By Nahla Abdo
In her new book Captive Revolution, Nahla Abdo talks to Palestinian women imprisoned within the Israeli prison system and analyses the apparent gendered forms of oppression and resistance in such extreme conditions. For this article in time for the book’s publication, she discusses the concept of the entire Gaza Strip as a prison colony, and reveals the attitude of the Palestinian people who resist within it.
‘Today in the Gaza Strip, we are witnessing a new chapter in the story of Israel’s ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people. On the twenty-ninth day of Israel’s bombardment of the Strip, more than ten thousand women, children and men were killed and injured. In a population of about 1.8 million people, half a million have been displaced, most of these women and children. All these crimes against the Palestinian’s human rights were committed while the rest of the world (including most Arab governments) watched the massacres silently and in complicity with Israeli state terrorism. On the thirtieth day, reporters were able to visit areas previously kept out of reach from their own inhabitants and rescue teams. One announced: “I was there, and it was very difficult to watch the catastrophe which befell the people in areas such as Khuzaa’a, Beit Hanoon, Jabalia and Rafah to mention just a few. Several women interviewed declared the situation as “Another Nakba!” However, the situation is even worse than that. In addition to the 1948 Nakba which resulted in the permanently high ratio of refugees in Gaza (around 80 percent), we have seen three Israeli wars in the last six years. These wars destroyed the Strip’s infrastructure, its social, cultural and economic institutions and turned it into a place where even human survival was questionable. The current attack is, more and more, being seen as the most vicious.
Most shockingly, perhaps, today, not unlike yesterday and the day before; in 1948, 1967, 2008 and 2012, Palestinian women and children appear to have been targeted by the Israeli state. They continue to be used by Israel as a colonial tool aimed at forcing the population into submission.
In Captive Revolution special emphasis is placed on the gendered methods of torture that Israel is using against Palestinian women political detainees. By its colonial logic, Israel believes that in frightening the women, through sexual threats, torture, displacement and murder, it can control the rest of the population, silence them into submission and kill their spirit of resistance.
For the last seven years or so, the colonial state has placed a suffocating siege on Gaza with a blockade from air, sea and land. With soaring unemployment reaching 85 percent in most places in the Strip, the Gazan’s inability to re-build their institutions, schools, medical and health care system, their inability to use their own waters, restrictions on their land movement, Israel has turned the whole Gaza strip into the world’s largest prison. The same colonial logic used against all Palestinian political prisoners, especially women, has been used in Israel’s recent attack on Gaza. By capturing the Palestinian population within this prison, Israel intends to force its inhabitants into submission in the hopes of ridding them of their human dignity, pride and their desire for resilience and resistance.
Israeli Deception and International Complicity
These crimes against human rights were conducted under the watchful eyes of the world, including most of the Arab world and the UN. One might understand US and Western complicity (who conveniently during the onslaught on Gaza were all dubbed as “Hamas”). What was and still is particularly difficult for many people to comprehend is the position of the UN, which sided with the imperialist powers throughout the siege. For example, after the shelling of the first UN school, UN President Ban Ki Moon immediately and without any evidence bought into the Israeli fabrication of the incident. He condemned Palestinian resistors by claiming that they used the school to house their missiles, despite the fact that the resistance (including Hamas), denied such allegations and no evidence has yet been produced to support Israel’s claim.
It was not until it became clear that Israel in fact was targeting everything in Gaza, including Mosques, hospitals and more United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools, that the UN came out with a shy condemnation of the shelling of schools used as shelters for Palestinian civilians.
Imperialism today utilises all technological developments in cementing its hegemonic ideology. It uses its various institutions including mainstream media and academia in advancing such ideology. Western media and academia collude with imperialism and serve as a tool for imperialist interests. From the 1960s until the 1980s and in the absence of social media and other alternative forums, they were still in full support of Israel. They demonised and de-humanised Palestinian women’s resistance. In fact, they adamantly rejected the notion that Palestinian women have agency. Resistance, including militant resistance to Israel and the West were dubbed as terrorism. During this period, as women from various factions of the PLO military organisations partook in the armed struggle, Western and Israeli academics, especially feminists, were unable to believe that Palestinian women were able to resist too, and fabricated their own stories about women fighters. They claimed that women chose to join the resistance (through the so-called “suicide bombing” tactic) in order to escape their oppressive families, or to hide a shameful deed they had committed. For Israeli and other Western academics, especially feminists writing on Palestinian women’s anti-colonial struggle, the shame, inhumanity and disgrace was not placed on the occupying colonising and aggressive state, but rather on victims of colonialism and occupation.
