Without a doubt, my most painful memory of my short trip to Palestine, over ten years ago, is the conversation I had with two friends at a checkpoint. I told myself at the time that I must never forget that moment, and indeed, I haven’t, and I still hope I never do.
It was a sweltering hot July day. My two friends, both activists from Nablus, had been showing me around the West Bank, and we were standing, as Palestinians have been doing for years, at a checkpoint, waiting for the Israeli soldier to let us through. But the soldier was in no hurry. Sheltered from the sun in her little kiosk, she was chatting on her cell phone. She spoke Hebrew, which we did not understand, but it was very clear from her giggles, her body language, her relaxed manner, that this was no business call, but rather the banter of best friends, or lovers.
One of my friends asked “I wonder if it is legal for a soldier to have personal conversations while at a checkpoint,” to which the other answered, bitterly, “probably, so long as it increases our wait.”
I am a Diaspora Palestinian. I did not grow up in “’48 Israel,” nor in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. I had never before had to wait at checkpoints, at the mercy of occupation soldiers. I knew checkpoints were illegal. I had to remind my friends of what they knew very well too, but could not necessarily articulate as they stood yet again, as they had done tens of thousands of times before, at a checkpoint: the soldier’s attitude was irrelevant, the very checkpoint is illegal, even if she were offering us ice water.
I understood why I could think as I did, while my friends compared soldiers’ attitudes. They were just as, if not more, politicized as I am, and they knew, as well as I did, that the checkpoints were illegal. But their daily reality was different, hence their immediate responses also differed.
We live in different worlds. I live outside of Seattle, denied my Right of Return. They live in Nablus. Younger than me, they were born, and they grew up, under occupation. Any West Bank Palestinian under 50 today has grown up under occupation. My friends have never traveled very far without crossing multiple checkpoints, and the attitude of an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint makes a difference to them. I was born and raised outside of Palestine, with an acute awareness of the illegality of the occupation, and everything associated with that occupation. The checkpoints are illegal. The settlements are illegal. The most recent United Nations Security Council Resolution, Resolution 2334, which “Reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law” confirms, or as it puts it, “reaffirms” a reality most of the world already knew.
And in my Diasporan worldview, which has absorbed the Western hegemonic metanarrative even as I also consciously reject it, I still occasionally think in terms of “the occupation,” as if it were a singular complicating factor. Just this morning, as I was walking and thinking of the book I am writing, I considered the titles of two chapters. One “The Occupation Has a Gender,” examines in great detail the often erased consequences of Israeli military rule on the lives of women young and old. The other, “The Occupation Has No Gender,” problematizes the concept of “women and children” as innocent victims, because in so doing, it implicitly suggests that the majority of Palestinian men are not innocent.
Then I had my own “a-ha” moment.
I, too, was slipping…
Just as my friends in Palestine, at the checkpoint, focused on the behavior of the soldier, I was defaulting to the hegemonic discourse, which posits that “the occupation” is the problem. As if the Nakba were not the defining moment of the dispossession, disenfranchisement, and violation of the human rights of the Palestinians: it’s not “the occupation.” As if the fact that the Palestinian refugee problem being the longest unresolved refugee problem in modern history were no big deal: it’s not “the occupation.” As if the fact that Palestinians within Israel live separate and unequal lives were acceptable: it’s not “the occupation.” As if the stranglehold on Gaza, now entering its tenth year, making that the longest military siege in modern history, were a side note: it’s not “the occupation.” Indeed, the mainstream discourse does not even bring up the siege of Gaza in its discussion of “obstacles to peace,” further erasing the oppression of a population harshly penalized for engaging in democratic elections.
Just as my friends knew full well that the checkpoints were illegal, but zoomed in on the soldier’s behavior, I know Israeli policies throughout historic Palestine are unjust, oppressive, and still speak of “the occupation.”
Such is the power of the hegemonic Zionist narrative, that we still slip into it, even as we rightly celebrate the discursive change brought about by our recent successes. And we must keep in mind that our successes remain strictly linguistic, as long as the siege on Gaza is enforced, the settlements keep expanding, and the refugees remain in the Diaspora, or internally displaced, longing for their homes.
Language matters. If it didn’t, we would not applaud the fact that the word “apartheid” is now circulating in various circles where the Question of Palestine is discussed. If it didn’t, Israel and the Zionists in the West would not be launching an attack on our freedom of expression. If it didn’t, we would not be speaking of “The Question of Palestine” rather than the “Palestine-Israel Conflict.” Language matters because it impacts how we think of reality. Correctly naming the problem, then, is primordial, a critical first step to solving it.
My New Year’s Resolution, which I hope millions of others will also make, is to stop substituting “the occupation” for “Zionism.” Not one more slippage. The era of discussing the occupation as the presumed greater Israeli evil is over, and should be tossed into the trash heap of history. As we celebrate the discursive change around Palestine, we must be cautious no longer to speak or write about “the occupation” except as one of the many varied facets of Zionism. Palestinians cannot afford any more erasures, as these are extremely detrimental to our cause, to justice. And just as we realize that the two-state “solution” was never a viable option, we must also inscribe into our new discourse that the occupation was never the problem. Zionism is.
2017 is an important year, it is the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. The Balfour Declaration also reveals another hegemonic misrepresentation. Its qualification, as it expresses concern that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” erases the fact that the “existing non-Jewish communities” were both the overwhelming majority, at an estimated 90%, and the Indigenous people of the land. This erasure, then, started long before “the occupation,” so much so that, when we now hear a speech by Western politicians about Palestine and Israel, such as US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent speech, in which the Palestinians were a mere side note, and where the focus was almost exclusively on Israel, and Israel’s “security,” we must understand that this is not new, but that the erasure was already enacted through the language of the Balfour Declaration. And today’s reality is the reification of that language. We must be extremely vigilant in fighting and countering this, and we can start with our own terminology.
We’ve made much progress, and 2017 must be the year we re-inscribe our history, our experiences, our rights.
It’s not the occupation. It’s Zionism.