Zionist colonialism through an abolitionist lens.
"But they are not human beings,— David Hacohen, Israeli politician
they are not people, they are Arabs."
The mechanisms of dehumanization have long been debated in the fields of psychology, sociology, and genocide studies. It is a phenomenon we inevitably encounter in our daily lives, insidiously molding how we are seen, how we are treated, and how much we are worth. The struggle to assert our humanity, to demand a life free of injustice and want is onerous and, for most, never achieved. In this way, for many in the world, suffering is systemically ordained.
Slaves are deemed tools, a fraction of a whole. Survivors of genocide are likened to vermin by their tormentors. Immigrants are painted as thieves and rapists. The hardships faced by the poor are the result of their own laziness. The homeless are routinely discussed as being addicts and grifters and therefore, expendable nuisances; the colonized as backwards and therefore, undeserving of self-determination.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more visible than in the dehumanization of the incarcerated. The awful conditions inflicted on the physical and mental wellbeing of the incarcerated are widely accepted as justifiable penance for both real and imagined transgressions. Being deemed "criminal" by the state, results in the "expulsion from the moral arena," putting an end to any and all hope of rehabilitation. After all, as defined by Michelle Ronda and Ragnhild Utheim in their article, "Toward Abolition Pedagogy: Teaching Social Justice in Prison Combined Classrooms," prison is "a physical site where disentitlement and dehumanization culminate in their most extreme institutionalized form."
To understand dehumanization is to understand colonization, as dehumanization precedes and lays the groundwork for large-scale actions and policies. To not be human is to not be entitled to dignity, compassion, or the basic necessities of life itself. Thus, the dehumanization of the Indigenous is integral to the process of colonialism.
The justifications to wield violence and the expropriation of resources becomes much more convenient when it is against a people said and believed to be innately violent and criminal. In such cases, violence against them becomes prudent and is even regarded as self-defense. Consequently, indigeneity becomes positioned as the criminal from which the colonial entity must protect itself—this is done through stripping the Indigenous of their rights and denying them control of their own destiny.
Dehumanization and Incarceration OF THE PALESTINIAN PEOPLE
The story of the Palestinian people is similar to any people facing settler colonialism. To the Zionist project, building on the ideological and physical infrastructure laid by the British before them, Palestinians were and continue to be the target of Israeli and Western violence aiming to erase their very existence. Palestinians have served as the vessel into which the settler society can pour its internal contradictions: The native Palestinians don't exist, but also pose an existential threat to the state; Israel is a safe haven for the Jewish people, but simultaneously besieged and on the brink of ruin; It is a state founded by secularists wielding biblical passages, who posed as a continuity of ancient kingdoms while championing a European colonial divorce from the past; Their state was made possible by the support of their British benefactors, who they later turned on and dubbed as their "colonizers" when it became politically expedient.
The Citadel (al-Qala') of Akka that houses the old prison is a window into the contradictions inherent to the Israeli national myth. A site that once held and viciously tortured political prisoners—where Palestinians were told they would be treated the way the Irish were as they were beaten beyond recognition and sexually abused—is now a tourist attraction. All traces of prisoners' writings are painted over, including some of the first martyrs of the Palestinian prisoners' movement, like Fouad Hijazi, Atta al-Zeer, and Mohammed Jamjoum. They may not have left behind writings, but their struggle and executions are memorialized in the popular folk song "Min Sijjin Akka" (trans. "From Akka Prison." See lyrics translated to English here).
Today, the Citadel houses a museum of heroism, which makes a mockery of its legacy, erasing and co-opting its history to serve the colonial narrative. It paints the few Zionist militia members who were imprisoned as anti-British freedom fighters, despite the British being the imperial sponsors of the Zionist movement to the point where they formed joint "Special Night Squads" that attacked Palestinian villages. Palestinians are depicted as menacing rioting figures. The "heroes" this museum refers to were members of the Stern Gang and the Irgun, who are guilty of committing massacres against Palestinian villages like Deir Yassin.
This museography is aligned with other popular representative descriptions of Palestinians in the Zionist press at the time: "highway robbers," "treacherous murderers," "barbarian, savage, shedders of blood," "bloodthirsty savages, who perpetrate their deeds in darkness, and all their courage is from ambush."
Contempt for the native Palestinian Arabs was in line with British sentiments, such as a British policeman writing that "most accidents out there are caused by police… running over an Arab is the same as a dog in England except we do not report it."
