza

This need was on my mind as I attended and then followed responses on social media to a Jewish Voice for Peace-Hawai‘i event, “Tears for Gaza.”

On November 29, 2023 some 75 of us gathered in the University of Hawai‘i English Department to grieve the lives lost since October 7, 2023 to Israeli settler colonial violence. We painted red teardrops on a white cloth and lit candles, as Nahed Minawi read out the names of 1200 of the martyrs.

With Rebecca Maria Goldschmidt holding a related event in Hiroshima spearheaded by Palestinians in Japan, JVP-Hawai‘i members Imani Altemus-Williams, Julie Warech and Luanna Peterson coordinated readings of the Gaza Ministry’s list of the then-10,000 names  — a list that as 2024 begins has more than doubled.

Ours was a solemn gathering, a time to sit and breathe in the stealing of so many lives that were not just numbers, an occasion to sit with that loss, in the company of others feeling that sorrow, together with the mix of love and rage compelling millions of people across the globe to rise up and demand not only a permanent ceasefire but a free Palestine, from the River to the Sea.

My own breath caught when Nahad, reading out names, came to the Joudah family. Nour Joudah was known to some of us in the room. Now a professor at UCLA, Nour had spent time in Honolulu working on her dissertation exploring connections between Hawai‘i and Palestine.

In the wake of the wildfires that ravaged Maui in August 2023, she had participated in a “Palestine for Hawai‘i” webinar and fundraiser organized by Sarah Ihmoud and hosted by Jadaliyya.(8) I had heard from Nour and then read from her brother Fady Joudah that Israel had killed over 50 members of the Joudah family.(9) Through the reading of names, Nahed was bringing Nour’s kin into the room.

When I posted photos from this event to the Students and Faculty for Justice in Palestine at the University of Hawai‘i (SFJP@UH) Facebook page, a heckler, “Tim Warner,” accompanied his “hahaha” emoji with a meme of an Asian woman greedily biting into a very large roasted pig head which she clutched in her hands.

As it manifests the misogyny and racism as well as the Islamophobia that so often characterizes Zionist trolling, the meme also represents the Asian woman, as well as the pig, as objects of disgust. Presumably the Islamophobic equivalent of a movie-goer enjoying a box of popcorn, this meme was a reminder that antisemitism is perfectly compatible with Zionism (did “Tim” know or care that Jews, like Muslims, traditionally do not eat pork?)

“Tim’s post brought to mind Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s October 9, 2023 chillingly consequential call for the annihilation of Gaza. Announcing, ‘I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed,’ Gallant asserted, ‘We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.’”(10)

Suffocation of All Life

Let me connect the dots between an everyday Zionist troll’s mocking meme and the Israeli Defense Minister’s call for collective punishment of — and genocidal violence against — Palestinians in Gaza.

What conjoins the two is not only a blatant disregard for Palestinian life — and refusal to situate Hamas’s actions in their historical and political contexts — but also the assertion of a way of human being that depends upon separation from, dominion over, and depraved indifference to anyone designated as less-than-or-not human, most particularly animals and Palestinians.

As Gallant fulfilled the promise of “a complete siege,” the world has witnessed the suffering and suffocation of all life in Gaza: humans, cats, dogs, donkeys, cattle, citrus and olive trees, strawberry fields.

This claim extends even to ownership over the elements, including the rain.(11) Prior to October 7, owing to 75 years of occupation, and 17 years of Israel’s land, naval and aerial blockade and intermittent warfare targeting the Gaza strip’s infrastructure as well as its people, 63 percent of Gazans were already food insecure, and the water situation was already dire.

The World Health Organization had deemed Gaza unlivable by 2020. As Israel enacts collective punishment against Palestinians in Gaza, the situation is truly catastrophic. Ninety-seven percent of the water is unfit for human consumption, Israel has displaced nearly two million people from their homes, and Gazans are dying of starvation and dehydration, as well as lack of access to medical services and other basic goods.

In the months following October 7, Israel has allowed entry to only an average of 60 rather than 500 supply trucks per day for a population of 2.2 million people. The occupying army is bombing cell phone towers, water tanks, homes, schools, mosques, churches, hospitals, shelters, bakeries and markets, and razing and poisoning farms, orchards and greenhouses.