The power of imperialist ideology during the recent Israeli onslaught on Gaza is best explained by how Israel’s words, concepts, stories and fabrications were adopted and repeatedly pronounced by Western governments and mainstream media, especially in the US. Israel packaged this war as a war against terrorism, against Hamas and as a war to protect and secure its settlers/citizens. Throughout Western mainstream media and official statements, the world was told that Israel was “defending itself” from the terror of Hamas. Anyone listening to world leaders would think that it was Gaza occupying Israel! The truth, however, resides elsewhere: in the actual lived experiences of the victims and not the victimisers, the colonised and not the colonisers.
While I personally do not support or agree with Hamas’s ideology, the group is but one of the various PLO armed resistance movements, it is part and parcel of the Palestinian resistance. Hamas and the rest of the resistance forces were not alone in waging resistance to the Israeli occupying forces. Rather, they were fully supported by the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people who considered this resistance as legitimate and necessary. This reality comes in the face of another Israeli fabrication, claiming that “Hamas” was taking Palestinian civilians as captives and using them as a shield.
During the current bombardment, the solidarity and support expressed by Palestinians not only from Gaza but also from the rest of the occupied territories including ’48 Palestinians, those in refugee camps as well as the diaspora was unprecedented in its scale. One only had to listen to the voices of women who survived the recent massacres to realise how steadfast and resilient these women and children are. Despite the blood which had been spilled in front of their eyes, despite the loss of many loved ones, most women and children applauded the resistance and vowed to stay loyal to their human dignity and fight against submission to Israel. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians have been seeking their freedom from Israeli occupation and colonialism for many decades now. It is no exaggeration to suggest that it is these women and children who Israel thinks it could force into succumbing and acquiescing through death and pain. But again, Palestinian women are able to turn the prison into a space for life and resistance until they gain their freedom as human beings living in peace and dignity.
Resistance as the Hope of the Oppressed
The voices, stories and narratives of Palestinian women political detainees represent forms of expression of their determination to live a life free of occupation and colonialism. Their stories depict their resistance to colonialism and inform their hope for liberation. During the recent 72 hours of “ceasefire” announced after a month of the Israeli war on Gaza, people appeared in a massive demonstration in Gaza city, denouncing occupation and hailing resistance to occupation. These are the same women, men and children whose loved ones were massacred, who lost their homes, who saw their entire neighbourhood flattened. Whether resistance is from within Israeli prisons or from Gaza’s world’s largest prison, it all demonstrates the people’s will to sacrifice for their freedom and dignity.
Palestinian willpower and resolve to live free of occupation and colonialism is embedded in their culture. This resolve is ingrained in their memories, beginning with the 1948 Nakba going through the many massacres committed against them everywhere: from Dair Yassin, to Kufur Qasem, to Qibya, to name only a few in Palestine, to Sabra and Shatila and Qana in Lebanon. The history of Palestinian colonialism and occupation by Israel has produced a strong culture of resistance made up of “Adab al-Muqawama” (resistance literature) and “Adab al-Sojoun” (prison literature) to folkloric songs, theatre, cartoons, films and many other forms of literary expression. Palestinian resistance poetry, as Mahmoud Darwish once said, ‘plants the seeds of hope’.
It is true that Israel is a state which possesses a powerful army which is fully supported by the US and the West (as well as some Arab regimes). It is also true that since its establishment the UN Security Council has never been able to issue any binding decision against this state. Palestinians, on the other hand, are occupied, colonised, they do not have a state or a sovereign territory, they do not possess an army. Still, Palestinians possess a history and a live memory of their history. They possess a rich culture of resistance and hope for the future. It is this hope, willpower and determination to live free of occupation which keeps them alive and keeps their hopes for a better future thriving. These are the messages from the Palestinian women political detainees fighting for their freedom in Israeli prisons as discussed in Captive Revolution, and are the messages that Gaza people have been sending throughout this criminal war.’
Captive Revolution could not have come out at a more timely and pertinent epoch in the history of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. The book represents one chapter in the long history of the Palestinian suffering under around 66 years of Israel’s colonial occupation. It focuses on Israel’s racism and its oppressive policies against Palestinian women who have been detained within Israeli prisons. It looks at their oral testimonies, and champions their methods of resistance under the extremity of oppression. Its argument expands to encompass the role of imperialism (especially the policies of the US), and explains the ideology which solidifies state terrorism while simultaneously vilifying and demonising the occupied and colonised.
The book also looks at the collusion between the state and academic institutions, including various strands of feminism in both liberal and radical forms. Additionally, by taking a direct and personal look at the responses of the victims of occupation, it discusses the forms of resistance which Palestinian victims have been acting out their struggle for freedom and human rights. In doing so Captive Revolution reveals how Palestinians have developed a strong culture of resistance including resistance literature and prison literature in the face of Israeli brutality.
Nahla Abdo is an Arab feminist activist, Professor of Sociology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. She has extensive publications on women, racism, nationalism, and the State in the Middle East, with a special focus on Palestinian women.
Captive Revolution is available to buy from Pluto Press