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The Walls of the Tank: On Palestinian Resistance
How do you keep on fighting when everything is lost? Ask a Palestinian. A Palestinian is someone who is wading knee-deep in rubble. Palestinian politics is always already post-apocalyptic: it is about surviving after the end of the world and, in the best case, salvaging something out of all that has been lost.
How do Palestinian writers describe the end of the world? In The Ship, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who left Palestine for Iraq in 1948, looks back on a land overflowing with ‘rivers and waterfalls’ and laments the expulsion of his people into ‘flaming deserts and screaming oil-producing cities.’ iThe same trajectory is retraced in his poem ‘In the deserts of exile’:
Our Palestine, green land of ours (…)
March adorns its hills (…)
April bursts open in its plains (…)
They crushed the flowers on the hills around us,
Destroyed the houses over our heads,
Scattered our torn remains,
Then unfolded the desert before us (…)
Our land is an emerald,
But in the deserts of exile,
Spring after spring,
Only the dust hisses in our face.
In Men in the Sun, Ghassan Kanafani, the legendary writer and PFLP spokesperson, charts the course from a damp ground filled with yesterday’s rain – present only on the very first page, like a fleeting hallucination – to a barren desert stretching out in all directions, under a sun whose heat seems to increase perpetually, up to the point where the human body cannot take any more. Three men try to cross the desert into the oil-producing cities of Kuwait. In what is probably the most famous scene in Palestinian fiction, they hide inside an empty water-tank and, while their smuggler is holed up at the border, succumb to the unbearable heat. When the smuggler finds their bodies, he cries out, in a scream echoing through generations of Palestinian resistance culture: ‘Why didn’t you knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn’t you bang the sides of the tank?’
Neither of these two canonical Palestinian writers, nor anyone else writing in Arabic, has come close to the global bestseller status of Susan Abulhawa. It is the singular achievement of her two novels Mornings in Jenin and The Blue Between Sky and Water to bring the Palestinian experience right into the mainstream of the Anglophone book market, before being translated into dozens of other languages. They follow the same tripartite structure: a prelude on the lifeworld of Palestine; the end of that world; the travails of the protagonists ever after. In Mornings, the prelude pivots on the harvesting of olives; in The Blue, on bee-keeping, practised since time immemorial in a village where the river – ‘brimming with God’s assortment of fish and flora’ – carried away the gossip and prayers of the peasants and meandered to the rhythms of their life. Then came the Haganah ‘with their mechanized weaponry and fighter planes’. The village was engulfed in flames. ‘Clouds of smoke hovered low, painting the world black, settling on the dead like dark shrouds and invading the lungs of the living, who heaved and convulsed as they sought refuge.’
It is a peculiarity of the Palestinian experience, however, that the moment of ending recurs endlessly.
The end did not come to an end in 1948: Abulhawa, in Mornings in Jenin, refers to the year as ‘an infinite mist of one moment in history’; in his poem ‘Blessed be that which has not come!’, Mahmoud Darwish calls it ‘the year without end’; not only are the refugees blocked from returning, but the original act of destroying the houses over the heads of their inhabitants is repeated again and again, from al-Majdal in 1950 to al-Araqib in 2016. Fresh rubble is always poured out over the Palestinians. In A Balcony over the Fakihani, Liyana Badr describes one of these eternal recurrences, in Beirut in 1982, but her words could fit any of the others:
I saw piles of concrete, stones, torn clothes scattered about, shattered glass, little pieces of cotton wool, fragments of metal, buildings destroyed or leaning crazily (…) White dust smothered the district, and through the gray of the smoke loomed the gutted shells of blocks and the debris of houses razed to the earth. (…) Everything there was mixed up together. Cars were upside down, papers whirling in the sky. Fire. And smoke. The end of the world.
Near the end of A Balcony, Badr places one of her characters close to the border to Palestine, where he can just catch a glimpse of his home village in an expanse of green at the foot of a mountain. It is wrong, then, to say that Palestinian politics is about surviving after the end of the world. That end is rather renewed, reconstituted, reinforced along an axis laid down in 1948: from rivers and damp ground to deserts, heat, fire, smoke and the debris of razed houses. The crossing is not completed; the Palestinians, it seems, never come out on the other side. Inside the tank is where they try to survive.
If these descriptions of the fate of Palestine are the products of writers’ imagination, we now possess a sumptuous collection of photographs providing more hands-on evidence. In The Palestinians: Photographs of a Land and its People from 1839 to the Present Day, Elias Sanbar has gathered documentation of life before the catastrophe.vii Much of it is distorted by the lenses of European cameramen, made to conform to preconceptions of Palestine as Biblical territory, desolate ruin, spiritual source or empty land – all such ideologemes flayed by Sanbar in acerbic comments – but the realities of Palestinian life constantly shine through; before 1948, they cannot be kept out of the pictures.
We see fishermen of Tiberias tending their nets. Women in Bethlehem fetch water and put the jugs on their heads. Boatloads of fruit leave the port of Jaffa, a labourer picks oranges in a dense grove and fills up several baskets, a man places ladders in the right positions so he can reach the highest olives, women return from harvest with enormous bales on their heads. A young mother carries her infant, bites a corner of her veil and smiles flirtatiously. An elegantly dressed woman rests on four pillows as she puffs on an arghileh. Farmers crop wheat below the walls of Jerusalem, coppersmiths bang on lids, stone-cutters show their picks and axes, a merchant walks imperiously one step ahead of a man in ragged clothes carrying his burden on his back. Street vendors offer tomatoes, potatoes, bread, carpets to passers-by. A crowd is spread out along the banks of the al-Auja river for picnic; a group of people row a boat in a river Jordan nearly overflowing with water. Tiberias is a collection of houses around the central mosque, between the mountains and the lake, green and blue on all sides; Silwan softly hugs one of the hills around Jerusalem, the others extending towards the horizon; half a picture of Nazareth is filled by a foreground of flowers. Haifa rests calmly on the turquoise coast. A turbaned sheikh squats in the snow at the top of Mount Hermon, while somewhere else dancers perform dabke in front of a monastery.
And then irrupts ‘the drowning’, as Sanbar names the moment. ‘In 1948 a country disappeared, drowned. Within a few weeks, it was exile. Absence swallowed up the thousands who left their homes on foot or aboard trucks, boats, or other makeshift means of transportation’.
The first extant picture of a Palestinian refugee camp shows a group of women walking in the mud, the forest of black and grey tents of Nahr el-Bared behind them. One sweltering hot week in the summer of 2007, I stood with the great-grandchildren of that generation at the perimeters of the camp – by then a veritable city – and watched as the tanks of the Lebanese army reduced Nahr el-Bared to a pile of smouldering debris.