As Ghassan Kanafani, revolutionary Palestinian writer, novelist, and martyr, demonstrated in his seminal work, The 1936-39 Revolt in Palestine, the British supported the Zionist presence by cracking down on Palestinian possession of weaponry, especially by Palestinians who were peasants. Kanafani cites historian Isa al-Sifri's work, Arab Palestine between the Mandate and Zionism, to delineate Britain's Emergency Regulations—a broad set of directives giving Israel authority over Palestinians in 1945—including "six years imprisonment for possessing a revolver, 12 years for possessing a bomb, five years with hard labour for possessing 12 bullets, eight months on a charge of misdirecting a detachment of soldiers, nine years on a charge of possessing explosives, five years for trying to buy ammunition from soldiers, two weeks imprisonment for possessing a stick."
Per Walid Khalidi's From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem Until 1948, which is based on official British reports checked against other documents, an estimated 19,792 Palestinians were wounded or killed during this time period. To clarify the scale of this, we want to draw a comparison to the United States. Considering the number of inhabitants at the time that estimate was drawn, that figure would be the equivalent of one million killed, three million wounded, and 6,120,000 arrested in the U.S. It's this massive scale of loss that made the State of Israel possible.
This ideological and material alliance between the Zionist entity and the British is evident in the scale of ethnic cleansing during 1947 and 1948 known as the Nakba. This ethnic cleansing campaign led to the expulsion of 800,000 of the 1.4 million Palestinians living in historical Palestine at the time. Over 70 massacres were committed, resulting in the murder of at least 15,000 Palestinians.
The Citadel then can be understood as a site of Zionist state propaganda and as a microcosm of colonial contradiction—the settlers wishing to replace their unflattering history of offshoots of British imperialism with the Palestinians' far more noble history of anti-colonial resistance. They crave the markers of indigeneity, of legitimacy, while simultaneously looking down on them and wanting actual Palestinians to be punished, locked away, out of sight and out of mind.
Zionists are grappling with the denial of how their state was created, and the ongoing demographics-obsessed violence needed to uphold it. This is what makes the Israeli state's subsequent criminalization of Palestinians so necessary to its national mythos and identity as it contends with its "colonial specter"—the inescapable association with colonial racism after a time of burgeoning anti-colonial nationalisms. This struggle can be seen in the cynical utilization of the language of liberal progress and social justice to argue why the settlers deserve this land more than Palestinians do. The international lingua franca of human rights is appropriated in order to claim superior markers of civilizational value: The Palestinians are not environmentally conscious enough to deserve this land, nor are they sufficiently free of patriarchy or homophobia.
Strangers in their Own Homes
In the wake of 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homes. Still, a somewhat sizable population of Palestinians were able to remain. Although the war officially ended in March 1949, the expulsion of Palestinians and the large-scale destruction of their communities would continue until the mid-1950s. The few Palestinian communities that managed to avoid the ethnic cleansing campaigns found themselves a minority in a state that saw them as the enemy. The control and pacification of these captive communities became a matter of great importance to the state, which came to view them as a foreign presence in the new settler society.
Towards those ends, two tactics were employed:
The first was to place Palestinian communities under military law, surrounding them with barbed wire and closely controlling every aspect of their lives. For instance, permits were required to move between villages, and travel was greatly restricted. In the early years, the conditions in these entrapped open-air prisons were so dire that even an Israeli Knesset member at the time described them as "fenced concentration camps."
The second tactic was to develop a legal system that would bestow a sheen of legitimacy over the subjugation of Palestinians and rationalize the expropriation of Palestinian property and livelihoods. This came in the form of the Absentee Property Law, which allowed for the seizure of the home, farm, land, and bank accounts of any Palestinians who could not be physically present to contest it. This was a convenient system for the Zionist state, as any refugee daring to brave the borders to claim their property was greeted with the embrace of bullet fire and certain death—all but guaranteeing the takeover of their possessions.
To dispel the notion that these laws were anything other than a fig leaf for naked theft, new clauses were created to exclude the Palestinians that were still within the borders of the new state and who could theoretically contest the takeover of their property. This culminated in the patently ludicrous label of "Present Absentee," which states that the Palestinian is technically present, but was either not granted a permit to travel to his property to contest or was not available on the specific day of inspection. Naturally, there were no appeals or recourse for these Palestinians. It is estimated that roughly a third of all Palestinians who remained within the green line were classified as Present Absentees.
