Abolition, Not Reform: A call to action on Nakba Day 2020

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In May of every year, as Palestinians and our allies commemorate the Nakba, I tend to look forward, not back.  I make “Nakba resolutions,” like others make New Year’s resolutions, and my Nakba resolutions generally revolve around specific ways of being a better activist and organizer for justice.  This Nakba Day 2020, a full 72 years since the catastrophe began, coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic.  And just as many are saying there should be no return to “the way we were” before the novel coronavirus, so I believe our activism should propel us in an alternate direction, not necessarily “novel,” but renewed, and more radical. 

The signs of the shift are there, all around us.  As mutual aid groups were sprouting in various communities around the world, I was particularly interested in watching the revival, in the West Bank, of the kind of organizing and leadership that first prevailed during the First Intifada, when Palestinians formed popular committees to address the special circumstances of that moment. Suha Arraf writes that, when the first cases of the virus were detected in Bethlehem, in March of this year,

“Bethlehem’s residents organized en masse in a manner reminiscent of the popular committees that operated during the First Intifada. An emergency committee was formed in the city with over 3,000 volunteers — youth scouts, psychologists, doctors, academics, social and political activists, and other concerned residents. Palestinian women also returned to the center stage of public life, as they had during the First Intifada.”

The First Intifada, which erupted in 1987, was a “shrugging off” of the old ways of fighting the occupation, it was a genuinely grassroots awakening, centering collectives and women above the traditional leadership of men and government offices. It hinged on mutual aid and self-sufficiency, and was instrumental in exposing Israel’s brutality to the world, at a time when the oppressor was still claiming to be a victim.  Yet the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 and 1995, took the wind out of that uprising, as they re-established the leadership of politicians over civilians.  When the First Intifada winded down, there was no relief that the upheaval was over.  Rather, a sense of defeat, of failure, pervaded society, while “politics as usual” resumed.  Edward Said’s “The Morning After,” penned in 1993, remains an eloquent denunciation of the magnitude of the loss most Palestinians, but not the politicians, felt: “The gains of the intifada were squandered,” Said wrote, “and today advocates of the new document say: ‘We had no alternative.’ The correct way of phrasing that is: ‘We had no alternative because we either lost or threw away a lot of others, leaving us only this one.” 

The “return to normal,” to “pre-intifada” ways, dealt a severe blow to Palestinian resistance—one it took years to recover from. The Second Intifada, which erupted in 2000, lacked much of the civil disobedience aspects of the First Intifada.  There were no commercial strikes, no sustained tax revolts, no prominent women’s and youth leadership, even as Israel’s violations of international law and the human rights of the Palestinian people grew more egregious. Thousands of Palestinian civilians were killed in air strikes, and Israel began construction of the Apartheid Wall, while politicians—but not the people most impacted–continued to discuss the “roadmap” to a peace plan. 

In 2005, what I consider to be the Third Intifada was launched, with the call for global solidarity in the form of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Like the First Intifada, the BDS movement was a civilian-led movement grounded in civil disobedience, and its greatest achievement has been the complete transformation of the image of Israel and Israelis as one of the victims in a “conflict” with two sides.  The Zionist narrative, first challenged on a global level by the First Intifada, was now completely shattered.  

Over the past few years, and thanks in great part (but not exclusively) to the BDS movement, Palestinian activism has broken multiple taboos.  Many are now (again) openly stating that Zionism is racism, and asserting that there are no “liberal Zionists,” there are only Zionists who fancy themselves liberal. Talk of “two states” is utterly passe, something that immediately identifies the speaker as delusional, or racist—a supporter of the oppressive status quo.  And acknowledging that Israel practices apartheid is now mainstream in progressive circles.  BDS, along with the radical grassroots activism we have seen blossom over the past few years, has reframed the conversation in hopeful ways that no “negotiations” and “process” could offer.  

And globally, along with the shattering of taboos around seeking justice for Palestine, there has been a significant shift—still quite recent, but rapidly growing — in the demands being made around other causes, a shift best articulated as “abolition, not reform.”  The demand to “Free Them All,” for example, represents a shift from “do not give prison sentences to first-time offenders with non-violent offenses,” to the abolitionist demand for an end to all incarceration—period. This shift reflects the general tendency to no longer accept “tweaks,” but make bold, radical, maximalist demands that secure a life of dignity for all. And as the call for justice for the Palestinian people has grown to be a truly global, interconnected movement, there are ample indications that activism for Palestinian rights has also shifted from calling for an end to “the occupation” to the more radical demand for an end to all violations of the rights of the Palestinian people. Demanding full equality for Palestinians.  Exposing, challenging, confronting, and overthrowing all of Zionism, not just some versions of it.  There is a welcome reframing of the Palestinian struggle as a decolonial struggle, and the insistence on the Right of Return.  Not “novel” demands, but a renewed insistence on the core issues.

We are in the midst of a catastrophic pandemic that will kill millions, and leave more millions with lasting losses, of loved ones, of livelihoods, of choice.  Yet in these worst of times, in Palestine and the United States, we are not looking to our governments for help, we are turning to each other, we are creating and cementing community, we are depending on each other, daring to ask, and offer, in ways we did not do before.  Social distancing has not stopped us from getting closer, checking in, redistributing resources, understanding how each community is differently impacted by the virus, and responding accordingly.  I cannot help but see parallels between today’s alternative ways of engaging in solidarity, and the heady days of the Intifadas, which taught Palestinians that no government will tend to their needs, their rights.  And I cannot help but think of how these needs were met by the people, who were brought closer together by even the strictest curfews.   

So, this “Nakba 2020/COVID 19,” let us make radical demands everywhere, as we understand that a return to the way we were, just before the pandemic, offers no solution to our problems.  Let us not accept what politicians who uphold the status quo are offering, as if we had no alternative. We are living the alternative. My Nakba 2020 resolution, which I hope many will join me in, is to make sure we do not go back to old ways of organizing, that would squander the gains made in this moment of global upheaval.    

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The Palestine Liberation Organization, May14/20 Dr. Hanan Ashrawi: “Nakba is a Continuum of Injustice that Must End” “Seventy-two years ago, the Nakba (Catastrophe) that was forced upon the Palestinian people began with a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing, expulsion, mass murder, theft, and destruction by Zionist militias that later formed the Israeli army. Nakba ravished the thriving and prosperous Palestinian society, turning the majority of the Palestinian people into uprooted refugees, whose identity and basic… Read more »

Nada Elia has articulated essential insights about the struggle in her powerful recap of the changes brought by the First Intifada and their collapse under the foolish and corrupted Oslo Accords and the scam of the Oslo process. She’s right that the hard-won gains and lessons of the First Intifada were uprooted by new structures of domination and co-optation and a futile return to pure violence in the Second Intifada. I love her seeing BDS… Read more »

One feature of the two state solution is that it could portray itself as win-win. Here we hear the voice opposed to win-win, zero acknowledgment of the existence of someone on the other side. I suppose it is not to be expected. Still it does not fill me with optimism or hope.

What a depressing essay. No mention of peace, or coexistence or understanding at any point on the horizon . No acknowledgement that there are two nations who should enjoy equal rights . Just the rhetoric of extremism –”radical , maximalist demands”, guaranteed to lead the Palestinians (and the Israelis) towards more bloodshed and suffering. Look at her description of the 2nd intifada :” There were no commercial strikes, no sustained tax revolts, no prominent women’s… Read more »