What is the relationship between Palestine and the rest of the world? In Global Palestine, John Collins argues that rather than an exception, a stubbornly irresolvable anomaly, a leftover from a colonial past that modernity has left behind, this particular country should be seen as a monad, in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the term. Forces operating worldwide are crystallised inside it. They come together with extreme ferocity in the land of Palestine, which works as a kind of laboratory or ‘prophetic index’, holding clues to the future others will face. ‘Are we all becoming Palestinians?’ Collins asks; a list of global tendencies – the proliferation of walls, the rise of drone warfare, generally accelerating technologies of repression – tempts him to answer in the affirmative. He also mentions the destruction of the natural environment, or ‘the war on the milieu’.ix But it is Naomi Klein who has looked deepest into this particular mirror of the monad. In her recent Edward Said lecture, ‘Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World’, she suggests that the Palestinian experience of displacement and homesickness is poised for universalisation in a warming world:
The state of longing for a radically altered homeland – a home that may not even exist any longer – is something that is being rapidly, and tragically, globalised. … If we don’t demand radical change we are headed for a whole world of people searching for a home that no longer exists.
Millions will have to move along the Palestinian axis. There will be deserts, heat, fire, smoke, debris and drowning, first for masses of fisherfolk, labourers, peasants, street vendors and mothers working in their homes, and then, if the warming proceeds unabated, for pretty much everyone else. They will scramble onboard a boat that can only cruise and circle between shores because there is no solid ground to disembark on any longer, as in The Ship.
The relation between Palestine and climate change, however, is more than one of allegory or analogy. Fossil fuels have been integral to the catastrophe from the very start.
In 1839, the drums of war rumbled over the Middle East, as tensions between the British Empire and the Egyptian pasha Muhammed Ali, who at that point controlled present-day Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, came to a head. The self-reliant, wilful, ambitious pasha sought to establish a domestic manufacturing base centred on cotton, at precisely the moment when the British cotton industry descended into its first crisis of over-production. Britain had just negotiated a fabulously favourable free trade agreement with the Ottoman Empire, and for this and other reasons, it sought to bring Ali’s territories back into the Ottoman fold. In the summer of 1839, however, his army had streamed into what is today eastern Turkey and practically stood on the doorsteps of Istanbul. London now signalled that it would unleash its full military might if the Egyptians advanced any further. ‘Know’, the consul-general in Alexandria warned the pasha, ‘it is in the power of England to pulverize you.’
‘We must strike at once rapidly and well and we are sure then to obtain great success by arms, and to shew the frailty of Mehmed Ali’s power in Egypt and Syria’, exclaimed Lord Ponsonby, the British ambassador to Istanbul: ‘The whole tottering fabric of what is ridiculously called the Arab Nationality will tumble to pieces.’
The key weapon of the campaign had just been added to the imperial arsenal: steamboats. They ran on coal. Because their energy source was detached from the local weather and landscape, they had the tactical advantage of allowing commanders to steer them to any desired point, regardless of waves or winds. But before 1840, steamboats had never been tested on the battlefield of a major war. Now London resolved to prove their mettle: the best fighting ships would be assembled to bombard coastal towns, land marines on selected spots, ferry arms to inland allies and sweep Ali out of the Levant. In early September 1840, Britain declared war on Egypt and sent its naval forces to the Lebanese coast. Their commander, Charles Napier, soon reported back to London: ‘Steam gives us a great superiority, and we shall keep them [the enemy troops] moving.’
The decisive battle stood at the Palestinian port town of Akka. The Egyptians had repaired the walls of the old crusader capital, armed its ramparts with heavy guns and garrisoned it with thousands of soldiers, making it by far the sturdiest fortress on the Levantine coast. A major depot, it also held a tremendous amount of ammunition. On 1 November, a squadron of four steamers reached Akka, while light winds held back the 17 sailing-ships also under Napier’s command; when the Arabs rejected the summon to surrender, the spearheads began bombarding the town and softening its defences. The Arabs returned fire, but, as a contemporary report has it, emphasis and all, ‘from the steamers constantly shifting their positions, it was harmless’. The rest of the British fleet arrived the next evening. On 3 November, all ships were arrayed in front of the walls of Akka, with the steamers placed at the centre of the formation so as to make maximum use of their mobility. Massive shelling commenced at 2 o’clock and went on for two and a half hours without cease.
Then a deafening detonation ripped through the scene. ‘The dreadful crash was heard far above the tumult of the assault, and was immediately succeeded by a most awful pause’, read one of many renderings of the event: ‘the firing on both sides was suddenly suspended, and for a few minutes nothing broke the fearful silence but the echoes of the mountains repeating the sound like the rumbling of distant thunder, and the occasional fall of some tottering building.’ From within Akka, described Robert Burford, a witness, ‘a mass of fire and smoke suddenly ascended like a volcano into the sky, immediately followed by a shower of materials of all kinds, that had been carried up by its force. The smoke rested for a few moments like an immense black dome, obscuring everything.’ W.P. Hunter, a chronicler of the war embedded with the marines, recounted how stone and debris fell on the deck of his boat, quoting the painter and poet Henry Fuseli’s ‘Vision of the Deluge’ – ‘The thickened sky / Like a dark ceiling stood’ – to underscore the earth-shattering magnitude of the explosion.
One of the steamers had hit Akka’s great powder magazine with a shell. Correspondence between commanders indicates that they were aware of its position and planned to target it. The impact concluded the battle.
‘Two entire regiments’, said a report to London, ‘were annihilated, and every living creature within the area of 60,000 square yards ceased to exist; the loss of life being variously computed from 1,200 to 2000 persons.’ When British soldiers entered Akka on 4 November, as contemporary descriptions recount, they were greeted by utter devastation:
Corpses of men, women, and children, blackened by the explosion of the magazine, and mutilated, in the most horrid manner, by the cannon shot, lay every where about, half buried among the ruins of the homes and fortifications: women were searching for the bodies of their husbands, children for their fathers.
In a letter to his wife, Napier expressed unease and perhaps even a pang of guilt: ‘I went on shore at Acre to see the havoc we have occasioned, and witnessed a sight that never can be effaced from my memory, and makes me at this time even almost shudder to think of it.’ Hundreds of dead and dying lay uncollected in the ruins; ‘the beach for half a mile on each side was strewed with bodies’; after some days, the corpses ‘infected the air with an effluvium that was truly horrid.’ Even in his official account of the heroic War in Syria, Napier admitted that ‘nothing could be more shocking than to see the miserable wretches, sick and wounded, in all parts of this devoted town, which was almost entirely pulverized.’ A midshipman from one of the steamers described seeing hands, arms and toes sticking out of the rubble.
Marking a new era in which the British would deploy their superior weapon to theatres of war across the globe, the steamboats were praised for their efficiency in battering down Akka. They ‘continually shifted their positions during the action, and threw in shot and shells, whenever they saw the most effectual points for doing execution’, claimed one report, adding that ‘it is rather remarkable that not one of the four Steam ships had a single man either killed or wounded.’ But if the men went through the action without a scratch, another resource was nearly exhausted: fuel. After the battle, none of the steamers had more than one day’s supply onboard: practically all their coal had been burnt in the pulverisation of the town.
