Narrating the Nation of Palestine

by Nuzhat Abbas

Introduction: Nahla Abdo is an Arab feminist and a professor of sociology at Carleton University. Her work on women and the state in the Middle East, with special focus on Palestinian women, includes her recent book, Women and the Politics of Military Confrontation: Palestinian and Israeli Gendered Narratives of Dislocation (co-edited with Ronit Lentin,Berghahn Books,2002), and Sexuality, Citizenship and the Nation State: Experiences of Palestinian Women.(Syracuse University Press, forthcoming).

Introduction: Nahla Abdo is an Arab feminist and a professor of sociology at Carleton University. Her work on women and the state in the Middle East, with special focus on Palestinian women, includes her recent book, Women and the Politics of Military Confrontation: Palestinian and Israeli Gendered Narratives of Dislocation (co-edited with Ronit Lentin,Berghahn Books,2002), and Sexuality, Citizenship and the Nation State: Experiences of Palestinian Women.(Syracuse University Press, forthcoming).

She helped establish the Women 's Studies Institute at Birzeit University and is the founder of the Gender Research Unit at the Women's Empowerment Project/Gaza Community Mental Health Program.

Herizons: As a scholar and a writer, what do you see as the role of intellectuals and writers in the making of Palestine?

Abdo: Intellectuals, writers, poets, scholars and academics are part of the recording of the culture, history and existence of communities, nationalities and groups of people. They put together the histories -imagined or real -of all people. Palestinians, like other peoples who have experienced settler, colonial and military occupation and have lost the material treasure of their culture and identity, are very much in need of the written word that can travel all over and tell their story. Mahmoud Darwish keeps bringing this up in his poetry.

Intellectuals and writers have a large part to play in keeping the dream alive and representing the community and the nation for the whole world to see. Much of our culture, which was based on the land, on how people conducted their lives, their economic and social experiences, ended up being held in oral culture.

This oral culture was largely transmitted through women, particularly through refugee women from one generation to the next. To a certain extent, you can also explain the phenomena of Intifadas (Palestinian uprisings) in 1987,and the current one that began in 2000,as a form of public speech. Both events demonstrate a particular stage in the history of Palestinians, necessitated by the urge to take that history, culture and the materiality of the people out in public, in the face of powers that have been trying to erase it. Is the intellectual also someone who could criticize this dream of 'the nation'? You conduct research on refugee women and help them articulate their histories.

How do you manage this tension between the role of the critic and the person who helps articulate these voices?

Abdo: Your question has two different levels. One is the need to write the dream and publicize it, the need to narrate the nation. On the other hand, you have the role of the critic, who presents the nation to a certain extent, as a necessary articulation for the building of the community. At the same time, the critic attempts not to forget the different contradictions and conflicts and contestations that are embedded in an ideology like that of the nation.

Some of my academic work has been critical in the sense that, while it highlights the importance of the issue of the nation, it also seeks to unmask the concept. In other words, Palestinians need to see where the notion of the nation goes wrong. For me, this notion goes wrong when it veils some major relations within the community. It goes wrong in not defining very clearly the contradictions in class terms that are in every community.

It masks the power relations within every community. So you have many factors in this so-called 'community '-issues of gender and sexuality, issues of class, even ethnic diversity. These get masked within the concept of nationality and nation-state and the community as a whole. For the critical intellectual, I think it is her ethical responsibility to not just express the nation as an identity that needs to be materialized, but also as an identity whose essence is one of contradiction, conflict and contestation. These differences need to be mapped out if we are to build a democratic community and equitable society.

We get all kinds of support for Palestine, or the Palestinian State, or independence, or self-determination. All of these terms are there, but what seems to be missing is the whole issue of what exactly is the kind of nation-state we are looking for, the kind of community we are addressing. What happens under crises (like the current Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza) is that the enemy is so atrocious and the danger so immediate that this helps in suppressing these internal contradictions, turning the nation into an imaginary reality that is not necessarily just or equal.

The Israeli army attacks do not distinguish between poor and rich, between women and men and children, or between Muslims or Christians. These 'blind' attacks create a generalized feeling that expresses itself in a similarly 'blind 'response. And there is Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian National Authority that he heads. The Authority has major problems in its structure, performance and vision and there have always been allegations of corruption and nepotism since the very beginning of its establishment in 1994.