After the initial bewilderment at the contradiction of being simultaneously present and absent, this designation offers a refreshingly honest peek into the colonial mindset. It encapsulates the logic of dehumanization, which has rendered the native invisible all over the world. They might be physically present, but do not matter and are not worthy of consideration. This is just a more recent iteration of Terra Nullius, or "no one's land." The logic of this concept is that any lands not managed in a "modern" fashion were considered empty by the colonists, and therefore, up for grabs.
Ultimately, the combination of carceral systems of military policing coupled with racist and discriminatory laws effectively criminalized every aspect of Palestinian life within the green line. This matrix of domination and control would remain in place until 1966. A year later, following the war of 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, Israel would transport and expand this matrix in the newly occupied areas. The speed with which it was able to exert effective control over this newly occupied population was chiefly due to the decades of experience policing and controlling Palestinians within the green line.
These systems persist to this day, and an analysis of the colonization of Palestine through an abolitionist lens is incomplete without a thorough look at these different regimes of domination. This is all within the framework of what has been termed the Ongoing Nakba, or an understanding of the Nakba not as a closed historical event, but continuous violence aimed at the destruction of Palestine and Palestinians. To that end, the massacres of 1948 are not exhaustive.
The Gaza Strip, the World's "Largest Open-air Prison"
The conditions of the Gaza Strip are a microcosm of Zionist colonialism in Palestine. This thin coastal strip served as Noah's Ark to refugees ethnically cleansed during the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing campaigns. Today, four-fifths of the Gaza population are refugees, with the Strip hosting eight refugee camps.
Across the decades, the occupation of and total control over the Gaza Strip has continued—but in different forms. While Gaza has no settlements, checkpoints, or occupier ground forces to deal with anymore, "the siege of Gaza represents a distinct form of political control based on a subset of occupation practices carried out to their extreme."
It helps to understand what the occupation of Gaza used to look like before we can understand how the mechanisms of control and deprivation in place have changed.
In Gaza, like those in the West Bank or Jerusalem, settlers unsatisfied with the homes they stole elsewhere in Palestine settled with the intent to expropriate more land and resources, even if it meant building their forts amid, but segregated from, the natives. There were, of course, broader incentives to build and fill these settlements, as they were centers for control and could be used to disrupt territorial contiguity within the Gaza Strip and Egypt. As architect Yehuda Drexler of the Israeli Housing Ministry put it, "if no such territorial connection existed, all their prospects for livelihood would depend on Israel, and would make them act more measuredly."
The settlements were evacuated in 2005-2006, ostensibly as a way to resolve a peace process stalemate and for the security of the settlers, but really more as a way to isolate Gaza. This is just "another step in the construction of a "fictional" Palestinian sovereignty, an illusory sovereignty constrained by the political, social, and economic conditions imposed by the occupation forces."
This isolation reached its peak in June 2007 when Gaza was put under what would become merciless decades of a stifling blockade. To borrow from Dov Weisglass, advisor to then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, the idea behind the blockade was "to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger." The Israeli state denied how literal this piece of advice was in its policies, with leaks revealing not only detailed lists of which basic foodstuffs (or even foods deemed to be delicacies or luxuries, like chocolate) were allowed in, but the document also "calculates the minimum number of calories needed by every age and gender group in Gaza." Reportedly, these calculations "determine the quantity of staple foods that must be allowed into the Strip every day, as well as the number of trucks needed to carry this quantity." In prison—closed, open-air like Gaza, or otherwise—control over even basic daily life choices is taken away. Food becomes "part of the disciplinary machinery."
The blockade also prevents the import of goods deemed as having "dual civilian-military use," a list which has been composed of basic construction materials, preventing necessary home expansion or basic rebuilding. This even leaves firefighters underequipped. Fire trucks, such as those that reached the scene of a major fire in a Jabaliya refugee camp that killed 21 people, are unable to secure fire hoses and firefighter lights, as they are included on this list.
Not only are Palestinians in Gaza perpetually at such preventable risk while not being free to eat or build as they choose, they have also had their freedom of movement utterly restricted. Fishermen are prevented from fishing in their waters through the use of death threats, with the areas they are permitted to go changing arbitrarily. Farmers have their lands along the borders with Palestine '48 (30% of Gaza's arable land) unilaterally designated as "no-go" zones, where entering could result in being shot on sight. Even those in urgent need of medical care are frequently not given any. According to the World Health Organization, hundreds have died waiting for those permits.
These mechanisms of control all take place alongside repeated major wars waged on Gaza interspersed with bombing campaigns. A quick overview of these wars does no justice in explaining the scale of human suffering they caused, with roughly 4,000 fatalities and 19,500 injuries.
This violence has been cheered on by Israelis, with a study finding that during the 2014 war on Gaza, Israelis had "high support for collective aggression, and strikingly high acceptance of civilian casualties. On average, participants indicated that they would be willing to kill 575 Palestinian civilians in order to save the life of one Israeli soldier wounded by a Palestinian militant."
Disaggregating by demographics was not found to significantly alter the results. Israeli dehumanization of Palestinians was found to be "the highest levels of blatant dehumanization towards any outgroup observed to date using the Ascent of (Hu)Man measure (i.e., higher than has been observed among American, English and Hungarian participants rating over two dozen different groups, including ISIS)." This clarifies why Gaza is regarded as the World's Largest Open-air Prison—or as others have called it, A Vast Human Cage on the Eastern Mediterranean. Moving within and outside of the cage is difficult and humiliating. There are limited choices in how to eat and where to live, and violence is maliciously inflicted at will from the cagers.
In the West Bank, Guilty until Proven Innocent
Control mechanisms within the West Bank are also better understood through an abolitionist lens. Since 1967, the West Bank has been overseen by Israel's military administration, and from its inception, all Palestinians within the region are viewed as military threats.
Consequently, all Palestinians arrested by Israel are tried by military judges in military courts. This court system is notorious for its 99.7 percent conviction rate, meaning it's virtually impossible to be acquitted regardless of the charge or evidence. While it was never expected that a colonial military system could offer any semblance of justice for its subjects, this astronomical conviction rate demolishes even the charade of due process.
From the moment detainees arrive, they are subjected to various means of torture to extract confessions. Torture is de facto a standard operating procedure in Israeli prisons. They employ physical and psychological warfare as torture, such as: suffocation, beatings, forcing detainees in stress positions for hours, isolation, insults, and other punishments designed to humiliate and demean. Another tactic is forcing detainees to sign documents or confessions in Hebrew, a language most Palestinians can't read or comprehend, and therefore, often misleading them about the contents of those documents. Not even the approximately 500 to 700 children detained and prosecuted each year, some as young as 12, are spared such exploitative and gruesome treatment. Israel also practices so-called "administrative detention," which allows the court to decree the imprisonment of any Palestinian for up to six months without trial. This detention is infinitely renewable—often lasting years—and is based on "secret" evidence that only the judge has access to. There is no due process, and defendants or their attorneys are not even entitled to know the charges against them. Once convicted, Palestinians are ripped away from their communities and transferred to prisons inside the green line. This has the effect of isolating them, as due to the intricate system of checkpoints, permits, and general restrictions on Palestinian movement, it becomes exceedingly difficult for their families to visit them while incarcerated.
These actions are a clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Conveniently, Israel has long argued that the Geneva Conventions, as well as International Law in general, does not apply to occupied Palestine. This effectively traps Palestinians in legal limbo, making it so that any limited rights are treated as gifts bestowed by magnanimous occupation authorities. These are then paraded as proof of the humanity of the jailor who had the misfortune of being forced to deal with such ungrateful colonial subjects.
Not content with punishing individuals, the occupation authority practices collective punishment where it punishes entire families, neighborhoods, or even cities for the alleged transgressions of a singular community member. Perhaps the most prominent example of such punishment is the demolition of the family house of any Palestinian convicted of "terrorism," condemning entire families to homelessness and destitution. This is yet another tactic inherited from the British authorities during the mandate of Palestine to break the spirit of resistance. The cruelty of this practice has since been perfected by their Israeli protégés. These actions are combined with a slew of other collective punishments, such as curfews, restrictions on travel, checkpoints, and other draconian measures. There is always a street somewhere under curfew, a family under house arrest or watching their home be demolished, or a neighborhood turned into a hunting ground for militarized police looking to break bones.
Alleged crimes are not the only way through which Israel legitimizes its collective carceral endeavors. In the wake of the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, when an Israeli settler massacred 29 praying Palestinians in cold blood, Israeli authorities closed down the surrounding area, including Shuhada Street. Shuhada Street was a lively and bustling street in Hebron containing a popular market. The Israeli government justified shutting it down by claiming this was to protect the settlers inside the city from the Palestinians, the victims of the massacre. Today, Shuhada Street is a ghost town. Families whose homes were on this street had their entrances welded shut, forcing their inhabitants to climb through holes in walls or the roof. Shuhada Street remains off-limits for Palestinians as only settlers are allowed through it, often taunting the residents of the locked-down houses. Consequently, it has come to be known as Hebron's infamous "Apartheid Street."
The Criminalization of Palestinians in Jerusalem
In Jerusalem, Israel's so-called "eternal capital," different laws exist for different segments of the population. East Jerusalem, with its majority Palestinian population, is subject to a slew of measures, laws, and procedures that single them out for punitive action. They are seen as residents, not citizens. This makes them dependent on flimsy residence documents to justify their presence as opposed to them just having a right to be present.
Jerusalem is a battlefield for Israel's wider demographic struggle to acquire as much land as possible with as few Palestinians as possible. Through the governmental Gafni committee, Israel declared that Jerusalem's demographics should maintain a 73.5 percent Jewish majority. To fulfill this, the Palestinian population of the city has been subjected to intense discriminatory lawfare to encourage or force as many as possible to leave.
The Palestinian residence permits are often revoked under the flimsiest of pretexts. For instance, if you are a Palestinian from East Jerusalem and you decide to study abroad for a few years without visiting, this is grounds for your permanent removal from the city. This is due to the Jerusalem "center of life" policy, which stipulates that your residence card is revoked if you cannot prove that Jerusalem is your primary home. This is enforced arbitrarily and applied only to Palestinians. Even moving to a neighboring suburb is enough pretext to be erased from the city and the community you are a part of. This is seen by Palestinians as the continuation of the Nakba through other means, as thousands of families have been forcibly removed.
Another tactic is enforcing a selective permit system, which dictates that Palestinians must obtain a permit to repair, expand, or build new houses in their neighborhoods. These permits are virtually never granted, leaving Palestinian communities in the city overcrowded, underfunded, and in disrepair. Meanwhile, entire new settlements are constructed within the confines of the city where Jewish settlers are encouraged to move through generous government subsidies to tip the demographic scales.
To maintain this status quo, Jerusalem has been turned into a playground for police. Armed troops patrol the streets of downtrodden Palestinian neighborhoods, harassing youth and patting them down at a whim. All of this is accompanied with the erasure of traditional and historic area names and toponymy, replacing them with Zionist names like Herzl, Allenby, Rothschild, tributes to settlers and benefactors foreign to the land and its tongue.
No release in death
Breathing your last breath does not guarantee escaping the jailor. Locking up the downtrodden has been a tactic as old as time itself. But, it takes a special kind of cold cruelty to build a prison for the dead.
The Cemeteries of Numbers are plots of land used to inter the bodies of Palestinians accused of "terrorism." The bodies are buried in numbered graves, without ritual or dignity. Today, over 250 bodies lay in these cemeteries, robbing hundreds of families of closure and a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones.
The bodies of the fallen are then deployed as bargaining chips, often used to pressure families to drop the pursuit of autopsies or any investigations as to how or why their loved one was killed. Indeed, the price for closure often comes in the form of agreeing to bury the body immediately and to hold the funeral in the middle of the night with a restricted list of approved attendees.
These practices go beyond mere collective punishment. Trampling the rights of departed Palestinians also takes on an existential dimension for the Israeli settler colony. It is difficult to deny the existence of the native when the evidence of their millennia-long inhabitancy of the land is marked in the very earth the state seeks to usurp. Such erasure is embodied through the planned destruction of the medieval Ma'man Allah cemetery in Jerusalem for the purpose of constructing an Israeli "Museum of Tolerance." Such a grotesque mockery of the very concept of "tolerance" would be considered too heavy-handed were it to feature in a work of fiction. Yet, hundreds of bodies have been excavated from the site to pave the way for this desecration.
No traces of the native may remain. No mention of them can survive, not even in death.
Following the participation in the Oslo accords, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created as an interim body to "take care" of the affairs of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and the eastern part of Jerusalem. This period was to last no more than five years, and would result in the establishment of a Palestinian state. Instead, it has been nearly 30 years, and we are no closer today to the establishment of a Palestinian state than we were then. This so-called interim authority has become a permanent one, but is still constrained by the outdated conditions and frameworks signed decades ago.
This arrangement has proven rather convenient for Israel. In one fell swoop it managed to transfer all of its responsibilities as an occupying power onto the PA, while maintaining effective control over the entirety of the area. As an interim body, the Palestinian Authority has no sovereignty, and its powers are limited to administrative tasks. These powers are so limited to the point that Israel even determines who is a Palestinian citizen or not through control of the civilian registry. Meanwhile, the PA takes on responsibility for the "dirty work" of occupying a population, such as health, sanitation, education, and security. With the support of international foreign aid, this has effectively created an occupation that is subsidized by the world community, where Israel can reap all the benefits of the occupation and none of its responsibilities.
With dwindling popularity, and the legitimacy of its project in doubt after decades of political stagnation, the PA has resorted to more draconian security measures and on increased incarceration to crack down on Palestinian dissent. The PA "Security Complex" in Jericho is referred to colloquially by activists as "Jericho's Slaughterhouse" because of the severity of the torture methods used on detainees, which are levied against insulting charges and accusations.
In the case of Nizar Banat, a well-known and renowned critic of the PA—whose offense included uploading videos to Facebook—stepping "out of line" as he did was enough to have his house shot at, for him to be tortured and assassinated, and his death justified by a high-ranking official who outright said he deserved it for being "rude" and "attacking the whole social system." He was even anonymously posthumously smeared as "not stable." While resistance against the PA preceded Banat's martyrdom, it is worth noting how much more flagrant the PA's brutality was in the aftermath. Protestors were hit with tear gas and stun grenades, and female protesters were sexually harassed and had their phones confiscated, often resulting in private photos from their camera roll published online.
Another critical aspect of the PA's desperation is the increased "security coordination" with the Israeli occupation. Through this coordination, the Palestinian security apparatus has been utilized to crack down on Palestinian resistance and incarcerate anybody critical of this arrangement. This same system also allows Palestinian security forces to withdraw from areas that are about to be raided by the occupation or to arrest Palestinians wanted by Israel. These practices are opposed by the majority of the Palestinian people, driving many to label the Palestinian Authority as a subcontractor for the occupation—or, as the Palestinian intellectual and activist Bassel al-Araj wrote, "a comprador class directly benefiting from the existence of the occupation." These are evidently accurate descriptors of the PA as it has joined Israel and the international community in criminalizing resistance.
"You are not defeated so long as you are resisting."— Mahdi 'Amel
Qahr (قهر) is a powerful Arabic word. It expresses a deep and painful feeling of frustration and resentment, often tinged with anger, at the existence of cruelty and injustice.
The Palestinian people have long known what it is to feel qahr. Our agony over what has been and continues to be taken from us has animated our resistance against Zionist colonization. This agony does not come from a place of hopelessness. Rather, it comes from a bone-deep conviction that we and our children deserve to live lives of freedom and joy, and that we have not given up on making this a reality.
We deserve to give birth without fear of the hundreds of checkpoints that have created a "social geography of horror…marked by violence against the birthing journey," where women have been forced to give birth and have miscarried at devastating rates. After our children are born, they deserve a healthy stable environment—not to be "unchilded," or have their right to live and exist as children systematically denied as they instead witness countless atrocities. Forced to grow up in this manner, throwing stones at invading soldiers becomes one of the few things in their control. It is considered a "security" crime under Israeli military law, though we know it to be a form of resistance, a rejection of oppression and the status quo.
So we resist this hostile political reality, where every aspect of life—be it biological, cultural, or material—is put at daily risk in what constitutes a "death zone." As Palestinians, we resist this death zone in a thousand different interconnected ways while being told we're the ones obsessed with death.
It's no wonder that Rafeef Ziadah's poem "We Teach Life, Sir" resonated with so many Palestinians. In it, she pushes back against the oppressive audacity of the demand that we be the perfect victims in order to earn world sympathy.
As Ziadah asks, do we not wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world life?
When our incarcerated bring deeply cherished children into the world, spiting the colonial carceral system through sperm smuggling, is this not an act of revolutionary love and defiance? Bringing life to the death zone, subverting the matrix of domination which sees our children as nothing more than a demographic threat—is there an act of rebellion any more sincere, any more determined to squeeze out life from the place meant to be our tomb?
Walid Daqaa is a Palestinian writer and activist who is among those who have subverted the system in this way. Daqaa faced decades of physical and psychological torture in jail as well as devastating medical negligence amid a cancer diagnosis. Like other Palestinian "security prisoners," he is denied conjugal visitation. Nevertheless, he has a daughter, Milad, who is one of the 110 children born from the "liberated sperm" of Palestinian prisoners serving long-term or life sentences. The procedure is even offered for free, as it is seen as a "social responsibility." To Palestinian prisoners and their families, this form of resistance is a source of hope and a way to reclaim agency over their lives.
Through such acts of resistance, power structures in prisons are overturned, and the authority of the jailor yields to reveal a fragile order, threatened by the faintest breeze of disruption. No tactic highlights this more than the large-scale hunger strikes organized by Palestinian prisoners. These strikes dispel the notion of the "normalcy" of incarceration, upending the status quo and using their jailors' means of control against them. Through hunger strikes, prisoners utilize the last possessions in their arsenals, the last tools they can wield to spit in the eye of oppression: their bodies and their lives. This exemplifies Banu Bargu's concept of necro-resistance—either freedom or death. Interviews, such as these with hunger strikers, emphasize that this strike is seen as "a death for life," an exposure of the inhumanity of the occupation and a reclamation of one's own humanity. This is all in resistance to "the repressive technologies of power" that are wielded against captives to deprive them of normal life.
Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights records Palestinian prisoners undergoing mass and individual hunger strikes since at least 1968. The first martyr of the Palestinian Prisoners Movement was Abdul Qader Abu al-Fahem, who was martyred after going on hunger strike and being force-fed. On May 2, 2023, Khader Adnan was martyred after an 80-day-long hunger strike in protest against his imprisonment. Adnan had a history of hunger strikes against the occupation authorities, which robbed him of years of life through administrative detention without any charge or trial.
Palestinian prisoners' hunger strikes are met with solidarity and the mobilization of the street in their support. The danger of this to Israel is evident in how brutally it cracks down on hunger strikers with oppressive tactics are employed that include: "pulling captives out of their cells, stripping them, and mocking their slender bodies; conducting provocative room searches, confiscating their remaining assets; revoking all rights, such as the right to access daily newspapers or to the radio; reducing break times; overcrowding rooms."
They also employ beatings and spread false rumors, hoping to break prisoner spirits. They claim that the hunger strike ended, and that other prisoners were indeed feasting while they starved. During the prisoner hunger strike of 2017, Israeli prison authorities released a video of hunger strike leader Marwan Barghouti supposedly eating in his cell. Conveniently, his face cannot be seen, and the prison authorities refused to allow for any inspection of the footage to verify it. This was widely seen as yet another attempt at psychological warfare against Palestinian prisoners, as Israel's doctoring of videos to create misleading narratives is a known tactic.
Despite these violations and attempts to quell resistance, Palestinian prisoners engaged in tactics of mass disobedience and have earned concessions and reclaimed basic dignities, such as increased visitations, the reduction of overcrowding, improved ventilation, annual family photos, better access to public phones, the provision of ambulances for the transfer of critically ill prisoners, and even no longer being forced to address their jailers as "sir."
Prisoners have even been able to secure their rights to access books, to own stationery, and conduct classes and debates. A political curriculum has been developed through collective efforts, from knowledge exchanges by university-educated prisoners to family members getting around book bans by rebinding book covers, disguising materials with photos of celebrities, and even swallowing rolled-up, hand-written transcripts of books turned into capsules to smuggle in and out of cells. Prison cells have become centers of learning and disseminating liberatory thought and discussions on how to continue the struggle—lighthouses illuminating the darkness of the dungeon.
Many other daily-life actions become insubordination when your whole culture is being threatened with erasure. Even in creating our traditional embroidery, tatreez, we resist our deaths and erasure. This is a fact Israel is well aware of, trying to co-opt this heritage practice as their own on numerous occasions. A group of Palestinian Bedouin Women were tricked into creating a dress that featured traditional tatreez for Israeli designer Aviad Arik Herman. They were not notified who the designer was or that the purpose of the commission was to be used in a New York Fashion Week fundraiser co-hosted by an agency in New York that promotes Israeli designers. In another case, an embroidered Palestinian wedding dress that was left behind in the midst of the ethnic cleansing of 1948 was auctioned off by the son of a member of a Zionist militia, who claimed he found it in an "abandoned" Palestinian house. Amid such contemptuous attempts at discursive and physical erasure, the tatreez that Israelis have attempted to claim as their own is being embroidered with defiance within Israeli prison walls, despite increasing violent crackdown on the practice.
There are countless examples of defiance of prison walls to choose from since so many of us and our loved ones have experiences with or have personally experienced incarceration. Since 1967, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been incarcerated, with approximately 40 percent of the adult male population having seen the inside of a detention center or prisons. It is clear to us how occupation is necessarily punitive and controlling, and so to be put in Israeli jails for resistance is a point of pride, not of shame. Prisoners emerge from their sentences as respected leaders of society and are greeted with processions, flowers, and celebrations. In 2011, there was a prisoner swap, where over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were released in exchange for one captured Israeli soldier. They were released to fireworks and rallies, beeping, flag-waving carloads of youth, patriotic songs playing from loudspeakers, a mass wedding being held, and a national holiday being declared. One of the released thanked the resistance for "returning us as liberated heroes." Released prisoners joyfully signal their return to their communities in repudiation of their jailors, even when these celebrations are actively suppressed under threat of violence, with the Israeli National Security Minister ordering police to prevent these celebrations and calling for the institution of a death penalty.
Released Palestinian prisoners confront these threats and attempts at intimidation with the full backing of a society that has embraced them. This is made clear by the stories of loving engagements persevering for years, even decades, until a betrothed prisoner is released. Families of political prisoners enjoy social support, which helps children adapt to the trauma of a missing parent; and small forms of financial support, a policy which is, of course, viciously smeared by Zionists.
Another testament to societal embrace of prisoners is on the campus of Al-Quds University: the Abu Jihad Museum for the Prisoners' Movement. Named after Khalil al-Wazir or Abu Jihad, a leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and resistance fighter, the design of the museum "reproduces the experience of being taken to jail" and displays prisoners' writings, curating the perspectives of the incarcerated as something noble and worthy of consideration. In doing so, it resists the forces that imprisoned the museum's subjects, the prisons themselves, and even the larger prison evoked by the Apartheid Wall near the museum.
The resistance of Palestinian prisoners has also served as inspiration for countless others, and helped cement radical international solidarity between oppressed peoples. For example, Samih al-Qasim's poems, featured in the collection of Palestinian revolutionary poetry, Enemy of the Sun, was reportedly found among the book collection in Black Panther George Jackson's cell. He was so moved by this poem that he reportedly wrote it down on parchment to share with other inmates. This is what led to the erroneous attribution of this poem to him, as it was published under his name in the Black Panther Party newspaper after his death. This unwavering link of solidarity was and still remains celebrated in Palestine to this day.
Today, more than ever, it remains crucial to center any discussion about Palestinian liberation through the lens of abolition and a complete rejection of carcerality. In this context, Incarceration is not only related to prisons and prisoners, but touches upon every aspect of our life. From the moment of birth, Palestinians must contend with being criminalized for existing. We are surveilled and censored, our oppression normalized, and our bodies corralled into various open-air and closed prisons.
Such tactics have always revealed more about the jailor than the prisoner, and the logics inherent to the carceral apparatus are shared between all oppressive forces. While the goal is to project strength and power, what it divulges instead is fear, insecurity, and self-doubt. Resorting to locking away the inconvenient reminders of a crooked system betrays its weakness, a society unable to function without constructed villains onto which the world's ills can be pinned.
It is an attempt to cover the sun with a sieve.
As the contradictions of the Israeli settler colony continue to sharpen, the more brutal the repression becomes. This should be seen as a continuation of over a century of attempts to extinguish Palestinian resistance. If anything, these efforts have backfired, as resistance in all its forms has become fiercer and the voices of Palestinian prisoners have broken through the walls of silence erected by their tormentors. Their desire to cage an entire nation will not succeed. We will outlast them all.
As Palestinian poet in exile Rashid Hussein wrote:
Don't be sad, Darling!
To put me in prison, as they did, is a very easy thing!
But what can they do about the sun
Shining outside and nurturing new rebels?