The fall of Akka determined the outcome of the war, and thereby the trajectory of relations between Britain and the Middle East, in one fell stroke. The Egyptian armies beat a disorderly retreat; moving on to Alexandria, the squadron of steamers threatened to repeat the Akka performance, whereupon Muhammed Ali prostrated himself before Istanbul and London. The British-Ottoman free trade agreement soon extended to all of the Middle East, and the Egyptian cotton industry collapsed.
As for the land of Palestine, the war was followed by the first concerted efforts of the British Empire to transplant Jewish colonies into it. In a series of letters to Ponsonby, foreign secretary Lord Palmerston congratulated his ambassador on the fall of Akka and instructed him to seize the opportunity to ‘do what you can about these Jews’. The Ottoman Sultan should be made, Palmerston insisted,
to give them every encouragement and facility for returning and buying lands in Palestine; and if they were allowed to make use of our consuls & ambassador as the channel of complaint, that is to say, to place themselves virtually under our protection, they would come back in considerable numbers, and bring with them much wealth.
Such an idea, more than half a century later, would crystallise into Zionism.
When the British Empire occupied Palestine and set about implementing its vision of a ‘national home for the Jewish people’, the state-of-the-art fossil fuel was no longer coal. It was oil.
Promising deposits had already been located in the countries bordering the Persian Gulf, and so the central industrial project of the Mandate came to be the pipeline that brought crude oil all the way from Iraq, across the northern West Band and the Galilee, to the refinery of Haifa. When the Palestinians rose in their great revolt against British occupation and Zionist colonisation in April 1936 (the month, incidentally, when Ghassan Kanafani was born, in the town of Akka), much of the action revolved around the pipeline. The rebels tore it apart at some point almost every night. They blew it up with bombs, set it on fire, punctured it with potshots, dug into it along the sections where it was buried underground and ruptured it. They thus deprived the Mandate of its main source of revenue and energy. How did it respond?
Matthew Hughes, a military historian at Brunel University, has recently presented some revealing findings from British and Zionist archives. To quell the revolt in general and defend the pipeline in particular, after two years of incessant strikes, boycotts, guerrilla war and sabotage, the Mandate set up Special Night Squads in 1938 and enrolled fighters from Jewish colonies to do most of the dirty work. Captain Orde Wingate, a fanatical supporter of the Zionist enterprise, held command. Wingate introduced some old-new counterinsurgency methods such as ‘decimation’, or the killing of every eighth or tenth male villager as punishment for failure to produce rifles or intelligence. Along the pipeline, in the hills between Jenin and Haifa, he established another common practise: after a sabotage attack, the Special Nights Squads would gather all Palestinian men from the nearest village, order them to open their mouths and shove into them earth and sand soaked in the oil that had poured from the pipeline, until they vomited.
The method had its variations. According to one testimony uncovered by Hughes,
Wingate lined up the Arabs in front of the pipeline, and forced them to wash their faces with the layer that had formed on the surface of the earth, after the pipeline was set on fire. The layer consisted of burning oil mixed with the stones and dirt, and when the Arabs hesitated to obey his orders, there were always soldiers, who saw to it that Wingate’s instructions were carried out.
According to another,
Wingate said, ‘Right, we’ll teach these so-and-so’s a lesson.’ So we got all the men in the village. Oh, outside the…where the oil had been burnt there’s a big pool of black oil burnt. And we got all the men by the side of this. And then we took an arm and a leg and flung them all into the middle of it.
Look at them there, the Palestinian villagers who come to life in Sanbar’s photographs, standing in line, not knowing if they will survive, sympathetic with the rebels but ignorant of the details of the latest sabotage, as the British and Zionist soldiers press crude oil into their bodies. Wingate boasted that such methods brought the ‘terror’ against the pipeline to an end. Hughes argues that they were passed on to the Squadron fighters who would soon form the nucleus of the Haganah, including such illustrious generals as Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan: as he puts it in his piece for the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, ‘the British taught the Jews to use cold steel in action against Arab rebels’. After the revolt had been quenched in 1939, the Palestinians disarmed and their movement shattered, the road to the catastrophe lay clear.
And we have not yet even mentioned how the State of Israel has contributed to American dominance over the Middle East and untrammelled access to its oil. There remains to be written a history of the fossil economy in Palestine, from the first encounter with the power of steam in Akka, to the decline in precipitation, the drying-out, the rise of the sea, the salt-water intrusion, the storms.
Palestine provides a human vantage point for seeing the truth about capitalist modernity known to most non-human life forms. It’s just one damn nakba after another.
Now re-read Mahmoud Darwish’s poem ‘A river dies of thirst’:
A river was here
and it had two banks
and a heavenly mother who nursed it on drops from the clouds
A small river moving slowly
descending from the mountain peaks
visiting villages and tents like a charming lively guest
bringing oleander trees and date palms to the valley (…)
Sometimes it sang heroically
at others passionately
It was a river with two banks
and a heavenly mother who nursed it on drops from the clouds
But they kidnapped its mother
so it ran short of water
and died, slowly, of thirst.
The pivotal word in that poem, and the one where the Palestinian catastrophe can shed light on the climatic one, is, of course, ‘kidnapped’.
But the land is still there. So are the people, anything but eradicated. ‘”We’re here”’, shouts a voice in Badr’s A Balcony over the Fakihani, ‘we’re still here! The world hasn’t come to an end yet!’xxviii The Palestinian way of defying the end is, on the most primordial level, to survive. To succeed in that endeavour is in itself to snatch a small victory from the jaws of the enemy. This, of course, is the first principle of the storied Palestinian sumud, beautifully rendered by Abulhawa in The Blue Between Sky and Water:
Now there was only the crying of mothers over a terrible nobility of resistance and blood in the sand that would be washed by the tide soon enough. ‘Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!’ they shouted and went about tending to the tediums of endless defeat, treating the wounded and cleaning the dead for burial, calming the children, walking home, cursing the Jews to hell, making dinner, and finally, finding a way to inhabit the night.
For the Palestinians still inside the homeland, whether in Akka or al-Araqib, sumud entails not only surviving but staying put at all costs, thereby denying the enemy their most desired triumph. In al-Araqib, a Bedouin village in the Naqab whose name means ‘gentle hill’, that sumud has reached a new level of admirable absurdity: as of this writing, the inhabitants have rebuilt it 99 times. The bulldozers and armed forces of the State of Israel have just flattened it for the one-hundredth time. Al-Araqib will be rebuilt again. Under conditions of permanent Zionist aggression, merely to exist is indeed to resist, and to do so while dwelling on the land is a most obstinate form of opposition:
Here we shall remain, a wall upon your chests,
And in your throats
A sliver of glass, a cactus thorn;
In your eyes
A fiery storm (…)
We will guard the shade of our fig and olive trees,
Implant thoughts that will grow like yeast in dough. (…)
A burning hell rages in our hearts,
in the words of ‘The impossible’, the famous poem by Tawfiq Zayyad, Communist bard of the Galilee.
Our source of hope now, Klein proposes in her Said lecture, is worldwide ‘climate sumud’. Palestinians have had many decades to refine their art, but what would it mean to learn from them and transplant it to a rapidly warming world? Is it at all possible? Some great tribulations might be required to figure that out.
Palestinian literature is permeated by paeans to the beauty of the land. In her short but still unsurpassed study Giving Voice to Stones: Place and Identity in Palestinian Literature – the very title could be a slogan of deep ecology – Barbara McKean Parmenter shows that writers were not particularly concerned about articulating an attachment to the land before 1948, since it was a matter of practical life, something exercised every day in the villages, and the air one breathes is not the stuff of drama. After the catastrophe, however, they had no more urgent task. Hence the ubiquitous, obsessive references to olive trees – deeply rooted in the soil, surviving on sparse rainfall, able to grow in confined places, reaching an age of many hundreds of years – and rocks – fixed, immobile – and all the other features of the Palestinian landscape. Now they are beauty and virtue incarnated, proof of the unbreakable bond between people and land. Early Zionist writers, on the other hand, expressed envy at the indigenous peasants for their unaffected communion with the land – which, conversely, translates into a lingering Palestinian conviction that the late-coming colonisers will never know it as intimately.
At this point, nature itself becomes the foundation for freedom. ‘Authors enlist nature in general,’ says Parmenter, ‘and the land in particular, as their last and strongest ally.’ Listen to Layla Allush, reporting, in her poem ‘The path of affection’, from a travel along the newly built highway from her native Jerusalem to Haifa:
Along the amazing road drawn from the throat of recent dates,
The trees were smiling at me with Arab affection.
In the earth there was an apology for my father’s wounds (…)
Everything is Arab despite the change of tongue,
Despite the trucks, the cars and the car lights,
Despite all the hybrid green and blue signs.
All the poplars and my ancestors’ solemn orchards
Were, I swear, smiling at me with Arab affection.
Despite all that had been eliminated and coordinated and the ‘modern’ sounds,
Despite all the propaganda that slaps the traveller,
Despite the seas of light and technology (…)
The earth continued to sing out with Arab affection.
As the particularities of the Palestinian experience undergo globalisation, is there an analogous layer in the deep biosphere, a substratum somewhere beneath the change of climate, in which a similar hope of redemption can be invested? Can Allush’s poem be re-written in a transnational mode? ‘Despite the trucks, the cars… Despite the seas of light and technology…’ Or will this catastrophe go so far as to silence the earth itself and deracinate every last smiling tree? Any visitor to the West Bank can attest to the veracity of Allush’s impression: the houses of the colonists jar, seem to have been dropped from the sky – and often they literally have, as prefabricated structures – arranged according to some template for American suburbs, built as fortresses to brutalise the land, connected by Jewish-only roads that slit the hills, artificially uniform, somehow totally unreal in their overwhelming heaviness.
Palestinian villages, on the other hand, grow with no more detailed master plan than flowers in a valley. Thus one cannot see the settlements from the windows of a service without imagining them one day gone, the crust removed. That fingernail grip on the land is a trigger for ever-more colonisation – we shall prove that this land is ours! another one hundred units in Kiryat Arba! – which simply confirms the sense of it as an alien and ephemeral project, ultimately self-defeating in every ostensible advance.
The whole occupation exudes transience. One cannot spend time in the territories of 1967 without feeling every day, every minute that ‘things cannot go on like this’, with Benjamin. And yet there seems to be no end in sight. Checkpoints cannot ruin people’s lives forever, but they will certainly continue to do so tomorrow, and the day after that… It is this impossibility, this combination of the transitory and the inexorable, of ricketiness and absolute inertia, that makes life under the Zionist enterprise so torturous. As for the fossil economy, we know for a certainty that it will end. Physical nature preordains it. And yet in the meantime, new coal-fired power-plants, oil rigs, pipelines, airports, highways, suburban shopping malls are erected over the green planet of ours. Things cannot go on like this: and they do. It is that experience, which can make a person want to blow herself up, that inspires the culture of sumud.
When I visited Bethlehem in 1996 and 1997, on my first trips to Palestine, there was still one green hill to rest one’s eyes on, interposed between the dust, grey and white of the conurbations that stretch seemingly without interruption from the ruins of Lifta to the Yahudan desert. Jebel Abu Ghneim had a proud crest in the north. It sloped gently into the valley to the south, under a cover of thousands of trees, a forest that looked self-enclosed and secretive at a distance. Shepherds from the surrounding villages had used it for grazing sheep and growing olives as long as anyone could remember. On the top of Jebel Abu Ghneim lay the ruins of a sixth-century Byzantine monastery, the mosaic stones scattered in the grass, their patterns lost and recreated.
When I was back in 1999, bulldozers had cut serpentine roads through the forest. Jebel Abu Ghneim was in the process of being transformed into Har Homa, ‘the wall mountain’ or ‘the palisade’, a colony for 25,000 Jews – no others would be allowed to live there, of course – designed in the usual monotonous fashion, in sandy white, a condominium doubling as a citadel. One day in the spring, I visited Tekoa, a colony on the other side of Bethlehem. An American settler by the name of Bruce Brill showed us around. He was blue-eyed, slender, charismatic and cocksure. He was there to liberate the land. Not a single square inch in ‘Judea and Samaria’ had ever been confiscated from Arabs. Inhabitants of the original village named Teqoa posed a threat to Brill and his peers, and so the army had just raised concrete ramparts in their direction. The contours of a pistol were clearly visible beneath his trousers.
Later that day, when I was back home in my Bethlehem apartment facing Jebel Abu Ghneim, as the sun set over the valley, I walked down through the terraces and orchards, up to the serpentine road. I crossed it and entered the forest. On the top of the hill, I searched for the mosaic stones, quickly found a handful and put them in my pocket. Weeks later, the site would be plastered over by concrete. Now I look at the tiny stones, their edges jagged, their surfaces bleached, on a chest in my parents’ home. As the walls of Har Homa stare aggressively at Bethlehem, they remain in abeyance.
‘One of the penalties of an ecological education’, Aldo Leopold famously wrote in his journals, ‘is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage of the land is quite invisible to laymen.’ In Palestine, one does not need a degree in ecology to see the wounds, nor does one live alone among them. Wounds in the land are always also wounds in the people. No one has captured this duality more eloquently than Raja Shehadeh in Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape and the no less moving, although less appreciated A Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle, two guidebooks to a country full of stab wounds. In the first, he lays out the situation.