Amid the frustrations of the national leadership -the enemy from within -and the Israeli occupier -the enemy from without -the only way to say 'enough suffering 'and 'enough humiliation' was through speaking up and resisting, thus the Intifada of September 2000. The response from the Israeli government, especially since Ariel Sharon became president, instead of crystallizing the voices against the internal rule, ended up making Palestinians concerned overwhelmingly with the 'external enemy' only. The painful result of this has been the suppression of all these different voices. Suicide bombs were historically associated with Hamas and at the beginning, most Palestinians were against bombings in Israel.

Intellectuals, writers and many ordinary people were against violence that targeted ordinary civilians. This is a human position. This must be differentiated from the Intifada and from armed resistance within the Occupied Territories, which are legitimate forms of resistance. Hamas has been seen by many Palestinians-and particularly women -as a politicizing of Islam with an adverse social impact on women. It was not seen as a political move that was going to be helpful or positive in building civil society.

Many women were against Hamas because their dream had been to build a secular state and not a state that would suppress women in the name of religion. Hamas, to a large extent, was a creation of Israel, in a way similar to Taliban being largely a product of the US. The Israeli State supported Hamas at the very beginning and used it, especially during the first Intifada, as a counterbalance or preventative rod to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization stronghold in the Occupied Territories. Unfortunately, after the second year of the first Intifada, Hamas began to muster more support among disparate Palestinians. While Hamas has declared an open-public strategy of resistance to Israeli occupation, its fundamental social vision has always been one of oppression towards women.

Many Palestinian women, for the first time, began to experience forced veilings and were pushed back into the domestic-private domain. With ripe economic and political conditions at the time-high unemployment, absence of clear leadership -Hamas began to infiltrate refugee camps, built schools, healthcare and daycare centres, and provided employment to some of the unemployed. The combination of people's frustration and desperation, along with their provision of vitally needed services, and the appeal for religion at such difficult times, made Hamas appear as a viable, if not popular force.

The issue of Palestinian violence must be clearly contextualized -much of the world seems to have historical amnesia when it comes to Palestinians using violence against the Israeli military occupation. Violence as a form of resistance to settler colonialism is not historically new, nor is it an illegitimate force of resistance. Violence as a form of resistance against fundamentally violent forms of rule such as colonialism and occupation has historically been validated and internationally acknowledged in various examples, including the Algerian and South African struggles.

Do you think that Israel's current invasion of the West Bank is directly linked to the US 'War on Terrorism' or do you think it would have happened anyway?

Abdo: It would have happened regardless. The Intifada started in December 2000.However, September 11, 2001 and the rhetoric of U.S. President George Bush made it easy for Ariel Sharon to respond, 'Well, you bomb Afghanistan, you kill innocent people, you drop thousands of bombs because you are defending yourself from terrorism.

Palestinians are terrorists and we are defending ourselves from them. You cannot tell us not to do this because we have always supported your campaign against terrorism.' Ariel Sharon has compared Yasser Arafat to Osama Bin Laden. (Tanya Rinehart, Hanan Ashrawi and others have written extensively on this issue.)

A young Palestinian woman recently asked you about the problems of gender and nationalism and referred to the experiences of Algerian women after independence. How do you see this issue being worked out in Palestine under conditions as they are right now? Abdo: The Palestine economy has been devastated. Institutions have been destroyed and the infrastructure has been largely ruined. All the ministries have been destroyed. The problem, as I see it, is that Palestinians have been turned back 15 to 20 years and have to restore basic life conditions as a pre-condition for the re-building of civil society. The reports of women and men fixing the roads in Ramallah after its devastation is an encouraging sign in the midst of utter destruction.

Equally encouraging are neighbourhood projects established by women to help families restore their households. Many women, prior to the recent attacks, were at the stage where they had raised a lot of fuss about employment laws and Sharia laws, which were seen as discriminating against women. They were putting together recommendations and new resolutions to be passed by the Palestine Legislative Council. Now, with the US and Israel meddling in the form of Palestinian future authority, I doubt the possibility of having free, transparent and democratic elections. A deep sense of frustration and hopelessness appears to be gripping many women and men.