Such genocidal violence depends upon a narrative of humanity — or what I call in Narrating Humanity: Life Writing and Movement Politics from Palestine to Mauna Kea, forms of “narrative humanity” — that establishes through narrative codes and conventions who counts as human. As they dehumanize Palestinians, hegemonic forms of narrative humanity also set humans as apart from, and assert their absolute dominion over, animals.

Although these narratives have proliferated post-October 7, they predate, have paved the way for, and have been employed to maintain the Israeli state and the Zionist project for over 75 years. Noting Menachem Begin’s 1982 reference to Palestinians as “beasts walking on two legs,” Raphael Eitan’s 1983 description of Palestinians as “drugged cockroaches in a bottle,” and Eli Ben Dahan’s 2013 assertion that “Palestinians are like animals, they aren’t human,” Ramzy Baroud has likened this language to that used in Rwanda to justify the genocide of the Tutsis.(12)

Ali Abunimah has also analyzed how language animalizing Palestinians accompanies calls for genocide. He observes how on July 1, 2014, the day before Israeli Jewish youth kidnapped and burned alive Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khudair, Israeli lawmaker Ayelet Shaked advocated for the mass murder of Palestinians.

 In a post widely shared on Facebook and “liked” by thousands before she removed it, Shaked stated, “Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women .… They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”(13)

This proclamation resonates with Gallant’s, both in Shaked’s advocacy for a complete siege, and in her assertion that Palestinians, as animals, should be obliterated. After Khudair’s cousin Tariq Abukhdeir was badly beaten the next day, on July 6 an Instagram post juxtaposed his raw and swollen face next to that of a pig’s.(14)

Motivating Genocide by Mythology

Accounts of Palestinians as animals play an integral part in supporting what Israel has been unleashing these past few months, with the full support of the United States and other Western governments.

Dan Gillerman, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, dismissed UN concerns about collective punishment by calling Palestinians “horrible, inhuman animals who have done the worst atrocities that this century has seen.”(15) Ron Prosor, Israel’s Ambassador to Berlin, said the Western world must stand with Israel as it fights Hamas, whom he described as “bloodthirsty animals.”(16)

Israeli General Ghassan Alian proclaimed, “Human animals must be treated as such. You wanted hell, you will get hell.”(17) Rabbi Meir Maroz told Israeli Channel 7, “If they [the people of Gaza] were humans, we would have sent them humanitarian aid…but this is about animals.”(18) Ezra Yachin, Israel’s oldest army reservist at age 95, was filmed calling for the Israeli military to kill families and children along with Hamas militants, stating, “These animals can no longer live.”(19)

The Zionist casting of Palestinians as “Amalek,” the Jews’ archetypal symbolic enemy, roots this violent divide between humans (Israelis and their supporters) and animals (Palestinians), in the Old Testament. To justify the October 27, 2023 ground invasion of Gaza, on October 28, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in Hebrew that in their battle against Hamas, Israelis “are committed to completely eliminating this evil from the world,” adding, “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.”

Netanyahu here invokes the first Book of Samuel, where the prophet Samuel tells King Saul that God has commanded Saul to kill every person in Amalek, the rival nation to Israel: “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”(20)

In this genocidal command, the inclusion of these other-than-human animals owes not only to humans’ dependency upon them for food and labor, but also because Amalekites were considered to be able to transform themselves into animals to avoid capture.(21)

Amalek is a Biblical fiction about an archetypal enemy of ancient Israel; there is no evidence or reason to believe that “Amalekites” actually existed, certainly not in anything like the way the Biblical legend tells.

The purpose of that story and others like it was to show how “our god can beat up their god.” Secular in his beliefs, Netanyahu knows this perfectly well, making his rhetoric even more cynical and genocidal in intent. Netanyahu’s appeal to his base and to the Israeli Army to treat Palestinians as “Amalek” is a signal calling for mass murder.

Erasing Humanity

In calling upon Israelis to “remember Amalek,” Netanyahu follows in the bloody footsteps of Brooklyn-born settler, Baruch Goldstein. In 1994, equating Palestine with Amalek, Goldstein massacred 29 Muslims praying at a mosque in Hebron, a city sacred to both Jews and Muslims.(22)

As he builds on this history, Ariel Gold contends that Netanyahu also appeals to Christian Zionists, and to “the religious-nationalist Kach party, founded in 1971 by Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who argued for “‘the immediate transfer of the Arabs’ out of Israel and the occupied territories, referring to Palestinians as ‘dogs.’”(23)

On X, in a December 8, 2023 post (since removed), Aryeh Yitzhak King, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, also invoked the story of Amalek and reinforced the Zionist narrative of Palestinians as animals.

Referring to footage the Israeli Army published in northern Gaza of abducted Palestinians stripped to their underwear, whom he described as “Muslim Nazis,” King stated, “If it were up to me, I would have dispatched D-9 bulldozers and put them behind the mounds of dirt and would have given the order to cover all these hundreds of ants, while they’re still alive.”

He continued, “They aren’t human beings and not human animals. They’re subhuman and that’s how they should be treated.” He followed this by saying, “Eradicate the memory of Amalek, and never forget.”(24)

King’s call to wipe out Amalek/Palestine and those who might remember it, while also enjoining Israelis to never forget their enmity for Amalek/Palestine, encapsulates settler logics. This is even as the reference to the men as “Muslim Nazis” simultaneously positions Israeli Jews as the victims here.

For Israel to complete its colonial project requires both erasing Palestinians and their memories, while preserving the memory of Palestinians as forever enemies. As with Netanyahu, King instrumentalizes Biblical references to normalize violence while continuing the myth that Israelis are engaged in an ancient religious feud, rather than a settler colonial project of dispossession. Taking up the story of Amalekites as subhuman/animal shapeshifters, works to remove Palestinians from the realm of history and the human.

“We Will Never Stop Sharing”

This story is unsustainable, as must be all narratives that attempt to justify genocide. First, Palestinian humanity and memory are not so easily eradicated: as Palestinians, joined by allies, remind us daily on social media as they document Israel’s inhumanity and assert their own, “We will never forget. We will never stop sharing.”

Second, this narrative requires denying that all humans are animals. Third, there is the glaring inhumanity of the position that only those deemed human are deserving of dignity and of life — and this is why Israel’s counternarrative must keep company with this colonial narrative. This profoundly hypocritical counternarrative posits the Israeli army as the most moral in the world, boasting of its high rates of veganism, and its rescue of pets from Gaza.(25)

Where does this story of the human leave Palestinians and others fighting for a free Palestine? On the one hand, who would want to struggle for recognition as human, when defined so inhumanely? Clearly, it is those wielding title to the human who are depraved and indifferent to the lives of others.

On the other hand, without laying claim to the human, how to put a stop to a genocide premised upon dehumanization? How else to assert the right to live and the other most basic of human rights?

Throughout Gaza, throughout all of Palestine, and throughout the shataat, many Palestinians are answering such questions through the practice of another way of human being and belonging, one that exposes and refuses the inhumanity of those seeking to violently exclude them from their land as well as from domain of the human.

As we turn to Gaza, we see not only Zionism desperately practicing a way of being human that, ultimately, may be the death of us all. We also see Palestinians teaching life — asserting rage and resistance towards those who dehumanize and kill them, while also rehearsing a humanity premised on care for one another, for their other-than-human relations, and for the land that they will never abandon.

On social media, in Whatsapp, Telegram, and Signal groups, Palestinians are taking care of one another. In addition to journalists holding orphaned and injured babies, medics refusing to vacate hospitals full of sick and injured people, families sharing tea and bread cooked over makeshift stoves on bombed out streets, we also see the people of Gaza extending their empathy to the non-human creatures suffering alongside them.

When I scroll through Instagram, such acts of kindness exist in heartbreaking and infuriating contrast to reels of Israelis playing victoriously in the emptied playgrounds of Gaza neighborhoods, exploding buildings, and spraying from helicopters what appears to be white phosphorus.

I see an Al Jazeera video of an elderly woman who, feeding her birds before herself, explains that “Just as I protect my own soul, I protect them, because they are also spirits (souls), and I fear for them.”(26) I see reels of men and children giving interviews or taking shelter as they cradle cats; I see journalist Wael Al Dahdouh making sure cats who are now homeless have food and water.

Shortly before the Israeli army assassinated him, also killing his sister and her four children, I see a video of Refaat Alareer, who served as a Gaza municipality volunteer, describing with sadness and anger the starvation and dehydration of those animals at the Gaza Zoo who survived the Israeli airstrikes.(27)

I see videos of Sulala Animal Rescue members risking their lives to care for donkeys and dogs. All this accompanies rage over a genocide that, in the name of a human war against human animals, continues even as the world witnesses it.

These instances of connection between Palestinians and their non-human relations extends to the land that Palestinians love as a part of them. We see this in photos of women who face Israeli bulldozers as they hold fast to the olive trees, whose roots and fruits hold Palestinian blood.

As Darwish tells us, “Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree”; or, as Fadwa Tuqan proclaims in “The Deluge and the Tree,” the Tree survives the colonial onslaught; it has not really fallen,

“…Not with our red streams flowing forever,/ not while the wine of our torn limbs / feed the thirsty roots, / Arab roots alive / tunneling deep, deep, into the land!”(28)

Artists and poets tell us how the trees who provide shade are home, as does Mosab Abu Toha in his poem “What Is Home?”(29) They show us, as in the paintings of Nabil Anani, women as one with Palestine’s lands, its rolling hills.(30)

They let us know how, alongside them, the pebbles weep, as they do in Refaat Alareer’s 2015 poem, “Drenched,” written in the wake of Israel’s 2014 killing spree in Gaza (“Only the pebbles wept. / Only the pebbles.”).(31)

Grounded Narrative Humanity

Girl whose chest contains an open cage by Palestinian artist from Gaza, Malak Mattar

This empathy, care and kinship bespeaks a way of human being and belonging that does not depend upon the violent hierarchies that make practices of death — war, occupation, land and “resource” extraction — natural or inevitable ways of sustaining human life.

Though specific in its iter­ations, such a way of being human is normative for many Indigenous peoples. I conclude  Narrating Humanity with attention to Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) kinship and respectful reciprocity with Mauna Kea as their sacred mountain and relation, and with their other-than-human relations, including land, sky, waters, elements.

I view the stories that convey this decolonial relationship as instances of “grounded narrative humanity,” distinguishing them from forms of narrative humanity that uphold colonialism, racial capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. Living in a time of genocide, climate catastrophe, and war without end against all deemed inhuman or less than human, our collective survival depends upon learning these ways of human being and belonging.

In my living room, I look daily at a painting by the internationally acclaimed artist from Gaza, Malak Mattar, who began painting during Israel’s 2014 siege on Gaza.

One of her earliest paintings, this one is of a girl whose chest contains an open cage. Her eyes, as she faces her viewers, are portals; they bespeak starry skies. Around her, birds fly free against a background that is sky blue, but brighter.

Mattar tells a similar story in her children’s book Sitti’s Bird: A Gaza Story. In it, the girl in the story, Malak, tells of how, after surviving the terror of 2014, she finds her grandmother’s bird on her windowsill, and “feels like the cage inside her had been opened.”(32)

The bird here is her grandmother’s companion, and her own in the freedom dreams that conclude the story as Malak takes flight into the star-studded night, sitting on the bird’s back.

As in the painting, the freedom of birds and Mattar are interconnected. The bird is not only a symbol of peace, not only a metaphor for having the freedom to fly away from but also to return home.

Together with the girls and women who populate Mattar’s art, the birds are, to revisit the words of the woman who feeds the birds before she herself eats, companions, souls who provide and receive comfort and care.

In “After the Last Sky,” Mahmoud Darwish asks, “Where should the birds fly after the last sky?” while also promising that the land will continue to live, nourished by Palestinian blood.

Mattar adds to this vision of grief but also regeneration through the land, through her art that envisions how she and the birds are free, undivided from and as one with each other and their land, skies and waters.

In the company of so many other Palestinians who are painting and writing and telling stories and singing; who are throwing stones and breaching walls; who are making shelters of their bodies even as they themselves have none; who are sharing poems and music, bread and tea; who relate to their other-than-human animals and land as kin, Mattar breathes life into a way of human being and belonging that refuses and resists colonial violence and death propagated in the name of the human.

Our collective survival depends upon listening to and learning from these decolonial practices of being human.


  1. Mahmoud Darwish, “Where Should the Birds Fly After the Last Sky?,” Nadine Khouri, 2022,
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  2. “Dedication.” Biography, vol. 37 no. 2, 2014, p. v-v. Project MUSE,
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  3. “The Dahiya Doctrine and Israel’s Use of Disproportionate Force,” IMEU, 7 Dec. 2012,
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  4. Ze’ev (Vladimir) Zabotinsky, “The Iron Wall,” 4 Nov. 1923,
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  5. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, introduced by Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. by Constance Farrington [1961], (New York: Grove Press, 1963), p. 42.
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  6. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 40.
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  7. Rafeef Ziadah, “We Teach Life,” Rafeef Ziadah,
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  8. “Jadaliyya Event: Palestine for Hawai‘i — Teach-In and Fundraiser for Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian),” YouTube uploaded by Jadaliyya, 9 Sept. 2023,
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  9. “‘Unspeakable’: Dr. Fady Joudah Grieves 50+ Family Members Killed in Gaza & Slams U.S. Media Coverage,” Democracy Now, 9 Nov. 2022.
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  10. Emanuel Fabian, “Defense Minister Announces “Complete Siege” of Gaza: No Power, Fuel or Food,” The Times of Israel, 9 Oct. 2023,
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  11. “The Occupation of Water,” Amnesty International, 29 Nov. 2017,
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  12. Ramzy Baroud, “‘Human animals’: The sordid language behind Israel’s genocide in Gaza,” The Jordan Times, 24 Oct. 2023,
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  13. Ali Abunimah, “Israeli Lawmaker’s Call for Genocide of Palestinians Gets Thousands of Facebook Likes,” Electronic Intifada, 7 July 2014 (Updated May 8, 2015),
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  14. Abunimah, “Israeli Lawmaker’s Call for Genocide.”
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  15. Samar L. Kasim, “Israel’s Former Ambassador to UN Calls Palestinians ‘Inhuman Animals,” AA, 27 Oct. 2023,
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  16. Claudia Chiappa and Anne McElvoy, “Israeli Envoy: Hamas ‘Animals’ Must Be Destroyed,” Politico, 12 Oct. 2023,
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  17. Sameer Arshad Khatlani, “Weaponization of Biblical Literalism: Palestine as Amalek,” MyPluralist, 2 Jan. 2024,
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  18. “Rabbi Meir Maroz to Israeli Channel 7,” X, Nov. 10, 2023, 10:01 pm,
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  19. “‘These Animals Can No Longer Live’ Says Israel’s Oldest Reservist,” Al Jazeera, 14 Oct. 2023,
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  20. Donald Wagner, “Netanyahu Abuses Bible to Impress US Evangelicals,” Electronic Intifada, 7 Nov. 2023,
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  21. Indlieb Farazi Saber, “‘Seen as Less Human’: Why Has Islamophobia Surged Amid Israel’s Gaza War?,” Al Jazeera, 21 Dec. 2023,
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  22. Noah Lanard, “The Dangerous Rhetoric Behind Netanyahu’s Amalek Rhetoric,” Mother Jones, 3 Nov. 2023,
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  23. Ariel Gold, “Bibi Netanyahu’s Bible Lessons: How He Pushes Gaza War to Jewish and Christian Far Right,” Salon, 13 Nov. 2023,
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  24. MEE Staff, “Israel-Palestine War: Israeli Politician Calls for Captured Palestinians to Be ‘Buried Alive,’” Middle East Eye, 8 Dec. 2023,
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  25. Sarah Doyel, “‘The Most Vegan Army in the World’: How Israel Co-opts Veganism to Justify Palestinian Oppression,” Mondoweiss, 9 Sept. 2019,
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  26. Stories from Gaza: Palestinian Woman Rescues Her Pets,” YouTube, uploaded by Al Jazeera English, 6 Nov. 2023,
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  27. “Starvation and airstrikes killed majority of the animals in Gaza Zoo,” YouTube, uploaded by Al Jazeera, 27 Nov. 2023,
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  28. Fadwa Tuqan, “The Deluge and the Tree,” The Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2003),
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  29. Mosab Abu Toha, “What Is Home?,”,
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  30. Tamara Turki, “Palestinian artist Nabil Anani’s evocative ‘The Land and I’ on display in London,” Arab News, 5 April 2023,
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  31. Refaat Alareer, “Drenched,” qtd in Maxim D. Shrayer, “If I Must Die…,” Tablet, 18 Dec. 2023,
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  32. Malak Mattar, Sitti’s Bird: A Gaza Story (Northampton, MA: Crocodile Books, 2022), np.
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March-April 2024, ATC 229

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