As our Palestinian world shrinks, that of the Israelis expands, with more settlements being built, destroying for ever the wadis and cliffs, flattening hills and transforming the precious land which many Palestinians will never know. In the course of a mere three decades close to half a million Jewish people were settled within an area of only 5,900 square kilometres [in the West Bank]. The damage caused to the land by the infrastructural work necessary to sustain the life of such a large population, with enormous amounts of concrete poured to build entire cities in hills that had remained untouched for centuries, is not difficult to appreciate. (…) What will today’s settlers leave for posterity but ugly structures which destroyed the land they claimed to love?
There is, however, one condition that effectively blinds a person to such wounds: that of being Zionist. In the key dialogue of Palestinian Walks, Shehadeh bumps into a settler in the hills around Ramallah, on his way down a green valley with a brook at the bottom. The settler – armed with a gun, naturally – claims that he and his fellows afford protection to the scenic valley, which they have declared a nature reserve. Now Shehadeh loses his temper.
‘Let me tell you how things looked when this was truly a nature park. Before you came and spoiled it all. You could not see any new buildings, you did not hear any traffic. All you saw were deer leaping up the terraced hills, wild rabbits, foxes, jackals and carpets of flowers. Then it was a park. Preserved in more or less the same state it had been in for hundreds of years.’
To which the settler retorts:
‘Nothing can remain untouched for hundreds of years. Progress is inevitable.’ (…)
‘You dug our hills for nothing.’
‘Building roads is progress, not destruction.’
How common it is, in our capitalist heartlands, to come across people with that settler mentality, those who believe in the inevitability of what they call progress, in the necessity of roads, in all the goods of the land being theirs as a matter of course: the entitled ones, the owners.
Anyone who does not feel the pangs of the wounded biosphere moves like a colonist within it. Naturally, such obliviousness and self-absorption correlate very closely with economic affluence. In the sacrifice zones of the capitalist world-economy, people carry the wounds in their bodies; in the most luxurious shopping malls, one needs a political-ecological education to see the deep stabs being inflicted, and chances are that one is quite alone in doing so. Only by tending closely to the wounds in the biosphere can one cultivate properly Palestinian sensibilities: before you came and spoiled it all. What will today’s settlers leave for posterity?
Taking up that Palestinian position is, ultimately, to choose nature as one’s last and strongest ally. It is a land ethic the stridency of which puts Leopold in the shade. A thread of green, it runs through Palestinian literature from its first stirrings after 1948 to the generation of Abulhawa and Shehadeh: ‘this land will rise again’ – not the people, but al-ard – sings the refrain of The Blue Between Sky and Water. In Palestinian Walks, Shehadeh adopts ‘the perspective of the land’ and discovers that it diminishes the stature of such man-made constructs as Zionist colonies until
they hardly count. A road makes a scar in the hills but over time that scar heals and becomes absorbed and incorporated. Stones are gathered to build houses but then they crumble and return to the land, however large and formidable they might once have been. Monumental Crusader castles in a dilapidated state dot the land, as do the ruins of other empires that have prevailed in this region. Empires and conquerors come and go but the land remains.
When, in A Rift in Time, he climbs Mount Tabor in the Galilee, overlooking the villages where the Special Night Squads forced the men to eat oil, Shehadeh has the sensation that it is more firmly rooted than the most formidable occupying powers and will outlive them all. Leopold called it ‘thinking like a mountain’. In Palestine, where such thinking – unlike in pre-political ecology – is always linked to the issue of power, it goes by the name of sumud. Perhaps it really is what is needed if we are to survive in a warming world.
But surviving and staying put is only the first principle of sumud. The second is resistance.
Palestine is a notoriously over-researched place, but there is one gaping lacuna in the literature that concerns the very backbone of the Palestinian side, in whose absence ‘the conflict’ would have ended long ago: the resistance. To this date, there is not a single book in English that chronicles the great revolt of 1936-39, even though it developed into one of the largest anti-colonial risings of the twentieth century, one of the longest general strikes in history and the prototype for all subsequent Palestinian liberation struggles. Compare the countless books on the war that took place in Spain in the same years. Nor is there a single book that narrates and analyses the second intifada in anything like a comprehensive way, even though it evolved into one of the most epic popular uprisings so far in this millennium, with an abundance of critical moments, shifts, experiments, offensives and disasters. Nor is there a history of the Palestinian Left, or even a monograph on the PFLP. This is despite the fact that the PFLP, for all its weaknesses, continues to this day to play a significant role on the battlefields of Gaza, in the prisons of the occupier, on the streets of the West Bank, grinding on – unlike most Marxist liberation movements of its era (compare, for instance, The Black Panther Party, subject of an academic and cultural industry) – as an actual political force.
The one aspect of the resistance that has been rewarded with a plethora of books is the nonviolent struggle. As though that was the only form of Palestinian politics sufficiently noble to merit sustained attention.
Not since the exuberant early days of the first intifada has the Palestinian resistance harboured illusions about an imminent victory. Optimism is not its point of view. It operates in full consciousness of the enormity of the forces stacked against it and – under the current balance of power – the slim to non-existing chances of liberating the land. So what is the point of resisting? ‘To keep the embers of the conflict burning’, in the words of Hamas, until broader historical processes have turned the tables on the enemy, at some future point, however faraway it might be – or, to keep ‘the issue alive until such time as the requirements for victory materialize’. In an interview published in Journal of Palestine Studies, Ramadan Shallah, leader of Islamic Jihad, the second most important armed force of the resistance, spells out the same strategic doctrine: the purpose is to maintain ‘the military pressure on Israel’ until ‘new parameters’ emerge. No one knows how long that will take. (Anyone who feels unease at the Islamism of these two groups should ponder, among other things, their – particularly Hamas’s – extraordinary efficiency in stamping out every attempt by Daesh to rear its head in Gaza.)
Sober and lucid, more pessimist than optimist in the short to medium term, the resistance digs in for the long haul. Only if the embers are kept burning, only if the pressure is maintained can the Palestinians retain the possibility of lunging forward if and when the moment arrives. This is today the general ethos of the Palestinian resistance in its multiple forms, including the armed struggle.
One of the few studies to hone in on the latter – a fine exception to the neglect of the second intifada, albeit a strictly anthropological inquiry into only one of its facets – is The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of Palestinian Resistance by Nasser Abufarha. From his interviews with the armed underground in the Jenin area, Abufarha reports:
Palestinians are fully aware that they are at a disadvantage in the power scale, but there is an amazing belief among Palestinians that they will prevail in the end. Hasan shares in this sentiment: ‘“Al mabni ‘ala khata’ fahuwa khata” (what’s founded on wrong is wrong) [an Arabic proverb]. We will leave it to future generations.’
This ethos is not the property of any particular Palestinian faction. Rather, it is the essence of the project of resistance as such, whatever its organisational trappings – a commitment to infinity. Palestinian writers have articulated it since the birth of the national movement. ‘No matter where I go, no matter what fancies possess me, I’m forever running toward my land, which has been separated from me by a thousand kilometres of barbed wire. I run toward it carrying a hand grenade’, says Wadi, the main Palestinian character in The Ship. Top of his agenda for the moment is to acquire a plot of land outside Hebron. Stately and proudly, the various forms of sumud walk hand in hand.
Every time humanity goes mad, I’ll plant a hundred more trees. … I’ll hide a couple of guns and a grenade in my house, but I’ll plant trees, paint, and breed a dozen children who will contribute to the beauty of life – although they will add to its tragedies too. From there, I shall work to bring the decisive moment closer.
In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, one of the most popular essays on the catastrophic dimensions of climate change in recent years, Roy Scranton argues that ‘we’re fucked. The only questions are how soon and how badly’. Hence we need to learn to die. Not individually, but collectively, as a civilisation; we need not to fight or resist, but to contemplate the end of things and live with it (for another few moments). Scranton disparages demonstrations and other forms of collective action against climate change as a waste of energy. At one point, he suggests that violent revolt would be required to depose the vested interests of business-as-usual – ‘the real reason that non-violence is considered to be a virtue in the powerless is that the powerful do not want to see their lives or property threatened’ – but that thought is left suspended in the air, and the general thrust of the book conforms with the title. Whatever else it is, it is utterly un-Palestinian. Imagine the Palestinians proclaiming in, say, 1946 that ‘we’re fucked. We need to learn to die as a people.’ They would indeed have passed out of history.
There is a point where total pessimism reverts into its opposite. ‘“I’m an optimist because we have a mammoth task in front of us that has to be completed”’, says Wadi. ‘“What task is that?” “The task? It’s everything. Palestine. The future. Freedom.”’ Following the Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel, Terry Eagleton theorises this as ‘fundamental hope’. It is a form of hope that acknowledges the immensity of the defeats and the desolation and still refuses to capitulate, wagering on the possibility of some unspecified future opening. A short remove from despair, it is all that remains when the slate has been swept clean of specific aspirations and concrete assets: it is, says Eagleton, ‘what survives the general ruin.’ Thus Palestinian writers are fond of lines such as ‘in the rubble I rummage for light and new poetry’ (Darwish); ‘to be able to say “no” is a right that I will cling to with my very fingernails, my very teeth, even if it makes me bleed’ (Jabra); ‘things won’t always be like this, I thought, there’s still some fresh air left in the world’ (Badr); ‘perhaps one day / the river will cry / “arise and breathe again”’ (Zayyad); ‘I don’t know why we continue to hope for a future for these hills; one friend even clings to the long view of geological time’ (Shehadeh). Call it fundamental hope, or thinking like a mountain, or even the geological ethos of the Palestinian resistance. Surely, even axiomatically, if there is any way we can survive inside the tank of a warming world and get out of it alive, it is by learning to fight – not to die – and to nourish some climate sumud along these lines.
In Palestine, the real calamity would be consummated the day when there are no more muffled sounds detected from tunnels being dug under the border between Gaza and 1948, no more rockets groomed for a flight over it, no more stones smashing into settler cars, no more colony fences breached, no more tyres set alight and rolled towards wall towers, no more prisoners taken to emergency rooms after more than a month of hunger strike, no more marches to the orchards after Friday prayers, no more protesters tying themselves to olive trees, no more slingshots passed on between shabab and banat wrapped in kouffiyehs: and that day, thankfully, still looks very distant.
To those who – saturated with hypocritical moralism, an ethical smugness only the victors can afford – demand that we condemn the resistance, one should respond: what do you want the Palestinians to do? You want them to learn to drop down and die in silence. The resistance is not something to be condoned – for, you see, it’s about more than Palestine. It is something to plug oneself into. It is the last tube of oxygen when there is no other air to breathe.
There is a triangle in the northern West Bank, between the towns of Nablus, Tulkarem and Jenin, where one can spend days without ever seeing a settlement on a hilltop. Here the olive groves, the plots of mint and thyme, the terraces, villages, brooks have the undulating land to themselves. Zionist colonialism has never managed to penetrate this area; four settlements referred to as ‘isolated’ were evacuated in 2005, because they couldn’t be effectively protected. It was precisely here the great revolt of 1936-39 had its strongest base. The British christened it ‘the triangle of fear’ and ‘the triangle of terror’, because however hard they tried, they couldn’t suppress the rebels and prevent them from implementing de facto self-rule in those hills. They include the PFLP stronghold of Meythaloun, a laid-back, mellow peasant village where one might come across an old man, now almost senile, who spent more than tree decades in prison after an ambush on an Israeli patrol in 1968. In no other part of the West Bank have I found it so easy to imagine Palestine, and to breathe.
Others than Arabs should feel respect for a figure like Mohammed Deif. The commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades – named, of course, after the symbol of the 1936 revolt – he has survived no fewer than six Israeli assassination attempts. In 2002, an Apache helicopter hovering over Gaza City hit the car he was travelling in and killed the driver; Deif himself came out of the burning wreck alive. During the war in 2014, the State of Israel succeeded in killing his wife, daughter and infant son, but Deif could be rescued from the rubble. As Max Blumenthal relates in The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza, with a tone of admiration one cannot but share, Deif has subjected himself to an extreme regiment of secrecy, never appearing in public, not even attending his mother’s funeral, spending most of his days in the tunnel network underground. From there, he has masterminded a shift from suicide bombings against civilians to the build-up of military capabilities – under the most challenging logistical conditions conceivable – significant enough to inflict blows on the most powerful army in the Middle East. Hence the statistics from the latest Gaza war: some 70-80 per cent of the Palestinian casualties were civilians; exactly 93 per cent of the Israeli soldiers. After the most shockingly intrepid operation of all, the raid on the Nahal Oz military base, in which nine militants emerged from a tunnel, burst into the fortress and killed five soldiers before retreating, uninjured, into Gaza, Deif released his first statement in five years, setting out the principles of the Palestinian war on terror: ‘We have prioritized confronting the military and the soldiers at the checkpoints over attacking civilians at a time when the criminal enemy wades in civilian blood and commits massacres and bring down the roofs of homes on top of the heads of their inhabitants.’
Susan Abulhawa ends The Blue Between Sky and Water with an epilogue on that war. She writes: ‘I’d like to salute those Palestinian fighters. They willingly stepped into a realm where death was all but assured, for nothing less than the cause of freedom. Their courage was the stuff of legends.’ Those are some daring final three sentences from a bestselling author, but then Abulhawa has moved millions of Western readers without making any concessions to Zionist narratives. And Deif carries more than the soil of Gaza on his shoulders. Isn’t it an apt image of the forces of resistance in this world: pushed into marginal strips and under the ground, denied access to the world of the living, invisible, rolled over by tanks and helicopters? And yet impossible to fully extirpate.
None of this is to suggest that the Palestinians are some kind of resistance robots (or, for that matter, environmental angels). Given the magnitude of the losses they have sustained, they would indeed be supernatural beings if they did not also fall to the ground, pass out, lose compass, squabble, look after their own individual interests. A balance sheet of the resistance would discern a mix of perseverance and collapse. In the diaspora refugee camps, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon essentially vanquished it, removing the original base of the Palestinian national movement from the equation. Today, these camps can be supremely depressing places, where the youth of the fourth and fifth generation face the ‘death boats’ over the Mediterranean or the insanity of some Jihadi sect as their two main options, neither of which takes them an inch closer to the homeland.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization is in a condition of rigor mortis. National reconciliation remains an object of lip service. The Fateh leadership refuses to let go of the mirage of negotiations, continues to privilege its own material comfort over any strategy for emancipation and persists with an ignominy without parallel in Palestinian history: security cooperation with the occupying army. This, and the splintering of the Palestinian people into isolated shards, stands as the greatest accomplishment of the Zionist entity since 1982. The international situation is dismal in the extreme. After two intifadas, in which an unfathomable amount of collective energy was spent and exhausted, there is precious little left of the political infrastructure painstakingly built over the decades: hence the rudderless character of the quasi-intifada currently simmering in the West Bank. Gaza stands out as the desperate bastion.
One could, on the other hand, point to the tendency for the resistance to achieve greater military punching power. In the last round of fighting, it proved more proficient in close combat than ever before, while its rockets – even if only symbolic – for the first time reached into all corners of 1948. BDS is another flickering light. But most importantly, the State of Israel has still not succeeded in liquidating the resistance as such and concluding the conflict on its own terms, and herein lies the greatest accomplishment of the Palestinians: the embers are indeed kept burning, even if only slowly and faintly (although it is a matter of time before the next conflagration in Gaza, likely to be even more destructive, its outcome – even the survival of the resistance – uncertain.) Ramadan Shallah has an adage of fundamental hope for the conjuncture. ‘”If the strong are not victorious, then they have lost. If the weak are undefeated, then they have won.”’
As for the land itself, the Oslo years have done their part in poisoning the Palestinian people’s relationship to it. In a forthcoming article, Noura al-Khalili demonstrates how the institute of mushaa, the indigenous form of collective ownership of the land, was successfully defended against British attempts to break it up and privatise holdings, so as to facilitate the transfer of land to the Zionists. Nowadays, however, remaining mushaa land is up for grabs by Palestinian contractors, who enclose these commons and build upon them for their own profit. They justify it as an act of sumud – if they wouldn’t seize the empty land, the settlers or the wall would gobble it up, and it would be lost to the Palestinians. Hence concrete must be poured over it as fast as possible.
In the real estate boom spiralling around Ramallah, red tile roofs looking suspiciously similar to those in settlements are mushrooming. Shehadeh complains that ‘the wild and beautiful hills’ are being ‘invaded’ by the growing city, in an expansion that mirrors or even emulates that of the enemy. The most egregious instance is the Rawabi project: touted as the first planned Palestinian city, financed exclusively by private capital, under the control of arch-capitalist Bashar al-Masri, it spreads out high-rise buildings over a couple of hills between Ramallah and Nablus, slated to accommodate 25,000 inhabitants – mainly Palestinians, but Israeli Jews have also been invited to purchase units – in its first phase. It looks exactly like a large settlement. To realise the project, al-Masri has availed himself of the services of Tony Blair, appealed to Google and Microsoft to outsource jobs to the appended industrial zone, participated in Israeli high-tech conferences alongside representatives of the government, benefited from the assistance of a leading settlement architect and liaised with everyone from Ariel Sharon’s former advisor Dov Weisglass to Shimon Peres.
That is one way of relating to the Palestinian landscape and heritage. Another is to set up a library of traditional seed varieties. In the summer of 2016, the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library was unveiled in the central West Bank, under the leadership of agronomist Vivien Sansour. She aims to collect as many seeds as possible, save them from extinction, make them available for any Palestinian in the area to borrow and use for growing plants and then return anew. In The Observer, she explains the vision behind her salvage work:
I was away from Palestine for a long time. While I was away, what I remembered were the smells and tastes. When I came back, I realised that what I remembered was under threat and disappearing. That threat came from several things. From agri-companies pushing certain varieties and farming methods and from climate change. Places, too, where people would forage for edible plants – like the akub thistle – have come under threat because of issues like the spread of Israeli settlements. I realised that what was also under threat was something deeper – the connection to a sense of cultural identity. The songs women would sing in the fields. Phrases, even the words we use. So it is about preserving the local biodiversity, but it is also about the importance to Palestinian culture of traditional agricultural methods.
There is a kind of huge watermelon, known as jadu’i, that was grown in the northern West Bank. Before 1948, it was exported around the region. It was famous in places like Syria. It has almost disappeared. One of the most exciting discoveries so far is that we found some seeds for it. They are seven years old, so we need to see if they are viable.
Dalia Hatuqa tells Al Jazeera of how young workshop participants have been asked to gather testimonials from their elders. ‘One story that stood out was of a now-elderly woman who was exiled to Kuwait. Before she left, she made sure to take with her seeds of an orange tree, which she planted there.’ Now they might be brought home to Palestine. Hoping to establish affiliates in the West Bank and Gaza, the Library is set up in opposition to the three evils of neoliberalism, occupation and climate change. As for the latter, an additional benefit might be that some of the oldest seed varieties not in use, but potentially redeemable, are adapted to arid hills only showered by the occasional rainy storm: a kind of climate that is now becoming very much more common.
Muqawame, then, is not an innate disposition of Palestinians, any more than of any other human beings. It is a source of inspiration for combating other types of catastrophes only because it is actively chosen.
The Left has a troubled relationship with nostalgia. The current vogue for accelerationism appears to have revived the tradition of disdain for it. In the original #accelerate manifesto, we are entreated by Williams and Srnicek to learn to be ‘at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology’, cease looking to the past for motivation and (again) turn towards the bright light from the future. What would that imply for the issues at hand?
Alastair Bonnett has a different idea of the way forward. In his underappreciated Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia, he contends that a left-modernist programme for feeling ‘“at home in the maelstrom”’ is bound to fall on deaf ears among many a subaltern class, for ‘chaos and disorientation are rarely relished by those who have direct experience of them.’ They are more likely to engage in nostalgia, defined as ‘a yearning for the past, a sense of loss in the face of change.’ They have a reason to believe that certain things were better at an earlier date – or are in the process of being lost – and need to be recovered and defended. Bonnett singles out two struggles as inconceivable without such belief: anti-colonial and environmental ones.
Qalandiya refugee camp, April 2001. The waves of the second intifada billow back and forth over the West Bank. Before Salim talks about his activities, he wants to show me something. He is tense, taut, on his guard; in less than an hour, the children of the neighbourhood will sound the alarm and Salim throw himself out of a back door. But now he slowly leaves the sofa, enters an adjacent room and returns with a video. He switches on the TV. A shaky, hand-held camera has shot scenes in the green. The film is from some years back, before the total closure; Salim’s family has driven with mini vans through the forest and into the glade where it’s supposed to be. The grandmother, old enough to have been in her twenties, leads the way through the thickets. She wears a dress with traditional embroidery, her white headdress fluttering in the wind. This is the first time she’s back, but it’s as though she’s never left the place: she finds everything at once, pointing and shouting: here’s the well! This is where I was born! Here my mother grew our vegetables! There, in that house, we settled as newly wed! The children are on her heels, the camera registering their curiosity. They have to use their imagination, for the only things visible are overgrown foundations, stones protruding from the vegetation, but there’s no mistaking it: here it is, the village chopped off.
Salim fights back waves of tears. He must have seen the film hundreds of times, but the reaction is physical: he shakes. He musters all his forces to control them, but the tears defeat him. Meanwhile, the soldiers are moving deeper into the narrow alleys between the concrete containers of the camp.
For Palestinians, nostalgia is a first premise. Some exhort them to get over it, forget the old villages, move on. ‘“The ability to forget”’, Bonnett quotes Herbert Marcuse, ‘“is the mental faculty which sustains submissiveness”’. It is the voice of the triumphant master, in this case the Zionist settler-colonialist: don’t get bogged down in the past. To this, the Palestinian response is militant nostalgia.
To deny that the Palestinian people was better off before 1948, you need to be a Zionist; to deny that when it comes to climate, this planet was in a better shape before the cumulative effects of the fossil economy began to bite in the late twentieth century, you need to be a climate-change denialist. The corollary of Klein’s projection is that nostalgia, Palestinian-style, will be universalised, and for good reason: some fairly valuable things actually, objectively were better before the rivers dried up, the land disappeared beneath the sea, the breadbasket turned into a dustbowl, the snow ceased to fall on our Arctic homes. More videos will be watched and re-watched compulsively. Critics who have sneered at Palestinian literature for its surfeit of nostalgia have judged it prematurely. ‘All Palestinians are poets by nature’, writes Jabra in The Ship, ‘because they have experienced two basic things: the beauty of nature, and tragedy.’ That is more a prophetic index than a pillar of salt.
Moreover, if we hold the view that Palestine and climate change are not some minor deviations from an otherwise healthy trajectory of progress, but that late capitalism is rather a fundamentally destructive force in society as well as in nature, then we must accept that loss is a major predicament of our time, and that many struggles will have to start from baselines strewed with rubble. We ‘“plunge headlong towards the inevitable pit. This is progress, rather like the progress of a disease”’, with Wadi: so pick up the hand grenade and plant the trees.
With their Nazarene ouds, enraged and mournful, Le Trio Joubran offer one stunning soundtrack for militant nostalgia. Another is Anohni, probably the most soulful white voice to emerge so far in this millennium, certainly one of the most powerful acts of political culture:
Why did you separate me from the earth?
You drew lines miles high
In steel or nuclear (…)
The rotten bodies threaded gold
The pitch of hair and sticky meat
The sea life cut with plastic (…)
A sharp knife of concrete
And then, her voice ascending to the most exquisite pitch of sorrow and rage:
I don’t want your future
I’m never coming home
I don’t want your future
I’ll be born before you’re born
The Palestinian national movement demands the right of return, as enshrined in the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194. The climate movement has called for 350 ppm as the target CO2 concentration – currently standing at around 404 ppm, rising with two every year – in line with scientific assessments of the boundary for a stable climate. (Recently, climate activists have developed the fashion of tattooing themselves with the ppm of their birth-year. ‘They can never remove / the tattoo of the struggle from your arms / nor obliterate the date of your birth’, writes Palestinian poet Mayy Sayigh.lxi) Both would involve going back to how certain things were: Palestinians living in their own country, much like prior to 1948; the CO2 concentration back below the levels of the late 1980s.
They are self-evidently quixotic demands. Those who chastise them for being so are, technically, descriptively, correct. But what does it mean to be quixotic? The term stems, of course, from the episode in Cervantes’ Don Quixote where the knight mistakes thirty or forty windmills for ferocious giants and sets out to attack them with his lance; his squire calmly informs him that they are no giants, but mechanisms for turning millstones. The image combines typically pre-capitalist property relations with a quintessentially pre-fossil energy source.
Today, there are no knights and squires, and no one travels around with lances. Stones are a ubiquitous weapon of our era, and coal the characteristic energy source, still producing ten times more electricity in the world than wind. Throwing stones on coal-fired power-plants? Not a particularly deranged or dishonourable thing to do.
The number of quixotic causes we need to embrace is a reflection of how profound wrongness has multiplied in geometric fashion, to the point where some proclaim the probable collapse of human civilisation in this century without losing touch with hard, up-to-date science. When someone today slams a cause as quixotic, it’s rather a sign that one ought to rally to it.
From the river to the sea: CO2 emissions must first be eradicated and then turned negative, with the help of the Earth ally, be it through forest expansion, rock weathering, mangrove growth, carbon sequestration in soils or some other processes – and combinations thereof – enhanced by humans and the best of their technologies. There is no other way forward than awda. As for Palestine, the fires will flare up for as long as what’s founded on wrong remains in power: and it becomes more entrenched by the day. As for climate change, no one has a more realistic proposal than zero to negative emissions: and the CO2 concentration continues to soar month after month. In a world of cascading catastrophes, the road to survival is paved with maximalist rejectionism. It might take centuries to realise the demands, but if we give up on them there is nothing left, other than learning to die.
In August 2015, there were reports that the leadership of Hamas prepared for a ‘long-term truce’ with the State of Israel. Khaled Meshaal, highest in the hierarchy of the movement, met several times with Tony Blair to try to clinch a settlement. At that point, the PFLP sent a press release, in which Rabah Muhanna, a member of the politburo, warned against laying down arms.
He spoke of the need to draw lessons from the 20 years of bitter experience of Oslo and its disastrous results, from which our people have reaped no benefits despite wide support for Oslo at the beginning. ‘The Front will always “bang on the walls of the tank”’, said Muhanna, alluding to a passage in Palestinian writer and PFLP leader Ghassan Kanafani’s work Men in the Sun. ‘We will stand against any agreement that does not benefit our people, the cause and the liberation of Palestine, and our weapons are always pointed at the Zionist enemy’, said Muhanna.
It should not read as an act of appropriation but of solidarity and shared struggle to insist that it is not only Palestinians who must bang on the walls of the tank. The heat is terrible, and worsening, and it will blister the hands. But bang we will.
Andreas Malm teaches human ecology at Lund University, Sweden. His work has appeared in journals such as Environmental History, Historical Materialism, Antipode and Organization & Environment. He is the author, with Shora Esmailian, of Iran on the Brink: Rising Workers and Threats of War, and of Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming and of half a dozen books in Swedish on political economy, the Middle East and climate change.