A question like, 'Is feminism possible in the context of nationalist struggle?' which was intensely debated by Palestinian women in the late 1980s and early 1990s, now seems a far-fetched goal. I was very optimistic about the struggle and achievements of Palestinian women around issues of gender equity and social justice. This optimism has dwindled in the past two years. As Islah Jad (a lecturer at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank) relayed to me, 'These days, women have shelved all of their projects for development, for social and legal change and now have to rebuild all that has been destroyed.' I

t would be somewhat preposterous on our part as intellectuals or academics to say that Palestinian women can leave everything and think only about their suppression by their own men or culture. This is the very same orientalist line we, anti-racist feminists, have fought for so long! Theoretically, you can not do one struggle while ignoring the other ones.

I still uphold this line of thought, but at the same time, in practical life, there seem to be certain priorities, whether academics or theoreticians like it or not. The priority for most Palestinians now is to feed, shelter, secure one 's safety and the safety of little ones and ensure that their children can afford schooling and are guaranteed safe movement.

What do you think of groups like Women in Black in Israel and similar groups in Canada?

Abdo: The women in groups like Women in Black and Bat Shalom (the Daughter of Peace) in Israel and abroad are brave souls. These groups are particularly strong because they combine the feminist struggle with the struggle for justice as Jews. There is a special weight to the power of being Jewish and telling the whole world, 'Not in my name.'

This message has been raised all over the world, especially in the major demonstration in Tel Aviv in June 2001. Many of their friends and family have gone through the Holocaust and they don't want a holocaust perpetrated towards the Palestinian people. It is not a slight sentence. It means 'No more genocide against others, and not by us,' Jews. These brave voices are telling the Israeli government, "Enough! You do not represent or speak for us!"

Fundamentally, the conflict is not a Jewish/Arab conflict or a Palestinian/Jewish conflict. It is definitely not a Muslim/Jewish conflict. The conflict is between occupied and occupier, between colonizer and colonized, although the Israeli government tries to present the conflict as Arab and Muslim fanatics against the survival of the Jews. Using the terms 'Jewish 'and 'the State' interchangeably is dangerous. It intends to block the minds of so many Jews and non-Jews all over the world by equating Zionism*-which is racist in its ideology, policies and practices -with all individual Jews.

Criticizing the state of Israel is as legitimate as criticizing any other state. It must not be equated with anti-Semitism. The struggle for Palestine in the 21st century is a struggle against settler colonialism: it is a struggle for justice and freedom. Yes, the Holocaust was perpetrated against many peoples, including the Jews, but the perpetrators were not the Palestinians.

Remember that genocidal policies against the Palestinians have been committed since the Nakba of 1948, which resulted in the forced expulsion of about 80 percent of the Palestinians from their homeland. 'Transfer 'is genocide. Cultural genocide (as scholar Raphael Lemkin defined it) is also genocide. Are there ways of envisioning a future state that address the needs of all Palestinians? Abdo:

Right now, the negotiable solution appears to be two sovereign states living next to each other. Depending on what is in the package -i.e., the right of return to Palestinian refugees, ending the Israeli occupation and the dismantling of all settlements in the Occupied Territories -such a solution can serve as a step in the right direction.

However, the vision for an independent Palestinian state, which is weak, unviable, dependent and perhaps demilitarized, living beside one of the most powerful military countries in the world, is not an equitable or viable solution. My vision towards a viable solution is based on the creation of one secular democratic country for all Jews and Palestinians to live as equal citizens.

No 'Jewish' state, no 'Muslim 'state and no 'Christian' state! Such a solution can gradually take care of the whole problem of religious fanaticism, Jewish or Muslim. It guarantees refugees the right to return (there are five million Palestinian refugees all over the world), ends occupation and colonialism, and eliminates racism against Palestinian citizens of Israel. This solution also guarantees a democratic entity for Jews of different ethnic backgrounds. Finally, we must teach a new generation a respect for democracy, of respecting themselves and respecting others at the same time, and every sector of religion, nationality and gender.

*The term Zionism, coined in 1893 by Nathan Birnbaum, is loosely defined as support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, known in ancient time as the Land of Israel. Thus, while for many Jews it came to represent Jewish nationalism, for Palestinians it was and remained a settler-colonial movement based on their ruination. LOG ON Women in Black (Feminist anti-war group)-Israel: Women in Black Victoria: Bat Shalom (Israeli Feminist organization): Ta'ayush (Arab/Jewish organization): Jews Against the Occupation: Not in My Name: